Thursday, March 22, 2018

Is this the greatest-ever woman musician?

Recent celebrations of women musicians as part of International Women's day started me musing on the question of who was the greatest-ever woman musician? There are many great contenders for the title, from Hildegard of Bingen to Maria Callas and Edith Piaf to Janis Joplin. It can be argued convincingly of course that debating greatest-ever rankings is meaningless as any such judgement is subjective and highly personal. But stay with me, as my nominated contender is particularly noteworthy because she is not the stereotypical white Judeo-Christian celebrity woman musician. Despite her ethnicity Om Kalthoum has a very strong claim on the title of greatest-ever woman musician. When she died in 1975 four million Egyptians attended her funeral, and the diva's recordings continue to sell around a million copies a year. Moreover, her claim to the greatest-ever title is not just based on popularity: among those who have acknowledged her influence are not only Maria Callas, but also Bob Dylan and Robert Plant.

Om Kalthoum was born in the Nile Delta in 1898*. Her father was an imam at the local mosque, and taught her to recite the Quran. Learning the art of tajweed - Quranic recitation - was an important part of her music education, as was her experience as a young munshida - Sufi chanter. Her huge popularity is explained not only by her magnetic stage presence and extraordinary vocal technique, but also by her unique repertoire. This overlays its sacred Sufi roots with popular appeal by using traditional Egyptian forces augmented by Western instruments including violins.

Above all Om Kalthoum was a performer and all her great recordings capture concert performances. But she was also an engaged artist whose songs spoke to political and humanitarian concerns, and as a result they remain very relevant today. Due to her high public profile she played an important role in the emerging Third World women's movement. She was also politically active, particularly following the overthrowing of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Although her songs were initially banned due to her connections with King Farouk's regime, after the Suez Crisis in 1956 her song Walla Aaman Ya Selahy (It Has Been a Long Time, Oh My Weapon) became Egypt’s national anthem and later the anthem of the federation of Egypt, Iraq and Syria (the United Arab Republic).

However the true measure of Om Kalthoum's greatness is her influence on other legendary musicians. Robert Plant has said: "When I first heard Om Kalthoum, it was a very important day for me, because it opened, it just enriched my life so much. Even though I hardly understand a word she's singing, because it's in Arabic, I had to take some of the effect it had on me and put it into the music". This effect is reflected in, for example, Led Zeppelin's 1975 classic Kashmir which uses Middle Eastern influenced backing and a vocal delivery in the style of Om Kalthoum. Another legendary musician who has publicly acknowledged Om Kalthoum's influence is Bob Dylan, and these two extracts from interviews are impressive testimonies to her greatness.
From Rolling Stone interview 1978
Bob Dylan: For some reason I've just thought of my favorite singer.
Jonathan Cott: Who is that?
BD: Om Kalthoum — the Egyptian woman who died a few years ago. She was my favorite.
JC: What did you like about her?
BD: It was her heart.
JC: Do you like dervish and Sufi singing, by the way?
BD: Yeah, that's where my singing really comes from . . .

From Playboy interview March 1978
Bob Dylan: I listen to foreign music, too. I like Middle Eastern music a whole lot.
Ron Rosenbaum: Such as?
BD: Om Kalthoum.
RB: Who is that?
BD: She was a great Egyptian singer. I first heard of her when I was in Jerusalem.
RB: She was an Egyptian singer who was popular in Jerusalem?
BD: I think she's popular all over the Middle East. In Israel, too. She does mostly love and prayer-type songs, with violin and-drum accompaniment. Her father chanted those prayers and I guess she was so good when she tried singing behind his back that he allowed her to sing professionally, and she's dead now but not forgotten. She's great. She really is. Really great.

Piracy means sales of legitimate recordings in Morocco are now virtually nil. When I was in Marrakech recently the Virgin store stocked just two groupings of CDs. One was Quaranic recitations, the other was recordings of Om Kalthoum. On offer was a lavish guilt-blocked 20 CD box of Om Kalthoum concert performances which originates from the Emirates and does not seem to be available outside the MENA (Middle East & North Africa region) region**. When I first spotted the boxed set I did not buy it: because, although I am a huge fan of Om Kalthoum, I suspected that 20 hours of her in concert might be a step too far. But I took the plunge and I am very glad I did. Despite their variable technical quality, every one of these concert recordings crackles with the electricity flowing between musician and audience, and I have returned to them time and time again.

Om Kalthoum's claim to being the greatest-ever women musician can be debated, but it is almost certain that her continuing huge popularity in the Middle East means she has sold more recordings than any other women musician. So in this time of rampant Islamophobia it is worth remembering that the best selling women musician is the Muslim Om Kalthoum and America's best-selling poet is the Muslim Rumi. Can you Trump that?

* Birth records were not kept in Egypt at the time so there is no definitive record of the date of Om Kalthoum's birth. An alternative date of May 4, 1904 is also sometimes used.
** Om Kalthou singing Enta Omri (You Are My Life) at a Paris concert can be viewed via this link, and a useful if flaky quality documentary on YouTube about her life narrated by Omar Sharif can be seen via this link.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Assume all technology guilty until proven innocent

1. Since most of what we are told about new technology comes from its proponents, be deeply skeptical of all claims.

2. Assume all technology 'guilty until proven innocent'.

3. Eshew the idea that technology is neutral or 'value free'. Every technology has inherent and identifiable social, political, and environmental consequences.

4. The fact that technology has a natural flash and appeal is meaningless. Negative attributes are slow to emerge.

5. Never judge a technology by the way it benefits you personally. Seek a holistic view of its impacts. The operative question in not whether it benefits you, but who benefits most? And to what end?

6. Keep in mind that an individual technology is only one piece of a larger web of technologies, 'megatechnology'. The operative question here is how the individual technology fits the larger one.

7. Make distinctions between technologies that primarily serve the individual or small community and those that operate on a scale outside of community control. The latter is the major problem of the day.

8. When it is argued that the benefits of the technological lifestyle are worthwhile despite harmful outcomes, recall that Lewis Mumford referred to these alleged benefits as 'bribery'.

9. Do not accept the homily that 'once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back', or that rejecting a technology is impossible. Such attitudes induce passivity and confirm victimization.

10. In thinking about technology within the present climate of technological worship, emphasize the negative. This brings balance. Negativity is positive.
That ten point checklist was compiled by Jerry Mander for his book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations and first appeared on An Overgrown Path in 2014. In the Absence of the Sacred was published back in 1991 when the digital age was just dawning. But, if anything, the checklist is even more relevant today - and I mean today.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

We are alive and we don’t agree

My current reading includes the newly-published The Turkish Psychedelic Music Explosion: Anadolu Psych 1965-1980 by Daniel Spicer. This is thought-provoking, as is the declaration of intent from its publisher:
Repeater Books is dedicated to the creation of a new reality. The landscape of twenty-first-century arts and letters is faded and inert, riven by fashionable cynicism, egotistical self-reference and a nostalgia for the recent past. Repeater intends to add its voice to those movements that wish to enter history and assert control over its currents, gathering together scattered and isolated voices with those who have already called for an escape from Capitalist Realism. Our desire is to publish in every sphere and genre, combining vigorous dissent and a pragmatic willingness to succeed where messianic abstraction and quiescent co-option have stalled: abstention is not an option: we are alive and we don’t agree.
Repeater Books is a new imprint of Watkins Media, a collective of niche businesses which includes that cornucopia of esoterica Watkins Bookshop in Cecil Court, London. Those with a post-social media attention span can listen to Daniel Spicer's substantial Turkish psych compilation via this link, while another Repeater title Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the Twentieth Century is a welcome alternative to the doctrinaire music narratives elsewhere.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Why your James Levine recordings should not be junked

On Facebook composer and conductor Kevin Scott asks will James Levine's recorded legacy become worthless? Will the record companies no longer issue his recordings? It is not a question I can answer; but the following allegory may be relevant. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was first revealed by the great Vajrayana practitioner Karma Lingpa as the Bardo Thodol in the 13th century. The ancient mortuary text only achieved its current status as a spiritual classic following Western translation and interpretations in the 20th century, starting with Walter Evans-Wentz's translation in 1927. The best-selling interpretation of the Bardo Thodol is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by the French-domiciled Tibetan Dzogchen lama Sogyal Rinpoche, which has sold more than 3 million copies.

My 2002 edition of Sogyal Rinpoche's book*, which has an introduction by the Dalai Lama, is seen below. That copy is very well thumbed, because despite being based on an ancient mortuary text it offers much wisdom about contemporary living. Over the years I have returned again and again to Sogyal Rinpoche's interpretation. But over the same years it also emerged that, like James Levine, Sogyal Rinpoche was not the role model he should have been. In 1994 a civil lawsuit was filed against him alleging he used his position as a spiritual leader to induce a female student to have sex with him. Despite an out of court settlement allegations rumbled on and came to a head in 2017 when a letter from senior figures in the Buddhist Rigpa network founded by Sogyal Rinpoche was published citing more examples of abuse. The Dalai Lama distanced himself from the Dzogchen lama, saying: "Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend. Now he is disgraced". Following this condemnation the French Buddhist Union suspended the membership of Rigpa France, and Sogyal retired from his position as Rigpa'a spiritual director.

Given the bad karma accumulating around Sogyal Rinpoche I thought it expedient to shift my allegiance to another version of the Bardo Thodol. All recommendations pointed to Robert Thurmans's 1994 translation. His Tibetan Book of the Dead is more scholarly in execution and in music terms more faithful to the score. But, despite having much to offer, for me it remains is a forensic exposition of a 13th century Tibetan text, whereas Sogyal Rinpoche's vivication speaks directly to our present predicament. Sogyal's interpretation may date from 1988, but its perennial wisdom has a painful relevance in our social media-obsessed age, as this extract illustrates:

Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity, but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our "biography", our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards... It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?

Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn't that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?
Robert Thurman's metaphysically-correct and baggage-free** version of the Bardo Thodol sits on a shelf alongside my other valued Tibetan Buddhism books, while the vibrant version by the disgraced Sogyal Rinpoche stays by my side and is frequently consulted. So, based on that admittedly tangential experience, my advice to Kevin Scott and other is that, abhorrent though James Levine's alleged misdemeamours may be, don't junk his recordings.

* Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey. (The unrelated Jonathan Harvey set Andrew Harvey's reimagining of Rumi's verse in How could the soul not take flight [1996] and Ashes dance back [1997]). Retrospective rethinking within Buddhist circles now, possibly conveniently, emphasises the contribution of the two editors at the expense of Sogyal Rinpoche. A useful account by Patrick Gaffney from 2012 of the creative process sheds light on the relative contributions.

** Actually not quite baggage free.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Carbon neutral classical music has arrived

In a recent post I wrote 'Of course orchestras need to tour; but to my knowledge there have been no attempts within classical music to recognise this environmental impact by, for example, introducing carbon offsets'. Now Paul von Wichert - host on Winnepeg's Classic 107 - has pointed out amicably that I am wrong. Because the Italian ZEBO - Zero Emission Baroque Orchestra - seen above is setting an example by taking a responsible attitude towards classical music's environmental impact. Here is an explanation of their attitude from the orchestra's website:
Now more than ever, in a world grounded on consumerism and waste, it's important to work in an alternative way designed to respect, care and preservation of the environment that should be able to sustain ourselves for a long time.
What's the relationship between this concept and music?
This question is the driving force of our project: a professional orchestra that can work with zero emission.
Zero emission will be our identity and our strong point and we want to show that a cultural activity may be a vehicle of an ethical message.
If you consider culture as personal baggage and social heritage, connected to the relationship between individual and surrounding environment, orchestra public performance can become such a refined and incisive vehicle to expand as much as possible these ideals.
ZEBO wants to join a worldwide movement seeking to achieve a balance between human activity and ecosystem, so much in defence of the culture that is our soul and nature that is our home, food and oxygen demonstrating with its job that you can work without destroying...
All the CO2 emissions produced to create the events will be offset by ZEBO by equivalent reforestation funding...ZEBO cooperate with Climate Action Network and Myclimate for equivalent reforestation fulfillment.
These agencies provide to foreseen amount to be designated to reforestation for every production and performance. For example amount set aside for every concert that take place within 200 to 800 km from Milan or for production of CDs. [ZEBO records for Brilliant Classics].
It is a sign of our doctrinaire times that news of the abolition of all-male concerts at a London music school goes viral on social media and makes the national press, while a carbon neutral orchestra remains classical music's best-kept secret. Similarly, it is very fashionable to lambast President Trump for his cavalier attitude to the environment, but it is deeply unfashionable to question the cavalier attitude of classical music towards the environment. As my recent post asserted, dangerous thinking has been abroad in classical music for years, namely that its role as a priceless form of high art licenses unacceptable behaviour. The ZEBO orchestra is showing how cultural activities can be be vehicles for diverse ethical messages. ZEBO's more illustrious peers in the orchestral world should follow their example. Now experience the sound of zero emission baroque music in this video.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Leaders destroy followers and followers destroy leaders

'Leaders destroy the followers and followers destroy the leaders. You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary' ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
Articles from which graphics are taken can be read via this link (Newsweek) and this one (National Review). 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, March 15, 2018

Classical music cannot gloss over its victimless crimes

Quite rightly the shockwaves from recent abuse scandals are reverberating through classical music. These shameful scandals, which have done untold damage to classical music's image, were ticking time bombs that too many people in the know chose to ignore. What is worrying is there are other time bombs that are being glossed over, but which may soon explode causing yet more damage. Dangerous thinking has been abroad in classical music for years, namely that its role as a priceless form of high art licenses unacceptable behaviour. It is this dangerous thinking that resulted in the misdemeanours of several celebrity conductors being glossed over for decades, and it is the same thinking that allows other less emotionally traumatising but still highly questionable behaviour to be glossed over.

One vulnerability that is all too frequently ignored is the lamentable human rights records of regimes that classical music is consorting with. The United Arab Emirates is one of the new 'go to' destinations for touring orchestras. To dismiss classical music's active participation in the ethical whitewashing of the United Arab Emirates as victimless and abuse-free is factually incorrect. A Hindustani Times article reports that at least 450 Indian migrant workers have died on Dubai construction sites alone since 2014 as a result of unacceptably dangerous working conditions, and that situation is mirrored in many other Gulf States. Dubai provides a striking example of classical music's hypocrisy. To much fanfare it was recently announced that the BBC Proms and other leading classical festivals have pledged a laudable 50/50 gender split in their lineups by 2022. But just one year earlier the BBC had launched with equally loud fanfare the inaugural BBC Proms Dubai . Let's ignore, if indeed we can, the maltreatment of migrant workers in Dubai, not to mention the persecution of homosexuals. Instead let's join up the dots and link the BBC' posturing on gender equality with women's rights in the home of the BBC Proms Dubai.

The UAE penal code retains elements of Sharia law, notably in the Sharia-based Personal Status Law covering marriage, divorce and succession. Human Rights Watch reports that "Federal law No. 28 [(Personal Status Law] of 2005 regulates matters of personal status in the UAE, and some of its provisions discriminate against women. For instance, the law provides that, for a woman to marry, her male guardian must conclude her marriage contract; men have the right to unilaterally divorce their wives, whereas a woman who wishes to divorce her husband must apply for a court order; a woman can lose her right to maintenance if, for example, she refuses to have sexual relations with her husband without a lawful excuse; and women are required to “obey” their husbands. A woman may be considered disobedient, with few exceptions, if she decides to work without her husband’s consent. In 2010, the Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling—citing the penal code—that sanctions husbands’ beating and inflicting other forms of punishment or coercion on their wives, provided they do not leave physical marks".

A refusal to acknowledge the very real problem of climate change is another of classical music's vulnerabilities. The Far East, and China in particular, is another new 'go to' destination for orchestras. The aviation industry depends entirely on fossil fuel and consumes a staggering 5 million barrels of oil every day; that is 2.5% of total carbon emissions. A plane flying from Europe to the Far East and back generates 4.5 tonnes of carbon, which compares with average per capita emissions globally of around 1 tonne. A 2010 study by the University of Surrey reported that the UK music industry's activities generate around 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions. Audience travel accounts for 43% of those greenhouse-gases, live venue music events accounted for 23%, and music recording and publishing 26%. Of course orchestras need to tour; but to my knowledge there have been no attempts within classical music to recognise this environmental impact by, for example, introducing carbon offsets.

Vulnerabilities converge in the press release below. The New York Philharmonic's official airline and sponsor Emirates is part of the Emirates Group domiciled in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Its chairman is Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum who is chairman of the Dubai Supreme Fiscal Committee, second vice chairman of the Dubai Executive Council and closely related to the Dubai royal family. Dubai is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Human Rights Watch states that "The United Arab Emirates (UAE) arbitrarily detains and in some cases forcibly disappears individuals who criticize the authorities. The UAE plays a leading role in the Saudi-led coalition which has carried out scores of unlawful attacks in Yemen, some likely war crimes. The UAE was implicated in detainee abuse at home and abroad... The UAE has denied activists and international human rights organizations’ access".

While pursuing this thread it is worth pointing out that in 2011 the chairman of the New York Philharmonic's official airline Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum was involved in a high profile paternity court case. The Telegraph reports he denied being married in a secret ceremony at his Knightsbridge flat and having a son with his partner/wife, claiming she was nothing more than a "courtesan" and an "irregular" sexual partner. The Emirati tycoon, whose net worth is £19 billion, reportedly only accepted the child was his after taking a paternity test using the alias 'Robert Smith'.

The marginalisation of women in Dubai and elsewhere in the UAE is undoubtedly far worse that the lamentable marginalisation of women in Western classical music. And returning to that gender equality pledge, how many orchestras welcomed with open arms at the BBC Proms between now and 2020 will also have strutted their stuff in the UAE where wife beating is sanctioned? How many others will join Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Riccardo Muti, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and Jordi Savall in accepting thirty pieces of silver from Abu Dhabi and other tarnished regimes? How many more feel-good press releases are we expected to swallow without questioning what celebrity musicians do 4500 miles from the Albert Hall?

In conclusion I will say goodbye to any remaining slim chance of 'likes' and re-tweets and raise concerns about the misuse of the gender equality ticket for click bait-friendly ethical whitewashing, as in the example of the BBC Proms cited above. This blog was one of the very first to raise the problem of gender inequality, ironically in an article about the lack of women composers in the 2006 Proms season. Great work has been done to eliminate gender inequality and much work still needs to be done; but classical music must beware of single issue fanaticism. Gender inequality must be eradicated, but so must a number of other ethical malpractices including ethnic discrimination, and cosying up to ethically-compromised regimes and ethically-compromised corporations. Tackling gender inequality is just one component in building a truly diverse and ethical classical music; it is not the only component.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My life in Rabindranath Tagore's words

'India has two aspects - in one she is the householder, in the other a wandering ascetic. The former refuses to budge from the cosy nook, the latter has no home at all. I find both of these within me. I want to roam about and see all the wide world, yet I also yearn for a sheltered little nook, like a bird with its tiny nest for a dwelling and the vast sky for flight' - Rabindranath Tagore My Life in My Words
That is a standard of the Chisti Sufi Order in my photo. It was taken in the dargah (shrine) of the Chisti saint Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya in the old Muslim quarter of Delhi. One of the most revered Sufi saints, Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325) was responsible for the Chishti Sufi Order spreading through India, and was the spiritual master of Amir Khusro (1253–1325). Khusro is regarded as the father of qawwali, which is still performed every Thursday evening in the dargah. The scourge of Partition meant that qawwali migrated to Pakistan along with the majority of the sub-continent's Muslims, and qawwali is now regarded as a Pakistani tradition despite its origins in Delhi. My soundtrack is Jaadu (Magic), the celebration of Tagore's two faces of the sub-continent created by acclaimed qawwali Faiz Ali Faiz from Pakistan and French cultural gypsy Titi Robin. Sample their magic below:

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Wild facts with no stall or pigeon-hole

That photo was taken by me recently in Turkish-occupied North Nicosia. There are strong historic links between Sufism and Cyprus due to the close proximity of Turkey. The dergah of the Naqshbandis - an order that has made numerous appearances on An Overgrown Path - is in Lefke in North Cyprus, while the Mevlevi Order of the followers of Rumi came to the island in 1571 when the Ottoman Empire conquered the island. In the heyday of Ottoman occupation there were thirty-six Mevlevi lodges in Cyprus, but these have now all fallen into disuse or disappeared. However the Mevlevi Museum at the Kyrenia Gate in Nicosia keeps the Sufi flame burning, and committed adepts such as the one above keep the tradition alive without devaluing it to a mere folkloric spectacle.

Too often Rumi's poetry is reduced to a transcultural blancmange targeted at the lucrative self-help market. Just one example of this is Deepak Chopra's The Love Poems of Rumi. In his introduction the new age guru confesses that the poems are not faithful translations but “‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi”. As well as conveniently writing out of the script its deep roots in Islam, reducing Rumi's verse to no more than mood poetry is contrary to his and Sufism's core message that humankind is not lost, but has just fallen asleep.

The purpose of the whirling ritual and other Sufi dhikr is to transform by awakening the adept from the sleep realm where the ego rules. This transformation is not a comfortable process, and Rumi's mentor Shams was a polarising figure who divided loyalties. This polarisation is captured very effectively in Michael Ellison's opera Say I Am You - Mevlâna. Michael Ellison splits his time between teaching composition at the University of Bristol and co-directing the Hezarfen Ensemble in Istanbul. Say I Am You - Mevlâna is one of a new generation of uncompromising 21st century operas that includes Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream. The scoring includes Western and Turkish instruments and the pivotal role of Shams is written for a mugam voice - the declamatory Azerbaijani vocal style.

Say I Am You - Mevlâna was premiered in June 2012 by VocaalLAB and the Hezarfen Ensemble in Rotterdam and Istanbul - see performance photo below showing video scenography - but has struggled to break through the first performance glass ceiling that constrains so much new music. You will not find it on Deepak Chopra's YouTube channel, and that absence is a very strong recommendation indeed. But you can hear the opera performed by the forces it was written for in an excellent recording on the Métier label, and substantial extracts are on SoundCloud and elsewhere on YouTube. The persistence of the whirling dervishes and the timeless power of Michael Ellison's opera serve to remind us of the truth expressed by William James in What Psychical Research Has Accomplished:

If there is anything which human history demonstrates, it is the extreme slowness with which the ordinary academic and critical mind acknowledges facts to exist which present themselves as wild facts with no stall or pigeon-hole, or as facts which threaten to break up the accepted system.

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Friday, March 09, 2018

Musical cat takes a bow

My belated contribution to International Women's Day is this priceless photo by Manolis Mathioudakis of contemporary modal music exponent Kelly Thoma. Not only is Kelly a remarkable musician, she is also a remarkable international woman who mixes playing Carnegie Hall with giving benefits for the street dogs of Heraklion on Crete where she lives. Hearing Kelly play an open air gig with her partner in life and music Ross Daly in a village among the foothills of Crete's White Mountains confirmed the assertion by another great woman Julian of Norwich that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Kelly has a wide-ranging discography of solo and ensemble performances; while of particular relevance to International Women's Day is her work with the all-female international folk string quartet Tokso - see video below.

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

I read the fake news today, oh boy

In his latest bragfest which is seen above, Norman Lebrecht perpetuates the falsehood that Google Analytics measures people - ie. human readers. What Google Analytics actually measures is website page hits, which is very different to human readers. A page hit is a measure of a connection between any online device and the Slipped Disc server. The online device may or may not be read by a human, and, as a previous post explained, a large proportion - an estimated 50% - of page hits are robots and not human eyeballs. Which means the real Slipped Disc readership is in all probability around half the claimed 164,188.

What I find puzzling and sad is that everyone professionally involved with social media - and that includes Norman Lebrecht who is certainly not stupid - knows that Google Analytics does not and cannot measure people. Lebrect could easily have explained in a simple sentence that Google Analytics need to be discounted by an estimated 50% to give a measure of human readers. This would give a figure of around 80,000 page hits by readers*.

That corrected daily readership of 80,000 is still impressively large: it is many times larger than On An Overgrown Path's readership and considerably larger I would guess than any other classical blog. Slipped Disc is, for better or worse, undoubtedly the most widely read classical blog. So why the need to knowingly overstate readership? Why the need to undermine the credibility of the whole classical blogging sector by peddling transparently fake news? Well, the answer to those two questions is provided by an influential journalist who wrote in the Evening Standard newspaper back in 2006 that "classical web-chat is opinion-rich and info-poor". And who was the influential journalist who wrote those wise words? It was Norman Lebrecht of course.

* But note that the 80,000 is an estimate of total hits by reader, not hits by unique readers; because the same reader often returns more than once to a website during a single day. So, once again, the claimed readership will be materially overstated. Talking of fake news, is not the same thing as unique readers.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Taking a walk on the wild side

That previously unpublished photo sequence was taken by me at the Kalachakra tantric empowerment in Ladakh in the disputed Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir. In the first photo the Dalai Lama is delivering his teaching from the dais. There is then a disturbance close to the platform - photo 2 - and His Holiness rises from his seat looking somewhat bemused, although his head of security on the extreme right looks rather more concerned. An oracle has entered into a violent trance and is trying to approach the dais. The wayward oracle is restrained - photo 3 - and then unceremoniously carted away - photo 4 - while the overturned floral decorations are sorted in the background. In the final photo the unruffled Dalai Lama is returning to the dais to continue the empowerment*.

Sharing these photos from 2014 was prompted by the arrival of a promotional piece from high-end speaker brand Bowers & Wilkins titled Sound Therapy #1: Does Music Relieve Stress? This is dotted with cool references including Spotify's Ambient Chill and Chill Lo-fi Study Beats, and Max Richter's nine hour Sleep - see footer photo to get a feel for the tone of the article. Max Richter's hymn to sleepwalking was given a heavily-spun airing by BBC Radio 3 in 2015, and since than Radio 3 has jumped on the 'slow radio' bandwagon - "immerse yourself: it’s time to go slow" - and is trying unsuccessfully to staunch its audience hemorrhage by also jumping on the playlist bandwagon.

This blog has been an active advocate of sound therapy. But it is a fundamental mistake to bracket sound therapy and sleep-inducement together. In his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead Robert Thurman explains that trance is the experience between dualistic consciousness and enlightened awareness. The unique power of great music is to transport the listener fleetingly from the world of quotidian triviality to an intermediate state - bardo - between consciousness and laser-like awareness. Meditation and relaxation have a role to play in trance; but the destination is heightened awareness, not soporific sleep. Achieving awareness is not always a comfortable experience, as the oracle in Ladakh found out. But study the Dalai Lama's face in my photos: he is engaged, but not disturbed. Because he understands that the journey to higher states of awareness does not respect comfort zones.

My photo sequence is a powerful study of how Tibetan Buddhism with its tantric rituals can be a walk on the wild side, as can the trance lila of the Moroccan Gnawa. Lama Yeshe taught that Buddhism is not a philosophy or religion but a study of your own mind; and there be dragons. Ambient Chill playlists and the other heavy baggage of the slow music movement kills those dragons. And slaying them also kills the very raison d'être of great music.

* Photos were taken on my venerable Canon SX150 compact digital camera. This is favoured because it is small and uses easily-obtainable AA batteries. But I did have the privilege of a press pass at the Kalachakra empowerement, which allowed me to get unusually close to the Dalai Lama. My thanks go to the Tashi Lhunpo UK Monastery Trust which arranged my press credentials. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.