Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Music history rewritten

How do you rate the composers Paul Dessau, Carl Zelter and Albert Lortzing? Well if you were one of the musicologists advising on the restoration of the historic Konzerthaus in Berlin the answer seems to be pretty highly.

The Konzerthaus (above) is one of the outstanding designs of the great European neo-classical architect Karl Freidrich Schinkel. It was built as a theatre in 1821, but also had a chequered history as a music venue including the Berlin premiere of the Flying Dutchman, and most notably the first-ever performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1826. In 1789 Mozart attended incognito a performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and when the second violins played a wrong note legends says he shouted to the orchestra: 'It's D you're supposed to be playing, damn it'. Romantic opera was born in the Konzerthaus with the first performance of E.T.A Hoffman's Undine in 1816. Among the c
elebrated conductors who worked there were Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber and von Karajan.

Following a bombing raid in April 1945 a fire completely destroyed the interior, and the theatre remained a shell in the communist East Berlin until 1979, when redevelopment started to create a cultural centre in the Gendarmenmarkt Square. The reconstruction of the theatre involved an authentic rebuilding of the exterior, while the interior featured an enlarged adaption of Schinkel's original concert hall that picks up many of the original details, and includes a superb Jehmlich organ.

For five years after re-opening in 1984 the restored Konzerthaus served as the main concert hall for the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and the home for the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. The challenge came when the wall fell in 1989, and the unified Berlin found itself with two superb concert halls (the Konzerthaus and Philharmonie) and two top class orchestras (the Berlin Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic) within a short walk of each other. The Konzerthaus responded with imaginative programming including themed mini-seasons, and a concentration on early and new music. Among the contemporary music projects this year has been a 70th birthday tribute to Helmut Lachenmann (right).

The sumptuous interior decoration of the concert hall features the busts of thirty-six composers, which can just be seen in the photo of the beautiful hall at the head of the article. When I attended a concert of baroque music there on Sunday (C.P.E and J.S.Bach, and Boccherini) I found some surprising choices, and omissions, among the honoured composers. The 'A' and 'B' lists are as follows:

'A' list - downstairs - Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Mozart, Gluck, Telemann, and J.S. Bach.

'B' list - upstairs - Lortzing, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Smetana, Bruckner, Wolf, Strauss, Bartok, Schönberg, Prokofiev, Britten, Dessau, Eisler, Shostakovich, Stravinski, Janacek, Debussy, Reger, Mahler, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Zelter.

Surprising inclusions first. Hanns Eisler is not really a surprise given his connections with East Berlin. Paul Dessau was also literally politically correct for the GDR cultural czars. He worked under Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter in Germany before leaving for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. His compositions expressed his antifascist beliefs , and his collabarations with Bertolt Brecht, who he followed to Hollywood, included music for the 1938 Paris performance of the play Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. (The photo to the right shows Dessau with Brecht behind him). During his time in Hollywood he composed for a number of movie studios, including somewhat unbelievably scores for Alice in Wonderland and other animated Disney films, surely the ultimate clash of ideologies?

In 1946 he joined the US Communist Party, and in 1948 he returned to Germany and settled in the GDR. I well remember the austerity of East Berlin's central Alexanderplatz in the 1970's, and it was still pretty bleak last week despite re-unification. It must have been the most extraordinary contrast to the fairy-tale world of Disney and Hollywood in 1948. Dessau's music is influenced by his Jewish background, and contains elements of Hebrew and Jewish folk traditions. His 1974 opera Einstein had a notable production at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in West Berlin in 1978 with a cast including Theo Adam and Peter Schreier. In January 2006 a festival featuring six of his film scores is taking place in Lugano, Switzerland.

The two other surprising choices for the composers Hall of Fame are from earlier times. Albert Lortzing was a comparatively minor figure 19th century figure whose main claim to fame is probably his opera Hans Sachs which is said to have influenced Wagner's glorious Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Equally obscure is Carl Friedrich Zelter who is usually remembered as the teacher of Mendelssohn and Mayerbeer, and whose advocacy of the music of J.S. Bach spurred Mendelssohn to his famous performance of the B minor Mass.

Surprising omissions? Your views are as good as mine. But with 'nationalist schools' represented by Smetana, Janacek and Mussorgsky the absence of Nielsen, Ravel and Elgar are surprising. But the two really glaring omissions for me are Sibelius who was presumably persona non grata due to his support for the anti-Russian movement in Finland, and Palestrina who as the greatest ever composer of liturgical music was presumably a non-person as far as the Soviets were concerned (although isn't Bruckner also usually considered to be a 'Catholic' composer?).

The location of the busts is also interesting. Lortzing and Zelter are tucked away almost apologetically in the far corners behind the stage, while there is a nice group of 'fellow travellers' which includes Shostakovich, Eisler, and Dessau, and somewhat provocatively Britten, who of course was a great supporter of Russian musicians, albeit those that were invariably on the wrong side of the regime.

Are Paul Dessau, Carl Zelter and Albert Lortzing due for a revival? Your comments please on who should be, and who shouldn't be, on the 'A' and 'B' lists when music history is next rewritten.
Picture credits - Concert Hall - Konzerthaus, Helmut Lachenmann - Max Nyffeler,
Dessau and Brecht - Michigan State University Department of Theatre

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Furtwängler and the forgotten new music and Copland and Eisler.

Musicians' jobs before free downloads

Thankfully the BBC has decided to limit the scale of its free music file downloads during the upcoming Bach week (16th to 25th December) -

'Nothing will happen without consultation and, should it happen, it will be nothing on the scale of Beethoven,' a Radio 3 spokesman said.

In some quarters this decision is being interpreted as another victory for the 'evil' record companies, as expressed by the Open Rights Group -

'We find the complaints of various parts of the recording industry not only selfish but short-sighted.'

This decision by the BBC is not selfish or short-sighted. Nor is it about caving in to pressure from the recording industry. The BBC has realised that its 'shoot first, aim later' experiment with the Beethoven Symphony downloads put at risk not just record companies, but the jobs of many more important individuals in the music supply chain, including musicians, producers, arrangers, and composers.

The BBC remembered that it has complete control, including broadcasts, public performances, touring, and programmes, of five leading orchestras, plus the BBC Singers. They also have total control over the world's largest live music festival, the BBC Promenade Concerts. This employs musicians ranging from the Berlin Philharmonic to Ravi Shankar.The BBC has one of the largest commissioning budgets for new music, with an annual spend in excess of £350,000 ($630,000). This commissioning budget is larger than the turnover of many independent record companies.

I see the internet as an essential part of the future of classical music, and continue to promote it vigorously. But I also passionately believe that musicans' jobs are more important than free classical music downloads. Thankfully the BBC now seems to have come to the same conclusion.

An Overgrown Path visited the BBC's music downloads at Holy smoke - what a lot of downloads!, Download doomsayer, Music-like-water and BBC Beethoven plays, and plays, and plays...

Heads-up to the excellent The Well-Tempered Blog which led with this story
Picture credit - Steve Lieber, do visit his site for his caricatures of John Cage and Duke Ellington
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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Music downloading as a terrorist offence?

'Illegaly downloading music to your gleaming new Christmas iPod could soon be dealt with using the full force of anti-terror laws if the entertainment industry gets its way.

Big firms including Sony and EMI want to use new powers designed to track terrorists on the internet to crack down on music and film pirates - including the parents of children who download music - who are estimated to cost the industry £650m a year. Internet companies will have to log all the pages visited by surfers for at least a year so the security services can track terrorists using the web for fund-raising, training or swapping information.

But the move has been greeted with alarm by human rights campaigners who say that the step is an example of the "mission creep" of draconian new anti-terror powers.'

For the full text of this worrying article see Scotland on Sunday

Image credit - Counter-strike
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Access denied

The radiance of a thousand suns

In August 1945 atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Around 120,000 people, of which 95% were civilians, were killed outright. It is estimated that a further quarter of a million died from the after effects of the explosions. Six days after the second bomb was dropped Japan surrendered unconditionally, removing the requirement for an invasion of the Japanese mainland by Allied forces , an engagement that would undoubtedly have resulted in dreadful casualties on both sides. Hopefully the music community, as well as the world, will remember 2005 as the sixtieth anniversary of these terrible events, as well as the year of the premiere of an opera by John Adams.

My attempts to understand the almost incomprehensible events of 1945 led me to the recently published 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant. This is the story of the extraordinary secret community of allied scientists at Los Alamos in New Mexico that, in a race against the clock, created the two bombs that were dropped on Japan. The Los Alamos scientists had also been racing to beat the threat of a German atomic weapon. Nazi scientists working in the Kiaser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin had discovered in 1938 that the splitting of a uranium atom set free enormous quantities of energy, opening up the possibility of a chain reaction creating an explosion of unheard-of power. Their 'uranium project' had the full backing of Nazi Minister of Arnaments Albert Speer, and one of the leading German physicists, Werner Heissenberg (who won the 1932 Nobel prize in physics) later said: 'Since September 1941 we saw a clear road towards the atom bomb.' Created initially to head off the German atomic threat
the research centre at Los Alamos was led by the legendary J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Doctor Atomic of John Adam's opera.

The author of 109 East Palace is Jennet Conant, the granddaughter of former Harvard president and chief administrator of the Manhattan Project James B. Conant. S
he is unashamedly pro-Oppenheimer, and some will find this lack of objectivity a flaw, but despite this the new book makes a useful contribution to the Los Alamos literature. The title 109 East Palace comes from the nondescript office in Santa Fe that was the gatehouse for the secret compound created on the high mesa beyond the town. The book doesn't set out to be another academic study of Oppenheimer (right) and the development of the bombs. Instead it is a very human study of the people involved in the project, and the horrendous work pressures and ethical dilemnas that they faced. It tells how the young Oppenheimer failed to find a cure for his depression in medical treatment, and instead turned to Eastern mysticism, and in particular the Mahabharata, and other stories from the Hindu devotional poem the Bhagavad Gita. (Among others who turned to Hindu texts were T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, and somewhat surprisingly Beethoven, who in in his diary for 1816 wrote about the “Indian literature” he had been reading. After reading the Rig-Veda Beethoven wrote “God is immaterial and transcends every conception”.)

On the night before the first atomic test at the Trinity site Oppenheimer quoted this stanza from the Bhagavad Gita:

In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountain,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him

And after the first successful test explosion which confirmed the horrendous destructive power created by his team he quoted the lines where Vishnu tries to persuade the Prince to do his duty and take on his multi-armoured form:

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One...
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds

Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist and intellectual. After the war he was appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was unofficial intellectual guru to an amazing roster of talent ranging from Nobel Prize winning physicists Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, to the poet T. S. Eliot (neatly squaring the Sanskrit circle), and the historian Arnold Toynbee. Oppenheimer's mother was an artist, whose personal art collection included a Renoir, drawings by Picasso and Vuillard, a Rembrandt etching, and a Van Gogh. He was fond of the sonnets of John Donne, learnt Sanskrit to read the Hindu scriptures in the original, and read Marx's entire Das Kapital, in German, on a cross-country train trip. His musical tastes included Bach fugues and the late Beethoven Quartets, with the Op. 131 in C sharp Minor a particular favoutite.

Like every highly gifted person Oppenheimer was flawed. He was not averse to making highly damaging accusations against colleagues such Bernard Peters and Haakon Chevalier to throw the security services off his own scent as they investigated his left-wing sympathies. The political paths he continued to explore when working on the atomic bomb, and the doubts he later developed about the ethics of the develoment of the hydrogen bomb were used at the Gray Board hearings to categorise him as a security risk, and he lived out his final years as a marginalised figure.His treatment was a puzzling contrast to that handed out to scientists with proven Nazi connections. For instance the rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun joined the Nazi SS in 1939, and headed the Germans missile weapons project until 1945. As well as developing the V2 rocket which was used with considerable effect against Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands he was working on the A9/A10 rocket which was designed to reach as far as the USA. In 1945 von Braun, together with 500 employees, surrendered to US troops, and the key scientists and their prototype rockets were shipped to the US. In 1960 von Braun became director of the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, and in the 1970s he was made vice-director of NASA. Following his death in 1977 he was honoured with a statue, and the von Braun performance centre for the arts in Huntsville, Alabama.

Robert Oppenheimer fared less well, presumably because he was judged to have sympathised with the wrong enemy. The story of his security clearance and fall from grace is not covered in Doctor Atomic, which ends with the first test in 1945. I haven't seen the opera, but was impressed by the positive response it received. However from a distance ending it at the Trinity test seems a bit like ending the Ring with the Ride of the Valkyries. Interestingly 109 East Palace also tells us that John Adams was not the first to dramatise the Manhattan Project. In 1947 a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer blockbuster The Beginning or the End? hit the silver screens, with Hume Cronyn starring as Robert Oppenheimer, and Spencer Tracy as his military boss, General Leslie Groves. The film flopped at the box-office.

109 East Palace does not set out to be a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, or a detailed study of the Manhattan Project. The literature of the project is already very rich, with books such as Gregg Herken's extraordinarily well researched, detailed and virtually unreadable Brotherhood of the Bomb shortly to be joined by a new life of Oppenheimer from the late Abraham Pais. By contrast 109 East Palace is Oppenheimer-lite. I
nstead of placing him centre stage it uses an unpublished memoir by one of the first civilians recruited to the project, a young widow and Smith graduate Dorothy McKibbin, as the thread that binds the narrative together. McKibbin was close to Oppenheimer, and clearly besotted by him, which is another reason why the book lacks objectivity. 109 East Palace is useful book for anyone wanting to place the cold mechanics of weapons of mass destruction in a human context. But in the final analysis it is too superficial (much of the information in this article about the Manhattan Project comes from other sources) and subjective to provide anything more than a fascinating lightweight introduction to a subject that cries out for heavyweight coverage.

109 East Palace by Jennet Conant is published by Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-7432-5007-9
Los Alamos continues as a National Laboratory involved with nuclear weapons, and other activities. Interestingly, in view of the much publicised avian flu outbreaks, it is currently involved with researching
influenza genetic codes. Visit the facility via this link

There are some excellent photos of Los Alamos and the test site, plus coverage of Doctor Atomic on New Yorker music critic, and fellow blogger, Alex Ross' web site.

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) is a non-partisan international grouping of medical organisations dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. They work with the long-term victims of nuclear explosions and accidents from Hiroshima to Chernobyl, and their work has been recognised with the 1984 UNESCO Peace Prize, and 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. For the last 21 years IPPNW-Concerts has been working from its Berlin office with top musicians world-wide to raise funds for their work. The organisation is run by medical practitioner
Dr Peter Hauber and his wife, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Berlin last week.

As well as being a fantastic cause there is some music well worth exploring available on IPPNW-Concerts' own CD label, and in co-productions with Swedish label BIS. These are all live recordings of concerts promoted by IPPNW over the years. There are forty-nine CDs in the catalogue with composers ranging from Monteverdi to Elliot Carter. The nuggets worth mining include Furtwängler's Te Deum coupled with Brahms and Hindemith (CD40).

Of particular relevance to this article is Wort und Musik - 60 Jahre nach Hiroshima. This is a live recording made at the March 2005 'Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project' which mixes readings in German from a range of authors including Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein and Sadako Kurihara with relevent music including the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8 and Schubert’s Quartettsatz. On the lighter side there are also a number of jazz recordings worth exploring, including the Berlin Philharmonic Jazz Group playing live in 2004 in the Philharmonie in Berlin with the world-famous baritone Thomas Quasthoff.

IPPNW co-productions with BIS also contain some real gems. My own favourite is a live Missa Solemnis from the Philharmonie in Berlin with Antal Doráti conducting the European Symphony Orchestra, University of Maryland Chorus, and a distinguished group of soloists. Another BIS co-production recorded at the Philharmonie with the New Berlin Chamber Orchestra and members of the Czech Philharmonic and HdK-Chamber Choir conducted by Martin Fischer-Dieskau includes two of Doráti’s own compositions (his Pater Noster, Prayer for Mixed Choir and Jesus oder Barabbas? a melodrama after a story by Karinthy Frigyes for Speaker, Orchestra and Choir) alongside works from Bartok and Martinu. Finally among the BIS co-productions a live Mahler Symphony No 9 with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra is a rarity well worth investigating. All proceeds from the sale of these CDs benefit those in dire need as a result of war, industrial and natural catastrophe. Need I say more?

Picture credits:
Nuclear explosion -
UCL Astrophysics Group
Robert Oppenheimer -
Gallery M
Book cover - Simon & Schuster
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Monday, November 28, 2005

The sound of contemporary music

The BBC has a wonderful history of music patronage which includes commissioning such seminal contemporary works as Tippett's Second Symphony and Vision of St Augustine, Birtwistle's Imaginary Landscapes, and Boulez's Rituel. So it is great to read in today's Guardian that the BBC's musical aspirations remain boundless ....

BBC joins Lloyd Webber in search for Maria

Lord Lloyd Webber has struck a deal with the BBC for a Popstars-style talent show to find an unknown singer to play the lead in his new stage version of The Sound of Music due to open at the London Palladium next autumn.

The television programme, which is believed to have the working title How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, will show a series of auditions with the winner being offered the starring role for the musical's entire first run.

Lloyd Webber has spent four years trying to find someone to take the part of Maria, the governess portrayed on film by Julie Andrews.

Picture credit - Pantheon
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A direct line to Britten

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Annie Proulx's 'Private Passions'

I live in Norfolk, so I'm always keen to feature authors from Norwich. So it's a great pleasure to write about Annie Proulx's 'Private Passions' as she was born in Norwich - Norwich Connecticut that is.

Let's answer the obvious question first, how is her name pronounced? It is as if it were spelled Proo, the l and x are silent. Despite the high profile achieved by her Pulitzer Prize wining second novel The Shipping News Annie Proulx (right) has actively avoided fitting into the role of best selling author. She started her career as a journalist, and did not begin writing fiction until she was in her 50s. She has shunned the New York literary circuit, and lives on her own in the foothills of the Rockies at Arvada, Wyoming.

In an interview she said about the celebrity status afforded to best-selling authors:

"It's not good for one's view of human nature, that's for sure. You begin to see, when invitations are coming from festivals and colleges to come read (for an hour for a hefty sum of money), that the institutions are head-hunting for trophy writers. Most don't particularly care about your writing or what you're trying to say. You're there as a human object, one that has won a prize. It gives you a very odd, meat-rack kind of sensation."

Annie Proulx's selection of musical 'Private Passions,' selected for the BBC Radio 3 programme of the same name was as refreshingly off-the-wall as her approach to celebrity status. It includes everything from John Adams to a personal favourite of mine, bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Pat Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky. Here are her 'Private Passions':

* Spiritual (from Beyond the Missouri Sky), Charley Haden and Path Metheney Verve 314 537 130-2
* Austin Pitre, ‘Les Flames d’enfer’ (from Lou’isiana Dance Party), Gazelle GCCD 3004
* Francis Poulenc, ‘Hommage à Edith Piaf’ (from 15 Improvisations), Eric Parkin (piano) Chandos CHAN 8847
* Gilmore, ‘Deep Eddy Blues,’ Jimmy Dale Gilmore Hightone Records HCD 8018
* Adams, ‘Toot Nipple’ (from John’s Book of Alleged Dances), Kronos Quartet Nonesuch 7550 79485-2
* ‘Los Illegales’, Valerio Longoria Rounder CD 6024
* Walser/Kronos Quartet, ‘Rose Marie’ (from Down at the Skyvue Drive-in), Don Walser and Kronos Quartet Watermelon Records 31017-2
* Welch, ‘Morphine’ (from Hell Among the Yearlings), Gillian Welch Almo Sounds AMSD 80021
* ‘Jelly Roll Rag’ (from Max Roach Presents The Uptown String Quartet), The Uptown String Quartet Philips 838 358-2

There is an excellent Guardian profile of Annie Proulx at this link
Follow this link for
Annie Proulx's web page, which is reassuringly Flash-free
Programme broadcast on 14th July 2001.
Listen to the latest BBC Radio 3 Private Passions programme
with this link.
Information reproduced from
Private Passions by Michael Berkeley, published by Faber ISBN 0-571-22884- 4
Image credit -
The Age

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Ma fin est mon commencement

'This recording is the anachronistic result of the conjunction of three factors. To be more precise: a 21st century organist plays 14th and 15th century music on a 17th and 18th century organ. But what is anachronism? Isn't every interpretation or musical performance anachronistic anyway? To be sure, from what we know, 18th century organs do not have much in common with their 15th century counterparts. And the sonic world we live in, even the way we listen to music, has changed. Let us always keep in mind that to think we can listen to early music with a virgin ear is illusory: we have been affected by centuries of musical evolution (or call it musical history).'

Fighting words from French organist Louis Thiry. They come from the sleeve notes to a new CD which I found in a FNAC store in Avignon recently, and which has given me much pleasure. Ma fin est mon commencement is a recording of transcriptions by Thiry of polyphonic vocal works from the 14th and 15th century. The title comes from the three voice rondeau from Guillaume de Machaut, and the other composers featured are Guillaume Dufay and Josquin Des Prés.

This very worthwhile project comes from the enterprising (and delightfully quirky) French label Éditions Hortus. They specialise in sacred music from the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particular focus on vocal and organ works. Louis Thiry is organist at the 'Charles-Nicolle' University Hospital Chapel in Rouen, and uses the original 18th century Lefebvre organ there for the recording. This instrument has a remarkable history. It was originally constructed in 1631 by a Scottish builder (Guillaume Lesselier, aka William Lesley!) after an earlier organ was destroyed by Hugenot pillaging. The replacement instrument was extended and modified by Charles Lefebvre in the 1730's. In 1801 the organ was donated to the University Hospital Chapel as St-Nicholas was abandoned after the Revolution, and finally demolished in 1840. The elegant chapel was built in the late 18th century, and the old Hospice Général there was served by a congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. The organ which has been housed there for more than two hundred years is a remarkably original example of pre-Revolution organ making, and has been extensively, and expertly, restored. In 1976 it was listed as a historic monument.

In the very thought provoking sleeve notes Louis Thiry asks: 'Why play such decidely vocal pieces on the organ? I can only offer the following answer: I like the music and I like the instrument.'

I can only add I like the resulting recording very much as well - Ma fin est mon commencement
Image credits:
Header photo - This is the fabulous Millau Viaduct in France, designed by Foster and Partners. No direct connection with the music, but in my view this is not a bridge - it is a performance installation. Just like Janet Cardiff's 40 Piece Motet, and Louis Thiry's transcriptions. Image linked from Foster & Partners.
CD Sleeve -
Lefebvre organ - Hopitaux de Rouen
This CD can be bought from the FNAC web site. It is in French, but it is very professional, and I have used it without problems.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving to all my US readers

'But the cold stones of the Abbey Church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian Chant. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities.'
Thomas Merton - The Seven Storey Mountain

On this Thanksgiving Holiday 2005 sample that austere warmth with this two minute audio file of the superb Choeur Grégorien de Nantes singing Kyrie X1 "Cum Jubilo" in the first mode on the Art et Musique label -

Photo credit - Abbey de Solesmes

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Peak melody

The blog Tampon Teabag (yes I know) posted the following very interesting (and long) piece back in September 2005. I missed it first time round, so here it is (language and all) in case you did as well.

"Every society throughout history and throughout the world has made and enjoyed music! But we, now, here, in the west are unique… in our hunger for ever more, new music. Music surrounds us: in our houses, blasting out of radios, CD players, computers. It wakes us up, and it sends us to sleep. Outside we pump music into our ears through up-to-the-minute mobile phones and MP3-players...

"We cannot get enough of it! We hear it in our supermarkets, and we sing it in our churches and in our karaoke bars. Rock anthems in pubs, and recorder-concerts in schools. We chant it at our football matches, hum along to it in our cars, and dance to it in our nightclubs. We go to Sing-Along-Sound-of-Music evenings. There is no getting away from music. Our lives are musical lives, and our world is a musical world. Musical. Music."

So wrote the philosopher Jacob Applebloom in his suicide note.

Just as so often in his life (not least in his decision to end it) Applebloom was right: our western appetite for new music does indeed know no bounds. Music is now officially the fourth most important factor in our lives, after food, drink, and sex. Chillingly, it even comes above our own children, and going to the toilet.

And central to western music, is melody.

But melody is a finite resource: the number of distinct melodies of a certain length which can be composed from the few notes we have at our disposal, is limited, and experts agree that we are getting through the various possible combinations and permutations at an alarming rate.

So how much longer can we continue to plunder melody reserves like this? The plain fact is that we’re already running out: the production of genuinely new melody peaked in late 1996, and has already started to fall away, reciprocal-logarithmically speaking. Experts predict that if the rate at which the rate of increase of consumption of melody increases continues to increase at its current rate, then by 2027 every single repeatable tune lasting less than 30 seconds will have been recorded.

An overhaul of the copyright law is urgently needed if total economic prolapse is to be avoided. But that is only the first, and easiest step.

The serialist movement of the early 20th century led by Arnold Schoenberg was one of the first concerted attempts to locate new reserves of melody. Schoenberg searched for tunes in the atonal wilderness, but he met with only limited success. Experiments in microtonal technology (initiated by the likes of Carillo and Ives in the late 19th century) are ongoing, but so far they also show little prospect of producing anything approaching a memorable, repeatable tune. Others have searched further afield: Olivier Messiaen searched for melody in birdsong. But it seems that birds and humans have different ideas about what constitutes a good tune. John Cage in his infamous piece 4’33”, posed the paradoxical question “is silence actually the best melody?” But the world was not convinced, and the rate at which the rate of increase of consumption of new, audible, melody increases continued to increase unabated.

Greater success has been achieved by the world-music movement, and by the melody-conservationists of the minimalist movement. The likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass have discovered techniques to make melody go further: Reich, for example, has composed single pieces of music of over an hour in length, which feature only one or two snippets of simple melody. Significantly, this approach has now crossed over into the mainstream (in for instance the music of Kylie Minogue, and in the dance-clubs of Ibiza).

All genres of music (excluding the extreme avant-garde) are struggling to come to terms with the impending melody-crisis. Hip-hop for instance has managed to dispense with melody almost completely, but unfortunate knock-on effects of this have been felt in the world’s dwindling stocks of rhythm and swear-words.

As the crisis deepens, mainstream pop-music will be the first to be hit hard, and record-producers have now adopted a policy of containment, and are trying to saturate the market with endless remixes, covers, and re-covers in a desperate attempt to maintain public interest whilst getting more mileage from fast-disappearing melody stocks. But consumers will not put up with this state of affairs indefinitely. Mohammed Propane from the music watchdog OFFPOP struck a threatening note in an interview last month: “At best these singles are indistinguishable from the originals, but more often they’re just inferior copies. Have you heard Britney Spears' version of "I love Rock and Roll"? It’s an insult to the taste and discernment of the general public, that’s what it is. And do you remember All Saints' cover of "Under the Bridge"? And then there’s the Crazy Frog. Fuck-a-duck that thing irritates me, and I’m not the only one. Studies show unprecedented levels of public anger with the music industry at the moment, and if record producers think they can fob off audiences with this sort of childish crap for much longer, then they’ve got another thing coming. I tell you this: if things don’t improve, we’ll begin by blockading CD-factories, and end by burning their fucking studios to the ground, in the name of Allah.”

It is beyond doubt that when future generations look back on the 20th and early 21st century, they will view it as a time of disgraceful musical profligacy. And the court of history will undoubtedly reserve the most serious charges of melody-wasting for jazz-musicians. In a single gig a competent jazz musician can utilise up to 100,000 notes of melody. It is estimated that Charlie Parker alone expended over 1% of the world’s melody supplies during the course of his 23 year career.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the goatee-stroking foot-tappers: Jazz also takes pole position in the only realistic attempt to forestall the effects of the global melody-shortage. For although melody is an essential component of western music, it has been discovered that suitable alterations in the harmony, rhythm, timbre, volume, tempo, or lyrics can allow a single line of melody to be safely reused several times over.

“Melody-recycling” has become the buzzword, and the most successful examples of melody-recycling in action are so-called Trans-Genre Arrangements (TGAs). Jazz leads the way. As long ago as 1934, blind-in-one-eye piano virtuoso Art Tatum stunned the musical establishment with his sublime jazz-arrangements of compositions by Massenet and Debussy. This approach was continued by gauloise-smoking left-banker Jacques Loussier, most famously in his arrangement of Bach’s “Air on a G-String”. More recently Django Bates’ anarchic arrangement of “New York, New York” came to symbolise a new chapter of British jazz. These days TGAs are stock in trade for jazz musicians, with the likes Brad Meldau covering several Radiohead songs, and The Bad Plus tackling everything from Aphex Twin to Queen.

But TGAs are not the domain of jazz alone. Punk’s history of musical vandalism has given us a host of iconoclastic and humorous reworkings of classic songs, including the most notorious of all TGAs: The Sex Pistols’ version of “My Way”.

Electro-music too has taken on the melody-recycling mantle, and whilst the charts heave with lazy remixes, samples, and plagiarism, more imaginative experiments in “bootlegging” are beginning to turn out some worthwhile results. As often as not though, this melody-saving innovation finds itself on the wrong side of British copyright law, as in for instance The Evolution Control Committee’s song “Rocked by Rape” in which the voice of CBS newscaster Dan Rather is set to riffs by AC/DC.

Interestingly Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics to “My Way” is now in the vanguard of the TGA-movement. His recently issued disc "Rock Swings" features classic rock songs being played by a swing-band. His arrangement of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has made a particularly strong impression on the public consciousness, and suggests that the future of the TGA may be bright, even in the mainstream.

Critics agree that to be successful, a TGA must fearlessly deconstruct and rebuild a well-known, and well-liked piece of music. The greatest TGAs of all time are widely considered to be Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along The Watchtower" by Bob Dylan, and The Easystar Allstars’ “The Dub Side of the Moon”, in which the entirety of Pink Floyd’s seminal album “The Dark Side of the Moon” is reworked in the reggae genre. Many more bold efforts like this are needed if the world is to avoid total musical-meltdown in the near future.

But one man’s imaginative re-arrangement is another man’s sacrilege, and further down this road, danger certainly lies. Imagine a world where all the music sounds like William Shatner’s cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, or even more frighteningly, like Barbara Cartland’s nauseating rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. As the amount of available melody dwindles, the musical establishment is going to have to regulate itself with increasing sensitivity, whilst trying to keep the market afloat. Some are already calling for government intervention to prevent a glut of novelty records by the likes of Weird Al Yankovich or the Dangleberries’ bagpipe version of “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath.

But econo-musicologists such as Honey Jezebel warn that further tightening of music laws could spell disaster. “What we desparately need is more albums like "Maximum Rockgrass" by Hayseed Dixie [an album of classic rock songs performed in the blue-grass genre]. Sure, a few purists are not going to like it, but we’ve got to look at the bigger picture here. We’ve got major melody-problems here, people, major problems, and if we’re not careful it could be game over for music as we know it.”

Unless new reserves of melody can be found, by 2020 the face of music is going to look very different from now. A terrifying hint of what’s to come can be found in the music of London-based sound-artist Xper.Xr. Such is his dedication to melody-conservation, that he painstakingly transcribed the song “No Limit” by 90s dance act 2-Unlimited, before arranging it, and translating the result into traditional Chinese musical notation. Xper.Xr then hired traditional Chinese instrumentalists to perform the work. By 2020, such elaborate and extreme techniques may be the only option left to music-makers struggling to satisfy humanity’s never-ending thirst for new music. So at least thought Jacob Applebloom:

“We just cannot conceive of life without music. But music is not eternal. Music, like humanity, needs to evolve to survive. But what will happen when the wells of melody, harmony, and rhythm run dry as they must? Our delicate world of songs and symphonies will die, and a nightmarish dystopia of industrial machinery and radiation-burns will be born in its place: an apocalyptic place where gun-runners whistle Stockhausen, and whores hum techno. This is a world I cannot bear to witness.

“So I shall bid farewell to this planet with its musical richness and diversity still in tact, and as I swing from the strings of my grand piano, I shall smile, and feel glad ever to have lived, and listened, in the land of Elgar.”

Reblogged from Tampon Teabag

Picture credits: Steve Reich - Glass pages John Cage - Kunstradio Paul Anka - Encore4 Bob Dylan - Blind Pig Music Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Great Britten

"It is the quality which cannot be acquired by simply the exercise of a technique or a system - it is something to do with personality, with gift, with spirit. I quite simply call it magic, a quality which would appear to be by no means unacknowledged by scientists, and which I value more than any other part of music."
From Britten's acceptance speech when awarded the first Aspen Award.

Benjamin Britten was born on 22nd November 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk.

The anniversary of the birth of the most important British composer of the second half of the 20th century is shared with several other events. Happily today is also St Cecilia's Day, and she is of course the patron saint of musicians.

Less happily today is the anniversary of the assasination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.

I know it is of several orders of magnitude less important than those events, but I also was born on 22nd November. I listened to my favourite travel writer, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, on my favourite radio programme, Private Passions, two weeks back. Leigh-Fermor (who celebrated his 90th birthday this year!) mentioned Robert Byron's classic book about Mount Athos, The Station, which I have never read. I checked the excellent online Norfolk Library database to find a single copy in the county, acquired in 1949 - the year of my birth. I ordered it, thinking that the chance of it being found was zero. Today the copy arived for me to collect - on my birthday. I wonder how many html files of music blogs will be traceable in the year 2061?

Picture credit - Britten-Pears Foundation
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Monday, November 21, 2005

Fumio Yasuda's erotic improvisations

Fumio Yasuda's album 'Flower Songs' is a fusion of the visual and performing arts. It is one of the fruits (or should that be flowers?) of a long term collabaration between composer and pianist Yasuda and leading Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and was originally composed as a soundtrack for Araki's film 'Kakyoku', which translates as 'Flower Songs.'

Improvisation is a staple ingredient of Fumio Yasuda's music-making. He was born in Tokyo in 1953, and studied composition at Kunitachi College of Music. Yasuda's music occupies that increasingly important grey area between contemporary classical and jazz compositions. He plays keyboards himself, uses sampling, and has worked with several leading improvisers in Japan. Although experimental his work retains roots in the post-Romantic musical tradition, and pays homage to impressionists such as Debussy. Piano and keyboards are his main interests, but his compositions range from an Accordion Concerto (1994), through several choral works including his Epitaph 1939 composed in 2003, to his improvised cabaret opera 'Der Kastanieball' which was first performed at the Munich Opera Festival in 2004.

Fumio Yasuda has enjoyed a long association with innovatory German record label Winter & Winter. Kakyoku - Flower Songs which was released in 2000 is a good starting point to explore his music. The CD packaging uses stunning images from his collabarator, the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki . Araki is a high profile and very controversial figure in the Japanese visual arts. He has published more than 350 books and is best known for his pornographic photographs. He has been widely attacked by feminist groups, and has been arrested several times for breaking Japanese pornography laws, but has never been prosecuted. Before readers rush over to Amazon to order Kakyoku for its pornographic graphics they should note that the brilliant images on the packaging are all close-ups of flowers. However like good improvisation they can be interpreted many ways depending on the perspective of the viewer - as can the two photos by Araki accompanying this article.

'Kakyoku - Flower Songs' features Yasuda on piano, melodica and sampler and Ernst Reijseger on cello, with the European Art Orchestra which is an off-shoot of the Stuttgater Kammerorchester dedicated to exploring the boundaries between contemporary, jazz and world music. Kakyoku is an accessible post-romantic score with a debt to John Adams, but it certainly doesn't push the envelope as far as Nobuyoshi Araki's photographs - which is probably a good thing.

Here are three samples of Yasuda's erotic improvisations:
Death Sentiment IV -
Tari -
Tango for November -

An exhibition of Araki's photographs is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London until 22nd January 2006
Kakyoku is released on Winter & Winter 910051 - 2
Picture credits:
Header and Japanese script -
Footer - Sensual Flower by Nobuyoshi Araki from
Nobuyoshi Araki's own
web site comes with a mild health warning because of some of the content, which is guaranteed to generate some hits I guess.
Audio clips -

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Arman - artist in anger

The French painter and sculptor Arman started creating artworks from household waste in the early 60's. He went on to develop his series Colères (anger) which deconstructed objects of beauty, particularly musical instruments (right). He went on to apply the same techniques to iconic sculptures including the Venus de Milo and Hercule Farnèse. There are parallels with the music of Luciano Berio from the 60's, in particular his Sinfonia which deconstructs the third movement of Mahler's Second Symphony in similar fashion.

Arman's best known works are the 18m high pile of 59 cars Long Term Parking in Jouy-en-Josas, France, and Hope for Peace using wrecked military vehicles in Beirut's Martyrs' Square.

Arman, born Nice 17th November 1928, died New York 22nd October 2005.

For Arman web site follow this link
Image of NY Concerto by Arman -
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Art works

Is classical music too fast? - 2

'In our cold modern world it seems that everything has to be measured - and now computers are doing it to music. As anyone with an iPod or other digital music player knows, as a song is played, a little black dot moves along the line between "start" and "finish", with an onscreen counter telling us how much time remains. Every chord takes us deeper into the song but closer to the end.

These devices for playing music and video seem to think we want to know precisely how long the whole thing is going to last, and how far through the experience we are. Yet for many people, an important element of music is its ability to take us out of a normal consciousness of time. A really good song or piece of music takes us far away from the clock that paces out our more mundane activities. As we listen, we dream - at our desk, at our sink or on the train - with no idea whether our mind has been roaming free for a few moments or much more.

Music replaces clock time with musical time, a completely different way of guiding our thoughts and feelings through an experience with its own shape, its own build-up of tension and its own resolution. Our favourite songs seem timeless in more ways than one.

So what does it do to us to be timed precisely through every second of a favourite song? More and more people download music as single tracks and listen to them on the computer through programs such as iTunes. It is hard not to be aware of that little black button relentlessly advancing towards the end of the line. It can produce a peculiar clash of sensations.'

From an excellent article in the Guardian titled Technobile by Susan Tomes, who is a wonderful pianist, member of the Florestan Trio, and author of a highly recommended book, 'Between the notes.'

Picture credit - Teachers Discount Music
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Visit Is classical music too fast? for the full story, and some audio files, of really slow music

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Blogging moonbats are here

The good news is that On An Overgrown Path is featured in an editorial Comment article in today's Times, and is selected as one of the top five UK blogs on all subjects - here is the full list:

Author's Choice: - Fine satires and parodies - Scott Burgess drives journalists crazy by fact-checking their assertions - High culture news and reviews - Libertarianism and sewing - Surreal humour

Tim Worstall, who wrote the article, is the author of 2005 Blogged, a
just published anthology of the best of British blogging.

The not quite so good news is that Overgrown Path's new found fame attracted the following online review today from Madame Counsellor. I think this is what André Previn once described to me as 'a crouching ovation'......

'On an Overgrown Path. "High Culture News and Reviews". I couldn't make out exactly what this blog was about. It seems to be about ideas - so lofty that they cannot be written in plain English - and classical music. This site, however, appeals to my intellectual pretensions so I will give it 5 stars. Even if I don't understand it, it gives me faith that there are people out there who do.'

Blogging 2005 by Tim Worstall is published by Friday Books ISBN: 0 954831837 and is available from Amazon and all good independent booksellers (who should be supported)
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Lost in Translation and The bookless Mrs Beckham

Owning ideas

'For most people these concerns (about intellectual property ownership) may seem abstract - at least until they listen to music, where arguments about ownership are fought over all the time in the courts and, increasingly, inside the gadgets that we use. Only last week, Sony was forced to withdraw software concealed on some of its CDs that installs itself - without the owner's knowledge or informed consent - on a computer, prevents copies being made and breaks the machine if an attempt is made to remove it. At least 47 recent CDs have been infected in this way, and one recent survey suggests that they in turn have infected half a million PCs during the last three months. Any PC thus infected can be attacked by more obviously malevolent hackers who can use the Sony technology to install their own programs on the victims' PCs. But whether it is Sony or some Russian mafia gang that ends up working through these security holes, it won't be you, the poor sap who thought he/she owned the computer and had bought the music.

Legally, of course, we don't buy music, any more than we buy software. We agree to buy certain, limited rights, which vary from country to country but which have all been routinely disregarded until very recently.

In the US, for instance, it is illegal to copy your own CDs on to your own iPod. Obviously, this is a law that is broken all the time, or nobody there would ever buy an iPod. The 60GB model sells for $350 (£200); to fill it up with freshly downloaded content from the Apple store could easily cost another $25,000.

Just as with computer software, the legal market has broken down because there is no obligation for buyer and seller to agree on a price, or even on what is being sold. Computers have made it possible for both sides to cheat on their agreements. Buyers can use some forms of file sharing and sellers can write ever more restrictive licence agreements to make it clear they are not selling anything, merely renting it out. There are some download services where the music you have already downloaded will no longer play if you stop your subscription. The obvious answer is to pay for it with money similarly protected - special digital rights money, which would vanish, like fairy gold, when you stopped playing with the new toy. Nobody would accept payment on those terms. Why are there companies which think the opposite is fair?

The answer is that they are operating in a climate where intellectual property seems to guarantee an endless, effortless stream of money to its owners. The big content owners have been determining the world's intellectual property regimes for the last few decades. By clever lobbying at extraordinarily boring conferences, they had managed by the late 90s to commit governments, through the world trade talks, to a draconian programme of laws extending the notion of intellectual property to the point where a Norwegian teenager can be threatened with jail when he writes a clever programme to let him watch DVDs on his own computer - because he is said to be providing tools to steal intellectual property.

This is madness. Ideas aren't things. They're much more valuable than that. Intellectual property - treating some ideas as if they were in some circumstances things that can be owned and traded - is itself no more than an idea that can be copied, modified and improved. It is this process of freely copying them and changing them that has given us the world of material abundance in which we live. If our ideas of intellectual property are wrong, we must change them, improve them and return them to their original purpose. When intellectual property rules diminish the supply of new ideas, they steal from all of us.'

If you are concerned about the Hyperion versus Sawkins Appeal Court ruling, file sharing and the distribution of music over the internet, or the wider debate about protecting intellectual property rights read Andrew Brown's excellent leader article Owning Ideas in today's Guardian from which the extract above is taken. It does a commendable job of positioning the IP ownership debate in the context of vitally important scientific areas such as human genome research.

Image credits:
Header - FBI (no, I'm not joking)
Genome - Nature
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