Thursday, September 30, 2010

On spontaneity

I like total spontaneity on stage, after six weeks of careful rehearsal - Noel Coward
That quote appears in Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern which featured here recently. But others think randomness is a very precious thing.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo of Noel Coward via Emsworth. 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, September 29, 2010

That’ll do for lunch

'In 1990, when I was Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, we put on a series of modern music concerts, under the title Musica Nova, the originator of this series being Sir Alexander Gibson. We were greatly helped financially by the City of Glasgow, which had been made City of Culture that year.

Among the composers featured was John Cage. I well remember meeting him at the airport, and taking him to Glasgow University. Cage was a great specialist in mushrooms, and on seeing some rather sad specimens growing on a patch of grass in the university precincts, he said ‘Ah! That’ll do for lunch.’ He invited me to join him, but I was cowardly enough to decline. I regretted this later, since, as the concerts progressed, I found he was one of the most delightful and engaging musicians I have ever met. His brilliant music made a great impact on the Musica Nova audiences.'
That previously unpublished reminiscence comes from an unlikely source. Former EMI producer and orchestra manager Christopher Bishop is best known for his recordings of Elgar and Vaughan Williams with Sir Adrian Boult, of Sibelius and other composers with Sir John Barbirolli, and of early music with David Munrow. But while managing the Philharmonia and later the Royal Scottish National orchestras he commissioned and programmed much contemporary music and his EMI producing credits include Messiaen, Webern and Koechlin as well as Britten and Shostakovich.

John Cage's interest in botany was reflected in his music and I was prompted to share that anecdote from Scotland by the release of a new CD which includes his Child of Tree and Branches I & II for amplified plants. These are on a new disc of Italian born and US resident Simone Mancuso playing solo percussion works for wooden instruments which also includes pieces by Salvatore Sciarrino (b1947) and Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988).

The three pieces for amplified plants are of particular interest as I heard Branches I & II in a rare concert performance at the John Cage happening in Bruges in 2008, which is where the two photos above were taken. This new disc from the Italian Stradivarius label is very welcome, but I have to express some reservations. The playing time of the full price CD is 46.40" and this includes Silences I, II & III which last for 11.00". The cover, seen below, somewhat misleadingly suggests the three silences are separate Cage compositions. In fact, as explained in the accompanying notes by Benjamin Levy, they are the silences of duration determined by the I Ching that are stipulated when Child of Tree and Branches I & II are performed sequentially.

But the problem with the silences is more than a typographical one. Benjamin Levy's note highlights John Cage's preoccupation with environmental sounds, a preoccupation which was expanded by the composer himself in an interview with Peter Dickinson recorded for the BBC in New York in 1987:
John Cage - It's the presence in those sounds of non-intention and the awful presence of intention in music that makes the non-intentional ambient sounds more useful. By more useful I mean less irritating.

Peter Dickinson - Do you mean more attuned to somebody's spiritual development?

JC - All of that - more possible to live affirmatively if you find the sound of the environment beautiful. Irish musicians had a contest of heroes and the question was , "What is the most beautiful sound?" The one who won the contest said the most beautiful sound is the sound of what happens.
The problem is that during Silences I, II & III on Simone Mancuso's new disc nothing happens. It may be because the silences were recorded in the same acoustically isolated studio (Gizmo in Silver Springs MD) as the Cage percussion tracks. Or it may be, as I believe is the case after listening on monitor quality headphones, that the three tracks, which comprise a quarter of the discs short playing time, are simply blank. Whatever the reason, surely this is not what John Cage intended?

Surely it would have been closer to John Cage's intentions if the 35 minute sequence had been recorded in a single patched take. This would have captured the non-intentional sounds of the percussionist rearranging his exotic performing materials and the engineer repositioning the microphones during the silences between the three works. But maybe I am wrong; guidance from the Cage authorities among my readers on how silences should be performed is welcome. Meanwhile there is a chance to hear Simone Mancuso's new CD, without the silences, in my Chance Music programme this Sunday (Oct 3), full details are below.

On Sunday October 3 I will be playing Simone Mancusco's performances of Salvatore Sciarrino's Il legno e la parola (a world premiere recording) and Giacinto Scelsi's Maknongan in their versions for marimba plus John Cage's three pieces for amplified plants on Future Radio. The stipulated silences are clearly not feasible in a broadcast, so I have adopted the following solution. Each of the five percussion works will be followed by a prelude or fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier played on the piano by Bernard Roberts. The Bach preludes and fugues have been selected by chance using dice; proof that my method outweighs my madness comes in the form of the timings of the chance selection from the 48 plus the percussion works neatly fitting the length of the programme slot.

Even without the silences broadcasting the works for amplified plants presents a technical problem due to the very low level of parts of the recordings. I have consulted with Tom Buckham, the station's ever rotating manager, and we are fairly confident the silence detector is not going to kick in and take me off air. But the programme is being presented live on Sunday and, as ever, anything could happen. Whatever the outcome Future Radio should be praised for backing projects which nobody else would dare to, including the complete Alvin Curran Inner Cities and Gnawa trance ritual broadcasts plus, of course, the Jonathan Harvey interview and other adventurous experiences.

* Podcast of this Chance Music programme is now available here.

** The following instruments are used by Simone Mancuso in his performance of John Cage's three pieces for amplified plants. Branches with leaves, bamboophone (invented by Simone Mancusco), bamboo wind chimes, bamboo xylophone, pod rattle, water gourds, cacti (spider and golden barrel)), and shells from dried plants.

*** The John Cage interview quoted above is transcribed in the invaluable CageTalk edited by Peter Dickinson (ISBN 1580462375).

**** Amusing to note that Silences I, II & III can be bought as MP3 files at a cost of 79 pence per track.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. The Stradivarius CD of solo music for wooden percussion was bought at FNAC in Perpignan. CageTalk was supplied as a requested sample. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Any other 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 28, 2010

Young Mahler

While on a long cross country drive on Saturday I heard Matthew Herbert's recomposition of Mahler's Tenth Symphony on BBC Radio 3 - there is a valuable video interview with the recomposer here. Kudos to Deutsche Grammophon, who take a lot of stick on this blog, for challenging silly conventions with this new release* which may well appeal to a younger as well as older audience. For me, no more justification is needed for the recomposition than Carl Nielsen's words:
'The right of life is stronger than the most sublime art, and even if we reached agreement on the fact that now the best and most beautiful has been achieved, mankind thirsting more for life and adventure than perception, would rise and shout in one voice: give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional.'
All of which leads me to the 2 LP set seen above. It is Simon Rattle's first recording of Deryck Cooke's revised performing version of Mahler's incomplete Tenth Symphony, made with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for EMI in 1980 when the conductor was 25. (Deleted CD transfer here). I was involved in bringing this early digital recording to market; when I took the records down from the shelf to play as I write this post, I saw that the following copy, edited by me, is on the packaging:
In his biography of Mahler, Kurt Blaukopf wrote: "Mahler's prophecy 'My time will come' has been fulfilled in the 1960's. Many diverse factors have contributed to this, but perhaps the most decisive of all was the advent of the technically perfected stereo record'".
More young Mahler here while Beethoven is re-envisaged here.

* In an interesting twist I notice that the 37 minute Mahler recomposition is available at a difficult to justify full price on CD or for slightly cheaper on 180gm vinyl. "The advent of the technically perfected stereo record..."

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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

More on irritating our fixed orders

Let the Gypsies come and blossom.
We miss them.
They can help us by irritating our fixed orders.
They are what we pretend to be; they are true Europeans.
They do not know any borders.

Günter Grass
That quote is used by Garth Cartwright in the introduction to his portrait of the Gypsy musicians of the Balkans, Princes Among Men. The frontispiece of the book includes the following puff:
An insightful and poignant travelogue which should be handed out free to every Daily Mail reader ~ Big Issue
Please could a copy also be handed out to President Sarkozy?

Titi Robin's album Gitans, which is powered by the 'gypsy queen of Rajasthan' Gulabi Sapera, featured here. Germany's new generation of Gypsies are here, the forgotten holocaust victims are here, and before anyone points it out, yes, I know. Our pilgrimage to the gypsy shrine at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is here.

My candid header photo, which shows some some of the new Europeans rather that authentic Gypsies, was taken in the French Catalonian town of Elne last week and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Any other 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). Garth Cartwright's Princes Among Men was borrowed from Norwich Millenium Library. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A genuinely forward looking work

While I was travelling last week the sad news came of the death of Geoffrey Burgon aged 69. Predictably the mainstream obituaries focussed on his music for the screen at the expense of his concert scores. As I wrote back in 2007, "Although his film and TV scores are well known, Burgon's concert music isn't heard often enough to generate letters of complaint these days. His choral Requiem is a genuinely forward looking work, wonderful scoring, and beautiful Kingsway Hall sound". Geoffrey Burgon was a distinctive voice who was not afraid to speak out pour encourager les autres. He will be missed.

Also on Facebook and Twitter.The Decca CD of Geoffrey Burgon's Requiem was 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

Sunday, September 26, 2010

He thinks completely with his body

Peter Brook told me that if you watch any cat, it isn't just that his body is so relaxed and expressive. It's something more important than that. A cat actually thinks visibly. If you watch him jump on a shelf, the wish to jump and the action of jumping are one and the same thing. There's no division. A thought animates his whole body. It's exactly the same way that all Brook's exercises try to train the actor. The actor is trained to become so organically related within himself, he thinks completely with his body. He becomes one sensitive responding whole, like the cat.

An ultimate example of this is revealed in a film of Picasso at work [see above]. In one lightning stroke you can see how the tip of Picasso's brush captures his entire imagination. His brushwork can actually be seen as his thought process. The same is true of the great orchestra conductor. After years and years of work, he thinks and transmits in one gesture. The whole of him is one.
From Conference of the Birds, John Heilpern's masterly account of the 1972 expedition that took the director Peter Brook and an international troupe of actors from their Paris base through Africa. Brook was in search of the miraculous and his experiments in Africa led to some of his most influential work including Conference of the Birds, Carmen and The Mahabharata. The collection of poems titled Conference of the Birds is by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It uses a journey by a group of birds in search of the great Simorgh as an allegory of a Sufi master leading his pupils to enlightenment. As well as being adapted as a play by Peter Brook, Conference of the Birds has received treatments that include a work for piano and electronics by Ezequiel Viñao, an album by experimental rock band Om , an opera by Johan Othman and an ECM album by the Dave Holland Quartet.

After recording my recent interview with Jonathan Harvey I mentioned to the composer, whose three operas include the acclaimed Wagner Dream, that I was taking John Heilpern's book to re-read on my forthcoming travels. He told me that in the past a commission for an opera by him based on Conference of the Birds had fallen through - what a pity. The podcast of the Jonathan Harvey interview is available here. Peter Brook's 1989 film The Mahabharata features here while his earlier screen adaption of William Golding's Lord of the Flies (which had music composed by Raymond Leppard) features here. Finally a link to take this post full circle: thinking with the body is central to the Alexander Technique, which is practised by many musicians. My post on the subject contains some familar themes.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. John Heilper's Conference of the Birds was 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

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Classical music should drop its silly conventions

'Young people don't like concert halls... and wouldn't normally go to one except for amplified music. There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music... The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go and even talk perhaps.. and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. Nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions.'
That is Jonathan Harvey talking about the future of classical music in an exclusive interview being broadcast and webcast on Future Radio on Sunday Sept 4. Which is the day after the composer's choral work Dum transisset sabbatum is being performed at a BBC Prom.

Jonathan Harvey is seen above talking to me at his home in Sussex during the recording. In the interview he talks about musicians he has known including Benjamin Britten, Hans Keller, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez. He also discusses his deep interest in mystical religions and the musical topics range from the future of classical music to serialism and spectralism. The interview concludes with Jonathan Harvey giving an invaluable introduction to his new composition for large orchestra and electronics, Speakings, and this is followed by a complete recorded performance of the work.

There is some priceless material in the interview so it is being made available in several formats. The broadcast version is being aired on FM locally in Norwich, England and worldwide via the internet at 3.00pm UK time this Sunday Sept 5, with a repeat for North American listeners at 1.00am the following morning, i.e. the night of Sept 5-6. (Time zone convertor here.) This broadcast will be a 28 minute edited interview ending with Jonathan Harvey introducing a full performance of Speakings which lasts for another 28 minutes.

A streamed version of the complete interview is now available on Soundcloud and a text transcription can be read On An Overgrown Path. Some background to the interview. is below.

* The interview with Jonathan Harvey was recorded using the Zoom H2 recorder I am seen holding in the upper photo. Sound quality recording in MP3 format at 320kbp is excellent, but inevitably these recorders do pick up some handling noise. Expert editing was by volunteer editor Tim Wilds in the Future Radio studios using Adobe Audition software. (Good luck at Goldsmiths College Tim!) Silly conventions were ignored in the final edit, so the performance of Speakings starts under Jonathan Harvey's voice and ends under mine. This is because the opening and closing bars are extremely quiet and without the overlap it sounded as though the broadcast had broken down. (Yes, I know.)

** My thanks go to Jonathan Harvey for making time available before a demanding trip to Japan, and to John Cronin who helped set it up. The interview could not have happened without the tireless support of Future Radio; if you appreciate their backing please send them a message saying so. All my work for the station is done on a pro bono basis. The recording of Speakings is on a new Aeon CD of Jonathan Harvey's music recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

Also available on Twitter and Facebook. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. The Aeon CD Speakings was supplied as a requested review sample. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk