Monday, April 30, 2012

Figures in a creche can't sing twelve-tone music

When asked why his oratorio El Pessebre (The Manger) ignored contemporary musical developments the great Catalan musician Pablo Casals replied with a smile "The figures in a crèche are folk figures; why, they can't sing twelve-tone music!" In 1939 the Catalan writer Joan Alavadera had fled from Franco's forces in Spain with the draft of a poem celebrating his region's tradition of Christmas crèches. In exile Joan Alvadera shared Pablo Casals' house in Prades, and in 1943 his completed Poema del Pessebre won the annual contest in nearby Perpignan for poems written in Catalan. Many years later Casals asked Alvadera to add extra verses and in 1960 his "peace oratorio" El Pessebre was premiered in Mexico. The little-known oratorio is a delightfully derivative concoction; just let's say that if you like Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel you will like El Pessebre. Fortunately the work is very well served by the Naïve recording from the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya with conductor Lawrence Foster seen above.

It is now time for On An Overgrown Path to take an extended break as we head off to Catalonia, the region that has produced so many path-inspiring bodhisattvas, including Montserrat Figueras, Jordi Savall, Pablo Casals, Raimon Pannikar, Thomas Merton and Salvador Dali. Catalonia was also the cradle of Catharism; not only did this religious movement dare to challenge the hegemony of the Catholic Church, but it also was part of the great Gnostic tradition. This links Catharism to Sufism via the Sufi master Shaykh Suhrawardi, to Hinduism via the shared concept of the Divine spark within (atman and pneuma), and to Buddhism via a shared aspiration for liberation (nirvana), while there also is the little known connection between Pau Casals and the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. But ultimately Catharism leads back to that spiritual root directory, the Hermetica; which may explain why so many overgrown paths cross in Catalonia.

But I must finish packing the car, check the medical insurance, and load Le Royaume Oublié into the CD multi-changer. So I leave you with these words from Pau Casals which are quoted in the booklet of Lawrence Foster's recording of El Pessebre. Casals spoke them during the Spanish Civil War, but, alas, they still apply today:
'I am repelled by the indifference of a number of countries which contemplate with inner composure and from the purest egoism things that cry out in outrage and shame. Is this the result of so many churches and universities, of all of science, discoveries, and philosophy? ... Religion, love for one's fellow men, respect dignity, goodness - all of them are mere words ... Nothing but malice, unchecked egoism, rawness...'
À bientôt.

Naïve's recording of El Pessebre by the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya, engineered incidentally by Mike Clements (aka Mr Bear) is currently out of the catalogue. However Casals' own recording is available as an MP3 download. 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Britten's passion for the East

In a recent post I described the 2012 Aldeburgh Festival presentation of Jordi Savall's Mare Nostrum as a "bold piece of programming". But on reflection perhaps the performance of this transcultural work in the Snape Maltings is not so much bold as appropriate in view of Benjamin Britten's pioneering role in what later became known as world music.

Britten's initial interest in Far Eastern music was sparked by his friendship with the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee, who he met when living in New York between 1939 and 1942. There is more on this friendship in my post Colin McPhee - East collides with West, and the photo below shows the two composers in New York c. 1940. Britten's first operatic venture Paul Bunyan was composed in New York and Balinese influences can be heard in its Prologue, while in 1941 McPhee and Britten recorded McPhee's transcription for two pianos of Balinese Ceremonial Music.

This exposure to a different sound world must have piqued Britten's creative juices, because in 1955, accompanied by Peter Pears, he undertook a five month concert tour to Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Sri Lanka; the header photo shows Britten and Peter Pears on the beach in Bali. A decade before Indian journeys opened Philip Glass' ears to world music and George Harrison's to the sitar, Peter Pears wrote the following in his travel diary:

Ravi Shankar, a wonderful virtuoso, played his own Indian music to us at the [All India] Radio station & we attended a Broadcast. Brilliant, fascinating, stimulating, wonderfully played - first on a full orchestra of about 20 musicians, then solo on a sort of zither...
Britten's itinerary included two weeks on the island of Bali free from any concerts, and twelve days in Japan where he experienced Noh theatre and Gagaku instrumental court music. These experiences were a creative epiphany and after Britten returned to England in 1956 he incorporated Balinese elements into his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. Echoes of the gamelan can also be heard in many of his subsequent compositions, culminating in the valedictory opera Death in Venice where Balinese sonorities accompany the Games of Apollo, see Teatro la Fenice production shot below. Britten's exposure to Noh and Gagaku led to the composition of the first of his church parables, Curlew River, and the influence of the Japanese art forms is also apparent in the two later church parables and several of the composer's operas.

Britten's fascination with the orient is well documented, particularly in Mervyn Cooke's authoritative Britten and the Far East which this post draws on it. However, Mervyn Cooke's book, which is published in conjunction with the Britten-Pears Library, is a musicological rather than cultural study. Which means two important aspects of Britten's transcultural explorations are treated circumspectly or ignored altogether; these are the homoerotic element, and the question of whether Britten was guilty of musical colonialism.

It is impossible to separate Britten the composer and Britten the homosexual, and his specific strand of sexuality is no secret. In his chapter on the composer in The Rest is Noise Alex Ross writes that "What perplexed Britten was not his sexuality per se... but his longing for underage males", while John Bridcut has devoted an acclaimed book to the subject of 'Britten's Children'. In his contribution Eros and Orientalism in Britten's Operas to Queering the Pitch: The new Gay and Lesbian Musicology Philip Brett speculates that Britten's interest in the Orient was triggered by his homosexuality, and also suggests that the "gamelan is a gay marker in American music"; the latter proposition is independently supported by the preoccupation of Colin McPhee and Lou Harrison with the instrument. Another example of the gamelan as a "gay marker" is the use of gamelan sonorities as a leitmotif for adolescent boys in Britten's Death in Venice.

While living in New York Britten shared a house with Paul Bowles, who later became famous for the fiction he wrote while living in Tangiers. But a novel by another author, Leaving Tangiers by the Moroccan-born Tahar Ben Jelloun, takes a swipe at a thinly disguised Bowles in a passage describing an American writer and his wife (Bowles was bisexual) who want "the common people, young ones, healthy, preferably from the countryside, who can't read or write, serving them all day, then servicing them at night".

Above is a photo of a gamelan founded by Colin McPhee for village children in the 1930s. Mervyn Cooke describes the two weeks Britten spent in Bali as "a holiday from the punishing recital schedule". But despite his earlier exposure to Balinese music in New York, the island was not the obvious holiday destination for an overworked Western musician. However, as described above, Britten had spent time with Colin McPhee in New York, and McPhee's biographer Carol Oja reports that "several of [McPhee's] friends suggested that one of the appeals of Bali was its openness to homosexuality". This was presumably communicated to Britten, and Bali seems to have offered him a unique mix of creativity and sexuality, as this extract from a letter to Roger Duncan, a twelve year old who was one of Britten's most celebrated 'children', hints at:
... but what would have amused you was one Gamelan... made up of about thirty instruments, gongs, drums, xylophones, glockenspiels of all shapes & sizes - all played by little boys less than 14 years old.
The sexuality of celebrities has been newsworthy for many years, but coverage of the less mediagenic subject of musical colonialism is more recent. French composer and guitarist Titi Robin has spoken of "the economic, social and cultural order that reigns over the field of ‘world music’, that makes Western artists travel to countries in the East and the South that possess rich musical traditions. They collect music, repertories and musicians from there and return to fructify this godsend in the privileged world of the well-off West, where the art market is structured in a sufficiently rational manner to allow musicians to develop their careers and live off their art".

Britten and the Far East Mervyn Cooke describes The Prince of the Pagodas as being the composer's first work "to make use of specific oriental borrowings". Such "borrowing" was an accepted practice for many twentieth-century composers including Debussy and Puccini, and Britten extended the convention with Curlew River where he took a traditional Noh play set by a river in Tokyo, and replaced its Zen-Buddhist theme with a Christian storyline set by a river in East Anglia, see 1956 production photo above. And this colonial mindset seems to take on a darker side in another letter to Roger Duncan:
And so we go to Japan, I must say I don't want to, awfully. I don't like what I know about the country or the people I certainly don't like the way they look (the Yellow races look very strange & suspicious - whereas the Brown, the Indians, or Indonesians, look touching & sympathetic, & can be very beautiful) - and judging by the difficulty Peter & I had in getting our visas, they don't like me any more than I like them.
But charges of musical colonialism do not stand close scrutiny. In 1958 the Aldeburgh Festival included a pioneering recital by Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar), Nikhil Ghosh (tabla) and Ayana Deva Angadi (tamboura) in a programme of ragas coupled with traditional Indian dance by Srimati Rita. Unlikely paths cross here as the Aldeburgh concert was promoted by the Asian Music Circle which was formed in 1953 by the tamboua player at the recital Ayana Deva Angadi, who was also a political activist. George Harrison was taught to play the sitar by members of the Asian Music Circle and in September 1966 Harrison first met Ravi Shankar at the London house of Ayana Deva Angadi.

In 1965 there was a further recital of Indian music at Aldeburgh and in the same year Britten returned to the sub-continent for an extended holiday on the orders of his doctor; but the trip did not have the same creative impact on the ailing composer as his visit ten years earlier. Britten's passion for Indian music was also undoubtedly influenced by Imogen Holst who worked closely with him during this period. As recounted in an earlier post in 1951 Imogen Holst had spent two months studying the folk music of India and teaching at Rabindrath Tagore's Santiniketan University in West Bengal.

Above is a photo which appears in Britten and the Far East. In the book it is given the deadpan title "Britten's tour party in Balinese costume, 20 January 1956", but it also speaks eloquently of the two themes that dominate this post. However, although contextualisation is important it must not subordinate the music. The homoerotic and colonial aspects of Britten's passion for the Far East provide valuable context, but they must also be kept in perspective. His visits to Bali and Japan took place in 1955/6, when Britain was still a colonial power and attitudes to "yellow" and "brown" races were very different.

But in 1960 Harold Macmillan made his famous "Wind of Change" of speech which accelerated the process of decolonisation, and the same wind of change also blew across the Snape marshes. This year, as the Britten centenary approaches, it brings Jordi Savall's transcultural celebration
Mare Nostrum to the Aldeburgh Festival on June 23. Thankfully, what could seem "strange and suspicious" decades ago is now "touching, sympathetic and very beautiful".

* Britten centenary news - in May the beta version of a Britten 100 website will go live, and music organisations are being invited to share news of their own centenary events. The website will feature a database that will be the central clearing-house for information about performances during the centenary. The Britten 100 website will have its public launch on 22 November 2012. More information here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Britten and the Far East was supplied as a requested review sample. Header photo comes via Classic FM. Photo Photos 2, 5 and 6 are via Britten and the Far East, photo 4 is via Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds. 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, April 28, 2012

Is Kylie Minogue really headlining the Proms?

Whether we like it or not brands are now part of classical music. Nowhere has the power of the brand been better exploited than at the BBC where the portfolio includes 'BBC New Generation Artists', 'BBC Young Musician', and, of course, 'BBC Proms'. And as every marketeer knows, brands sometimes need repositioning; which makes the headline above particularly interesting.

Traditionally the BBC Proms brand represents a trustworthy source of mainstream classical and adventurous contemporary music; to supplement this in 1996 another brand, 'BBC Proms in the Park', was introduced with the admirable objective of making light classical music accessible to an audience beyond the Albert Hall. Over the years the Proms in the Park have been repositioned from 'light classical to 'light entertainment' - last year Westlife headlined the Hyde Park event, and this year, to the delight of the media, it is Kylie Minogue. So far so good: 'Proms in the Park' is a separate brand so there is no repositioning of the core BBC Proms property. Or is there? The Sun's 'showbiz' front page seen above has Kylie "at the Proms". OK, the Sun is a Murdoch rag not noted for its journalistic quality, so cut to the screen grab below from the current front page of the BBC News website.

Again Kylie is lined up for a "Proms concert"; semantic hairsplitting perhaps, but this is the "official" source. It is not a space dictated abbreviation as "Kylie lined up for Prom in the Park" fits the available space. Is it carelessness by a BBC web editor? - quite possibly. Or could it be nuanced repositioning of the Proms brand? Now let's make one thing clear at this point, I have no problem with Kylie playing a Prom in the Park. I am among what I suspect is the small number of Overgrown Path readers who have seen her live - NEC Glasgow 1988 - and very good she was too. And let's not forget classical music's silly conventions have been robustly challenged on this blog. But I am concerned about backdoor repositioning of the Proms brand.

Yes, these headlines raise awareness of the main Proms. But when Sun readers buy tickets for an Albert Hall Prom will they expect Kylie-style music? And will the BBC respond by giving them Kylie-style music at the expense of mainstream classical because, to quote the mantra of our times, "that is what the audience wants"? - remember we already have musicals in the main season. Is the repositioning of the core BBC Proms brand inevitable and irreversible? Are these headlines really premonitions? Will Kylie next be headlining the BBC Proms, but not in the park? Answers please by post written on programmes from the 1970 Prom featuring Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine.

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

Friday, April 27, 2012

Wagner's sonic dream

ClariSonus, a website "dedicated to exploring, analyzing and documenting the effect of technology on the recording and reproduction of sound", has a nice link to On An Overgrown Path. Which provides yet more confirmation that there is life beyond the currently fashionable "Breaking - plastic pianist severs arm" approach to promoting classical music. And talking of the effect of technology on the recording and reproduction of sound, the new CD release of Jonathan Harvey's 'Bayreuth meets Buddhism' opera Wagner Dream comes with a sonic as well as musical and spiritual recommendation. No time at present to write in detail about this landmark of contemporary music, but hat tip to recording engineers Franck Rossi and David Poissonnier, and real-time electronic mixing team Jonathan Harvey and Gilbert Nouno, who captured Wagner Dream for Belgium label Cypres at Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam in 2007. Additional hat tip for the inspired CD artwork above, which is the work of the contemporary Tibetan/Nepalese artist Tsherin Sherpa. While, staying with the visual, it is ironic that the documentary of the Met's Ring non-resounding is titled Wagner's Dream. And talking of Tibet, Jonathan Harvey discusses the problem of being categorised as a "Buddhist composer" in my radio interview with him.

* In his ClariSonus post John Atwood raises the very good question as to why I blog using the name Pliable, so it is worth providing the backstory in brief. After my corporate days were passed I worked for the UK criminal justice agencies on communication projects in the areas of race and equality. To avoid any conflicts between my employment and blogging, the latter does touch on humanitarian issues, I adopted the name Pliable from the character in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. A lot of posts were uploaded using that identity and it seemed confusing to change identity mid-stream. But for several years I have been free of potential conflicts of interest, and there has been no attempt to conceal that this blog is written by Bob Shingleton.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Wagner Dream was bought from Prelude Records. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Glorious Gregorian chant - but is the price right?

Just a few days ago I wrote about the sublime CD seen above of Gregorian Chant sung by the monks of L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine outside the village of Le Barroux in Provence; while back in 2010 I discussed how in small French villages where there are traditionalist Catholic monasteries, block voting by the religious community can be an important factor in elections. Which makes the result for Le Barroux in last Sunday's first round of the French presidential election interesting reading: Marine Le Pen (far right) 135 votes, Nicolas Sarkozy (centre right) 135 votes, François Hollande (centre left) 63 votes. In the small village of Le Barroux 469 people voted, a turnout of 89.33%. Wagner set the benchmark, and I continue to be confounded by how people of intellect so effortlessly combine the sublime with the hateful.

* Thankfully Marine Le Pen is now eliminated from the second and final round of the election on May 6. We will be in France then, coincidentally not too far from Le Barroux. There are a few more posts to come and then An Overgrown Path takes an extended break as the search for more thin places continues.

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

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Pre-Packaged Symphony

In the current issue of The Hudson Review* Gavin Plumley contributes a penetrating critique of Philip Glass' Ninth Symphony. The title The Pre-Packaged Symphony sets the tone and Gavin concludes that Glass "now surrounds his set musical phrases with nominal symphonic packaging". A recent post here touched on 'music of the mind' - a fantasy sound created by record companies to make ethnic music palatable to Western audiences. But are there other forms of music of the mind? When classical music tastemakers queue to praise modish composers are they hearing a music of the mind embellished by their own preconceptions? Gavin Plumley describes the digital download release format of Glass' Ninth Symphony as "an ingenious piece of PR" - can the preconceptions that trigger music of the mind be virally created?

Does the conclusion reached by the creator of the 'obedience experiments' Stanley Milgram apply to classical music? - "'A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitation, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority..." Is "ingenious PR" and viral marketing now a "legitimate authority"? Was the Armenian/Russian esoteric G.I. Gurdjieff right when he taught that we spend most of our time in a form of semi-sleep, during which we remain wrapped in our own blanket of subjective fantasy? Is classical music too focussed on winning audiences by supplying a soundtrack for that semi-sleep?

Instead of inducing semi-sleep, should classical music be learning from Gurdjieff's 'work'** and waking audiences and helping them develop "mental muscles" which release their true potential as listeners? Was Colin Wilson right when he wrote "Man is not small, he is just bloody lazy"? Is the way forward to supply what Gurdjieff described as "shocks to awaken sleeping humanity" rather than reprising "set musical phrases"? Do we need more composers pushing the creative envelope? Is dumbing up classical music's next big thing?

* Gavin Plumley's article on Philip Glass' Ninth Symphony is only available to subscribers to The Hudson Review, but read more about it at Entartete Musik.

** G.I. Gurdjieff's deliberately opaque writing style is a barrier to grasping his important ideas. For those who, like me, still have to finish All and Everything Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson the little and affordable volume seen above, Introduction to The Gurdjieff Work by Jacob Needleman, is a valuable introduction, while Colin Wilson's section on Gurdjieff in The Occult is also useful. Those who dismiss Gurdjieff as a charlatan should read Peter Brook on him. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass is also recommended.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. A review copy of Gavin Plumley's article was supplied at my request. 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, April 21, 2012

Temptation and indulgence at the BBC Proms

That striking image comes from the current newsletter of the Benedictine community of L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux, France, and the recording by the monks there of Gregorian chant has been a constant on my iPod since it was released several years ago. But it is 20th century sacred music by Herbert Howells rather than plainsong that provides the soundtrack to this post. Howells' Hymnus Paradisi is one of the highlights of the 2012 BBC Proms in a concert that pairs it with Elgar's First Symphony. Behind the inevitable shenanigans there are many temptations in this year's Proms, including Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Elgar's Apostles with Mark Elder, Vaughan Williams' Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in one evening, Tippett's A Child of our Time, and a John Cage centenary bash.

It is also good to see a Proms Beethoven Symphony cycle being given by Daniel Barenboim and his West–Eastern Divan Orchestra. But I am going to voice a plea that the focus during the Beethoven cycle falls more on the music and less on the undoubtedly praiseworthy humanitarian agenda of the orchestra. There is no disputing that the Palestinian tragedy demands our full attention; but building bridges with music in the Middle East must not become a modish indulgence for the remission of sins that classical music is committing elsewhere. A number of these sins have been detailed here recently; however I would add to them the 2011 tour of China, a country where Amnesty International reports serious human rights violations including torture and execution continue, by Daniel Barenboim and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra.

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

Friday, April 20, 2012

There are fairies at the bottom of the music

Cultures collide in Brittany, France, as can be seen from my photos which were taken around Pontify, a 'new' town created by Napoléon Bonaparte. Brittany shares France's twenty-first century infrastructure, but is also a region of jagged coastlines, fog and mystery. Local legends tell how invisible creatures populate the region and cause mischief for the humans they live among. These legends connect Brittany with the Celtic culture that inspired composers including Arnold Bax and Rutland Boughton, and popular musicians such as Vashti Bunyan. But there is a more intriguing collision of cultures in Brittany through links between the local fairy lore and the esoteric Islamic belief in jinn or genies. Both traditions have night-long musical traditions to placate the spirits, in Brittany it is the fest noz (night celebration) and in the Maghreb it is the lila of the Gnawa. These links find musical expression in the CD below which I discovered recently in the Pontify Leclerc Espace Culturel seen in the accompanying photos.

Bayati is a six piece band and they sing their own compositioins in the Breton dialect on the CD titled Foñs ar bed. When I tell you their instruments include transverse wooden flute, oud, violin, and daf, derbouka, udu, davul, zab, riqq, that trance informs their music, and they set texts by Arab masters such as Omar Khayyam and Abu Nuwas (dubbed the first gay Islamic poet), and Breton writers including Pêr-Jakez Helias, you will start to get the idea - there are audio samples here. Foñs ar bed has passed the overgrown iPod test, which means it stays on my playlist for the next journey across France - copies can be bought from Amazon. With acknowledgement to Deborah Kapchan's Travelling Spirit Masters, and there are more mischievous jinns here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Loads of preconceptions about classical music

There are loads of preconceptions on classical music running amongst the people, not only the young audience. And these preconceptions are admittedly quite sticky. Before bringing a young audience (people in their twenties, thirties) into a Brahms concert, you first need to bring them to cross the front door, to like the place. This whole campaign is one single step into this direction.
That perceptive observation was added by the Philharmonie Luxembourg to the debate about their new promotional video. On reflection I think the Philharmonie is right, and that I, and other readers, were guilty of allowing preconceptions to unduly influence our judgement; plus it was not clear from YouTube that this video was the first of four in a structured campaign. The path that the Philharmonie Luxembourg is trying to lead young people down may not be immediately apparent, but it is certainly rich - 'Tristan goes to India' with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod and Messiaen's Turangalila, plus Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Bernstein. So I plead guilty to preconceptions and hasty judgement, and wish the Philharmonie the best of luck and hope they keep us posted as their project develops. That header graphic from their project website could provide a new mantra for classical music - time for a change.

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Will this attract young audiences? - discuss

This promotional video was created for the Philharmonie Luxembourg and Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg by Duchy based creative shop Radar. I am well outside the target group so will be careful about passing judgement. But it does seem a pity that the creatives ignored, or perhaps had never come across, Benjamin Britten's wise words that "This magic comes only with the sounding of the music".

Also on Facebook and Twitter. With thanks to reader Ralf Michaels for the heads up. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

If Fair Trade works elsewhere, why not in music?

That is the Berber flag carrying the symbol of the Amazigh, meaning 'free people', in the Facebook photo; some of our Berber friends in Morocco are holding it and they appear again in the photo below. In Libya and elsewhere in the Maghreb, Berbers have been a major force in political change to the extent that events in North Africa have been dubbed the 'Berber spring'. The Berbers are the indigenous ethnic group in much of North Africa; despite extensive intermarriage with immigrant Arabs they have retained a strong sense of identity and the marginalisation of Berber culture is a continuing source of friction.

In his book Tibet Tibet Patrick French identifies a 'Tibet of the mind' - a fantasy image created in Western minds of Tibet as a vanishing Shangri-La, an image which contrasts sharply with the more complex and less mediagenic reality. Similarly there is a 'Morocco of the mind' - a fantasy world of Marrakech riads, souks, personal shoppers and castles made of sand. However the real Morocco is both more complex and less mediagenic, but that makes it no less appealing; last year some of our young Berber friends in a village in the Agadir region invited us into their homes and they were some of the most hospitable, open and positive people we have ever met.

There is also 'music of the mind' - a fantasy sound created by record companies to make indigenous music more palatable to Western audiences and marketed under the reassuring umbrella of 'world music'. Ethical troubadour Titi Robin has warned against 'music of the mind' and the associated colonial attitudes which create a one way traffic of talent from East to West for the benefit of corporate record labels, and the soundtrack for this post is 'anti-music of the mind' par excellence in the form of his new Riverbanks project.

When I wrote about Riverbanks after the premiere concert in Paris Michael Rolfe added a comment describing it as "a remarkable enterprise, by a remarkable musician... quite simply, a masterpiece". Regular readers will know I am not a great fan of the overworked epithet 'masterpiece', but in this instance I am going to agree with Michael. I have been living with Riverbanks for several months and it quite simply sounds better every time I hear it, plus the 3 CD album is an astonishing bargain to boot.

The Moroccan Riverbanks CD was recorded, edited and mastered in the Agadir region using local musicians including a contribution from the great Berber singer Cherifa Kersit, several of the tracks are sung in the Berber Tamazight dialect and the disc was available on the local Ayouz Vision label ahead of its European release. A similar 'local content' policy was adopted for the Indian and Turkish Riverbanks discs and the result is an album that is outstanding both musically and as an ethical benchmark. The World Fair Trade Organisation defines Fair Trade as "a trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade". If Fair Trade is possible in other markets why not music? Riverbanks samples here, and more on the real Morocco here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photos 1 and 2 are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Riverbanks was bought from Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Classical music behaving badly

'Glencore, the multi-billion pound commodity giant, stands accused of profiting from child labour in a mine in the Congo, and paying the associates of paramilitary killers in Colombia, following a Panorama investigation. Undercover filming showed children as young as ten working in the Glencore-owned Tilwezembe mining concession. And sales documents show a Glencore subsidiary made payments to the suspected associates of paramilitaries in Colombia' - BBC News April 16
Last night's Panorama on BBC TV was an investigation into multi-national commodities trader Glencore. Using the title 'Billionaires behaving badly?' the company was, to quote the BBC, "accused of reckless greed" - programme image above, watch the documentary here. As was highlighted On An Overgrown Path last week, Glencore sponsors the Lucerne Easter Festival; among the artists appearing this year were Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons and András Schiff, and next year's festival is headlined by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It did not need a Panorama investigation to tell classical music's great and good that Glencore's money comes with grubby strings attached, because all is revealed by just a few minutes googling. Yet another example of classical music behaving badly.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Image credit BBC TV. 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, April 16, 2012

The strange voyage of a brilliant musician

'A brilliant student, encouraged by Stravinsky, Boulanger, Milhaud and Messiaen, Alain Kremski abandoned the more obvious musical route to pursue the mystical universe of temple bells, gongs and bowls. He won the Prix de Rome for composition and was in residence for three years at the Villa Médicis where he established a firm friendship with Balthus, built on a shared passion for painting, sculpture, literature and travel... His compositions do not seek to evoke the sacred music of the Far East and its ritualistic codes, but find their place in the context of contemporary music where East and West coincide. Kremski would, modestly, consider them as an homage to Tibetan civilization and the its precious spirituality which Western culture must preserve at all costs' - source Cezame music agency.
Alain Kremski's unique music has featured here before and in Exils (Exiles), which is dedicated to the Dalai Lama, Tibetan singing bowls are scored as equal partners with a piano to produce a soundworld of strange sounding intervals and harmonies. Although Exils does not imitate ritual music it subordinates Western priorities of melody and rhythm to pure sound-values. In line with Balthus' philosophy expressed below, it is better to listen to this ineffable music than analyse it. But an exploration of the dedications of the work's five movements provides a fascinating insight into the strange voyage of this brilliant musician.

1. "Prière": Tibetan temple in the mountains - dedicated to Balthus. An iconoclastic artist who believed paintings should be seen and not analysed, Balthus refused to provide any biographical information. When asked for a biography for a Tate retrospective in 1968 he famously replied by telegram: "No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards. B."

2. "Souvenir": Lullaby for a Tibetan child - dedicated to Olivier Messiaen. Alain Kremski studied with Messiaen and the sleeve for Exils, seen below, carries the following quote from his teacher, "Your music, Alain, has transported me to other places, to the external and internal worlds which you evoke so well".

3. "Exils": Meditation on space, time and memory - dedicated to Kalou Rinpoche. A Buddhist monk and teacher, Kalou Rinpoche was one of the first Tibetan masters to teach in the West and founded the Kagyu Rintchen Tcheu Ling temple in Montpelier, France - where, coincidentally, I will be in a few weeks.

4. "Aube": Christ alone on the Mount of Olives - dedicated to Lama Guendune Rimpoche. A Tibetan meditation master, Lama Guendune Rinpoche spent more than thirty years in solitary retreat in Tibet and India.

5. "Contemplation": Secret prayer on the holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ - dedicated to Jeanne and Josée Salzmann. The teachings of the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff continued after his death under the guidance of Jeanne Salzmann. The screenplay for Peter Brook's film of Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men was written by the director and Jeanne Salzmann, and Alain Kremski collaborated on the soundtrack. Alain Kremski has recorded ten volumes of the Hartmann/Gurdjieff compositions.

Can Olivier Messiaen, Peter Brook and Alain Kremski, not to mention Saint Gregory, Bach, Mahler, George Harrison, Jonathan Harvey and Tom Service all be wrong?

* An extended range audio system is required to achieve the full impact of the Tibetan singing bowls on Exils - this is certainly not one for PC speakers or iPpod earbuds. An MP3 download is available, but the higher resolution CD is recommended because this is a recording where the sound really matters.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. My copy of Exils was bought online. 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, April 15, 2012

Classical music is all about nuance

'In 2005 [Clemency] Burton-Hill co-founded Aurora Orchestra' - Wikipedia 15/04/2012

'Aurora was founded in 2005 by conductors Nicholas Collon and Robin Ticciati, who gathered around them an ensemble of the UK’s leading emerging soloists' - Aurora Orchestra website
My post on the Independent's recent Gustavo Dudamel feature has been picked up by the Radio 3 Forum, and a contributor to the forum has highlighted the two contradictory statements above. The explanation presumably is that Clemency Burton-Hill, who is a talented violinist as well as a media celebrity, was one of the original invited members of the Aurora Orchestra, but did not co-found it. Which as the forum contributor points out "isn't quite the same thing". A question of nuance maybe, but isn't classical music and journalism all about nuance? And yes, anyone can edit Wikipedia. But the article edit history and Ms Burton-Hill's personal website are also worth reading. Does classical music really need this nonsense?

Header image shows a Balter Emil Richards Crotale percussion mallet and, I quote, "These were created by Emil Richards, Mr. Hollywood Percussion, in the studios for TV and movies. Attention to musical nuance was key in the development of this series". 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

El Sistema has more than one meaning

Yesterday's Independent carried the gushing feature seen above written by Clemency Burton-Hill on location in Caracas with Gustavo Dudamel and laced with generous quotes from the president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ms Burton-Hill is better known as a presenter on BBC Radio 3 and the Proms, and also of the current BBC Four Young Musician 2012 programmes. What the feature byline does not explain is that one of her other roles is writing promotional material for artist agent Askonas Holt. And it also does not tell readers of Askonas Holt's role in Gustavo Dudamel's forthcoming UK tour with the the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and in his past Los Angeles Philharmonic tours, all of which feature prominently in the Independent article.

A search reveals no less than twenty-five contributions by Clemency Burton-Hill to the Askonas Holt website, while on the Dudamel/LA Phil tour page there is a glowing write-up by.... Clemency Burton-Hill. As the paper is called the Independent is it unreasonable to ask why the recent blog post headlined 'Dudamel is not the savior of classical music' by Alex Ross, a commentator of infinitely greater authority than Ms Burton-Hill, was not discussed in the editorial feature?

The sad thing is that Gustavo Dudamel does not need this shameless media manipulation, because, as Alex Ross quite rightly points out, he is "a greatly gifted musician, with room to grow". All Clemency Burton-Hall's hagiography does is remind us that El Sistema has more than one meaning.

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

Friday, April 13, 2012

A tale of two shipwrecks

There cannot be a single person on this planet who does not know that the Titanic sunk on April 15, 1912. But how many have heard of the less mediagenic deaths of sixty-three Libyan migrants in a small inflatable boat off the coast of Italy last year? 1517 passengers perished in the Titanic tragedy - by contrast more than 17,000 people have died since 1998 trying to cross the Mediterranean illegally to flee the poverty and oppression in North Africa, circumstances that are the legacy of the failed colonial ambitions which also created the "unsinkable" Titanic . This deathtoll makes the Mediterranean one of the biggest mass burial site in history; yet, with the honorable exception of the Guardian newspaper and of intercultural visionaries Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall, few outside the human rights movement have taken up the cause of the migrants who are literally being left to die off the shore of western Europe.

Mare Nostrum - Our Sea - is the recently released musical exploration of the Mediterranean by Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall, and Catalan author Rossend Domènech contributes an essay titled 'The Sea of Death: The Challenge of Immigration - The Human Drama' to the CD booklet. In another accompanying essay the Moroccan novelist and chronicler of the often tragic migration from the Maghreb Tahar Ben Jelloun ponders on ''Revolt? Revolution?' He concludes with the words "In the end contempt and racism are always counterproductive", while in his introduction Jordi Savall expresses sentiments relevant to the current Titanic junketing - "Let us allow history to help us gain a better understanding of our origins and tragedies, of our conflicts and our hopes".

My Photoshop-free header photo is the product of chance; or is it? Late last year I was photographing the padlocks left as contemporary votive offerings on the bridge over the Seine near the Quai d' Orsay in Paris. As I pressed the shutter a military inflatable burst into shot. At the time I did not know that 'the sea of death' would be one of the themes of Mare Nostrum, which was released that week. Nor did I know that the day I was taking the photo, November 23, 2011, was the day that Montserrat Figueras passed away. More on oppression in North Africa here.

* For a lighter take on the Titanic junketing follow this link.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Mare Nostrum was bought from Prelude Records. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, April 12, 2012

For those in peril in the audience

'The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the entire Titanic Requiem, forming an immersive concert experience featuring groundbreaking holographic projections created by Giuseppe Raffa.'
That extract comes from a press release about Robin Gibb's Titanic Requiem sent by Rebecca Davis Public Relations. I cannot decide if the humour is intentional, but suspect not as the sender is a New York PR agency - an animal not renown for its nuanced wit. Classical music is on cruise control elsewhere.

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

Classical music with added theatre

My question Does classical music need more theatre? attracted a range of responses. Those who think that classical music needs more theatre will be heartened by a new project that premiered at the Perth Festival in Australia in February before coming to the UK in June. How Like An Angel is a collaboration between Baroque vocal ensemble I Fagiolini and Australian circus troupe Circa that combines acrobatics and Renaissance music in a performance created specifically for sacred spaces. The header photo is from the Perth premiere and there is a video here. Norwich and Ely Cathedrals are the venues for the UK performances - Perth Festival artistic director Jonathan Holloway previously held the same position at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, hence the co-commission. I am sure the purists will have something to say, but if Peter Sellars can "ritualize" Bach, why can't Circa "acrobatize" Tallis? Early music legend Noah Greenberg used a sword swallower in his iconic Play of Daniel, so isn't Renaissance polyphony without acrobats just a silly convention? Now read how classical music ran away to join the circus.

* How Like An Angel is being presented in the UK as part of the London 2012 Festival, so please be aware of who is sponsoring it.

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Classical music celebrates a $109m bonus

Classical music's reality distortion field goes into overdrive as the Independent's Jessica Duchen enthuses over self-styled political activist András Schiff directing Bach's B minor Mass without mentioning that the Lucerne Easter Festival, of which the concert was part, is sponsored by secretive commodities trader Glencore. Multinational Glencore has annual revenues of $186.2 billion and is headquartered in Switzerland but registered in tax haven Jersey; it is the world's largest commodities trading company and the normally reticent BBC reports that "Glencore has never been far from controversy'" - the BBC News photo above shows workers at a Glencore mine in Bolivia clashing with troops in 2007.

Wikipedia provides a useful guide to a company's ethical credentials and their 'Controversies' section for Glencore is a real corker - financial and accounting manipulations, dealings with "rogue states", investments in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Zambia, and opaque relationships with other mining companies. While elsewhere it was reported last month that Glencore's chief executive Ivan Glasenberg, whose personal net worth is $7.2 billion, received a dividend bonus of $109m in addition to his $1.5m salary. As Jessica Duchen says in her review "a heart-warming celebration of the Mass’s multi-faceted spiritual world".

Glencore is a long-standing sponsor of the Lucerne Easter Festival and other artists benefitting from their pieces of gold this year included Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink and Mariss Jansons, while headlining the 2013 festival is classical music "saviour" Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Lucerne has a magnetic attraction for music critics as well as celebrity conductors, so presumably the Guardian's Tom Service will again be singing the praises of the Summer Festival without mentioning its equally ethically compromised sponsors.

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