Thursday, October 18, 2018

Zorba the Buddha

A recent discovery has been the music of Efi Markoulaki who is seen above. She was born in Athens in 1960 and has been a member of the Greek Composers Union since 2004. Among the composers who have influenced her through personal contact are Jonathan Harvey and Toshio Hosokawa. The Greek cellist Michael Heupel has recorded Efi Markoulaki's Cretan Suite for cello on Afierossis, a CD of 20th & 21st century works for solo cello. The disc is released on the German Ars label and delivers a splendidly visceral cello sound from its SACD layer.

Efi Markoulaki's Cretan Suite is most definitely not the usual folkloric pastiche. In her sleeve note Efi Markoulaki writes that: I "attempted to 'listen again' to a music that is deeply ingrained in my lived experience and my memories... My aim was to highlight the fundamental concepts of the source material for each movement while linking it to my personal aesthetic". She makes no allusions to supermundane agendas, but speculating about them is intriguing if not necessarily accurate. Crete's most celebrated cultural icon is the author of Zorba the Greek Nikos Kazantzakis. In Vienna in 1922 Kazantzakis studied Buddhist scriptures and began a play dramatising the Buddha's life. Writing in the autobiographical Report to Greco he describes how: "of all the people the earth has begotten, Buddha stands resplendently at the summit, an absolutely pure spirit". The wisdom traditions of the East extended beyond Nikos Kazantzakis, and in The Strong Wind from the East Markos Madias describes how Hinduism and Buddhism - particularly Zen - influenced prominent Greek intellectuals of the twentieth century including Nobel Laureate Giorgis Seferis. On more disputatious ground, the controversial Indian mystic and teacher Osho coined the term Zorba the Buddha to describe the anthropomorphic result of blending temporal and absolute reality. The term has transcended Osho's dalliances and has been adopted by a number of spiritual movements.

Intriguingly these strong winds from the East also blow through Efi Markoulaki's musical influences. Jonathan Harvey's debt to Buddhism has been covered here several times and Toshio Hosokawa considers the compositional process to be instinctively associated with the concepts of Zen and its symbolic interpretation of nature. However Efi Markoulaki's Cretan Suite really does not need speculative sub-agendas to make its case. One of the movements played by the Suite's dedicatee Michael Heupel can be auditioned on a YouTube video, and its provenance is indicated by the company it keeps on the cellist's recital disc:

William Walton: Passacaglia
Bertold Hummel: Fantasia II “In Memoriam Pablo Casals”
Krzysztof Penderecki: Per Slava
György Kurtág: Pilinsky Janos: Gerard de Neval & Memoriam Aczél György
Miklós Rózsa: Toccata Capricciosa
Efi Markoulaki: Cretan Suite
Aulis Sallinen: Elegia Sebastian Knight’ille
György Ligeti: Sonata for solo cello

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Is classical music a personal or public experience?

In his 88-part poem Cables to the Air Thomas Merton tells us that 'La musique est une joie inventée par le silence' - music is a joy invented by silence. D. T. Suzuki was responsible for awakening the Zen spirit of both John Cage and Thomas Merton, and Cage took the assertion that music springs from silence to its logical - or should that be illogical? - limit in his 'silent piece' 4' 33". Silence, where music originates, is a personal space; however fundamental changes in technology and consumer behaviour are pushing classical music into the public space. It is this tension between the public and private that may explain why the art form is struggling to gain traction with new audiences.

These musings are prompted by recent listening with AKG N60NC active noise cancelling headphones. Extensive travelling means that headphones play an important role in my listening. But as an adherent to Quad hi-fi marque founder Peter Walker's assertion that "the perfect amplifier is a straight wire with gain" I have shunned noise cancelling, because of the possible degradation of sound quality. But time spent on long haul flights and a conviction that if the music had been through the binary mincing machine little more damage can be done to it, prompted me to audition and then purchase the AKG noise cancelling 'phones, which also have Blutooth capability*. (Mobile devices are now the listening mode of choice for music, and Bluetooth is the standard for short-range wireless data exchange both for mobile and domestic applications. Our cultural commentators take every opportunity to disparage the sound quality of London concert halls. But has a cultural commentator ever written about Bluetooth's degradation of audio quality? Standard Bluetooth streams music at 328kb/s, a rate below MP3 quality.)

AKG's active noise cancelling does exactly what is says on the cans - forgive the pun - and makes listening to classical music a tolerable and sometimes inspirational experience on long flights. But what has surprised and intrigued me is the benefit of noise cancelling away from the drone of turbofan engines - in the photo I am watching the sun set over the Libyan Sea from the south coast of Crete while listening to John Luther Adams' Become Ocean. My time spent with the AKG noise cancellers in a variety of environments has forcibly reminded me of the level of everyday noise pollution that we have come to accept, and the dramatic benefits of reducing that pollution when listening to music - suddenly the music really is a joy originating from the blackness of personal silence.

One of the overlooked impacts of the global love affair with social media is the merging of personal and public space. A recent UK survey showed that the average person checked their mobile phone 28 times a day, which totals more than 10,000 times a year. While another survey reported that almost half (45%) of young people check their mobile phones after they have gone to bed. Yet another piece of research vividly underlines how technology has merged private and public space - 75 percent of Americans use their phone while in the toilet. Music is caught up in this convergence: private listening in public spaces via sonically porous earbuds is now the de facto listening mode. My advocacy of noise cancelling headphones is just another manifestation of this relentless convergence, with smart technology being used to create an artificial personal space within a public one.

Today we live our lives 24/7 in a merged public/personal space. Yet traditionally the native habitat of classical music is personal space - the acoustically perfect concert hall where privacy is guaranteed by a cordon sanitaire of architect-designed silence. Classical music is struggling to adapt to the progressive loss of its native habitat, and this may be the reason why the art form is failing to gain traction with new audiences. Nowhere is this more evident than the BBC Proms, where dribbles of between-movement applause, impromptu quasi-political speeches and other 'relaxations' of etiquette are imposed on the traditional personal space of a classical concert. The result is an experience that singularly fails to satisfy both the new concertgoer and the committed classical geek.

Transformative listening experiences depend on an auspicious convergence of 'set' - the listeners mindset - and 'setting' - the listening environment. When both set and setting are optimised more synapses become active and there is a corresponding increase in neural connections, and hey voilà!, your audience connects with the music. I am only too aware that this article discusses the problem of the erosion of personal listening space, but does not offer quick fixes comparable with the tried and not surprisingly rejected disco lighting, tweeting during concerts and other snake oil. But as Jiddu Krishnamurti taught: " If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come out of it; because the answer is in the problem, it is not separate from the problem". Perhaps classical music's predicament is not the lack of a new audience; perhaps the predicament is a failure to understand the problem for audiences - new and established - created by the convergence of personal and public listening space.

I purchased the AKG N60NC headphones from a Richer Sounds store. 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).

Sunday, October 14, 2018

It should have been the musical marriage made in heaven

That photo shows Ravi Shankar with his first wife Annapurna, who died yesterday in Mumbai aged 91. Panditayen Annapurna Devi was the daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan, the legendary sarod player, and married Pandit Shankar in 1941. Her Muslim religion presented a formidable problem to marriage as orthodox Hinduism does not recognise conversion if the aspirant is not a caste member. This means that when a Muslim marries a Hindu in India, the Hindu usually converts to Islam. But the obstacle was neatly sidestepped by Ravi Shankar and Allauddin Khan; with Annapurna being converted by the reformed and liberal Arya Samaj Hindu sect which practices conversion.

It should have been the musical marriage made in heaven, but it was not to be. In his autobiography Raga Mala, edited by George Harrison, Ravi Shankar writes that "Annapurna is definitely the best performer of the surbahar [bass sitar]: indeed it is a pity she doesn't perform for the public". Other accounts, including that of Annapurna Devi, challenge this view; instead suggesting that Pandit Shankar suppressed his wife's public career. Thankfully Panditayen Devi continued with her teaching career out of the public eye. Her diverse students included some great names of Indian classical music - Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, and Amit Roy; names that still, quite undeservedly, are little-known in the supposedly diverse West. An excellent article in, ironically, Man's World of India, recounts a story that is still very relevant today in a different culture; one where, however, women are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling of the arts world.

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Saturday, October 13, 2018

A reclusive legend of Indian classical music is no more

One of the great reclusive legends of Indian classical music - Panditayen Annapurna Devi, daughter of the great Ustad Alauddin Khan, and first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar - is no more. Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai today aged 91. The awards could never be a measure of her true position in the pantheon of Indian classical music. But perhaps an idea of her genius can be gathered from something Ustad Ali Akbar Khan once said: “Put Ravi Shankar, Pannalal (Ghosh) and me on one side and put Annapurna on the other. Yet, her side of the scale would be heavier”.

With thanks to Avradeep Pal for the words of tribute. 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).

Friday, October 12, 2018

The world has dorkified itself

Searching for 'Facebook' on the website of the Cult Education Institute, a nonprofit organisation devoted to public education and research, returns 1520 results. Which on the face of it is not surprising given the global embrace of the social network. But an ability to change behaviour is the principal characteristic of a cult, and David Eggers' acclaimed 2013 novel The Circle portrays a dystopian vision of social media that is even more painfully relevant five years after its publication. As this brief extract shows:
'Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn't so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren't doing so well socially. And judgments like 'like' and 'dislike' and 'smiles' and 'frowns' were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say 'Do you like unicorns and stickers?' and you'd say 'Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!' That kind of thing. But now it's not just junior high kids who do it, it's everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I've entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself!
Soundtrack for this post is John Mclaughlin and Carlos Santana's 1973 album Love, Devotion, Surrender. Both musicians were devotees of the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chimnoy, and the album is an exposition of Chimnoy's philosophy of Love, Devotion, Surrender inspired by John Coltrane's Love Supreme. Mclaughlin had introduced Santana to Sri Chimnoy's teachings and on the album cover below Mclaughlin is wearing a Chimnoy button.

Sadly this post does not have a happy ending. Carlos Santana broke from Sri Chimnoy in the early '80s because of the cult-like behaviour surrounding the guru. This break resulted in Chimnoy becoming, to quote Santana, "pretty vindictive for a while". John Mclaughlin's unfriending of the guru was more subtle. Following the 2009 publication of Jayanti Tamm's best selling book of life as a Chinmoy disciple Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult in which she documents his "masterful tactics of manipulation", images of Chimnoy were removed from the CD re-issue of Love, Devotion, Surrender and from My Goals Beyond, another Mclaughlin album dedicated to Chimnoy, .

The relevance of Love, Devotion, Surrender to our obsession with the parallel universe of dorky social media extends beyond the album's title. Speaking of surrender in the context of the album, Chimnoy explained that "When a tiny drop enters into the ocean, we cannot trace the drop. It becomes the mighty ocean", a process that also applies when we surrender our identities to Facebook and other social networks. Likening social media to cults may be more than conspiracy theory: as was revealed here recently Mark Zuckerberg has spent time at the Pune ashram founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho; a guru who, like Sri Chimnoy, features on the Cult Education Institute website. More on Sri Chimnoy in my profile of Olivier Greif A composer and his guru.

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).