Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Why one-size-fits-all does not work for classical music

Benjamin Britten's celebrated 'Holy Triangle' divides music neatly into composer, performer, and listener. But music is not the composer, not the performer and not the listener. So just what is music? Great music works its magic by changing our consciousness. This experience of transcendence can make us happy, sad, relaxed, positive, empowered etc etc. These changes in neurological consciousness occur when our brain parses minute electrical impulses generated by our ears and eyes. But what consciousness is, and how it works, is one of the great mysteries that science has so far failed to solve. Which is problematic, because consciousness determines our understanding of reality, and shapes our perception not only of the music we hear, but also of the world we live in.

Two conflicting traditional views of how consciousness shapes reality predominate. In the West the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm of material realism is the product of scientific rationalisation. Material realism holds that nothing exists other than matter and force; with consciousness being a beneficial result of the realignment of neurons in the brain. Conversely, in the East monistic idealism holds that, to quote the Indian quantum physicist Amit Goswami, the world of matter, and the world of mental phenomena such as thought, are determined by consciousness. This means consciousness is the only reality. At this point readers may be asking, what has this to do with music? But please stay with me a little longer if you dare. Because understanding consciousness and how it shapes our perception of reality is the first step to answering the question 'What is music?'

Both material realism and monistic idealism are based on long-standing thinking, and recently more rigorous but still speculative theories on the nature of consciousness have emerged. It is surely no coincidence that one of the most respected new theories on the nature of consciousness comes from a celebrated musician. Ervin László (b.1932) is a Hungarian philosopher and systems scientist. An accomplished classical pianist, he started playing at concerts at the age of nine and studied at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest. At the end of the war he moved to America and was awarded U.S. citizenship. He made several recordings for RCA including the Sibelius disc seen in the accompanying graphics. However his attention switched to science and in 1970 he was awarded a PhD in philosophy and human sciences by the Sorbonne. He went on to become a leading advocate of the theory of quantum consciousness. In 1993 he founded the Club of Budapest as a catalyst for the transformation to a sustainable world. For this work Ervin László was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and 2005.

Quantum consciousness is a group of hypothesis on the fringes of accepted science suggesting that Cartesian-Newtonian mechanics cannot explain consciousness. Instead quantum consciousness proposes that entanglement, superposition, and other recently identified quantum dynamics are integral to the brain's working and could explain consciousness. Ervin László explains this eloquently in his book '3rd Millenium'*:

The evidence that surfaces, surprising as it may be, indicates that our brain is not limited to the neural processes that go on within our cranium - it is a wide-band receiver and high-powered processor of information. The information it receives originates not only in our own body, but comes from all over the world. The brain's ten billion neurons, with 10,000 connections each, constitute the most complex system of electronic organization in the known universe. This system, which operates at the edge of chaos, receives and transforms information from our own body, as well as the electro-magnetic, acoustic, and other wave fields in our environment. It also receives and decodes information from more subtle fields, including the vacuum's zero-point holofield. Potentially, our brain connects us with the wide reaches of the cosmos.
Composer, performer and listener as discrete monolithic entities, interconnected but neatly socially distanced at the apexes of a triangle as proposed by Britten, is the dogma that has ruled classical music for decades. But the hypothesis that consciousness - the mechanism for appreciating music - is the product of quantum entanglement and superposition operating at the edge of chaos questions the credibility of this prevailing dogma. Today a one-size-fits-all strategy is slavishly adhered to by the classical industry. This means one style of repertoire - preferably Mahler - under the baton of one category of conductor - celebrity - is targeted at one audience - young and wired - in one type of concert hall - acoustically perfect. In contrast quantum consciousness proposes that the audience for music is highly granular, because entanglement and superposition processes are unique to each listener.

Classical music's traditional mindset assumes a simple one way flow of music from composer to performer and on to listener. But good musicians will contradict this, saying they can 'feel' the audience. A good example of a musician 'feeling' their audience comes in this anecdote from the great Sufi musician and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan:

You will be amused to hear of a musician who was once invited to play the veena. The musician came and was welcomed. He uncovered his instrument; then he looked here and there, and found some discomfort, some discord, so he covered his veena, saluted, and left. Those present felt disappointed and begged him to play, but his answer was 'No matter what you give me, I do not feel like playing'.
Quantum consciousness determined by the interference of diverse energy fields - quantum entanglement - is, arguably, the mechanism whereby the musician 'feels' the audience. It also means reality is constantly changing. Which in turn undermines the dualist judgements imposed on art music - perfect concert halls, definitive performances, masterworks, virtuoso musicians etc etc. It also questions the consensual reality that underpins the tastemaker culture of social media, and hints at why digital sound devoid of chaotic sonic entanglement sounds inferior to analogue sound. Even more fundamentally quantum consciousness exposes the danger of ignoring crucial social and technicology changes by locking classical music into museums of consciousness. Because if music is a product of quantum consciousness, it is outside time and therefore cannot be frozen as a museum exhibit.

This post is arcane, even by On An Overgrown Path's standards. So, in our culture of 'If it ain't Mirga, don't read it', I doubt if many readers will have persevered to this final paragraph. Those who remain may dismiss quantum consciousness as just more fuzzy speculation. But classical music is a fuzzy art: there is no rational explanation why Stradivarius violins are so superior or why Beethoven's music sounds sublime. This post is simply a plea for the window on the plausible and possible to be opened a little wider. Which is important, as Ervin László explains:

As mystics, prophets, and people of insight and sensitivity intuited through the ages, our brain is an integral part of the universe, and our mind is a potentially open window on it. It is up to us to throw open that window, to the full extent of our remarkable, but hitherto largely unexploited, physical and mental capacities.

* Ervin László has written more than seventy-five books. His autobiography 'Simply Genius!: And Other Tales From My Life, An Informal Autobiography' provides a useful overview. There are some recent videos of László as pianist on YouTube.

A heads up for James Oroc's 'The New Psychedelic Revolution: The Genesis of the Visionary Age' which influenced this article. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, July 06, 2020

Let's give classical music a Stockhausen makeover

That CD of Péter Eötvös conducting Stockhausen's Gruppen* and Punkte is relevant to classical music's search for a new younger audience. What you see can change how you hear music: the artwork, which is the work of the Hungarian GAB/MER Design Studio whose other credits include the United Colours of Benetton brand identity, bridges the gap between the psychedelic art of the 1960s and the more recent visionary art of Alex Grey. Stockhausen himself bridged the same gap: his influence on 1960s counterculture was recognised by his presence on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork, while his cycle of seven operas Licht (Light) composed between 1997 and 2003 inhabits a parallel universe to Alex Grey and other contemporary cybernauts.

Among other 'mystery school' composers inhabiting this parallel universe are Olivier Messiaen, Jonathan Harvey, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener. In his fantasy novel Pawn of Prophecy David Eddings explains that:

There's a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what is possible and impossible?
Today multi-sensory artists are making those boundaries between the two worlds disappear by combining music and visuals at hugely popular events such as the biennial Boom Festival in Portugal. Their music may not be your music; but anyone who wants to understand what connecting with a new classical audience involves should watch the Boom video via this link. As has been explained here previously, a young and affluent audience of 400,000 attends the similar Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium - the world's best music festival? - over two weekends.

At first glance there may seem to be no similarity between the Boom Festival and classical concerts. But digging deeper disproves this. Boom belongs to a the genre of transformational festivals - another is Burning Man in Nevada. Transformational means breaking down the boundary - fleetingly or more enduringly - surrounding the world beyond. Which is exactly what happens when a listener is moved by a Mahler symphony, or by a trance session in the dance temple at Boom. But this is where we hit the disconnect. The coveted non-classical audience is getting deeper and deeper into the unsettling liminal zone between the possible and impossible at Boom. But to entice this coveted audience, the classical industry is emasculating the music by making it an easy listen and non-threatening.

Contributing to this disconnect is the fallacy that everyone hears classical music the same way. Wrong - we do not 'hear' a violin. Vibrations in the violin strings and resonances in the instrument's body are transmitted by airborne vibrations. These sound waves are gathered by the outer ear and travel down the ear canal to the eardrum. This vibrates, setting three tiny bones in the middle ear in motion. The fluid in the inner ear (cochlea) then moves, causing the hair cells in the cochlea to bend. These change the movement into electrical impulses which are transmitted to the hearing (auditory) nerve and on to the brain. Every human ear is physically different - ears make better unique IDs than fingerprints. So different ears hear the same sound differently even before the brain is involved.

But that's the easy bit. Because the brain then has to parse those electrical impulses to create an infinitely nuanced three dimensional sound picture. This parsing process forms the basis of our neurological consciousness, and only a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook tells us that everyone's brain is different. Which means parsing produces a different sound picture for every single person. So my music is not your music, my acoustically perfect concert hall is not your acoustically perfect concert hall, and my definitive performance is not your definitive performance.

The fallible nature of our hearing mechanism also means that there's a world beyond what each of us can see and hear as individuals. So to break out of the current impasse, classical music needs to recognise this. In his Aspen Award acceptance speech Benjamin Britten told us "music demands ... some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket". Just look at another video via this link of the Boom Festival held in a remote part of Portugal: that elusive new, young covetable audience is prepared to make a big effort to hear the right kind of music. They do not need to be spoon fed classical music. The fashionable and all-pervasive 'Classic FM' makeover has failed dismally to connect with a new audience. Young vibrant audiences don't want baby food, they want chewy music. So as part of the new normal let's ditch Classic FM and give classical music a Stockhausen makeover.

* To be perfectly accurate Gruppen is also conducted by Arturo Tamayo and Jacques Mercier as it is composed for three orchestras. Heads up for James Oroc's The New Psychedelic Revolution: The Genesis of the Visionary Age which influenced this article. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Two roads diverged and I took the one less travelled

For sixteen years On An Overgrown Path has been taking the road less travelled. One example was my road trip from Kalka to Leh in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in the north of India. Éliane Radigue's electronic paeans to Tibetan Buddhism, Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila featured heavily in the iPod playlist for that journey. As my photos show, the road climbs from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to reach the alpine desert of Ladakh - 'Little Tibet' - seen in the final photo below.

En route the road crosses some of the highest passes in the world: three are over 15,000 feet with the highest, the Taglang La pass reaching 17,480 feet. The 500 mile drive took three long days on the road plus one rest day to acclimatise. For the final 300 miles between Manali and Leh the average altitude of the road is 11,000 feet, and it is only passable between May and October. Due to the altitude there is no permanent habitation for 200 miles from Jispa until the road enters Ladakh; the only services are temporary dhaba - road side eateries - such as the one seen in photo 9. This is the only overland route into Ladakh; it carries a continuous stream of petrol tankers and military vehicles as the region is of strategic importance because it borders both Pakistan and China. Many glacial streams cross the road - see photo 3 - and for much of the last 300 miles the road is unsurfaced and just one-and-a-half carriageways wide - see photo 17 - with no barriers to stop errant vehicles plunging down the mountainside.

For anyone who, like me, suffers from vertigo and dislikes being driven, the distraction of a well-stocked iPod is highly recommended for this journey. Unfortunately the only alternative way to travel in and out of Ladakh, which is a narrow plateau between the Himalaya and Karakoram mountains, is flying. This is how I returned and it is only slightly less nail biting than the overland journey. At an altitude of 11,500 feet Leh is one of the highest airports in the world and, because of nearby mountains, has one of the very few unidirectional runways. This means planes can only take-off and land in one direction irrespective of the wind direction. This compromises even further the ability of aircraft to climb quickly in the very thin air. Which is somewhat disconcerting when taking off from an airport surrounded by the world's highest mountains, and as a safety precaution the airport can only be used in the morning due to the strong mountains winds later in the day. Thankfully Leh airport has an excellent safety record; perhaps because there is no room for aircrews to relax - video via this link.

I travelled to Ladakh in 2014 to attend the Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama. This is a Tantric initiation that uses visualisation and meditation to plant the seeds for practitioner to achieve enlightenment by being reborn in Shambala, the mythical Pure Land of Tibetan Buddhism. For those unable to make a pilgrimage to this magical region great art - including great music and great poetry - can be the route to fleeting, if not boundless, bliss. But it does mean taking the path less travelled. Among the less travelled musical paths I have explored over the years is the overtly Buddhist nuanced electronica of Éliane Radigue; notably Trilogie de la Mort, Jetsun Mila, and Songs of Milarepa. The Tibetan saint Milarepa who inspired the latter two works described how in the vast empty spaces of the Himalayas the vortex of everyday life can be exchanged for boundless bliss. Which brings this photo essay full circle back to the poetry of Robert Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

* Those wishing to experience the fleeting enlightenment offered by Éliane Radigue's Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila will find samples online. Of particular interest is a short video of an al fresco performance of Trilogie de la Mort in 2011 at the Villa Arson contemporary art museum in France which is an excellent illustration of how classical music can attract new audiences by taking the road less travelled. This photo essay was originally published in July 2014. 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, June 30, 2020

Preconceptions and prejudice have no place in music criticism

That photo shows Herbert von Karajan with the composer Carl Orff. In 1973 Karajan recorded Orff's musical play De temporum fine comoedia (A Play on the End of Time). If that recording was reissued today it would be difficult to imagine any critic appraising it objectively, due to the preconceptions and prejudices associated with not only the composer but also the conductor. Which raises the important question of what exactly should critics judge?

Recently one of our bright young critical things dismissed the late compositions of a number of prominent 20th century British composers in less than 280 characters. The same critic is equally dismissive of J S Bach; but let's leave aside the question as to why, with such superior knowledge, he is not composing the great 21st century symphony instead of posting selfies on Twitter*. Our time is better spent drilling down into how, in recent years, classical reviews have moved away from their raison d'être of analysing the merits of one particular interpretation.

Instead of telling readers whether the conductor and musicians were on top form for that one performance, classical reviews have become platforms for airing personal prejudices and preconception, Let me give an example to illustrate this point. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is undoubtedly a very talented conductor. But how many bad reviews have you seen of her concerts or recordings? The remarkable absence of anything other than superlatives must mean one of two things. Either Ms Gražinytė-Tyla is superhuman. Or critics are no longer in the business of criticism, but instead see their role as simply extending the narrative du jour.

Social media must take much of the blame for this preeminence of the narrative du jour. Because as a Guardian article pointed out back in 2011, thanks to social media everyone's a critic now. The problem is that everyone is trying, with a singular lack of success, to follow in the footsteps of giants such as Ernest Newman and William Mann. Social media is an instant gratification environment where humility is in desperately short supply. This means that the new generation of critics who have cut their teeth online are filling their reviews with prejudices and preconceptions, because they lack the breadth of experience and knowledge to deconstruct one specific interpretation.

The fashion for reviewing concerts and recordings on how well they fit with the all-important virtue signalling agenda is particularly damaging. Because artistic merit and virtue signalling power are totally unrelated. As a result a lot of music which simply fails to tick the right boxes is being neglected, while music of no lesser - or greater - merit is being given a lot of air time simply because it resonates with the zeitgeist. Preconceptions and prejudice are a very bad thing; but it is conveniently forgotten today that they are bad in more than one way.

* Let's end this nonsense about 'stalking' on social media. If you put your views in the public domain on Twitter don't complain if those views are discussed publicly. If you don't want them discussed then change your privacy settings or kick your social media habit. Reading social media posts that are not privacy protected is not 'trolling': it is trying to understand the zeitgeist. (Note how agreeing with a social media opinion makes you a 'friend', while disagreeing makes you a 'troll' or 'stalker'.) Twitter is not a parallel universe where the rules and professional integrity of the real world no longer apply. Whether we like it or not, and I certainly don't, social media is now the real world. So if you express an opinion on Twitter, don't bitch when it is taken seriously. Does anyone take Trump's rants less seriously because they are expressed on Twitter? Was Rebecca Long-Bailey's endorsement any less 'anti-Semitic' because it was tweeted?

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, June 28, 2020

What is diversity in music?

True diversity celebrates the linkages which connect different people and cultures. Gender and ethnicity are vital links in the diversity chain. But, despite received wisdom in the music industry, they are not the only links, and when torn out of context and isolated as exploitable causes, gender and ethnicity become devalued. In this extract from 'A New Map of Wonders' Caspar Henderson uses linkages impassively to probe the truly rich diversity that is art music:
As for the end, well, many of us have a general idea that, one day, the Sun will become a red giant which will incinerate and swallow the Earth. No more cloud capp'd towers and gorgeous palaces for you, pal. The full story, though, is even more awesome and beautiful. It deserves, at the very least, a great musical score. I'd like to imagine something beyond the final chord of 'Der Abscheid' in Gustav Mahler's Dad Lied von der Erde (which, Benjamin Britten suggested, was imprinted on the atmosphere) and surpassing recent works by John Luther Adams such as Become Ocean (described by music critic Alex Ross as 'the loveliest apocalypse in musical history') not to mention his Sky with Four Suns. David Bedford tried it in Star's End (1947) but it's not an easy listen. For the Sun's main sequence Brian Eno's Lux (2012) could be a starting point. Or, encompassing all, Sun Star by John Coltrane (1967).
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).