Saturday, September 15, 2018

What do I believe?

I'm sure of very little. I think the core teachings [of Gautama Buddha] are deeply relevant to our hurried, fragmented world, but reincarnation strikes me as unlikely and I don't see the point of Awakening if it's beyond plain human experience. I'm deeply inspired by the Buddha but don't call myself a Buddhist, mainly because I don't identify with any establishment, and don't want to.

What do I believe? That we have an instinct for right and wrong, and push it aside when inconvenient. That the more deeply we're motivated by emotion, the more insistently we pass it off as reason. That denial is a force to be reckoned with, and our principal obstacle. That ethical codes are as likely to produce hypocrisy as goodness. That belief is precarious, especially when it demands certainty. That no religious, scientific or academic faithful can be trusted that can't laugh at itself. That the only way to respect truth is to take it with a pinch of salt. That life leads nowhere until we consciously take the direction it provides. ... If I've learned one thing it's that the pursuit of truth has more to do with letting go of certainty than finding it.
That divulgence, with its parallels with Krishnamurti's teachings, comes from Stephen Schettini's memoir The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Mink, Why I Quit & What I Learned, which is more a repository of wisdom than a book. Header graphic is the forgotten Robert Rich's 2 CD album Trances & Drones, which includes the 22 minute track Sunyata (Emptiness). Its cover painting is by Hikmet Barut├žugil, the calligraphy by Abdul Fu'ad. And that is it from On An Overgrown Path for now; take care.

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

I'm picking up good vibrations


There is no doubt that classical concerts are becoming noisier. Concert recordings from the past, e.g. Sir Adrian Boult's Elgar First Symphony at a 1976 Prom - which I attended - or Bruno Maderna's 1971 Festival Hall Mahler Nine - I was at his subsequent Proms performance - with their quiescent audiences provide a stark contrast to the BBC Radio 3 relays of this year's Proms. Not only do we now have the the mindless dribbles of applause between movements, but coughing and other noises off have become de rigeur during the music as well as between it. Not to mention the frantic outbursts by Radio 3's talking heads immediately before and after the music. And on occasions, there are even contributions from mobile phones.

A useful perspective on the balance between the music and the audience is provided in the French Canadian sitar player and teacher Michel Guay's memoir Devenir Invincible. As recounted in my post Are you addicted? Ravi Shankar had strong views on the abuse of drugs. In the 1970s, Indian classical music was being popularised in North America, and it was not mobile phones but joints and chillums that appeared during concerts. So as Michel Guay recounts, Pandit Shankar prefaced a concert in Montreal with the following request:

Those who want to smoke should please go outside. Because for us the music is sacred and this concert is a moment of prayer. Thank you.
Today a 'pick and mix' attitude towards cultural diversity prevails. So we pick the morsels from different cultures that we feel comfortable with, and leave the less appetising morsels untouched. Which means that in our doggedly secular age, the Indian belief derived from Vedanta that music is a sacred bridge between the temporal and transcedent is firmly rejected. But the Serbian tabla player Srdjan Beronja, who studied in Ravi Shankar's birthplace Varanasi, has a different viewpoint. Here is an extract from his invaluable book The Art of the Indian Tabla:
In its basic purpose, music was always considered as a means to reach the Divine. Generally speaking, the purpose of music is not to entertain, accumulate material wealth, be an establishment tool of comply with politics or some other ideas. Its purpose is to comply with the laws of the universe as music is based on these laws. With music it is possible to achieve spiritual development, what is called atma-vidya or 'soul knowledge' in Sanskrit. A person needs to develop music in his atma (soul) and to achieve nada-vidya or'sound knowledge'.
Jazz producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt expands on the concept of music being based on the laws of the universe in his book The World in Sound: Nada Brahma. In it he explains that the only certain thing we know about fundamental matter is that it vibrates. Since all vibrations have a frequency they are therefore sound; so it can be proposed that the universe is music and should be perceived as such. Other visionaries, from the great Sufi musician and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan to the avant-garde composer Jonathan Harvey also accepted that Western realism and Eastern mysticism could be creatively combined. One of the many things that makes India so fascinating in the 21st century is this incongruous but effective juxtaposition of realism and mysticism. Just one example is the sales success of the books by Ruzbeh N. Bharucha, who is a devotee of the mystic Sai Baba of Shirdi. In the first book of Ruzbeh N. Bharucha's the Fakir trilogy the central character gives advice that may have its roots in the ancient Rig Veda, but which remains perennially relevant even in an age when analogue vibrations are rudely truncated into binary digits:
Every time you do something right, you help tilt the balance in favour of truth and that contribution affects the vibrations within the cosmos. Each one of us sending out the right vibrations can then help change the mindset of more and more people until the world throbs with positive vibrations and right actions. Each of us matters to providence and has a say in creation and evolution.
The header graphic is provided by the recent release Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971. This, like his anti-drug theatre piece 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch', comes from the the official label of the Ravi Shankar Foundation label East Meets West Music. It captures a morning concert at Pandit Shankar's home on Highland Avenue in Hollywood in June 1971, and the recording has never previously been released as the tapes were only recently discovered buried in the Shankar archive. The double CD captures the sitar master at the peak of his performing powers, but it also has a unique historic importance. The private concert took place as the tragic plight of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was emerging following the Bangladesh Liberation War-related genocide. Ravi Shankar is heard empathising with the Bangladeshi refugees, and George Harrison was in the audience. So Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971 can truthfully be billed as the first and previously unreleased concert for Bangladesh. The music affected the vibrations in the cosmos,and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Are you addicted?


The music theatre piece 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch' was premiered by Birmingham Touring Opera in 1989 but addresses a dilemma that remains disturbingly relevant three decades later. Ravi Shankar once said - "Get high on the music, it is enough" and he composed A Broken Branch to express his deep concern over youth culture’s preoccupation with drugs. A reformed drug pusher recently admitted "I don't know if I really understood the consequences...God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains". The pusher went on to explain that "We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while...it's a vulnerability in human psychology".

In 1989 Ravi Shankar's concern was with drugs as traditionally defined - substances giving a physiological effect. However the quotes above are from a pusher of a different drug, but one that delivers the same addictive dopamine hit. The quotes come from Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook. Medical science confirms that an addictive dopamine release is triggered by social media. With more than 2.2 billion Facebook users craving the dopamine high that comes when, to quote Sean Parker again, "someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever", and with those users spending on average 58 minutes each day on Facebook plus at least as much time again on other social media networks, that is a very large emerging addiction problem.

As with Ravi Shankar's Sitar Concertos and Symphony which were also composed for Western audiences, 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch' uses both Western and Eastern instruments. Although the sitar is central to the Concertos and Symphony, these large scale orchestral works are written in the Western classical idiom, and in my judgement are, as a result, among the less successful of Pandit Shankar's compositions. By contrast the smaller scale and far more engaging 'A Broken Branch' is firmly rooted in the Indian classical tradition. Ravi Shankar started his career dancing in his brother Uday Shankar’s troupe, and 'A Broken Branch' incorporates dance music in the North Indian Kathak and South Indian Bharatanatyam and Kathakali styles, with the signature sound of the sarangi, sitar and tabla judiciously leavened by violin, guitar and synthesizers. As the theatre piece unfolds, the central character Ghanashyam, an acclaimed Kathak dance teacher, becomes addicted to the highly potent strain of cannabis called ganja; his career is ruined and eventually he dies, as does his wife and fellow teacher Lalita.

Quite why this little gem is not better known is a mystery. 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch' was originally released on CD in the early 1990s in a version edited down to 60 minutes due to the then prevailing constraints of CD capacity. East Meets West Music, which is the official record label of the Ravi Shankar Foundation, has re-mastered the original tapes and restored twenty minutes of music for a notable and sadly overlooked CD re-release. Personally I have kicked the Facebook dopamine habit. But please feel free, if you want, to share news of this deserving release on social media. But if you don't want to share it there, that's no problem; just get high on the music, it is enough.

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Music in its perfection is not ostentatious


Vernon 'Tod' Handley, who died ten years ago today, was fond of quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds' dictum that 'Art in its perfection is not ostentatious'. In an uncharacteristically thoughtful tribute Norman Lebrecht wrote that;
Conductors are not famous for knowing their limitations, nor are they short on ambition. Tod belonged to a dying breed who rejected the American requirement that every maestro must be an all-rounder, performing Bach, Boulez and Beatles arrangements with equal serenity. He believed a conductor's duty was to deliver the music he felt most strongly about. He was the last specialist British conductor.
Today the chattering classes are tweeting about 'discovering' Charles Villiers Stanford following the performance of his amuse-bouche 'The Blue Bird' at the Last Night of the Proms. But in the 1980s Tod was recording a groundbreaking cycle of Stanford's seven symphonies, one of which had been conducted by Gustav Mahler, no less, in New York in 1910. It is a scandal that Tod never received the civic recognition in Britain that he so deserved. But his music making in all its unostentatious perfection - probably the greatest example is the cycle of Bax symphonies - will live on decades after the popular culture icons who fill today's civic lists are forgotten.

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Saturday, September 08, 2018

Randy Weston was both a great and wise musician

My very existence dictates that before the importance of music in my life comes pride as a black man; even if I didn't play music I'd still be fighting and striving for black people. Music has been a way for me to convey that struggle; I've been blessed, gifted by the Creator with the power of music. But before the music came tremendous pride, coupled with anger at what racism has done to my people. That foundation of dignity and strength comes from growing up in a segregated, racist society; growing up alongside people who were considered a 'minority'. I was endowed with the belief that 'I know no man is better than me', so as a result I grew up spiritual but irate at our collective condition as a people.
Jazz legend Randy Weston died on Sept. 1 aged 92, and that quote is taken from his autobiography African Rhythms. In the 1950s Randy Weston's trio was resident at the Music Inn resort in the Berkshires, where in those pre-filter bubble days the audience included Leonard Bernstein and musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The trio's bassist was the African American Sam Gill, who went on to become principal bass for the Denver Symphony. Randy Weston's later collaborations with gnawa musicians from Morocco meant that he appeared several times on the Overgrown Path. There have been many great musicians, but very few wise ones. Randy Weston was both a great and a wise musician, as this very relevant extract from African Ryhythms shows:
The Sufi teaches us that the music is the first thing that changes. When you have ordinary times you get ordinary music, and everything follows the ordinary music. When you have a creative time, that's when you have the powerful, creative music, not just here but all over the world. But when the music changes, when you get the junk and things are copied, you get an ordinary society.
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