Saturday, July 31, 2010

In the beginning was the word

We can be deceived by popular images.
Every now and again a religious CD gets into the charts, a CD of Gregorian chant maybe.
People who are bored by the Spice Girls turn instead to the Incense Boys.

And religious pundits greet the news by babbling away about how it all reveals a deep spiritual hunger.
How tranquil the music in the abbey sounds
to people caught in the rat race!

And for a few well-marketed moments
the world changes its take on convents
It used to hear nuns chanting and say how cold and fruitless.
Now it seems to hear monks chanting and say how cool!
But either way, the conclusion seems to be:
fine for them: irrelevant for me.
Surprisingly topical in view of the signing by Decca of the nuns of L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation near Avignon but clearly dated by the reference to the Spice Girls, those wise words come from a sermon by Father Cormac. As Cormac Rigby he was presentation editor of BBC Radio 3 from 1971 to 1985, and was a Roman Catholic priest from 1988 to his death in 2007. I post the words today not for their topicality, although they certainly do not lack that, but for their style.

The text comes from a remarkable series of little books of Father Cormac's sermons that transcribe his notes without editing or re-formatting. Cormac Rigby was presentation editor at the BBC at a time when precision and clarity mattered. Anyone can deliver the text above and make it sound professional and convincing, just try reading it aloud to confirm this. If you have any involvement in presentations or if you simply revel in the power of words, these little books, which can be picked up for pennies, are a must, whatever your religious persuasion.

In the undated (early 1970s?) header photo taken at Broadcasting House Cormac Rigby is second from left . Read more about him in He was in every sense a good man.

* Cormac Rigby can be heard as one of the two readers in the Chandos recording of Britten's The World of the Spirit.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. Header quote is from The Lord Be with You published by Family Publications, Oxford, which was bought at retail. The publisher has gone out of business, so snap the books up while you can. 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

Friday, July 30, 2010

Gregorian chant with added ornaments

This is the artwork for the forthcoming Decca CD from L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation du Barroux with added ornaments to reflect the topical playlist for my Chance Music programme on Sunday, August 1.

1. Titi Robin - Kali Sultana, troisième mouvement
2. Lady Gaga - Poker Face
3. Monks of l'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux - Gregorian antiphons and responsories
4. Bells of l'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux
5. Xavier de Fourvière, Te Saludan - Jean Coutarel (organ) and Jean-Sébastien Bressy (galoubet)
6. Jonathan Harvey, Mortuos plango, vivos voce for eight channel tape
7. Titi Robin - Kali Sultana, septième mouvement and épilogue

Titi Robin's daughter features on vocals on the opening track. My daughter will be talking about the Lady Gaga track as she was at the diva's O2 gig in London a few months ago and, I have to confess, I wasn't. But is it art or entertainment, or is it just quick and dirty media? Does it matter? As broadcaster and musicologist Leo Black says in his new book:
'Broadcasting, overall as well as in detail, is a field where you drop a pebble down a well, wait for the faint splash, and then proceed to next business.'
* Listen to a podcast of this Chance Music programme here.

* Titi Robin is appearing with Faiz Ali Faiz at the Barbican, London on Sept 18 in a performance of Jaadu Magic, which I enthused about last year. It should be an unmissable evening, but sadly we will be in Languedoc on the path of the Albigensian Crusade.

* More Gregorian with added ornaments here.

BBC Music in the Glock Era and After by Leo Black ISBN 9780955608742 is published by Plumbago Books. Distribution is by Boydell & Brewer who supplied a review sample at my request. All CDs on the playlist were bought at retail. 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. This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath

A closet mystic

How unfair that Edward Elgar has been painted into a patriotic corner. As I listened again this morning on CD to Sir Adrian Boult's towering interpretation of The Apostles I was reminded of how Elgar's music is rooted not in England's Protestant culture, but in a great and inclusive mystical tradition. Elgar was a Roman Catholic, and Catholics are banned from the throne of the United Kingdom by the Act of Settlement of 1701 and Catholic emancipation was not made law until 1829, just 28 years before Elgar was born.

Elgar is seen in the header photo putting the finishing touches to the Dream of Gerontius. This uses a text by Catholic mystic Cardinal Newman and Pope Pius XII described the work as "a sublime masterpiece" after a performance conducted by Sir John Barbirolli at the pontiff's summer residence in 1958.

Bede Griffiths (1906-1993) was another Catholic mystic and is known for his pioneering and controversial links with Hinduism. In the late 1930s the young Cornelius Cardew, later to become a hard line Maoist, met Bede Griffiths several times at the cottage of Cardew's father, the potter Michael Cardew in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. The title of my surprisingly popular post on Bede Griffiths says it all - This man is dangerous.

* The Kingdom with Margaret Price, Yvonne Minton, Alexander Young, John Shirley-Quirk and the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult is available on EMI Classics. This is surely another sublime masterpiece, if it is not in your collection it should be. Ironically in view of my comments above, the coupling is Elgar's Coronation Ode conducted by Philip Ledger. I once asked the recording's producer, Christopher Bishop to name the best sounding record he had ever made. He unhesitatingly replied the Coronation Ode, which he produced in his beloved King's College Chapel, Cambridge. It plays as I write, with an acoustic like that who needs digital reverberation?

** Elgar acknowledged the influence of the music of German composer Philipp Wolfrum (1854-1919) on The Kingdom and he conducted Wolfrum's Weinachtmysterium op. 31 at a concert in Worcester in 1901. Wolfrum is a forgotten figure from the romantic period and I do not know his music. Elgar's advocacy cannot be ignored and further detective work could be rewarding.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. CDs of The Kingdom were bought at retail. 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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Here comes quick and dirty media

Philip Glass' 2005 prediction that 'world music is the new classical' is confirmed by my recent listening. World music is exposing the tired formulas and vested interests of 'big music'. Musique sans frontières, world music, or 'knowing music', call it what you want, but that is where it is happening right now. And it is not only musique that is sans frontières, equally exciting things are happening in cinéma sans frontières.

Last night we watched Persian director Bahman Ghobadi's 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats. This is a portrait of contemporary Tehran framed by the city's underground rock scene and the movie won the Cannes Film Festival's 'Un Certain Regard' special jury prize in 2009 for “original and different” films, a prize worth a million of those annual awards dedicated to perpetuating tired formulas and vested interests, the Oscars.

No One Knows About Persian Cats is certainly original and different as well as being great cinema. Its points of difference include being shot in just 17 days without the obligatory permit from the Iranian government, an absence of any post-production special effects, and the use of long single takes using hand-held cameras.

Hand-held cameras, digital distribution and other forms of dissident technology are creating two parallel media universes. One is Western-centric 'big media' with its capital intensive rigid formulas, reliance on repetition and abhorrence of experimentation. The other is low cost quick and dirty improvisation driven média sans frontières.

Love it or hate it, the viral success of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook must be telling us something. Even if the government's just announced axeing of the UK Film Council while ramping-up support for big-sport' (as if it was needed) sends contradictory messages. Yes, the UK Film Council came within the pejorative definition of a 'quango'. But, as its website explains "Our support develops new filmmakers, funds exciting new British films and gets a wider choice of films to audiences throughout the UK".

Chance music radio is my own timid experiment with quick and dirty media. On the road with Olivier Messiaen was also a gentle excursion into the genre which is explored more fully in No selection has been made. And, finally, synchronicity rules; the soundtrack from No One Knows About Persian Cats is released by Milan Records, whose Jade label brought us Gregorian Chant from the very topical Benedictine monastery near Avignon.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. No One Knows About Persian Cats was borrowed from Norwich Millenium Library, the UK Museum, Libraries and Archives Council also looks set to be closed. 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, July 27, 2010

In search of the difficult listen

'At Cambridge I became very absorbed, quite suddenly, in mystical writing, like that of St John of the Cross. Christian mysticism seemed to lead out of a framework that I knew and understood fairly well into a more general, more heteredox consciousness, which of course had many resonances in oriental religion. Someone said, 'You only had to squeeze St John of the Cross like a sponge and you are left with pure Buddhism.' The experiences were enhanced by visits to monasteries, where I would stay a few days; usually lonely, quiet peaceful places'.
Those words from contemporary composer Jonathan Harvey lead us down yet another fascinating overgrown path. To my surprise yesterday's post about the forthcoming Gregorian Chant CD by the nuns of L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation near Avignon in France attracted a record number of readers. As Jonathan Harvey said monasteries are "usually lonely, quiet peaceful" and the header and footer photos ( taken by me and copyright please) evoke the peace found at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation. Yesterday's post mentioned how the Jade disc of Gregorian Chant from the monks of the partner monastery of Sainte-Madeleine had been in my 'to do' pile when the story about the nun's CD broke, and in a neat example of synchronicity in the same pile was a new release of Jonathan Harvey's music that includes a work inspired by Gregorian Chant.

Speakings, released on the French Aeon label, features three recent works by Jonathan Harvey, Scena (1992) for violin and ensemble, Jubilus (2002) for viola and ensemble and Speakings for large orchestra and electronics, played by the 'band on the rolll' BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with conductor Ilan Volkov and soloists Elizabeth Layton (violin) and Scott Dickinson (viola). A team from IRCAM provide the electronics for the title track and, in an interesting contradiction of my theory that technicians should be seen and not heard, Jonathan Harvey is credited for 'Diffusion/Sound Projection'.

Jubilus builds on the principle of structural amplification found in the plainchant technique of prolonging the final vowel of the Alleluia over many notes in a long melisma, a technique that reached its apogee in the 12th and 13th centuries in the compositions of the Notre Dame School. As Jubilus develops Jonathan Harvey takes the listener on a journey from Catholic to Eastern mysticism as plainsong is transmuted into Tibetan ritual chant inspired by the Drukpa Buddhism of the Tibetan Kagyupa tradition.

This blog is informed by one thing above all others, my personal enthusiasms. These, unashamedly, include the personal integrity and music of Jonathan Harvey. When I wrote about his String Quartets (also on the Aeon label) last year I said "There is no point in pretending that all of Jonathan Harvey's recent work is an easy listen". Today, classical radio stations and corprate record labels, including Universal Music with their L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation project, are obsessive in their search for the easy listen. Yes, of course we need new audiences. But thank goodness composers like Jonathan Harvey and independent labels like Aeon are still prepared to challenge that miraculous but threatened faculty called the human brain with difficult listens.

* Listen to Jonath Harvey talking to me about Speakings in an exclusive podcast.

** More monasteries, Buddhism and Jonathan Harvey in New music in the paradise garden.

*** At the suggestion of Benjamin Britten, Jonathan Harvey studied with Hans Keller. More about Keller in New music's reality check.

**** Plainsong is also used in Jonathan Harvey's 1981 Passion and Resurrection.

***** More new music and ancient monasteries here.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Header quote is from Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whitall. A review copy of Speakings was supplied at my request by Music and Media Consulting. 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

Monday, July 26, 2010

What is the link to Lady Gaga?

'That inner spirit has been embodied very vibrantly in Benedictine monastic life and liturgy. This helps to explain the paradox of a music which when sung really expresses the spirit of silence; which with almost wordless vocalization really attempts to express the very word of God; which with the action of singing really is meant to be a vehicle of contemplation' - Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B.
The glories of Gregorian Chant, or "the mysticism of the octave" as Abbot Rooney describes it, have drawn me back again and again to the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux near Avignon in France. The monastic community at Le Barroux are orthodox Catholics who celebrate the Holy Offices eight times a day in plainsong which respects the scholarship of Solesmes. This glorious liturgy is one of the reasons why I have stayed at the Abbey as a guest of the monks quite a few times over the years despite my discomfort with other aspects of Catholicism.

As a result of my visits the community has featured here several times and I have also revelled in the chant of the sister community of nuns at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation located on the slope below Sainte-Madeleine. But I never thought I would write a post linking the Benedictines at Le Barroux to Lady Gaga, but that is exactly where this typically overgrown path is leading.

Several CDs of Gregorian Chant have been made by the monks at Sainte-Madeleine for sale in their monastic shop. However these were essentially in-house projects that never really captured the full glory of the sound. But all that has changed, as I learnt when staying at the monastery in December of last year. During my recent visit it was clear that the quality of the monk's voices, which was always very good, was now quite exceptional. My friends in the monastic community told me that not only had they been receiving voice training from a professional coach, but they had just completed recording a new CD for a mainstream label in between celebrating the Holy Offices.

As soon as the CD was released a couple of months back I ordered a copy. When it arrived from France I only needed to listen to a few tracks to realise there was something quite exceptional captured on the disc. So exceptional in fact that I needed to share it with readers, at which point the new release joined a queue of posts to be written when I returned from my recent trip to France. And it sat in there until I clicked on a story at the BBC News website this morning. The headline was typical PR spiel, and I nearly passed it by. But then I read further:
Major record deal for reclusive Benedictine nuns

The nuns hope the album will help people 'find peace' An order of Benedictine nuns has signed a major record deal with the company behind Lady Gaga, it has been revealed.

The Nuns of the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation, from France, won a global search of more than 70 convents across Europe, the US and Africa. The reclusive order, based near Avignon, were deemed to have the finest Gregorian Chant singers.They have signed a deal with Decca Records, part of Universal Music, which counts Lady Gaga and U2 among its acts.
Yes, the nuns signed by Lady Gaga's label, aka Decca, are the very same ones I visit at Le Barroux. The photo below shows L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in the foreground with L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation visible as a cluster of buildings in the middle distance and Mont Ventoux towering in the background. Clearly something musically quite remarkable is happening at Le Barroux, so here is the story of the new Jade (who brought us Armenia Sacra and Hymns of Mount Athos) CD from the monks.

I have written before about the architecture of L'Abbay Sainte-Madeleine. The aerial view above shows the conservatively styled neo-Romanesque Abbey which was built between 1980 and 1989. Stone was used in its construction, as seen in the photo below of the interior, and this together with the arched ceiling has created a quite exceptional acoustic, wonderfully warm but without the confusing aural overhang often associated with large churches.

Renowned tonmeister Igor Kirkwood, who now records at Solesmes and is, I am told by the monks, quite a perfectionist with a healthy appetite for retakes, engineered the sessions and captured the monks singing Gregorian Mass and Vespers settings together with a selection of antiphons in the glorious sacred space of L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine. The result is both a musical revelation and a definitive example of natural sound which is blissfully free of today's all too common technology tampering. I have so often sat mesmerised at Le Barroux as the chant soared into the roof of the Abbey at Le Barroux apparently completely independent of its human source. When I played the CD the chant soared into the room apparently completely independent of the speakers. Need I say more?

Well, yes actually. Chant Gregorien from Sainte-Madeleine is, for me, one of the year's outstanding releases because of its superlative singing and sound. But, if that was not enough, there are also four tracks of organ music recorded in the Abbey. One of these, Te Saludan by the Provencal composer Xavier de Fourvière (1853-1912), couples the organ of the Abbey (played by Jean Coutarel) with the three-holed folk pipe called a galoubet (played by Jean-Sébastien Bressy). That track is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have heard for some time and is worth the purchase price of the CD alone. If Universal Music want a really original crossover project for the Christmas market a disc of music for organ and galoubet coupled with some Provencal carols could just be the ticket.

If you think I am enthusiastic about Chant Gregorien from Sainte-Madeleine you are dead right. Yes, the nuns at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation also have truly ravishing voices. But I am just a little nervous as to what the folk at Lady Gaga's record label are going to do with the sound for a crossover market weaned on dry studio acoustics. There may be hope as Igor Kirkwood does engineer some Decca recordings. But if you want the real thing don't wait for the nuns; the new Jade CD from the monks really puts you in the sacred space seen below and lets you experience those columns of plainsong soaring upwards.

* Buyer be aware - The monastic community at Le Barroux was until 1988 linked with the ultra-right wing Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre, who featured in my post Love, life and crimes against humanity. Of course we all have skeletons in our cupboard and there is much else to admire at Le Barroux. But it doesn't do any harm to put Universal Music's 'find peace' spin into a wider context, particularly bearing in mind allegations about Lady Gaga's fascist sub-texts. For more details of the political links to Le Barroux see this article.

** Buyer be amused - Local folklore recounts how a secret tunnel built by the monks links the monastery of Sainte-Madeleine with the convent of Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation.

*** See L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation - exclusive photos here.

**** Webcast/podcast of chant from Le Barroux and more on L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation here.

***** Header quote is from the excellent The Benedictine Gift to Music by Katharine Le Mée.

****** Chant Gregorien from Sainte-Madeleine is available from Amazon UK as a CD or MP3 download, but given the superlative sound quality buying it in a mid-fi format would be a sacrilege. I bought my CD direct from the Abbey via the French Amazon website, they are reseller amp-barroux. Documentation on the Jade release is excellent but is in French.

******* It would be nice if Universal Music's promotion of the nuns at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation led listeners to the music of Hildegard of Bingen and in particular the recordings made by Sequentia with Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton. Particularly recommended are Symphoniae and Ordo Virtutum.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. 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

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The war was always there

'When I was fourteen, and still in junior high, we read a Hemingway story in class that opened, "In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more." It was a sad story, and that line stayed in my head; it felt like my own truth. War had always been present in my life, although I never went to it myself.'
That is the opening of The Love Children by Marilyn French. This fictional memoir of the 1960s and beyond is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it was not written by a rose-tinted spectacles wearing soixante-huitard. Marilyn French was born in 1929 and The Love Children was published shortly before her death in 2009. Secondly the novel comes from The Feminist Press, an activist and independent imprint based at the City University, New York.

Sadly war is still very much present, but Abbie Hoffman summed up the 1960s pretty well when he said:
'We were young, self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical, brave, silly, headstrong and scared half to death. And we were right'.
Nowdays it is fashionable to emphasise the silly and hypoctical side of the 60s. But Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, who was assasinated by the Armed Islamic Goup in 1993, made the case for the fast disappearing art of activism so eloquently:
Silence is death
And you, if you speak, you die
If you are silent you die
So, speak and die
The Love Children is an absorbing and illuminating read, but unfortunately the cover is as naff as the title. So my header image is a Smithsonian Folkways CD that is rooted in activism and which featured in my 2009 post Mixing music and politics.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. The Love Children was borrowed from Norwich Millenium Library. 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

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Life cycle of a blog

Generous and much appreciated sentiments are expressed elsewhere. But they do remind me of the danger of this blog becoming a venerable institution. For, as we have seen with BBC Radio 3, this inevitably leads to complacency, arrogance and finally decay. Ferenc Molnár's explanation as to why he wrote plays equally applies to bloggers and classical radio executives.
'It's like a prostitute; first, she does it to please herself; then she does it to please her friends; finally, she does it for money.'
Screen dump is from my October 2005 post Furtwängler and the forgotten new music.

This post is available via Twitter on @overgrownpath 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

Friday, July 23, 2010

In search of the mythical mountain

Mythical resting place of Noah's ark, frontier post between East and West, witness of genocide, Mount Ararat certainly radiates a powerful aura. Many musicians have experienced the aura, including Tigran Mansurian, Djivan Gasparyan and Alan Hovhaness with their laments for Armenia, the Armenian Church with its Divine Liturgy, and Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky with their evocations of the Flood.

Dutch author Frank Westerman too fell under the spell of Ararat and his obsession is chronicled in Ararat - In Search of the Mythical Mountain, an absorbing mix of memoir, meditation, history and travelogue. Reader reviews on Amazon are sometimes entertaining but rarely informative. The only review for Frank Westerman's meticulously researched and elegantly written book, which ranges from intelligent design through personal belief to the first genocide of the twentieth century, describes it as "Interesting, but a little anti-climactic." Quite so.

* Soundtrack - Oror by the father of contemporary Armenian music Komitas Vardapet, played on piano by Tigran Mansurian, read more in ECM in focus.

** I have not read it, but Frank Westerman's book on literature under the Soviets, Engineers of the Soul looks very promising.

This post is available via Twitter on @overgrownpath. Ararat - In Search of the Mythical Mountain was borrowed from Norwich Millenium Library. 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

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Among us there are no castes

'On stage I have always been surrounded by French and Gypsy musicians as well as musicians from the Eastern nations - because this mix is my universe, my world and it is the only thing which brings me the stability I need in order to live and to survive, like the balance that is found in the bosom of a large and closely-knit family. Among us there are no castes and when the time comes for singing and breaking bread, the time for dancing, the people becomes king'.
As my seventh year of blogging approaches I find myself less and less interested in rumours about the next career move of a jet set conductor or the latest hyperbole lavished by the twittering classes on last night's BBC Prom. Which is just fine; celebrity classical music is well served elsewhere leaving me to find sustenance where the people rather than personalities are king. Which brings me to the musician who supplied my opening quote.

Titi Robin, seen in my first two photos with 'the gypsy queen of Rajasthan' Gulabi Sapera, is a self-taught French composer and musician who plays guitar, buzuk (small Middle Eastern lute) and oud. As well as spending time with Roma and Sinti people he has travelled extensively in the East including a pilgrimage to Ajmer in Rajasthan, the holy city where the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti is buried. More than thirty years of travel, both physical and spiritual, have moulded Titi Robin's music, but above all it is diversity that he celebrates.

Around one quarter of the French population has at least one immigrant parent or grandparent, and this creates one of the largest global markets for world music. In French retail outlets browser space devoted to world music exceeds that for classical and there is a huge range of new world music releases which contrast sharply with the tired Chopin and Mahler re-issues from the big classical labels. France's cultural diversity and strong links with North Africa are reflected in its world music artists who long ago left behind the self-conscious fusion offerings still so fashionable in less inclusive northern Europe and North America. World music from France embraces styles as diverse and inclusive as the ethnicity of the population, burqa bans notwithstanding.

Titi Robin grew up in a rural community outside Angers in western France with gypsy and North African neighbours and this is reflected in his unique blend of gypsy, tzigane and Arabic music. In the paragraph above I discussed world music at some length, but interestingly Titi Robin rejects the very concept, as is explained elsewhere.
'Thierry “Titi” Robin is a fringe artist. He is placed within a “World Music” movement that he does not acknowledge, as it seems to him to be motivated by a profound ethnocentricity, creating a barrier between Western “ethnic” music (rock, jazz…) and others!'
My first exposure to Titi Robin's music was through the Accords Croisés Jaadu Magic album where he improvises on Sufi texts with Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and, quite appropriately, I bought that album last year in the capital of world music, Paris. While in western France recently I bought and spent time listening to several other Titi Robin albums and I now want to share these with readers.

Alezane is a thoughtfully programmed double CD compilation from 2004 which provides a useful overview of Titi Robin's music and is also the source of my header and footer quotations. Gitans was his 1993 breakthrough album and it has been described, with some justification, as one of the best albums of gypsy music ever recorded. The title means 'Gypsies' and Titi Robin's musique sans frontières is rooted in the nomadic cultures of the Roma and Sinti which contrast with the sedentary urban culture that is the home of what is referred to above as 'Western ethnic music' and in which the celebrity caste system still rules.

A path that started here four years ago leads us to the final, and for me most remarkable, Titi Robin album. In the summer of 2006 we travelled to the Roma pilgrimage centre of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Camargue in France to visit the shrine of the black Saint Sarah. In 2008 Titi Robin released Kali Sultana (Black Queen), a ninety minute largely instrumental suite. As Titi Robin explains:
'The Black Queen represents the beauty every artist seeks ... she can be very violent, but this violence also makes it possible to express and to resolve things'.
Kali Sultana is scored for gumbass, oud, buzuk, guitar, accordion, saxophone, clarinet and percussion, with viola and cello backing using Eastern style unison writing and Arab (or gypsy) scales. The result is mystical and hypnotic without ever losing forward momentum and the discs returned to the CD player many times during our recent travels. Strange isn't it? - if Kali Sultana was released on ECM there would be a big buzz about it, instead it remains a very well-kept secret on Naïve.

The sleeve notes for Kali Sultana are as eclectic as the music, with quotations from Sufi saint Mevlana Rumi, the yogi and astrologer Suraj Nath, poet Seanus Heaney, champion of the ethnic Kurds Yachar Kemal, poet Laure Morali, Bosnian writer Abdulah Sidran, poet and Sufi mystic Yunus Emre and American author Toni Morrison. Kali Sultana is subtitled 'L'Ombre du Ghazal' (In the shadow of ghazal) in homage to the poetic form used by Mevlana Rumi and other Persian mystics. These links to sufism are particularly interesting as this branch of mysticism focuses on the third and deepest component of Islam, inner life. (Practice and knowledge are the other two components). Sufi spirituality connects with inner life not by Western style integration, but by addition and rhythmic repetition, which is also a pretty good description of Kali Sultana. But Titi Robin puts it much better -
'The real journey is inside of you. Music feeds from that source, from the bottom of your heart, under your star, because there is no better place elsewhere and there is no golden age in the past'.
But even better than words is the video:

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All Titi Robin CDs were bought at retail price. 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, July 20, 2010

Nationalism and music

'Nationalism is the chief force impelling our civilisation to its doom' - Bertrand Russell
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

Monday, July 19, 2010

A craftsman in sound

Spanish independent classical label Enchiriadis has a tribute on its website to tonmeister Antonio Palomares y Montes who died in July 2009 aged 65. Antonio , seen above, worked on many of the label's releases. There are only twenty-seven titles in the Enchiriadis catalogue and it is one of the few labels whose new releases can be bought unauditioned, everyone is a gem musically, technically and visually. Much of the credit for this goes to Antonio for it was not only in the technical domain that he excelled, he was also deeply interested in the visual arts and his photographs were used on many of the label's releases.

The photo above was taken at the sessions for Enchiriadis' first and probably most celebrated release, Cristóbal de Morales' Requiem performed by Musica Ficta using five young voices directed by Raúl Mallavibarrena. For me this is still the finest account on disc (this notwithstanding) of this sublime work, despite stiff competition from Jordi Savall (two versions), Paul McCreesh and others. The Enchiriadis recording was engineered by Antonio Palomares and José Carlos Cabello (more Spanish early music skullduggery here) in the Capilla de la Esperanza, Barcelona and Antonio also took the photo above and the cover image seen below.

A Zen master once said: 'Final job of teacher: free student of teacher.' In the same way it is the job of a good recording engineer to free the listener of any awareness of the considerable amount of technology and compromise that sits between the performers in the recording studio and the listener in their home. Antonio Palomares was one of the rare breed of engineers who made the recording process inaudible. He is sorely missed.

Saturday's Guardian had an interview with Manfred Eicher titled The Sound Man, while there is an interesting link from Cristóbal de Morales to contemporary music here.

My copy of Morales Requiem and other Enchiriadis releases were bought at retail price. 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

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Return of the night watchman

BBC Radio 3's mercifully Petroc Trelawny-free Proms relay of Die Meistersinger plays as I write. Listening to Act II reminded me of a long forgotten detail of the legendary 1968 Sadlers Wells production of the opera conducted by Reginald Goodall (and later by Charles Mackerras) and produced by Glen Byam Shaw and John Blatchley.

The night watchman has a small but vitally important role at the end of Act II. As the riot subsides he makes his second appearance to sing 'Watch out for ghosts and goblins, lest an evil affright your soul' and, after a G flat on his horn, peace is restored and the curtain falls. It is one of the most magical moments in all music and for this reason the role attracts top singers. But that is his last appearance as Wagner gave him no part in the valedictory final act. This not withstanding the producers at Sadlers Wells in 1968 created a non-singing role for the night watchman in the festival meadow scene. As the guilds entered he took their emblems for ceremonial display and later, at the climactic moment of the opera, brought forward the victor's laurel for Pogner to present to Walter. They were small additions, but were so effective in enhancing the continuity of the narrative that Wagner himself must surely have approved.

That perfect Wagnerite and even more perfect purveyor of English prose Bernard Levin chose the 1968 Sadlers Wells Mastersingers as one of three 1960s operatic "experiences as intense as any art can offer". The other two were Covent Garden's 1961 Fidelio conducted by Dr Otto Klemperer and Georg Solti's 1967 Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Now for a quick quiz: who said?
I once said that Meistersinger is really one of Richard Wagner's finest operas, so since then it's supposed to be my favourite opera and I don't get to hear anything else.'
For less than perfect Wagnerites the answer is here.

In The Pendulum Years, Britain in the Sixties Bernard Levin writes far more eloquently than I ever could of the Sadlers Wells/ENO English language Mastersingers and this post stands in his shadow. Copies of The Pendulum Years can still be found. Header image is set design by Max Bruckner for the 1888 Bayreuth Die Meistersinger. 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

BBC on bended knee

'Culturally sensitive, yes; but journalism on bended knee, no' - BBC spokesman on negotiations to set up the aborted Saudi-BBC satellite news channel in 1994.
I was reminded of those words while reading Antoine Leboyer's new post about the BBC Proms. Is it a coincidence that 'BBC Radio 3' rhymes with 'BBC bended knee'? Read more from culturally sensitive Antoine in The truth about those French orchestras.

Header photo is of a hoarding outside the opera house in Nantes, France and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010 (Translation - 'To make a film you must be in love'). Quote comes via Al-Jazeera by Hugh Miles. 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

Friday, July 16, 2010

Concerts and personalities

'A festival consists of two things: concerts and personalities'.
Cornelius Cardew got it dead right when he wrote those words in a 1963 review of a contemporary music festival in Cologne. Today, July 16, the 2010 season of Promenade Concerts starts. The series was founded by Sir Henry Wood in 1895 and the BBC has been involved with the concerts since 1927 but did not take full control until 1942. Since then personalities have become as important as the concerts, and not all the personalities appear on the platform. But my photo does show Herbert von Karajan on the Albert Hall platform, which leads us to this story from Tony Palmer's 1982 book Julian Bream, A Life on the Road:
Peter Maxwell Davies - 'Have you ever played in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam?'
Julian Bream - 'Yes, why?'
PMD - 'Because that is Karajan's favourite hall. Do you know why?'
JB - 'No.'
PMD - 'He has to enter down that long flight of steps at the back of the stage; and because he can stop to bow or wave on every step his entrance can take as long as the first act of Parsifal.'
For the first night of this year's Proms BBC Radio 3 listeners have the unalloyed delight of Petroc Trelawny introducing Jirí Belohlávek conducting Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Personally, I think you can get too much of a good thing. So instead of tuning in I will be at the Bach Players' concert in the Octagon Chapel, Norwich. As the photo below shows, this 18th century listed building is a perfect octagon and, thankfully, provides no opportunity for musicians or presenters to showboat.

Seems to be the right time to ask What price the BBC Proms?

Header quote is from Cornelius Cardew, A Life Unfinished by John Tilbury. Octagon Chapel photo credit Bach Players, and yes, that is the legendary Aude Gotto in the back row. All books and concert tickets mentioned in this post were purchased by me. 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

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Remembering Chuck 'em up Charlie

The sad news comes of the death of Sir Charles Mackerras at the age of 84. Many obituaries and tributes are appearing and inevitably these focus on his excellence in the music of a few specific composers. But there was much more to Sir Charles than specialisation, so I am adding a few personal thoughts to the appreciations elsewhere.

We live in an age that categorises people by their specialisms, which means the role of the all-rounder is accorded little value. Of course Sir Charles Mackerras excelled in the music of Leoš Janáček and others. But he was also an all-round professional who brought great music to a wide audience. In fact he was especially valued by other musicians for his lack of specialisation. My colleague at EMI the late Douglas Pudney, an authority on neglected music, talked in repertoire meetings about 'Chuck 'em up Charlie'. This was a compliment not a disparagement, and was prompted by Sir Charles' ability to learn and record obscure music without using hours of studio time. Above is one of the discs that resulted, recorded with French trumpeter Maurice André and featuring among other works Johann Hertel's (1727-1789) Concerto in E flat major.

Let us remember that Sir Charles conducted three Ring cycles in 1976 while music director of English National Opera. At that time he had the unenviable task of picking up the Wagner ball whenever it was dropped, which was frequently, by the inspired but mercurial Reginald Goodall. In 1972 Goodall withdrew from a new Rhinegold production at short notice, Sir Charles cancelled all his other commitments to master the score in three weeks and delivered a performance that was praised by the critics. He went on to take the Ring on tour, no easy task, in 1974 and 1975 and during his time with ENO I heard him conduct a fine Die Meistersinger.

Sir Charles' Brahms should also not be overlooked. His 1997 recordings of the symphonies for Teldec with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which use 'Vienna horns' in F as opposed to safer modern B-flat and F instruments, are revelatory.

We are fortunate indeed that Sir Charles Mackerras left a great recorded legacy and that this includes authoritative interpretations of specific composers. But let us also celebrate the lost art of the all-rounder and remember him above all as a consummate and modest professional whose music making touched many in the recording studio, the concert hall and the opera house.

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

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Report to Greco

Three kinds of souls, three prayers:

1] I am a bow in your hands , Lord. Draw me, lest I rot.

2] Do not overdraw me, Lord. I shall break.

3] Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!
That quotation is from the prologue to Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis' autobiographical novel Report to Greco. Bohuslav Martinů's opera The Greek Passion is based on another novel by Kazantzakis. Greek electronic composer Vangelis' 1998 album El Greco has the famous painting The Knight with His Hand on His Breast by the Greek artist on its cover. As does Jordi Savall's Don Quijote de la Mancha, seen below.

My copy of the double CD and book was signed by Jordi Savall on the day of our just in time interview. Jordi Savall is living testimony to the 'Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!' approach to life. But, as the audio file of my interview tells, he also places great value on inner peace. I was reminded of that recently when I came across these words by Black Elk, a nineteenth-century Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the soul of men when they realise their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realise that at the centre of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka, and that this centre is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
Below is a CD dedicated to the victims of a terrible event that underlined the desperate need both for inner peace and peace between nations, the destruction in June 1942 of the village of Lidice near Prague by German troops. Profits from the sale of Concert for Lidice go towards the continuing humanitarian work at the village. Martinů's music features on the disc, as do two works by Antal Dorati, a great musician whose final written testament was a plea for For Inner and Outer Peace. The two works on Concert for Lidice are his Pater Noster (1988) and melodrama Jesus or Barabbas? (1987) Which, as my header image is a El Greco's Pietà, brings this post full circle.

Concert for Lidice was created as a concert and as a BIS CD by the inspirational folk at International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Read more about their work in Mahler's message for German parliament.

Black Elk quotation is from the indispensable The Essential Mystics edited by Andrew Harvey. All books mentioned were bought at retail as was Jordi Savall's Don Quijote de la Mancha. Concert for Lidice was supplied at my request some years ago by IPPNW. 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, July 13, 2010

Downtown music

In 1968 Petula Clark generated a storm of controversy when she held the arm of Harry Belafonte while singing an anti-war song on her primetime CBS TV show, as seen in the still above. Petula Clark had become a major international celebrity following the success of the song Downtown which sold more than three million copies in America alone.

Among Pet Clark's many fans was Glenn Gould who made a famous 1967 radio documentary titled The Search for Petula Clark. In February I wrote of my attempt to clear royalty hurdles and broadcast/webcast this and other Glenn Gould documentaries, an attempt which failed because copyright holder CBC told me "We could be looking at thousands of dollars" in royalties.

Now a reader has emailed pointing out that The Search of Petula Clark and other Glenn Gould documentaries (but not, it appears, the commercially released Solitude Trilogy) are available as a free stream and download from website UbuWeb. Wikipedia gives the following information about this site:
UbuWeb is a large web-based educational resource for avant-garde material available on the internet, founded in 1996 by poet Kenneth Goldsmith. It offers visual, concrete and sound poetry, expanding to include film and sound art mp3archives. UbuWeb was founded in response to the marginal distribution of crucial avant-garde material. It remains non-commercial and operates on a gift economy.

UbuWeb ensures educational open access to out-of-print works that find a second life through digital art reprint while also representing the work of contemporaries. It addresses problems in the distribution of and access to intellectual materials. UbuWeb does not distribute commercially viable works but rather resurrects avant-garde sound art, video and textual works through their translation into a digital art web environment - re-contextualising them with current academic commentary and contemporary practice.
Copyright holder CBC want "thousands of dollars" for a broadcast/webcast of The Search for Petula Clark. It is not available to my knowledge as a commercial release. Elsewhere I have staunchly defended the intellectual property rights of creative artists. UbuWeb say:
All rights for materials presented on UbuWeb belong to the artists. All materials are for non-commercial and / or educational use only.
Confused? So am I. But this post is intended to provide facts rather than judge right or wrong; although I would observe that the problem here is most probably the divergence between legal and ethical right and wrong. For those who side with UbuWeb there are many other riches available, including lots of uptown music; just type Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, John Cage into their search engine or follow those links.

My 2007 account of the Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte controversy is here. The video below helps explain Glenn Gould's obsession with Pet Clark.

With thanks to reader Eve for the UbuWeb heads up. Trivia time: Petula Clark, who was born in 1932, grew up a mile or so from my childhood home in West Ewell, Surrey. I'm still confused, but 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

Monday, July 12, 2010

Towards equilibrium

Sibelius' house at Järvenpää is a dark and forbidding place on a gloomy December morning. Ten years ago I was in Helsinki on business with a morning to spare and had decided on the spur of the moment to travel out of the city to visit the legendary Villa Ainola, where the photo of Sibelius above was taken in 1944. What I saw on the journey out of the city set the mood. Southern Finland does not have any of the snow-capped peaks mirrored in lakes that grace the covers of Sibelius CDs. It is low-lying glacial country, and December is not always freezing. While I was there in 2000 the few hours of daylight were mild, grey and damp.

After a 45 minute drive through the ribbon developments on the outskirts of Helsinki the coach dropped me on the main road beyond Järvenpää, and I was left standing outside the locked gates of Ainola. I knew that the house would not be open as it was closed to the public during the long Finnish winter. But I had never visited Järvenpää and simply could not miss the chance to stand where those sixteen swans had inspired the finale of the Fifth Symphony.

Villa Ainola is seen from the road in the photo above. For several minutes I peered through the fence at the house where Sibelius had lived from 1904 until his death in 1957, and where he had composed his last five symphonies. Then I turned and walked back through the drizzle into the town Järvenpää as heavy lorries thundered past in the gloom. Järvenpää has little to recommend it; I need say no more than that it reminded me of Waterloo, Wisconsin where I spent some time years ago. As I waited for my return coach I drank synthetic coffee dispensed by a vending machine in a strip mall.

My visit to Ainola made a deep and lasting impression. But it was not what I had expected. Yes, I saw Lake Tuusula. But my overriding impressions were of melancholy and claustrophobia. Depression lurked in the gloom, and equilibrium seemed to be slipping away. I had looked into the black abyss evoked by that most enigmatic of twentieth-century symphonies, Sibelius' Fourth. For many years the composer struggled with depression and found escape in drink. As early as 1896 he lamented:
O ye Godfathers! It is strange how empty life often seems. This is because I am not clear inside my own mind: I hardly know what I really want. And yet it could and indeed ought to be totally different ... My energies are sapped - my mental vitality. By the evenings I am often tired. It seems as if all I want to do is to sleep away my life - and it was not like that in my childhood.
Those words from Sibelius' sketchbook are a good description of the Buddhist concept of sukha. This is commonly given the unatisfactory translation of 'dissatisfaction'. But it actually comes from a Sanskrit word that refers to a wheel out of balance, which is precisely what Sibelius is describing. Which may not be a total coincidence as in 1892 the composer and his wife Aino had stayed with the dramatist Minna Canth who was deeply interested in both Buddhism and Theosophy. But Sibelius himself never followed Scriabin and others in their fashionable enthusiasm for Theosophy, although his wife, seen below in the dining-room at Ainola, may have retained an interest in Buddhism.

Sukha runs deep in the Finnish psyche. A country that produces some of the greatest musicians of our time and leads the world in technology has also been the scene in recent years of two terrible student shootings. In the physical and mental twilight zone equilibrium can be lost. And it was in that twilight zone where much of the music of Sibelius' countryman Pehr Henrik Nordgren was forged.

Born in 1944 on the Åland islands in the Baltic Sea Pehr Henrik Nordgren's musical influences ranged from Shostakovich to Ligeti. He also assimilated traditional Japanese music during a three year study period in Japan. Nordgren's music starts from twelve-tone rows and progresses through Ligeti-style clusters into a sound-world that is as unique as Sibelius', yet, sonically, is a million miles away. This is uncompromisingly modern music, but one that never severs its links with the culture and psyche of the composer's native Finland. Nordgren, who is seen in the photos below, struggled with depression for long periods of his life, and there is often a darkness in his music that echoes Sibelius' brooding Fourth Symphony and Tapiola.

The special sound-world of Pehr Henrik Nordgren can be sampled in the full-price BIS CD seen in my footer image. It is performed by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra under their conductor Juha Kangas, whose premiere recording of music by Sibelius featured here recently. The title of the Nordgren CD comes from his 12 minute Equilibrium for 19 Strings. This 1995 work, like Strauss' Metamorphosen and Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, shows that masterpieces can be created using small forces. The other works are the short Koko maailma valittanee (The Whole World Will Lament) which is a free adaption of a traditional folk-chorale from southern Ostrobothnia, the Violin Concerto No. 3 from 1981, and the 1991 four movement Cronacha per archi.

Three of the four works were written for the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and Juha Kangas who are passionate advocates of Nordgren's music. The sound by tonmeister Jens Brauns captured in the Snellman Hall in Kokkola in 1996 is excellent. A small technical aside; the recording equipment is listed as Neumann microphones, Studer 961 mixer, Fostex PD-2 DAT recorder and Stax headphones. So no speakers were used in monitoring process, despite which the sound stage is solid and realistic. This interview with BIS' founder Robert von Bahr gives a useful insight into his company's approach to recording.

Pehr Henrik Nordgren lived in Kaustinen, Ostrobothnia with his Japanese wife, and died virtually unnoticed in August 2008, aged 64. His output includes eight symphonies and an Agnus Dei from 1971 sometimes known as the 'Pollution Passion' because of the environmental message of its text. The reputation of Pehr Henrik Nordgren has yet to emerge from the darkness of his native Finland onto the brightly lit stage of international contemporary music. Why is something of a mystery. But if this elliptical post, which started in Järvenpää and ended in Ostrobothnia, brings Nordgren's music to some new listeners my words will not have been wasted.

More Scandinavian discoveries in here

Sibelius - a personal portrait by the composer's secretary Santeri Levas is recommended for its descriptions of life at Villa Ainola. The BIS CD of Nordgren's music was bought at retail. With thanks to the friend who wrote to me last year about a commercial recording of Sibelius' piano music made in Villa Ainola. This article is an expanded version of the email I sent her describing my visit to Järvenpää. 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