Saturday, April 21, 2018

You are the music while the music lasts

There are beguiling parallels between Britten's 'holy triangle' of listener, composer, performer and the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. As can be inferred from this extract from Brian Hodgkinson's The Essence of Vedanta:
Vedanta, however, does not totally abandon the lower knowledge in claiming that only higher knowledge is real. Its method of solving the problem is broadly to subsume the lower knowledge into the higher. This can be seen in two ways. Firstly, in the case of, for example, empirical knowledge by means of sense perception, there are three principal elements or constituents: the knower (or subject), the act of knowing (such as seeing), and the thing known (or object). To the ordinary mind, all three have to be present distinctly for knowledge to occur. In other words, take any one of the three away and we do not know anything. To the mind fully trained in Vedanta, however, even this threefold situation of knowing becomes subsumed in the unity of knowledge itself, as an aspect of self. Subject, act and object become one. There is knowledge, but not a separate knower, nor a separate object, nor an act between. It is like the experience people sometimes have, when listening to music and nothing else, no listener and no listening.
'...or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.'
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 'The Dry Salvages', V)
Vedanta is considered by many to be the most explicit articulation of metaphysical truth. The parallels between it and Britten's holy triangle may have substance. Britten proposed his threefold model in his 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech. Christopher Isherwood and Britten were close friends, with the composer writing of Isherwood in 1937: "He is an awful dear & I am terribly tempted to make him into a father confessor." Britten and Isherwood were in New York together in the early 1940s. When Isherwood moved to California he became deeply involved with Vedanta and was managing editor of the Vedanta Society of Southern California from 1943 until 1945. He went on to publish several books on Vedanta including a biography of the Bengali saint and Vedantist Sri Ramakrishna. In 1955 Britten visited India and spent time in Bali, a majority Hindu island, and the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival featured Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar), Nikhil Ghosh (tabla) and Ayana Deva Angadi (tamboura) in a programme of ragas and traditional Indian dance by Srimati Rita. And this exploration of musical and metaphysical truths can be extended from Britten's concept of the interdependancy of listener, composer, performer and the Vedanta tinged 'you are the music while the music lasts' into Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi's teaching of waḥdat al-wujūd - oneness of being.

Thanks go to all my readers who have elected to follow my post-social media paths by RSS/email. It is humbling that so many have chosen to take the road less travelled. We haven't quite reached Norman Lebrecht's purported 1.5 million readers, but as an earlier post asked, do the arts need wide or deep audiences? On An Overgrown Path will now take an extended break while I explore Vedanta at source. Please make sure the music lasts while I am away.

The header image is from from Amelia Cuni and Ars Choralis Coeln's CD Raga Virga - a disc that for me was 'lust at first listen' . Amelia Cuni, seen in the foreground, trained in the North Indian Dhrupad vocal tradition and has recorded her own realisation of John Cage's eighteen microtonal ragas from 'Solos for Voice 3–58' in his 'Song Books'. As above, On An Overgrown Path is no longer linked on social media. But new posts can be received by RSS/email by simply entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, April 19, 2018

2018 BBC Proms celebrate Mahler, Mahler and yet more Mahler

In the 2018 BBC Proms season announced today there are no less than six Mahler symphonies. This represents 60% of the composer's symphonic output, and his First Symphony receives its fourteenth Proms performance in eighteen years. If Proms planners took any notice of this blog, which of course they don't, they would doubtless hope that my attention would be diverted from the copious Mahler and Shostakovich - yet another 'Leningrad' and Fifth Symphony - by the first Proms appearance of Senegalese singer and songwriter Youssou N'Dour, whose 2004 Grammy-winning album Egypt is influenced by Islamic mysticism. But sorry, I am not impressed.

Youssou N'Dour is a leading figure in a generation of musicians who have, to quote Ross Daly, turned world music into "an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music". Of course there is a place for populist crossover projects. But not at the BBC Proms; which should enlighten and challenge its audiences with authentic performances from the global traditions, instead of giving the music a 'congenial' makeover. There are a few gems in the 2018 Proms, including a rare performance of Parry's Fifth Symphony. But, given the enormous resources at the BBC's disposal, those gems are disgracefully few and far between. With the 2018 Proms Alan Davey and David Pickard have done an exemplary job of ticking all the politically correct and media-friendly boxes. But the problem is, as in so much classical music programming today, there is very little in the boxes except ticks. And yes that Clinton Cards moment is for real. It could have come from BBC Radio 3, but is, quite appropriately, from Classic FM.

Please note Overgrown Path is no longer linked on social media. But new posts can be received by RSS/email by simply entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Is classical music really rich enough to sponsor Google?

In his exposition of the holy triangle formed by composer, performer and listener Benjamin Britten explains that music appreciation requires serious effort by the listener as well as by composer and performer. I am a great admirer of Michael Tippett's underrated The Rose Lake which is being performed by Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra on Sunday (April 22) at the Barbican*. It is perfectly possible to attend London concerts from my home in East Anglia, although it does require serious effort. But why should I make that effort when the complete concert is available free and in real time on YouTube courtesy of the LSO, and when I have a high-end home cinema system with Chromecast streaming technology from Google - who, not coincidentally, own YouTube? And I don't even have to watch The Rose Lake live: it is available from the LSO's YouTube channel on demand for 90 days. So it is goodbye paying audience and goodbye holy triangle, and hello to the brave new world of effortless 'congeniality' and hello to a hike in YouTube's already astronomic advertising income.

An overlooked inconvenient truth is that there are close parallels between the business model of current darling of the classical music industry YouTube and that of the much-vilified Facebook, notably that both are in reality not 'free'. Like Facebook, the product that YouTube sells is its users - namely you. In 2018 YouTube's advertising revenue is set to is set to reach almost $4.0 billion. This revenue is generated from targeted advertising; the key characteristic making this targeting attractive to advertisers is its exploitation, without user's knowledge, of personal search history data from Google's globally-dominant search engine. Which is very similar to Facebook's disclosure of personal profiles. To put that $4.0 billion YouTube profit figure into perspective, the value of the global classical music market is less than $1 billion. Is classical music really rich enough to sponsor Google's even more eye-watering $12.6 billion annual profit, while also being party to yet another commercial exploitation of personal data and to systemic copyright infringement? Let me answer my own question: classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares.

* Incidentally, I also have links with the other work in the Rattle/LSO concert - Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony. Please note Overgrown Path is no longer linked on social media. But new posts can be received by RSS/email by simply entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Music from Osho's free-love playlist

Hearing is possible for everybody. Listening is only possible for those who are silent.
That quotes comes from Osho Rajneesh who is currently the subject of a six-part Netflix documentary - see trailer below. The Guardian's headline for a review of the miniseries sums up Osho's reputation: 'The free-love cult that terrorised America – and became Netflix’s latest must-watch'. But even though, as Krishnamurti told us, leaders destroy followers and followers destroy leaders, in common with many deviant gurus there are gems of truth in Osho's teachings. Most of those gems were pilfered from perennial wisdom, but, despite this, Osho's often astute observations should not be dismissed. He habitually referred to classical music in his teachings, usually meaning the Indian classical tradition, saying "The great classical music takes you higher, beyond your mind, to silences which can give you a taste of meditation, a taste of existence". Osho Rajneesh's record collection is documented, and among the Indian music is the LP seen above. Sorry, but positioning Sir Adrian conducting Mozart as the soundtrack for free-love is just too tempting even for this rabid opponent of click bait. Over to you Norman...

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Facebook is a wake-up call that must not be ignored

A timeline comment of 'I don't think Facebook is perfect by any means... but this is the medium that I find most congenial... and so I'm here for the duration. I hope you'll stay too' and the associated 473 likes and 35 shares to date sum up the prevailing attitude among influential figures in the classical music world. So fortuitously for Mark Zuckerberg and other rapacious online corporations, the data sharing scandal will soon be forgotten, buried beneath Trump's latest folly and the new Brexit mud-slinging. But a vitally important point is being missed. The Facebook scandal must not be ignored, because it is not just about the security of social media profiles. It is about the much wider and even more serious issue of how we have allowed digital technologies to control our lives.

Over the years my shared overgrown paths about serendipitous CD discoveries have brought pleasure and some modest enlightenment to readers. I have never purported to be a professional critic or cultural commentator so, unlike many other bloggers, I pay for almost all the CDs and books I write about. Many of the CDs featured here were bought from specialist independent retailer Prelude Records in Norwich. In January 2017 Prelude closed, with owner Andrew Cane blaming "a slow, but steady decline in business as download purchases and streaming music services have boomed". With Prelude gone and the nearest surviving specialist record store 62 miles away, I was left with no option but to buy discs online. So in the past 14 months I have experienced first hand the damaging degree of control now exercised by online corporations.

If Prelude Records had a CD in stock I bought it and took it away with me. Now if Amazon and its resellers have the disc in stock, they may despatch it in a week, and if I am lucky it will arrive within another week. But if, of course, I want it quickly - just like in the Prelude days - I have to pay an eye-watering premium. Or I must sign up to pay a fixed monthly charge for the delights of Prime, which brings me additional dubious benefits including streamed Jeremy Clarkson. And if I don't shell out £79 a year, there is clear evidence that Amazon deliberately delays shipping non-Prime orders to blackmail its customers into committing to a monthly Prime subscription.

But let's look at that 'in stock' label. Online retailers want my order and know they will only get it if they show an item as 'in stock'. But in-stock where? Increasingly in-stock means anywhere in the supply chain; it is quite clear that its resellers, and I suspect Amazon, are ordering 'in-stock' product from their sources when they receive an order, adding days to the supply process. And recent experience has convinced me that resellers and possibly Amazon are claiming to have despatched orders before they actually do. For instance, on several occasions I have ordered a CD late at night from a UK reseller to find a 'your order has been despatched' email arrived just hours later - ie in the middle of the night - from the vendor. There are two very good reasons for an online vendor to claim premature despatch. The first is that my credit card is charged when despatch is claimed. The second is that very fast despatch generates five star ratings for the vendor in those all important vendor reviews. And, incidentally, did I mention that having eliminated almost all bricks and mortar competition by scorched-earth pricing, Amazon's prices for specialist CDs are now, typically, higher than in the few remaining high street outlets? And how about Amazon's tax evasion?

Then of course what happens when an order has not arrived? A CD from Amazon is currently several days overdue. But I cannot claim a refund because Amazon enforces a period of grace between the stated latest arrival date and actioning a refund. So I order a new car from a BMW dealer, but when it arrives it only has three wheels. When I complain the dealer explains there is a 'latitude of grace' between the brochure description of four wheels and my tricycle. Of course we wouldn't tolerate it in the bricks and mortar world. So why do we tolerate it in the online world? And incidentally, the old Prelude record premises are now a chic pasta bar straight out of Silicon Valley.

And what about the problem that, thanks to the internet, CDs are a threatened species. Silly you the technology junkies tell me: you should buy downloads. Or should I? Last month Apple announced the end of iTunes downloads and Amazon Music has stopped MP3s uploads to its storage subscription service. So if I had donated my CD collection to the local charity shop I would now have a redundant semi-library. Silly you the technology junkies tell me yet again: sign up for a streaming service and you will be in virtual heaven. Yes, a virtual heaven that has Facebook's addictive attraction of congeniality, and which surrenders music ownership to yet more rapacious corporations and, along the way, fails to adequately reward musicians and others involved in the creative process. And given the brief commercial half-life of downloads, how long will music streaming be around?

Then there is all the valuable content being given away on Facebook and YouTube, presumably because those platforms are 'congenial'. (Is 'congenial' the new buzzword replacing 'accessible'?) And there is the terminal damage inflicted on intelligent journalism by social media and other online platforms. (There is nothing more ridiculous than professional critics complaining on social media about the damage done to professional criticism by social media.) And how about the totally ignored threat of soon-to-arrive quantum computing to all forms of internet security, meaning that "any password with less than 5000 characters will be Brute Force cracked in a millisecond"?

At this point it is probably necessary if somewhat egotistical to clarify my viewpoint, before the usual accusations of luddite fly around. My long term professional involvement with digital technologies started in 1991 when I was responsible for a pioneering commercial system for creating video game software on demand. I worked closely with Amazon and other internet retailers when they first entered the UK market on implementing internet based ordering platforms, and was involved in the feasibility study that brought print-on-demand technology for books to the UK. Towards the end of my career I was heavily involved in the application of metadata - key identifier information - in the home entertainment industry. So my views may differ from the majority, but they are not based on ignorance.

It is evidence of how far classical music has its head rammed up its own niche that rock music is more aware of the downsides of our digital culture. Of course new technologies are an inescapable part of our life, and this blog is brought to you using software supplied by rapacious media corporation Google. But, as Jerry Mander so wisely explained, we should assume all technology guilty until proven innocent. Today too many people who should know better are viewing technology as being exempt from any ethical accountability, simply because it is 'congenial'. It won't make a blind bit of difference to the big picture, but I am now trying to maintain control of my own life by distancing myself progressively from the more insidious digital technologies. So, if you depend on my social media links, this is the last Overgrown Path post you will read. If you want to keep reading my inconvenient truths please register using the box in the sidebar to receive RSS/email updates or keep returning to the blog's homepage. As they say on Facebook, I hope you'll stay. But if not, thanks for following my past paths.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Plus ça change

'They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs!' was the comment Elgar made to his friend W.H Reid, leader of the Queen's Hall Orchestra, after the lukewarm reception given to the Second Symphony at its premiere in 1911.

I will shortly stop adding links on social media to my posts. Instead email notifications of future Overgrown Path articles can be received by registering on the side-bar. Disconnection from social media means messages sent by Facebook will not reach me. If you want to correspond by email please add a comment to this post including your email address. This will be picked up prior to moderation and, of course, will not be published.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

In paradise there is no idle chatter

There may well be life after social media, because the Quran (19:62) tells us that "In paradise there is no idle chatter but only the invocation of peace". If indeed there is a paradise, perhaps the only sound there is the reed flute. Mevlânâ Rumi's epic poem Masnavi begins with the distich "Listen to this reed flute, how wistfully it is singing! About separation it is complaining". In his poetry Rumi uses the ney - a reed flute - as a metaphor for the human race which since time immemorial has suffered from the separation caused by the egocentric human condition.

That photo shows leading ney exponent, flautist extraordinaire and composer Christos Barbas. He was born in 1980 in Thessaloniki, Greece; after studying musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Aristotelio (Thessaloniki) and the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (London) he was taught by the renowned ney master Omer Erdoğdular, who was born in Rumi's final resting place Konya in Turkey. Christos Barbas works and records with Ross Daly and is director of Labyrinth Catlaunya in Barcelona where he now lives. He explains that "My major interest in music is its timeless power to open up – for each person - possibilities for learning, connectedness, creativity as well as its spiritual faculties that can be a valuable tool for a person for understanding himself, understanding the world we live in and ultimately our position in the world".

Together with Ross Daly, Christos Barbas is an active proponent of the new modal music which draws on diverse cultural traditions. His belief in music's power to open up our spiritual faculties is reflected in music which reflects the mystical elements of both his native Orthodox Greece and Turkey with its longstanding Sufi tradition*. The new modal music draws heavily on Eastern practices of improvisation and repetition, which contrast with the Western preoccupation with notation and thematic development. John Cage famously taught that "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all". This succinctly describes the power of repetition, which is found in Occidental traditions including the Sufi dhikr, and in Western compositions such as the Rite of Spring, Ravel's Bolero and the music of Philip Glass and Ludovico Einaudi. Christos Barbas' 2010 double album Yeden - a yeden is the seventh degree of a scale, the note leading to the next octave - is a case study in this mystic power of improvisation and repetition.

Today too much of what is loosely categorised as world music is positioned uncomfortably in the no man's land between the opposing camps of art and commerce. Christos Barbas's music has no such destination: it does not aim to occupy an existing space, instead it creates its own new unique territory. There is no better illustration of this than his new album The Mountain & The Tree; this is a very convincing demonstration of the new modal music, delivered in collaboration with Murat Aydemir (tanbur), Bora Uymaz (vocals), and Isabel Martin (percussion), and with a guest composition from Ross Daly. The Mountain & The Tree could be straight out of ECM's top-drawer with its with its Ursula K. Le Guin and T.S. Eliot quotes, and its atmospheric monochrome images by the young Greek photographer Alexandra P. Kavoura who died tragically young shortly after taking the photos. But with ECM increasingly fixated on the tried and tested no man's land between art and commerce, it is left to Christos Barbas to self-release this impressive and important album.

The mission of Sufism and other great perennial wisdom traditions is to find the hidden self from which we have become separated by quotidien virtual reality. It does not matter whether the destination is Reality, Truth, God or Emptiness. These traditions believe that humankind is not fallen, just fallen asleep; our true selves are not lost, just temporarily obscured like the sun behind storm clouds. In an earlier post I described how ubiqitous online algorithms eliminate the chance encounters that bring insight and learning. This in turn eliminates the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures which often sparks creativity. We will have our own views as to whether it is the music of paradise; but Christos Barbas' The Mountain & The Tree is definitely yet another example of outstanding music sparked by a collision of cultures that the internet is hiding from you. Don't take my word, listen to this sample.

* A post last year uncovered a little-known example of Sufism under Ottoman rule on what is now the Greek island of Crete.

I will not be adding any more links on social media to my posts. Instead email notifications of future Overgrown Path articles can be received by registering on the side-bar. Disconnection from social media means messages sent by Facebook will not reach me. If you want to correspond by email please add a comment to this post including your email address. This will be picked up prior to moderation and, of course, will not be published. Christos Barbas CDs were kindly supplied as requested review samples. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, April 09, 2018

The sound of Syria

After Rumi the Muslim as America's best selling poet and Om Kalthoum the Muslim as the world's best-selling female musician, comes Omar Souleyman the Muslim as the word's most prolific recording artist. Like Rumi and Om Kalthoum, Omar Souleyman's claim to fame should be prefaced by 'arguably'. Born in the northeastern region of Syria but now exiled, he started his career as a part-time wedding singer. It is estimated that Omar Souleyman has recorded around five hundred studio and live albums, the majority of which were made at weddings for guests and subsequently copied and sold locally. There are no definitive figures on the most prolific musician. But claimants to the title include Indian singer Asha Bhosle, who, according to the Guinness Book of Records has recorded around 11,000 songs, Nana Maskouri with 450 albums, and the Japanese ‘noise’ artist Merzbow with 418 albums.

Omar Souleyman, who is a Sunni Muslim but practises religious tolerance, now has a large international following and appeared at the Glastonbury Festival in 2011. If Westerners are familiar with Syrian music at all it is the traditional forms. In stark contrast, Omar Souleyman's development of the traditional dabke danced to at rural weddings mixes keyboards, electronic beats and vocals - sample his latest album From Syria with Love via this link.

Changing the direction of this path, it is now time for me to finally accept two self-evident truths. The first is that our so-called social media is both toxic and sterile; the second is that any empathy I had for it is now exhausted. Additionally I have seen too many of my peers succumb to the virus of social media addiction. So it is time to distance myself from that delusional world. This means I will no longer add links on social media to my posts. Instead email notifications of future Overgrown Path articles can be received by registering on the side-bar. I will doubtless lose some if not most readers as a result. But so be it - please remember both Benjamin Britten's teaching that "music demands ... some preparation, some effort" and also that there is no such thing as a free Facebook account. What is far more important than the continuing farce of Facebook - a social media platform described so pithily by Rolling Stone as "a tossed-off hookup site turned international cat-video vault turned Orwellian surveillance megavillain" - is the continuing tragedy of Syria, which Omar Souleyman references in his new album.

No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Calming classical music's monkey mind

In 2007 I made a modest pilgrimage to the grave of Elizabeth Maconchy and wrote a tribute titled How important is a composer’s music? from which the photo above is taken. On An Overgrown Path was among the first blogs to draw attention to Elizabeth Maconchy's music, and over the years many other women composers have been featured here before their 'discovery' by the twittering classes. If today's post simply repeated my 2007 article it would undoubtedly generate a large readership: because Elizabeth Maconchy and her peers are currently enjoying the attention of classical music's monkey mind. Monkey mind is a Buddhist concept evoking capriciousness and inconstancy. Elizabeth Maconchy's music, like that of so many other musicians female and male, undoubtedly deserves attention and I commend it strongly to you, particularly her quartets. But what disturbs me is the damaging power of that monkey mind which flits capriciously from one next big thing to another - El Sistema to Gustvo Dudamel to Sinfini Music to Joyce DiDonato to Simon Rattle to a new London concert hall... And as yesterday's big thing disappears into the sunset another and yet another gallop over the horizon accompanied by much twittering.

This blog has been exploring overgrown paths for thirteen years and my professional involvement with the internet started ten years before that. In its early days the internet offered the promise of an information spotlight radiating a warm glow of understanding to illuminate a long tail of deserving intellectual endeavour. But what has happened is that the information spotlight has become ever more capricious and narrow in its focus, leaving the areas beyond it enveloped in the darkness of ignorance. It is fashionable to blame Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and other new technology pioneers for our growing disillusionment with the internet. But we are shooting at the wrong target. The denizens of the 'net - and that is all of us - are to blame. The much-vaunted online hive mind has become no more than a monkey mind addicted to a frantic online for the next big thing. If there has been any aspiration underpinning my exploration of overgrown paths it an ambition to shed some faint light on the many overlooked and valuable little things that remain plunged in online darkness. It was in that spirit that I wrote my recent post making the case for the great Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum, and this post will again try to offer some marginal illumination by highlighting little-known musicians who are working to keep Om Kalthoum's legacy alive.

The celebration of composer anniversaries is one of the many manifestations of classical music's monkey mind, and, as a result, anniversary celebrations have become a key feature of recent BBC Proms seasons. Proms initiatives exploring the outer reaches of art music such as Oklohoma! have met with widespread approval; however it is unlikely that when the programme for the 2018 BBC Proms is announced on April 17th it will include an anniversary tribute to Om Kalthoum who was born on December 31st 1898*. The absence of a tribute would be a missed opportunity: because a celebration of Om Kalthoum's artistry would not only contribute to the Proms acclaimed pledge of gender equality, but it would also be a much needed step towards ethnic equality.

An Om Kalthoum tribute would also, incidentally, allow the Proms to tap into one of art music's largest markets. One reason for the diva's continuing popularity is that her recordings found a new and large market in the 21st century among young second generation immigrants from North Africa living in Europe. As a post last year reported, the music market among the world's population of 1.8 billion Muslims world is forecast to reach US$1.4 billion dollars in 2019, and two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30. Sales of Om Kalthoum's recorded legacy makes a significant contribution to this market, as her recordings are estimated to still sell around a million copies a year.

Clearly a major obstacle to any celebration of Om Kalthoum's art is that her magnetic stage presence died with her in 1975. However there are worthy carriers of her flame. In 2001 the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris mounted A Tribute to Oum Kalsoum (transliteration gives many alternative spellings for her name) and the concert was repeated at the esteemed Les Orientales festival at Saint-Florent-Le-Vieil, a festival that was featured in a 2009 Overgrown Path post. At these concerts Karima Skalli from Morocco, Abir Nasraoui from Tunisia and Riham Abdelhakim from Egypt explored the great singer's legacy. The now-deleted CD seen above was recorded at the concerts and issued on the Institut du Monde Arabe record label. Accompanying the singers is the National Arab Music Ensemble of the Cairo Opera - where Aida received its world premiere in 1871 - conducted by Selim Sahhab.

One of the best-known contemporary champions of Om Kalthoum's legacy and a natural for the Proms is the Tunisian singer and musicologist Dorsaf Hamdani. Her CD Princesses du Chant Arabe from the Accords Croises label seen below combines songs from the repertoire of Om Kalthoum with those of two other legendary Arab divas, Fairouz from Lebanon and Asmahan from Syria. Dorsaf Hamdani's versatility is also showcased in another CD that is a personal favourite, Barbara & Farouz, which juxtaposes songs made famous by Fairouz with those of the French singer Barbara. After 12 years I have at last found something that Norman Lebrecht and I agree on. In his 2011 BBC Radio 3 programme The Inner Voice of France Norman spoke about "the sound of a chanson that's not just popular, its intensely personal, to everyone who hears it, it's a song that evokes a place, an encounter, a moment in your life. It might be sung by Edith Piaf, or Jacques Brel, or Juliette Greco - but the one for me who delves deepest into the collective unconscious, is almost unknown outside France, and her song is the story of millions of private lives, of the spirit of Paris, of the narrative of our times, of my lifetime, she's known as Barbara, though that's not her real name, she called herself, the Black Eagle, and she always wore black".

Central to this path is Om Kalthoum; her music had its roots in Quranic recitation and Sufi chants, and the subject of the attitude towards music within Islam is still clouded by misinformation. By way of explanation, in his book Journeys of a Sufi Musician the master of traditional Mevlevi devotional music Kudsi Ergüner recounts this anecdote:
One day, a theologian went to see Rumi and said, 'You, who are a good man, how is it that you invented this heresy of listening to music? What does it mean to you?' Rumi answered, 'When I listen to music, I hear the creaking of the opening of the gates of Heaven.' The theologian retorted, 'And yet, when I listen to music I hear no such thing.' Rumi then smiled and said, 'Of course you hear it, but what you perceive is the creaking of the gates as they close.'
Gender equality is, quite properly, a current preoccupation. So I will conclude this post, which so far has focussed entirely on women musicians, by shining a little light on Kudsi Ergüner. One of Rumi's best-loved poems is the Song of the Reed, and the ney is the end-blown reed flute immortalised by Rumi and played in the dhikr of the Mevlana Sufi Order. Born in in Diyarbakır, Turkey in 1952, Kudsi Ergüner has played a key role in keeping the tradition of ney playing alive as part of a vibrant spiritual tradition, and has fought against its emasculation by what he describes as 'eso-tourism'. As well as performing and recording traditional Sufi music from Turkey, Kudsi Ergüner has worked with an eclectic group of creatives including the theatre director Peter Brook, choreographer Maurice Béjart, electronic music pioneer Thomas Kessler, and trans-cultural musician Peter Gabriel. He has also explored the possibilities of jazz - a genre lamentably ignored by today's music monkey mind.

Two albums from Kudsi Ergüner's overlooked Sufi jazz project are featured here. Ergüner's contempt for eso-tourism extends to a contempt for fusion projects that are no more then exercises in musical eso-tourism. His Sufi jazz project does not set out to span Eastern and Western comfort zones: instead it aims to break down cultural comfort zones. Like Elizabeth Maconchy's quartets, this is music that does not take any prisoners. The albums were recorded a decade ago for the German jazz label ACT in collaboration with other genre-defying musicians. The line-up for the 1999 Ottomania includes tubaist and serpent player extraordinaire Michel Godard whose eclectic album Castel del Monte featured here in 2010, while the 2001 Islam Blues is underpinned by string bass virtuosos Renaud Garcia-Fons who appeared in my Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction post. This was a homage to Walter Benjamin whose influential eponymous essay makes the proposition that modern techniques of reproduction have destroyed the aura and authority of original art works. That proposition, and its extension to modern techniques of communication, is painfully relevant in the age of the digital monkey mind. It is my hope that this and other Overgrown Path posts encourage exploration beyond art music's ubiquitous next big things.

* This date is not definitive as birth records were not kept in Egypt at the time. So an alternative date of May 4, 1904 for Om Kalthoum's birth is also sometimes used. Which is convenient: because if the BBC fails to recognise her in the Proms 2018 season, it has a second chance in 2024.

No review samples used. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Power to the diverse people

The sleeve essay for Algerian Berber musician Houria Aïchi's new album Chants mystiques d'Algérie explains how "There's a word that Houria Aïchi tends to use frequently as she discusses her latest album: 'people'. However it's neither a political ploy nor the stance of a coyly learned musician. Indeed, her singing belongs very much to people..." My 2013 post about Houria Aïchi was headlined Where has all the diversity gone?. Five years later little has changed: we don't talk about people: we talk about female or male, Christian or Muslim, Western or Eastern, all viewed through the distorting prism of click bait.

It is not insignificant that my header photo of Houria Aïchi appeared on the website of the 2017 Festival Voix de Femmes [Festival of Women's Voices] in Liège, Belgium. The recently announced equality pledge by the BBC Proms, the Aldeburgh Festival and other high profile Western music festivals is much needed. But it is by no means the only game in town. Although judging by the media coverage you would think it was, and we haven't even had the media feeding frenzy of the 2018 Proms launch. Have you ever seen a mention by the cultural commentators of the Liège Festival Voix de Femmes? Have you ever seen a mention of Houria Aïchi? Have you ever seen a report of her brave concertising during the Algerian civil war which was precipitated by religious extremism? Where has all the diversity gone? And talking of diversity: as they say elsewhere, if you like the 1971 album Brian Jones Presents the Pan Pipes at Joujouka you will like Houria Aïchi' equally demiurgic Chants mystiques d'Algérie.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Make America musical

Trump's "Make America Great Again" finds its pre-echo, Diduck shows us, in the mid-nineteenth-century campaign to "Make America musical" - a campaign in which musical instrument design was inflected by a rising commercially oriented patriotism, Here, gathering ideological movements to foster American national character, infused with the Protestant ethic and ideas of the "Melting Pot," were routed through music as the burgeoning piano-manufacturing industry responded to the search for instruments by which to cultivate hard work, individualism and equal opportunity. Pianos, Diduck notes, "were the ideal musical machine for the job". The history that emerges then, is one that weaves between "cultures of claviocentrism," the industries and industrial bureaucracies that sprang up to support the triumph of the keyboard, and genealogies of musical automata and the methods of synchronization on which they depended.
That extract but not the photo comes from Georgina Born's introduction to Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the 20th Century by Ryan Diduck. This important book is far more than a history of MIDI technology, and its wider view on the impact of dominant technology platforms is very relevant to the genealogies of musical automata and methods of synchronization practised by YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and their peers.

Fortunately Donald and Melania are not alone in making America musical again. John McLaughlin Williams tells me that on April 7th his colleague James Blachly is conducting the first complete US performance of Ethel Smyth’s opera The Prison - more in this interview. A recent comment by Graeme explained that 'What irks me is that if Radio 3 really meant what they say about women composers, including commissioning 50% of new works, they should do a concert performance of The Wreckers, or another BIG piece, rather than just token bits and pieces of work'. The programme for the 2018 BBC Proms with added gender equality will be announced on April 19th, and James Blachly and his Johnstown Symphony Orchestra have set the bar for BIG pieces by women composers admirably high.

Header image is from Melania Trump's Facebook videos via CNN - be careful what you share on Facebook. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Winston Churchill 's surprising intimacy with Islam

Morocco was a favourite destination for Sir Winston Churchill's painting trips, and as discussed in a post yesterday he stayed at La Moumonia Hotel in Marrakech. What is striking when reviewing Churchill's Moroccan paintings is the preponderance of Islamic subjects. An example above is his 1948 painting of the Ben Youssef Mosque - famous for its madrasa - in Marrakech. Of course Morocco is a Muslim country rich in visual wonders, so Churchill's preoccupation with Islamic imagery may not be surprising. But there is another more tantalising explanation.

In a 1907 letter to Churchill his future sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie pleads: “Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalise, Pasha-like tendencies, I really have. If you come into contact with Islam your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do fight against it”. Surprisingly Churchill was a close friend of the the orientalist, and anti-imperialist Wilfrid S. Blunt who has been described as the "first Englishman to take up the lance for the Arabs": it is said that Churchill and Blunt together dressed in traditional Arab clothes in private. T.E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - was also close to Churchill and advised him during the post-First World War peace process.

This intimacy with Islam was not a passing fad of Churchill's early career. In October 1940, when Nazi bombing of London was at its peak, he approved plans to build a mosque in central London. His war cabinet allocated a budget of £100,000 and Churchill remained a staunch supporter of what became the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park. His love affair with Muslim Morocco continued throughout his life and he travelled outside Marrakech on painting expeditions: The view of the Ourika Valley above dates from 1948. When I visited this region recently I headlined my travelogue 'This is most definitely not health and safety territory'. What conditions were like for a traveller there almost seventy years ago is difficult to imagine.

Churchill's fascination with Islam is at variance with his reputation as a a die-hard imperialist and quasi-racist. There is doubtless truth in this reputation: in his 1899 book The River War about the Mahdists separatists in Sudan where he had fought, he famously attacked Islam using these words: "How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia [rabies] in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy", and he made similar controversial comments about Jews and Mahatma Gandhi.

The letter from Lady Gwendoline Bertie was discovered by Warren Dockter when researching his book Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East. In it Dr Dockter concludes that Churchill's fascination with Islam was “largely predicated on Victorian notions, which heavily romanticised the nomadic lifestyle and honour culture of the Bedouin tribes”. Although Churchill remained an Islamophile throughout his life, his closest engagement was in the Liberal phase early in his career - he switched his allegiance to the Liberal party in 1904. Sufism is the liberal strand of Islam and it is reported that Churchill was an admirer of Idries Shah's influential book The Sufis. His final painting trip to Morocco in 1958 took Churchill in 1958 to Tahanoute on the road from Marrakech to the Ourika Valley, where, possibly significantly, he painted the view of the shrine of the Sufi saint Sidi Mohammed el Kebir seen below. Churchill, may have been a die-hard imperialist. But, as the inscription over the shrine of the Sufi saint and flag bearer for the plurality of Islam Mevlânâ Rumi in Konya exhorts:

'Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come.'

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