Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Is HRTF the key to classical music's future?


Why is classical music failing to gain traction with a new audience? Is it because there are not enough women on the podium? Is it because male celebrity conductors are proto-lotharios? Is it because classical music does not attract enough Facebook likes? Or is it because of a growing disconnect between the sonic expectations of the new younger audience and a standard concert hall sound defined by 19th century conventions?

There is now a strong case for at least giving serious consideration to the role played by that sonic disconnect. In 2018 the UK video games market reached a value of £3.864 billion ($4.859 billion), making it larger than the combined video home entertainment and music markets. Sound, as well as graphics, is a key component of video games, and spatial sound enabled by digital technologies exploiting the Head-related transfer function (HRTF) is now widely used in games. HRTF is the response function imposed by the anatomical shape of the human ear which modifies how we hear sounds - see header diagram. By synthesizing the HTRF of an ear a two dimensional sound source - either from speakers or headphones - can be transformed into surround sound. Which is what happens in video games with spatial sound.

The video games market is overtaking the recorded music market. Which means virtually every potential new classical music audience member will have been conditioned by HRTF spatial sound before they hear a textbook classical stereo balance, yet alone enter a concert hall. The annual Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, which is the biggest tech show in the world, provides important pointers to how digital technologies will reshape home entertainment. One of the standouts at the 2019 CES was Sony's 360 Reality Audio concept technology which takes HRTF one step further by adding a height dimension.

The ascendancy of spatial sound has two important implications for classical music. The first is that the new target audience will have sonic expectations considerably at variance with the de facto sonic standard of proscenium arch stereo imposed on classical recordings and concerts. (Some notable exceptions exploiting spatial sound have been covered here in the past: notably Neu Records recordings of Ramón Humet's music and Aeon's of Jonathan Harvey's Quartets.) As the two channel physical media of CD falls by the wayside and streaming and downloading become the norm for music delivery, so the opportunity for spatial and multi-channel sound increases.

But the biggest opportunity for HRTF technologies is in the concert hall itself. Any concert hall, whether acoustically 'good' or 'bad', modifies the 'true' sound of an orchestra to a considerable extent. An acoustically 'perfect' traditional hall such as Vienna's Musikverein modifies the sound passively with reflective materials to conform with conventions dating from the 19th century. So using digital technologies to shape concert hall sound to meet changing sonic expectations is not heretical. Because the only 'true' sound of an orchestra is what would be heard if the musicians played in an anechoic chamber where the sound is uncompromisingly and unacceptably dead.

But the mantra of classical music is that it does not want digital technologies messing with its concert hall sound. Which is a bit rich coming from an industry with a business model predicated on low-resolution MP3 technology. Although still sneered at by purists, digital sound-shaping solutions by Meyer Audio and others have already proved their worth in the concert environment. Taking digital sound-shaping one step further using HRTF protocols offers huge potential. Remember, digital sound-shaping is a flexible technology that can be used in existing auditoriums without modifying bricks and mortar. So spatially-enhanced sound can be provided at a flick of a switch for new audiences. But more importantly, the sound of existing acoustically 'problematic' halls such as London's Barbican and Festival Halls can be beneficially enhanced at a minute fraction of the cost of the new breed of designer concert halls. Which, with London's new Simon Rattle Hall still being debated and the 'acoustically perfect' Elbphilharmonie currently experiencing an emperor's new clothes moment, is not something to be overlooked.

Image credit was Soumyasch via Wikipedia. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Friday, January 11, 2019

Music as a window into diverse cultures


Classical music faces massive funding pressures as traditional sources of finance dry up. So it is puzzling that when making the case for music funding and music education, the value of art music as a window into diverse cultures is all too often seriously undersold. One of the pioneers of music as a window into diverse cultures has been the Catalan viol maestro and all-round music animateur Jordi Savall. His latest essay in the genre is the 'Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam' project which has just been released as a lavish double CD book and disc package.

Jordi Savall's Ibn Battuta chronicles in music the travels of the Muslim Moroccan scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/1369) during which he covered 75,000 miles journeying across Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. With music ranging from Moroccan taksim through Hindustani raga to traditional music from China's Shandong province, this is a typically impressive Jordi Savall survey of music from diverse cultures. But 'Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam' also provides a revealing window into how art music is now forced to compromise by the demands of contemporary culture.

These compromises take on two dimensions in the Ibn Battuta project. The first are the production compromises dictated by commercial reality. In the past Jordi Savall followed the traditional model used by the whole classical industry of scheduling concert performances and audience free recording sessions in tandem - a win/win approach which meant efficient use of rehearsal time delivered a concert performance and a separate audience-free recording session. But today financial pressures mean that the majority of classical recordings are made at concert performances. (I deliberately avoid the BBC Radio 3 terminology of 'live performances' as, thankfully, 'dead performances' are still comparatively rare.) For the Ibn Battuta project the compromises exerted by recording concert performances become a double whammy as the two CDs were recorded with a two year gap in venues more than 3000 miles apart and with markedly different acoustics .

CD1, which contains the bulk of the Islamic content, was recorded in November 2014 in the Emirates Palace Auditorium in Abu Dhabi. This auditorium is part of a 5+ star hotel owned by the Kempinski Group; it is a multi-purpose venue also used for conferences, with a seating capacity of 1100. Acoustic treatment was part of the lavish specification, but it proved to be a problematic recording venue. The instrumental sound is often boomy, and artificial reverberation is used on the voices but not the instruments. Moreover the quality of the reverberation suggests it was added via the hall PA rather than during mixing. The performance captured in Abu Dhabi includes several Jordi Savall standards and the musicians are his 'A' team including Driss El Maloumi, Dmitri Psonis, Waed Bouhasson and, of course, Jordi himself. Unfortunately the performances on CD1 often compare unfavourably with the same pieces recorded by the same musicians for previous releases in more auspicious circumstances.

These acoustic compromises are compounded by the use of narrations from Ibn Battuta's journal prefacing almost every number, which break up the flow of the music. And, bizarrely, the narrations on Disc 1 are in English and Arabic, and in French on Disc 2. Unfortunately these compromises seem to have affected the musicians, as the music on CD1 rarely takes flight in the way we have come to expect from Jordi Savall projects. The delay in release and different recording venues also suggests this project did not have an easy gestation. My criticism of the sound quality of CD1 is based on auditioning the hi-resolution SACD layer via a high-end audio system, and the shortcomings will not be so apparent with less revealing systems. However, this is not the first time I have voiced concerns about production compromises on Jordi Savall releases.

Fortunately CD2 of 'Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam' fares much better. This takes the explorer to Afghanistan, India, China, Granada, Mali and finally back to Morocco where he died. CD2 was recorded in November 2016 again at a concert performance, but in the more familiar environment of la Cité de la Musique-Philharmonie in Paris. The instrumental and vocal sound is more focussed, and although the narrations are still there - in French this time - they are less intrusive. The musicians also seem more comfortable on familiar ground, and Daud Sadozai (sarod) and Prabhu Edouard's (tabla) rendering of the raga Muddugare Yashoda is particularly noteworthy.

The second uncomfortable accommodation forced on the Ibn Battuta project is the compromise between principle and practice. On An Overgrown Path has for many years championed Jordi Savall's both as a musician and humanitarian. But in 2014 I expressed my concern about him forming an artistic alliance with Abu Dhabi. My post quoted an assessment by Human Rights Watch of very worrying humanitarian problems in the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital. The situation has not improved in the intervening years, with Human Rights Watch's latest assessment reading as follows:

The United Arab Emirates’ intolerance of criticism continued in 2017 with the detention of prominent Emirati rights defender Ahmed Mansoor for exercising his right to free expression. The government arbitrarily detains and forcibly disappears individuals who criticize authorities. The UAE continued to play a leading role in the Saudi-led coalition, which has conducted scores of unlawful attacks in Yemen. The UAE was implicated in detainee abuse at home and abroad. Labor abuses persist. Migrant construction workers face serious exploitation. The UAE introduced a domestic workers law providing them labor rights for the first time, but some provisions are weaker than those accorded to other workers under the labor law.The UAE continued to ban representatives of international human rights organizations from visiting.
The admirably comprehensive documentation for Ibn Battuta contains a two page contribution from the Culture Sector: Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority which is effectively a message from the project's sponsor. (Elsewhere the Abu Dhabi Authority is listed as one of four project partners.) Also in the booklet is an essay from the dissident Moroccan author and Nobel nominee Tahar Ben Joullon. In it he states that "Today, the dazzling Arab world [Ibn Battuta] described is mired in decadence on every front". Ben Joullon proceeds to decry humanitarian standards in Syria, Iraq and Iran, but fails to mention the United Arab Emirates at all, despite Ibn Battuta visiting the Gulf on his travels. It is foolish to take the idealist high ground while ignoring the commercial pressures of contemporary reality. Of course one of the compromises that artists must make today is accepting support from ethically-challenged sponsors, and without UAE funding Jordi Savall's commendable Ibn Battuta project would almost certainly never have happened. But that does not mean inconvenient truths should simply be swept under the carpet.

Ibn Battuta was bought at Presto Music for £10 less than the Amazon price. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

John Joubert's homage to victims of apartheid


Composer John Joubert has died at the age of 91. In 2011 his Second Symphony made a surprise appearance in the Gramophone specialist classical chart. Below is my appreciation of the Symphony written at that time.
'My new Symphony - for that is what it eventually turned out to be - would serve as a memorial to the victims of the [Sharpeville massacre] in which eighty-three people were shot dead by the police while taking part in a peaceful demonstration against the notorious Pass Laws, the hated symbol of black subjection to white supremacy. I was also influenced by the example of Shostakovich's own memorial to the victims of political oppression in the shape of his Eleventh Symphony, which so movingly commemorates the dead of the 1905 Revolution in which another peaceful demonstration was turned into a massacre. But where Shostakovich uses Russian political songs as symphonic material, I resolved to make use of three African melodies to give my work a similar sense of urgency and immediacy of purpose.'
That is John Joubert writing in the notes for the Dutton release of his Second Symphony. Born in Cape Town a white South African, Joubert moved to England in 1946 where he made his home. His Second Symphony was given its premiere in London in 1971 with Joubert conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and was immediately banned in South Africa by the government controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation. The ban was only lifted following the intervention of Nelson Mandela in the mid 1990s.

Do not be misled by the composer's reference to African melodies. This is not a cosy folksy work, rather it is a gritty and angry statement that proudly displays its debt to Shostakovich and Walton. Conductor Martin Yates and the underrated Royal Scottish National Orchestra are passionate advocates of Joubert's music and the coupling includes a little known gem in the form of Carlo Martelli's Fourth Symphony. And on a disc where the planets well and truly align, the Dutton production team use the acoustic of the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow to prove that for some the sound does still matter.



Elsewhere in his note John Joubert, seen above, explains that inspiration for the Second Symphony came from Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. This novel, which was written shortly before apartheid was implemented in South Africa, is a protest against the attitudes that institutionalised racism. Cry the Beloved Country was banned by South Africa's press censors due to its subject matter; it was first published in America in 1948 and went on to sell 15 million copies before Paton's death in 1988.


New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, January 07, 2019

More than one way to challenge music comfort zones


Surveying recent commissions for the BBC Proms and elsewhere shows that new classical music is getting shorter. The cynical explanation is that these brief commissions are simply token gestures that avoid challenging music comfort zones for any longer than absolutely necessary. A less cynical view is that shorter durations are a reflection of shortening attention spans. The explanation is probably a combination of both these factors; but whatever the reason the marginalisation of long form contemporary music is a disturbing trend.

John Cage is revered, but, perversely, we do not practise what he preached. He famously declared that “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all”. But in today's online culture, if we find something boring after ten seconds, we simply click away to find something that delivers the holy grail of instant gratification. This preeminence of what Buddhists call the monkey mind means important long form music is being overlooked, because our cultural conditioning now automatically prompts the judgement that short is good and long bad.

Two masters of long form music are seen at work in the two images. The one above is a still from a one hour eleven minute video of a 2014 live performance by Robert Rich broadcast on KFJC 89.7 FM at Foothill College, in Los Altos CA - view the YouTube video via this link. Below is a still from a documentary portrait of Eliane Radigue. Her two hour forty-nine minute composition Trilogie De La Mort can be heard via this link.

The music of both Eliane Radigue and Robert Rich has been influenced by Buddhism. Non-duality is central to both Buddhism and to other perennial wisdom traditions. The difficult to grasp concept of non-duality can be illustrated by the metaphor of a glass that is either half full or half empty. An individual decides which of these descriptions applies to a particular situation and then bases their behaviour on that decision. For instance, when listening to a piece of music a glass half full judgement welcomes the work to the listeners comfort zone, while a half empty judgement consigns it to oblivion in the 'too challenging for comfort' trash bin. But in reality, and this is the non-dualist view, the glass is both half empty and half full. In music terms the work exists both inside and outside the listeners comfort zone. Or in other words, the concept of comfort zones is a profoundly unhelpful illusion.

The teaching that after thirty-two minutes repetitive music is no longer boring can be extended to posit that after thirty-two minutes any challenging music becomes significantly less challenging. On average U.S. adults spend three hours and 48 minutes a day on computers, tablets and smartphones. Devoting 32 minutes of that time - just 14% of total screen time - to exploring long form music via the two links above is a small price to pay for exploring the seductive world of non-duality.




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Saturday, January 05, 2019

Fake news is free


In her recent virulently anti-HMV polemic in the Guardian's 'Comment is free' column Penny Anderson wrote that "smaller shops will survive", a message reflected in the subheadline of "Thankfully, small record shops will continue to serve true music fans". That is the fiction. My photographs show the facts. The one above was taken at a signing session and impromptu recital by Jordi Savall in Prelude Records, Norwich, one of the best smaller, traditional boutique record shops in the UK. Below is a photograph taken yesterday at exactly the same place. It shows the kitchen area of the Al Dente pasta bar that took over the premises when Prelude was forced out of business by predatory online competition. Al Dente's pasta is actually very good. But it can never replace the kind of nourishment that Prelude Records and countless other bricks and mortar record stores - including HMV - once provided.


New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).