Sunday, December 17, 2017

Far from the madding groove

Too many world music releases are a fusion of banal Western riffs and soporific Eastern stasis, which has prompted new modal music progenitor Ross Daly to dismiss world music as “an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music”. Not so however the output from the diaspora of Ross's Labyrinth music co-operative in Crete. Among the practitioners of this contemporary music are the newly-formed trio of multi-instrumentalist Efrén López, luthier and lyrist extraordinaire Stelios Petrakis and percussion genius Bijan Chemirani. Their new CD Taos on the independent Buda Musique label is far from world music's madding groove - sample below.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Why do we all need to be somebody special?

Our reaching out for singularity these days is not unexpected, given that social media bombards us with opportunities to acquire the latest product or the swiftest device to put us out in front of the crowd. Our jobs are sometimes less about intrinsic value or usefulness than position and status and salary. To be special is to be safe—from criticism, from dismissal.

Certainly we are indispensable to our children. And then when they grow up and leave, some of us feel a great emptiness. In our jobs and professions we have the experience of being special to a number of people. And much of our identity and sense of ourselves depends on that relationship. If we stop working, we find out how much we have depended on being so important to others.

But there’s another, not so obvious, dimension of being special: being distinguished in our misfortune or our misery. A victim is somebody special. I’m so unlucky, I’m so very ill, I have so much pain, that person really did me wrong and hurt me so much. Any one of these assertions may be true, but when we begin to build our identity on it, we’re in trouble. For instance, we can let a difficult childhood define our lives and control how we relate to others long after we have grown up. My suffering is unique. I had the worst childhood of anyone...

We share the physical elements and so much else with other beings; our lives are dependent on the conditions prevailing in our environment. This is being nobody special. How do we recognize and surrender to this without thought of image, achievement, comparison? Maurine Stuart advised, “All the simple, ordinary, everyday things we do—walking, cleaning, sitting—are ways to deeply penetrate this.”
Those extracts are from an article by Sandy Boucher in the Buddhist Tricycle magazine. That lady happily doing the everyday task of cleaning was photographed by me near the Tibetan Buddhist Thiksey monastery in Ladakh. It is very obvious that the music industry in particular and the world in general would be a much better place if everybody stopped trying to be special and instead focussed on simple, ordinary, everyday things. Sorry to upset people I'm linked to; but being told on Facebook that you are in the Emirates lounge at Heathrow doesn't impress me at all. It just leaves me wondering what you are over-compensating for.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Music of another era

Writing an earlier post The art of the classical maverick prompted me to listen again to David Munrow's 3 LP box Music of the Gothic Era recorded for Deutsche Grammophon shortly before he took his own life in 1976. What is immediately striking is how fundamentally different these performances of Leonin, Pérotin and their contemporaries are to today's approved 'authentic' interpretations. Amazon reviewers reprimand Munrow for being 'dated', for 'overblown instrumentation', for using 'bells, fiddles, lute, bandora, psaltery, harp, organ, percussion, cornetts, recorder and shawms', and for having 'the mindset that everything must be accompanied by some mentalist walloping away like mad on the tabor and a cacophony of other instruments'. Yet David Munrow attracted radio and television audiences and generated record sales that today's classical industry would die for. Isn't there are a lesson to be learnt here?

In an earlier post I wrote about how the pendulum has now swung too far in the direction of the classical fundamentalists who dictate via the mob-throb of social media not only what we listen to, but who plays it and how it is performed. Another dissenting post suggested that new classical audiences want more bang for their bucks and it seems that David Munrow's mentalist walloping away on his tabor delivered what new audiences wanted back in the 1970s. Aren't authentic performances just another silly convention? Does it really matter what the classical fundamentalists think when politically incorrect Machaut and other aberations such as big band Bach contributed to an Indian summer of recorded classical music. Since then the promised digital long tail has turned into a long wail for the demise of the maverick. The blandness of our algorithmic age is evidenced perfectly by how Universal Classics ditched that stunning 1976 LP artwork seen above for the anodyne CD packaging below.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

Perfect book for the White House nightstand

Recording and book of the year listicles don't do it for me. But one of my book highlights of 2017 demands a heads up. Don't Panic I'm Islamic was commissioned in response to the US travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. Subtitled 'Words and pictures on how to stop worrying and learn to love the alien next door', it includes cartoons, graffiti, photography, colouring in pages, memoir, short stories and more by 34 contributors from around the world.

All too often this kind of book struggles to rise above juvenile humour, but this is most definitely not the case with Don't Panic I'm Islamic. Razor sharp humour is combined with cutting edge graphics and commendable design flair. Two of the graphics are reproduced here. Muslim Panik above is the work of Shadi Alzaqzouq, while Nikee Rider below is by the 'Andy Warhol of Marrakech' Hassan Hajjaj. Don't Panic I'm Islamic is published by London-based independent publishing house Saqi Books with support from Arts Council England. Saqi is a recipient of the British Book Industry Award for Diversity in Literature and its authors include Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Nawal El Saadawi, Samih al-Qasim, Mohamed Choukri and Ghazi Al Gosaibi. It's a book definitely worth a tweet or three.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

The art of the classical maverick

In preparation for returning again to Papal Provence I have revisited David Munrow's 1973 three LP set The Art of Courtly Love. With so much soul-searching about how classical music can reach a new young audience it is worth remembering that David Munrow's BBC Radio 3 Pied Piper programme was broadcast four times a week for five years and introduced a huge audience to the riches of early music. He also presented the TV series Ancestral Voices, a title described as sounding like the greatest Led Zeppelin album never recorded; which may help explain why Munrow's popularity peaked in the early 1970s, when the young and alternative dominated the zeitgeist.

David Munrow was truly multi-talented, and much of his appeal came from his advocacy of composers such as Guillaume de Machaut, Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay, who were totally unknown and alien in style to the wider public in the 1970s. Today Simon Rattle, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Gustavo Dudamel are undoubtedly immensely talented conductors, but they are also essentially single-dimensional musicians whose reputations rest on superior interpretations of familiar mainstream repertoire. David Munrow scorned building better mousetraps from familiar repertoire, instead he reached a huge new audience by literally playing the role of music maverick. There is more on mavericks, technologists and other agents of change in my interview with David Munrow's mentor and recording producer Christopher Bishop, which can be read via this link or heard on SoundCloud.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Forget what you thought you knew about classical concerts

My recent post lamenting the shortage in classical music of mavericks, technologists and other agents of change attracted fewer readers than the joke post about Norman Lebrecht precededing it. Which I guess proves my point. But I don't give up that easily, so I am now returning to the subject of technology and agents of change. In my article I said that classical music desperately needs radical projects that capitalise on the opportunities offered by digital technologies to engage new audiences. So this post provides a heads up to a project that does just that, but which has received very little recognition. Here is the description from the University of Salford website:
Forget what you thought you knew about orchestral concerts; this new and innovative series requests that you DO turn on your mobile phones and tablets.
The BBC Philharmonic, in partnership with the University of Salford, will be exploring new and rarely performed pieces – bringing audience immersion and new technology to the forefront.
The sessions will be featured in an enhanced live stream on the orchestra’s website, which enables the audience to explore the orchestra, receive synced information about the music and even view a live orchestral score.
Bring your devices and help us explore a new way of experiencing an orchestra.
The header screenshot showing Red Brick Session real time content comes from an excellent review of the project by cellist Daria Fussi. The BBC Philharmonic Red Brick Sessions started in autumn 2016 and are commendable both because they explore the opportunity offered by new technologies without cringe-inducing dumbing down, and because they feature an eclectic range of composers including Ligeti, Sciarrino, Adès and Schoenberg. This is a BBC project for heaven's sake. If classical music really wants a new, young, technology literate audience why isn't it being rolled out to the Proms instead of Rodgers and Hammerstein?

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

When will we reach the Tippett point?

Discussions of neglected symphonists invariably neglect to mention Michael Tippett. So it is good to see that Hyperion are releasing Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Tippett's First and Second Symphonies - sample here - as the first instalment of a Tippett symphony cycle. Excellent accounts by Colin Davis and Richard Hickox failed to persuade the wider audience of the indisputable merit of Tippett's symphonies, so it will be interesting to see how the new Hyperion release fares. The problem is that unfamiliar works such as these require repeated concert hall outings to engage audiences, not the one-off pseudo-event treatment that is now standard for non-mainstream repertoire. To treat Tippett and his neglected peers as more than a solitary freak show requires courage and commitment from conductor, orchestra and promoter. So I'm not holding my breath.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

Classical music does not need better mousetraps

There are longstanding overlaps between classical music and Buddhism. Wagner's study of Buddhism is confirmed by his short prose sketch for a Buddhist themed opera titled Die Sieger (The Victors), a theme developed by Jonathan Harvey in his opera Wagner Dream. Jonathan Harvey is one of a number of contemporary composers influenced by Buddhism and his Weltethos was premiered by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic*. Iconoclast Claude Vivier's masterwork is arguably his Siddhartha for orchestra in eight groups, while Philip Glass, whose style has impacted well beyond classical music, is a Tibetan Buddhist adept and composed the score for the film Kundun which portrays the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama. Most famously John Cage, who was a major influence on both 20th century music and culture, is closely linked to Zen Buddhism.

At the heart of Buddhism is the acceptance of impermanence. This is the concept that reality is never constant and everything is in constant flux, or as the 14th century Zen poet Ikkyū put it "Only impermanence lasts". Given the significant overlap with Buddhism it is puzzling that classical music has not only failed to accept the veracity of impermanence, but proactively perpetuates the reality of the 19th century concert format. This blog has been one of the most outspoken voices against the sillier big new ideas propounded by the 'classical music must change or die' gurus. But increasingly I am thinking that the pendulum has now swung too far the other way, a perception reinforced by the emergence of classical fundamentalists committed to preserving the stultifying status quo.

Society and culture are impermanent and the past two decades have seen seismic shifts in consumer behaviour and tastes. These shifts have caused dramatic changes in the way music is consumed, yet the concert hall and the classical concert format have undergone only minor cosmetic change since the 19th century. Projects such as the Elbphilharmonie, the proposed new London concert hall and the endless Mahler symphonies are just better mousetraps created in defiance of impermanence. The problem is that, whether we like it or not, the musical mouse population has genetically mutated into a new and radically different super rodent that resists the bait used in the old traps. I am only too aware it is very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But is there any institution other than the classical concert that has so doggedly resisted change since digital technologies profoundly reshaped consumer behaviour? Yes there is - the established church, and look what is happening to its attendances.

Compounding the problem is the music industry's minimal understanding of what makes these new mutated rodents tick or what bait attracts them. Which is why so much money is wasted on better mousetraps and cheese. Classical music doesn't need expensive new halls and dumbed down old-style concerts. It desperately needs radical projects that capitalise on the opportunities offered by new technologies to engage the new super rodent audience. The 2018 Association of British Orchestras Conference has as its theme 'Collaboration', Classic FM as principal media partner, a Musicians' Union official as keynote speaker, and an agenda lacking even a single mention of technology. Which neatly sums up the desperate shortage in classical music of mavericks, technologists and other agents of change.

~ More on radical projects that capitalise on the opportunities offered by new technologies in Forget what you thought you knew about classical concerts ~

* Either the BPO premiere of Weltethos or the subsequent CBSO London performance, both of which were recorded, demand to be released as a commercial recording to fill an important gap in the Jonathan Harvey discography. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Friday, December 01, 2017

Turn on, tune in, and...... 'like' on Facebook

Over time, we create a mental model of the real world that is strongly influenced by our beliefs, prejudices and experiences, and our model will differ from that of other people in far greater ways than is usually accepted. The world that we consciously inhabit increasingly resembles our own 'world view'. Should an optimistic person walk down a street, for example, they would be inclined to register happy couples, pleasant weather or playing children. A cynical person walking down exactly the same street might completely miss those details, and see instead the homeless population and the graffiti. Of course, the street itself hasn't changed between the two observations, but this is almost irrelevant, as no one is aware of the 'true' street in its entirety. The same principle applies to every aspect of life, from the mechanism that decides which news stories grab your attention, to the personal qualities in others that you respond to or overlook. The result of this is that the 'world' in which we live is not an objective, distinct environment, but a model constructed in our own image. In the words of Alan Watts, the influential writer on Eastern religions, 'Reality is only a Rorsach ink-blot'. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, 'People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is a confession of character'.

[Timothy] Leary called these personal mental models 'reality tunnels'. Each person lives in a different reality tunnel from everyone else, and is personally responsible for constructing their own existential reality. To be truly 'free' it is necessary to recognise this for, in the words of the Discordians, 'Whatever you believe imprisons you. Convictions create convicts'. This is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is profoundly important in understanding both Leary and his influence. It is the concept that explains the post-modern move away from the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, which viewed reality as an absolute that could be understood through rational inquiry. Enlightenment thinkers assumed that everyone operates in the same reality, but that, Leary believed, was just not true on a practical level. Concepts, relationships and events were now relative, and could only really be understood when analyzed alongside the reality tunnels that created them.
That account of Timothy Leary's foretelling of social media with its reality tunnels, filter bubbles, selective algorithms and multiple realities comes from I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs. Leary, who immortalised the phrase 'Turn on, tune in, drop out', went on to write Chaos and Cyberculture which predicted that 'The PC is the LSD of the Nineties'. Many of us who came of age in the 1960s were influenced by the Moody Blues' In Search of the Lost Chord album with its track Legend of a Mind eulogising Timothy Leary. In 1972 Leary recorded the space rock album Seven Up with 'krautrock' band Ash Ra Tempel and also discussed working with the Moody Blues. But extradition back to America and a subsequent jail term intervened. In his biography John Higgs recounts how, while Leary was in solitary confinement in Sandstone Federal prison in Minnesota, he could hear someone walking up and down outside his window all night repeatedly singing Legend of a Mind with its refrain 'Timothy Leary's dead/No, no, no, no, He's outside looking in'.

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