Monday, November 12, 2018

We shall not cease from exploration

My photographs show the Monastery of St. John the Theologian at Preveli which I visited on my recent travels on the south coast of Crete. As explained in an earlier post, on this trip noise cancelling headphones provided me with a concert hall without walls. On my playlist was Vangelis' Rapsodies, an album I chanced upon during recent explorations of arcane electronica. Rapsodies is loosely based on Greek Orthodox liturgical chant and was the second album Vangelis cut with Irene Papas providing vocals. Better known as an actress, Irene Papas' credits include The Guns of Navarone, Michael Cacoyannis' Zorba the Greek and Costa-Gavras' legendary Z. One of her final screen appearances was in 2001 in Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Rapsodies was released in Greece four years after it was recorded in 1982 and had to wait until 2007 for a pan-European release. Polydor's hesitancy in marketing the album reflected a justified nervousness about its merit. There is good music, bad music, and music worth exploring despite its flaws, with Rapsodies falling into the latter category. Some explorations open new vistas, others end in blind alleys. But exploring music's blind alleys is more worthwhile than succumbing to the herd instinct of the the online zeietgeist. Because to misquote Carl Nielsen, listening to something different, indeed something bad, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional, can provide fresh perspectives on the familiar. As T.S. Eliot explains in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

My thanks go to Panos in Agios Nikolaos, whose invaluable online music store led me down this path. I do not have social media accounts. But 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).

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Is this the concert hall of the future?

In recent years classical music has been involved in an increasingly frantic hunt for a big, new and younger audience. But there is a cogent argument that classical music cannot have its big new audience cake while continuing to eat the dogma of concert halls controlled by 19th century sonic conventions.

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 the new Elbphilharmonie modifies the sound passively with reflective materials to conform with conventions dating from the 19th century. So why is modifying the sound actively using digital technologies to conform with a a new set of 21st century conventions unacceptable?

Using digital technologies to shape concert hall sound is not heretical. The only 'true' sound of an orchestra is what would be heard if the musicians played in an anechoic - acoustically dead - chamber. And anyone who has spent time in an anechoic chamber - which includes me in the now demolished EMI Central Research Lab facility at Hayes - will know that the sound heard there is uncompromisingly and unacceptably dead. Those who have not been inside an anechoic chamber should watch this YouTube video from 2' 40", preferably wearing headphones.

My recent post What next for Indian classical music? included a contribution from sarodist and faculty member at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay Avradeep Pal. Last year when Avradeep was carrying out post-doctoral research at Delft University I discussed with him the role of amplification in the usually conservative world of Indian classical music. Avradeep, who is something of a music purist, explained that amplification is universally accepted in Indian classical music. He went on to say that this ubiquitous amplification has not driven away the traditional core audience; moreover and crucially, it has played a significant role in the revival of the Indian classical tradition among young audiences. Can the Western tradition afford to ignore the experience of its Eastern cousin?

Avradeep Pal concluded his contribution on the fundamental changes in Hindustani music by observing that "I see this as a start of a completely new chapter in Indian classical music". In a similar way Western classical music is starting a completely new chapter. Historic business models and, crucially, music delivery platforms have been fatally disrupted by new digital technologies. Sony only introduced its first Walkman portable cassette player in 1979, yet mobile listening is now the primary method of music consumption and streaming is the preferred method of delivery.

Classical music's target audience is the head-fi generation whose expectations are defined by a new and radically different sonic conventions. Yet live classical music remains inflexibly wedded to centuries old sonic conventions. Which means digitally sound shaped performance spaces such as the San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox seen in the photo above the exception rather than the rule.

Why is the concert hall viewed, quite wrongly, as a technology-free zone? Quite wrongly, because, the 'perfect' acoustic of the highly-acclaimed Elbphilharmonie is the product of digital technology. Algorithm controlled parametric design was used to specify the 10,000 gypsum fiber acoustic panels that create the hall's signature sound. And the wooden Schalldeckel hood that Wagner specified for his Bayreuth Festpielhaus to cover the orchestra pit is both a screen to prevent the audience seeing the orchestra and a low-tech surround sound solution that blends instruments and voices to create the unique, but nevertheless artificially contrived, Bayreuth acoustic

I am not a philistine arguing for the death of the traditional concert hall, and I have written at length here about the sonic excellence of my local concert hall, Snape Maltings. But tinkering with cosmetic conventions such as informal concert dress and mobile phone programme notes has had no significant impact on the classical demographic. This post does not advocate indiscriminately amplifying Western classical music. But it does argue that the art form now needs to get real and choose between one of two options. If classical music really wants a new younger audience it must start to selectively adopt the 'up close and personal' sonic argot of that generation. If changing historically informed acoustic conventions is not acceptable, the classical tradition should focus on its current and basically static audience; which means revising current fiscal and mass market ambitions dramatically downwards.

Photo via San Francisco Symphony press office. I do not have social media accounts. But 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).

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Where have all the nuances gone?

That evocative photo shows Wolfgang Zuckermann (right) with fellow harpsichord artisan Marc Ducornet. It was taken in Paris around 1978 and Marc sent it to me in response to my tribute to Wolfgang Zuckermann who has died at the age of 96. In that tribute I touched on the pivotal difference between passive engagement online and active engagement in the real world, and on the website of his Paris atelier Marc develops that theme:
As an instrument builder, I am not very sensitive to contact through the Internet. For those who love to touch wood and other natural materials, to hear a sound, a voice, for those whose daily life is composed of nuances, sensitivity, and—it must be confessed—subjectivity, the screen seems cold, anonymous and even arrogant by its pretension to serve everything to us at home or work. What is more, to try to describe our own particular activity would be to limit it. Each instrument is a unique creation and we are continually researching historic and new materials, designing new models, and engaging in projects, restorations, repairs, or supplying instruments for major music festivals, concerts and recordings…
As Marc points out, nuances are a crucial integrant of great music's gene pool. But online communication, and social media in particular, does not do nuances, yet alone sensitivity. To perpetuate its gene pool, classical music demands that breathtaking sums are spent on new concert halls that perfectly communicate sonic nuances. Yet the art form is also proactively reinventing itself as native to the cold, anonymous and, yes, arrogant online world. There are very few people in classical music who, like Marc Ducornet, dare question this infatuation with the Internet's parallel universe. But they are worth listening to. Here is a quote from another dissenting voice, the Indonesian composer Ananda Sukarlan writing in an article titled Is Classical Music Really Dying and Social Media Its Murderer?
Everyone has three lives: the public, the private and the secret ones. Do not let the social media erase the lines that separated those three lives. When you let it happen, then you have pushed the self-destruction button. And, not only you will be destroyed, but the whole ship that travels with you.
Not surprisingly my social media accounts are deleted. But 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, November 05, 2018

Music is the experience between the notes

In Memory, Music and Religion Earle H. Waugh identifies how music functions as a tool for subconsciously reclaiming the past. Based on research with the mystical chanters of Morocco's Sufi brotherhoods, he proposes that music releases deep-rooted formative memories. Readers who, like me, have deep-rooted memories of the time when the comfort limits of Proms audiences stretched beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein may well be interested in Sony's 5 CD Soft Machine bargain box seen above.

On 13th August 1970 there was an all-Bach Prom at 7.00pm in the Royal Albert Hall with a star-studded cast including Neville Mariner, Philip Ledger, David Munrow, James Bowman, Simon Preston and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. This was followed at 10.00pm by a late-night Prom with Soft Machine, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductors David Atherton, and Elgar Howarth. This concert, which was broadcast on BBC TV, opened with works by Terry Riley and Tim Souster, and then showcased three tracks from Soft Machine's Third album. Soft Machine was a progressive jazz-rock ensemble formed in 1966 and named after William Burrough's novel. It underwent numerous changes of personnel and name, and its heyday was from 1968 to 1972 when Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt were among those who entered and left through the band's constantly revolving doors.

My memories of Soft Machine stretch back even further than that 1970 Prom. Starting in the summer of 1967 I took a year out between school and university. That July I was in the south of France and so were Soft Machine, who were literally providing the vibes in St Tropez. (My post I am a camera - St Tropez 1967 has some period photos, and there is detail about that extraordinary summer in an article on the Kevin Ayers tribute website.)

The Soft Machine anthology spans their CBS years from 1970 to 1973 and reproduces the albums' original artwork. Earle H. Waugh starts his book by saying: "We are condemned to remember. Even when we wish to forget, to discover that we have forgotten, memory shapes our being". Listening to these Soft Machine albums again and revisiting their distinctive artwork reclaimed for me the formative experiences I have touched on in this post.

The anthology was released in 2010 as part of the Original Album Classics series that mined the Columbia back catalogue. Eight years ago the record industry was still fighting downloads with imaginative repackaging of physical product, and Spotify was still a very minor player. So even this post is subconsciously reclaiming the past. Despite an unexpected resurgence in vinyl and surprising resilience in CD sales, the mainstream record industry has today effectively given up on value added physical product such as the Original Album Classics series.

Which leaves me, and I wonder how many others, feeling alienated. I am an incurable music addict; but for me Spotify streams can never reclaim the past in the way that the physical time capsule of Sony's boxed set does. Music is the experience between the notes. Streaming services offer instant experiential gratification but little more. The fundamental problem with online music delivery is that there is not enough space between the music to relive old experiences, let alone embark on new ones.

No review samples used. I do not have social media accounts. 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, November 03, 2018

Farewell Wolfgang

My photos shows Wolfgang Zuckermann who has died at the age of 96. During the second half of the twentieth century the harpsichord made the remarkable transition from almost extinct historical curiosity to concert hall staple; not just for early music, but also for new music from composers including John Cage, Elliott Carter and Maurice Ohana. Wolfgang Zuckermann's $150 harpsichord kits, which were launched in 1959, were a major factor in the rehabilitation of the harpsichord, and Zuckermann supplied instruments to John Cage and many other musicians from his workshop in Greenwich Village, New York.

The legendary 'Model T' harpsichord kit is Wolfgang Zuckermann's best known contribution to music history. But he had been making high quality finished instruments for a decade before entering the self-assembly market and his manufacturing business continues today under different ownership. In 1969 he published his influential book The Modern Harpsichord. This advocated a return to authentic specifications for contemporary instruments and rejected the 'romantic' approach pioneered by Landa Landowska and her Pleyel instruments.

Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann was born in Berlin in 1922, and after his family emigrated to America he became a US citizen in 1938. He saw action in the Second World War in the US Army, but in 1969 he sold his harpsichord business and left America because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. After a period in England he settled in France where he developed a successful second career as a social activist, early environmentalist and author. He was active drawing attention to the environmental impact of the internal combustion engine and was one of the team who created Buy Nothing Day, an international day of protest against consumerism. One of his famous quotes from decades ago was "It is no doubt ironic that the motorcar, superstar of the capitalist system, expects to live rent free."

As well as continuing his environmental and social activism Wolfgang Zuckermann founded the Librairie Shakespeare English language bookshop in the university district of Avignon, France in 1994. In 2012 he sold Librairie Shakespeare and the bookshop thrives today under its new owner Camille Vourc’h. The two later photos were taken in 2008 in Librairie Shakespeare on one of my frequent visits to Avignon. I first met Wolfgang years earlier while passing through the city en route to stay at the nearby Benedictine Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux. In subsequent years I made it a point to drop in at his eclectically stocked bookshop, and a number of prized purchases from there now grace my library.

Wolfgang Zuckermann enjoyed a long and full life, and I am privileged to have known him. His contributions to music history and to environmentalism made him a legend in his own lifetime. But what made him particularly special to me was his principled stand against the US government's escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1969 there was no email, no Skype and no mobile phones, and cultures were far more insular. Permanently leaving his native America and his successful business for Europe on a point of ethical principle was truly courageous. How starkly it contrasts with the political dissidents who today do no more than air their principles in social media rants while staying firmly and comfortably put under a political regime they claim to despise.

Farewell Wolfgang, thank you for showing us how it should be done.

Wolfgang Zuckermann's funeral is on November 5th at the crematorium in Orange (84087)

My social media accounts are deleted. But 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).