Friday, March 24, 2017

What is important is to be your own Master

To fresh matters must I now refer, indeed there's much to say.
One night I spent as a passing guest in a friend's house.
Sufficient was the meal, even though today, come what may,
Some men are reluctant to open their doors to visitors.
It takes but little patience to spend the evening together,
Enough time for intentions, worthy and unworthy, to show.
Say what I must, these times are at one good and bad.
As to what fate holds in store, how should we know?
We lack nothing material, yet our minds are in turmoil!
That is the opening stanza of the contemporary Berber ballad Hospitality Betrayed from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco composed by Sheikh Assu of Ishishawn*. The photo is from Cette Lumière by Dominique and Miloudi Nouiga which takes its title from Jiddu Krishnamurti's teaching "L’important c’est d’être à soi-même sa propre lumière, son propre maître et son propre disciple [What is important is to be a light unto yourself, to be your own Master and disciple]". This exquisite French/ Darija book documents life in the village of Ait Hamza in the Atlas Mountains. Paul Bowles documented this region sonically in his 1959 field recordings which have been lovingly remastered for CD release by Dust to Digital. Cette Lumière was purchased on my recent visit to Morocco which included visiting the Middle Atlas - post to follow. Last year I trekked in the High Atlas to a soundtrack of Paul Bowles' recordings and I will return to that region where the magnificent belittles the material later this year.

* Extract is transcribed from the collection Berber Odes by Michael Peyron. No review samples used. 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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Music the Internet is hiding from you

Recent compelling rail trip listening included the new CD La Voix de la Passion (Voice of Passion) from the young Syrian singer and oud player Waed Bouhassoun. In 2015 I wrote about her previous album L'Âme du luth (Soul of the oud) and on this new disc she juxtaposes settings of Nabataean poetry from southern Syria and Arab poetry from the cultural Indian summer of Al-Andalusia - sample via this link.

In his 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You Eli Pariser explained the dangers of the little-understood filter bubbles created by the personalisation algorithms used by Facebook, Google and other major Internet players. These algorithms maximise web traffic by personalising - in other words skewing - content to pander to the known likes of individual web users. In very simple terms this means that clicking on or 'liking' Facebook statuses about Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla means your news feed will be skewed to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla-related content, and mentioning Jonas Kaufmann in your Gmail messages will push Jonas Kaufmann-related results to the top of your Google searches . But it also means that as very few readers will have googled Syrian oud music or 'liked' statuses mentioning Waed Bouhassoun, this post about a very fine musician - female to boot - will receive minimal exposure on social media. And this is just one example: because the work of many other deserving musicians from the Western and other traditions is also hidden by the ubiquitous bubble filters. Moreover selective filtering is not confined to the Internet giants.

Eli Pariser describes how "In the filter bubble, there's less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning" and how "Creativity is often sparked by the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures". On both sides of the Atlantic there is currently much righteous indignation about restrictions on the movement of populace across borders that helps spark these vital collisions of ideas. Yet we all (yes, this post is bidding for 30 seconds of social media fame) aid and abet a technology that covertly and very profitably suppresses this vital collision of ideas. The $3 million cost of Donald Trump's weekend Mar-a-Lago getaways and uninformed guesses at the cost of Brexit are the lifeblood of social media; but the filter bubble-driven annual profits of Facebook - $10.2 billion - and Google - $6.8 billion - hardly merit a mention. We live in very strange times.

No review samples used in this post. 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.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Take the train from Casablanca going south

That photo was taken by me a few days ago and shows the Marrakesh Express pulling in to Meknes. The train was immortalised in a track on Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 debut album which tells how on the journey "Ducks and pigs and chickens call". In a Rolling Stone interview Graham Nash explained that on the 1960s Marrakesh Express "Just like the song says, there were ducks and pigs and chickens all over the place and people lighting fires". As pigs are notably scarce in Muslim Morocco we must surmise that the lyric's reference to "Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my my, my, my, my mouth" describes something more potent than Marlboros.

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).

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Two roads diverged and I took the one less travelled

Éliane Radigue's electronic paeans to Tibetan Buddhism, Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila featured heavily in my iPod playlist for this road trip from Kalka to Leh in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in the north of India. As my photos show, the road climbs from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to reach the alpine desert of Ladakh - 'Little Tibet' - seen in the final photo below. En route the road crosses some of the highest passes in the world: three are over 15,000 feet with the highest, the Taglang La pass reaching 17,480 feet. The 500 mile drive took three long days on the road plus one rest day to acclimatise. For the final 300 miles between Manali and Leh the average altitude of the road is 11,000 feet, and it is only passable between May and October. Due to the altitude there is no permanent habitation for 200 miles from Jispa until the road enters Ladakh; the only services are temporary dhaba - road side eateries - such as the one seen in photo 9. This is the only overland route into Ladakh; it carries a continuous stream of petrol tankers and military vehicles as the region is of strategic importance because it borders both Pakistan and China. Many glacial streams cross the road - see photo 3 - and for much of the last 300 miles the road is unsurfaced and just one-and-a-half carriageways wide - see photo 17 - with no barriers to stop errant vehicles plunging down the mountainside.

For anyone who, like me, suffers from vertigo and dislikes being driven, the distraction of a well-stocked iPod is highly recommended for this journey. Unfortunately the only alternative way to travel in and out of Ladakh, which is a narrow plateau between the Himalaya and Karakoram mountains, is flying. This is how I returned and it is only slightly less nail biting than the overland journey. At an altitude of 11,500 feet Leh is one of the highest airports in the world and, because of nearby mountains, has one of the very few unidirectional runways. This means planes can only take-off and land in one direction irrespective of the wind direction. This compromises even further the ability of aircraft to climb quickly in the very thin air. Which is somewhat disconcerting when taking off from an airport surrounded by the world's highest mountains, and as a safety precaution the airport can only be used in the morning due to the strong mountains winds later in the day. Thankfully Leh airport has an excellent safety record; perhaps because there is no room for aircrews to relax - video via this link.

Frequent rusting wrecks below the road are salutary reminders that altitude sickness is not the only health risk on the overland route into Ladakh. 150,000 people die every year on India's roads and the Kalka to Leh route is largely inaccessible to ambulance crews. Kailasha, the second section of Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort, was written following the death of her son Yves Arman (her husband was the sculptor Arman) in - ironically - a car crash in Spain in 1989*. The work is a homage to Mount Kilash, the sacred mountain that in Tibetan cosmology is at the centre of the universe; pilgrims to Kailash are said to be able to enter the Buddhist 'pure land' of Shambala from the holy mountain. The Tibetan saint Milarepa who inspired Jetsun Mila described how in the vast empty spaces of the Himalayas the vortex of everyday life can be exchanged for boundless bliss. I travelled to Ladakh to experience the Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama; this is a Tantric initiation that uses visualisation and meditation to plant the seeds for practitioner to achieve enlightenment by being reborn in Shambala. For those unable to make a pilgrimage to this magical and mythical region great art - including great music and great poetry - can be the route to fleeting, if not boundless, bliss. But as Robert Frost told us, it means taking the path less travelled:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

* Those wishing to experience the fleeting glimpse of enlightenment offered by Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila will find samples online. Of particular interest is a short video of an al fresco performance of Trilogie de la Mort in 2011 at the Villa Arson contemporary art museum in France which is an excellent illustration of how classical music can attract new audiences by taking the road less travelled.

This photo essay is a revision of one originally published in July 2014. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2017. Any other copyrighted material n these pages is included for review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). My travel arrangements in India were made by the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust, but any views expressed in this post are strictly my own. Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Only what changes remains

Everything changes, the only truth.
Time invokes change,
not to change deliberately.
Only what changes remains.
Phoenix or harpy, the cutting edge of simplicity,
the gift of being simple.
The only truth: change.
That is Martha Graham in the photo and the stanza above is from the Catalan poet Mario Lucarda's Homenaje a Martha Graham. Contemporary Catalan composer Ramón Humet, who was championed by Jonathan Harvey, has set Mario Lucarda's homage to Martha Graham as nine songs. These settings are most definitely high-maintenance music, and Humet realised that the emotional intensity of his settings for soprano and piano militated against consecutive performance. So he composed ten complimentary Interludis Meditatius scored for Japanese shakuhachi flute and a percussion ensemble including xylophones, marimbas, bongos, crotales, temple block and wood chimes. The Interludis reflect Ramón Humet's deep interest in Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, and are stylistically linked to his percussion suites Four Zen Gardens and Garden of Haikus which were recorded in 2012 by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Nicholas Conlon for Neu Records, an innovative new independent label based in Barcelona.

Now Neu Records has recorded Ramon Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham with soprano Claron McFadden. Previous Overgrown Path posts have discussed the Catalan label's commitment to literally expanding the boundaries of recorded sound, and this lovingly packaged new 2 CD set captures Humet's shimmering sonic world in demonstration quality sound - listen here - with the bonus of downloads in HD FLAC Stereo and Surround 5.1. Mario Lucarda's poem resonates with Zen Buddhist doctrines, and a lineage extends from Martha Graham through her pupil Merce Cunningham to John Cage, whose music embraced change and impermanence. As Mario Lucarda points out, only what changes remains. Yet so much of the classical music industry's energy is devoted to resisting change and maintaining legacy business and creative practices. There is a smokescreen of change which is no more than tinkering with cosmetics, while the fundamental problems of celebrity culture, oversupply and a grossly imbalanced reward structure are tacitly protected. This outstanding new release by Ramon Humet, Mario Lucarda and Neu Records reminds us that the only truth is change. The classical music industry should take note.

Ramón Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham was a requested review sample. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Reluctantly also on Facebook and Twitter.