Sunday, March 31, 2013

If science and technology could eliminate our problems...

If science and technology could eliminate our problems, we would need to question, why have religion? Especially as religion sometimes sows more hatred than the contrary. But material development alone cannot solve our problems, and so we need a religious tradition. But if a restaurant serves one kind of food at all times it would soon have no customers. Our task is to reduce conflicts between the traditions which already exist.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke those words at the opening of the Gethsemani Encounter in 1996. This historic gathering brought together fifty Buddhist and Christian monks and nuns at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. It was the Dalai Lama who suggested the meeting should be held at Gethsemani, the spiritual home of the celebrated advocate of inter-religious dialogue Thomas Merton, who he had met shortly before the latter’s death in 1968. Writing in his book Keeping Faith – A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks Fenton Johnson describes the scene in the chapter room at Gethsemani Abbey:
Along the right wall, under an image of the risen Christ, stood our Trappist hosts, the “white monks,” dressed in white robes covered with black hooded scapulars and cinched at their waist with broad leather belts. Next to them, wearing black robes, stood the Benedictines, the “black monks,” the more publicly engaged, apostolic of the Roman Catholic contemplative orders. Among these monks were scattered a few women, most dressed in the white blouse and below-the-knee gray skirt favored by many post-Vatican II sisters. Along the left wall under a batik banner of the seated Buddha, stood the Buddhist monks, some wearing maroon trimmed with saffron, others wearing saffron trimmed with maroon. A single Japanese monk wore dove-gray robes trimmed in black and white; a single Taiwanese nun wore saffron, peach fuzz sprouting from her newly shaved head. Among these Asians mingled the American Buddhists – some wearing black Zen robes, some wearing street clothes.
That evocative description is the cue for my soundtrack from the sadly deleted CD from Sony Cz Close Voices from Far-away, a musical dialogue between the Schola Gregoriana Pragensis and the Zen monks of Gjosan-rjú Tendai Sómjó.

If science and technology could eliminate our problems… does that sound familiar?

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

My elaborate lie of soaring crosses and poisoned thorns

Then let us compare mythologies
I have learned my elaborate lie
of soaring crosses and poisoned thorns
and how my fathers nailed him
like a bat against a barn
to greet the autumn and the late hungry ravens
as a hollow yellow sign.

From For Wilf and His House by Leonard Cohen. My soundtrack is Sofia Gubaidulina's Sieben Worte (Seven Words) for cello, bayan and strings from the recommended Naxos CD of her chamber music. Exploring myths and telling stories are at the heart of both poetry and classical music...

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo of sunset at Agadir, Morocco is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Does it serve the music or does it serve the ego?

On February 29th 1960 an earthquake destroyed the Moroccan city of Agadir killing more than fifteen thousand people. All the buildings in the old city (kasbah) near where I took this photo were destroyed, and there was extensive damage to buildings in the port area seen in the middle distance. But the domed 17th century mausoleum of the Sufi marabout (holy man) Sidi Bouknadel seen in the foreground miraculously survived, with the mosque and minaret being added after the earthquake.

At the core of Sufism is the belief that when a person displaces the lesser, egotistically oriented self, the greater or Universal self is revealed, which in turn allows contact with the Divine, and there is much that Western art music can learn from this thinking. When critiquing the current debasing of classical music the epithet ‘dumbing-down’ is often used, a description that plays into the hands of the revisionists due to its connotations of elitism. In fact dumbing-down and the associated obsession with entertainment and the mass market are just two manifestations of the ego-fuelled personality cult that has now spread virally beyond classical musicians to arts executives, broadcasters and, yes, bloggers. The acid test for a performance or piece of writing is to ask does it serve the music or does it serve the ego, because only when classical music displaces the currently dominant lesser, egotistically oriented self can its celestial gifts (baraka in Sufism) be unleashed.

My soundtrack provides striking evidence of the power of ego displacement in the form of a Sufi samāʻ performed by Sheikh Mohamed Mehdi Temsamani and members of the Tijaniyya tariqa in Tangier, Morocco in 1996 and released on the Spanish Pneuma label. Esoteric - in the true sense of the word - rituals from North Africa may seem very distant from Western art music. But again there is much for classical music to learn. In his erudite sleeve notes for the beautifully presented CD – the whole project is as sticky as Moroccan mint tea – music director Omar Metiou writes of “the atmosphere and the interpersonal relationships established during a [Sufi] ceremony in which the kinetic, visual, smell and taste stimulations play as important a role as music itself” and it is these very stimulations that the revisionists are trying to exorcise from Western classical music.

Subjugating the ego is a far more effective weapon against orthodoxies than big new ideas, as these words – which are very relevant both to Eastertide and the current Supreme Court deliberations - from one of the great Sufi masters Muhammed Ibn 'Ali Ibn 'Arabi remind us:

My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Kaa'ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.
A very happy Easter to all my readers.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. But acknowledgements to Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney's Hidden Wisdom and Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light (both purchased) which were among my reading while following the Sufi way in Morocco.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Music to listener or listener to music?

Taking the listener to the music via a seat in an acoustically satisfying concert hall or a high fidelity recording is central to the classical music experience. In the early 1930s Harvey Fletcher at Bell Telephone Laboratories anticipated stereophony and demonstrated the principle of listener to music using the multi-channel ‘curtain of sound’ seen above - left click to enlarge. The 'curtain of sound' worked on the theory that if multiple microphones are placed in front of an orchestra, and loudspeakers are placed in identical positions in a different room with each microphone feeding a corresponding speaker, the sound image captured by the curtain of microphones will be faithfully recreated by the curtain of loudspeakers.

As the theoretical optimum of an infinite number of channels between microphone and loudspeaker was impractical, the minimum number of channels needed to create a credible stereo image was determined by experiment. Interestingly in view of the use of centre channels in audio visual formats eighty years later, it was concluded that a minimum of three channels was required. In 1933 a concert in the Philadelphia Academy of Music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski was relayed from the concert hall to an adjacent room by a Bell Telephone three channel sound system. This successful experiment was extended in a later concert when the orchestra’s deputy conductor took the baton in Philadelphia with the three audio channels travelling over balanced phone lines to Washington where Stokowski presided over the first-ever mixing session before an invited audience in Constitution Hall.

Despite Harvey Fletetcher being dubbed ‘the father of stereo’, his trailblazing experiments at Bell Telephone in fact postdated by several years Alan Blumlein’s development of stereo recording for EMI in England. Blumlein’s pioneering work established that a credible stereo image could be created using just two ‘crossed’ microphones known as a ‘Blumlein pair’. This simple approach to microphone placement - seen in the graphic below – was refined over the years by the selective addition of microphones, and the result was an ‘Indian summer’ of outstanding stereo recordings from EMI, Decca and others in the 1960s and 70s.

But, as stereo recordings became more ambitious, some production teams added even more microphones – multi-miking - when recording large and complex scores. An example is seen in the graphic below which shows the microphone layout for CBS’ recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Walthamstow Town Hall in 1966 with Leonard Bernstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The final mix was created using a 1960s state-of-the-art seventeen channel console, and two trivia points are worth noting about the recording. One is that in a pre-echo of today’s multi-channel formats the sessions were captured on a three channel tape machine; the third centre channel information was used for the rear speakers in the SQ quadraphonic mix, and was split equally (double mono) across the two front channels in the stereo mix. The second point is that the portable organ shown on the orchestra plan - which does not have a dedicated microphone - was only used at the Walthamstow sessions, the organ part heard on the final release was recorded later in Zurich Cathedral and added to the final mix.

Alan Blumlein and Harvey Fletcher’s pioneering work on opposite sides of the Atlantic resulted in two ‘schools’ of microphone placement developing in the stereo era. The American school, with its roots in Bell Telephone’s ‘curtain of sound’, favoured the multiple microphone approach. By contrast the British/European school, with its roots in the ‘Blumlein pair’, favoured simpler microphone placement. In the photo below taken at an EMI Kingsway Hall session for Elgar's Dream of Gerontius conducted by Sir Adrian Boult the comparatively simple microphone array can be seen.

The simpler British/European school of microphone placement produced the most realistic and purist sound, as can be heard in Decca and EMI’s iconic Kingsway Hall recordings. But these recordings were subtle rather than showy and could sometimes sound thin and unimpressive to untutored ears when replayed on cheaper stereo systems. There was also the disadvantage that the recording engineers needed specialist knowledge to determine microphone placement, and expensive studio session time was required to balance the sound as there was little scope for correcting errors at later remixing sessions. Predictably the American school produced the opposite results: the sound was less refined but more ‘in your face’, microphone set-up was faster and less skilled, and technical and music balance problems could be ironed out by post-session remixing.

In recent years the classical recording landscape has changed completely. Financial pressures and the consequent advent of ‘live’ concert recordings by orchestra owned record labels mean the more flexible and lower cost American model dominates, to the extent that the geographic labels are now redundant as multi-miking has virtually become standard on both sides of the Atlantic. This has, inevitably, resulted in compromises in sound quality – and let’s not forget that sound is the only currency that classical music trades in. Back in 2011 I asked the question Do concert recordings make sound sense? and reader Dave Thomas recently added a perceptive comment to that post which highlights the tension between the purist and multi-miking schools of classical recording. In his comment Dave says “the problem with so many LSO Live discs is… over-miking. By spotlighting every last section of the orchestra one renders the overall picture flat and two-dimensional. There's no depth perception. The LSO-Live Mahler cycle suffers greatly for this”.

The three accompanying graphics showing different ways of bringing music to listener are reproduced from John Crabbe’s book Hi-Fi in the Home; this was published in 1968 and went through four editions in five years, but has long been out of print. John Crabbe, who edited the influential Hi-Fi News magazine from 1964 to 1982, was a renaissance man whose expertise covered both the art and the science of music - read an excellent interview with him via this link. The technical content of Hi-Fi in the Home is now little more than a curiosity as it predates the advent of digital technology by a decade. But John Crabbe’s succinct explanation of the unchangeable but often ignored acoustic principles that underpin music reproduction remains unsurpassed - the book’s continuing relevance is shown by the huge readership generated by my recent post Why louder classical music is better classical music which was inspired by part of the book . (On a personal aside I freelanced for Hi-Fi News in the 1970s and was offered the post of deputy editor by John Crabbe in 1976, but I turned his generous offer down as my preference was to stay on the commercial side of the music industry).

The chapter in Hi-Fi in the Home from which the accompanying graphics are reproduced is titled Music to Listener or Listener to Music? In it John Crabbe argues the point that the role of the recording and reproduction process is to take the listener to the music by providing an aural window (as in the Philadelphia experiment) into the performance, and not to take the music to the listener by using technology to ‘enhance’ it – one notorious example of music to listener was CBS’ quadraphonic mix for Bernstein’s 1973 Rite of Spring which positioned the listener in the middle of the orchestra - see Abbey Road session photo below.

John Crabbe was writing almost fifty years ago, yet his advocacy of listener to the music is just as relevant today and, indeed, that relevance now extends beyond recorded music to concert performances. Today’s strategy of choice is to take classical music to the listener by repurposing and repackaging it using alternative venues, etiquette-free concerts, sound bite symphonies, tweeting in concerts, salacious blogs and other big new ideas, all of which will, doubtless, prove as ephemeral as Bernstein’s immersive Rite. In a recent post titled Why classical music needs to be sticky I wrote that “Of course change is needed, but that change must build on what currently works, not demolish it”. What has been overlooked by the big new ideas brigade is that the one thing that works every time is the music itself. And it is that simple fact that tells us that classical music’s future depends on taking the listener to the music, and not the music to the listener.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

‘Tis the gift to be free

That photo was taken in Tamraght and shows yours truly with our friend Hassan from the ‘free people’. Away from the tourist honey pots Morocco still delights and seduces, but there is increasing evidence of political colonialism being replaced by cultural colonialism. Concern has been expressed here as to how “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”. But the fructifying also works in reverse, with Moroccan musicians increasingly aping Western styles: just one example is the new CD Alwane from oud master Nahil Khalidi which deploys saxophone and string bass in a refined example of ‘elevator taqsim’. This cultural colonialism meant that, ironically, some of the most authentic sounds we heard on our travels in Morocco came from my iPod. These included Les Imazighen [Berbers or ‘free people’]: Songs from the Middle Atlas from the Institut du Monde Arabe – one of the few record labels that still challenges listeners to rise to the level of the music, rather than vice versa.

* No review samples were used in the preparation of this post - such is the stranglehold of piracy in Morocco that I bought one of the few available legal copies of Nahil Khalidi's Alwane in a Moroccan supermarket for little more than £1! Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Classical music as storyteller for the digital generation

My photo shows a halaka, or storyteller, in the Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakech. Every evening there are several halakis continuing the time-honoured oral tradition of storytelling in this great public space. They are true performance artists who attract large local audiences of all ages in a society where adult illiteracy is still high, and in Morocco over the centuries halakis have played an important role in communicating knowledge traditions. Novelist Reynolds Price described how “a need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens… it is second in necessity after nourishment and before love and silence… millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence”. But, despite this, technology and cultural change are threatening the halakis of Jemaa el-Fna, and, in the same way, technology and cultural change are threatening classical music.

In ancient cultures such as the Moroccan Amazigh words have magical powers, and classical music has the same magical powers to comfort and inspire. Which is why this year we are celebrating Wagner, Britten and Verdi, three great storytellers. But operas are not the only way to tell stories, and every piece of music – even the most abstract contemporary work – tells a story through the extra-musical cues of who, what and when that connect listener and music. But, as described in a recent post, technology and cultural change are stripping those vital cues from both recorded and live performances. Which means that, shorn of its narrative power, classical music becomes just another expendable entertainment. Today millions still survive without love or home but very few in silence, thanks in part to social media which is an adapted form of storytelling. So if classical music wants to reach new audiences, it too must become a storyteller for the digital generation.

I took the header photo some years ago in Morocco, and in a few days I will be returning once again to that seductive but sometimes sinister land of storytellers, djins, music and great knowledge traditions. While I am away On An Overgrown Path will take a break and switch to ‘dynamic view’ presentation; this will make available the blog's very long tail of stories, one of which portrays some of the few who today still survive in silence.

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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Talking of dumbing-down...

And there is a lot more that is Sinfini unbelievable.

My image is remixed from a cartoon by Tim Bird that comes via the Sinfini website, while Tim's own website is here. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Essential sticky classics

That image is an outtake from my recent post Why classical music needs to be sticky, and to create it I remixed the artwork for the LaSalle Quartet’s survey of the second Viennese school. This was originally recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1980s, but has been re-issued at budget price by Brilliant Classics – the un-remixed artwork is here. Forget about Max Hole's snake oils of alternative venues, etiquette-free concerts, informal dress, cartoon websites etc etc. To enthuse a new generation of listeners, classical music simply needs to shout from the rooftops that £12.22 buys four hours of some of the greatest - and stickiest - music of the 20th century. But how ironic that although Universal Music owns these recordings, a smart independent label is left to do the shouting.

No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.