Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Get high on this composer's music - it is enough

Classical music has the unfortunate habit of flogging memes to death. There is no better example than the current click bait-impelled storm over the Last Night of the Proms. This latest brouhaha not only discredits those on both sides of the faux debate, but also, and more seriously, it devalues the very music that is, or more accurately was, the raison d'être of the Promenade Concerts. So, turning to another much-flogged meme, claims that yet another undiscovered masterpiece by a woman composer has been uncovered may, understandably, induce a degree of ennui. But it would be wrong if that ennui means the new recording of Ethel Smyth's The Prison is overlooked.

Today, it is difficult to find any coverage of Dame Ethel's music that does not major on her backstory of suffragette, imprisoned activist and lesbian: for instance Erica Jeal's thoughtful Guardian four star review of The Prison inevitably has a subhead beginning "A long overdue first recording for this work by the one-time imprisoned suffragette..." It is ironic that for years many, including this writer, have tried to refute the stereotyping of women composers as second-rate talent. Only for well-meaning advocates to impose different stereotyping on the same long-suffering composers. In the chemically-enhanced 1960s Ravi Shankar famously declared 'Get high on the music, it is enough'. So let's park Ethel Smyth's backstory, and instead dig deeper into the premiere recording of The Prison.

Born in the English county of Kent in 1858 into a wealthy bourgeois family, Ethel Smyth started studying at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1887. However after a year she left because she was dissatisfied with the teaching regime; but she stayed in Leipzig where she took private took harmony and counterpoint lessons. Leipzig was a great centre of music activity, and while there Ethel Smyth met influential composers including Dvořák, Clara Schummann, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. In 1898 her first opera Fantasio was premiered in Weimar. Her best-known work Der Standrecht (The Wreckers) was performed in Leipzig and Prague before being given in English translation in London conducted by Thomas Beecham in 1909. Dame Ethel moved in cosmopolitan circles and the photo below shows her in exalted company at the 1922 founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Salzburg.

From 1911 to 1913 Ethel Smyth was active in the English suffragette movement. In the last two decades of her life composing was curtailed by increasing deafness, but in 1930 she completed The Prison. The composer's programme note for the premiere described the work as a symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra, with the lower case symphony donating the ancient Greek concept of rhetotical rather than orchestral concordance. Dame Ethel created the libretto from The Prison: A Dialogue by the philosopher and writer Henry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908). The book is a Platonic discussion by four friends of the final text written by a prisoner on the eve of execution. For the libretto the composer distilled the discussion down to a dialogue between the Prisoner, sung in the premiere recording by bass-baritone Dashon Burton, and his Soul, soprano Sarah Brailey. Dame Ethel Smyth conducted the world premiere of The Prison in the Usher Hall Edinburgh in February 1931, and five days later none other than Adrian Boult conducted the London premiere at Queen's Hall.

For Chandos' newly-released premiere recordingThe Prison is performed by the New York-based Experiential Orchestra conducted by its founder native New Yorker James Blachly who masterminded the project and is also music director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. The Experiential Orchestra started in 2009 with "Loft Parties" that jammed small audiences into a midtown loft, with the performances morphing into Ibiza-style after-parties. Subsequent projects have experimented with abolishing the traditional barriers between the audience and the orchestra. The “Introduction to Beethoven” series broke with classical dogma by tracing Beethoven’s creative arc by performing excerpts from all his symphonies, and inviting the audience to sing along with the Ninth. The apogee of The Experiential Orchestra's heretical trajectory was reached with its Rite of Spring Dance Parties, which invited the audience to dance to Stravinsky’s ballet - see photo below. Yes, we've heard it too many times before, but one enthusiastic audience member of the Stravinsky mosh pit declared “this is the future of classical music”.

From loft parties to a titled composer born in Victorian Britain is a strange journey, even for an Overgrown Path. So I asked James Blachly to explain how he got high on Ethel Smyth's music. James kindly agreed to an interview, and I started by asking him to explain how his Experiential Orchestra came to perform and record The Prison.

James Blachly: Thank you so much Bob for this interview and your description of the piece, and for your tremendous work to keep the world of music expanding. Simply put, I fell in love with the music. At the very first downbeat of the first rehearsal, I got shivers up and down my spine, and it was like being in the grips of a powerful force, an inner drive that led me to create a performance edition of the work, and ultimately to this recording. That journey has taken four years, from that first performance of excerpts in 2016 to the US Premieres in 2018, to the recording in 2019 and its release in 2020.

Bob Shingleton: You explained that The Prison was programmed in a concert of music by women composers. What were the other works in the programme, and how was the work received?

JB: Yes, that first performance with orchestra in 2016 was of about 15 minutes of the piece for The Dream Unfinished [photo below from that event]. The other works on the program were also wonderful – music of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price, and a commission from my friend Courtney Bryan that I conducted, sung by the incredible Helga Davis. That first performance was a very powerful one. It was called “Sing Her Name,” and it focused on the tragic and awful death of Sandra Bland in 2015. For that performance, we invited singers from Cantori NY to join us – they had just sung the work a few months before, in the piano performance premiere directed by my colleague Mark Shapiro. We also had members of Downtown Voices, a chorus hosted by Trinity Wall Street.

The orchestra was a volunteer freelance orchestra, all of them committed to social justice. The Smyth in the midst of that concert was very very powerful, but it was a long and intense evening, so in a way it was one of many amazing moments. Still, I think it was a revelation to many in the orchestra who had not heard of Smyth; and similarly for the audience. I knew right away that the Smyth was something I wanted to explore much more deeply. That concert was also the first time the Florence Price Piano Concerto in One Movement had been heard by many in the audience, conducted by my colleague John McLaughlin Williams and played by Michelle Cann, and that beautiful work has become very frequently performed since then.

BS: In Robert Hugill's appreciation of The Prison you refer to a 'great composer' paradigm, in which the baton of a composer's perceived greatness is passed from generation to generation. This means that if the baton of greatness is not passed, a composer is marginalised; as is the case with Ethel Smyth, Malcolm Arnold, Elizabeth Maconchy, Edmund Rubbra and many others. Some time ago I wrote about the same problem and proposed that audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music. How do you think that permission can be granted?

JB: I completely agree about audiences and how they approach music, and I think the way an audience is invited in has everything to do with how they experience a piece. For a lot of audiences, there’s a sense that if it’s not on the list of generally accepted masterpieces, it doesn’t have value. And then there are places where there is an expectation for newness, and audiences have come to expect and enjoy being the first to experience new pieces– like the Cabrillo Festival for Contemporary Music in California. That audience comes hungry for fresh sounds. But they are also invited to the experience in a welcoming way; composers speak about their works, there’s a whole environment that was developed during Marin Alsop’s 25 years there.

I think once you develop an appetite for new sounds, you begin to really thirst to find new ways of communicating. It’s thrilling! I developed that appetite in abundance at Oberlin, where my colleagues included the founding members of ICE, and where there was just a tremendous excitement around new music. You spoke about getting high on the music itself. I can share with you that one of the most out-of-body experiences I’ve ever felt was listening to Charles Wuorinen with the BSO in around 2005. I would come to study composition with him briefly, but at the time I just knew that my synapses were firing in a way that they never had before, and I truly felt like I was floating. It was so exhilarating. When you open yourself up as a listener, it’s pretty incredible what that’s like in the concert hall.

We have commissioned several pieces and performed a good amount of new music with the Johnstown Symphony, and it has always gone over well. I think that has to do with a level of trust from the audience, and also our approach, which is not an “eat your broccoli” kind of thing, where you say “you should like this and if you don’t then that means you aren’t sophisticated,” nor do we say “you probably won’t like this but we are trying to do our part by putting it on.” We present every piece we play as something we love and want to share with them; and if we can open it up in some way, that’s great.

I’ve also always felt that “I liked it,” and “I didn’t like it” are needlessly limiting. So instead of setting up that binary, I like to invite people to notice. What did they hear? What was it like to listen? Empower the audience, in other words, and validate their experience, without it being about like or dislike.

BS: James, returning to The Prison, how did American forces come to record British music for a record company based in the East of England, near to where an Overgrown Path is written. How difficult was it to sell Chandos the idea of recording The Prison in the States?

JB: We came to record the piece because I had come to the conclusion that if we didn’t do so, it may be a long time before this piece was heard beyond those initial premieres (by Cantori New York with piano; by TDU in excerpts in 2016; by Johnstown in 2018, and five weeks later, by Cecilia Chorus NY in Carnegie Hall), we would need a commercial recording and an international release. Those performances were exhilarating - but they weren’t reaching enough people. The work wouldn’t be widely known without a recording. So we were the orchestra because I was on a mission to get the work known and appreciated around the world.

We approached Chandos because our producer, Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror, knew Ralph Couzens and agreed to bring the recording to him. We had a list of labels to approach with the recording, and Chandos was at the very top. We were just thrilled that they accepted it as a part of their catalogue, and they’ve done a marvelous job with the production and marketing.

BS: I was struck by the excellent sound quality of the recording, which is particularly striking when auditioning the SACD layer. I am a great admirer of Chandos' work; but it is fair to say that the quality of sound they capture is sometimes marginally compromised. I hasten to add that this is not due to lack of professionalism, but rather that the niche repertoire they specialise in is sometimes recorded in less than optimal acoustics - good concert halls often make indifferent recording venues. Tell us about where The Prison was recorded and who the Stateside production team was.

JB: I have also been deeply gratified by the quality of the sound of the disc. I have to give full credit for the sound to Soundmirror, Blanton our amazing producer, our recording engineer, Brandon Johnson, and the brilliant post-production of Mark Donahue. John Newton, the famed founder of Soundmirror, was also at the session, and helped add his master’s touch to the proceedings [photo of John Newton above]. When I first went into the booth, I was just blown away by the level of artistry on display in the sound they were getting. The SUNY Concert Hall NY was also a terrific room to record in.

BS: It's fair to say a recording of The Prison is not going to sell as many copies as yet another Mahler symphony. Without giving too many confidences away can you explain how performances and premiere recording of such a deserving but niche work were financed?

JB: Absolutely. My work for the past four years has been to try to convince people of the value of something that they could hear. It was a lot of “trust me – this is an incredibly powerful and beautiful piece of music!” And to their credit, over 150 donors came through to support the work, including several at a very high level, and many with whatever they could afford through a Kickstarter campaign. For some, it was Smyth’s incredible life story; for others, they took it on faith that the music really was going to be worth hearing.

I am incredibly grateful to all of our donors, and to the EXO board, for supporting this project from the beginning. You are right - it won’t sell as many copies as a lot of other recordings. But it can still have an important impact, because if we collectively start taking Smyth more seriously; if people start teaching her as an important composer in our conservatories, and if her music is increasingly heard in the world’s concert halls, we will be shifting how we view music history in some capacity – in a way that to my view expands our musical world and fills in some gaps we may have had.

BS: James, we share similar views on how classical dogmas need to change to reach a wider audience, and I have written about what classical music can learn from a trance DJ. Anne Midgette's sniffy Washington Post review of one of your Stravinsky Dance Parties ended rather unhelpfully by suggesting that the performance would have worked better " some kind of large room with seating where people could hear the music better. Like, I don’t know, a concert hall". You are on a mission to, and I quote, "increase audience engagement and empower audiences". But do you sometimes feel you are pushing water uphill trying to do this?

JB: You can’t please everybody all the time, and I’m proud of EXO for taking risks. If the musicians love what we’re doing and the audience loves what we’re doing, I’m happy. I don’t feel like we’re pushing water uphill. I just wish we had a lot more money to put on all the concerts we dream up. I just spoke to my friend Andrew Yee [cellist of the Grammy-winning Attacca Quartet] and we are planning a concert of him playing Don Quixote in a warehouse in Gowanus, Brooklyn in 2021 with massive art and lighting. We have no limit of ideas; and the audiences are always ready to dive in. I think people are ready for – and crave, and need – fully immersive experiences. Get us out of our regular lives, let the music take you to another world. That can be in a concert hall, and it can also be in a lot of other creative, evocative places.

BS: A degree of rigidity is creeping in to classical interpretations; with 'cookie-cutter' performances of the masterworks becoming the norm. Stravinsky at a dance party is definitely bucking this trend. What are your views on how contemporary interpreters can change how a work is viewed and understood?

JB: That’s really been our philosophy from the beginning – we don’t have to change the music itself, but we do want to invite people into the experience of that music in new ways. Simply performing Beethoven symphonies in a Loft, with the audience surrounding and near and inside in some cases the orchestra – that is enough for us to experience Beethoven in a different and thrilling way [see photo above]. Have a teenager sit inside the orchestra, and they might say, as one 15-year-old did to me one night “that was the greatest experience of my life!” And we had just played Schoenberg.

The two principles I absolutely abide by are to empower the audience to create and engage with their own listening experiences, and to let the music speak for itself. I don’t think we have to distract from the music with screens in order for us to appeal to modern audiences. With that said, I love that there is more and more experimentation going on in the field. We have a lot of ideas for how to invite people in, and others are pushing in other directions. There’s no right and wrong – it’s all about finding ways to experience music more deeply and joyfully. There are a lot of different restaurants; there are a lot of different approaches for orchestras to take. And I also want to put in a word for the power of an emotionally-charged performance of an orchestra in a great hall. We should always be innovating, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw out so much of what we do as a field that is really wonderful.

BS: That is very well said indeed James. Let's conclude by returning to The Prison. In the past good and deserving works have suffered from the over-hyping of revival performances, which has meant they have gone from hero to zero overnight. Two recent examples of this are John Foulds A World Requiem and Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. The Prison was composed in 1930; in that year Charles Ives's Three Places in New England and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms were premiered. Your tenacious commitment to the work obviously shows you rate The Prison very highly. But tell us candidly just how good you think it is, and which better-known works would you rank it alongside?

JB: I appreciate that question so much. There were many times, particularly in the hard stretch of getting the recording funded, when I questioned myself rating it so highly. I actually spoke about this at length with Liz Woods, acclaimed Smyth scholar in the US [who wrote the liner notes for the Chandos release]. She and I both shared a similar experience, of having committed a substantial amount of time to promoting a work, and then really just hoping that it held up in our estimation once we finally heard it from beginning to end.

We both breathed a sigh of relief when we first performed the piece in 2018. It is, I think, truly wonderful. I find new aspects of it, and more through-lines that connect the pieces various sections, every time I encounter it, which is almost every day. I can appreciate that there people who will still place this below other work. And I confess that there were times in my life when I held fast to a hierarchy that was “yes, that was good, but it’s not as good as ___.” But I don’t even ask those questions anymore. I just feel grateful that this music is soaring through my head. And I can tell you that the philosophy of Brewster that she communicates through her music is compelling and generous and quite sophisticated.

I’ve come to appreciate that this is Smyth’s career-culminating masterpiece. This is her way of wrapping it all up, and also venturing into completely new territories, new musical language. And I’m so glad that so many people are now embracing it. Will this piece of music change the world, as Smyth hoped? Maybe so, if only on an individual level for a certain number of people. What matters to me is that we can now be affected by Smyth’s final composition, and engage with it. Let it settle; return to it a few months or years later, and hear more. It’s a voice from the past, but it has such an expansive message for us all.

BS: My thanks go to James Blachly for joining me on An Overgrown Path. Pierre Boulez coined the soubriquet musique pensant which I like to translate as 'music which makes you think'. In the interview James explains he has always felt that 'I liked it,' and 'I didn’t like it' are needlessly limiting. He advocates that instead of making binary judgements, we should invite people to think and ask - What did they hear? What was it like to listen? I totally agree with this and also concur with James' view that The Prison is Ethel Smyth’s career-culminating mastwork. But I also accept that Gerontius meets Gurrelieder may not be to everyone's tastes. However there can be little disagreement that Ethel Smyth's music and Henry Bennet Brewster's still very relevant philosophy makes you think, and today thinking is seriously undervalued. As James explains, people crave for and need, particularly at this dark time, immersive musical experiences that allow them to escape, even briefly, from the quotidien bleakness, and The Prison does just that.

Our binary culture with its dualist mindset means that too much important and deserving music is consigned to oblivion unless a passionate advocate picks up the fallen baton and carries it forward to future generations. James Blachly is such a passionate advocate, and he deserves our respect for rescuing The Prison from undeserved oblivion. His message is very simple, clear and refreshing: get high on Ethel Smyth's music - it is enough.

Chandos kindly provided a review copy of The Prison. My thanks go to John McLaughlin Williams for hooking me up with James Blachly. 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, August 04, 2020

New classical music for these troubled times

No reference is made to the  (Farewell) theme in the final movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony by composer/producer Steve Roach in the notes for his new album A Soul Ascends. But both works take the listener on a similar transcendental journey, albeit in very different ways. Mahler deploys a symphony orchestra in all its sonic glory for his masterpiece, while a century later Steve Roach crafts his music from synthesizers and sequencers.

A Soul Ascends is important because it reaches the giddy creative heights of Steve's other ambient masterwork Structures from Silence. But it is even more important because it is new classical music for these troubled times. Steve crafted the album over seven solitary days of inventive white heat at his remote desert Timehouse Studio in Arizona while the world was entering lockdown. The title and a brief dedication defer to a farewell theme. But this is not a farewell to life: it is a farewell to a way of life eradicated by the global pandemic. Life will never be the same, and classical music will never be the same. A Soul Ascends is the harbinger of a new paradigm - created in isolation using new technologies, disseminated by more new technology, all with little regard for live performance possibilities.

Let us try to slay once and for all the old canard that electronic music is not classical musical. My definition of classical music is any music which has a primary purpose other than to entertain. Pluralism is central to the new musical pardigm, and hankering for the old paradigm - designer concert halls, jet set music making, celebrity maestros, etc - is futile. Carl Nielsen declared "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". Steve Roach's A Soul Ascends is most definitely not bad. But it is something new which in these deeply troubled times let's us feel we are still alive. In this new dark age we must never lose touch with the rapture of being alive, as Joseph Campbell explains in The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
No review samples used in 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).

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Ravi Shankar's centenary must not be lost to lockdown

Beethoven is fortunate. His anniversary falls in December this year: which means, hopefully, it can be celebrated when a degree of normality has returned. Ravi Shankar is less fortunate. The centenary of his birth fell on April 7th, when the world had more important things to worry about. Which meant the anniversary passed almost unnoticed; with the major celebration at London's South Bank Centre postponed until April 2021.

But it is important that Ravi Shankar's centenary is not lost to lockdown. Not only because he was a master of the sitar, but also because he was a great humanitarian who broke down the barriers dividing music of different cultures. One example is his collaboration with Philip Glass. In 1965 the neophyte American composer was studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and he was hired to notate the film score for Chappaqua composed by Ravi Shankar. In 1989 the head of independent label Private Music Ron Goldstein brought Pandit Shankar and Philip Glass back together to record 'Passages'. This comprised two Glass compositions on themes by Shankar, two Shankar compositions on themes of Glass, and two original compositions from each musician, and the project was reprised by the Britten Sinfonia at a 2017 BBC Prom. (Related trivia: the autobiographical film Chappaqua is based on Conrad Rooks' experiences of chronic alcoholism and drug dependency and includes cameo appearances by William S. Burroughs, Swami Satchidananda, Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, Ornette Coleman - his score for the film was rejected, The Fugs, and Ravi Shankar himself. Rooks is best known for directing the 1972 movie Siddhartha).

George Harrison's collaboration with Ravi Shankar is more celebrated. The two first met in 1966 when the Beatle asked the Indian maestro for sitar lessons. The pupil/teacher relationship soon developed into mutual admiration, the product of which was three acclaimed studio albums, Chants of India (1997), Shankar Family & Friends (1974), Ravi Shankar's Music Festival from India (1976), and the triple album live Concert for Bangladesh (1971) which won the 1973 Grammy for Album of the Year. In 2010 the late Beatle's label Dark Horse Records released a lavish CD box of the three studio albums plus a DVD of a concert performance of Music Festival from India; this limited edition box now sells for many times its release price on the collectors' market. Ravi Shankar's pioneering of transcultural musical dialogues was recognised by George Harrison when he named him 'the 'Godfather of World Music'. Multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott was Ravi Shankar's first American sitar pupil; he played in the influential Paul Winter Consort and went on to be a founding member of the pioneering World Music ensembles Condona and Oregon before being tragically killed in a road accident in 1984 while touring in East Germany.

One component of the anniversary celebrations that was, thankfully, not cancelled by coronavirus was the publication of Oliver Craske's authorised biography Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar. Oliver Craske worked with Ravi Shankar on his 1997 autobiography Raga Mala, and had a close association with him in his later years. Indian Sun is published by Faber & Faber, which has a distinguished record of publishing music writing and compositions. This fine book has been a beacon of light for me in the dark days of the global pandemic. Oliver Craske's lightly-worn erudition and Faber's typically high production standards are a sharp reminder of how publishing standards have plummeted with the advent of self-publishing, crowdfunding, print-on-demand, and social media-schooled authors. It is also a timely reminder that Beethoven is not the only anniversary game in town.

Central to the South Bank Centre's postponed Shankar Centenary was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Fortunately one product of the LPO's Shankar advocacy survived the pandemic, in the form of a recording of his unfinished opera Sukanya. This was completed by David Murphy who conducts the LPO in the recording made at a 2017 concert performance. (More related trivia: the website for this year's cancelled Southbank performance states "This performance contains some strong language. Recommended for ages 12+".)

A valuable contribution to the Shankar recorded legacy is the 10 CD Ravi Shankar Collection originally released on the EMI label in 2012 and subsequently rebranded Warner Classics. This anthology illustrates Ravi Shankar's appetite for exploring beyond comfort zones. As well as the celebrated collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, there are contributions from, among others, Gary Peacock, Jean-Pierre Ramal, Paul Horn, and Bud Shank, plus Ravi Shankar's two sitar concerto played by their composer and conducted by André Previn and Zubin Mehta.

Ravi Shankar once explained "I have always had an instinct for doing new things. Call it good or bad, I love to experiment", and his experiments crossed cultural boundaries and attracted new audiences in the 1960s and 70s. The first Ravi Shankar album released in the States had sleeve notes by the American-Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness. (Hovhaness wrote the concerto Shambala for violin, sitar & orchestra for the sitar master, but he declined to perform it.) Benjamin Britten was another early Shankar champion. During his visit to India with Peter Pears in 1955 Britten wrote the following to a neighbour in Aldeburgh after hearing Ravi Shankar play:

Yesterday we had our first real taste of Indian music, & it was tremendously fascinating. We had the luck to hear one of the best living performers (composer too), & he played in a small room to us alone – which is as it should be, not in concerts. Like everything they do it seemed much more relaxed and spontaneous than what we do. The reactions of the other musicians sitting around was really orgiastic. Wonderful sounds, intellectually complicated & controlled. By Jove, the clever Indian is a brilliant creature – one feels like a bit of a Yorkshire Pudd. in comparison.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the leading figures at the 1957 International Summer School of Modern Music in Darmstadt. An 8.00pm concert of music by Arnold Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez, Edgard Varèse and Humphrey Searle was followed at 10.00pm by a Ravi Shankar sitar recital. Nine years later Ravi Shankar's soundtrack for Jonathan Miller's acclaimed BBC TV production of Alice In Wonderland was scored for sitar, tabla, tanpura, oboe, and piano. Léon Goossens played the oboe part, adding a Shankar premiere to a CV already including premieres of works by Bax, Bliss, Britten, Elgar, Rutland Boughton, Poulenc and Vaughan Williams.

Call me a boring old grouch if you want. But in those days diversity was driven by a preternatural intellectual curiosity, whereas today, with just a few exceptions, it is driven by dutiful box ticking. Those exceptions include the LPO's Shankar Centenary and the upcoming virtual BBC Prom with Anoushka Shankar, which enterprisingly eschews convention and pairs the sitar with with electronic artist Gold Panda and the Britten Sinfonia.

A prime example of that spontaneous diversity is Ravi Shankar's music theatre piece 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch' which was commissioned and premiered by Birmingham Touring Opera in 1989. One of the Shankar conundrums is that he was vociferously opposed to the drug ethos of the counterculture, yet actively but privately shared with the hippies the pursuit of free love. (Reading about his serial womanising in Oliver Craske's book left me wondering how Ravi ever found time to play the sitar.) In a later interview Pandit Shankar described his appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival as follows: "It was raining, there was mud all over. And who was listening to music? They were all stoned. Completely stoned". He once said - "Get high on the music, it is enough" and A Broken Branch was composed to express his deep concern about young people's preoccupation with drugs. The recording was originally released on CD in the early 1990s in a version edited to 60 minutes due to the then prevailing constraints of CD capacity. East Meets West Music, which is the 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 re-release.

Thankfully the audience for the 1993 Concert for Peace in London's Royal Albert Hall was more respectful to the music and less chemically inclined. For the concert Pandit Shankar was joined by a young Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Partho Sarathy (sarod). The double CD of the concert on Zakir Hussain's Moment Records label captures in excellent sound great musicians inspired to even greater heights by engagement with a truly receptive audience.

'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch' was restored to the catalogue by the East Meets West Music label. This is doing invaluable work preserving the Shankar recorded legacy: among the gems from the label are Ravi Shankar: The Living Room Sessions, Part 1 and Part 2. These Living Room Sessions capture exquisite valedictory performances by the 91 year old sitar master at his home in Encinitas, California; with the first album quite rightly winning a Grammy in 2013, and the second earning a Grammy nomination a year later.

In My Music, My Life Ravi Shankar explained:
Often, I too am overcome by the hatred, the jealousy and envy, the wars, all the ugliness that is part of our world. I seek out all that has a quality of inner beauty, and I am immediately repulsed by anything ugly that sends out bad vibrations.
Today boundless inner beauty shines even more brightly through his recorded legacy. If I had to choose one from the many Shankar recordings in my collection it would be Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971, which again comes from East Meets West Music. This captures a morning concert at Pandit Shankar's home on Highland Avenue in Hollywood in June 1971, and the tapes were only recently discovered buried in the Shankar archive. The double CD portrays 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. Before he performs a Bengali folk tune the great Indian musician and humanitarian is heard empathising with the Bangladeshi refugees, and in the audience was George Harrison. So Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971 can truthfully be billed as the first and previously unreleased concert for Bangladesh. Boundless inner beauty and good vibrations emanate this album and all the recordings featured in this post. Our world has become an even uglier place since Pandit Shankar left us in 2012. Which is why Ravi Shankar's centenary must not be lost to lockdown.

No review samples used in 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).

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Whatever was the Dalai Lama thinking of?

One of the many problems of being a great spiritual leader is that people are scared of telling you when you get it wrong. As in the case with the Dalai Lama's first album 'Inner World', which is released to mark his His Holiness' 85th birthday. The new super-cool Dalai Lama made his Glastonbury debut in 2015, and his latest venture into rock stardom combines Buddhist teachings with chill-out music*. Typical of the inability of Tibetan Buddhist camp followers to call a dog a dog is the review by the authoritative Tricycle online Buddhist magazine which buries mild reservations underneath the usual respectful platitudes: such as "His Holiness’s wisdom and compassion through this recording can bring inner transformation". This time the Independent gets it right in a 2 star review which judges that "...there is little to distinguish the shapeless instrumentation from any you’d find in a luxury spa".

His Holiness once famously explained "I always tell my Western friends that it is best to keep your own tradition. Changing religion is not easy and sometimes causes confusion. You must value your tradition and honor your own religion". Very wise advice the Dalai Lama puzzlingly ignores for his debut album, which lards his recitation of traditional Buddhist sagacity with the worst kind of Western New Age musical syrup. (Anoushka Shankar has the dubious honour of contributing one of the better - least worse? - tracks of this distinctly unenlightened project.)

When I traveled with my wife to attend the 2014 Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama in remote Ladakh I had a close encounter with His Holiness, which I chronicled in my photo essay The Paradox of the Dalai Lama. During that trip I was able to quiz the gurupies surrounding His Holiness about some of his more puzzling judgements. These include his 1997 pronouncement that gay sex is wrong for Buddhists but not for society; or as the Telegraph more succinctly reported him as saying in a subsequent interview "Using the other two holes is wrong". (Since then the spiritual leader has tactfully changed his views on this topic.) One of the standard justifications offered by His Holiness' followers for his occasionally dubious wisdom is that he is sometimes badly advised by his private office. But the PR for 'Inner Worlds' stresses the Dalai Lama's personal enthusiasm for the project. So much as I admire his boundless spiritual wisdom, I have to conclude that my music is not the Dalai Lama's music.

Just as it is very easy to embrace Buddhism-lite in the name of accessibility, so it is very easy to make snarky comments about truly great human beings. So in conclusion I will highlight two albums that communicate the truly remarkable power of Vajrayana Buddhism without dragging it into a luxury spa. If you want your Tibetan Buddhism straight with no Western chasers, the sequence of albums recorded by the Tashi Lhunpo monks is my recommendation. It was monks from the Tashi Lhunpo monastery who hosted my visit to the Kalachakra empowerment. Three albums recorded at their monastery-in-exile in southern India capture the monks voices and instruments in stunning sound. 'Time of the Skeleton Lords' is featured here because of its equally stunning artwork, which brings back memories of my attendance at the tantric masked dances at Hemis monastery in Ladakh.

For those who have wisely realised that great spiritual revelations can only be experienced outside cultural comfort zones, I recommend 'Songs from the Bardo' masterminded by iconoclast Laurie Anderson, which takes the listener on a guided journey through the transcendent text of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In my post about this album earlier this year I quoted the great Tibetan Lama Govinda describing the vital importance of "the readiness to cross the horizons of the known and the familiar, the readiness to accept people and new environments as parts of our destiny". For me at least, the Dalai Lama's 'Inner World' album fails because it balks at leading the seeker across that horizon towards the challenging yet immensely rewarding spiritual realm of of Vajrayana Buddhismn.

* It is important to make clear that proceeds from 'Inner World' go to Social, Emotional, and Ethical (SEE) Learning, an international education program founded by the Dalai Lama and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and to the Mind and Life Institute, an organization that encourages conversation between contemplative thinkers and scientists.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Classical music and the roots of slavery

Over the years I have played a modest role in promoting the causes of musicians of colour and women musicians, and I believe the UK should remain in the EU. However today I am less sure where I stand on these issues: because I have been alienated by the single issue fanatics on both sides of all three debates. The latest example is a petition to drop Rule, Britannia from the Last Night of the Proms as "it is offensive in today's society". Chi-chi Nwanoku is a prominent signatory of the petition, explaining her reason for signing as "This offensive song is no longer relevant of our times. It's presence serves to hold us back". Chi-chi Nwanoku is founder of Europe's first majority-BME classical ensemble the Chineke! Orchestra and has done much invaluable work advocating the cause of musicians of colour. Now regular readers will know I am not exactly a fan of the Last Night of the Proms. But.....

It is not often I agree with Norman Lebrecht. However I would take much further Norman's sarcastic suggestion that Jerusalem and Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs should also be banned for political reasons. (Let's overlook for the moment that Jerusalem started life as a rallying cry for a culturally diverse spiritual movement.) Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, 'From the New World', is the Chineke! Orchestra's calling card, because of its incorporation of the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". But Dvořák was a Catholic: he is lauded by the Catholic Ireland website as "One of the few practising Catholics among the great composers". Recent research highlights the vital role played by the Catholic Church in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with one report stating "In fact, the Church was the backbone of the slave trade; in other words, most of the slave traders and slave ship captains were very ‘good’ Christians". So let's ban Dvořák's 'New World Symphony' as well as Rule, Britannia.

However we shouldn't stop there. Chi-chi Nwanoku's profile was raised beneficially by her work as a BBC Radio 3 presenter. As reported here, there is compelling anecdotal evidence that institutionalised racism in the 1980s BBC effectively ended the career of the talented black conductor Rudolph Dunbar. Let's also not forget that the BBC's founder Lord Reith publicly admired Hitler. A Nazi ruling subsequent to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws ruled that black people were, like gypsies, beings 'of alien blood' and subject to the Nuremberg principles. While, of course, the Nazis used slave labour of varying ethnicity to build its war machines. So it has to be goodbye to the BBC as well.

Now while we are following this path let's look further afield. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a regular and distinguished soloist with the Chineke! Orchestra. Sheku Kanneh-Mason's big break was performing at the 2018 royal wedding of the then Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. An article in the Jamaica Observer sets out in forensic detail how "For over 150 years the British Royal Family not only owned but monopolised the slave trade", and explains that Queen Elizabeth I sponsored the notorious slave trafficer John Hawkins. So we must ban all musicians who have played or whose music has been performed at royal weddings. Which means the Chineke! Orchestra's star soloist, together with Felix Mendelssohn, William Walton, Sir Adrian Boult, George Frideric Handel, join Rule, Britannia in the sin bin. We must also remember that Elton John should be banned for performing at a royal funeral.

And there is yet more which should come under scrutiny. Sheku Kanneh-Mason has a lucrative contract with Decca's Universal Classics, and the label has made a huge bundle of cash from his royal wedding exposure. Universal Classics is part of Universal Music which is owned by French mass media conglomerate Vivendi. In 1853 Compagnie Générale des Eaux (CGE) was created by an imperial decree of Napoleon III, and that company eventually became Vivendi. Napoleon III made a major contribution to building the French colonial empire in Africa and Asia, and tacitly, if not publicly, supported the pro-slavery Confederacy in the American Civil War. Elgar's Cello Concerto is Sheku Kanneh-Mason calling card, and the composer of 'Land of Hope and Glory' comes with a controversial back story. For instance Elgar's ballad “The Banner of St George”, proudly lauded the “Great race, whose empire of splendour/Has dazzled a wondering world” while his masque 'The Crown of India' glorifies colonialism. So Decca, DG et al should be banned, and Elgar's music also becomes a victim of cancel culture.

I'll stop at this point as my counter-argument is becoming even more ridiculous than that of the single issue fanatics. A more balanced view comes in Jordi Savall's typically momentous project The Routes of Slavery which explores in music the trade in African slaves and their exploitation in the New World. The Routes of Slavery is a truly remarkable testament to the healing power of music, and in the sleeve note Jordi Savall writes that "We firmly believe that the advantage of being aware of the past enables us to be more responsible and therefore morally obliges us to take a stand against these inhuman practices". But even the great humanitarian Jordi is not above criticism, and I called him out in 2014 for taking sponsorship from the ethically-tainted United Emirates regime. But I'm not going to demand that he is banned for this. Because I know that there is varying degrees of wrong in everyone. This wrong needs to be recognised and corrected if at all possible. But single issue fanaticism is not the right tool do that.

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