The only limits are those set by the musicians

But the worst consequence of computer-assisted composing is that it is dehumanizing music. With the human touch inherent in any performance autocorrected digitally, we lose much of the element that gives music its emotive contours. Sometimes, playing slightly behind the beat or slightly below the correct pitch is what makes a piece inspiring. And as we continue to formulaically fit compositions into the strict guidelines that computers give us, musicians will cease trying to innovate and taking risks. They become stymied in their exploration of an art whose beauty fundamentally stems from its limitlessness. Although computers must be given credit for a spectrum of art that would have otherwise been inexpressible, this trend could very well change an art form into Paint by Numbers.
This quote from an article titled How Pro Tools is destroying music raises many interesting points for classical music, despite its origins in the world of rock. Production software such as Pro Tools has brought major productivity benefits to the recording industry by giving a high degree of control over the creative process. But, as author Scott Oranburg points out in his article, there are costs; most notably innovation and risk taking are discouraged, and the music's emotive contours are eroded.

The Pro Tools mindset has spread far beyond the recording studio. Nowhere is this more evident than in the major music festivals such as the BBC Proms, which open their 2009 season on Friday. Today's touring orchestras and celebrity performers view risk as an insurable hazard of the international festival circuit. Innovation is only allowed within the creative equivalent of Health and Safety regulations, and new commissions favour composers whose music fits neatly into the Pro Tools mindset. Global multi-media access is the holy grail, and the live audience at the festival venue are relegated to the role of just another channel in the software, to be faded up and down at will. The search for the global severs the connection with the local, and the music is dehumanized. Which is why I now spend much of my time escaping Pro Tools style music making by finding festivals where the only limits are those set by the musicians themselves.

In June the search for music making free of the Pro Tools mindset took my wife and myself to the Les Orientales Festival at Saint-Florent-le-Viel in France, where all the photos accompanying this article were taken by me. Saint-Florent is a town of just 2800 inhabitants on the River Loire downstream from Anjou. Dominating the town from a bluff high above the Loire is the Abbey church, from which the photo below was taken. The church dates from the 13th century, although much if the structure was remodeled in the early 18th century.

The Abbey church, seen below, is at the centre of Les Orientales Festival which is now in its eleventh year. Festival director Alain Weber is an authority on Eastern music and he works both at Saint-Florent and at the prestigous Cité de la Musique in Paris, which has commissioned many groundbreaking projects including Jordi Savall's Jerusalem, which featured here recently. A small team of just six salaried employees work on six month contracts to present the annual Saint-Florent festival. Over the past decade the truly multicultural Les Orientales has been a beneficiary of the high levels of arts funding (generated by commensurately high taxes) available in France from regional and central government, with only 20% of the festival's funding coming from ticket sales. However the arrival of the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy as President has sent a chill wind blowing through the French arts world, and there are concerns for the viability of Les Orientales in Sarkozy's brave new free market world.

Les Orientales is used by Alain Weber as a creative 'sand box' for experimental projects exploring the rich territory that lies to the east of Western art music. The Saint-Florent event works in partnership with the Festival Évora Clássica which takes place in Portugal in the first week of July. Much of the programme is shared by both festivals, and the creative team are keen to share their unique programmes with other festivals in a similar way.

The sold-out Saturday evening concert in the Abbey Church was typical of the innovative projects that Alain Weber and his team bring to Saint-Florent. 'Naghma' was developed at a residency at the Cité de la Musique by four musicians led by Moroccan oud virtuoso Driss el Maloumi, who featured here in my post on Jordi Savall's superb Orient-Occident album, and Indian slide guitar master Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya (above), sometime member of John McLaughlin's East-West fusion group Shakti. The programme featured improvisations that mixed North African maqâms with ragas from northern India. Supporting the principal musicians were Said el Maloumi on percussion, brother of Driss and quite the happiest musician I've seen for years, and Prabhu Edouard, who plays on Jordi Savall's Francisco Javier double CD, on tabla. My photo below was taken during the concert.

'Naghma' was about as far from Pro Tools music as you can get. Risk, innovation, emotive contours and humanity were all there in shedloads. As we strolled out of the Abbey Church into the warm French night both my wife and I agreed that this was the most exhilirating music making we had been privileged to sit in on since Jordi Savall's concert in Saint Peter Mancroft, Norwich last year. It is probably no coincidence that Driss el Maloumi was playing in that Norwich concert as well. To my knowledge there are, as yet, no plans to record 'Nahma' . What an opportunity for a quick-thinking record company - are you out there ECM?

After 'Naghma' there was a late night performance by a Javanese shadow puppet ensemble and musicians of Dewa Ruci, a Javanese take on the Mahabharata. The accompanying generously amplified metallic percussion made a Xenakis score sound positively Pro Tools and took me back to Soft Machine playing in another tent at Saint Tropez in 1967. With no pesky broadcast slots to fit into the two and a half hour performance in the Café Orient big top, seen above, went on to well after midnight. It must have been audible for many miles around, if not in distant Paris. Only in France ...

Sunday morning took us across the Loire for a concert in the privately owned 19th century Palais Briau (do check that link), which is seen in the photo above. Tibetan sacred music is rare, but not unknown in the West. But Les Orientales took us into unknown territiory with a performance of Tibetan secular music and dance by Lobsang Chonzor, who is captured by me in the photo below. A spellbinding recital in magical surroundings, and, as with the Café Oriental, the majority of the audience sat happily on cushions on the floor.

Les Orientales Festival extends far beyond music. The undercroft of the Abbey contained a cinema showing Indian films and an art exhibition, and the Abbey grounds hosted an Oriental market including the stall selling musical instruments seen below.

The on-site restaurant, seen in my next photo, offered only Indian food and drink, and made no concessions to corporate hospitality and its demands for cocktails and canapés.

Free events included Eastern conjurors, puppets and other entertainment in the courtyard setting seen below. The festival grounds conveniently included the municipal swimming pool, which the 38 degrees centigrade heat made very appealing.

In today's age of Pro Tools and market research the audience has become just another set of numbers. If only statistics could measure the looks on the faces below.

Our decision to visit the festival at Saint-Florient was pure serendipity. There was no approach from the festival organisers, no press credentials, and all our tickets were purchased at the box office. If I sound very enthusiastic about the festival it is simply because it was one of the most rewarding musical experiences we have had for a long time. Les Orientales is a refreshing and much needed reminder that music really is an art whose beauty stems from its limitlessness. There was too much happening to cover in even this typically epic post. Watch out for more coverage in the coming weeks - including free music downloads. Meanwhile here is a photo of my wife and myself taken at the festival.

Another French musical road trip here.
* Visiting festivals such Les Orientales in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil does not require a toxic mortgage. We drove from England and, as detailed in an earlier post, used Saint Jean de Monts as a longterm base in France. For Les Orientales we stayed at L'Auberge de la Loire in nearby Montjean-sur-Loire where we splurged on a double room with a view across the Loire for 75 Euros for a night including breakfast, we could certainly have paid less in a more mundane location. Tickets for 'Haghma' were 17 Euros for the choir (where we sat) or 14 Euros for the nave. Prices for other events were in the 13-15 Euros band. All tickets were bought by us at the box office. But I am grateful to Edith Nicol, assistant to Alain Weber, for finding some time in her hectic schedule to talk to me.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos taken on a Casio EX-Z120 pocket camera and (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
This You Tube video captures Driss el Maloumi, Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya, and Prabhu Edouard, playing the same programme in Paris -
Pliable said…
Staying with You Tube this is Lobsang Chonzor performing sacred Tibetan songs and dances -
My goodness, how I missed your posts.this festival sounds like a rip!and look at the faces on the kinder...
Unknown said…

First-time comment from a relatively new reader. I'm in no position to judge the claims made in the linked Oranburg article, but I just wanted to note that I was surprised by the vehemence of the (overwhelmingly) negative reactions to it on the original Popmatters page. I wasn't aware that the use (or not) of technology was such a point of contention.

Anyway, thanks for another interesting path. Love the blog, a model of presentation and content. And the title is truly inspired -- such a great piece by Janacek.
Pliable said…
Dave, thanks for that. Yes, I too was surprised at the comments on the Scott Oranburg article.

As I noted the article was targeted at a rock audience, and I think the defensive comments came from people who had used Pro Tools and similar software to make rock recordings without incurring the huge costs of hiring full-service studios. In which case it is an understandable reaction.

PC based music production is also having an impact on classical recordings. I must write a piece about Cantica Symphonica's recent recording of Marian anthems (ancient and modern) for Glossa.

The sleeve notes explain how the four voice ensemble recorded the whole album without a recording engineer or other help. There is a photo of the four singers in a completely empty church in Italy singing with the unmanned recording equipment in front of them. And quite magnificent it sounds too.

So who needs a recording engineer these days?

But somehow I can't see Valery Gergiev starting the PC before he records with the LSO ...

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