Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - the year brilliance supplanted wisdom

In virtually all cases, a man in his late twenties, no matter how bright and precocious, has not yet manifested his full wisdom, simply because he cannot have had sufficient life experience to mature his spirit. However, it is arguable that someone under thirty years old, or even under twenty, has the intelligence, sensitivity, and full capacity to see the truth, even if they have not had the time to fully experience it. In addition, a younger mind can - probably better than an older mind - function as a 'medium' for truth, or, Mozart-like, as a vehicle for that vast artistic impuls and capacity that we refer to, with great understatement, as 'talent'. It's common knowledge that Einstein's revelatory realizations were accomplished in his mid-twnties, and that the greatest chess masters usually perform their highest feats during this young decade also. That brilliance is the province of the younger brain is usually not disputed.

However, brilliance is not wisdom. The latter is intelligence seasoned by experience, based in large part on the deepened capacity to recognize and avoid blind alleys, wrong turns, and matters pointless to spend energy on. Wisdom could be defined as the capacity to both understand truth, and to efficiently enable the ways in which it becomes practical and actualized (as opposed to idealistic and ineffectual) - or, to use Gurdjieffian terms, the ways in which knowledge and being become joined.
That passage from The Three Dangerous Magi by PT Mistlberger is my epitaph for 2013, a year in which our losses included 76 year-old James DePreist - whose name, incidentally, is conspicuously absent from year end tributes elsewhere, Wolfgang Sawallisch (89), Sir Colin Davis (85), Henri Dutilleux (97) and John Tavener (69). It was also a year in which a 26 year-old was appointed music director of an orchestra, a 33 year-old mezzo-soprano received a New Year's Honour from the Queen, and a 7 year-old composed an opera. In 2014 may the scales tip back in favour of wisdom.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Is it surprising classical music has problems?

When an embedded journalist recommends a recording I run a mile, because there is invariably a hidden agenda. When John McLaughlin Williams recommends a recording I buy it, because John is probably the least embedded person on this planet. Back in December 2010 I ran a post highlighting John's recommendation of Paul Constantinescu's Byzantine Christmas oratorio The Nativity, which he described as a "beautiful, mystical work". In 2010 I wrote that there was currently no recording in the catalogue, and that remains the case. [Update - see comment below.] But after a couple of years searching I tracked down an affordable new copy of the 1977 Bucharest recording originally made by Electrecord, Romania, which was re-released and subsequently deleted by the Olympia label.

It goes without saying that John McLaughlin Williams is quite right in his assessment of Constantinescu's unknown oratorio. Paul Constantinescu (1909-1963) was a pupil of Franz Schmidt in Vienna and his Byzantine oratorio is most definitely beautiful and mystical. But it is also music that is neither easy nor difficult to listen to, which means it is perfectly capable of winning new audiences. Yesterday I suggested that the classical music industry should kick the composer anniversary habit and, instead, give some of the very good neglected music a chance. Paul Constantinescu's neglected The Nativity is very good music indeed and the admirably spacious 1977 Bucharest recording is more than serviceable. It is deeply frustrating that there have been endless re-issues of Britten, Wagner and Verdi in 2013, while gems such as this Byzantine Christmas oratorio remain unavailable (except from scalpers) and unknown. Nobody else is pleading the case for Paul Constantinescu's music because there is nothing in it for the commercial nexus. Is it surprising classical music has problems?

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Classical music's big opportunity is neglected music

Here is beautiful music - straightforward, deeply felt, expertly made yet far removed from deliberate cleverness, serene, affirmative, even holy. Harrison and Hovhaness complement one another with rare energy, and one suspects that this album will find new admirers for both men.
That is the concluding paragraph from a sleeve note by Tim Page - who knows a thing or two about these things. It was written for the original Music Masters CD seen above of Lou Harrison's Symphony No 2, Elegiac and Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No 2, Mysterious Mountain and Lousadzak, with Keith Jarrett as soloist in the latter work, and Tim Page's note is also used in the praiseworthy Nimbus re-release of the recording. Hovhaness' Mysterious Mountain is the least-neglected of the three works on the disc, but Lou Harrison's Elegiac is the real gem. If Harrison has any profile at all today it is through his gamelan influenced works; but he was also an accomplished symphonist and in a perceptive essay about the Elegiac WGBH's James David Jacobs writes:
The long oboe melody spinning out over the descending line of the Koussevitsky-inspired double basses and the modal intervals of the horns weave all the elements of the symphony together into a tapestry that I will go out on a limb and declare is the most beautiful movement of American symphonic music yet written.
This post started out as a review of the impact of the three big 2013 composer anniversaries as measured by Google Trends. But the graph below of Google internet searches for Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten below simply confirms what has been obvious for a long time, namely that the anniversaries create a substantial short-term blip but no real lasting impact.

So I will not bore everyone by pointing out yet again that composer anniversaries achieve very little. Instead I will build on my recent hypothesis that classical music's big opportunity is its current audience, a hypothesis, incidentally, that received widespread support. So now I am suggesting that just as the existing audience is one big opportunity, so neglected music from composers such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison - to name just two - is another big opportunity. Classical music is making three fundamental mistakes: one is thinking that dumbing-down makes great art more appealing, another is thinking that there is a big new untapped market among young people, and the final mistake is believing that giving prominent composers even more prominence somehow expands the market - did someone mention Richard Strauss? Google Trends shows that classical music is banging at the wrong door with composer anniversaries. So why not give the most beautiful American symphonic movement and a lot of other very good neglected music a chance instead?

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Retail therapy

All photos taken in Avignon, France (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, December 23, 2013

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!" El Pessebre may be derivative with its echoes of Humperdinck and Wagner, but it is also a delightful example of naïve folk art that provides a welcome alternative to the oceans of musical kitsch that are now inseparable from Christmas. The naïve folk art seen in my header image, which transports the miracle of water into wine from Cana to a hilltop village in Provence, adorns the guest refectory in L'Abbaye du Barroux in France. If your Christmas tastes are more ancient than modern then, staying with the Catalunya, triomfant theme, the CD seen below is recommended; it is Navidad Renacentista, a programme of Renaissance Spanish Christmas music performed by Capella de Ministrers directed by Carles Magraner and recorded in the magnificent Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona. On An Overgrown Path will be back insha'Allah after a short seasonal break - a very happy Christmas to all my readers.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Yet another new audience

'Never-ending pan flute. Tinkly river sounds. Enya. Spa music can leave a lot to be desired. If your tastes run more classical than New Age, check out The Dolder Grand’s Violin Touch ($230), a brand new treatment that pairs massage with a live private violin concert. The luxe spa in Zürich, Switzerland (rated one of Europe's top 20 resorts by Condé Nast Traveler readers) is giving zen-seekers a choice of two different musical compositions to accompany their 45-minute rundown: Relax, an Asian-inspired song, and Soul Detox, a peaceful melody. The program was created by musician (and frequent spagoer) Debora Vonwiller, who believes the vibrations from the live music evoke a strong emotional response and deepen relaxation' - from Condé Nast Traveler
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Where has all the mystery gone?

We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery. The value of psychic experience is that it deepens the mystery, not that it dispels it - Huston Smith Tales of Wonder
Christmas should be a celebration of the miracle and mystery of the Nativity. So it is appropriate at this time to remember the recent death of Colin Wilson; a passing that was shamefully but predictably ignored by the mainstream media. His most celebrated book was The Outsider, but his exploration of the mysterious in The Occult will always be special for me. Far from being an apologia for black magic, The Occult has a remarkable contemporary relevance.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

New music from the point of tangency

'I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where the edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international boundaries. Often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one' - from Anne Fadiman The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
For music the action most worth watching is also found where the (ragged?) edges meet - on the shorelines where traditions mix, in the weather fronts where styles collide, and at the international boundaries where cultures fuse. Not at the dead - in more ways than one - centre where risk and tension are bleached out in the name of accessibility. At the point of tangency you can see things better, as in the new CD of choral music by the Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos. Born in Barcelona in 1973, Vivancos trained at the world famous Escolania de Montserrat which is one of the oldest choral schools in the world. His studies then took a dramatically different direction at the Paris Conservatoire where his teachers included the avant-gardistes Guy Reibel and Alain Louvier. Oslo was Vivancos' next port of call where he worked with Lasse Thorensen, whose influences range from spectralism, through Harry Partch’s 'just intonation' tonal system to musique concrete and the sonology schhol of electroacoustic music. When I explain that Bernat Vivancos then returned to Catalonia, where he combines the post of professor of composition and orchestration at Escolia Superior de Música de Catalunya (Catalonia's Higher School of Music) with that of music director of Escolia de Montserrat (Montserrat Boys Choir) - the house band for one of the world's great Catholic shrines - you will start to understand what I mean by new music from the point of tangency.

Bernat Vivancos' Blanc - Choral Works is performed by the Latvian Radio Choir, who have a pretty good nose for outstanding new music. With a running time of 86 minutes it comes on two CDs priced at marginally more than a single full priced disc, and offers bonus lossless downloads. It is released on the enterprising and praiseworthy Spanish label Neu Records, which also brought us the CD of music by Ramon Humet that featured in my recent post Britten looking forward.

Just as the Southbank Centre's Rest is Noise festival laid to rest the silly convention that new audiences must be young, so Bernat Vivancos' music lays to rest the silly convention that new music must be a difficult listen. Many paths reverberate in Bernat Vivancos' music, most notably the inseparability of the musical and transcendent. Among the sacred works on the disc is a setting of the hymn of praise to the Black Madonna of Montserrat Nigra Sum (I am black) from the Song of Songs (1:5). This text was also set by Pau Casals for Escolia de Montserrat and recorded in 1987 by the Escolia choir directed by Bernat Vivancos' teacher Father Ireneu Segarra; did the 14 year old Vivancos sing on that recording? Another path leads from Vivancos' contemporary setting of the traditional Catalan folk tune El cant dels ocells (Song of the birds) to the lineage that leads from Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras back to Pau Casals and the very roots of Catalan culture; yet more evidence of Catalunya, triomfant.. But this is also new music from where edges meet which embraces spectralism, polychorality, modal harmonies and musical calligrams, and explores spatial effects in Messe aux sons des cloches with five strategically placed sets of tubular bells and tam-tams.

This new release should meet both Sequenza 21's craving for the recherché and BBC Radio 3's appetite for the non-threatening, and there is even a seasonal link provided by the exquisite A Child is Born - listen here and more samples here. I don't nominate CDs of the year anymore, for the simple reason I believe that any musician who can bring a new release to market through the crocodile infested swamp that is today's classical music industry deserves an accolade. But if I did select CDs of the the year Bernat Vivancos' Blanc - Choral Works would be up for a prize, as would Neu Records in the label of the year category.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Just when you thought the Wagner anniversary was over

Rather more appealing than Britten cuff links are these Wagner inspired artworks by Norfolk sculptress Vanessa Pooley. For those struggling with the symbolism, that's Siegfried and Brunhilde above and a solo Brunnhilde below. More details here and a Wagner sculpture blog here.

Salvador Dali did not design a Britten iPhone cover, but he did create a Wagner fountain.

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We wouldn't sell that my luv - he's dead you know

Research for yesterday's post revealed that Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood once worked as a sales assistant in the Our Price record store in Oxford. Back in the late 1970s I went into Our Price in Staines and asked if they had the new LP of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, only to be told "We wouldn't sell that my luv - he's dead you know". Fortunately I found the copy seen above elsewhere. The typographical view of Bernstein's LP appears here because, ten years later and after a protracted selection process, I was verbally offered the post of buying director of Our Price which was part of the WH Smith empire. When considerable time had passed without the offer being confirmed I asked what the delay was; to be told the personnel director was waiting for the results of an analysis of my handwriting from a graphologist in New York. Eventually the offer was confirmed, but I turned it down for other reasons. Even if I hadn't, I certainly wouldn't have been able to stop Our Price going to the wall together with every other high street record chain. But at least they would have gone to the wall with a decent stock of Stravinsky. In another company which I did work for the managing director, who was a shrewd businessman, was a firm believer in graphology and recounted how handwriting analysis correctly identified that a job candidate had had a testicle surgically removed. Elgar, Purcell and Mendelssohn to my knowledge did not suffer such unpleasant surgery. But they are among the composers whose handwriting has been analysed by graphologist Ruth Rostron - links here and here. Analysing the handwriting of composers makes sense because music is calligraphy using sounds.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Classical music's new younger audience is grey-haired

In October came the good news that 76% of ticket buyers for the Rest is Noise festival had not previously booked a contemporary classical music event at London's Southbank Centre. One of the highlights of the final month of the ground breaking festival was a discussion about the future of new music between Alex Ross, whose visionary book inspired the festival, and Colin Greenwood, the celebrated bassist of Radiohead - that is the two of them in the photo. As the Rest is Noise festival is, quite rightly, being cited as a case study in how to attract new audiences it is worth pointing out that Alex was born in 1968 and Colin Greenwood in 1969. This makes them 45 and 44 respectively, which compares with a median age of 48 for that archetype of the affluent senior citizen, the cruise ship passenger. Which is not a problem at all as it simply confirms what has been glaringly obvious for a long time: that classical music's audience is skewed towards older age groups who, like cruise vacationers, are typically higher income and college educated - Harvard for Alex Ross and Peterhouse College, Cambridge for Colin Greenwood.

But, despite the glaringly obvious, classical music remains fixated on targeting a young rock oriented and non-elitist (Cambridge?) audience. This erroneous strategy is based on two misconceptions. The first is the Max Hole dogma; this says that because the rock music market is twenty times larger than that for classical, if classical reinvents itself as a sub-category of rock its audience will suddenly become twenty times bigger; coincidentally much to the benefit of Universal Music. The second misconception is more distasteful, namely that young audiences are cool and older ones can be written off because, to quote an Independent columnist, "...they'll all be dead soon". If we look beyond this pernicious nonsense, there are very sound reasons for classical music to target the grey haired market. The main one is, again, glaringly obvious: demographic and economic data shows that older age groups are the growth markets of the future, as illustrated by the graphic below which is based on UK government actuarial data.

However, the misconception of a homogeneous and lucrative young market must not be replaced by the similar misconception of a homogeneous and lucrative grey-haired market. Classical music needs vibrant new young listeners as much as it needs sagacious new older listeners. Because, as has been explained here many times, the music audience is not homogeneous, but is an agglomeration of millions of individuals of widely varying age and tastes. But the centre of gravity for the classical music audience is, always has been, and will continue to be over 40. And that 40+ group is where demographics and economics tell us that the future opportunity lies. So why do industry experts refuse to accept this and, instead, continue to pursue at some considerable cost a younger market that is, at the worst non-existent, and, at the best, declining?

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

À Jordi, pour l'âme de Montserrat

Moroccan oud virtuoso Driss El Maloumi's latest album Makan is dedicated 'À Jordi, pour l'âme de Montserrat' [To Jordi, for our soul mate Montserrat]. The new album is a delightful example of Maghreb-lite and was in heavy iPod rotation during my recent travels. Stand out track is a new interpretation of the traditional Berber lullaby (Berceuse Amazigh) that was recorded so movingly by the desperately missed Montserrat Figueras with Jordi Savall and Driss El Maloumi on her 2002 CD Ninna Nanna - an album that, incidentally, also contains two little known Arvo Pärt premieres. Driss El Maloumi was born in Agadir in southern Morocco, which is where the Berceuse Amazigh originates from. As my 2012 Agadir inspired post askedif Fair Trade works elsewhere, why not in music?

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Classical music's big opportunity is its current audience

Let's look at alternative strategies for a moment. For instance, classical music could finesses its current audience instead of chasing the mythical monolithic / young / hip / rock loving / vibrant / technically literate / affluent 'new' audience . If every current audience member attending ten concerts in a year (that's less than one a month) was persuaded to come to one more concert, the classical music audience would increase by 10%. Similarly if every classical music buyer purchasing 10 CDs (or downloads) a year bought another CD, the market would grow by 10%. And, at the risk of repeating myself, if every classical radio station listener increased their listening from 10 to 11 hours a week, the classical radio audience would be 10% bigger. Admittedly this strategy is not as sexy as turning classical music into rock by another name, but 10% growth is a lot better than classical music's big new ideas are currently achieving.

A statistically insignificant sample of one proves that the 10% strategy will work. As my credit card bill (and wife) will attest, my CD purchases in 2013 were up more than 10% over the previous year. But looking back over my acquisitions, a substantial number of these were of composers new to me. One discovery I particularly want to share is Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777), who music historian Charles Burney ranked alongside Handel, Scarlatti and Bach. Given that judgement Wagenseil's absence both from the concert hall and record catalogue is puzzling. But I heartily recommend the two CPO recordings of his sparkling symphonies - see above - and, of particular interest, his Quartets for Low Strings (three cellos and double-bass) and Organ Concertos.

Classical music's big opportunity is its current audience. That audience can be grown by bold, imaginative and, above all, intelligent programming - more Wagenseil, Malcolm Arnold and Ramon Humet please - in the concert hall, on CD and on the radio. But for this strategy to work loyal concert goers will need to be cherished, instead of being treated with the contempt that is currently fashionable. The 10% strategy may not be the glamorous quick fix that bonus driven music industry executives desperately want. But at least it is realistic.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Forget Dudamel - this man is classical music's future

Musicians at the sharp end of classical music report to executive staff who are in turn accountable to management bodies variously termed boards, councils etc. These management boards control the future of classical music, yet they come under very little scrutiny. My research for yesterday's post about Aldeburgh Music uncovered just how incestuous classical music's controlling bodies are. The chairman of Aldeburgh Music council Simon Robey, who is seen above, is also chairman of the Royal Opera House and a member of many of its committees including finance and audit, while Aldeburgh Music president Lord Dennis Stevenson of Coddenham is also a director of Glyndebourne productions and Laura Wade-Gery sits on the Aldeburgh Music council and the Royal Opera House board of trustees. Of course co-productions between geographically distant companies are a fact of life in opera. But the Royal Opera House is just 109 miles from Aldeburgh and 62 miles from Glyndebourne, and there is a considerable overlap in their audiences.

Co-operation is a fact of life in the arts, but so is creative tension. Are there really so few people qualified to sit on arts management boards in London and the Home Counties that the same names have to keep appearing? Which then raises the questions of what are the qualifications of these board members? I am sure they know a lot about classical music, but so do many other very talented people who are not on management boards. The council members I have highlighted all have high profile business careers. (I was going to write 'successful careers' but then I read the view of the Banking Standards Commission on Lord Dennis Stevenson's chairmanship of HBOS.) But is there any evidence that achieving high rank in investment banking - Simon Robey - or Tescos and Marks and Spencer - Laura Wade-Gery - or high street banking - Lord Dennis Stevenson - qualifies you to sit on the board of an arts organisation? Simon Robey has been described as "the Square Mile’s own trillion-dollar man" and I cannot dispute that these people are well connected and move in circles where money flows very freely indeed. But that is a two-edged sword, and how much of the damaging fee inflation among celebrity musicians is fuelled by these masters of the financial universe?

The picture is repeated globally, with, for example, the board of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra chaired by a vice president of the Wells Fargo Bank . Classical music is very clever at allocating selective blame, with funding cuts - both public and private sector - and audiences - particularly those over 40 - taking the lion's share of the blame for the current problems. But it is now time to start questioning whether these management boards - whose members are, incidentally, almost exclusively wealthy and over 40 - are the best people to be controlling the future of classical music.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Who can turn Aldeburgh skies back and begin again?

Swamped by the final echoes of the Britten centenary celebrations was the news that the chief executive of Aldeburgh Music for the past sixteen years Jonathan Reekie is leaving in March. Over the years On An Overgrown Path has enthused about many of the projects that Jonathan has headed, and the photo above was taken when I interviewed him for a 2007 post.

Although Jonathan's highest profile project was this year's Britten centenary culminating in Grimes on the Beach - "a triumph against the odds" - his most lasting legacy will be the new performance spaces at Snape which he masterminded. These new spaces, with the Britten Studio as the jewel in the crown, exhibit an acoustic excellence and environmental sensitivity which Benjamin Britten would most definitely have approved of. New music has been passionately promoted by Jonathan, with the highlights including the Faster than Sound presentations at RAF Bentwater and in the Britten Studio, Chris Watson's experiments with liquid space, and Exaudi performing John Cage's Song Books. Snape residencies curated by him have also been extraordinarily productive as has Aldeburgh Music's work with young musicians, with the much-missed Sir Colin Davis' performance of Elgar's First Symphony featuring players drawn from the Guildhall School of Music and Royal Academy of Music providing not just a highlight of Jonathan's tenure but also, for this hardened blogger, one of the great musical experiences of decades of concert going. His projects have also embraced non-classical music, and the summer workshop by the Tashi Lhunpo Buddhist monks was, for some of us, literally life changing.

But there cannot be risk taking without disappointments. The appointment of the immensely talented and very bankable but Britten-lite Pierre-Laurent Aimard as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival in the run-up to the Britten centenary raised many eyebrows, and some of those eyebrows remain raised. A dalliance with the über-cool TEDx movement left this blogger at least feeling distinctly chilly, while the launch of Britten centenary cufflinks and iPhone covers seems strangely at odds with Aldeburgh Music's positioning as "a place of energy and inspiration for music and the arts".

As well as being committed to a fearless creative agenda Jonathan, who received a CBE for services to music this year, is also a wily politician. He slipped perfectly into the role pioneered by Benjamin Britten himself of projecting Aldeburgh as an unorthodox alternative to the music establishment, while actually running it as integral part of the ultra-orthodox music establishment. Classical music, whether in a metropolis or on the Suffolk marshes, is big business, and big businesses need big money from the establishment. One third of Aldeburgh's £7m annual budget comes from the Arts Council and one third comes from external fundraising. As in any major arts organisation the chief executive at Aldeburgh answers to a controlling council and, despite Snape's bucolic and alternative image, this council is very much money and establishment oriented.

President of Aldeburgh Music is Lord Stevenson of Coddenham; his chairmanship of failed bank HBOS attracted much criticism and he currently lists consultancy to Universal Music in his parliamentary declaration of interests and is a director of Glyndebourne Productions. Council chairman is financial 'rainmaker' Simon Robey who at Morgan Stanley earned a reported bonus of up to £10m; as well as continuing with his rainmaking Robey now holds the key posts at the Royal Opera House of chairman of the trustees and member of the finance and audit committee. Another Aldeburgh Music council member David Robbie is a former non-executive director of the BBC, while also on the council is Laura Wade-Gery, whose CV includes time at supermarket giant Tesco and who now combines her day job of executive director e-commerce at Marks & Spencer with a directorship at the Royal Opera House - is this starting to sound repetitive? I guess with that M & S connection we should just be thankful that the Britten centenary merchandise, which includes a designer shopping bag, does not extend to underwear.

I wish Jonathan Reekie the very best of luck in his new role as director of Somerset House Trust. He leaves a truly impressive legacy at Aldeburgh Music that will outlast memories of the valuable but transitory Britten centenary celebrations, and his successor will have a very difficult job matching, yet alone surpassing, his many achievements. That new chief executive will also have his hands full as helmsman of Aldeburgh Music steering a straight course that avoids the many well-established and dangerous sandbanks lurking off Britten's beloved Suffolk coast. Because with the centenary celebrations so effectively done and dusted, it is time for Aldeburgh to redress the balance between ultra-orthodox establishment and unorthodox alternative. Or, in the words of Peter Grimes at the end of Act One:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief,
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher,
In storm or starlight,
The written character
of a friendly fate –--
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope' s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?
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Monday, December 09, 2013

Muse behind Britten's Ceremony of Carols is revealed

Still trying to talk prestigious composers - "they needed to be important so the works would get attention" - into writing for the harp [Edna] Phillips next targeted Benjamin Britten. He agreed to meet her in New York, where she spent a pleasant afternoon playing for him and discussing the technical requirements of the harp, but when she asked him to write a work for her, he declined. At the time, he was preparing to return to England to stand with his countrymen against the German bombardment. He was too distracted to think of accepting a commission, he told her.

She lost the chance, but she always wondered whether she had prompted Britten to think about the harp. "He composed the Ceremony of Carols on the ship taking him back to England and used the harp in such an original and wonderful way in it," she said. "It really doesn't matter that he didn't accept our commission. That is a great work for the harp."
That new perspective on the genesis of the Ceremony of Carols appears in One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra by Mary Sue Welsh, and as the meeting between Benjamin Britten and Edna Phillips - who is seen above - is not reported in Humphrey Carpenter's definitive biography of the composer I am highlighting it here.

Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who became principal flautist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1952, is usually credited as being the first woman principal in a major American orchestra, but, in fact, Edna Phillips was appointed principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930. However this ground breaking appointment by Leopold Stokowski - the first front seat for a woman in an American orchestra - is often overlooked as the first harp does not lead a conventional orchestral section. In the same year and just eight months after Edna Phillips made her debut in Philadelphia, Sidione Goosens was appointed principal harp in the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra by Adrian Boult, a milestone for women musicians that the book does not mention.

This very welcome biography of Edna Phillips, which was published in 2013 by the University of Illinois Press, has been inexplicably overlooked in a year when there has, quite rightly, been much focus on gender inequality in classical music. Not only is this new book, which is based in part on interviews with Edna Phillips before her death in 2003, an important account of a brave and talented woman breaking the glass ceiling in a major American orchestra, but it also gives valuable first hand accounts of working with Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter, with Phillips describing how the latter's verbose rehearsals "dragged on like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks" and "bored me to death".

Mary Sue West paints a vivid picture of how women players were harassed in 1930s orchestras, yet manages to avoid the "Catholic school choir director is charged with pimping" style of revelation much favoured by certain cultural commentators. The following passage gives the flavour both of the book's admirably understated style and of how some male musicians mark their score:

"Harp, please come here."

That was it. Now [Edna Phillips] would have to talk to talk to him face to face. Knowing what she did about Stoki's reputation as a ladies' man, the last thing she wanted to do was find herself alone with him after the rest of the orchestra had left the stage. Not with those sparks. So she grabbed her music and moved to the podium as fast as she could. The men were still filing out, gathering up their instruments and chatting with each other, and the associate conductor was standing on the other side of the podium. With that many people around, Phillip felt somewhat protected as Stoki smiled at her and took her proffered music.

"I want you to play an arpeggio here," he said, turning to the correct page and proceeding to write on it, which appeared to be perfectly legitimate.

Handing back her music, he asked, "Do you think that will work there? Do you understand it?"

Looking down at her music, Phillips was dismayed to discover more than the expected notation at the bottom of the page. The maestro had also written, "Will you take lunch with me today? Answer Yes of No."

What could she do? if she said no, she might lose her job. If she said yes, she might lose it in the end anyway. The possibilities swirled before her. What to do? She needed time to think, but she had to answer right away.
Stokowski did not score on that occasion, but Edna Phillips' biographer is more ambiguous as to whether of not she "took lunch" with Eugene Ormandy. But back to Britten, and as Edna Phillips says, the Ceremony of Carols is a great work for the harp. Britten also wrote a number of late works for the harp and voice duo of Osian Ellis and Peter Pears, including Canticle V, Op. 89 (1974), The Death of St Narcissus (T.S.Eliot), A Birthday Hansel, Op. 92 (1975) - composed at the Queen's request for her mother's birthday - and the 1976 folksong settings captured on the LP seen below. One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra gives a fresh insight into the genesis of the Ceremony of Carols and there is much else to relish in this overlooked yet fascinating biography. And, staying with gender balance, other paths lead to Britten's female muse at Aldeburgh and to discussion of the feminine roles in his operas.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra was borrowed from the admirable 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, Norwich. 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).

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Music is calligraphy using sounds

Composing is perhaps something one does in order to deepen the intensity of silence rather than the intensity of sounds

Music is calligraphy using sounds, which are painted on the canvas of silence.
That Zen wisdom comes from Toshio Hosokawa who is seen above. Both quotes appear in the notes for the highly recommended new recording on Wergo of Hosokawa'a String Quartets by the Arditti Quartet, a CD which resonate almost inaudibly with my current meme of the ragged edge of silence.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples used in this post. 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).

Friday, December 06, 2013

New music that was saved by Nelson Mandela

My new Symphony - for that is what it eventually turned out to be - would serve as a memorial to the victims of the [Sharpeville massacre] in which eighty-three people were shot dead by the police while taking part in a peaceful demonstration against the notorious Pass Laws, the hated symbol of black subjection to white supremacy. I was also influenced by the example of Shostakovich's own memorial to the victims of political oppression in the shape of his Eleventh Symphony, which so movingly commemorates the dead of the 1905 Revolution in which another peaceful demonstration was turned into a massacre. But where Shostakovich uses Russian political songs as symphonic material, I resolved to make use of three African melodies to give my work a similar sense of urgency and immediacy of purpose.
That is John Joubert writing in the notes for the Dutton recording of his Second Symphony, which, as related here, made an unexpected appearance in the classical charts shortly after its release in 2011. Born in Cape Town a white South African, Joubert moved to England in 1946 and still lives there. His Second Symphony was given its premiere in London in 1971 with Joubert conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and was immediately banned in South Africa by the government controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The ban was only lifted following the intervention in the mid-1990s of Nelson Mandela, who was a fan of Western classical music.

Do not be misled by the composer's reference to African melodies. This is not a cosy folksy work, rather it is a gritty and angry statement that proudly displays its debt to Shostakovich and Walton. Conductor Martin Yates and the underrated Royal Scottish National Orchestra are passionate advocates of Joubert's music and the coupling includes a little known gem in the form of Carlo Martelli's Fourth Symphony. And on a disc where the planets well and truly align, the Dutton production team use the acoustic of the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow to prove that for some the sound does still matter.

Elsewhere in his note John Joubert, seen above, explains that inspiration for the Second Symphony came from Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. This novel, which was written shortly before apartheid was implemented in South Africa, is a protest against the attitudes that institutionalised racism. Cry the Beloved Country was banned by South Africa's press censors due to its subject matter; it was first published in America in 1948 and went on to sell 15 million copies before Paton's death in 1988. An Overgrown Path reader has lamented the disappearance of musicians with a conscience. In fact they are still around. But, just as with other activists, you need to look outside the commercial intermediary complex to find them. Take a bow John Joubert, Dutton and all those involved in this brave and inspiring CD.

* This is an edited version of a post first published in July 2011. John Joubert's website is here.

Dutton Epoch CD of John Joubert's Second Symphony was supplied as a requested review sample. Composer portrait above is (c) Graham Boulton. 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.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Imagine there is no new audience for classical music

Student: What happens when we die?
Zen master: I don't know.
Student: But you're a Zen master.
Zen master: True. Quite true. But I am not a dead Zen master.
That is John Cage in the header photo with Zen master D.T. Suzuki and classical music can learn a lot from Zen thinking. Imagine for a moment there is no monolithic / young / hip / rock loving / vibrant / technically literate / affluent 'new' audience for classical music. Similarly imagine there is no monolithic / conservative / elitist / moribund / white / luddite / reactionary / disposable 'old' audience. Instead imagine the audience for classical music is like a cloud: made up of millions of unique particles, each with a different age, behaviour pattern and tastes. Now imagine this granular cloud is constantly changing and reforming in accord with the Zen teaching of impermanence. Imagine there is no one-size-fits-all music and no one-size-fits-all style of concert presentation. Imagine the concepts of 'old' and 'new' audiences are illusory and the only absolute reality is the music itself. Now imagine enlightenment in the form of a development strategy for classical that replaces the myth of monolithic 'new' and 'old' audiences with the truth of a granular, diverse, discerning, and constantly changing and evolving audience. Then imagine classical music making some progress...

Apocryphal header quote comes via Huston Smith's Tales of Wonder: Chasing the Divine. 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, December 04, 2013

Parsifal as pure religion itself - Islam

'There is, I believe, an important link between early Christianity and Sufism. When I read of the Desert Fathers and when I meet Sufis they seem to occupy much of the same position. The Sufis are, of course, a bit outside the mainstream of Islam. The one thing that particularly interests me is the image of the holy fool who, although no longer a stock figure in Christianity, is still important in Sufism. I am wondering to what degree Sufism might have been drawn from early Christianity.
That passage from Marius Kociejowski's The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool resonates with my 2012 post which asked Was Wagner a Sufi? But it resonates even more strongly with the provocative view of the radical Muslim teacher and author Ian Dallas (aka Abdalqadir as-Sufi) that in the final act of Parsifal the white dove which descends and hovers over Parsifal - the holy fool - is...
"a symbol of peace which in Arabic bears the same root 'S-L-M' as pure religion itself, Islam... And so, the Grail was nothing other than the Black Stone of the Ka'aba, the central shrine of the world's last religion, purified judaeo-christianity, Islam.
My header image shows the first act of the new Royal Opera House production of Parsifal and below is the image of the Ka'aba that I used in my July 2013 post about Ian Dallas' contentious Islamic interpretation of Wagner. Predictably, media coverage of the new ROH Parsifal dwells on Wagner's anti-Semitism and Buddhism, but misses director Stephen Langridge's tantalising visual hint.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo credit Royal Opera House. 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).

Monday, December 02, 2013

Exploring the ragged edge of silence

In his Syrian travelogue The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool Marius Kociejowski celebrates the two characters in the title as "non-mainstreamers". While others have appointed themselves as cultural commentators I prefer the roles of street philosopher and holy fool, so, accordingly, my recent travels enthusiastically embraced the non-mainstream. For the 1500 mile round trip to l'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in Provence I chose to travel by train rather than plane or car, which, thankfully, cushioned me from the kind of French driver captured in the header photo And my journey was rich in distinctly alternative experiences including the concert seen below; while I also took the distinctly non-mainstream decision to disconnect myself from the internet for the entire ten day trip.

One of the many benefits of train travel is the non-mainstreamers it brings you into contact with. Seen below are the two delectable young ladies who sat next to me on the four hour high speed train journey from Avignon to Lille.

En route to the monastery at Le Barroux I was dismayed to find the priceless Harmonia Mundi shop in Avignon being dismantled - see photo below - which left me fearing the worst. But the shop's tireless manager Pascal hastened to reassure me that all was far from lost, and, as recounted below, this story of non-mainstream bricks and mortar music retailing had a happy ending.

Although my ultimate destination was an austere Benedictine monastery this did not preclude sybaritic diversions, and below is the Cabillaud avec sauce à l'epinard et riz sauvage that I indulged in at the ever brilliant Chez Serge in Carpentras on the final leg of my journey to Le Barroux.

But enough of this frivolity, here is the forbidding sign which greets visitors at Le Barroux. It reads 'Monastic Cloister - Do not enter. We thank you for respecting the silence and solitude of the monks who pray for you'.

And this was my home for a week. Guest rooms at L'Abbaye Sainte Madeleine may be spartan, but which 5 star hotel offers all inclusive Gregorian chant and unlimited Bliss?

Moreover not many 5 star hotels are surrounded by the stunning scenery seen below. This photo was taken on the morning of 22nd November, which was Benjamin Britten's birthday (and mine!). In the background is Mont Ventoux which Petrarch celebrated in his Epistolae familiares and which, in turn, inspired Liszt in his Années de pèlerinage. Visible in the middle distance is L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine's sister house l'Abbaye Notre Dame de l'Annonciation whose nuns featured in the high profile Decca recording that prompted a typically trenchant post several years ago.

African American author John Francis describes in The Ragged Edge of Silence how:
The 'ragged edge' plays an important part not only in how sound comes into our awareness - haltingly at first - but also in how life works as a whole and how we learn and practice.
John Cage famously explored the ragged edge of silence in 4' 33" and, in a far more modest way, I was able to explore it both in the silence and solitude of the monastery and on long hikes in the breathtaking scenery seen below. Aldous Huxley - who coincidentally, or more probably not coincidentally, died on November 22nd - recommended the combination of LSD and Bach's Suites for Orchestra as a tool for exploring the hidden dimension of the mind. My own experiments on these long hikes listening to the Bach Suites and other transcendental masterworks such as Rubbra's Sixth Symphony on a non-chemical and non-addictive iPod reinforced my view that the future of classical music lies with its mind expanding and god enabling potential, and not with its ability to entertain. Those who are uncomfortable with linking music and religion may find comfort in the assertion by Henry Wieman (whose philosophy was the subject of Martin Luther King's PhD dissertation) that God is not a Creator but a creative force - superhuman but not supernatural - which can release forces that transcend the orthodox limits of human creativity.

Environmental activist, author and harpsichord pioneer Wolfgang Zuckermann has explored the ragged edge where technology meets society, and my first port of call for post-monastery decompression was his Avignon bookshop which has been reincarnated as Camili Books by its new owner Camille Vourch who is seen below. Internet retailers have decimated bricks and mortar booksellers, so it was a delight to find Camille's store swimming strongly against the mainstream and really humming. An appropriate bonus from my brush with the ragged edge of both silence and book retailing was finding on the shelf a signed copy of Kristiaan Inwood's Bhikku: Disciple of the Buddha.

In Avignon the non-mainstreamers are currently on a roll, and a short walk took me from Camili Books to the now restocked and reopened Harmonia Mundi shop. The Harmonia Mundi retail chain's struggle against internet competition has been hampered by its policy of only selling HM distributed titles; but now that has now changed and the rump of the shops that have avoided closure now carry releases from all labels irrespective of distributor. Manager Pascal - seen below - was a very happy bunny (lapin?) when I returned last week. But he has a tough fight on their hands, so I made a small contribution by buying the new Arditti recording of Toshio Hosokawa's string quartets.

The peerless Gregorian chant of the monks was not the only live music on my trip. There was also a distinctly non-mainstream concert at Avignon Conservatoire as part of a symposium on Orientalism in music. In photo 2 above the mystery instrument is the Chinese erhu and the photo was taken during a performance of Laurent Martin's Lento for erhu, cello and bass clarinet - see video here. Laurent Martin studied with spectralist Gérard Grisey and the impact of Lento at the concert was so great that it was immediately repeated. Avignon's Conservatoire is named after Olivier Messiaen who was born in the city; although, as explained in a post a few years back, nobody seems to know exactly where in the city he was born. But, given Messiaen's links to both Avignon and Hindu rhythms it was good to see the concert including an evening raga played by Duo Saaj who are seen below.

Non-mainstream synchronicity abounds here as author of The Ragged Edge of Silence John Francis is an accomplished banjo player and my next photo from the concert shows composer, professor of composition at the University of North Carolina and banjo virtuoso Paul Elwood playing one of his own compositions; and yes, Paul is playing his banjo with a bow and, another yes, his other instrument is a Mac. Video interview here, and music sample here.

Also in this epically non-mainstream concert was a set by the ensemble Nekouda (which includes a hurdy gurdy) of songs from the historic Jewish communities in Provence - video sample here. But, having recently written about Henry Cowell's Koto Concerto, the highlight for me was the opportunity to see and hear a koto in the flesh, with Fumie Hihara - seen above - playing contemporary compositions with shakuhachi flute vituoso Véronique Piron - video sample here.

Sensory overload was setting in, but there was still more to come. On my final evening I took in the winter version of Les Luminessences d'Avignon which is seen in my final three photos. Animated computer graphics are projected onto the facade of the 14th century Palais des Papes - video sample here - to produce a multi-media experience that was, for me, genuinely mind expanding. Considerable exposure has been given On An Overgrown Path to Norman Perryman's pioneering fusion of kinetic art and classical music. I have much sympathy for the viewpoint that great music can stand on its own without visual enhancement. But we cannot ignore that audiences - and not just young audiences - are becoming more visually and less aurally attuned. There are very few activities today other than classical music that involve just sitting and listening; church services and school lessons are the only others that immediately spring to mind, and neither of those are exactly box office hits. It is not just tastes that are changing; as reported here previously new technologies are literally rewiring our brains. The challenge is how classical music can adapt to audiences who understand the visual better than the aural, while avoiding throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In The Ragged Edge of Silence John Francis describes how:
In Native American traditions, as well as in both Western and Eastern ones, an individual must periodically withdraw from the material world in order to attain peace and inner knowledge through silence and solitude. In the Native American Belief system, shamanism, the vision quest ritual, as well as the modern-day vision quest, is directly related to the experience of silence.
As John Francis says, we must periodically withdraw from the material world in order to seek, if not attain, peace and inner knowledge, and my visits to l'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine are part silent retreat in the Western tradition and part very modest vision quest. In a radio interview Jonathan Harvey spoke to me about the crucial transition from linear thinking based on past patterns to a world view of the future that transcends temporal constraints. Silent retreats and vision quests are hugely productive legacies of linear thinking, and we now need to find ways of adapting these invaluable tools for the technology driven future.

Tibetan Buddhism - which Alan Watts described as Roman Catholicism on LSD - teaches that there are two realities; one is the conventional (or relative) reality that we encounter everyday, the other is the absolute (or ultimate) reality. Just as John Cage eliminated composed sounds in 4' 33" to let us hear ambient sounds, so we need to periodically eliminate the illusory reality of the virtual world to allow us to reconnect with absolute reality. The final stage of my decompression was the Lille to London Eurostar train which was packed with bureaucrats and businessmen returning from Brussels. Every single person around me had their head in a mobile computing cloud, and if the Messiah had made his Second Coming on the 18.35h Lille to St Pancras Eurostar not a single person would have noticed. But if the Second Coming has been trending on social media everyone on that train would have been aware in seconds. Of course new technologies bring huge benefits: even though I was offline during my travels much of the planning was done online and, ironically, this critique of illusory reality only exists as illusory reality. However, although I make no claims to being be a shaman, my vision quest reinforced the view that the internet has created a world of relative reality that is increasingly - and harmfully - divorced from the absolute ultimate reality. Street philosopher and holy fool I may be, but my priority in the coming months will be to spend less time in the online world of illusion and more time exploring the absolute reality that is found on the ragged edge of silence.

Reading included:
* The Ragged Edge of Silence by John Francis
* Tales of Wonder: Chasing the Divine by Huston Smith with Jeffery Paine
* The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool by Marius Kociejowski
* The Three Dangerous Magi: Osho, Gurdjieff, Crowley by P.T. Mistlberger

My thanks go the community at l'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux, and in particular to Brother Paul and Father Edmund for welcoming a street philosopher and holy fool. All costs associated with this trip and post were self-funded. Photos are all (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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.