Tuesday, July 16, 2019

We are all benefiting from this new slave trade

In one of many stories coinciding with Amazon's Prime Day promotion Morocco World News has a report headlined "Rabat Call Center Worker: ‘Amazon is a Murderer That Must be Stopped’: 'They are killing people’s babies. They are making people mentally ill. They are making us homeless'”. The report tells how Amazon handles all its French-language customer service centers in Africa, in Morocco (Rabat), Tunisia, Senegal and Madagascar. In Morocco the starting wage in the Amazon call centre employing 600 people is €500 a month, around 40% of France’s minimum wage. In the other African call centres that wage is almost certainly lower. Exploiting the very low cost base of these marginalised countries while benefiting from the high margins in affluent France and other Western countries is what makes Amazon so profitable, helped of course by creative tax avoidance.

Everyone, including this writer, use Amazon because the online monster has wiped out almost every alternative supply source. Pressure has been applied to governments and institutions to apologise for their historic involvement in the slave trade. Yet we are all benefiting from this new slavery. Amazon controls 30% of the home entertainment market - including classical music sales - in key global markets. Daniel Barenboim was praised to the rafters for his activist anti-Brexit speech at the 2017 BBC Proms. Will he speak out against Amazon's new slave trade when he makes his annual appearance at the Proms on August 12th? Will the social media influencers exhort the audience at the Last Night of the Proms to wave placards like those held aloft by the Amazon workers, instead of EU flags? Of course not: because the classical music industry has never had the courage to bite the hand that feeds it.

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Taking the one seat

In the note for his CD transfer of Éliane Radigue's Transamorem-Transmortem the composer and sound artist Emmanuel Holterbach explains the importance of media formats in the evolution of new music.
In their original form, Éliane Radigue's works are magnetic tapes. After being played a few times in public, the tape disappears to its case until a release proposal makes it available again through a disc.
During this period Eliane Radigue's compositions became fairly long, some lasting over an hour. Because the tracks could not be edited for some obvious reasons, a vinyl release was unthinkable. It was only in the 90s, with the advent of the CD format, that the long compositions of Eliane Radigue were made available (with the exception of the Song of Milarepa LP on Lovely Music, a work already divided into multiple movements and thus able to be fit onto two sides of an LP). For these reasons, the work of Éliane Radigue remained virtually unknown for twenty years - from the 70s to the 90s.
That note was written in 2010 and it is a tragedy that in the subsequent years the arrival of open-ended music delivery by streaming has not been exploited to bring unorthodox compositions such as those of Éliane Radigue to a wider audience. In fact the opposite has happened, with cut and paste mixtapes and playlists becoming the preferred mode of music consumption. The 67 minute Transamorem-Transmortem could have been conceived for surround sound home cinema systems, with Éliane Radigue explains the role of the Doppler effect in it as follows:
This monophonic tape should be played on 4 speakers placed in the four corners of an empty room. Carpet on the floor. The impression of different points of origin of the sound is produced by the localization of the various zones of frequencies, and by the displacements produced by simple movements of the head within the acoustic space of the room.
As explained in previous posts, Éliane Radigue's music is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Her vision for Transamorem-Transmortem resonates with this teaching called 'taking the one seat' from the great teacher of the South Asian Theravada Buddhist tradition Ajahn Chah:
Just go into the room and put one chair in the centre. Take the one seat in the room and put one chair in the centre. Take the one seat in the centre of the room, open the doors and windows, and see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come.
Ajahn Chah's teaching applies far beyond Éliane Radigue's eclectic music. Her compositions are by no means easy listening and they sit far beyond any accepted comfort zones. But today the concept of taking the one seat and just listening as music from beyond accepted comfort zones arises and passes is an alien one. Instead the selective technologies of our binary culture allow infinite personalisation, customisation and filtering. Which is why, despite the immense potential of streaming and other new digital technologies, the abstruse sound worlds of Éliane Radigue and other deserving composers remain virtually unknown. And it is why we are losing the war against digital sleep.

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Tuesday, July 09, 2019

We are losing the war against digital sleep

One of the most accessible explanations of the teachings of the Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff is Colin Wilson's book 'The War Against Sleep'. Gurdjieff (1866-1949) is together with Osho and Krishnamurti one of a select group of flawed but perennially relevant teachers. Central to Gurdjieff's 'Fourth Way' teachings is his use of music and movement to reawaken the life force within us. There is a major corpus of music composed for this purpose by Gurdjieff in collaboration with Thomas de Hartmann, and recordings of this by Keith Jarrett, Frederic Chiu, Cecil Lytle, Alain Kremski, Wim van Dullemen and the Gurdjieff Folk Ensemble have featured here over the years. One of Gurdjieff's disciples Max Gorman explained that true mystics are not culture-bound - they have gone 'beyond'. And in the spirit of going 'beyond' the boundaries of orthodoxy comes a valuable new addition to the small but select Gurdjieff/de Hartmann discography in the form of the album seen above.

As we sink deeper into the digital Kali Yuga perennial wisdom becomes ever more relevant. We spend hours sleepwalking online securely protected by the filter bubbles created by selective algorithms and the approval culture of social media. Gurdjieff forewarned eloquently of the dangers of this hypnotic addiction. To understand the relevance of his teachings to, for example Facebook, follow the links I have embedded in this quotation:

In order to awaken, first of all one must realize that one is in a state of sleep. And in order to realize that one is indeed in a state of sleep, one must recognize and fully understand the nature of the forces which operate to keep one in the state of sleep, or hypnosis. It is absurd to think that this can be done by seeking information from the very source which induces the hypnosis ....One thing alone is certain, that man's slavery grows and increases. Man is becoming a willing slave. He no longer needs chains. He begins to grow fond of his slavery, to be proud of it. And this is the most terrible thing that can happen to a man.
Could there be a stronger endorsement of Gurdjieff's teachings than this explanation of the immense political and commercial value of behavourial addiction in Anne Wilson Schaef's book When Society Becomes an Addict?
The best-adjusted person in our society is the person who is not dead and not alive, just numb, a zombie. When you are dead you're not able to do the work of the society. When you are fully alive you are constantly saying "No" to many of the processes of society, the racism, the polluted environment, the nuclear threat, the arms race, drinking unsafe water and eating carcinogenic foods. Thus it is in the interests of our society to promote those things that take the edge off, keep us busy with our fixes, and keep us slightly numbed out and zombie-like. In this way our consumer society itself functions as an addict.
In an essay for his newly released BIS album* Ex Oriente - music by G.I. Gurdjieff guitarist Gunter Herbig explains that his attempts to transcribe Gurdjieff/de Hartmann's music for classical guitar always ended in frustration. So he said 'no' to received wisdom and experimented with a Gretsch 'White Falcon' electric guitar and Fender amp to produce a sonic texture compatible with the piano voicing of the original compositions**. With his transcriptions Gunter Herbig travels well beyond the other excellent but, nevertheless, culture-bound advocacies of G.I. Gurdjieff's music***. For me this album was a slow but powerful burn, with its growing impact reflected in the number of times I have returned to it: listen via this video.

Another proponent of the mystery schools Idries Shah explained that "It is a fundamental mistake of man's to think that he is alive - when he has merely fallen asleep in Life's waiting room". Ex Oriente - music by G.I. Gurdjieff has received little critical coverage in the media because professional music criticism was decimated by disruptive online business models while we were all sleepwalking zombie-like on social networks. Soon even modest attempts to maintain a thoughtful narrative such as On An Overgrown Path will be gone - stifled by the incessant banalities of social media. So please do not waste time sharing, liking or retweeting this post. Instead heed Gurdjieff - wake up, log off and taste life outside the virtual waiting room. I was also going to urge you to hurry down to your local music store and buy Gunter Herbig's very rewarding album. But of course that neighbourhood store was nuked by Amazon some time ago while we were all sleepwalking online. Sorry, but we are losing the war against digital sleep.

* Credit also to BIS for the environmentally friendly plastic-free packaging for the CD which uses soy ink, eco-friendly glue and water based varnish. And before the inevitable sleepwalking smart alec points out the CD itself is made of polycarbonate, please read a new study which reports that streaming music creates at least 200 to 350 million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions annually. And more credit to BIS for their second recent release - the first was ORBI - of an album that sits outside art music's overcrowded waiting room.

** Gunter Herbig misses an auspicious spiritual coincidence in the sleeve essay when he describes using the Gretsch 'White Falcon' guitar. Gurdjieff was deeply influenced by the cosmology of Ancient Egypt. In this the falcon deity Horus partakes in the ritual of 'self remembering', a practice Gurdjieff incorporated into his teachings.

*** While on the subject of reconsidering Gurdjieff it is worth giving a heads up to Shambhala Publications newly released Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy by Roger Lipsey.

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Saturday, July 06, 2019

Diversity comes in many diverse forms

On Friday, August 15th 1969 Ravi Shankar played at the Woodstock Festival. He performed at ten o'clock in the evening just hours after Richie Havens had opened the Festival, with Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez following him. Raviji's appearance was not without its problems: his set was terminated after 35 minutes by the rain that turned Max Yasgur's farm into a mud bath and he later complained the audience were all stoned and the size of the crowd made communication impossible. But these problems not withstanding, a celebrated musician from a great classical traditions had shared a stage with Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Grateful Dead, and The Who.

Two years later Ravi Shankar recorded his Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra for EMI with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, and went on to record with other leading musicians from the Western classical tradition including Jean-Pierre Rampal and Yehudi Menuhin. He was treated by EMI as another classical artist, and worked with the label's top producers, including Christopher Bishop whose artist roster included Sir Adrian Boult and Riccard Muti, John Mordler whose credits include Maria Callas albums, and Robert Kinloch Anderson who produced many of Sir John Barbirolli's great recordings.

Ravi Shankar's role working with the cream of Western classical musicians also sat comfortably alongside his collaborations with George Harrison which blossomed into a sequence of albums starting with the 1974 Shankar Family and Friends. After his Woodstock experience Raviji bit the hand that fed him by abandoning the lucrative festival circuit and becoming an outspoken critic of drug abuse. His campaigning found expression in 1989 through the remarkable and woefully neglected 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch'. 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.

The 1960s and 70s were the golden days of free thinking musical diversity before the digitally-enabled mania for personalisation and specialisation created the conveniently marginal pigeon hole of World Music. Ravi Shankar's stellar music making reflected his diverse mindset. Diversity of ethnicity and gender are vitally important, and it is gratifying that considerable progress has been made in classical music on those fronts. But diverse mindsets are what really matter; without them ethnic and gender diversity become no more than box ticking exercises, and I venture to suggest that is what is happening in classical music today. Let us take the example of the Kanneh-Masons who are the classical industry's diversity poster children.

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason are undoubtedly very talented musicians who deserve a high profile. But to achieve that profile they are both managed by super-agent IMG Artists, both enjoy the patronage of the BBC which controls the biggest classical festival in the world and five leading orchestras, and both are signed to Decca which is part of the Universal Music Group, a corporation controlling 31% of the annual global recorded music sales of $18.8 billion. Which does not leave much scope for what really matters - diverse mindsets. Because the cardinal rule in today's classical industry is that if you want to succeed, don't bite the hand that feeds you. Even if that hand is attached to the establishment body that has perpetuated the gross inequalities of ethnicity, gender, remuneration and merit still blighting classical music.

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Thursday, July 04, 2019

From Persia with love

Genetic diversity is the essential mechanism by which populations adapt to changing environments. The diversity may be at the global level or at the micro level. As the celebrated Bach interpreter John Eliot Gardiner explained in his portrait of the master composer, genetic diversity is crucial in music - "it is typical of the inquisitive yet easy-going pragmatism of creative musicians in all ages that they should wish to source and acquire new techniques regardless of their provenance". He then goes on to explain that "As Kepler reportedly said, amid the massacres of religious wars: 'the laws of elliptical motion belong to no man or principality'. The same could be said of music".

That reference to the laws of elliptical motion is coincidentally auspicious. It is believed that the celebrated whirling of Sufis from the Mevlevi Order depicts planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun. The Mevlevi order was founded by followers of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. Rumi was born in 1207 to Persian-speaking parents in a region now in Afghanistan which was then a centre of Persian culture with a strong Sufi tradition. When the Mongols invaded Central Asia early in the 13th century Rumi's family migrated westwards westwards through Persia - now Iran - and Iraq, finally settling in Konya in Anatolia, now part of Turkey. It is testimony to the power of genetic diversity that Rumi's migration provided the fertile soil from which his global reputation as a great transcultural figure grew. It is also deeply ironic that Rumi's spiritual education in the regions that are today Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran - all countries victims of recent American led 'intervention' - should lead to him becoming America's best-selling poet.

British-Turkish pianist Joanna Goodale picks up on the themes of Bach, Sufism, cultural diversity and the elliptical motion of the Mevlevi dervishes in her new album Bach in a Circle. This juxtaposes vanilla Bach, including celebrated transcriptions by Busoni, Kempff and Siloti, with Joanna's own Sufi Bach improvisations inspired by the poetry of Rumi and the 13th century Turkish poet Yunus Emre. All too often this kind of project is more Bach/Sufi collision than Bach/Sufi fusion. But Joanna's classical training - she studied at the ​Haute Ecole de Musique de Genève with Dominique ​Weber who in turn was a pupil of Léon Fleisher - means it is often difficult to tell where Bach ends and Goodale begins, which is high praise indeed.

With the death of bricks and mortar record stores at the hands of Amazon I now depend on readers for these serendipitous discoveries, and my thanks go to the reader who provided the heads up on Bach in a Circle. When I contacted Joanna Goodale she kindly provided a review copy which has provided hours of rewarding listening. Her vanilla Bach is impeccable and her thoughtful improvisations are Bach nuanced by Sufi, rather than vice versa. But we're losing nuances and nuances are very underrated. Which means Bach in a Circle, which can also be performed as a multi-disciplinary project, needs all the support it can get. I have no professional connection with Joanna. But I would urge any festival curators wishing to showcase cultural diversity in a subtle and beguiling form to contact her.

For me the most impressive thing about this new album is that it prompted me to listen to non-Sufi Bach again with fresh ears. Elliptical motion is a powerful force indeed, as T. S. Eliot tells us in Little Giidding:
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.

Header graphic comes from a Sufi improviser of a very different sort, the Turkish musician and multi-disciplainary artist Mercan Dede. 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).