Saturday, February 09, 2019

Different trains for different brains

W. Somerset Maughan's novel The Razor's Edge, which takes its title from a quotation* out of the Vedantic scripture the Katha Upanishad, contains the following passage:
Nothing in the world is permanent, and we're foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we're still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy. We can none of us step into the same river twice, but the river flows on and the other river we step into is cool and refreshing too.
Impermanence is also a central tenet of Buddhism and the image shows the CD 'Prayers to the Protector', a collaboration between ambient pioneer Steve Roach and Tibetan Buddhist monk Thupten Pema Lama. That distinctive artwork uses the graphic 'Diagram of Neural Net Microchip' from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Mandala of Raktayamari from Tibet dated c.1400.

'Prayers to the Protector', which juxtaposes Buddhist chants with ambient electronics, was created, to quote the sleeve essay, because "Thupten Pema Lama felt that Westerners and young monks taking [Tibetan Buddhist] into the 21st century would benefit from hearing [the chants] in an updated setting". For those readers not interested in the metaphysical context, think different trains for different brains. The album was released in 2000 on the Celestial Harmonies label; a biography of the labels's visionary founder Eckart Rahn can be read via this link. An earlier post quoted Steve Roach as explaining that the essence of music is what is felt when it ends and returns to silence. Which is appropriate, as On An Overgrown Path now returns to silence as I am travelling to the East again.

* The quotation, which was translated by Christopher Isherwood, is "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to 'enlightenment' is hard". Comment moderation will now be delayed. 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, February 08, 2019

Is Mahler's Ninth Symphony an enjoyable experience?

Facebook scandals are now a daily occurence and yesterday's centred on allegations that the social network restricts the breadth of news feeds. The allegations, which have substance, prompted an explanation from Ramya Sethuraman, a product manager at Facebook, that their algorithms filter newsfeed content because “The goal of News Feed is to show you the posts that matter to you so that you have an enjoyable experience". Which given the pivotal role of Facebook and other social media in shaping people's worldview - 43% of US adults source news from Facebook - raises the important question of is there not more to life than enjoyable experiences?

Having our culture shaped by algorithms coded by a bunch of nerds in Menlo Park to deliver "an enjoyable experience" is obviously very undesirable. For instance, are those closing minutes of Mahler's Ninth Symphony which leave the listener hovering miraculously between hope and anguish an enjoyable experience? I contend that no sensitive mortal can judge the journey taken by Mahler in the symphony enjoyable. But I also contend that no sensitive mortal should live without experiencing the symphony. But in the dystopian near-future when we all live in social media controlled filter bubbles, will we be allowed to experience Mahler's great symphony, or other artworks that fail to meet the 'enjoyable experience' criteria?

In the final minutes of Mahler's Ninth Symphony the polarities of hope and desperation are fused into a single disturbing beauty. There are many notable recordings of the symphony in my library; notably those by Bruno Maderna and Bruno Walter. But for me Mahler's musical alchemy is best expressed in Sir John Barbirolli's recording of the symphony for EMI. So at this point I will let Barbirolli's biographer Michael Kennedy take up the story.

A greater triumph awaited [Barbirolli] in January 1963 when he conducted Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Mahler was not often played in Berlin, and the [Berlin Philharmonic] orchestra frankly confess that they did not particularly like his music - 'but,' said one of the principals, 'Sir John made us love it as much as he did himself and we played it as he wanted.' So well, indeed, that a leading Berlin critic wrote: 'Not since Furtwängler have we heard such human warmth and soul combined with superb musicianship'. The orchestra themselves asked that Barbirolli should record the symphony with them, the first English conductor to record with the Berlin Philharmonic since Beecham in 1937. During the cold January of 1964 this famous recording was made in the Jesus-Christuskirche, in the suburb of Dahlem.
"Not since Furtwängler have we heard such... superb musicianship" is high praise indeed, but it is justified. On my copy of the original 1989 CD transfer the superb musicianship of Barbirolli and his Berlin players is complemented by quite superb sound, for which credit must go to EMI staff producer Robert Kinloch Anderson and an unknown balance engineer. When auditioned on a high-end audio system the sound has that intangible sonic ground that is lacking in so many recent recordings. Digital technology is usually blamed for the audible differences between analogue and modern recording, but the impact of changes in the front end of the recording chain where the signal is still in the analogue domain - microphones and line input amplifiers - is invariably overlooked. Modern microphones sound appreciably different to gold standards of the past such as the Neumann U67 and U47. But whether modern microphones sound 'better' or 'worse' is, like so much in the black art of recording, a subjective judgement. The CD of Sir John Barbirolli's Berlin Mahler Ninth is still available. So hurry and buy it before the pervasive tastemaking algorithms bury it alive beneath layers of more enjoyable but infinitely less rewarding musical experiences.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Today's koan - what is classical music?

During an amicable discussion on my recent post 'Meditation music has gone mainstream' reader John Blackburn posted the following comment:
Having just listened to Steve Roach's "Structures From Silence" for the first time after reading your earlier mention, I must say I see little connection between these atmospheric sounds and what I'd call "classical music", other than a long-form aural experience. I created a good deal of similar electronic mood music years ago in grad school and appreciate the technical aspects of its creation, but I also appreciate the simplicity with which a few sounds/ideas can be drawn out from seconds to minutes to hours through layered editing—all of which seems antithetical to classical music, in my opinion. This is not to criticize "Structures From Silence", but simply to express my surprise at finding it in a list intending in any way to link it to classical music. Tomatoes, tomahtoes, perhaps.
John's thoughtful comment raises the important question of what is classical music? But it is not really a question, more a koan - a problem without a solution. Because there is no clear definition of what we should properly call Western classical music. Which means each of us has our own definition, and these are no more than a personal expectations. On An Overgrown Path is a personal blog so the ten compositions featured as music for meditation were personal choices defined by my own unique definition of classical music. This definition differs from John Blackburn's and doubtless from every other reader's. So let me explain my personal definition and how I arrived at it.

For many years ago the traditional definition of classical music was a white male conducting white male musicians in music by dead white male composers. That stereotype has, thankfully, changed, and classical music is now less patriarchal and somewhat more inclusive. However the changes have been nuanced rather than radical. I have, of course, welcomed these nuanced changes, but my personal definition has shifted far more radically. Because I came to realise that music beyond that conventionally defined as Western classical could transport me from the temporal to the transcendent in the same way as the masterworks of the Western canon. Which led to my personal definition of classical music as any music that does not have pure entertainment as its primary intent.

Music from beyond the Western classical tradition that lacks the exposition, development, and recapitulation structure of the sonata form can be very effective at expanding consciousness; which is why Indian classical music became very popular in the 1960s. When writing the meditation music post I was aware that some respected meditation teachers reject music as a meditation tool. This is a viewpoint I respect: because the structured development of a Western classical work draws the listener along with it, thereby preventing the mind from settling. But personally I have found music that eschews the orthodox structure of classical music, such as that of Steve Roach, Éliane Radigue (CD above) and Robert Rich, beneficial in meditation - instead of following the cyclical patterns of the music replaces following the breath.

Long-term readers will know that over the years my interest in classical music from outside the Western tradition has deepened. So I have shared my enthusiasm here for music from, among other wisdom traditions, Hinduism, the Bahá'í faith, Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Judaism, the Gnawa, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the Cathars. But one of the profound disappointments for me has been that despite the exponential growth of online resources and professed ambitions to make our society more diverse, there has been no increase in acceptance of diverse music cultures. In fact the reverse has happened, largely due to the platform provided by social media. Just one example comes from the Slipped Disc website, which self-describes as "the world’s most-read cultural website". My enthusiasm for sharing the richness of Sufi music prompted a comment approved for publication on "the world’s most-read cultural website" describing me as a blogger who, I quote, "soft-peddles [sic] Islamism/Jihadism".

Unlike sticks and stones, words will never hurt me. But, sadly, with social media defining the zeitgeist, words like those of the Slipped Disc reader are defining classical music. Less offensive but still indicative of the cultural zeitgeist was this comment added recently by 'Southern Violinist' to my 2013 post about the Zen ritual with Buddhist sutras and prayers alternating with percussion sequences by Stomu Yamasht'ta seen above.
I listened to this "contemporary masterpiece." As Zen music it might be great, but the problem with calling this classical music is that it has zero continuity with the great Western tradition. All of the pieces of classical music that are today considered classics may have had new elements or style, but there was a continuity with the past. There are MANY opportunities for composers today to contribute, if they would stop trying to discard the past, demonize Western history and culture, and incorporate Buddhism or Hinduism or some other religious or philosophical system which is foreign to us.
Dhammapada by the Anglo-Indian composer and London Philharmonic violinist John Mayer (see header image) incorporates "foreign" Buddhist influences; while the Quintet for Sarod and String Quartet (seen below) bravely commissioned by the Medici Quartet from the Muslim sarod master Wajahat Khan exhibits "foreign" Hindustani influences. Does this mean they are not part of the Western classical tradition? The comments from the Slipped Disc reader and Southern Violinist are just more extreme manifestations of a contemporary culture in which a passionate inquisitiveness about diversity has been replaced by passive obeisance to the socially prescribed blueprint.

A pond is dead water unless it has a stream of new water flowing in. Music circumscribed by the accepted classical comfort zone, Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich etc, is very well covered by other music blogs, and just wait until Beethoven 250 starts. By contrast composers who honestly seek to do different receive little coverage. Claude Levi-Strauss remarked that humankind 'had opted for monoculture'. Nowhere is that more true today than in classical music, with the same few composers being played by the same few celebrity musicians in very similar designer concert halls. So in reaction against this, over the years and for better or for worse, On An Overgrown Path has echoed Carl Nielsen in demanding '...Give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional'. It is that maxim more than anything which has shaped my personal definition of classical music.

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Monday, February 04, 2019

Please do not clap between movements

No; before the comments start flooding in, that injunction to not clap between movements does not come from me. It was displayed on two large boards at either side of the platform during Bombay Symphony Orchestra concerts; it was there on the orders of the orchestra's co-founder Mehli Mehta to explain Western concert etiquette to Indian audiences*. That is Mehli Mehta in the photo: born in Bombay in 1908, he founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1935 with the Belgian conductor Jules Craen. But after Mehta moved to America in 1945 the orchestra struggled to survive and finally ceased performing in 1955. Mehli Mehta went on to have a distinguished career in England and America: in Manchester he was concertmaster of the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, in Philadelphia he was a member of the Curtis Quartet, and he founded the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles. Like his son Zubin, Mehli Mehta was a member of the Parsi faith.

Fifty-one years after the Bombay Symphony Orchestra ceased playing the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) was created in Mumbai - formerly Bombay. The SOI is a full scale, professional orchestra of musicians from both India and abroad, and has worked with distinguished international musicians both at its home in the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai and on tour. This success has been achieved despite not inconsiderable challenges. The SOI is self-financing and receives no government financial support. It has had difficulty recruiting Indian musicians of the required standard, which has resulted in criticism of the number of 'embedded' foreign musicians. Also its attendances are drawn primarily from the minority Parsi and Catholic communities, and the orchestra has struggled to appeal to the core Indian market acculturated with the Hindustani classical tradition.

But despite these challenges the Symphony Orchestra of India is a remarkable achievement. This month it comes to the UK on tour giving concerts in England, Scotland and Wales conducted by its associate music director Zane Dalal Martyn Brabbins. For the Birmingham Symphony Hall (Feb 19) and London Cadogan Hall (Feb 20) concerts the orchestra is joined by Zakir Hussain to play the tabla virtuoso's Peshkar, concerto for tabla, which was a SOI commission. I would very much like to have been at one of those concerts. Not only because Zakir Hussain is one of my musician heroes. But also because I want to know whether there are two large boards either side of the platform. But, sadly I cannot be there. Because, ironically, I will be on the Indian subcontinent.

* The anecdote providing my headline comes from Bakhtiar K. Dadabhoy's authorised biography Zubin Mehta: A Musical Journey. This invaluable book has been overlooked in the Western media, presumably because it was published by Penguin India. My copy was bought in the priceless Full Circle Bookshop in Khan Market, New Delhi. Ironically Bakhtiar Dadabhoy observes at the end of the anecdote "This is something newcomers to Western classical musc in India still need to be educated about". Important background on Bombay/Mumbai's symphony orchestras is also contained in the article A Symphony Orchestra in Bombay on the Interlude website. 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).

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Listening to music can be a meditation in itself

Below is a useful contribution to my meditation music thread. It comes from the much-missed Pauline Oliveros writing in her book Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice. It is of particular interest because not only does it legitimize the link between serious listening and meditation, but it also extends that practice to sounds beyond those conventionally considered 'musical'. This opens meditative listening to genres that received wisdom places outside the 'classical' canon such as the ambient electro/acoustic compositions of Robert Rich and Steve Roach which featured in earlier posts. (I will return to the thorny question of what is classical music? in the near future).
Deep listening is a form of meditation. Attention is directed to the interplay of sounds and silences or the sound/silence continuum. Sound is not limited to musical or speaking sounds, but is inclusive of all perceptible vibrations (sonic formations). The relationship of all perceptible sounds is important. The practice is intended to expand consciousness to the whole space/time continuum of sound/silences. Deep Listening is a process that extends the listener to this continuum as well as to focus instantaneously on a single sound (engagement to targeted detail) or sequences of sound/silence. In order to acquire the discipline and control that meditation develops, relaxation as well as concentration is essential. The practice of Deep Listening is intended to facilitate creativity in art and life through this form of meditation. Creativity means the formation of new patterns, exceeding the limitations and boundaries of old patterns, or using old patterns in new ways.
Meditation teachers with considerably more authority on the subject than me advise that music and meditation do not mix. For instance the Wildmind Buddhist site takes the view that "So-called meditation music... is a kind of crutch that hinders our practice rather than helping it". But the site goes on to say rather ambiguously: "However, focusing on music is fine, and I wholeheartedly suggest that you try doing that, but I also suggest that you try doing it at a time when you’re not meditating. I’d... suggest that listening to music, if done properly, can be a meditation in itself". Crucially the author Bodhipaksa, who featured here recently in another context, goes on to explain:
Listening to music as a meditation practice can be a very powerful practice. As I became more familiar with the experience of the dhyanas (Pali, jhanas), which are very concentrated, calm, and blissful states of meditation, I realized that I’d been experiencing these states for years while listening to western classical music. And I’ve found that I can experience all of the dhyanas while treating music as a meditation object.
In other traditions such as Sufism meditative trance empowered by music expands consciousness. As has been recounted here, it has been my privilege to experience the power of meditative trance in the dhikr of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order and an all-night Gnawa lila. Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening practice shares with the teachings of the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, whose teachings were influenced by Sufism, the ambition of expanding consciousness. So the piano works created by Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann, which include tableaux depicting Rituals of a Sufi Order, should be included in my recommended music for meditation.

Notable 'Gurdjieff's greatest hits' albums have been made for ECM by Keith Jarrett and by Frederic Chiu for Centaur. The pioneering exploration of the complete Gurdjieff/de Hartmann œuvre by the recently departed Alain Kremski is deleted and fetching a premium. So those wanting to take the completist route are referred to African American pianist Cecil Lytle's six CD traverse for Celestial Harmonies of the complete piano works of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann. Celestial Harmonies is often quite wrongly dismissed as a New Age label. However, I am a big fan of theirs. Not just because in addition to the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann blockbuster they released the invaluable 17 CD Music of Islam anthology. But also because the Celestial Harmonies' website carries this quote from Massimo Vignelli: "Believe, express and defend your responsibility towards society of not producing cultural trash".

With thanks to pianist and teacher Frances Wilson for the email which sparked this post. 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).