Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Music and place

In this quiet room above the sea I've just played the fourth [Beethoven Piano Concerto] again. I know it now - every stitch of it - more intimately than I know Nancy [LD's wife]. I've got it in my bowels. Sort of empathy. I've been it, I act it, sleep it, shit it, sleep it - everything. And I can tell you that compared to it, the Emperor is a collection of musical platitudes written for a lavatory-paper musical box by a deaf mute. So There!
Lawrence Durrell wrote those words in Corfu in 1935. I took the photo above at the Lac du Der Chantecoq in the Champange-Ardenne region of France last week. During the three weeks we spent on campsites in remote locations in rural France I was struck once again when listening to my iPod, as to how place affect the way music is heard. Just as light determines the way we see a landscape, so the aura of a place seems to change our perspective on a familiar piece of music.

The mystical relation between music and place is nothing new, and Britten's Aldeburgh is the best example of how intimately sound and geography are linked. In Buddhism it is called 'dependent arising' and is expressed by the formula, "When this arises that becomes". That dabbler par excellence Herbert von Karajan toyed with Zen Buddhism and also had thought-provoking views on the mathematical relationship between the rhythm of music and natural phenomena such as heartbeat, which are in turn affected by place.

Last year I wrote about some an excting new initiative started by Antony Pitts of the Royal Academy of Music, London to map music and place, describing it as 'Google Earth for classical music'. Antony's project has now become part of a group working on musicDNA, an ambitious attempt to produce a multi-dimensional map of the musical universe. Today musicDNA has launched musicGPS for iPhone and iPod touch. Here is a screengrab followed by a description from their website:

Whenever you listen to music on your iPhone or iPod touch (OS 3.0) you can use musicGPS to keep a record of what you listened to, where and when. Open up musicGPS to browse and zoom in and out of your own timeline. And play any combination of tracks on your iPhone straight from musicGPS.

musicGPS records the soundtrack of your life™ - wherever you go. Discover what it was that caught your ear during a journey. See a map of where you’ve been and what you listened to and add a note or photo.
Antony Pitts is a man of many parts, and I was very impressed by his recently released electro-acoustic collage In Memoria which combines music by Ockeghem, Dufay, Obrecht, and Josquin with ambient sounds, children's songs, poetry, real stories and a new motet composed for the project by Antony. In Memoria, which is available as an iTunes download for £4.49, is a direct descendant of Glenn Gould's contrapuntal radio experiments which resulted in the Solitude Trilogy created by Gould for CBC. These three sound portraits of different aspects of solitude were pioneering investigations into the relationship between sound and place. Which is where today's path started.

Now read about raindrops falling on Antony Pitts' chant.
My opening quote comes from Spirit of Place, Letters & Essays on Travel by Lawrence Durrell, published by Faber ISBN-13: 978-1569247228 and, you guessed it, out of print. A review iTunes download of In Memoria was supplied at my request. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Conductors and gnawing infantile megalomania

Readers expecting one of my trademark rants about the new Gustavo Dudamel video game are in for a disappointment. I have to confess that news of Bravo Gustavo brought back happy memories of RCA Victor's 1959 LP Music for Frustrated Conductors which came complete with authentic wooden baton and an illustrated do-it-yourself conducting booklet written by Deems Taylor. Rather than the Symphonie Fantastique featured on Bravo Gustavo the LP included Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, a movement from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, the waltzes from Die Fledermaus, and, my personal favourite at the time, extracts from Richard Rogers' score for the TV documentary series Victory at Sea, which can be sampled in the video below.

Arthur Fiedler, Morton Gould and Robert Russell Bennett were the un-frustrated conductors of the disc, which can be seen in the American market packaging above. If my memory is correct the UK release came in a much more sombre white box. When the 12 inch vinyl LP was released fifty years ago I was a kid of ten, and I have happy memories of hours spent alongside my parents' huge autochanger mono radiogram wielding the baton and inhaling that unique smell of hot dust on valves, or tubes if you live across the pond. It was never going to make a conductor out of me, but nevertheless I'm not going to knock Bravo Dudamel. For, as a contemporary article explained:
Actually, home conducting may be a healthy thing, according to Manhattan Psychoanalyst Dr. Edmund Bergler: it provides the amateur with sublimating relief from the gnawing "infantile megalomania" that afflicts every man who ever wanted to lift a baton.

Just more evidence that music is good for you; unless you are a musician performing new music.
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Music exists within silence

The five seconds of silence that precede the music on any ECM album may be the most important statement a record company could make. The pause is a recognition that music exists within silence; only by acknowledging it can a listener become wholly involved.

Manfred Eicher is the author of that silence, and of the silence that appears to surround all the recordings produced on his remarkable label. The quality of that silence is intended to lead us towards a heightened awareness, a contemplative state where we are encouraged to listen harder and more acutely to the music, and to the spaces between it.

When he was asked, almost forty years after founding ECM, if he had any patterns or models in mind when he started the label, Eicher's answer was straightforward: "A very good model, all the time, was for for me the sound of Miles' Kind of Blue and Bill Evans, how he sounded there".
Richard Willams writes in The Blue Moment, a new book which seems to have slipped under the radar of the music community. The proposition that contemporary art music has influenced popular forms of music is well-rehearsed. But in his absorbing commentary, which is provocatively sub-titled 'Miles Davis and the remaking of modern music' Richard Williams' argues that Miles Davis' seminal Kind of Blue has influenced classical musicians ranging from La Monte Young and Terry Riley to Toru Takemitsu. The Blue Moments' index reflects the book's eclectic and inclusive nature, and Brian Eno, Cornelius Cardew, Robert Wyatt, The Velvet Underground, John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett rub shoulders with Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Australian cult band The Necks.

Kind of Blue was recorded in March 1959 in Columbia's studio in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church on 207 East 30th Street, Manhattan, seen in the photo above. This studio was the venue for many classic sessions including Glenn Gould's two accounts of the Goldberg Variations as well as Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Richard Williams' descibes how, in those heady pre-digital days the art of great recorded sound was devoutly worshipped in the old church on East 30th Street.
Its unvarnished wooden floor and plaster walls and ceiling were purposely left untouched, as was a large drape that covered the back wall. Mitch Miller, Columbia's head of A & R, ordered that the floor should never be washed, in order to preserve its resonance (explaining that once the body of a fine violin has been cleaned, its tone is never the same).
My footer photo shows the facade of the Armenian church on East 30th Street. This photo and the one above come from the excellent Reeves Audio Recording website. Glenn Gould's digital 1981 Goldbergs was the last recording to be made in the studio's peerless acoustics. Following the sessions for the Bach this famous venue suffered the architectural equivalent of Pro Tools editing, and was demolished to be replaced by a faceless apartment block.

Ten years after the session on 30th Street in New York, Munich-based ECM released its first album, the Max Waldron Trio's Free At Last. As my opening quote shows Richard Williams, who has edited the Melody Maker, headed A & R for Island Records and writes for the Guardian on sport and music, links the phenomenom that is ECM to the zeitgeist of Kind of Blue, and goes on to identify Norwegian label Rune Grammofon as an ECM-influenced label to watch.

The Blue Moment joins the growing number of fashionable music titles that are creating a new genre of music writing which favours anecdotal narration over academic rigour. Richard Williams' background as a journalist serves him well for this task; but when he embarks on the occasional track by track analysis of the music his prose can be as wearisome as one of ECM's more arcane offerings. But, minor reservations aside, The Blue Moment provides a welcome, if highly personal, European perspective on the forces that shaped late twentieth-century music.

Read about the influence of Bill Evans, pianist for Kind of Blue, on Hungarian György Ligeti here, and about Miles Davis' Spanish-inspired follow-up album here.
Footer photo credit Reeves Audio Recording. The Blue Moment was borrowed from Norwich library and is published by Faber (ISBN 9780571245062). 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk. Version 1.1 28/09/2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Where have all the flowers gone?

I hardly dare go on another of my extended jaunts. In 2007 while I was away Sir Malcolm Arnold passed on, and last year it was Esbjörn Svensson. This year while I was travelling we lost the two remarkable ladies of music seen in these photos.

Back in September 2006 I ended a post on James Simon Kunen's 1968 novel The Strawberry Statement with these words:
* Now playing - The Great Mandala, yes I know that Peter, Paul and Mary are about as unfashionable as you can get, but this is one of the great antiwar songs of the era. Composer Peter Yarrow's explanation that the song 'says our lives present us with a choice, in this case, the choice was to either serve in a war that ran counter to basic American principles, or to take the consequences of refusing to do so; for young men called to service, it was the preeminent ethical dilemna of our time' is a stark reminder that relevance never becomes unfashionable.
In response longtime reader SFMike commented:
Peter, Paul and Mary were pretty unfashionable even then, their style being so old-time folk-singer, but I had the good fortune to see them perform live once in California around that time and the three of them were some of the most accomplished performers I've ever seen. They took a huge "outdoor bowl" audience into their hands and made it feel like an intimate occasion.
On September 16th Mary Travers, one of that old-time folk trio, died aged 72 after a long illness. Thank you Mary for your music making. It will always remind us that relevance must never become unfashionable.

Also in 2006 I this about one of the great conductors of all time:
Antal Doráti's reputation was justifiably built on his conducting. Just one example is his recording of Stravinsky's complete Firebird ballet which was made for Mercury in Watford Town Hall in 1959. It is one of the major achievements in the history of recorded music and was made on Ampex 350 series three channel ½ inch recorders using valve (tube) recording electronics. Listening to it again does raise the question as to what real benefits do digital recording and jet-setting maestros bring us today?
The producer of that recording, and many other classic discs, was Wilma Cozart Fine, seen below, who died, aged 82, on Sept. 21. Thank you Ms. Fine for your legacy of recordings; they will always remind us that great sound, irrespective of age or technology, must never become unfashionable.

Another classic Wilma Cozart Fine recording here.
Lower photo credit to Fine family. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

La rentrée

More art of typography here.
Photo of Vandeness en Auxois, France is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Chichester Psalms

This magnificent tapestry forms the reredos for the high altar in Chichester Cathedral. It was commissioned in 1966 by Dean Walter Hussey from John Piper. Piper's wife, Myfanwy Piper, was librettist for three of Benjamin Britten's operas, and John Piper designed the Britten memorial window in Aldeburgh Church.

Walter Hussey was a prolific patron of the arts, and among his many commissions was Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, which was composed for the 1965 Chichester Festival. The work received its premiere in New York with the composer conducting on July 15th 1965, and was performed two weeks later in Chichester with the cathedral's organist John Birch conducting. My lower photo shows the tapestry titled The Reconciliation Gobelin by the German artist Ursula Benker-Schirmer which hangs in the cathedral's retro-choir. This magnificent work, which was made in Bavaria and England, was commissioned after Dean Hussey retired and was installed in 1985, the year of his death.

These photos were taken in May this year when we attended Compline in Chichester Cathedral en route to catching the overnight cross-Channel ferry. We are off on our travels again in a few days. So this will be the last post On An Overgrown Path for a while and there will be delays in moderating comments and responding to emails. Please support other music blogs while I am away and remember -
Keep flowing. We should learn from the river which keeps itself pure and healthy by continuing to flow. If a river gets blocked and the flow is hindered it stagnates, produces a stink and mosquitos breed. We should be like the flowing river - Vinoba Bhave

Photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The battle against the bland

What ties these experiences together is this: in each case, something distinctive has been replaced by something bland; something organic by something manufactured; something definably local with something emptily placeless; something human scale with something impersonal. The result is stark, simple and brutal: everywhere is becoming the same as everywhere else.

The small, the ancient, the indefinable, the unprofitable, the meaningful, the interesting and the quirky are being scoured out and bulldozed to make way for the clean, the sophisticated, the alien, the progressive, the corporate. It feels, to me, like a great loss, which seems to suck the meaning from the places I care for or feel I belong to. It matters.
Once again two paths converge. I have been reading Real England: The Battle Against the Bland by the environmental campaigner Paul Kingsnorth. In this chilling book, which supplies my opening quote, Paul Kingsnorth paints a vivid picture of how, due to the ever increasing influence of government-supported giant corporations, the English are becoming "uniquely among European nations ... almost a decultured people".

While reading The Battle Against the Bland I listened to Undiscovered Islands, the new CD of music for piano and flute by the English composer Graham Lynch. As I played the disc and read the sleeve notes it struck me that there were striking resonances between Undiscovered Islands and Paul Kingsnorth's book. So I asked Graham Lynch, seen below, about the new CD.

On An Overgrown Path - Graham, your CV says you have 'chosen to live in remote and elemental locations'. London dominates the UK classical music scene? So does living in Cornwall pose problems?

Graham Lynch - Although I'm a UK composer I have a very low profile over here, despite having written works for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Singers. By the wonders of the internet, most of the musicians I connect to are in other countries, and although I often get several performances a week these are mostly abroad. I compose full time, but living in Penzance is probably not as useful as living in London; but it's quieter! I'm hoping that this disc will help redress the balance a bit. It's not that I'm totally unknown over here, another piece by me, Invisible Cities, was used as the modern test piece in the recent Leeds Conductor's Competition and generated some potentially useful spin-offs, but I don't tend to be in the mix.

OAOP - You say you don't tend to be in the mix, but your music has been performed by some pretty eclectic ensembles. How would you describe your composing style?

GL - I write classical music and tango nuevo pieces, and things that are a bit in between. This might sound a little strange, but for me it’s all part of one style, one way of thinking. Behind all these pieces there is a melodic and modal way of writing that has been influenced I think by southern European music such as flamenco, fado, and Mediterranean music generally.

OAOP - In your early days you mixed learning the piano with playing keyboards in rock and jazz-rock bands. What part does dance play in your music?

GL - In the past many composers wrote works that engaged directly with the idea of the dance, and I now see the tango as being part of this tradition. As you will hear with works like Alba and Spanish Café these are very much concert pieces, and quite complex and demanding to play in their own way.

OAOP - Your music is tonal, so what is your relationship to the contemporary mainstream?

GL - I should say though that it’s not that I dislike atonal modern music, I have been very influenced by composers such as Boulez, Birtwistle, Ligeti, Carter, etc. It’s that I don’t feel I have anything to say in that particular style, and perhaps times have moved on a bit. Pieces like Invisible Cities, and some of the ‘White Books’ allow me to think more about pure musical structure, the tangos allow me to explore different and more visceral human emotions. It’s all sides of life, and I enjoy that.
In The Battle Against the Bland Paul Kingsnorth talks about the distinctive, the quirky, the meaningful and the interesting, which is also a perfect description of Graham Lynch's Undiscovered Islands. This exquisitely turned and fiercely independent project shows, once again, that musically there is an alternative to the clean, the sophisticated, the alien, the progressive, and the corporate. As Graham Lynch says 'It’s all sides of life, and I enjoy that'. Or as Paul Kingsnorth says 'It Matters'.

* Undiscovered Islands, which is the first commercial recording devoted to Graham Lynch's music, is released on the independent Priory label. Mark Tanner is the pianist and Gillian Poznansky the flautist, they are seen below. Priory's founder Neil Collier engineered the excellent sound in the peerless acoustics of St George's, Brandon Hill, Bristol. A special mention should go to Priory for the excellent documentation and artwork which is seen above. Priory do not support download purchases of the album, so Graham Lynch's own website is currently the best place to buy the CD; there are also audio samples from the disc on his site.

Now follow the path from Undiscovered Islands to Inner Cities.
Photos of Graham Lynch credited to Simon Green. Paul Kingsnorth blogs here here. A review copy of Undiscovered Islands was supplied by Graham Lynch at my request. Real England: The Battle for the Bland was borrowed from Norwich library. And yes, that is the Mezquita at Córdoba in the CD cover montage. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk