A spoonful of idealism helps the commercialism go down
My recent post What would you do if your homeland was invaded? which questioned Benjamin Britten's pacifist position of "I believe in letting an invader in and then setting a good example" generated a healthy debate. In the main the responses supported Britten's position and my personal ambivalence on the subject was reflected in another post about the Buddhist precept of not taking the life of any living creature. But the difficulty of adopting a consistent position was underlined by my visit last week to the scene of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The obscenity of taking the life of any living creature notwithstanding, it was impossible not to be deeply moved by the ultimate sacrifice made by so many young combatants to protect the personal freedom that we now take for granted.
How to protect freedom threatened by a demonic autocracy while also protecting human life may well be an insoluble koan. But there is no doubt that an important contribution can be made by building trust across the world's divides. This is the principal objective of the global Initiatives of Change organisation, and the celebrated Fitzwilliam String Quartet - who, coincidentally, are leading interpreters of Britten's music - have just released a new CD informed by that laudable objective. The Kickstarter funded Absolutely! - Music for Jazz, Soloists + String Quartet is a collaboration between saxophone and flute virtosos Uwe Steinmetz, jazz violinst Mads Tolling and the Fitzwilliams. Uwe Steinmetz, who studied in Berlin, Bern, Madras and Boston and is a longtime collaborator with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, unfashionably combines his Christain faith and music making to "help people discover a deeper, healing and reconciling truth in an increasingly fragmented society".
Britten connections continue on the new CD with two arrangements by Steinmetz of Purcell Fantasias, while the Initiatives of Change connection is cemented by a dedication in the raga influenced title work to the organisation's Asia Plateau project in Panchgani; this Indian campus was founded by Mahatma Ghandi's grandson Rajmohan and Uwe Steinmetz lived there in 1999. Absolutely! was recorded for the independent Divine Art label in St Martin's Church, East Woodhay by Andrew Halifax and the natural - as opposed to digital - provenance of the reverberation is evident within seconds of auditioning. In my view the final track, an arrangement of Bach's Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in which Uwe Steinmetz's saxophone provides an improvised counterpoint to the violin line, is worth the purchase price of the CD alone.
With its booklet quotations from mystic Gurdjieff and evangelist Frank Buchman this new brave new CD is an easy target for the social media cynics. In fact such cynicism has some foundation as Buchman was founder of Moral Rearmament, the organisation that in 2001 transformed itself into Initiatives of Change, a transformation which is treated sketchily in the organisation's official and revisionist history. Buchman, whose whole doctrine was based on what he termed "absolute moral standards", made a famously unwise reference to Hitler, while the Christian culture of Moral Rearmament movement at times had unfortunate pre-echoes of today's religious right. But it is best to accept that koans are never easy to solve and be glad that Initiatives of Change with its impressive multi-cultural credentials and the energizing music of Absolutely! with its rich meta content add a welcome spoonful of idealism to today's relentless diet of self-interested commercialism.
* The Fitzwilliams recording of John Ramsay's String Quartets featured in Classical music is excited about the wrong things.
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