Friday, July 21, 2017

What have you done to my cat gym?

More on the hi-fi capabilities of cats in Classical music can learn a lot from our feline friends.

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Classical music's marriage with politics is a done deal

Arguments about whether classical music and politics should be mixed are futile. Because the two are irrevocably intertwined. As is shown by yesterday's press release from the City of London Corporation pressing the case for a new concert hall in London's newly designated 'culture mile'. This press release makes much of the Crossrail transport link that will serve the proposed hall. One of Crossrail's non-executive directors is Michael Cassidy. As readers of my previous posts on the subject will know, Michael Cassidy - who, incidentally, is a practicing lawyer - holds a number of influential positions in the City of London Corporation. He is also non-executive chairman of Askonas Holt; this is the management agency that represents both Simon Rattle who is a leading advocate of the new hall, and his new orchestra the London Symphony Orchestra which is expected to be resident there. Daniel Barenboim is also managed by Askonas Holt and he and Simon Rattle have both taken public anti-Brexit stances.

Yet another of Michael Cassidy's roles is chairman of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, a major commercial and residential development in the south of England. Ebbsfleet International Station is a major gateway for travellers to the EU and plans for the area include a £3.5 billion theme park with Europe's largest indoor water park, live music venues and hotels one mile from Ebbsfleet station - see header graphic. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the commercial potential of these projects may be adversely affected by Brexit.

All the foregoing is in the public domain and I am confident it conforms to the relevant corporate governance regulations. There is a cogent argument that London needs a new concert hall. and it can be argued that Britain's exit from the EU has significant downsides. It can also be argued that conductors are entitled to use the podium to air personal political views. But I would also argue that a better understanding of the bigger picture is needed.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

No big bearded imam was going to tell me music was haram

That header photo shows the British Muslim musician Ali Keeler playing with his Al Firdaus Ensemble. The status of music in Islam - forbidden or permissible - is frequently discussed and almost as frequently misunderstood. So I thought it useful to share an extract from an unpublished memoir by Ian Whiteman who was multi-instrumentalist for the mod band The Action and the Sufi-influenced cult psychedelic folk rock band Mighty Baby in the 1960s. Ian went on to make what is, to use a tired and devalued label, an inexplicably neglected masterpiece, the one-off album If Man But Knew by the Habibiyya. In 1971 Ian converted to Islam and became a member of the celebrated Bristol Gardens/Wood Dalling Sufi zawiya founded by the controversial Abdalqadir as-Sufi who later wrote an Islamic interpretation of Wagner's music. After converting to Islam Ian Whiteman took the name Abdallateef and as Abdallateef Whiteman has established a considerable reputation in the Muslim world as a graphic designer. He now lives in Andalusia where together with Ali Keeler and other local musicians he contributes to recording of Islamic sacred music such as the Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ which I praised recently.
In 1994 I was invited to participate in a symposium at the Royal College of Music in London, on the subject “Music in Islam: Permissible or Forbidden”. Two of the speakers were pro music and two hard line against, with myself in the middle trying to have an open mind, and not really knowing much about it either, other than that I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. Music had played an enormously positive part in my life and no big bearded imam was going to tell me otherwise, but I also knew the dangers of music having seen the music business in tooth and claw. We had on the panel one bearded Imam who spoke very much against it and I couldn’t see much light in what he was saying but he did speak a lot about the Fire. His speech had a palpably depressing effect on the symposium. It was just a rant citing the prophetic tradition about how music when accompanied by drinking and fornication was not permissible. But I knew enough to know that traditions can be very misleading and taken out of context can be made to mean almost the opposite of what they appear. The other speaker, who was attacking music was an English convert who had been a musician at one time also spoke about sinister pop recordings which if played backwards spelled out evil incantations.

Those who spoke in defense of music quoted Al-Ghazali and declared therefore its permissibility. There are of course prophetic traditions which seem to defend music in principle as well but I won’t go into that. It is certainly not even mentioned in the Qur’an, the highest legal authority, so on a scale of seriousness it is not even up there with even minor legal infractions which are mentioned in the Qur’an. The truth is that to most scholars it’s not even important – just a matter of taste.

My belief was that music in the company of people seeking spiritual elevation or enjoining good was therefore not only acceptable but a virtue. Music was a passive force which could be used for whatever you wished whether good or bad. I knew the dangers of music, the most obvious being just bad music. It would be like saying speech was forbidden because some people used it profanely. This literalism is deep in the mind set of some people, some scholars included, and is not unconnected to some of the serious problems that beset Muslims and the general public in the 21st century. When a young man untrained in Islamic sciences, with resentments and grudges, gets hold of a book of traditions translated into English he will make enormous presumptions and errors. It has been likened to a man doing brain surgery only having read an article on the Internet. It’s dangerous for everyone concerned and in the case of Islam, lethal.

Ali Keeler who sings with Ian Whiteman and others on the Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ recording is a classically trained violinist and my 2015 interview with him attracted considerable attention. Ali shares Ian Whitman's belief that music in the right context is not only acceptable but a virtue, and like Ian he believes that the definition of 'right context' must be flexible to connect with the zeitgeist. As well as contributing to recordings of sacred Islamic music and being a highly respected exponent of tajwid, the art of Quran recitation, Ali actively explores wider musical contexts. In the 1990s he played on two of the albums by the trip hop group Archive and much more recently he has developed a unique and globally accessible brand of Celtic-tinged Andalusian Sufi music with his Al Firdaus Ensemble. In this his violin and voice is joined by the Spanish cellist Salma Vives, and from Morocco qanun player Yusuf Mezghildi and percussionist Omar Benlamlih; the two accompanying photos taken by me at an Al Firdaus gig show the four musicians, and one of their Sufi musical earworms can be sampled below.

Safa, the first album from Al Firdaus Ensemble has remained high on my playlist for months and now it has been joined by their second album Nur - which translates from Arabic as 'The Light'. The new album delivers more of Al Firdaus' catchy and unique brand of Celtic-tinged Sufism, but with new more commercial and upbeat sound that is suffused with the sonic equivalent of Andalusian sunshine. Nur is available as a download from Amazon and iTunes and a taster video is below.

It is very easy to dismiss Ali Keeler's music and my frequent posts about non-Western music as multicultural hot button fodder that is subservient to the pseudo events which dominate Western culture. But such an attitude is foolish and myopic. My interview with Ali Keeler ranks as the fourth most widely read in this blog's twelve year history. Contributing to this was a tweet by the British-Iranian singer/composer Sami Yusuf. Now Sami Yusuf's name may not mean much to those steeped in the Western classical tradition, but he is a very big property in global markets. To illustrate this, Alex Ross has 106,000 Twitter followers, Sami Yusuf has 769,000.

Those who chant the mantra that Western classical music needs new markets should note that Shelina Janmohamed's recent book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World points out that the global Muslim population is growing more than twice as quickly as overall world population growth. Of 11 countries forecast to join the elite club of economic superpowers this century, six have a dominant Muslim majority and two substantial Muslim minorities. Two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30, representing a huge and rapidly growing market. And those who prefer humanitarian to commercial ideals should note that Al Firdaus have taken their multi-cultural music to countries as diverse as Indonesia and the United States, with a Washington Post reviewer writing "Their music is far from political. It’s all about beauty and faith and peace and devotion..."

I am grateful to Ian Whiteman for making the manuscript of his unpublished memoir Average Whiteman available to me. My copy of Nur was purchased via the the LaunchGood crowdfunding platform. 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, July 19, 2017

Raising the white flag at the BBC Proms

During a 1970s Festival Hall concert conducted by Bernard Haitink a serial cougher decided to accompany the posthorn solo in the third movement of Mahler's monumental Third Symphony. Maestro Haitink continued to beat time with his baton while using his left hand to extract a white handkerchief from his pocket and hold it high over his head to encourage the cougher to mute the intrusive noise.

Such an action would be unthinkable at the Proms today, because the conductor would spend the whole concert with an arm raised holding a handkerchief. At one time the Proms audience had the enviable reputation of being the best audience in the world, but now it is the noisiest. My most recent visit to a Prom was almost certainly my last. Because not only is the Albert Hall sound poor, the sight lines unacceptable, the ambient temperature too high and the foyer facilities inadequate. But I found myself surrounded by people who made it quite clear that they were not there to appreciate the music, but rather to participate in a mass sonic selfie via persistent coughing, distracting talking, playing with mobile phones and the inevitable politically correct applause between movements.

This year a new and important element has been added to this sonic selfie, the conductor's speech. Daniel Barenboim rode his personal hobby horse in his speech at a recent Prom, and next month it is the turn of his fellow Askonas Holt artist Simon Rattle - a shared provenance which, incidentally, I suggest is not insignificant. Let us hope that when Simon Rattle rides his personal hobby horse in his post-Gurrelieder speech he pleads not only for a better London concert hall, but also for a better Proms audience.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Elgar in foreign hands

Elgar's symphonies have hardly been neglected at the BBC Proms and elsewhere. As an example, the Second Symphony has been played 37 times at the Proms, with two of those performances in the last three years; while the First has been given 51 times, including two performances in the last two years. So it is puzzling as to why the social networks are behaving as though Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin brought two undiscovered masterpieces to the Albert Hall, and it is doubly puzzling because his interpretations were passionate but hardly revelatory. Yes, it is noteworthy that this was Elgar from a foreign orchestra. But in 2008 Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra brought the First Symphony to the Proms. However it is not surprising that this European band's Elgar has been quietly forgotten, as Norrington's flexible tempo and vibrato free account ranks as one of the worst musical abominations I have ever had the misfortune to hear.

If you want your Elgar both revelatory and in foreign hands you should try the Romanian Constantin Silvestri's recording for EMI of In the South (Alassio). Silvestri, who is seen above, was principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) from 1961 until his tragically early death from cancer in 1969 aged 55. EMI planned to record the Elgar symphonies and possibly The Dream of Gerontius with Silvestri in Bournemouth, but his premature death meant only In the South - recorded in 1967 - was made as a commercial studio recording, although there are transcriptions of BBC broadcasts of the First Symphony and Cockaigne with the BSO. Silvestri's In the South is one of those rare performances that combines ultra-high voltage electricity with respect for the score. In a time when classical music has become no more than a made-for-media pseudo-event it is sad but hardly surprising that Constantin Silvestri's revelatory Elgar is all but forgotten.

Silvestri photograph comes via Mon Musée Musical. 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.