Thursday, April 28, 2011

Music of the magicians

Macedonian Romani musician and humanitarian Esma Redzepova is seen here with French gypsy guitarist Titi Robin. The photo comes from the 2007 Accords Croisés album Esma - My Story which combines new recordings and archive tracks in an invaluable musical portrait of the Balkan 'queen of the gypsies'. Born in 1943 in Skopje, Yugoslavia Esma Redzepova Teodosievska has combined a very successful musical career with extensive humanitarian work and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Most Roma have converted to the religions of the countries in which they now live, but their formal religious affiliation is often supplemented by traditional Roma beliefs. When the Roma arrived in Europe in the 15th century they brought with them the tradition of worshipping the Goddess Kali and this still finds expression in the annual gypsy pilgrimage to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in France. Titi Robin's unique brand of syncretic music develops this theme in his concept album Kali Sultana (Black Kali). In Hindu mysticism Kali Yuga is the fourth stage of the human cycle (Manvantara) and is characterized by a remoteness from the principle and source of positive human development and a proximity to darkness. This concept was expanded on by René Guénon's in his book The Crisis of the Modern World which has influenced John Tavener among others.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier treatise on the occult and cosmic interconnectedness is titled, as is this post, The Morning of the Magicians. There are similarities between the traditional Roma beliefs and modern neopagan religious movements such as Wicca which has links with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on the fringes of which a number of notable figures including Edward Elgar moved. Wicca and its variants have attracted many musicians from The Incredible String Band to Arnold Bax. Rutland Boughton was a leading exponent of musical neopaganism and his opera The Immortal Hour, written for the first Glastonbury Festival in 1914, is a veritable musical morning of the magicians. Below is my 1983 LP set and that Hyperion recording lives on in the catalogue as a budget double CD. The Immortal Hour predates the play The Starlight Express, with its incidental music by Elgar, by just one year and both were expressions of the then fashionable artistic neopaganism. More in Elgar and the Occult.

* Esma Redzepova is one of the musicians featured in the film Gypsy Caravan: Where the Road Bends which follows five gypsy bands on a North American tour in a celebration of Romani culture.

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Twitter is a massive musical echo chamber

The realisation that Twitter acts as a massive echo chamber is widespread in the technology sector but has, as yet, gained little traction among the classical music community. To understand the echo chamber effect try this simple test. Go to the Twitter home pages of a classical music tweater. Divide their tweats into two categories: Category A messages repeat someone else's tweet, this is easily identified by @XYZ appearing in the message; Category B messages point the reader to an idea or event outside the Twitter universe, which means no @XYZ is present in the tweet. The echo index is given by the simple formula [A divided by A + B] x 100.

In some cases the echo index among classical music tweeters is as high as 90%. Which shows how Twitter is a massive echo chamber with a limited number of messages being repeated by retweeting. And in many cases this retweeting does not reflect the merit of the original message, but rather is simply a function of the ease of retweeting coupled with the kudos of being an active tweeter.

This echo chamber effect has a number of implications for classical music. Because a relatively small number of tweets are being repeated, attention is artificially focussed on a narrow range of music in a way normally associated with a mass market. Yet there is very little evidence that classical music, which is a diverse agglomeration of niche sectors, has any of the characteristics of a mass market. In fact focussing attention on a restricted range of music runs counter to the 'long tail' potential of digital technology.

There is also the problem that the profile of a topic can be influenced by clever formulation of the tweet. Yesterday's Overgrown Path tweet, which read 'Why Twitter is making a hash of classical music' reached a very wide audience. Would the same number of people have read it if the equally valid wording 'The threat that faux-analytical thinking poses to Western art music' had been used instead? Because social media favours the shallow over the deep marketeers, whose stock in trade is the attention-getting headline, have not been slow to grasp the commercial potential of the Twitter echo chamber. Which is another good reason why social media should be treated with caution.

All of this does not mean that Twitter is evil. But it does help us take a more objective view of its use as a communications tool, particularly when read in conjunction with the narrow demographics of social media users. In some ways it is unfair to single out Twitter for criticism. It, together with other forms of social media, exhibits many of negative characteristics associated with today's digital and cut and paste culture, while the echo chamber effect itself is not a new problem in classical music.

* Header photo, which shows the acoustic reflectors used in many concert halls to control the echo chamber effect, is of the Kyoto Civic Symphony with the late Akeo Watanabe conducting. Watanabe made the first complete set of stereo recordings of the Sibelius Symphonies for the Nippon Columbia Company between 1960 and 1962 and went on to record a digital cycle for Denon.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Twitter is making a hash of classical music

The myth that the views expressed on Twitter and other social media are representative of the whole market for classical music is spreading. There are two reasons why this myth is both wrong and dangerous: first because of the profile of the sample represented by social media users, and secondly because of the compressed nature of the content.

Social media users are a self-selecting sample. This means they are not part a group selected for research purposes as being statistically representative. Instead they are people who themselves choose to express their views - usually because they have some kind of agenda to pursue. It is well proven that self-selecting samples are highly unrepresentative. If you put a card in the box with a product and ask customers to give their views voluntarily, two small groups respond; those that are very satisfied and those that are very dissatisfied. The silent majority, who are the all important 'floating' customers, do not respond; hence the sample is unrepresentative. Which is why those infuriating market researchers phone you at home or stop you in the street instead of putting questionnaires in packaging. In fact the views of self-selected samples are not only invariably wrong, they also often dangerously wrong. This is because they comprise the vocal minority at either end of the opinion spectrum: which means their opinions are 180 degrees at variance with those of the silent majority who typically represent the bulk of the market.

Social media requires some form of content compression. The number of characters including spaces is capped in Twitter at 140 and in Facebook at 420. The dangers associated with capping communication content are well documented. PowerPoint is another communications tool that depends on content compression and there are clear parallels between the bullet points used in PowerPoint and Twitter messages.
Presidential advisor, Yale statistician and computer scientist Edward Tufte, a specialist in the visual display of information, investigated the role that PowerPoint played in the Columbia space shuttle tragedy in 2003. In his analysis Tufte concluded that PowerPoint encourages "faux-analytical" thinking over the sober exchange of information. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board cited Tufte's conclusions and criticised a space agency culture in which, it said, "the endemic use of PowerPoint" replaced rigorous technical analysis. A 2003 Washington Post article concluded "The seductive availability of PowerPoint and the built-in drive to reduce all subjects to a series of short-handed bullet points eliminates nuances and enables, even encourages, the absence of serious thinking". Doesn't that sound depressingly familiar?

Classical music is obsessed with reaching new audiences, yet there is still a dearth of quantitative research data on what actually needs to be done to bring that new audience into the concert hall. This means the seductive availability of views expressed on Twitter, Facebook, and yes, blogs, is encouraging faux-analytical thinking which at the best is wrong, and at the worst may point audience development initiatives in totally the wrong direction. Social media certainly has its uses as a messaging and networking platform. But classical music must beware of the new commercial shamanism that is blurring the boundaries between communications and research to suit its own ends. It is time to realise that the only Twitter capable of making a lasting contribution to the future of classical music is the one seen seen in my header image. Now back to the music, and let's go in search of the composer.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Richard Strauss' Happy Workshop

This CD is not a new release, in fact it is deleted. The composer does not have an anniversary this year and is not currently featured as BBC Radio 3's composer of the week. The orchestra does not have a big name music director or a teenage soloist and is not about to set out on a major international tour. And this topic is not trending on Twitter. All of which mean it is worth spending a few minutes sharing some quite glorious music with you.

Both of Richard Strauss' Sonatinas for winds are late works. They were written in the closing years of the Second World War and their composition coincided with some of the most terrible events in contemporary history. Despite this both are reflective rather than overtly pessimistic in mood, although the Sonatina No 1, which is scored for sixteen instruments, carries the subtitle 'From an Invalid's Workshop'. The Sonatina No 2, which is more substantial and was published as Symphonie für Bläser (Symphony for Winds), finds Strauss in lighter mood and the title of 'Happy Workshop' reflects its dedication to "the shade of the immortal Mozart at the end of a life full of thankfulness".

The two Sonatinas, with their subconscious references to Capriccio, Der Rosenkavalier and other masterpieces, capture Strauss at his most mercurial without the bombast of some of his larger scale works. Given the popularity of the Oboe Concerto and Metamorphosen, both of which date from the same period, the neglect of the two Sonatinas is a mystery. As I have said, the revelatory Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recording is now deleted, although copies can still be found. There is a Hyperion double CD of Strauss' complete music for winds which includes the two Sonatinas; I have not heard it but am sure it can be recommended. And talking of the Oboe Concerto, which conductor's Strauss did Alex Ross describe as "unsurpassed, perhaps unequaled"?

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Now see the music

A really fresh approach to classical music and the televisual...

With thanks to John Shimwell. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Classical music's televisual bleak midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter is the title of Tony Palmer's new film portrait of Gustav Holst which was premiered on BBC TV over Easter weekend. And In the Bleak Midwinter is also prettty good summary of where the film stands creatively.

The new film, which received much sycophantic pre-broadcast hype, is an anachronism. 1971 would be a more appropriate production date than 2011, except that forty years ago the film's many production flaws would not have been tolerated. These include clunky editing, an obtrusive low frequency rumble on many of the purpose recorded music sequences, poor colour matching between disparate footage, lack of establishing shots showing both conductor and musicians in performance sequences, and presenter Stephen Johnson repeatedly glancing off camera as if to seek reassurance that someone is still watching.

In the Bleak Midwinter is a televisual conflation of Karajan's 1970s Unitel films, Ken Russell's Malvern Hills period, and Palmer's own idiosyncratic mixture of music, talking heads, and library footage of concentration camps and fast moving clouds. Quite who the film is targeted at is a mystery. Yes, the Thaxted background is illuminating and the Imogen Holst archive footage priceless. But those who know Holst's music will find little else new and much to annoy. Those who do not know his music, and that includes many from a generation that speaks a new televisual language born from computer grapics, will find the two and a quarter hour long film as unappealing as a reheated dinner.

Classical music has perfected the art of blaming everyone but itself for failing to engage new audiences. If lack of funding cannot be blamed try changing demographics, poor music education, or the collapse of the record industry. But never ever blame classical music's self-interest and creative myopia. In the Bleak Midwinter makes the point that Gustav Holst's Planets Suite has probably reached more new listeners than any other classical music. But that it achieves this by taking its audience on a journey from the security of the familiar to the challenge of the new was missed both by Tony Palmer and those who commissioned his film.

In the Bleak Midwinter represents yet another missed opportunity for classical music. Whether we like it or not we now live in a culture where the visual takes priority over the aural. Classical music needs to leverage the new televisual language, as it does here, if it is to extend its reach. Where are the directors who can achieve this? How can we make new audiences see the music?

* Doth the blog protest too much? After writing the post above I checked today's traffic stats for On An Overgrown Path. They show a massive peak in readership for my 2008 article A Hero's Life Overshadowed. The subject of that article? - Imogen Holst. Now how about a biopic of Imo? That could be very interesting.

** Other Holst resources On An Overgrown Path include a feature on both Holst's Planet's and American composer Kyle Gann's contemporary take on the heavenly bodies. The linked podcast includes extensive extracts from the four hand piano version of the Planets featured in Tony Palmer's film. Elsewhere A vintage year for blasphemy and heresy covers Holsts' gnostic Hymn of Jesus, an important work that did not make it into Palmer's film. There is a rare photo of Holst with his pupil Edmund Rubbra in another post.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Aldeburgh blunts Bach's Passion

Tweeting during concerts is bad enough, but what went on during yesterday's St John Passion at Snape Maltings was even worse. I knew Aldeburgh had finally caught the popularising bug when an amplified Blake Morrison appeared on the platform to preface the opening Herr, unser Herrscher with a reading from John's gospel. But there was worse to come. At the end of the first part of the Passion, even as the echoes of Bach's immensely moving chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück lingered in the mighty roof space of the Maltings, Blake Morrison returned to join the musicians. He then proceeded to deliver a fifteen minute monologue expanding on the delights of his recent coach trip to Petra, after which we were allowed to escape from the auditorium to the Snape bar.

Thankfully, during the second half there were no further appearances by Mr Morrison. However, Bach's sublime score and the exemplary musicianship of the Britten–Pears Baroque Orchestra and vocal soloists directed by Mark Padmore struggled against a constant melodramatic reshuffling of the musical forces that made the Maltings platform at times resemble a railway station in the rush hour. As I walked back to my car after the concert I swear I heard the sound of something turning in a grave in nearby Aldeburgh Church.

* Bach's St John Passion accompanied by Blake Morrison can be heard again at Snape Maltings on Easter Sunday. Concert goers on Sunday will not be able to experience the unalloyed tedium of the Very Reverend Dr John Drury's pre-concert talk as it is not being repeated then. Britten's own Snape recording of the St John Passion is also naughty, but it is nice as well.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Passion music well worth a listen

Hello, probably too late for Easter, but I hope you might consider a post on the music of the Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. If you go to YouTube you can hear his take on the St. Matthew Passion. Well worth a listen.

JM, Lancaster, MA, USA
Never too late for this blog JM and many thanks for the heads up. I suspect this is the start of an interesting path so here is a link to Syrian born composer Abed Azrié's The gospel of John.

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This is faith

When you send an email you use intelligence and logic to write the message. After you have clicked on 'send' you abandon all to the technology. This is faith.
That is a free adaption of a teaching by an adept of a Turkish Sufi order. This Easter there will be many live performances of the Bach Passions around the world and in May early music ensemble Sarband perform their Arabian Passion according to J.S. Bach at concerts in Belgium and Germany. The Arabian Passion is a 're-interpretation' of sections from Bach's St Matthew and St John Passions scored for Arab musicians, two jazz saxophonists, a string quartet and a Lebanese singer. Read more about the Arabian Passion here, and listen to sections of it juxtaposed with the Bach originals here. A very happy Easter to all my readers.

Header photo taken in Essaouira, Morocco is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Orson Welles used the ramparts in the background to film part of his 1949 classic Othello. My free adaption is of a Sufi teaching recounted in Among the Dervishes by O.M. Burke which also featured in an earlier post. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Neat tweet

Tweet is here, neat post is here.
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The closest approach to the live performance

Being present at a concert, as either a performer or as a member of an audience, is a different experience from that of listening to a recording. The presence and the relevance of a moment simply cannot be captured in any more than a superficial way, even with the finest audio and video equipment. The presence and relevance of a moment can be enhanced by technology, but the experience, in that case, is being controlled by a director, a producer, an audio engineer, and/or camera operators. The resulting object can be terrific, but it can never be more than an object.
Those wise words come from composer and violinist Elaine Fine. They were just some of those written in response to my post If classical music is not live it is dead and the consensus was that classical music needs to get back to selling the live performance experience. Since 1936 leading hi-fi manufacturer Quad has summed up its design philosophy with the words 'The closest approach to the original sound'. Similar thinking provides a very powerful acid test for any form of reproduced classical music - how close is it to the live performance experience?

Audience engagement is the current mantra. Yet in the haste to turn art into entertainment in the pursuit of accessibility, the first law of classical music has been forgotten. That law is - 'The further the reproduced music is from the live performance experience, the less likely it is to engage with the listener'. How close to a live performance is a single movement of a Sibelius symphony played on a breakfast time radio programme and bookended by the presenter reading out banal text messages from listeners? How close to a live performance is a Mahler ringtone?

Yes, of course classical music needs marketing. But the current obsession with accessiblity has allowed the centre of gravity to move too far away from the live performance experience and too far towards the virtual world. Marvin Minsky, one of the great pioneers of artificial intelligence, was once asked when would we be living in an entirely virtual world? His answer was that this would never happen as long as we looked up after two hours at a computer keyboard, saw a tree, and marvelled at its beauty. Trees, concert halls and symphony orchestras are today both things of beauty and threatened species. To protect them classical music needs to do a much better job of communicating the beauty and power of the live performance experience.

Some readers have pointed out, quite rightly, that domestic listening to recordings on a good quality audio system can bring the listener gratifyingly close to the live performance experience. Confirmation for this view comes from a new CD of Johann Kuhnau's Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien. On this disc organist Richard Apperley plays the Flentrop organ that was relocated in 2008 from Holland to St Paul's Lutheran Church in Wellington, New Zealand and which is seen in the header photo. The two manual Flentrop instrument is particularly suited to the music that accompanies the Lutheran liturgy and which has Bach, Buxtehude and contemporaneous composers at its centre. Listen to a very illuminating Radio New Zealand podcast about the history of the instrument here.

Kuhnau is an important and sadly neglected composer who preceeded Johann Sebastain Bach as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien (Musical representation of several Biblical stories) is simple, elegant but profoundly spiritual music. It is played with total conviction by Richard Apperley, and engineer Reuben Moore and producer Kyle Macdonald capture his interpretation in commendably lifelike sound.

If there is a live performance of Kuhnau's Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien near you this Easter do not hesitate to attend. If there is not, and if you have an audio system with very good quality speakers, this new CD will take you very close to the live performance experience. But it is a sign of the times that this disc, released on Richard Apperley's own Organism label, is much easier to find as an MP3 download than in the CD version which I auditioned - for a taster of both follow this link. Johann Kuhnau featured in one of the very first overgrown path posts, and in a beautiful piece of synchronicity it tells how he published an early satirical novel titled Der musicalische Quack-salber - The Musical Quack. Perhaps I'll rename this blog?

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

We are the children of a universal landscape

billoo has left a new comment on your post If classical music is not live it is dead: 'Pli, thought the most interesting part of that was *why* you think Bach transcends landscape?'
Billoo, your comment certainly exposes my obfuscation. That post originally took a very different direction. Yes, it was about my listening in Morocco which included Bach. But it was sparked specifically by a CD of contemporary music that was on my iPod. But as I wrote, it became clear the path was even more overgrown than usual. So some of the foliage had to be cut back, which left the main thrust as live classical music in the concert hall.

Bach transcends landscape because his music achieves unity with the listener without relying on the crutches of physical and emotional landscape that are an integral part of so much Western classical music. His achievement is the result, depending on your point of view, of either sublime genius or divine intervention. More recently composers have come close to achieving the same unity by consciously dispensing with the baggage of physical and emotional landscape. Jonathan Harvey's string quartets, which I wrote about in New Music in the Paradise Garden, are one example. Another is a new CD of contemporary music for flute that I listened to in Morocco, and which was the true starting point of this path.

Inward brings together music by Dominik Karski, Brian Ferneyhough, Evan Johnson, Malin Bång, Salvatore Sciarrino, John Croft and Richard Barrett played with astonishing virtuosity by Richard Craig. All of the music on the disc is ferociously original, but John Croft's l'aura che trema for alto flute and electronics and Richard Barrett's Inward for flute and percussion particularly stand out. Inward is a remarkably apposite title for an album that fully engages the listener without reference to physical and emotional landscapes. Fellow blogger Tim Rutherford-Johnson's revue of this important and essential release is well worth reading.

In my original post I quoted Lawrence Durrell as saying "We are the children of our landscape". But if you listen to Inward, as I did in Morocco, while reading William C. Chittick's illuminating essay on Sufism you may find yourself, albeit fleetingly, among the children of a truly universal landscape.

Thank you Billoo for prompting me to say in this post what I meant to write first time around.

Header photo taken near Ourir, Morocco is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Inwards was supplied as a requested review sample. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

If classical music is not live it is dead

'We are the children of our landscape; it dictated behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsible to it. I can think of no better identification' - Lawrence Durrell writing in Justine
Over the years I have been fortunate to travel extensively, but my recent extended visit to Morocco was the longest time I have spent on a different continent and in a different culture. With me went an iPod loaded with an eclectic mix of classical, world, jazz and folk music, plus high quality headphones and a pair of the wonderfully portable XMI X-mini II speakers. Now here is the interesting point - as my trip progressed and as I became more atuned to both the physical and cultural landscape of North Africa, I found myself listening to less and less western classical music, and to more and more from other genres. There were exceptions, most notably Bach who transcended landscape. But I was surprised at the change in my listening pattern, and it was a change that had not occured on dozens of shorter trips with mobile music players. It seems classical music's ability to make the essential connection with inner life is surprisingly sensitive to external circumstances. Which, presumably, is why applause between movements and tweeting during concerts are such contentious subjects.

Clearly my experience was a statistically insignificant sample of one. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that the solution to classical music's current problems lies not with the fashionable mantra of increased accessibility, but rather in the fuzzy area that lies between science and pseudoscience. An earlier post touched on Bell's theorem, which asserts that one subatomic 'object' can instantly affect another particle of the same sort no matter how physically distant the two particles are from each other. This could mean that in classical music the composer, performer, audience, instruments, hall acoustic, physical performance space, climactic and environmental conditions, in fact every aspect of physical and cultural landscape, are connected more deeply and subtly than is currently thought.

Following this path takes us from rural Morocco to the more immediate subject of new technology. There is clear evidence that classical music struggles to work at more than one remove. It is written for live performance in a concert hall and that is where it works its magic best. The music survives the first remove of being heard from a recording replayed on high quality equipment in a familiar domestic environment. But as the removes increase, geographically, culturally and technically, the power of the music to engage decreases in inverse proportion to the number of removes. Which explains why a Mozart symphony heard through the multiple removes of a digitally compressed file and headphones on a different continent and in a different culture struggles to engage.

Now here is the point of this post. New technology in the form of the internet, digital files and mobile computing, are all designed to allow access to content at many removes. But classical music struggles to survive through those removes, which means new technology may be part of the problem rather than solution. There is scientific as well as anecdotal evidence to support this view. Power outputs of mobile music devices are capped to conserve battery life. This means the audio power output of the headphone stage of an iPod is limted to around 0.2 watts and to achieve the all important loudness high efficiency earbuds are standard issue. But high efficiency transducers are the enemy of bass, transient attack and dynamic range, all essential components of classical music. So starting with the compressed MP3 file format, compromise is piled on compromise. And if slam is what matters in a Beethoven symphony you are more likely to hear it in the concert hall than through an MP3 player.

To date classical music has actively courted new technology as a desirable and superior partner. But is it not time to rethink this position and start driving home the message that anything other than live music is actually a poor substitute? Marketing and social media could play a big part in the call to action in the concert hall. How about aggressive collegiate marketing campaigns for live music built around straplines such as
'Test drive a concert hall', 'Live classical music is louder than your iPod', 'Play an instrument not Facebook' and 'If classical music is not live it is dead'. And why not attention getting offers such as discounted concert tickets for anyone trading in iPod earbuds?

This post is one of several brainstorming paths intended to challenge the preconceptions and hidden agendas that are currently bogging down classical music. Lawrence Durrell opined that landscape dictates behaviour and thought. Live performance in the concert hall has dictated the behaviour and thought process of classical music for centuries and, despite recent attempts to create digital substitutes, no viable alternative has emerged. So surely it is time to accept this preeminence and to stop apologising for the concert hall and really start promoting it?

* My header photo was taken at the recent performance by Aldeburgh Young Musicians of Louis Andriessen's Workers Union and the footer at the Norwich Cathedral performance of June Boyce-Tillman's Revelations of Divine Love. Both were priceless examples of how if classical music is not live it is dead. If any readers are revelling in the live sounds of the Bach St John Passion at Snape on Good Friday I will see you there.

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Richard Strauss' Four Long Songs

Staying with Born to be Wild reader John Shimwell shares with us EMI's CD transfer of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss' Four Last Songs. As can be seen above, the addition of a digit prolongs September by ten minutes. I wonder if Norman Lebrecht wrote the sleeve notes?

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Born To Be Wild

From Richard Strauss to psychedelic rock is just a short path. In 1948 Strauss composed his Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder), three of which set poems by his close friend Hermann Hesse. In 1919 Hesse had written his novel Demian; this has the duality of good and evil as its theme and uses the Gnostic deity of Abraxas as a symbol of that duality. Below is my 1969 edition (cover price 30 pence!) complete with endorsement from Dr. Timothy Leary.

The influence of Demian and Hermann Hesse on contemporary culture was considerable. Canadian-American hard-rock group Steppenwolf, famous for Born To Be Wild in Easy Rider, took its name from another Hermann Hesse novel and Santana's second album Abraxas has a quote from Demian on its sleeve. And, swinging the balance from good to evil, Charles Manson referred to himself as "Abraxas", both god and the devil, in a 1986 letter to his parole board. American jam band Phish frequently covers Also sprach Zarathustra. Strauss' original tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's dualist philosophic treatise of the same name. Strauss was a friend of Edward Elgar whose flirtation with dualist doctrines was explored here recently. And strange but true: in 2000 hard rock band Accept cut a cover version of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Yes, Sir Edward was more than a closet mystic.

* My header image shows the original 1966 LP release of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss' Four Last Songs with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Szell. The relative merits of this recording versus Gundula Janowitz with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic can be debated, but any CD collection should really have both.

** I re-read Demian recently in connection with the Gnostic thread that has linked several recent posts. At the back of my old edition is the usual publisher's advertisement for similar contemporary fiction and this contained a number of unfamiliar names. I asked Norfolk Library Service to exhume their single copy of Lasso Round the Moon by the Norwegian author Agnar Mykle from their bibiographic store and what a discovery it is. If Mykle is known for anything today if is for the unsuccessful obscenity action that was brought against him in Norway for an earlier novel. Coincidentally the main character in Lasso Round the Moon is a contemporary composer and there are numerous musical references. It is a difficult book to find, but if you can beg or borrow a copy you will not be disappointed. Serendipity, synchronicity and...

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Casting a spell over the BBC

Last week I linked to an article in which Norman Lebrecht claimed credit for bringing Iranian born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani to the 2011 BBC Proms. Now a reader has pointed out that in the article not only did Lebrecht misspell Esfahani's name, but he also failed to acknowledge and correct the error when it was reported. I should be surprised that the BBC continues to use Lebrecht as their independent expert on classical music. But I am not.

My self-evidently relevant photo was taken in Ait Ourir souk, Morocco and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Classical music and the feel good factor

Classical music has allowed its image to slip. Once it was viewed as a basic need for a civilised society. But now it is seen as an expendable upmarket entertainment. This change in perception lies at the heart of the current funding crisis; it also presents a barrier to attracting new audiences and undermines the case for music education. It is a puzzle as to why, instead of reinforcing the expendable entertainment perception with marketing stunts such as TV reality shows and classical charts, classical music has not repositioned itself as a basic need.

The new sciece of epigenetics has identified that the cells that make up our body and determine our wellbeing are not controlled primarily by our genes, but rather by the physical and energetic environment in which we live. It is early days and some of the advocates of epigenetics hover uncomfortably between science and shamanism, while similar approaches such as Alfred Tomatis' Mozart Effect continue to be treated with scepticism. But epigenetics is science rather than quackery, and if a medically proven causal relationship could be established between classical music and wellbeing, the case for live music, music education, music therapy and many other threatened activities would become much stronger. To date there has been little attempt to connect epigenetics and classical music. Surely it is it time to explore new ways of arguing the case for classical music?

For more on this subject see The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. Header photo is detail of mosque in Agadir and is (C) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Music and Murder on the Orient Express

Accustomed as we are to our Western ideas on the importance of life, it is difficult to adjust our thoughts to a different scale of values. And yet to the Oriental mind, it is simple enough. Death is bound to come - it is as inevitable as birth; whether it comes early or late is entirely at the will of Allah. And that belief, that acquiescence, does away with what has become the curse of our present-day world - anxiety. There may not be freedom of want, but there is certainly freedom from fear. And idleness is a blessed and natural state - work is the unatural necessity.
Surprisingly those wise words come from Agatha Christie. She was in eastern Syria for an extended period in the 1930s with her second husband the archaeologist Max Mallowan and the quote is from her book about their experiences there, Come Tell Me How You Live. I came across it via a reference in Cleopatra's Wedding Present, Travels through Syria by Robert Tewdwr Moss. This compelling and topical book was published in 1997 in contentious circumstances. Robert Tewdr Moss was murdered in 1996 while working on the final draft. Despite that definitive version being erased from Tewdr Moss' word processor by his murderer, the book was edited and controversially published posthumously by a close friend, not by the publisher who originally commissioned it.

One section of Cleopatra's Wedding Present comes close to forecasting the circumstances of Robert Tewdr Moss' murder, and this invites comparisons between him and the French Canadian composer Claude Vivier who predicted his own death in an unfinished opera. Tewdr Moss and Vivier were both enormous talents who, despite the inevitability of death, were taken from us far too early. They were almost the same age when they died and both were openly gay men who were murdered by casual acquaintances. Claude Vivier's story is told in my post Pushing the classical music envelope.

Richard Rodney Bennett's music for the film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express provides the soundtrack to this post. As I write the 1974 EMI recording with the composer at the piano directing the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and with legendary EMI staff producer Christopher Bishop in the unfamiliar control room at CTS Studios Wembley plays.

While a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London Richard Rodney Bennett performed Paul Bowles' 1947 Sonata for Two pianos with Cornelius Cardew and over five decades has continued to explore the avant garde as a composer and performer. So it must be assumed he has never received the attention he deserves as a contemporary composer because not only has he dared to venture into film scores, jazz and cabaret, but, even worse, he has achieved considerable success in those genres.

This retrogressive stereotyping means much fine music is neglected. My CDs of Richard Rodney Bennet's compositions include his masterly Partita for Orchestra, of which a reviewer wrote "blindfolded you might easily guess some newly discovered score by Bernstein or Copland", a very rewarding disc of music for flute and orchestra by the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra, his complete solo piano music performed by Martin Jones (now deleted), and a CD of choral music, including an irridescent Missa Brevis, sung by the Cambridge Singers directed by John Rutter, with alongside them a disc of songs setting the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. These are just some of the proof that Richard Rodney Bennett should be cherished as a living example of how pushing the classical music envelope and racing down to the lowest common denominator do not need to be synonymous.

* In his 75th birthday year Richard Rodney Bennett performs and is performed at the 2011 BBC Proms.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Prom named Havergal Brian

Havergal Brian's music may not feature in the 2010 BBC Proms season, but as a consolation prize the composer has had a bus named after him in Brighton. He joins other musical celebrities including Ralph Vaughan Williams (no symphonies at the 2010 Proms...) whose names adorn Brighton's bus fleet.
That quote and photo is from my April 2010 post A bus named Havergal Brian. And zut alors! the 2011 BBC Proms season, which was announced today, features a rare performance of Havergal Brian's Symphony No 1 'The Gothic'. But, of course, I am not arrogant or daft enough to claim credit for helping make Proms history, although others are. And did I mention not only no Vaughan Williams symphonies in the 2011 Proms, but not a single note of any of his music? More Havergal Brian here.

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The uniform is as dull as a sculptured egg

'A state-imposed metaphysic or religion should be opposed, if necessary at pistol-point. We must fight for variety if we fight at all. The uniform is as dull as a sculptured egg' - Lawrence Durrell writing in The Alexandria Quartet
Photo was taken a few weeks ago in the Place Novembre 16, Marrakech, Morocco. Those are police vans in the right of the picture and the soundtrack comes from beyond the thought police - it is Gnawa Home Songs which was recorded in the holy village of Tamesloht outside Marrakech. As Western collective culture repeatedly reinvents the sculptured egg the usual excellent documentation for this Accords Croisés CD explains how the gnawa Sufi brotherhood's universal blues celebrate variety:
''Passers on', the gnawa are also like tight-rope walkers. Music and therapy, science and religion, theatre "being lived" and theatre "being played" (to paraphrase Michel Leiris referring to Gondar), the individual and the collective, the speakable and the unspeakable, ancestors and the modern world, are as many thin strands on which these funambulists are dancing now, yet in relation to the past.'

More theatre "being lived" here, more gnawa brotherhoods here.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A record is so much more than the record

'For a fan, a record is so much more than the record. It's a signifier, a membership card, a memento, a coveted treasure, a life's pursuit, a piece of art, but most of all (for me) it's a bridge, the physical incarnation of the connection between the artist and the fan. The record contains a literal translation of the vibration that occured when someone sang something, beat something, strummed something in a studio or a bedroom somewhere; the needle bounces along on those vibrations carved into the vinyl. It's the music of course, but it's also the whole package - the art, choice of songs and their ordering into A and B sides, the cover image, the liner notes, the labels, the color of the vinyl, and the messages etched onto the smooth, blank inner ring of vinyl.'
That is Mac McCaughan, founding member of rock band Superchunk, co-founder of Merge Records, and solo artist and blogger under the name of Portastic, writing in The Record, Contemporary Art and Vinyl. This generously illustrated book catalogues the exhibition of the same name which was presented at Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina from Sept 2010 to Feb 2011 and which opens in the The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston on April 15. The Record, Contemporary Art and Vinyl, explores the culture of vinyl records within contemporary art from 1965 to 2010 and the accompanying book adds authoritative essays to illustrations of vinyl inspired art. But the book is much more than a sumptuous coffee table volume, because by looking at the past it tells us about the future.

Mac McCaughan writes of vinyl as being a literal translation of the vibration created by the performance, and of the LP as being a bridge, the physical incarnation of the connection between performer and audience. The same concept of literal translation informed my recent transmission theory post and the same bridge was encapsulated by Benjamin Britten in his 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener. Digital culture is destroying that bridge and the literal translation of vibrations is being replaced by Twitter hashtags. A record is so much more than the record, music is so much more than the binary digits, and a concert is so much more than the next twittertunity - move over iPhone, here comes vinyl.

The Record, Contemporary Art and Vinyl was borrowed from Norfolk 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

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Pablo Casals and all that jazz

A surprising connection between jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and cello legend Pablo Casals, who is seen above, has been uncovered by American reader Tim McCarthy. In the past Tim has taken us down other absorbing paths including one to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison's Collaborations box set, and his latest email captures the eclectic spirit of On An Overgrown Path perfectly, so here it is verbatim:
Bob: While reading the liner notes to the excellent double cd of "Coleman Hawkins: A Retrospective: 1929-1963" (RCA Bluebird 1995), I was surprised to discover that Bean played cello and loved Pablo Casals. Since I owe my appreciation of both Bach and Casals to OAOP, I thought I'd send you the following.

Excerpted from a conversation between Hawkins scholar James T. Maher and the liner note's author Bill Kirchner:

"In the late Twenties, Casals had begun to record some of the Bach solo pieces as well as a great variety of other material, from lightweight to esoteric. You can hear in his playing a vigor, a drive, a great richness in his sonority. As he works his way through the Bach, you hear, as with other great virtuosi, the improvisatory element in his interpretation. What a perfect influence for Hawkins, because you're dealing with two solo instruments, the cello and the saxophone.

"Of course, the problem that Hawkins had was on the cello, you can play double and triple stops and get some chordal feeling that can't be had on a single-note instrument like the saxophone. But Hawkins had this drive to get past the single note, and the way he did it, and brilliantly so, was by arpeggiations and chordal runs. Plus, there was his impatience with the bar line.

"Casals and Hawkins had the same kind of musical temperament. Playing the Bach solo pieces, Casals would dive into a low note with a breadth and tremendous vigor matched be few cellists. And in fact, Harry Lim talked about meeting Hawkins in Europe, and how excited Hawkins was by a recording of Schubert's Opus 99 by the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals trio.

"Also, Hawk was obsessed with vocal music, especially opera. He had a huge record collection, most of it classical. Very little jazz."

Additionally, here are the more interesting pages referencing Casals from John Chilton's "The Song of Hawk: The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins": (BTW, flip up to page 354 for Hawkins' hi-fi set-up.) Unfortunately, the "Retrospective" does not contain Hawk's magnificent solo tour de force "Picasso" (available on "The Jazz Scene" [Polygram Verve 1994]) that Chilton compares to Casals' Bach and Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" intriguingly: what food for thought!

(The references to opera reminded me of Miles Davis' love of Price's/Karajan's "Tosca" Decca LPs that he repeatedly wore out and desired to remake with Gil Evans. Sadly, it never happened. (The tantalizing Tosca/Stockhausen/James Brown troika can be heard on Miles' amazing "On the Corner" complete sessions box (or at least the Stockhausen/JB duo can) (OAOP has already covered Markus Stockhausen's connection to Miles.

Keep up the good blogging. Regards, Tim

My header image was taken from the 2008 post In search of Pablo Casals which takes me down another fascinating overgrown path. Previous posts have explored the links between Casals, who lived in exile in Prades in French Catalonia, and author, peace activist and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who was born in Prades. Jazz was one of Merton's great passions and there are a number of references to this in the definitive biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott.

In one reference the book tells how when a schoolboy at Oakham School Thomas Merton visited Paris in 1946 and wrote enthusiastically in the school magazine about hearing Josephine Baker sing "J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris." Coleman Hawkins, who is seen in my footer image, had been in Paris before the outbreak of war and the musicians he worked with there included Django Reinhardt and Benny Carter. More on Casals' and Merton's shared love for mon pays Catalonia here and you can hear Casals' orchestral Bach, complete with instrument of the moment - the saxophone, together with a setting of Merton's poetry in my musical homage to that magical region here.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Of Gods, Men and Music - 2

Readers who know their sacred choral music will prize the 1990 Hyperion CD of Gradualia from Byrd's Marian Masses sung by the William Byrd Choir. This was the last of three commercial recordings made by the William Byrd Choir before it was disbanded, and their founder and director Gavin Turner told the story of the ensemble in an exclusive article here in 2006. Now comes the exciting news that the William Byrd Choir is reforming for a single concert. This is being given at the Chapel of Reconciliation in the Roman Catholic Shrine in Walsingham, Norfolk on May 14 and the theme of the concert is the life and sufferings of Catholics in Elizabethan England. Of Gods, Men and Music - 1 is here.

Tickets for the concert priced at £10 are available are available by mail from The Pilgrim Bureau, 950 Tickets, Friday Market, Little Walsingham, NR22 6DB with cheques payable to RC National Shrine and please write '950 Tickets' on the reverse. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Friday, April 08, 2011

Big Yellow Taxi

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
From Joni Mitchell's song Big Yellow Taxi. More paved paradise here and Joni visits Crete here.

Uncontrived photo, which was taken in Taghazout more than 20 miles from one of the few McDonalds in Morocco, is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.