Sunday, April 30, 2017

No music is ever finished; only abandoned


That is E.J. Moeran (left) in the photo with John Ireland on the Norfolk Broads. I have been spending time recently listening to the Sketches for Moeran's Symphony No. 2 as realised and completed by Martin Yates in the recently-released recording on the Dutton Epoch label. Leonardo da Vinci declared that "No work of art is ever finished; only abandoned." Some music compositions are abandoned at a later stage in their gestation than Moeran's Second Symphony, which was abandoned as no more than fragments when the composer died in 1950. But every composition, even if considered completed by the conventional definition, is not finished but simply abandoned to the musicians who perform it. And those musicians do not finish the work, because they in turn abandon it to the audience. And when the audience leaves the hall the work is not finished; because the musicians and audience are again abandoning it to all those participating in the next performance.

It is an endless cycle of death and rebirth which questions the convention that the score is the final word. It also suggests that interpretative freedom is undervalued, and highlights the essential chemistry - quantum entanglement? - between composer, performer, and audience of Britten's 'holy triangle'. And the cycle chimes with the Buddhist cycle of existence, birth and death known as saṃsāra. In Tibetan Buddhism bardo is the intermediate state of existence between death and rebirth, and the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead is known in Tibet as "The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between'. It gives a new and useful perspective on interpretation if all music compositions are viewed as existing in varying degrees 'in the between'.

Martin Yates' realisation and completion of Moeran's Symphony from fragments is totally convincing and provides a valuable addition to the composer's scant discography. My only comment is that the completion is so authentically Moeran it is almost too authentically Moeran. I just wonder if the composer would not have broken more new ground if he had lived to complete the work. But we can only speculate while being thankful that this fragmentary work has been sent on another cycle of existence. The sound on the recording which couples the Symphony with an orchestration of Moeran's Overture for a Festival and John Ireland's Sarnia is exemplary; Dutton is one of the few labels which still believes that high-resolution recordings should not succumb to low-resolution listening. Martin Yates conducts the realised Symphony and the other works with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and his advocacy is totally persuasive. In 2015 I enthused about his recording of Richard Arnell's overlooked symphonies also for Dutton. Martin Yates is grossly undervalued as a conductor and if you need convincing his recording of the magnificently completed Moeran Symphony No. 2 is recommended.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Grammy-winning conductor says please exploit me


John McLaughlin Williams - seen above - has added the following comment to yesterday's post Classical music is exploiting #female:
'How I wish they would deign to exploit #blackconductors. Is that even a thing?'

Friday, April 28, 2017

Classical music is exploiting #female


Deutsche Grammophon has spun the story of signing its first ever female cellist Camille Thomas, and the news has dutifully been re-spun by clickbait master Norman Lebrecht. Why is such a story circulated when anyone with even a cursory knowledge of classical music knows that Anja Thauer in 1968 - see above - and Jacqueline du Pré in 1979 - see below - not to mention other soloists and chamber players have made recordings for DG, for which they must have signed a contract? Not to mention the countless rank and file female cellists in orchestras contracted to record for DG over the decades. And coming to that, why would Vladmir Spivakov's Moscow Virtuoso Orchestra promote a concert of male composers' music as a celebration of International Women's Day?

The inconvenient truth is that #female has become just another exploitable marketing gimmick in an industry that is addicted to marketing gimmicks. Now before the music thought police take further sanctions against me, I will point out that On An Overgrown Path was arguably the first blog to start arguing the case for female musicians in a 2006 post titled BBC Proms 2006 lacks the eternal feminine. (In the same year Stormin' Norman was still deprecating music blogs, quite presciently as it turns out, as a corrupt form of journalism.) And over the past eleven years OAOP has championed numerous women musicians; for instance I recently highlighted the completely forgotten Kathleen Riddick who was the first woman to conduct at the Festival Hall.

But I have always tried to champion the cause of women in music in a balanced and truthful way. I have also tried to put their cause into the context of other inequalities that also urgently need correcting, but which do not have the same clickbait appeal. The current gender imbalance in classical music is unacceptable and must be corrected, and others have done far more important work than me in arguing the female case. Undoubtedly the battle for gender equality is still a long way from being won. But the correction of this legacy imbalance is going to take time to work through the classical music ecosystem. It will be damaging if the correction proceeds too slowly. But it will also be damaging if the correction is forced through and championing female musicians is exploited as no more than a short-term marketing opportunity. As has been seen too often recently, the female cause is being cynically exploited by the music industry in a way that is damaging all the invaluable work that has been done, and must continue to be done, to give women their rightful place in classical music.



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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Revisiting the Master Musicians


Two of the albums that I return to time and time again during my explorations of mystic turuq are Brian Jones Presents the Pan Pipes at Joujouka from 1971 and Bill Laswell's 1995 Apocalypse Across the Sky, both of which capture the literally entrancing sound of the legendary Master Musicians of Jajouka in their home village in Morocco's Rif Mountains. Six years ago I collaborated with Led Zeppelin biographer and Michael Jackson ghost writer Stephen Davis on a two-part profile of the Master Musicians. Between 1973 and 1989 Stephen made a number of visits to Jajouka, and he is therefore an important and reliable source on an important cultural tradition in which the music is sometimes drowned-out by the sound of axes being ground.

When I asked Stephen to choose between the Brian Jones and Bill Laswell productions he plumped for the more atmospheric and authentic 1971 recording, but conceded that Apocalypse Across the Sky "sounds great". Personally I love Brian Jones' psychedelic vision of Jajouka, but as a self-confessed sound freak I am also very fond of the awesome sound that Bill Laswell captured. Laswell is still very active and has built a considerable reputation for producing visceral sound mixes. He has now joined up again with the Master Musicians and Bachir Attar supplemented by Laswell's own Material musical collective which includes Senegalese percussionist Aïyb Dieng to revisit the Apocalypse material. The recording was made at the 2015 Gent Jazz Festival and is only available as a high-resolution download (FLAC etc) from Bill Laswell's M.O.D Technologies label which is dedicated to exploring the outer reaches of both music and audio technology; Soundcloud sample via this link.

To celebrate this new addition to the Jajouka discography I have conflated my two-part 2011 collaboration with Stephen Davis into a single article which appears below. This is long-form blogging with a vengeance, and I make no apologies for that. If the music and backstory are important enough, the word count should not matter.


Brion Gysin died in Paris in 1986. I remember he always use to say that if the Master Musicians of Jajouka ever stopped playing, the legend that holds the world will end. He often worried about the chronic poverty of the musicians, and the diluting effect of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music. But the Pipes of Pan survive to this day. Listen to this music, the primordial sounds of a 4000 year old rock 'n roll band... listen with your whole body, let the music penetrate and move you, and you will connect with the oldest music on earth.
That is William Burroughs writing about the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Today the Master Musicians are known to a wide audience through the albums produced by Rolling Stone Brian Jones and record industry maverick Bill Laswell. Their 1971 LP Brian Jones Presents the Pan Pipes at Joujouka has been described as the original world music album and the executive producer for its 1995 re-release was none other than Philip Glass. But despite this acclaim Brion Gysin's worries about the effect of the modern world on the ancient music proved to be well founded and the recent history of the Master Musicians has featured primordial music making and bitter internecine feuds in equal measures. These feuds prompted protests at Philip Glass concerts some years ago and still continue in muted form today, with two competing groups of musicians performing on stages around the world, each claiming to be the authentic 4000 year old rock 'n roll band.

The Master Musicians of Jajouka are an ecstatic brotherhood. They hold the hereditary position of guardians and performers at the tomb of the Sufi saint Sidi Hmed Shikh in the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco where they perform ritual dances at religious festivals celebrating the goat-man Bou Jeloud and the demoness Aisha Qandisha. In the past the Master Musicians have been the official Moroccan court musicians and the sound of their distinctive oboe-like double reed rhaitas accompanied the Sultan's progress to the Friday mosque. Their performance tradition may predate even Sufism and the eminent Finnish sociologist Edvard Westermarck (1862-1939) suggested that the Master Musicians' wild music has its roots in ancient Greek Dionysian rituals.



The transition from ancient to modern cultural icons came when Brion Gysin, whose circle included Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, hired the Master Musicians in 1954 to play in his legendary Tangier restaurant The 1001 Nights. Gysin's attention had been drawn to the Jajouka musicians by his friend the Moroccan artist Mohamed Hamri and when the Rolling Stones visited Tangier in 1967 Gysin took Brian Jones to Jajouka. The result was the album that started the world music bandwagon rolling and which also set the Master Musicians on a collision course with the modern world.

Brian Jones and recording engineer George Chkiantz taped the musicians in Jajouka in July 1968 and Jones mixed and edited the album in London. But he died in 1969 and Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (that original spelling of the village has an importance that will emerge later) did not finally reach the stores until 1971, when it appeared as the first release on the new Rolling Stones Records label. With its insistent rhythms, beat generation connections and aroma of kif, the album quickly attracted a cult following, and a song with the refrain 'Ah Brahim Jones, Jajouka really stoned!' soon appeared in the Master Musicians' sets.



Despite being a field recording Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka was never intended to be a work of ethnomusicology and the liberal use of stereo phasing and panning in Jones' remix is typical of studio rock productions of the time. But the album succeeded in bringing the Master Musicians to the attention of the music cognoscenti and in 1991 the pioneer of 'collision music' Bill Laswell and engineer Oz Fritz travelled to Jajouka to record them using 12 track digital equipment. Laswell eschewed the post-production studio trickery of the Brian Jones album and instead presented the Master Musicians in startlingly lifelike sound on Apocalypse Across the Sky. William Burroughs supplied the title and sleeve notes, and the album is a sonic triumph although it does lack the atmospheric hashish haze that makes the Brian Jones production so special. The CD was issued on Laswell's own Axiom record label, it is now available as a high-res download and copies of the deleted  CD can still be found - either format should be snapped up if it is not already in your collection.

After a period out of the catalogue Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka was reissued in 1995 under license to Point Music, a label which was a joint venture between Philip Glass, Michael Riesman and Philips Classics. This re-release, which is now only available as an MP3 download, changed the title of the album to Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka. The retitled and repackaged disc created considerable controversy; because some of the original musicians were denied royalties from the reissued disc and Brion Gysin’s original sleeve note was edited to remove references to Mohamed Hamri, who is generally credited with playing an important role in bringing Brian Jones to Jajouka. In addition Hamri's artwork for the original sleeve seen as the second graphic in this post was replaced by the design seen below.



These controversial changes, which sparked the protests at concerts by Philip Glass and the Master Musicians' leader Bachir Attar, were just one manifestation of a long-running feud that had split the musicians into two factions. This dated from 1988 when a progressive younger group led by Bachir Attar broke away from the more traditional Master Musicians. Triggering the split was a disputed double-booking involving a folklore festval in Marrakech and a TV film in Jajouka. All of which makes Brion Gysin's worries about "the diluting effect of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music" seem remarkably prescient.

Despite attempts at reconciliation the split escalated and continues today with two competing groups claiming to carry on the ancient Moroccan musical tradition. In one corner are the Master Musicians of Joujouka led by Ahmed Attar, and in the other corner are the Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar (practically everyone in the village of Jajouka is an Attar) who recently played a Brion Gysin tribute concert in Tangier. The acrimonious split among the Master Musicians can be sampled in this post on the Joujouka group's blog.



All of which rather overshadows the music that the Master Musicians have produced in their various groupings. Following their acclaimed collaboration with Brian Jones the Jajouka band appeared on Ornette Coleman's 1977 album Dancing in Your Head and the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels in 1989. In recent years the musicians from the Jajouka and Joujouka groups have worked independently with a wide range of musicians including Talvin Singh, Marianne Faithfull, the Klezmatics, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the soundtrack of the 2001 film The Cell. In 2009 the Jajouka group released the first disc on their own label Jajouka Records and went on to venture into dubstep with their Jajouka Soundsystem project.

As I researched this article three things particularly struck me. First, the acrimony among the Masters and their followers is remarkable even for an industry that is famous for its dog eats dog culture. Secondly, almost all the published accounts of Jajouka and its music are written by transparently partisan supporters of either the Jajouka or Joujouka factions. And thirdly, what could be one of the richest available sources on the career of the Master Musicians before the 1988 split is usually discredited or ignored.



In early 1973 music journalist Stephen Davis, producer Joel Rubiner and photographer David Silver spent several weeks in Jajouka on assignment for National Geographic. Stephen Davis went on to write best selling biographies of Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones, and to ghost write Michael Jackson's autobiography Moonwalk. In between building his writing career Davis returned to Jajouka a number of times over two decades and in 1993 published Jajouka Rolling Stone, A Fable of Gods and Heroes. The dust jacket describes the book as "a magical debut novel", yet Jajouka Rolling Stone reads like a chronicle of Stephen Davis' time with the Master Musicians. The cast of characters includes Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Brian Jones, the events and dates correspond almost exactly with other factual accounts, and there are extensive quotations from Gysin, Bowles, Burroughs and others. Yet the book was published as fiction.

If you are confused, so was the public when Jajouka Rolling Stone was published by Random House in 1993. Although the book survived three hardback editions it eventually went out of print and is almost forgotten today. Which is something of a puzzle as Stephen Davis is one of the few people who was actually there with the Master Musicians in Jajouka. The provenance of the 300 page "novel" has always intrigued me, so after re-reading Jajouka Rolling Stone during a recent trip to Morocco I contacted Stephen Davis in the States and asked if he would finally tell the true story of the book. To my delight he agreed and our exclusive email discussion follows.



Bob Shingleton: Stephen, let’s tackle the big question first. Jajouka Rolling Stone is subtitled A Fable of Gods and Heroes and it is categorised as fiction. Yet the book is a description of real events featuring real people, and a cross-check between the novel and factual accounts elsewhere shows it to be pretty accurate. Why was it published as a novel? Is the word on the street that the fiction label was a ruse to avoid litigation from some of those portrayed in it correct?

Stephen Davis: Jajouka Rolling Stone, as a text, is a compilation of journal notes written on my trips to the Ahl Serif tribal area of the Djebala hills of northwest Morocco between 1973 and 1989. Some of these journeys were professional assignments, while others were personal visits and musical tourism. Some of the writing originated with encounters in London and Paris as well.

In the early 1990s, I was working with the drummer Levon Helm on his memoir about The Band. We usually worked in late afternoon and evenings at his house in Woodstock, New York. I was staying in nearby Bearsville, and had the mornings free. I liked to write every day while I was researching another project, and so I started typing up my old Jajouka notebooks, just to have something productive going on, and also because I had been missing some of my old friends in the mountains, who were beginning to die off. Making the notes into sentences and paragraphs had the effect of running the movie of my Moroccan adventures through my mental projector.

I showed these pages to my agent, who thought they might sell. Only one editorial assistant, at Random House, thought the text had any merit. Fortunately, her boss ran the company, and allowed her to acquire the book. She made no editorial changes in the text. The graphics at the chapter heads were from prints in my collection. They were altered to look dreamy, and the indelible image of the praying chief of the tribe was stamped into the case, or cover, of the book. [BS - see image below] I thought it was a really cool production. We put Brian Jones and the old chief on the jacket.

But … my young editor went to Costa Rica, caught a microbe, and almost died. Then she left the company to study to be a teacher. So Jajouka Rolling Stone was published in 1993 as an “orphan” book, with no editor in the firm to advocate for promotion etc. Such was its fate. No one reviewed it, as far as I could tell. Who would even be qualified to review it? But it sold enough to go through three printings in hard cover. No soft cover has been issued to date, and the book is not currently in print.

Now, the memoir/novel question. I decided the text had to be portrayed as fiction for three reasons. First, there are time compressions and other techniques that require an acknowledgement that a few minor things didn’t quite happen exactly the way I say it did. The differences can be minute but still real. Plus the name of almost every “character” was changed. Second, Paul Bowles was touchy about visiting writers portraying him smoking kif, at his home in Tangier. Calling the text a “novel” gave me, and him, a certain deniability. Third, the text portrays a character called Mohamed Hamsa, and his wife, who are similar to people – at least one of them -- still living.

Also, I thought the text worked better as a fiction -- a story -- than as a memoir. Books about Morocco have a tiny audience, as Paul Bowles often said. I thought a novel might reach a wider readership, and it did.



BS: Now we understand why Jajouka Rolling Stone was published as fiction are you able tell us if and where it deviates from real events?

SD: Actually, Jajouka Rolling Stone is a memoir. Everything in it – everything and more – happened. I went to Morocco in 1973 on assignment from National Geographic magazine to write about the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Photographer Martin Rogers and I stayed until the late spring of 1974. Our work was never published, I heard, because of the references to kif smoking in my text. I returned to Jajouka in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1986, and 1989. The text of the book is basically a rewrite of my notebooks from those journeys.

BS: When Jajouka Rolling Stone was published reviews focussed on the fact versus fiction aspect. It is fair to say that the reception for the novel was less than rapturous and it seems to have been less successful commercially than your other books. Were you disappointed with the market reaction?

SD: You mention reviews. I never saw one that I can remember. I never saw Jajouka Rolling Stone in a bookstore. No one got the book, especially the publisher and the booksellers. I asked a clerk in a snooty, hipper-than-thou (and now defunct) bookstore on Madison Avenue in New York, and he said, “Oh, we’re not carrying that book.” I never understood it. It was like a fatwa. There was no British edition, no translation rights in any language. I thought I was going to be the next Bruce Chatwin. But then I remembered how small the market for fiction about modern Morocco must be. Morocco didn’t pass the who-cares test in the West. In the end, I was amazed the text was published at all, and proud of how great the book looked and felt. As you point out, it was less successful commercially than some of my other work. (I’ve never even seen a royalty statement.) I love it anyway.

BS: Jajouka Rolling Stone was published several years before Brian Jones’ seminal Jajouka album was licensed to Point Music and re-issued. That 1995 re-release caused considerable controversy because it did not include some of the original musicians in the royalty deal, and Brion Gysin’s original sleeve note was edited to remove references to Mohamed Hamri who played an important role in bringing Brian Jones to Jajouka. The Point Music CD sleeve notes also included an extract from Jajouka Rolling Stone. What was your take on the controversy surrounding that 1995 re-issue which resulted in protests at Bachir Attar and Philip Glass concerts?

SD: This is a hard question because the story of the Jajouka/Joujouka schism is so complex. I won’t go into it here. The recent history is retailed on competing websites and is still going on, the flames being fanned mostly by outsiders, but real enough in the village as well. My take is that I support the work of Bashir Attar, son of the late chief Abdeslam Ahmed Attar (“Jnuin”) and consider him the leader of “The Master Musicians of Jajouka,” legatee of the tribal rhaita band that played for, and were recorded by, Brian Jones in July 1968.

As for the re-release of that album by Point Music in 1995 – it was a gas. The extract from Jajouka Rolling Stone, recounting a conversation with Brian Gysin in his Paris apartment in 1979, was used without my permission. I never saw what the big deal was about editing Hamri out of the Gysin text. All he did was bring Brion Gysin up the mountain. Years later, Gysin brought Brian Jones. Hamri wasn’t a musician; he was like a crooked talent manager. He was an asshole. (I never bought into his self-proclaimed “Painter of Morocco” label either, but I would give a leg for one of his paintings.) The Point Music thing was amazing, and it was even more amazing to see a troupe from Jajouka, starring the legendary drummer Mohammed Berdouz, playing in New England and New York in 1995. I never thought I would see it happen, and it did.

A further note. The original master copy of the music Brian Jones recorded in Jajouka – before it was electronically phased and re-channeled for psychedelic effect – was no longer in the archives of Rolling Stones Records in London, so Philip Glass’s people were forced to digitize a vinyl copy of the original album in 1995. Three years later, I was in London working on my biography of the Rolling Stones. I interviewed George Chkiantz, the recording engineer who went to Jajouka with Jones and actually made the tapes. He didn’t know about the Point Music CD, but mentioned that he had kept a “slave” copy of the original “master,” and I realized that no one has ever heard this music except George and Brian Jones, and how intriguing this was (and is). George Chkiantz’s account of Brian Jones in Jajouka is in my book Old Gods Almost Dead (2001).



BS: One thing that struck me about Jajouka Rolling Stone was that you are fulsome in your praise of Apocalypse Across the Sky, but you do not credit Bill Laswell for producing an album that sonically stands head and shoulders above Brian Jones’ Jajouka recording. Was the omission of Laswell’s name an oversight, or was there another reason?

SD: Laswell/Shmazwel. It is true that Apocalypse sounds great, but the quality of the music is only … ok. The band that recorded this music in Jajouka was cobbled together by Bashir Attar, with a couple of his brothers, and – I was told – some outside wedding musicians from Ksar el Kebir, the nearest big town. Bashir did it for the money, which was good.

There are many recordings, made from 1968 to 2010, of ensembles calling themselves The Master Musicians [“Malimin"] of Jajouka. For me, only three stand out. First, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (Rolling Stones Records, 1971). Second, The Master Musicians of Jajouka (Adelphi Records, 1975), recorded by Joel Rubiner, mostly in 1972, just before Ornette Coleman’s recording session in the village. Third (and perhaps most important) is Tribe Ahl Serif: Master Musicians of Jajouka (Musical Heritage Society, circa 1976). This is a two-record set made by Arnold Stahl around 1971, when a Danish film crew was working in the village. The second record in this set consists of about 25 minutes of the Boujeloudiya, or music for the goat god Bou Jeloud, which formerly danced in the village during the Aid el Kebir festival. The recording quality is excellent, and it features the large formation – 20 rhaitas and about 15 drummers – that Brian Jones recorded, and that I later chronicled beginning in 1973.

BS: In his sleeve note for Apocalypse Across the Sky William Burroughs tells how Brion Gysin was concerned about the diluting effects of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music. Since then the Master Musicians of Jajouka have embraced fusion and worked with Talvin Singh, Howard Shore, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and others. Do you think the ancient music of the Master Musicians has been diluted since you first heard them in 1974?

SD: Bill Burroughs’ notes on Apocalypse were not his best work. He gets Brian Jones’s dates wrong, and doesn’t give much sense of the village or the music before turning on the colored lights, the purple prose. And its not like the music has been diluted; its more like it has disappeared. Brion Gysin used to say that Bou Jeloud will dance in Jajouka until electricity comes up the mountain. That happened about ten years ago, and there is also now a mosque in the village. So, the old rituals – starkly pagan rituals involving wild music and animal sacrifice -- no longer really exist except as an occasional show for foreign visitors. The long, big-band anthems like “The 55,” which once accompanied the sultan to prayers and the army on the march, have obviously lost their ceremonial and authentic meanings, and are now performance pieces preserved by Bashir Attar and his troupe, which still puts on a great and stirring show, to their everlasting credit. And if you go to the village, they’ll still give you a cup of tea and a pipe and play some Jibli mountain music on gimbris, flutes and violins. So, in a “diluted” form, it is still there in some sense.



BS: Steve, you are a best selling music writer. Your books have portrayed, among others, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones, and you showed how highly you rated the Master Musicians of Jajouka by writing a book about them. Now, almost twenty years later, are you still listening to the Master Musicians or has your assessment of them as up there with the greats changed?

SD: Yes, I still listen, especially to the many cassette tapes I recorded in Jajouka over the years. And of course I buy Bashir’s recordings as they become available. He’s a soulful guy and a great musician. He was 12 when I met him, a dancing boy in a frilly pink dress.

BS: Over the years you have been very close to the action in the record industry. That industry has changed dramatically since Brian Jones produced his 1968 album, which you describe in the book as possibly ‘the original “World Music” album’. The Master Musicians of Jajouka, like many others, now have their own record label. But times are not getting any easier in the music business; so how do you see the prospects for niche acts like the Master Musicians and how do you see the future of the World Music segment?

SD: I still think the Brian Jones recording is the alpha recording of the World Music movement that probably peaked with the Ry Cooder / Ali Farka Toure Talking Timbuktu album back in the Nineties. I have no idea where recorded music is going now, except that in order to keep their families in food and drugs, musicians now actually have to go out and play to make money, which has to be a good thing in the end.

BS: You first visited Morocco almost thirty years ago. Have you been back recently and how do you think the country is changing?

SD: I first visited Morocco almost forty years ago. I went back in 2008, and again typed up my notes, which were published in 2010 under the title To Marrakech By Aeroplane. And anyone interested in Jajouka should see the great documentary The Hand of Fatima (2009), a film by Augusta Palmer, the daughter of the late writer Robert Palmer, who first showed me how to find the yellow brick road that leads up Owl Mountain to Jajouka. And thanks for your interest in Jajouka Rolling Stone.

BS: Stephen, thank you for your participation which made this important feature possible.



* Sources for this article include:
* Nothing is True but Everything is Permitted - The Life of Brion Gysin by John Geiger
* Paul Bowles' Travels - Collected Writings 1950-1993, * The Shambala Guide to Sufism by Carl Ernst
* Jajouka Rolling Stone, A Fable of Gods and Heroes by Stephen Davis
* The sleeve notes of Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka and Apocalypse Across the Sky, and the header quote is from William Burroughs' note for the latter album.
* The website of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is here and that of their Joujouka counterparts is here. This material was first published in a slightly different version in May 2011.

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Audio porn


That is my 1970s vintage Technics stylus pressure gauge being used today. This beautifully engineered strain gauge measures stylus pressure accurate to 0.1 grams. The Thorens TD 125 turntable with SME Series IIIS tone arm and Audio-Technica AT-F3 cartridge are also all more than 40 years old. I wonder how many of today's CD players, yet alone MP3 devices, will still be in daily use in 2057? Coming to that how many of today's music streaming services will still be in business? And I wonder how many Malcolm Arnold symphonies will be performed at the BBC Proms in the next 40 years?


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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What is a music festival?


Iraqi visual artist Riyadh Neam supplies the three accompanying graphics which are used in the booklet for Rahim AlHaj's new CD Letters from Iraq. Riyadh Neam explains that in his paintings depicting the children of post-invasion Iraq in the streets of devastated Baghdad “I’m always trying to show the relationship between stasis and movement, between a still life and a moving life.” He uses color to symbolise the dynamics of his war-torn country, with the dominant grey, black and white symbolising destruction, bright green indicating grief, and red signifying inextinguishable hope. This use of colours to symbolise emotions is a form of the cross-talk between different sensory channels known as synesthesia . Music appreciation involves cross-talk between hearing and emotion, and many celebrated musicians have experienced synesthesia in various forms, including Alexander Scriabin, Amy Beach, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, while the word raga from the Indian classical tradition translates from Sanskrit as 'tone' or 'colour'.

Synesthesia is an example of how key creative building blocks are shared across global cultures. We live in an age of globalisation and multi-culturalism, yet classical music festivals are retreating further and further into retrospective mono-culturalism. For instance the 2017 BBC Proms season is programmatically themed around two anniversaries - the Russian Revolution which took place 100 years ago and the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago. The Russian Revolution strand conveniently allows three Shostakovich symphonies to be programmed including the warhorse Fifth, which will be its ninth Proms outing in seventeen years. Elsewhere in London the SouthBank Centre has been celebrating Belief and Beyond Belief with a festival that does not include even a single piece of non-Western music, but which managed to squeeze in a Shostakovich symphony. Nowhere at the two festivals is there the searing relevance of Rahim AlHaj music and Riyadh Neam's graphics.

Classical music festivals should be wide-ranging, joyous and relevant celebrations of the rich variety of the great music traditions. Instead they have become po-faced rituals which plough their way laboriously through the output of Mahler, Shostakovich and a few other favoured composers. Mixing music traditions in a single concert is a notoriously difficult and sensitive task; the Western masterpieces must never be neglected, and fusion projects such as sitar and oud concertos have, rightly in most cases, been greeted with derision. But mixing traditions within a festival - kudos to this year's Aldeburgh Festival for its ragas in Orford Church - or between the two halves of a concert is a realistic proposition.



The Salzburg Summer Festival's Ouverture Spirituelle was an outstanding example of the broadening of the festival vision, and Salzburg bravely commissioned programme essays from me for their forays into Sufi and Hindustani music. However this year's Ouverture Spirituelle has drifted back towards the tokenism of the other major festivals and includes the obligatory Mahler symphony. If the reason for this drift is commercial pressures - which I suspect it is - that reason needs examining. Defendants of the classical status quo - and they are many and vocal - will plead that programming is unadventurous because adventurous programming is not commercially viable. Which I do not disagree with; but I do disagree with the view that we have to accept the current stifling business model which dictates that status quo.

Classical music festivals are dictated to and dominated by touring celebrity orchestras. The infamous Mahler One at this year's Proms is part of a Pittsburgh Symphony touring programme, and the Shostakovich Five comes from a peripatetic Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. And financial reality means you can't pay the Pittsburgh Symphony to play Mahler in the second half of a concert with musicians from a non-Western tradition in the first half. Celebrity touring orchestras may fill halls, but they have forced classical music into a repetitive holding pattern whereby festivals have become commercially viable but increasingly irrelevant museums of sound. The stranglehold of the 'London today Edinburgh' celebrity bands - Gergiev and the Mariinsky also play the 2017 Edinburgh Festival - needs to be broken to inject freshness and relevance to the major festivals. Ironically the BBC is perfectly placed to do this with their roster of house orchestras. The BBC orchestras should be differentiating themselves by pioneering adventurous and diverse programming both by widening the repertoire within the Western tradition and by partnering in split programmes with ensembles from diverse backgrounds. But instead all the BBC orchestras aspire to is lucrative overseas tours, preferably to the Gulf States or China.

Steve Jobs told us that "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them". There is a surprising appetite for music from outside the Western tradition. On An Overgrown Path may not represent a statistically significant measure, but it does provide a useful guide. Recent posts here about music from outside the Western tradition and from the Islamicate world in particular - e.g. Bab Assalam from Syria, Rahim AlHaj from Iraq, and the culturally-diverse Haz'art Trio - have attracted very large audiences. Broadening the repertoire at festivals is almost certainly not financially viable within the current top heavy financial structure. But if classical music itself wants to defend its position as an important cultural institution it needs to become more relevant and diverse, and that means changing the current highly restrictive business model.



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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Zen and how shit happens in the real world


Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has died at the age of 88. That photo shows him with his son Chris, and the pair are the main protagonists in the book. Like many I was influenced by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at the time of its publication in 1974 and I have re-read it many times. The quasi-autobiography is enlightening and thought-provoking, but the little-known codicil is deeply disturbing. In later editions Robert M. Pirsig added an afterword, from which the following is taken:
The receding Ancient Greek perspective of the past ten years has a very dark side: Chris is dead.
He was murdered. At about 8:00 P.M. on Saturday, November 17, 1979, in San Francisco, he left the Zen Center, where he was a student, to visit a friend's house a block away on Haight Street.
According to witnesses, a car stopped on the street beside him and two men, black, jumped out. One came from behind him so that Chris couldn't escape, and grabbed his arms. The one in front of him emptied his pockets and found nothing and became angry. He threatened Chris with a large kitchen knife. Chris said something which the witnesses could not hear. His assailant became angrier. Chris then said something that made him even more furious. He jammed the knife into Chris's chest. Then the two jumped into their car and left.
Chris leaned for a time on a parked car, trying to keep from collapsing. After a time he staggered across the street to a lamp at the corner of Haight and Octavia. Then, with his right lung filled with blood from a severed pulmonary artery, he fell to the sidewalk and died.
I go on living, more from force of habit than anything else. At his funeral we learned that he had bought a ticket that morning for England, where my second wife and I lived aboard a sailboat. Then a letter from him arrived which said, strangely, "I never thought I would ever live to see my 23rd birthday."
His twenty-third birthday would have been in two weeks.
When I tell friends that I am off again to Muslim-majority Morocco they ask with real concern is it safe? In reply I point out that in the United States each year there are 3.9 murders per 100,000 residents, and in Morocco the figure is 1.0 murders per 100,000 residents.

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Danger of generalisations...

Dear Bob

Yesterday's post was enjoyable as always, but your assertion that you've never been to a concert where the musicians were dead came as a challenge to people like me, who love to find exceptions to every rule! So how about this?


Of course, it would be a Prom; how I agree with all your other comments...

best wishes

Angus O'Neill
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Monday, April 24, 2017

It is quality and not size of audience that is important


In a Telegraph article about the 2017 BBC Proms the concert series' director David Pickard raises hopes for an possible important change in direction. Discussing the move away from Proms themed to TV shows, Pickard observes that "what we need to be thinking of is nurturing a long-term audience for classical music". This statement may be blindingly obvious, but it is important for two reasons. First, it is a welcome sign that somebody at the BBC has finally realised what many of us have known for years, that dumbing down classical music does not build a long-term audience. The second reason why his observation is important is because it is a much-needed admission that quality and not quantity of audience is what matters.

In the past the spin-masters at the BBC have been eager to point out the numbers of first-time concertgoers at the Proms. For instance the number of 33,000 first-time concertgoers was trumpeted for the 2014 Proms season; but drilling down below that headline figure painted a very different picture. From data in the public domain, we know that the Proms audience expressed as a percentage of venue capacity dropped from 93% in the 2013 season to 88% in 2014. This means that the total attendance fell by 17,000, despite 33,000 Proms neophytes swelling the numbers. So in 2014 the Proms gained 33,000 first time ticket purchasers, but lost 50,000 of its existing audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. What matters is the net change in audience size - newcomers less non-returners; because that determines the size of the long-term audience. The figures I have cited show that despite what superficially looks like an impressive number of first-time attendees wooed by events like TV-themed Proms, the total audience size declined. That decline was due to a mix of two factors: one was that many first-time concertgoers attracted by untypical concert fare did not return, the second was the vitally important but ignored point that the loyal core audience is also shrinking.

David Pickard has at least realised that the new marginal audience is not coming back. But he and a lot of other people involved in concert planning also need to take on board that the core audience - which includes me - is becoming very reluctant to brave the contemporary concert ambiance; an ambiance that is being created largely by misguided efforts to attract the new marginal audience. In a 2015 piece titled 'What price classical music's new audience?' I reported here how for me a concert in France was marred by audience members eating a picnic, applauding during (not between) Mahler's settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and, of course, using their mobile phones. Elsewhere I lamented how a performance at the Fez Sufi Culture Festival was ruined by the continuous use of camera-phones, and this weekend my wife email from Toronto lamenting how an Indian music recital was marred by a concertgoer texting and checking emails and Facebook.

The inflammatory subject of applause between movements makes an interesting case study. We are told that classical music must drop its silly conventions, and we are also told that silence between movements is one of those dispensable silly conventions. There is some historical justification for this argument, as going back many years it was, apparently, customary, for an audience to express its appreciation of particularly meritorious playing at the end of a movement. But in the age of the new marginal audience, applause between movements has in a remarkably short time become another silly convention. It is no longer an expression of praise for artistic excellence, because, dare I say it, many of those applauding between movements do not yet have the experience to recognise artistic excellence. Applause between movements is now something that the audience does, simply because the new silly convention says they should do it. Just one example was the apologetic dribbles of applause - is this where we should applaud? - between the movements of Tasmin Little's performance of Walton's Violin Concerto in Hull on BBC Radio 3 last week. (I emphasise that my criticism is of the applause habit and not Tasmin's artistic excellence!) The silly convention of dribbles of applause between movements started at the Proms but is now a global problem: we were subjected to it during a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in Rabat, Morocco recently.

If David Pickard wants to know why a core audience member like me has only attended one Prom in recent years - Alwyn and RVW in 2014 - and will not be buying any tickets for the 2017 season, I suggest he listens to the archive recording seen in my header graphic, which is a transfer of BBC broadcasts of two concerts. (I will refrain from using the BBC Radio 3 presenter's ghastly terminology of 'live concerts' as I have never yet attended a concert where the musicians on the platform are dead). Brahms' Third Symphony was recorded at a Prom in 1977 and Elgar's First at a 1976 Prom. On the transfers the hall ambiance has been left between the movements. Not only are there no dribbles of inter-movement applause, there is also none of the tubercular between-movement coughing that punctuates today's performances despite greatly improved health standards. Moreover the music itself is heard in rapturous silence, again without the intrusive noises of today's audiences. And if anybody tries to dismiss the background silence in those two concerts as lucky flukes, I refer them to other BBC concert recordings from the past, all of which lack audience participation; for example another Elgar 1, this time Sir John Barbirolli's painfully slow valedictory 1970 performance in the unforgiving acoustic of St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn, and Bruno Maderna's Mahler Nine recorded in the Festival Hall in 1971.

It is quality and not size of audience that is important to nurturing a long-term audience for classical music. David Pickard's candid views suggest that there is some light at the end of the dumbed-down corridor. Let's hope that it is not a train full of audience-chasing BBC senior executives coming the other way.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

One billion YouTube viewers cannot be wrong


More than 2 million cat videos on YouTube have generated in excess of one billion views, with one cat video alone viewed 77 million times. Cat pictures are more popular than selfies on social media, with around 4 million feline photos and videos shared each day, and 350,000 cats have their own Twitter or Facebook account. We know that cats have remarkable powers of hearing and exhibit an advanced form of synaesthesia by which they can switch sensory information between the visual channel (eyes) and hearing channel (ears) as required - e.g. while hunting. And there are long-established links between cats and classical musicians, with the feline friend of the legendary harpsichord Scott Ross being just one of many examples.

The cat is one of the few animals that is found on every continent except Antarctica. There are around 500 million domestic cats in the world and the annual global cat food market is worth US$70 billion. So it is surprising that there have not been many attempts to exploit the music for cats market. However one recent example was the release of the album seen above. Now although I am a cat lover I have to be honest and say that I was deeply sceptical when I read about Music for Cats by David Teie; because at first sight it seems to exploit the Mozart effect craze for cats and, moreover, is distributed by Universal Music. But a family friend who is more open-minded than me bought the CD for our resident feline, which allows me to report my paws-on experience.

Simply dismissing Music for Cats as a marketing gimmick is unfair. David Teie's has studied the auditory capabilities of mammals, and he theorises that every species has an intuitive biological response to sounds linked to their brain development and vocalisations; an approach that is supported by academic research. Based on this theory he composed his music for cats incorporating feline-centric sounds and their natural vocalisations, with the sounds matched to a cat’s audible frequency range. The result to the human ear is a well-crafted fusion of musique concrète, ambient sounds and the meditative sonic landscape explored by Eliane Radique, Nawab Khan and others, plus some cat-friendly infrasound. (View an explanatory video with music samples via this link.)

But what does a cat make of it? Fortuitously, an extended visit by my wife to Toronto has left me cat-sitting our energetic house cat, which has given me an opportunity to experiment with deep listening for cats. My experience, or rather Ginger's experience, is that Music for Cats does engage its audience, and it seems to induce subtle changes in feline consciousness. Yes, my subjective observations may be the result of auto-suggestion. But those subtle and inexplicable changes in feline consciousness are no different to the subtle and inexplicable changes in human consciousness that I experience when listening to a Rubbra symphony. And one thing that 67 years on this earth has taught me is not to dismiss phenomena that cannot be logically explained.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

How many Mahlers does it take to fill the Albert Hall?


According to the planners of the 2017 BBC Proms, it takes five Mahler symphonies to fill the Albert Hall. In a year when there is not the usual excuse for overkill of an anniversary, half the composer's symphonic output is featured in one Proms season, with three of the symphonies played in a five day period. The five symphonies include the First; this has been performed thirteen times at the Proms since the turn of the century, with this year's performance the fourth in four years. That other perennial excuse of planners that a warhorse coupled with a 'difficult' work broadens audience tastes also doesn't apply. Two of the Mahler symphonies have no coupling, Haydn, Schubert and Dvořák are coupled to the other three, and the only paired contemporary work is a seven minute amuse bouche from John Adams.

That header graphic is a pencil sketch of Sir Malcolm Arnold by his son. Sir Malcolm wrote symphonies that surely would appeal to today's Mahler-satiated audiences, but, predictably, none of them are performed at the 2017 Proms. In a 1971 Guardian article Malcolm Arnold accused critics of having preconceived and narrow views which forced promoters to programme works by a limited range of composers, and ended by deploying an unfortunate analogy to declare: "Let us say down, down, down with the music critics before they make our music the arid and joyless music of the concentration camp".

In a similarly thoughtful but savage attack on fellow harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in the current Van magazine*, Andreas Staier also directs his ire at critics, saying: "The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews [with Mahan Esfahani] I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other." Andreas Staier is right to criticise, but chooses the wrong target. Music critics now have little influence except as opinion formers on social media, and that is where the problem lies. The Mahler glut and Mhan Esfahani's attention-seeking antics are products of the so-called wisdom of crowds. When that great Proms planner William Glock was asked what he wanted to offer audiences, he replied "What they will like tomorrow". Five Mahler symphonies at the 2017 Proms is yet another illustration of how the wisdom of crowds and social media is a flawed tool for concert planners, because it only tells them what audiences like today.

* My thanks go to Andrew Morris' Devil's Trill blog for drawing attention to the Andreas Staier article. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Sound is god - but only in the concert hall


Vedanta teaches that sound is god - Nāda Brahma - and in the past Western classical music has had a long and distinguished connection with the hi-fi industry. In the 1970s Herbert von Karajan and also Miles Davis promoted the Acoustic Research loudspeaker brand - see advertisement below - and the great EMI and HMV record labels had their roots in the Gramophone Company which manufactured both record players and records. The high-end audio industry continues today, championed by magazines such as Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. But there is now a massive disconnect between classical music and recorded sound quality. When did you last see an audio brand mentioned in a music blog post or tweet? Coming to that when did you last see recorded sound quality, as opposed to performance quality, mentioned in an album review?

In the frantic search for that elusive mass market the classical music industry has actively encouraged recorded sound to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of easily streamed low-resolution file formats. In fact there is now an inverted snobbery about recorded sound quality; as an example any reference to the different and arguably superior sound quality of vinyl is glibly dismissed as bad science. Yet the same musicians and journalists who worship at the altar of low-resolution recorded sound advocate spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new concert halls which deliver - yes you guessed it - high-end sound. If you fed someone on a continuous diet of fast food, would you expect them to appreciate haute cuisine when you finally persuaded them to visit a Michelin-starred restaurant? It is not surprising that classical music is having problems attracting low-res conditioned new audiences to the latest sonically ravishing concert halls.



No review samples used. But I do listen on Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus speakers and read Stereophile, and one of my early systems used Acoustic Research AR-7 speakers. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Different trains for different times


In Different Trains Steve Reich juxtaposed his music with reminiscences about the Holocaust to create a contemporary masterpiece. In Letters from Iraq the Iraqi-American composer and oud player Rahim AlHaj takes the reminiscences of those - including himself - who have suffered in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. led invasion as inspiration for eight instrumental tone poems; sample below. Letters from Iraq draws on both Middle Eastern and Western musical traditions and is scored for oud, percussion and a string quintet which for the newly-released recording was drawn from members of the New Mexico Philharmonic. The album is on the Smithsonian Folkways label and the 40 page booklet includes striking paintings by Iraqi visual artist Riyadh Neam.

Rahim AlHaj explains that: “Music can make us laugh, make us cry, make us march into war. I want to make music to make us realize peace”. Letters from Iraq is protest music par excellence with one of the tone poems depicting the carnage of a car bomb explosion witnessed by Alhaj’s nephew, who could not flee the scene because he was born with underdeveloped legs. Steve Reich's Different Trains and Dmitri Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony speak powerfully of past humanitarian tragedies, while Letters from Iraq speaks powerfully of a contemporary humanitarian tragedy. Writing about Rahim AlHaj's first album for Smithsonian Folkways, I deplored how the contemporary culture of the conflict-torn Middle East is becoming increasingly marginalised, and in another post highlighting a new release by exiled Syrian musicians, I pointed out that important music is growing in the killing fields. Letters from Iraq is yet another reminder that the Western classical tradition does not have a monopoly on music that is deeply moving and relevant to our contemporary predicament.




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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

There is more than a car park to worry about at Snape


Quite rightly plans to build a 470-space car park on the river bank opposite Snape quay with connecting footbridge have been met with widespread concern. But there is more than a car park to worry about. The holding company at Snape is the private limited Snape Maltings Ltd (formerly Aldeburgh Music), which has annual revenue of £6.1 million, and former BBC Radio 3 and Proms controller Roger Wright is its chief executive. This company owns 100% of Snape Maltings Trading which is the company responsible for the retail activities on the Snape site, specifically the artisanal retail complex which generates much of the demand for car parking.

Snape Maltings Trading's board includes retail big hitters Clive Schlee who is CEO of fast food chain Pret a Manger, and Stuart Rose who was chief executive and chairman of retail giant Marks and Spencers. Stuart Rose has also been a director of retail chains Argos and Woolworths. He is a Conservative peer who sits in the House of Lords and has political clout, as instanced by his recent role as chair of Britain Stronger in Europe which campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU during the recent referendum. Another non-executive director of both Snape Maltings companies is Simon Robey who was joint head of mergers and acquisition at financial services conglomerate Morgan Stanley (2016 revenue $37.95 billion US) before founding his own boutique investment bank. Robey was ranked as number 12 in the Telegraph's most powerful people in British business listing.

These corporate power brokers aren't board directors because of their track record in advocating Britten's music. Snape Maltings Enterprises owns 100% of both the Elm Property Management Ltd and the newly incorporated Snape Maltings Enterprises Ltd. Concern about the commercialisation of Snape has been mounting for years, and my header collage was created for an Overgrown Path post back in 2012. This concern has been compounded by recent Aldeburgh Festivals which have not exactly set the creative juices flowing, with visionary artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard departing after last year's Festival and replaced by a committee of 'artist-programmers'. In addition the ticketing hierarchy makes it virtually impossible for those without privileged status to attend many Festival concerts. Rumours that locals have heard the sound of something turning in the graveyard of nearby Aldeburgh Church where Benjamin Britten is buried may have some substance.

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