Monday, June 24, 2013

New music from beneath the sands of Egypt

In an attempt to make the moment even more special, I felt that some quiet music might add to the occasion. Unfortunately modern archaeologists from Egypt, America, Europe, and elsewhere are unable to reliably reconstruct the long-lost melodic funeral dirges that accompanied the rites of the pharaonic dead. This being the case, I chose to foster a somewhat calming and dignified atmosphere and selected to accompany our work three Beethoven sonatas softly broadcast from a portable tape player. The melodies of the Moonlight, Pathetique, and Apposionata sonatas served as a kind of tribute, although clearly European, to a tomb from a mostly extinct culture.
That description of the opening of tomb KV60 in King's Valley, near Luxor, Egypt in 1989 is taken from Beneath the Sands of Egypt: Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist by Donald Ryan. From the 16th to 11th century BCE tombs were constructed for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom in the King's Valley, with the most famous of the tombs being that of Tutankhamun. The King's Valley inspired the eponymous suite for small ensemble composed by Egyptian oud master Hussein El Masry (b.1952). Just as the Beethoven-broadcasting Donald Ryan is an unconventional archaeologist, so Hussein El Masry is an unconventional musician. Trained in Arabic classical music, he expresses his credo of "Art does not renovate itself, it's the artist who must renew himself" by experimenting beyond classical boundaries. In King's Valley the traditional oud, darboukas, tablas and quanoun are joined - sparingly - by guitar, violin and keyboards. On Between the Nile and the Ganges he is joined by Nepalese sitar player Narendra Bataju, who was a pupil of Ravi Shakar, and two percussionists in a fifty-four minute dialogue between oud and sitar based on Indian ragas. King's Valley on the French Kardum label has limited availability while Between the Nile and the Ganges, which I particularly recommend, is readily available from the admirable Institut du Monde Arabe label - sample it here. Donald Ryan laments the absence of reconstructed pharaonic funeral dirges, however the sacred music of the Copts is thought to date back to the same time - read about it in The primordial sounds of a 5000 year old gospel choir.

* On An Overgrown Path is going underground in the King's Valley and elsewhere in Egypt, so will be off-air for a while - see you soon.

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Artistic director takes public stand against dumbing-down

“That elusive experience of momentarily "crossing over" is, for me, the raison d'être of music, and unlocking the secret of how it is achieved also unlocks the secret of how classical music can reach new audiences.” What a wonderful statement in your post of last Sunday (6/16). Yes, that’s it!

And then on Wednesday (6/19): “One of the biggest obstacles in the fight against the classical music revisionists has been the emotive pejorative "dumbing-down" with its connotations of elitism. Now Nicholas Carr has shown a way round that obstacle by talking about 'deep' as opposed' to 'shallow' cerebral experiences…” I needn’t further enumerate all the ‘dumbing-down’ ideas that continue to be utilized by the classical music establishment that fail to produce the desired result.

As one who still owns some of those old Argo vinyl recordings of the King’s College Choir (!) and trained at St. Peter’s Choir School in Philadelphia, I’ve been fascinated by people’s listening habits or the lack thereof since I was nine. Our attentiveness to music is something that we have the conscious ability to control. From noticing almost no detail at the shallow end of the dial and progressing up to the deep end where we notice almost every detail of the sounds received by our faculty of hearing – and all the intermediary stages - the choice is ours.

So how do we cajole people to make the conscious choice to listen to music as opposed to hearing music as a background to other thoughts, texting, reading or whatever? Answering this question is the raison d'être of The Discovery Orchestra. We don’t claim to have ‘the answer,’ but we have been having some success. We know one thing for sure. If individuals can have an ‘aha’ around whether they are actually listening or just hearing and begin to notice detail in music, it tends to become a self-fulfilling, self-rewarding activity. It allows them to ‘cross over’ in a huge variety of music – whether written last month or one thousand years ago. The huge expanse of styles and musical vocabulary becomes not an issue but a source of delight as one learns to take each musical expression on its own terms and let the plasticity of our brains do the rest. We believe that becoming a perceptive listener is the “secret to unlocking how this is achieved.” As my mentor, Saul Feinberg is fond of saying: “The more we perceive, the more we receive.”

Thank you for your thought provoking blog posts!

George Marriner Maull
Artistic Director
The Discovery Orchestra

That generous comment resonates with my long-running thread about how we need to wise-up the classical audience. The Discovery Orchestra - seen above with George Marriner Maull - is new to me and, probably, to many readers. I learn that it was formed twenty-four years ago in Somerset County as a professional freelance orchestra called the Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey. Over the years its mission evolved, culminating in a name change in 2006. The mission of the Discovery Orchestra is now to teach the listening skills that help audiences emotionally connect to classical music, and to achieve this they use an innovative mix of live performance, small group work and interactive media programmes. It is very good to find an artistic director and orchestra with the courage to take a public stand against the all-pervasive dumbing-down of classical music. It is also good to find that there are still some (a few?) musicians who are not afraid of the Big Bad Corporation.

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How new classical music audiences are seeing the light

If classical music wants new audiences it should feast its eyes on the photo above. You may not be able to hear the blazing music of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under George Benjamin in that 2010 concert. But you can certainly see the blazing visual music created by kinetic artist and portrait painter extraordinaire Norman Perryman. Today Norman is celebrating his 80th birthday. Not only does he have more energy than people a quarter of his age, he also has more creativity than them. If there were more Norman Perrymans in classical music it would be a better place and audiences would be younger and bigger. Happy birthday Norman!

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo credit Ronald Knapp. 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).

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Excuse me but you are treading on an MP3 file

The writing that enshrines the Doctrine - that is, books or portion of books - is reverenced almost more than anything else by the Tibetans. They will not pack up their belongings for a journey without making sure that the books have the place of honour on top and will not be crushed under everyday objects. If a Tibetan is handed a book, he will lay it on his head, murmuring a prayer that he may be helped to profit by its wisdom. People are almost morbid about a book or an image coming into contact with shoes. I remember one day, at the Gompa P'hiyang, when we were sitting on the floor of our cell talking to our friend the lama Gyaltsan, that Dr. Roaf, who had just finished looking up some reference in a Textbook of Pathology by Professor Boyd, happened to put his feet lightly on that massive black tome. Suddenly Gyaltsan noticed it and stopping in the middle of his discourse, said in shocked tones: "Excuse me, you may not know it; but you are treading on a book!" Dr. Roaf at once apologised and Professor Boyd's precious volume was duly picked up and laid in a place of safety. I think its learned author would have been surprised to hear of the honour done to his book by a lama in far-off Tibet, an honour that it has probably never received from one of his students in his own laboratory at home.
That quote comes from Marco Pallis' 1939 book Peaks and Lamas. In 2013 society can be divided into the minority who feel pain at the sight of a cracked CD jewel case or defaced book, and the majority who are happy to step on MP3 and eBook files. Digital content is disposable content in more ways than one, and in The Shallows Nicholas Carr cites research which shows that in the digital age much of the information acquired by our newly developed habit of grazing data sources only lodges in our brain's short-term memory, and is disposed of without progressing to the deeper long-term memory vital to cognitive processes. Which means it is not converted from information to wisdom. As classical music, like Buddhism, is a wisdom tradition, those research findings have some profound implications which I will explore in another post. Meanwhile, paths, as always, converge here as the header photo was taken by me at the Temple of a Thousand Buddhas at Boulaye in France and first appeared in a 2009 post about Jonathan Harvey's Fourth String Quartet, a work that inspired my more recent exploration of how audiences become what they listen to.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

What we need is a classical chart for challenging music

Marketing gurus tells us that classical music needs charts. So we have classical charts for artists, for compilations, for specialist titles - aka core repertoire - and for singles. Medical research into the human brain tells us that audiences become what they listen to. From which the inevitable conclusion must be drawn that what we need to engage new audiences is a classical chart for challenging music. Qualifying criterion is simple to define: any classical work that has never been played on Classic FM, BBC Radio 3's Breakfast and Essential Classics and similar programmes is eligible.

Topical nominations from readers for challenging music to populate this new chart are welcome. My own suggestion is Tide, a double CD of music by James Weeks. Cageian connections abound on this new release: the performing ensemble Apartment House, which was founded by cellist and inter-disciplinary artist Anton Lukoszevieze, takes its name from Cage's composition Apartment House 1776, composer James Weeks featured here previously directing vocal ensemble Exaudi's performance of John Cage's Song Books at Aldeburgh, and the work uses the curved cello bow that Cage specified for his 1991 compositions ONE8 and 108. Tide is three solo pieces, for cello with the curved Bach bow that sounds all four strings simultaneously, for clarinet with electronic sound delay creating a canon effect, and for oboe d'amore. The three pieces can be played separately or as a trio, and the Metier double CD offers both versions. When performed together, as they are on disc one, Cageian controlled chance comes into play, with the points of entry being left to the chance decision of the musicians, but with the shape of the three discrete musical strands controlled by the score.

Leading pioneer in brain plasticity research Michael Merzenich explains that "When culture drives changes in the ways that we engage our brains, it creates different brains". If I was controller of BBC Radio 3 - one can but dream - I would order the thirty-one minute composite version of James Weeks' Tide to be played in its entirety on the station's Breakfast programme every day for a week as an antidote to the neurofissilty inducing dumb-downedness that currently prevails there.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Tide was a requested review sample. 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).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How classical music reached half a million young people

A huge peace rally held in Washington, November 15th, was reported by newspapers around the world, but it was not so generally reported that the afternoon was as much a musical occasion as anything else. A five or ten minute speech would be followed by five or ten minutes of music, alternating through the long afternoon.

The programme was planned by young people who have had the opportunity during the past few years to see how music could be more than a frivolous distraction, and could serve to express the united determination of a large group of people to affect some changes in the world. Peter Yarrow, of the well-known trio Peter, Paul and Mary, was one of the principal persons planning the choice of singers...

Tom Paxton, another young guitar picker and songwriter, sang two quiet but intense songs. Richie Havens, a young black musician appeared with several friends to give him instrumental support. One played a tall conga drum and Richie got the huge crowd to chant a response, "Freedom," while he sang and chanted in the African style. Leonard Bernstein, the famous director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra came and, of all things, sat down with a string quartet which the huge audience listened to politely, and I think were glad to see such an unusual form of music on such an occasion.
That quote comes from a manuscript in Pete Seeger's files dated November 1969 and appears in the recently published Pete Seeger In His Own Words edited by Rob and Sam Rosenthal. The peace rally was a protest organised by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam held on November 15, 1969 in Washington D.C. and it was attended by over 500,000 protesters*.

Humphrey Burton's biography of Bernstein says that he "took part" in the protest but does not mention that he played, while Joan Peyser's controversial 'psychobiography' only refers to the Vietnam rally in the context of Mass, which he was working on at the time. Is the music that the classical quintet contributed to the peace rally identified anywhere? Bernstein recorded the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major with the Juilliard Quartet around this time. Was it, perhaps, a movement from that work?

Staying with non-violence, Benjamin Britten met Leonard Bernstein when the British composer attended the US premiere of Peter Grimes in Tanglewood in 1946 which Bernstein conducted. Humphrey Burton takes up the story:

Within hours of the conclusion of the premiere Bernstein was playing boogie-woogie at the cast party. As Eric Crozier, the English director, remembered, Bernstein was more interested in talking to Auden, whom he revered, than to Britten, who was no great shakes as a party-goer. Reciprocally, perhaps Britten did not warm to his flamboyant interpreter and never invited him to perform at the Aldeburgh Festival, which he founded two years later.
But, despite this, Bernstein retained his affection for Britten's music. In 1977 he recorded a Benjamin Britten: In Memoriam album for CBS - that is my copy of the original LP below - which included the Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. And Bernstein's last concert, given in Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra just months before his death in 1990, included a performance of the Four Sea Interludes which Richard Dyer described as "slow, spacious, colorful, atmospheric and majestic". Surprising connections abound: one between Britten and Pete Seeger is revealed here and one between Bernstein and me here.

* The atmospheric cover photo on the cover of the indispensable CD of Peter, Paul and Mary's protest songs seen in the header image is the right venue but a different protest: it was taken at the 1963 civil rights rally in Washington.

Pete Seeger In His Own Words was borrowed from the USAF Second Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich. 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.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Classical music must quit the shallows for deeper waters

What determines what we remember and what we forget? The key to memory is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the shaper the memory. "For a memory to persist," writes [Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel], "the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory." If we're unable to attend to information in our working memory, the information lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge - a few seconds at best. Then it's gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind.
Revisionists such as Universal Music's Max Hole advocate reducing attentiveness at concerts. New delivery channels such as smart phones and iPods encourage the shallow processing of incoming information. Classic FM-style radio eliminates repetition and renders mental concentration redundant. Cartoon websites dispense with intellectual engagment. In classical music 2.0 the listening experience "lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge - a few seconds at best... then it's gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind". Which is why classical music is both failing to engage new listeners and hemorrhaging its loyal core audience.

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, which analyses how the internet is changing the way our brains work, provides the quote. Do not underestimate the importance of this strand: my recent post about how audiences become what they listen to, which was also sparked by Nicholas Carr's book, generated more social media reaction than any other post in On An Overgrown Path's nine year history. In today's quote the key words are "the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed". One of the biggest obstacles in the fight against the classical music revisionists has been the emotive pejorative "dumbing-down" with its connotations of elitism. Now Nicholas Carr has shown a way round that obstacle by talking about 'deep' as opposed' to 'shallow' cerebral experiences, a differentiation that has its origins in the recognised phenomena of 'deep reading'. The Shallows should be required reading for everyone involved in classical music, particularly those who worship with the revisionists. And, unlike the doctrine of Max Hole, BBC Radio 3's Roger Wright and their co-revisionists, it is not pseudo-science: Nicholas Carr's scholarly citations and bibiography run to thirty-one pages.

For years visionaries such as Benjamin Britten have been telling us "Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts". Yet nobody believed them.

For years visionaries such as John Cage have been telling us "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all". Yet nobody believed them.

For years lesser mortals, including this writer, have been telling of how classical music is being seduced by the fallacy that art can be repurposed as entertainment. Yet nobody believed us.

Now a Nobel laureate and other acknowledged experts are telling us that, to engage new listeners and retain the existing core audience, classical music must quit the dangerous shallows for deeper waters. Can there be any more compelling evidence that the revisionists are completely wrong?

Header image shows Gary Verkade's John Cage: The Works for Organ. Thrillingly recorded on the Grönlubnds Orgelbyggeri in Sweden, this double CD delivers two hours of extreme neuroplasticity. Nicholas Carr's The Shadows was borrowed from Norwich library and 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).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Will Pablo Casals be trending this autumn?

My recent travels took me to the haunting From Prades to Perpignan: Pau Casals and the world of the exile exhibition at the Palais des Congrès, Perpignan which featured the work of the photo-jounalist Jean Ribière. Despite the poster the exhibition did not cover familiar ground, but instead focused on the difficult but overlooked period from 1944 to 1956 during which the Perpignan region in French Catalonia sheltered thousands of Spanish Republican refugees at the same time as the international community was recognising Franco's despised fascist regime. Jean Ribière's images are a graphic reminder that the agony does not cease when war ends. The agony did not cease in France in 1945, just as it has not yet ceased in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do not do as you have always done...

October 22, 2013 is the fortieth anniversary of Pablo Casals' death, and it is interesting to speculate on how, if at all, the anniversary will be marked. Despite some noteworthy compositions Casals is remembered as a cellist not a composer, and his legendary cello recordings predate high fidelity and most are out of copyright. So there are no easy pickings from CD or publishing royalties, which means his anniversary is difficult for the classical music industry to - forgive the jargon - monetise. Then, of course, 2013 has a surfeit of music anniversaries, and the very bankable Benjamin Britten centenary falls less than four weeks after the Casals anniversary. Although Britten and Casals died within three years of each other and both made important contributions to the art of the cello, their paths apparently never crossed. There is not a single mention of Britten in Pablo Casals' autobiographical Joys and Sorrows or Robert Baldock's biography of the cellist, and Humphrey Carpenter's definitive biography of Britten reciprocates with no mention of Casals.

Today Britten is hailed as an innovator while Casals is too often dismissed as a reactionary, which is both unfair and wrong. Casals once declared that "All great artists are innovators", and in the 1920s he programmed much contemporary music with his own Orquestra Pau Casals in Barcelona. In addition to Catalan composers such as Juli Garreta, Enrique Granados, Isaac Albéniz, Lluís Millet, Gaspar Cassadó, Enric Morera and Roberto Gerhard the concerts included works by Bartók, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Milhaud, Kodály, Prokofiev, Webern, Honegger, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Although Casals was not a fan of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg was invited to conduct a programme of his own compositions with the Orquestra Pau Casals. Schoenberg went on to create a Cello Concerto from music by the eighteenth-century composer G.M. Monn for Casals, although the cellist did not perform it due to a copyright dispute. Casals was also a vocal champion of Ernest Bloch, a twentieth-century master composer who still has not received the recognition he deserves.

Casals shared Britten's commitment to non-violence, saying 'I think that if all the mothers of the world would tell their sons, "You were not born to kill or to be killed, so do not fight," there would be no war', and his tireless work for Spanish Republican has been chronicled here. Britten's creative response to violence was his masterpiece the War Requiem which was given its first performance in 1962, while two years earlier Casals had conducted the first performance of his peace oratorio El Pessebre. Although the two works could not be more different they share the common aim of deploying, to quote Casals, "the only weapon I have at my command - my music". Whereas the War Requiem demands the highest calibre performers, El Pessebre was written to be performed by competent rather than expert forces, and Casals conducted it around the world as part of his global peace crusade. But classical music is now a fashion industry, which means that, despite its engaging naivety, El Pessebre is forgotten today and not a single biography of its celebrated composer remains in print.

So Pablo Casals is a rank outsider in the classical music anniversary stakes, and despite being world famous for arranging and playing the Catalan folk melody Song of the Birds, it is unlikely that he will be trending on Twitter this autumn. But regular readers will know that I am a self-confessed Casals groupie, and that I also prefer to bet on rank outsiders. So look out for more about Pablo Casals On An Overgrown Path.

* Note on naming convention: In Spanish Casals' forename is Pablo, in Catalan it is Pau. Traditionally he was known as Pablo, but the recent rehabilitation of the Catalan language means Pau is now frequently used, as in the Perpignan exhibition poster. For the sake of consistency I have used Pablo, for which I apologise to my Catalan readers.

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Research proves audiences become what they listen to

During yesterday's Aldeburgh Festival performance of Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet by the Arditti Quartet truly extraordinary things happened. Jonathan Harvey's music is rich in influences, among them Hinduism and its reformed cousin Buddhism. Yesterday his Fourth Quartet transformed Aldeburgh Church into what in those Eastern traditions is known as a tirth, a transcedental location where one can "cross over", and that transformation triggered in me one of those rare experiences of being transported by music to another and better world. That elusive experience of momentarily "crossing over" is, for me, the raison d'être of music, and unlocking the secret of how it is achieved also unlocks the secret of how classical music can reach new audiences. So today's post explores the path which took me briefly to that different and better world, and it is a path that has led me to the conclusion that we become what we listen to.

When I first wrote about Jonathan Harvey's String Quartets in 2009 I said "I am not ashamed to admit that some of his music comes from a point that I haven't yet reached". Since then I have been exploring how we can extend our mental reach, and that has led to recent research into neuroplasticity. This is the brain's newly-discovered ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, and the discovery of neuroplasticity indicates that classical music is wrong in the way it is trying to reach new audiences. Until recently it was thought that the adult brain is an unchanging and unchangeable organ, and that human behaviour and responses are hardwired genetically into it in the same way that computer operations are etched into a microchip. But recent medical research has shown that the adult brain is, to quote the pioneering researcher Michael Merzenich, "massively plastic". Our brain cells are continually breaking old connections and making new ones, with the result that new nerve cells are always being created. As the leading professor of neuroscience James Olds explains, "the brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions". One celebrated study by Edward Taub showed that playing the violin resulted in significant physical changes in the sensory cortex of the brain. Another study of London taxi drivers showed that purely mental activity can also rewire the brain, while studies at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin have shown that meditation beneficially increases cortical thickness. As the influential technology commentator Nichola Carr explains, "we become, neurologically, what we think".

If medical research proves that meditation can rewire the brain, it is not unreasonable to hypothesise that repeated exposure to music that "comes from a point that I haven't yet reached" can trigger the same changes. If my hypothesis is true, and I genuinely believe it is, there are profound implications for classical music: because, neurologically, we become what we listen to.

It is beyond doubt that classical music must develop its own form of plasticity in order to adapt to wide-ranging cultural and technical changes. But the favoured method of adaptation is based on the outmoded theory that, because listeners are unchanging and unchangeable, audiences should only listen to what they have become conditioned to. This theory has found expression in the dumbing-down approach, and this has led classical music down several fashionable cul-de-sacs, most notably those of reinventing art as entertainment and proscribing any music that is remotely challenging. This approach is doubly dangerous, because not only does it ignore the ability of listener's to adapt to the unfamiliar, but it also ignores recent research that has identified a reverse form of neuroplasticity which results in ossification. This suggests that if you keep feeding audiences single movements of symphonies à la BBC Radio 3 breakfast programmes, they will eventually only be able to digest single movements of symphonies.

By contrast research into neuroplasticity supports the dumbing-up approach. Because audiences become what they listen to, they will become progressively more receptive to challenging repertoire if exposed to it in the right circumstances. Dumbing-up means offering audiences a varied repertoire that mixes the accessible with a changing and challenging diet of the unfamiliar. The problem is, however, one of time scale. Dumbing-down is a short-term solution which panders to today's demand for instant gratification. But dumbing-up is a long-term solution that requires courage and long-term commitment from orchestras, broadcasters and record companies, and such courage and commitment is very rare today. However the clinching argument is that, as has been explained here before, there is no empirical evidence that the short-term dumbing-down solution of giving the audience what they have become conditioned to actually works.

This post started with my experiences at a recent concert. To conclude I want to look back to one of my earliest experiences in the concert hall, which was being taken by my far-sighted parents to a concert in an enterprising London Philharmonic Orchestra 'classics for industry' series in the early 1960s. The venue was the Royal Albert Hall, the conductor was a young Bernard Haitink, and the programme juxtaposed Beethoven's popular Emperor Concerto with Berg's forbidding Three Pieces for Orchestra op 6. At some point in those twenty-one minutes of Berg some old connections in my brain broke and new nerve cells began forming. Those neurological changes started me on the long and infinitely rewarding path from classical neophyte listening in puzzlement to Berg, to classical adept relishing Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet. If you are one of the many readers who has benefited from the musical discoveries I have shared On An Overgrown Path, you are also a beneficiary of neuroplasticity. If it worked for you and me, surely it can work for today's new audiences?

* More on how audiences become what they listen to here.

** My 2010 radio interview with Jonathan Harvey, which includes his memories of Benjamin Britten, can be heard here.

*** Footer image shows the highly recommended Arditti Quartet's recording of Jonathan Harvey's Quartets and String Trio.

**** Sources include The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr and The Autobiography of a Sahu by Rampuri.

Our Aldeburgh Festival tickets were bought at the box office. Header image credit Wikipedia. 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, June 15, 2013

Black conductor appointed at leading orchestra

Wayne Marshall - seen above - has been appointed chief conductor of the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne for an initial two year period. Organist as well as conductor, Wayne Marshall's impressive CV includes Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the 1998 BBC Proms. He is one of just two black conductors to have appeared in 119 years at the Proms, the other is Bobby McFerrin who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in 2003. The BBC spin machine generated a lot of coverage out of Marin Alsop breaking the gender barrier at the Last Night of the Proms, but the racial barrier still has to be broken. Wayne Marshall's appointment in Cologne is a very welcome step in the right direction.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Image credit Last FM. 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).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Classical music may not be not elitist but its prices are

Eyebrows were raised at £50 for sitting on the shingle to hear an amplified Grimes on the Beach at this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Now eyebrows are being raised even further at £60 per person for the fixed price menu in the pop-up beach restaurant which is open only for the three Grimes performances next week. But don't sweat, because for the financially challenged "Aldeburgh Music has teamed up with award winning Lawson's Delicatessen in Aldeburgh High Street to provide delicious picnic hampers" for the Grimes performances. These hampers are a bargain at £26 per person and that price even includes a bottle of still mineral water. Sycophantic journalists and Aldeburgh's banker clientele are not fazed by these prices because they do not pay their own way. But if you are not on the gravy train, dinner for two at the pop-up restaurant, two hemorrhoid-inducing places on the pebbles to hear Grimes, plus a pair of irresistible Britten centenary cuff-links to remember your evening by, will set you back a cool £239.99. Which is £90 more than Amazon's pre-release price for Decca's even more irresistible sixty-six CD Britten: The Complete Works limited edition box. Now that's food for thought.

Inset in my photo montage is the famous Aldeburgh Fish and Chip Shop which is frequented by more impecunious festival goers. 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.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Musicians honoured in new museum of exile

Exile is a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path, in particular the fate of the Spanish Republican refugees who crossed into France in 1939 and were held at internment camps at Rivesaltes and Argelès-sur-Mer, and I also recently retraced the journey of refugee Alma Mahler across Catalonia to freedom in World War II. Now a powerful new museum has opened in the Spanish Catalonian border town of La Jonquera commemorating exile in the twentieth-century, with a particular focus on the 1939 La Retirada of Republican refugees. I recently visited the Museu Memorial de l'Exili in La Jonquera and took the accompanying photos. There have been many posts here about exiled musicians including Pau Casals and Robert Gerhard, both of who fled from Franco's Spain, and it is good to see that both musicians are remembered in the new museum. La Jonquera's Museum of Exile is a compelling example of how art can enhance collective memory. Art is so much better than words at expressing the tragedy of exile, so I leave you with the images.

* Refugee Week from 17-23 June, 2013 is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events and activities that celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK and promotes better understanding of why people seek sanctuary. There is a listing of events here. In Norwich a symbolic refugee camp is being constructed outside The Forum in the city centre on 14-15 June, with different tents representing the facilities provided in a real refugee camp. Inside the tents visitors can meet people who work with refugees or who are refugees themselves; more details here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. My trip to La Jonquera was self-funded.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Britten, pacifism and mistaken identity

Being mistaken for Alex Ross is OK. Being mistaken for Norman Lebrecht would be AWFUL.

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What would you do if your homeland was invaded?

I believe in letting an invader in and then setting a good example.
That is the reply Benjamin Britten gave to a tribunal for the registration of conscientious objectors in 1942 when asked "What would you do if Britain was invaded?" I was reminded of it when researching my recent article on Marco Pallis, who was an authority on both Tibetan Buddhism and early music, and, together with Britten, a champion of Purcell. In his best-selling book Peaks and Lamas, which was written in 1939, Pallis tells this story about the Sakyas, the ethnic group of which Gautama Buddha was a member which inhabited the foothills of the Himalayas.
News was brought to them of an impending attack by a hostile tribe and it was debated anxiously whether resistance should be offered or not. Eventually they decided that, as followers of [Buddhist] Doctrine, they were debarred from offering armed resistance, but must welcome the invaders as friends, so they threw down their arms... The Tibetans, however, not being sentimentalists, admit that the story of the Sakyas ends as it might very well end in any similar case - every convinced pacifist must face the possibility: the enemy arrived and the Sakyas were massacred to a man, the gutters of their streets ran with blood, and their race was blotted out from mankind.
However Pallis, as a committed Buddhist and pacifist, then justifies the non-violence of the Sakyas:
Some people may argue that the sacrifice of the Sakyas was in vain; but, viewed in relation to the law of Cause and Effect, the chain of consequences derived from their brave refusal to compromise, even if all memory of the deed should fail, would add itself to the general store of merit on the cosmic plane, the Karman of the Universe as a whole; and in the second place, as a recorded historical event, the slaughter of the Sakyas, might, by force of example, affect many individual Karmans. To the Sakyas themselves there accrued no obvious profit; that is as it should be. Also we must remember that their own personalities were dissoluble; it was idle for them to trouble their heads with hopes of rewards, or regrets. The fruit of the Sakyas' sacrifice was nothing less than the Enlightenment and ultimate Liberation of all creatures.
In his centenary year Britten is being venerated as a man as well as a musician, with, in particular, his role as a pacifist being put under the spotlight. If the Nazis had invaded Britain and others had followed Britten's lead, our dark satanic mills would have been joined by extermination camps. Readers will know I am a great admirer of Britten's music and that I respect his pacifist beliefs which he expressed in masterpieces such as his War Requiem - beliefs which, incidentally, were based on Quaker rather than Buddhist teachings - and I also have a high regard for Marco Pallis' scholarship. But I cannot accept that letting the Nazi invader into Britain and setting a good example would have contributed to the Enlightenment and ultimate Liberation of all creatures.

Britten witnessed the full extent of the Nazi horrors when he visited Belsen with Yehudi Menuhin in July 1945. In fairness, the extent of those horrors, or details of how the Vichy regime in Occupied France had "set a good example" by shipping Jews and other "undesirables" to the death camps, was not known when Britten appeared before the tribunal for conscientious objectors in 1942, or when Marco Pallis wrote Peaks and Llamas in 1939 (although the book was extensively revised in 1949). But warnings had been sounded about the potential genocide of the Jews as early as 1935. Significantly, one of the first warning voices was that of Varian Fry, who later masterminded Alma Mahler's escape from Vichy France. Fry had interviewed Harvard educated Ernst Hanfstaengl - who later became Hitler's court composer - for the New York Times in 1935, and reported how he had been told by Hanfstaengl that "that the 'radicals' among the Nazi Party leaders intended to 'solve the Jewish problem' by the physical extermination of the Jews". There were not many voices raised against the Nazis at this time, but Fry was strident in his early denouncements of the Hitler regime which included advocating a U.S. boycott of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Rosamund Strode, who worked closely with Britten in his final years, expressed the view that "he was a non-political animal, like a lot of artists". But, despite this, it is likely that Britten knew of Varian Fry's prescient warnings about Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews. The composer lived in North America from 1939 to 1942, and Fry was based in New York until he moved to Marseille in August 1940 to establish his escape network. Although there is no evidence that Britten met Fry, the two moved in the same circles in New York. Fry was a close friend of New York Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein - they had been joint founders of an influential literary magazine while at Harvard - and W.H. Auden had introduced Britten to Kirstein. In 1941 Britten created his Matinées Musicales from the Rossini originals for the New York City Ballet, and dedicated the work to Kirstein who went on choreograph the Frank Bridge Variations and Les Illuminations. Britten's biographer Humphrey Carpenter tells of how at the time of the Munich Crisis in 1938 Britten was experiencing "jitters...over the International Situation", so it seems improbable that he could have been isolated from concerns about Nazi extermination plans circulating in New York's artistic community a few years later.

This year we are celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth, and composer anniversaries should be times of reassessment as well as celebration. So, based on both research and reflection, my personal position has changed, and I now believe that Britten was brave but wrong in his uncompromising advocacy of non-violence, an advocacy which continued after the horrors of Belsen and elsewhere were revealed. And I hope that this anniversary year will provide others with an opportunity for, most importantly, a celebration of his peerless music, but also an opportunity for an open-minded reassessment of his pacifism.

Sources include:
* Benjamin Britten: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
* Peaks and Lamas by Marco Pallis
* A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Header photo montage is my work. Any copyrighted material 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).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

We just try to charge a fair price and we pay our tax!

My photo shows the priceless Jordi Savall in the equally priceless classical specialist retailer Prelude Records in Norwich after his impromptu performance and signing session in 2008. Below is a recent exchange of emails between Prelude Records and me.

Prelude Records10/06/2013
To: 'Bob Shingleton'

Dear Bob Just to let you know that we have just received stock of “Balkan Spirit” (Jordi Savall et al), which you ordered in advance. The price is £12.99. We look forward to seeing you in due course.

Regards Andrew at Prelude Records


To: Prelude Records

Hey, that's cheaper than Amazon's pre-release offer price! See you soon,



Prelude Records10/06/2013
To: 'Bob Shingleton'

Dear Bob

We just try to charge a fair price; and we pay our tax!

Regards Andrew at Prelude Records

I have no commercial links with Prelude Records, but do have a passionate wish that they survive the predatory attacks of Amazon and other online retailers. Ditto for Alia Vox. Photo (c) On An Overgrown Path. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, June 10, 2013

She sang for those about to be executed

My header photo shows the studio of the French Catalan artist Aristide Maillol outside Banyuls sur Mer in France. Maillol (1861-1944) and Rodin were the two most influential figures in twentieth-century French sculpture, and the studio at Banyuls is now a small museum which compliments the much larger collection of his work in Paris. The artist had a penchant for large-thighed ladies, and his last model and muse Dina Vierny was almost sixty years his junior. Malliol is buried in the grounds of the museum beneath his best known sculpture La Méditerranée, see footer photo.

The Mussée Maillol is tucked into a valley in the foothills of the Albères, the range that forms the border between France and Spain. A track that links the two countries by crossing the 360m high Col de Banyuls passes close to the museum. This path has been used since Roman times, and more recently was an escape route known as le chemin de la liberté. First it was followed by Spanish Republican refugees fleeing from Franco's fascist forces in 1939. Then the tragic human tide was reversed and it was the route to safety for Frenchmen fleeing another little-known blot on France's humanitarian record Service du travail obligatoire (STO), the Vichy government's forced enlistment and deportation of hundreds of thousands of French workers to Nazi Germany to work as slave labour for the German war effort from 1942 onwards.

Dina Vierny (1919-2009), who is seen above with the artist, was Aristide Maillol's last muse, model and platonic companion. She was born into a musical and politically radical Jewish family in Moldova. Her father was an Odessa Jew and pianist with anarchist leanings who had been exiled to Siberia, and she described her aunts as “demoiselles nihilistes.” In the 1930s Vierny was a member of the Marxist agitprop political theatre group Octobre under the leadership of radical poet Jacques Prévert, and she also sang in Paris with émigré Russian Roma cabaret singers.

In 1939 Dina Vierny began working for the French resistance in Paris before moving to Banyuls to model for Maillol. In Banyuls she was approached by Varian Fry, the American journalist and humanitarian who has already appeared here path leading Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel to safety across the Albères, to work leading refugees into Spain. This work was doubly dangerous as Vierny was Jewish, but despite this she led many groups to safety before being arrested in 1940 by the Vichy police. Although she had been working for Varian Fry without Maillol's knowledge, the artist funded her defense, and she was acquitted and sent for her own safety by the sculptor to pose for Matisse in Nice. But she was arrested a second time in 1943, this time by the Gestapo in Paris while on her way to lunch with Picasso. While in prison she sang for those awaiting execution; in her memoirs she recounts that one young Communist waiting to be shot asked her to sing one of Edith Piaf's chansons through the cell window - she never saw his face. Vierny was held by the Gestapo for six months, and, again, her release was procured by Maillol, this time by appealing to Hitler's court sculptor Arno Breker (1900-91) - in the photo below Breker is seen with his head of Wagner in 1985.

Aristide Maillol was killed in a car accident near his studio in 1943, and Vierny went on to a successful career as a collector and exhibitor of works by dissident artists, and as a curator and champion of Maillol's art. In 1959 she returned to the USSR and started collecting resistance songs from Stalin's era; these were recorded by her on the album Chants du Goulag in 1975 - listen here. Our chance exploration of the path up the Col de Banyuls uncovered the story of a truly remarkable woman. This brief portrait of Dina Vierny only scratches the surface of her extraordinary life, and, particularly in view of the enduring interest in Alma Mahler, she deserves to be much better known.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Arno Breker photo is via Museum Arno Breker, Berlin. Header and footer photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Five tips on how to survive a music festival

Elsewhere an anonymous journalist reports the truly terrible news that he/she was in a coach party of media folk who were delayed for almost sixty minutes before being allowed into the opening concert of the Fes Sacred Music Festival in Morocco. To help prevent similar incidents in the future I offer the following advice to the traumatised journalist:

In future:
1. Don't travel from your luxury hotel to the concert venue with fellow hacks in an air-conditioned bus complete with minder. Instead walk to the concert with lesser mortals - Fes is the best place in the world to walk for heaven's sake.
2. Even better pay your own way to Morocco and buy your own festival ticket. That way you won't be hassled for being a journalist.
3. Understand that the Western media's love affair with scuttlebut journalism may have contributed to the Fes festival organiser's nervousness about press coverage.
4. Even though you are a self-confessed member of an "extremely grumpy media contingent", still try to communicate to your readers the background to behaviour that may be inconvenient and even unacceptable, but which has some justification.
5. Remember that diversity is not just confined to music: you are visiting Morocco, not Glyndebourne.

The writer of this post does not request anonymity as he is not worried about losing press privileges. He is Bob Shingleton, who has written about both the dark and the inspirational sides of Morocco.

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Saturday, June 08, 2013

One of classical music's great overlooked achievements

Although Rudolf Barshai has made countless recordings - the most important of his current projects is a complete cycle of the fifteen Shostakovich symphonies with the Cologne Radio Orchestra - he always kept aloof from the media circus. Eminently serious, he shuns any form of glitz and glamour, and is not one of the jet-setting conductors that constantly dash round the world performing under-rehearsed programmes. Barshai's name stands for the masterful realisation of the composer's will; a principled advocate of their ideas, he dedicates his legendary ability to rapidly mould an orchestra's sound to his conceptions to one sole purpose: achieving clarity and focus.
That extract comes from a 1999 profile of Rudolf Barshai (1924-2010) by Bernd Feuchtner. The profile appears in the booklet for the cycle of Shostakovich symphonies Barshai recorded with the Cologne Radio Orchestra (now WDR Sinfonieorchester) between 1992 and 2000 which was released by Brilliant Classics in 2002. Conductor and orchestra may be short on glitz and glamour, but Barshai's Shostakovich cycle is, for me, one of classical music's great overlooked achievements. Holistic is a grossly abused word today, but here we have a genuine example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. That is not to say the parts are in any way lacking: Barshai's Shostakovich comes with the composer's blessing, the WDR Sinfonieorchester puts many of its less rehearsed but more glamorous cousins in the shade, and the full-bodied sound from tonmeister Siegfried Spittler, who engineered all fifteen symphonies in the warm acoustic of the Philharmonie Hall, Cologne, is demonstration quality. And the eleven CDs - which are presented in chronological order without splitting any of the symphonies across discs and which come with full programme notes - cost the same as two full-price CDs from more glamorous orchestras and conductors. As a reviewer wrote about another Brilliant Classics box from a low-glitz orchestra and conductor, buy or live in darkness.

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Thursday, June 06, 2013

The primordial sounds of a 5000 year old gospel choir

In his sleeve note for Bill Laswell’s legendary 1991 recording of the Master Musicians of Jajouka William Burroughs exhorts the listener to “Listen to this music, the primordial sounds of a 4000 year old rock 'n roll band... listen with your whole body, let the music penetrate and move you, and you will connect with the oldest music on earth”. Burrough’s references to “a 4000 year old rock ‘n roll band” and “the oldest music on earth” are derived from the suggestion by the eminent Finnish sociologist Edvard Westermarck that the Jajouka musicians' wild music has its roots in ancient Greek Dionysian rituals. There is no doubt that Burrough’s prose is one of the finest examples of the lost art of sleeve notes; but there is one problem – the Jajouka sound is not the oldest music on earth.

The Copts, who are the indigenous Christians of Egypt, believe that they are the direct descendants of the pharaohs. As the first pharaoh King Narmer ruled around the 31st century BCE, this dates the start of the Coptic lineage and its music more than a thousand years before the Dionysian rituals that gave birth to Bou Jeloud and the music of Jajouka. The Coptic lineage is remarkably resilient and St Mark, who founded the Coptic church in 42 CE, was the first of an unbroken succession of one hundred and seventeen Coptic popes and patriarchs. Elements of Coptic culture predate Christianity, and the Coptic language, which today survives only in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, evolved out of Ancient Egyptian and once used the pictorial writing system of hieroglyphics. Coptic theologians have also pointed to parallels between the monotheism of the pharaohs and Christianity, and the Coptic Cross is derived from the hieroglyph ankh symbol.

The inherent conservatism of the Coptic Church means that its music tradition has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries and it is generally accepted that the Coptic Church practices not only the oldest form of Christian music, but also the oldest form of any music in the world. It is also thought that Coptic music predates Christianity and has its origins in the Ancient Egyptian religious ceremonies, with the distinguished Egyptologist Étienne Drioton explaining that “the key to the secret of the music of the Pharaohs can be found in a good, modern-day rendition of Coptic liturgical music.

Fortunately there are several good, modern-day renditions of Coptic liturgical music available. Seen above is the recording of the Coptic Liturgy for Holy Week and Christmas made by the choir of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. This is ear candling music par excellence: the music editor of the Coptic Encyclopedia Marian Robertson Wilson describes how “a non-Copt exposed to these melodies hears unusual nuances of pitch and rhythm organized in ways never before known… it is akin to being immersed in the sounds and logic of a strange and foreign language” and reminds us that “Coptic music - like all language - is basically sound moving through time”.

When the poet Ted Hughes wrote about the sounds far beyond human words that open our deepest and innermost ghost to sudden attention, he could have been writing about the sounds of both the Jajouka masters and the Copts. What makes these ancient music traditions particularly valuable is that not only are they sound moving through time, but they are also perennial wisdom moving through time. In Morocco a chain of transmission links the Jajouka musicians to Ancient Greece, than on to Sufism and, via Rolling Stone Brian Jones, to a music tradition that remains vibrant today. In Egypt a similar chain links the Coptic Church to Ancient Egypt and powerful practices such as Hermeticism and Gnosticism, via the early days of the Christian Church to a liturgy that is still celebrated in Coptic churches around the world. Both are important music traditions, and while the Coptic Liturgy may lack the hashish fuelled exoticism of Jajouka musicians, it is no less rich in possibilities.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Exclusive - the truth behind that Boulez photo

On An Overgrown Path can exclusively reveal that the reason why Pierre Boulez looks discomfited in this new Universal Music PR photo - he is flanked by the bosses of Deutsche Grammophon and Universal's French classical division - is that he has just been told his new contract with Universal Music obliges him to be interviewed by Sinfini Music.

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Now let's hear it for a composer anniversary

Aaken has left a new comment on your post Another day - another classical music anniversary - 'That said, my father, composer Ton-That Tiêt is turning 80 this year and I do wish to see some events, concerts taking place - or even people paying attention to his work, not because he is my father, but because I genuinely think his is great music'.
If other music bloggers can do U-turns so can I. So let's hear it for the anniversary of Ton-That Tiêt, a composer who meets perfectly David Nice's admirable criteria of a lesser-known figures who still doesn't get the treatment he deserves. Here, as a contribution to rectifying that, is an edited reblog of my August 2011 profile of Aaken's father, who is seen above.

Ton-That Tiêt was born in Hué in 1933, and moved to Paris in 1958 to study at the Conservatoire where his teachers included Jean Rivier, André Jolivet and Andrée Vaurabourg; the latter is better known as Mrs Arthur Honegger and among her other pupils was Pierre Boulez. Ton-That Tiêt's journey took him beyond serialism to a unique style that combines Eastern and Western elements. His output includes electro-acoustic compositions among which is a work for for flute and magnetic tape commissioned by IRCAM.

Divination systems have attracted many contemporary composers. Ton-That Tiêt shares with John Cage a fascination with the I Ching. But, unlike Cage, Ton-That Tiêt does not use chance as a composition process, but rather as a philosophical guide. Despite being an agnostic, Ton-That Tiêt's music is influenced by mystical traditions including Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, with the latter inspiring his Les sourires de Bouddha (Smiles of the Buddha) which sets verses by the 8th century Chinese poet Wang Wei for chamber choir.

Both Les sourires de Bouddha and Et la rivière chante l'éternité are available on CD from the enterprising and independent French Editions Hortus label. Les sourires de Bouddha , for which a reviewer's listening notes mention hints of Ligeti, Penderecki, and Stimmung, comes on a 19 minute CD single in an exemplary performance by the Toulouse based chamber choir Les Élements conducted by Joël Suhubiette. Et la rivière chante l'éternité is post-Jolivet in style and comes on a full length CD coupled with two other works by Ton-That Tiêt. The performances are by the Ensemble Les Temps Modernes who champion a number of contemporary composers including Tristan Murail, and the sound captured in the Salle Varèse in Lyon by the Editions Hortus production team is both appropriate and excellent.

* English interview with Ton-That Tiêt here. French resources include Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès' excellent website. Featured CDs can be bought from the English language Editions Hortus online shop. Editions Hortus discs can also be bought from the MusicWeb International website.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Featured discs were provided as requested review samples. 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).