Saturday, August 31, 2013

A hitchhiker’s guide to the musical galaxy

When I was at university in the late 1960s hitchhiking was my preferred mode of transport. I remember thumbing it out of Reading headed for the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, only to be stranded at a roundabout outside Cardiff as dusk approached. In desperation I tried another exit and scored a lift – complete with ferry crossing – to the Isle of Wight where I spent the weekend on the beach. Another summer was spent thumbing around the Netherlands in a giant circle with the Paradiso in Amsterdam at the centre. In those hitchhiking years serendipity prevailed in the form of chance meetings and destinations, and as a result my life was infinitely enriched.

Similarly cultural hitchhiking was my preferred method of musical education in those far-off years. Sticking my thumb out on BBC Radio 3 brought a chance encounter with Boulez while travelling to Beethoven in the concert hall took me via Berg. Thumbing it in record shops opened up the world of Eastern music and a chance encounter in the cinema exposed me to the music of Mahler.

But the atomisation of our society into a dangerous and litigious jungle means that hitchhiking on the road has gone, and with it has been lost the infinite possibilities of chance meetings and destinations. Similarly a culture atomised by the onward march of the internet and dumbing-down has bleached our media, concert halls and record shops of those infinitely valuable chance musical meetings. Next week I will be in Nantes in western France again and for the first time since this blog started nine years ago readers will not benefit from my chance discoveries in the city’s priceless Harmonia Mundi boutique; it closed a few months ago, another victim of the corrosive power of the internet.

Fortunately all is not yet totally lost and that hitchhiker’s guide to the musical galaxy par excellence Prelude Records in Norwich still provides me and my readers with invaluable chance discoveries. My most recent find there is featured in the header graphic, an exquisite CD of new music in the classical tradition of northern India by Michel Guay and Prabhu Edouard. Fortunately Prelude Records seems to be in rude health, but I swear that if it ever succumbs to the onward march of the internet On An Overgrown Path will close as well. But enough of dark thoughts, it's time to take a break from blogging and indulge in some more musical hitchhiking - à bientôt.

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Friday, August 30, 2013

How thoroughly modern maestros fail to wow the public

Analysis of internet search volumes shows that the new generation of thoroughly modern maestros is failing to wow the public. In the diagram above worldwide Google searches for the terms Gustavo Dudamel, Herbert von Karajan, Valery Gergiev and Georg Solti are plotted over the past eight years - left click to enlarge. This Google Trends analysis shows that current public interest in Dudamel is very similar both in volume and trend to that for Karajan, despite the latter being dead for twenty-four years. Similarly the trends for Gergiev and Solti are remarkably similar, despite sixteen years having passed since Sir Georg's death. If we accept that Google Trends has a degree of authority this data raises yet more questions about the success of classical music's current celebrity based promotional strategies. The PR agency that sold Newsweek the How Maestro Dudamel Is Saving Classical Music story must be rather concerned about Gustavo's bell-shaped curve. While conversely Warner Classics must be rather pleased that evidence of enduring interest in great maestros of the past supports their unfashionable strategy of exploiting EMI's rich back-catalogue. Google Trends may be a fallible tool and if anyone has a better measure of public interest in conductors please share it. Until better sources become available I suggest we accept Google Trends as being more reliable than the hunches of the classical music establishment. As with my recent posts on digital music formats I am raising questions rather than proposing answers. A few months ago I asked Is classical music asking the right questions? Let's now rephrase that - Is classical music asking any questions at all?

* Update: On reflection there are probably more searches omitting the conductor's Christian names as all four surnames are reasonably unique. So I have added the graph above for the search terms Dudamel, Karajan, Gergiev Solti. As can be seen the results reinforce my thesis that thoroughly modern maestros are failing to wow the public, with searches for Dudamel dropping behind those for Karajan in 2013 and Solti running consistently ahead of Gergiev.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Strong enthusiasm for Smiles of the Buddha

In 1967 Nobel Laureate Martin Luther King Jr nominated the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926) for the Nobel Peace Prize. The photo above shows laureate and nominee together and the text of Martin Luther King's nomination letter - which should be compulsory reading for those currently contemplating Western military intervention in Syria - is here. In 2001 the Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiêt (b. 1933) wrote his setting for chamber choir of poems from the Chinese Tang dynasty titled Smiles of the Buddha (Les Sourires de Bouddha). Jonathan Harvey's belief that strong enthusiasm will change the world prompts me to share this little-known but masterly contemporary choral work with you. Although Ton-That Tiêt's music is influenced by Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism there are no New Age indulgences, and, as described in an earlier post, the Vietnames composer's music has bracing hints of Penderecki, Ligeti and Stimmung. Unfortunately Smiles of the Buddha is a very well kept secret and I cannot find any samples to share on YouTube and the other usual sources. But do not take my word, seek out the difficult to find but excellent 20 minute extended play CD on the Editions Hortus label.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why composer anniversaries do not win new audiences

Data from an authoritative source shows that the strategy of focussing on composer anniversaries to raise classical music's public profile is not working. The graph above uses the Google Trends tool to measure online searches for the four main composers with anniversaries in 2013 - Verdi, Britten, Wagner ;and Lutoslawski*. Google Trends plots global volumes for specific search terms and my composite graph maps and compares the trend over eight years of searches for the four main 2013 anniversary composers with results indexed to 100. (Left click on the graphs to enlarge).

Three main trends emerge from this analysis. The first is that, as the graph above shows, Verdi is consistently by far the most popular of the four composers. Hardly a revelation in itself; but the trend shows that despite Britten and Wagner undoubtedly receiving more promotional attention in 2013 - e.g. not one complete Verdi opera in the 2013 BBC Proms season and just three concerts including his music compared with twelve of Britten's - Verdi's preeminence has not been reduced, and we have not yet reached his bicentenary on Oct 10. The conclusion is quite simple: Verdi's music speaks to the widest audience and no amount of anniversary hooplah elsewhere is changing that.

The second trend is that composer birthdays only produce a short-term bounce in public interest. This can be seen clearly in the graph below for Wagner searches which shows a major uplift around the anniversary of his birth on May 22, but the activity then falls to below Jan 1, 2013 levels - evidence of Wagner fatigue perhaps?

The final and most important trend is that to date in 2013 there has been no sustained material upturn in public interest in the four anniversary composers. Combining the trends compresses the vertical axis; but when the graphs are viewed discretely the absence of anniversary uplift becomes more evident. If any composer is benefitting from the coveted anniversary bounce it is the rank outsider Witold Lutoslawski. Below is his graph; the peak at B reflects his Jan 25 centenary but the residual uplift does suggest that the most productive way to leverage anniversaries is to concentrate on lesser-known composers and let the big names look after themselves.

This thesis is supported by the trend for Britten mapped below. As evidenced previously he has received more anniversary promotional attention in 2013 than any other composer, yet Google Trends shows no reversal of a consistent downward trend in interest since 2005. Britten's centenary falls on Nov 22 and there will definitely be a substantial birthday bounce then. But the trend for Wagner suggests that it will be short-lived, and Britten fatigue set in well before his November centenary.

This analysis only covers the first eight months of 2013, but the trend is consistent with that identified in a 2012 post which used Google Trends to plot the impact, or rather lack of impact, of the Mahler, Liszt and Cage anniversaries. The classical music establishment loves backing hunches and hates analysing data. Google Trends is one of the few sources of independent data on public interest in composers and it contradicts the hunch of the moment that composer anniversaries are a potent way to promote classical music. My analysis shows that composer anniversaries have a role to play, particularly in raising the profile of lesser-known composers. But it also shows that that the very large amounts of promotional activity being concentrated on already high profile figures such as Britten and Wagner is doing no more than preach to the converted. By all means let's celebrate composer anniversaries; but let's stop kidding ourselves that they are winning new audiences.

* The Google Trends analysis was carried out using the search terms, Verdi, Britten, Lutoslawski and Richard Wagner as these were subjectively judged to be the most common searches - Wagner alone is not specific enough as it returns results for actor Robert Wagner etc. Changing the search terms to include all Christian names changes the results slightly but does not affect the overall trends. Google themselves have said "We hope you find this service interesting and entertaining, but you probably wouldn’t want to write your Ph.D. dissertation based on the information provided by Trends" and there is more background on Google Trends in my post Classical music - what is hot and not. If anyone has other hard data - not opinions - that disproves my thesis that composer anniversaries do not win new audiences, please share it here.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Will Sinfini Music still be with us in 2022?

This is the first post in the tenth year of blogging On An Overgrown Path. In my early days as a blogger Jonathan Harvey sent me the following email:
I was delighted to find such a passionate advocate of my and other contemporary music forging his own path (not so overgrown!) clearly in opposition to most current trends. I've always felt that it is and will be strong enthusiasm that will change the world! Thank you so much... all best and bon courage.
When On An Overgrown Path sounds its last post and is finally killed off by Twitter, I hope that two phrases will be carved on its headstone: 'strong enthusiasm' and 'opposition to most current trends'. But the end is not yet nye and, insha'Allah, I will share my strong musical enthusiasms for a few more years. But others have done it so much better, and a very good example of the power of strong enthusiasm are the Lyrita recordings from the 1980s by the much-missed Edward Downes' of George Lloyd's unfashionably tonal music - that is my LP of his Fourth Symphony in the photo above.

As I have said here before, George Lloyd's Requiem, which is being performed at the late night BBC Prom on Sept 3rd, is a real discovery. But, as I have also written, to claim he is a neglected genius would be wrong. George Lloyd may not have been a genius, but he is a very good and unjustly overlooked composer. Which means he needs strong enthusiasm to bring his music to the audience it deserves and not the timid enthusiasm that consigned his Requiem to the midnight Proms ghetto while programming his much less memorable HMS Trinidad March in the last night alongside Richard Rogers' 'You'll never walk alone'. Strong enthusiasm would have kicked all the jingoistic excesses out of the last night on Sept 7th and replaced them lock stock and barrel with his Requiem on the pretext that its dedication to Diana Princess of Wales makes it suitably patriotic. That would deliver a double whammy: a real discovery would reach a lot more ears and the last night of the Proms would be rid of the curse of the corporate hospitality junket. On An Overgrown Path's first tentative post was in 2004 and four years later the BBC Radio 3 appointed its 'official bloggers' - whatever happened to them? Will Sinfini Music still be with us in 2022? Who cares? Instead, please raise your virtual glasses to nine more years of strong enthusiasm and opposing current trends On An Overgrown Path.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Perennial wisdom versus new technology

That recurring theme On An Overgrown Path of perennial wisdom versus new technology is given a fresh twist in this holiday weekend photo. On the left perennial wisdom is represented by the 20 year old Moulton APB bike with its steel space frame and dual suspension that I am riding. On the right is new technology in the form of the carbon fibre computer enabled Factor Vis Vires being ridden by our son who is part of the team that created the bike at bf1systems. You can see me looking enviously at the £10k bike and perennial wisdom versus new technology is really no contest. As a young St. Thérèse of Lisieux said when she was offered a handful of ribbons to choose from - 'I choose all'.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Breaking - Norman Lebrecht gets it completely right

A reader has pointed out that support for my assertion that classical music has been covertly dumbed down comes from none other than Norman Lebrecht. In his review on Sinfini Music - hey guys, when will you link to On An Overgrown Path? - of percussionist Kuniko Kato's new album Norman concludes by saying "The sound, recorded at 24-bit/192hz... is outstanding... why can’t all records sound this good?" Cantus by Kuniko Kato is released on Linn; the label is a provocative champion of lossless audio files and an interview with their MD Gilad Tiefenbrun was linked from my post. The coincidence of a trail leading from Sinfini Music to Linn Records and back to Universal Music should not detract from the revelation in that interview that "Linn Records, has also teamed up with Universal to create a back catalogue of the music giant’s records in studio master quality".

There has been an astonishingly large readership for my posts on potential links between ultrasound and audio quality. Despite the absence of comments and discussion recently noted by both Elaine Fine and Tim Rutherford-Johnson applying to these posts, their wide circulation on social media indicates general receptivity to my views on the shortcomings of low resolution audio. In keeping with a parallel trend, there have been a few comments from abusive and anonymous trolls of the - quote - "your assertions are complete twaddle" kind. I am no longer publishing and spending time refuting these, not because they disagree my views but because they have no place in civilised debate.

Those who interpret my posts as no more than rants about the compromised quality of low resolution audio files are missing the point. My exploration of how ultrasound may affect audio quality develops the long-running theme On An Overgrown Path that classical music is an infinitely complex set of interactions that cannot be adequately expressed in today's binary lingua franca. There are many things about classical music that science alone cannot explain. One is why a Stradivarius violin has a unique sound that cannot be replicated by modern instruments lovingly constructed using state-of-the-art technology. Another is why digital audio fails to capture the magic that so many fine musicians dedicate their lives to creating.

As another Norman so eloquently reminded us last year, we are by nature analogue beings. Classical music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of an iPod or MP3 player; 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. And if those words sound familiar, it is because they are a contemporary paraphrase of Benjamin Britten's Aspen Award acceptance speech; the original text can be read here.

Header image is reproduced from David Blackmer's article Life beyond 20 kHz, one of many valuable contributions to the ultrasound debate. Because no freebies were involved in the writing of this post I have not heard Cantus by Kuniko Kato; but, just this once, I will take Norman Lebrecht's views as accurate. 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.

Friday, August 23, 2013

How classical music was covertly dumbed down

Classical audiences would never accept a star soloist playing a Bach Partita on a poor quality factory-made violin. So why does the same audience accept a similar degradation in sound quality away from the concert hall? Here is a spectogram of bell percussion - concert hall sound quality.

Now here is the same bell percussion after standard 44.1 kHz sampling for digital reproduction - poor quality factory-made sound quality.

Both spectograms come from published research into the high frequency content of recordings and the second one shows how the savage cut at 22.05 kHz does very nasty things to the music. Below is the spectrum analysis of a trumpet which plots the ultrasound output extending to above 100 kHz, which is five times higher than the generally accepted upper limit of human hearing. But, as was pointed out in the first part of this post, medical research has now identified that the brain is receptive to frequencies considerably above 20 kHz. Ultrasound, which stimulates electrical activity on the surface of the brain, is transmitted both through the eyes and by bone conduction, with measurements showing that both paths handle signals to above 50 kHz (see references below).

The graph of a trumpet's sound spectrum is reproduced from a research paper titled 'There's Life Above 20 Kilohertz! A Survey of Musical Instrument Spectra to 102.4 KHz' by James Boyk of the California Institute of Technology. In the paper Boyk reports that "at least one member of each instrument family (strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion) produces energy to 40 kHz or above, and the spectra of some instruments reach this work's measurement limit of 102.4 kHz" with a muted trumpet producing 2% of its energy above 20 kHz and a cymbal 40%. (Note that acoustic energy is a poor measure of importance as high energy sounds require less energy than low sounds).

At this point let's pull together four unimpeachable facts. First, frequencies considerably above 20 kHz reach the human brain and enter the cognitive system. Secondly, the frequency range and power bandwidth of musical instruments extends considerably above 20 kHz. Thirdly, the standard sampling rate of 44.1 kHz used in CD and other digital formats blocks all frequencies above 22.05 kHz and creates a sonic 'black hole' - see diagram 2 above - that is quite unlike the gentle frequency roll off found in the human ear and analogue sources. And fourthly, CD, MP3 and other digital formats are now the de facto standard not only for listening to recorded music, but also for listening to music period. At which point it can safely be said, Houston we have a problem.

Classical music has been covertly dumbed down by transparently commercial agendas through the imposition of digital recording and reproduction standards that detrimentally reshape the music. But it need not be so, because high-sampling rate recording technology and lossless digital file formats provide viable alternatives. In many ways the dumbing down of recorded sound is more damaging than the often discussed dumbing down of concert peripherals. Classical music is about sound, and when you dilute the sound you dilute the very essence of the music.

Abandoning compromised digital formats and instead exploiting recent research into ultrasound could help new audiences feel the music as well hear it. Bone conduction of sound, the process which allows the profoundly deaf to 'hear' music, is fast becoming the new acoustic frontier. Not only does bone conduction transmit ultrasound but it also transmits low frequencies, and bass is one of the hot buttons for engaging new classical audiences. A reader jokingly tweeted in response to my first post on ultrasound "So I need headphones for my eyes apparently". But that is not a joke, because headphones for the eyes are already reality. Google - an organisation not to be underestimated - recently filed a patent for bone conducted technology linked to their Google Glasses project. Which is good because it shows this little-understood phenomenom is being taken seriously, but is bad as it raises the real possibility of Google gaining proprietary ownership of a technology that may provide the missing link between portable audio devices and classical music. Bone conduction is also used in specialist hearing aids and in the Finis Neptune waterproof MP3 player which dispenses with ear buds and instead transmits sound through the cheekbone to the inner ear, see diagram below.

This post can only hint at the little-explored paths that connect ultrasound, digital standards and classical music's inability to gain traction with younger audiences. In fact the interconnectedness is daunting, because this strand links via synaptic paths to the whole area of meta content and neuroplasticity. When I wrote about meta content recently I explained how research has shown that classical music needs to be a deep and content rich experience, yet dumbed down digital formats are the enemy of deep and rich sound content. My post on neuroplasticity was headed 'Research proves audiences become what they listen to' and we know that audiences now listen to compromised MP3 and iPod sound for much of the time. So, unless things change, not only will classical audiences become the music they listen to, but they will also become the sound they listen to. Which means that poor quality factory-made violins really will become the concert hall standard.

Sources include:
- Eyes as Fenestrations to the Ears: A Novel Mechanism for High-Frequency and Ultrasonic Hearing: Author Martin L. Lenhardt, published in The International Tinnitus Journal
- Response of Human Skull to Bone-Conducted Sound in the Audiometric-Ultrasonic Range: Authors Zhi Cai; Douglas G. Richards; Martin L. Lenhardt; Alan G. Madsen, published in The International Tinnitus Journal
- Analysis of Vinyl LP High-Frequency Content: Author anonymous, published in Channel D

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where would you file this CD?

No, not under ‘Stravinsky’ and not even under ‘Classical’. L’Oiseau de Feu (Firebird) is a CD of improvised music and recitations for ney, santour, Eastern percussion, viole de gambe and voice inspired by texts from Sufi poets and Christian mystics. There is not a note of Stravinsky's music on the disc, but there is a connection: his Firebird ballet has its roots in Russian folklore and the legendary bird also appears as the simorgh in Persian mythology, notably in the Farid ud-Din Attar's Sufi masterpiece Conference of the Birds. Hence the title of the CD.

This new release from serial innovators Accords Croisés - sample it here - challenges conventions beyond that of the Firebird as an exclusively Stravinsky property. With its juxtaposition of viol and traditional Persian instruments it challenges an even more rigid convention - the definition of classical music. Despite the presence of a Western classical instrument played by early music specialist Jonathan Dunford, this Firebird is most certainly not classical music; but neither is it traditional Persian or world music. If we must file it somewhere it has to be art music. But there is no convenient space for art music in a record store browser, in a record company’s catalogue, or in concert and broadcast schedules; which should tell us that classical music has a problem with definitions.

Much effort is currently being expended on attracting new and younger audiences to classical concerts. A defining characteristic of rock music is that it does not respect definitions and conventions, yet all the current efforts to attract younger rock audiences are centred on the low-hanging conventions of dress, lighting etc without challenging the more difficult to reach and rigid convention of the definition of classical music. Which is not surprising, as - despite altruistic protestations - the end game is not finding new audiences; it is generating cash from the massive record company back catalogues of conventional classical music and boosting radio ratings and concert hall attendances while maintaining the music establishment’s cosy status quo. Which means any broadening of the repertoire such as the commendable Urban Classics and World Routes concerts at the BBC Proms takes place behind a cordon sanitaire drawn around a dedicated concert, which in the case of tonight's World Routes Prom is also shunted into the 10.00 pm graveyard slot.

Before the social mediarati react with their smart one-liners, let me make clear that I am not suggesting the wholesale dismantling of conventional classical music concert programmes. But I am suggesting that Max Hole and his fellow revisonists are right when they say classical music needs to build bridges to new audiences, but they are wrong in trying to build bridges by dumbing down and tinkering with peripherals. I acknowledge there is little hard evidence to support my brain storming suggestion of broadening the definition of classical, other than the perennial sales success of Jordi Savall's music beyond boundaries and a sold out concert in Berlin some years ago that prefaced Mahler's Ninth Symphony with Johannes Ockeghem's Missa Au Travail suis. But that elusive new audience is becoming increasingly multi-cultural; so how about testing the water with a concert that prefaces Stravinsky's complete Firebird with improvised music and recitations of Sufi and other mystical texts? The standard response of 'that's not box office' can be challenged by citing that Rumi is currently the best selling poet in the U.S despite being a Muslim mystic born in what is now Afghanistan, and that his poetry has been set by luminaries such as Philip Glass, Karol Szymanowski and Jonathan Harvey. If it is futile trying to force this new Firebird into the accepted definition of 'classical', isn't it also futile trying to force new audiences into the same definition?

* L'Oiseau de Feu is on the Accords Croisés label and is performed by ensemble Firebird - see photo above - which comprises Hassan Tabar, Bijan Chemirani zarb & daf, Taghi Akhbari vocals & recitation, Jonathan Dunford basse de viol and Gérard Kurdjian recitation. Texts are by Hafez, Rumi, Maître Eckhart, Vashi Bafqi, St John of the Cross, Aboul Hassan al Nouri, Al-Hallaj and Emir Abdel Kader. The CD is the product of a creative residency at La Cité de la Musique, Marseille and my copy was bought at Prelude Records. 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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

To listen to classical music you need a good pair of eyes

The periodical Nature reports on research by a social psychologist which shows that judgements about the quality of a musical performance are influenced more by what is see than by what is heard. The remit of the somewhat superficial research was the impact of body language, which means it did not consider a little-known but far more important link between the eyes and sound. It has long been a puzzle as to why high-order harmonics extending beyond the upper limit of human hearing produced by fine instruments such as Stradivarius violins make the music sound better. Similarly there has been no explanation as to why extending the frequency response of an audio system beyond the upper limit of human hearing improves the sound quality. But recent medical research has shown that our eyes are sound as well as vision transducers, and that the eyes play an important role in passing ultrasound to the brain. While the upper limit of human hearing ranges from 15 to 18 khz depending on age, the frequency response of the eye extends beyond 50 kHz - see graph above. In these ultrasonic regions the eye is not producing conventional sounds but is feeding sensory information to the brain which becomes a key part of the cognitive process.

The role of the eye as a sound transducer is medically proven, here is a link to research published in The International Tinnitus Journal. These findings open up many paths which this post can only hint at. Although top end audio systems have frequency responses that extends beyond 20 kHz, they come nowhere near matching the almost flat response to 50 kHz reported in the referenced article. Which may explain why even the best audio systems never quite seem to replicate the experience of live music. But when it comes to the ubiquitous compressed audio file formats such as MP3, the frequency response is further curtailed. Which may explain why classical music fails to connect with the MP3 generation. And that is before we factor in that headphones have become the default way of listening to music, and headphones remove the eyes completely from the listening process. While returning to live music, ultrasound is highly directional; which may explain why watching a performer closely seems to enhance the music.

Another fascinating possibility hinted at by this research is that John Cage's 4' 33'' is in fact an 'ultrasound symphony', with the absence of conventional musical sounds allowing the brain to focus on ambient ultrasound. And the concept of the eye as a multi-media transducer cross-references to a recent post on how cats can switch from one channel (hearing) to another processing track (sight). This action is scientifically described as synaesthesia and is the amalgamation of different sensory channels which usually function quite separately. Paths converge here as in the most common form of human synaesthesia sounds are perceived as images. So does the discovery that the eye is as an audio transducer explain why synaesthesia is common among musicians?

But most importantly - and I do think this is important - the Nyquist theorem, which is used to determine the sampling rate for digital audio formats, states that the maximum frequency that can be represented at any given sampling rate is half the sampling rate. Which is why CDs use a 44.1 kHz sampling rate, because that gives a frequency response extending beyond the limits of conventional hearing to 22.05 kHz. But research now shows that the brain responds to ultrasound beyond 50 kHz; so the data cut-off at 22.05 kHz may explain the perceived shortcomings of digital audio. And the absence of a 22.05 kHz cut-off in analogue LPs may explain why vinyl is making a comeback.

This extract from the conclusions to Martin Lenhardt's paper for The International Tinnitus Journal opens up a wealth of possibilities:

In regard to music recording and reproduction, more than doubling the sampling rate (95 kHz/24 bits) will extend the audible frequency range that can be coded in the eighth nerve and will result in a gain in linearity and reduction in quantizing errors, factors that will improve music quality.

Personal headphones could be supplemented or replaced with bone conduction transducers, with frequency responses extending to at least 50 kHz. Such transducers are already in use for medical treatment of tinnitus and can be readily modified for personal musical use (see Fig. 4).

Musical harmonic information is coded by place on the basilar membrane and temporally in neural firing. Ultrasound might contribute to the musical harmonic structure and provide more high-frequency treble emphasis in instruments, such as the cymbals, triangles, trumpets, violins, and oboes.
I came Martin Lenhardt's research paper while exploring the link between audio file format and sound quality. Inevitably my summary is simplistic, but further research on the role of ultrasound in music listening may help us understand why classical music is all too often lost in transmission.

* Part two of this post How classical music was covertly dumbed down is now available.

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Do we need to broaden our definition of classical music?

The Oud was introduced into western Europe by the Knights Templar returning from the Holy Land and by the Troubadours (from the Arabic root TRB - meaning lutanist) from Provence. Having reached the Troubadors from Muslim Spain, this instrument was to play a crucial role in the establishment of the Romantic Courts. The poetry, music and ideals that ensued from this great endeavor became the infrastructure upon which the Renaissance was built. Brought into the British Isles, the Oud was transformed in the Elizabethan period into the western European lute.
That passsage is from the sleeve notes for Hamza El Din's CD Lily of the Nile. Hamza El Din (1929-2006) was born in the Nubian territory of Upper Egypt and studied Arabic music in Cairo and Western music at the Academy of Santa Celia in Rome. Like Bartók and Vaughan-Williams, he was part of the great folkloric tradition and collected Nubian songs from the villages that were to be submerged by the Aswan Dam. He played at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, recorded two albums for Vanguard, jammed with the Grateful Dead and collaborated with the Kronos Quartet who he was introduced to by Terry Riley. A long-term resident of Oakland, California, Hamza El Din taught at the legendary Mills College and Lily of the Nile was recorded in the Unitarian Church, Santa Barbara in 1989 with a minimalist ORTF microphone array feeding analogue valve (tube) equipment. The lineage of the oud stretching from the Middle East to northern Europe via Egypt means that Eastern culture is a stakeholder in Western classical music. Can we learn something from the migration of the oud and from the diversity of Hamza El Din's music making. Are today's classical music revisionists, who have considerable vested interests in maintaining a rejuvenated status quo, simply plucking the low-hanging fruit of concert conventions such as dress code and lighting, while leaving unchallenged the far more repressive convention of the mono-culturalism of the music itself? Is the established definition of 'classical music' inhibiting engagement with new and increasingly diverse audiences? Is classical music making the mistake of trying to convert 'new' audiences into 'old' audiences?

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Lawyer's death revives links to music's murky past

Controversial lawyer Jacques Verges who has died aged 88 was one of the lawyers who defended the convicted French war criminal Paul Touvier at his trial in 1994. That is Jacques Brel in the photo above, and in an investigative piece in 2010 I uncovered little-known links between Touvier and Brel, while later that year I reflected on a web of linkages that stretched from Paul Touvier, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity, to Decca's contender for a classical Christmas number one.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

This Tchaikovsky is the cat's whiskers

Pierre Boulez once famously declared:"I hate Tchaikovsky and I will not conduct him... but if the audience wants him, it can have him". Much that I admire Boulez I can think of many good reasons not to hate Tchaikovsky, among them his Third Orchestral Suite. Given the enduring popularity of Tchaikovsky's symphonies it is surprising that the four movement Suite is not better known, because it was originally conceived as a symphony and was composed between two of his most popular symphonies, the Fourth and Fifth. The photo above shows the overgrown feline standing guard over my 1975 EMI LP of the Suite No 3. On this disc Sir Adrian Boult conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the violin solo in the final movement is played by Rodney Friend who went on to lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra. If my memory serves me correctly Sir Adrian made the recording at the suggestion of EMI's Douglas Pudney who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire and a wonderful nose for neglected gems.

I wrote recently of a forthcoming box of Sir Adrian's EMI recordings and the good news is that it includes this unmissable account of Tchaikovsky's neglected gem. Also in the 10 CD Boult box are no less than three recordings of Holst's Planets. These date from 1937, 1966 and 1978, and were produced by Lawrance Collingwood, Peter Andry and Christopher Bishop respectively. Not only does this brave piece of CD programming allow us to hear how Sir Adrian's view of Holst's warhorse changed over the years, but it also showcases the work of three great recording producers, two of who I had the privilege of working with at EMI. Moreover there is a link to another recent post as the remastering of the 1937 Planets makes available again a classic of mono sound, as does another highlight of the box, Sir Adrian's 1956 recording of Robert Simpson's First Symphony.

EMI's path from financial meltdown via Universal Music to Warner Classics has been the subject of much cynicism, both here and elsewhere. Views will differ as to whether this meta content rich retrospective of a seriously underrated conductor is being released because of, or despite, the Warner acquisition. But does that really matter? In the final analysis we should just be thankful that there are still people left in the industry who realise that there is more to classical music than kick arse tweets.

Confession time, a freebie was used in the preparation of this post: the overgrown feline is an adopted stray. And I swear I had no intention of including him in the photo, he simply came and sat there, presumably to show his whiskers are better than Sir Adrian's. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2103. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, August 16, 2013

We need to bear witness to our love of classical music

In Andrew Harvey's Journey in Ladakh there is a discussion of how the threatened culture of the Ladhaki's can be protected. During the discussion Harvey says "All we can do is bear witness to our love of the country and its people as clearly and intelligently as possible". 'Bear witness' is an old-fashioned and therefore deeply unfashionable concept, but, despite that, there is still much that classical music can learn from it. One of the definitions of 'bear witness' is "public affirm by word or example of usually religious faith or conviction". Much time is spent wondering why the culture of classical music is threatened. Perhaps it is simply because in the mainstream media, in blogs, Facebook and Twitter we are doing everything but bear witness to our love of classical music. A scan across the classical music headlines reveals stories about everything from sexual abuse in musical schools, through the financial woes of orchestras, to the perils of dumbing down (yes, I plead guilty!), all garnished with thinly disguised self and corporate promotion. Where has all the bearing witness gone? Where is the public affirmation of our conviction that classical music is a life force? Looking back my most satisfying and productive paths have been those that have born witness to my admiration for musicians such as Jonathan Harvey and Jordi Savall, that is me with Jordi in the header photo. It would cost nothing and might just change things if every music writer - including me - spent more time bearing witness to their love of classical music.

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Life discovered beyond the Planets

There is a generous link to On An Overgrown Path in Tom Service's Guardian preview of next week's chamber music Prom which features Imogen Holst's Phantasy Quartet. Thanks Tom; it is good to see there is life beyond the Planets for a Holst, and life beyond Sinfini Music, BBC Radio 3 and the Huffington Post for a blogger.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Classical music needs great stories not kick arse tweets

In a perceptive post marking the tenth anniversary of The Rambler, senior blogger Tim Rutherford-Johnson laments how "Back in 2003 ...there actually was a community (or communities) of bloggers talking to one another... now, all those conversations have migrated to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter". Elsewhere another senior blogger Elaine Fine muses that "The kinds of musical discussions that used to be on blogs seem to have migrated to Facebook, but they occur in miniature". While a well received Overgrown Path post explains how medical research shows that "Instead of targeting the short-term working memory by eliminating meta content, classical music should be making its content richer, deeper and more attractive to long-term memory."

So how long before the classical music establishment realises that Twitter and the other micro-media that have become not only the dominant platform for classical music debate but also the channel of choice for classical music promotion, do no more than populate short term working memory? And how long before it is understood that, to quote Nicholas Carr, "the information [in short-term memory] 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." And how long before it is realised that the prized social media metrics of 'friends' and 'followers' do not answer the vitally important question of how much promotional content - if any - passed into the target audience's crucial long-term memory?

At this point let's head off the comments that this is another anti-Twitter rant. It is not, and there is no doubt that social media can be a powerful promotional tool for classical music if used as a means and not an end. The problem is that, in most cases, it is being used as an end, not a means. Classical music is a form of storytelling and the role of Twitter and other micro-media should be to provide the opening line of a great story. So where is the compelling narrative behind tweets such as the one above from a major classical music PR agency? There is no compelling narrative, because lazy tweeting has turned the art of classical music promotion into the art of titillating short-term memory. Now, thanks to the toxic influence of the new generation of embedded cultural commentators, the lazy virus has spread to blogging, and the devaluing of blog posts to no more than inflated tweets is one of the main reasons why blog readership is declining.

All of which we unquestioningly accept because received wisdom tells us we live in an age of micro-media and micro-attention spans. Well, if that is the case can someone explain how one of the most successful examples of classical music promotion in recent years is Alex Ross' book The Rest is Noise? - a book that contains 212,000 words compared with 15 words in an average tweet. And can someone explain how one of the most successful recent classical musical events was the Barenboim Ring at the 2013 BBC Proms? - an operatic cycle that lasts for sixteen hours compared with the average time spent on a web page of less than a minute. Yes, both The Rest is Noise and the Barenboim Ring benefited from social media promotion, but that is not why they succeeded. They succeeded because, in different ways, they both tell compelling stories. The classical music establishment needs to understand that it is the rich and deep meta content in those stories that endures in long-term memory, whereas the impact of kick arse tweets lasts a few seconds at best.

I must confess to a degree of embedding in this post. Alex very kindly sent me a copy of The Rest is Noise when it was first published. 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). Inevitably also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Buddha of Bayreuth

Slowly, however, I was drawn into the sacred rhythm of Wagner's music drama, its strange and unfamiliar time. I understood that what was being enacted with such slowness on the stage in front of me was the inner drama of all the spectators; that it was the psyche itself, in its different dignities and powers, whose progress towards transformation was being charted and displayed; that the external forces, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas the singers were representing, were no differences from the inner forces of the psyche, that psyche in which the music lived and whose life contained all the drama within it. I ceased being the half-bored spectator; I entered the drama; I allowed it to begin to enact itself within me, in its own rhythms.
That passage illustrates the importance of meta content in Wagner's Ring while recasting the main protagonists as Buddhist deities. Richard Wagner's interest in Buddhism has been the subject of informed speculation, most notably in Jonathan Harvey's opera Wagner Dream. In fact the text above is also speculative as it paraphrases a description of sacred Buddhist dances at the Takthok monastery in the Ladakh region of northern India. I created it by changing just a few words in the synchronistically surnamed Andrew Harvey's classic account of travel and Buddhism A Journey in Ladakh. Here is the original text:
Slowly, however, I was drawn into the sacred rhythm of the dances, their strange and unfamiliar time. I understood that what was being danced with such slowness on the stage in front of me was the inner drama of all the spectators; that it was the psyche itself, in its different dignities and powers, whose progress towards transformation was being charted and displayed; that the external forces, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas the dancers were representing, were no differences from the inner forces of the psyche, that psyche in which the dances lived and whose life contained all the dances within it. I ceased being the half-bored spectator; I entered the drama; I allowed it to begin to enact itself within me, in its own rhythms.
Speculative Buddhist and Islamic interpretations of Wagner simply confirm that the universal truth of perennial wisdom is found in all great art. The header visual art was photographed taken by me at the Temple of a Thousand Buddhas in Boulaye, France to illustrate an early post on Jonathan Harvey's string quartets. There is more meta content, opera and Buddhism in Classical music as Ritual.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Independent music website enjoys high rent office café

Stumbled across this great new independent website called Sinfini Music written by a team of music fans. They have a killer video of accordion player Martynas and mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital filmed in their office café. It really is a cool video and a cool office café. So I thought I'd check out where their office is. A bit of drilling down uncovered that Sinfini's address is at 364–366 Kensington High Street, which sure is a high rent area. And more drilling down uncovered that not only does the Sinfini café seem to be in the head office of Universal Music, but Sinfini is also owned by them - they must have forgotten to say that on the first pages I looked at. Presumably Sinfini's policy of editorial independence prevented them sharing this, but yet more drilling - I drill like a dentist - uncovered that Martynas records for Decca and Avi Avital records for Deutsche Grammophon - both Universal Music owned labels. So now I understand why an independent music website has celebrity jam sessions in an office café up the road from Buckingham Palace. That's what I call cutting through classical.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Medical research explains why dumbing-down sucks

This Turnabout LP was bought in New York in 1978. It then travelled - together with a still-treasured 590 page MOMA catalogue! - in my baggage to Los Angeles and on to Mexico, before returning with me to the UK via Houston. As can be seen from my photo the vinyl disc remains in mint condition and Howard Hanson's overlooked Sixth Symphony resounds in all its analogue glory as I write. I treasure this record not just for the music but also for the rich additional content that supplements the abstract music. This meta content extends beyond the stylish artwork and informative sleeve notes, to memories of where and when I bought it and the journey it made with me half-way round the world, and these in turn trigger a complex and infinite network of synaptic linkages.

Meta content held in my long-term memory makes this music particularly important to me, and medical research has identified important links between memory and deep cultural experiences. Yet classical music's strategy of choice for engaging new audiences is to decrease demands on human memory by dumbing-down. Understanding that disconnect is an important step towards understanding why classical music is struggling to gain traction in the digital age, and, as a contribution to that understanding, this article explores how authoritative research supports the widely held intuitive view that dumbing-down is counterproductive.

In his book The Shallows Nicholas Carr cites research which shows that much of what we absorb from rapidly assimilated digital sources is not transferred from our brain's short-term working memory - the human equivalent of a memory stick - to our long-term memory store - the human equivalent of a hard drive - from where it populates our cognitive processes - the human equivalent of the all-important computer operating system. Which means, to quote Nicholas Carr, "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." Deep cultural experiences such as the appreciation of classical music depend on cognitive knowledge gathering and processing. Yet in the obsessive search for short term audience gains classical music is being marketed as a shallow experience shorn of meta content and designed specifically to appeal to short-term, not long-term, memory. Which may provide a much needed quick bums on seats fix, but overlooks the crucial point that audiences attracted by shallow experiences are, like short-term memory, transitory.

The link between long-term memory and cognitive processes - see diagram below and background article here - is an established scientific fact. Medical research provides objective confirmation of what intuition and audience data has been telling us for a long time, namely that meta-lite formats such as BBC Radio 3's 'Breakfast' programme, Sinfini Music's 'Cutting through the classics' and Classic FM's 'Smooth Classics' are the wrong way to engage and retain new audiences. Instead of targeting the short-term working memory by eliminating meta content, classical music should be making its content richer, deeper and more attractive to long-term memory. We need look no further than the enduring appeal of Wagner for proof of the power of meta content. His music dramas are self-sufficient if viewed as abstract music. But they are infinitely enriched by their complex layers of meta-content - mythology, symbolism, phenomenology, allegory, religiosity etc - which trigger the crucial cognitive processes and produce the deep cultural experience that is the essence of classical music.

Earlier this year I discussed how sticky meta content is the key to engaging new audiences and how its elimination, as practised by fashionable revisionists, has the opposite of the desired effect. I then went on to suggest that classical music needs to create new and more relevant meta content, because this is the essential glue that sticks the music and audience together. Medical research supports this hypothesis; which means that the key to reaching and retaining new audiences is populating long-term memory by making classical music more - not less - sticky. There is discussion of how this can be achieved in Why Classical music needs to be sticky.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

The right kind of political baggage

Too much time is being spent here on the wrong kind of political baggage. So to make partial amends here is the right kind. John Williams and Maria Farandouri recorded their LP of protest songs by Mikis Theodorakis in 1971 while the Greek military junta was still in power. My graphic shows the original LP artwork, a CD transfer - alas with different artwork - is available from Sony Greece. Buy* and take a step towards enlightenment.

* The only option for buying the CD of this classic of the gramophone at a sensible price is to purchase it from Greece. I have found the online shop of Studio 52 in Thessaloniki to be an excellent way of buying Greek CDs.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Composer anniversary junketing is defacing the music

In his Aspen Award acceptance speech Benjamin Britten explained that the magic of great music is only renewed when the listener is "in active sympathy" with the composer. That 'active sympathy' is a fragile and complex condition that Britten understood well when he created the Snape Maltings concert hall with its peerless acoustic and life-enhancing surroundings. So it is ironic that, for this writer, the very thing the Britten centenary celebrations are destroying is active sympathy. The latest contribution to the celebrations is Neil Powell's Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music. In his thoughtful review of the biography for Slate Seth Colter Walls draws attention to Neil Powell's unequivocal statement on the first page of the book that:
"[Britten's] fondness for adolescent boys and his devotion to his partner, Peter Pears, represent distinct and complementary aspects of his sexual nature; his conduct in both cases was exemplary and is therefore the occasion for neither prurience nor evasiveness"
The italics in the quote are mine and I must emphasise that the purpose of this post is not to discuss, once again, Britten's private life. Quite frankly I would prefer to be writing about something else: but a new book has been published which describes Britten's sexual conduct as 'exemplary'. So I feel compelled to point out that it is on record that Britten not only shared a bed - yes, platonically we are told - with at least one adolescent boy, but also made what the other party described as "a sexual approach" to another adolescent in a bedroom (John Bridcut Britten's Children p52). In his review Seth Colter Walls quotes the observation I made in an earlier post that "there are many – including the parent who is writing this - who would categorize an adult male sharing a bed with an unrelated adolescent boy as most definitely ‘untoward’, if not downright predatory". Views will differ on this sensitive subject, but for some Britten admirers including me, well-meaning biographers and the avaricious anniversary industry they are part of are destroying that vital 'active sympathy' by their misuse of epithets such as 'exemplary' and 'role model'.

On An Overgrown Path is a personal website, and to illustrate how that 'active sympathy' is being destroyed I offer a personal anecdote. I live near Aldeburgh, have the highest regard for Britten's music, have attended many concerts in the Maltings and have written frequently about those experiences - my header photo of sculptures at Snape accompanied a 2008 post about the UK premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's string quartet Tree of Strings in the Maltings. But recently I have found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the tone of the official Britten centenary celebrations. Looking back, I find that this year I have attended just two concerts at Aldeburgh - both Jonathan Harvey tribute events - and have no plans to attend further Britten centenary events there.

I have not consciously stayed away from Aldeburgh, and, anyway, a boycott on my part would be both meaningless and arrogant. But, subconsciously, I have found myself out of active sympathy with the current Britten cult. Instead I find myself increasingly in sympathy with the composers who were cold-shouldered by Britten and the musical establishment during his lifetime, and find myself empathising with the many collaborators who helped Britten rise to prominence before they were left as 'corpses' out on the Suffolk marshes. I still hold Britten's music in the highest esteem and will be celebrating his centenary in November, but it will be away from the fawning junketing of the official celebrations. Thankfully, the notes that the genius Britten wrote on the manuscript can never be defaced. But, for this Britten admirer, composer anniversary junketing is defacing the music.

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Friday, August 09, 2013

Benjamin Britten slated

It is worth reading the review in Slate of Neil Powell's Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, and not just because it links to and quotes from my related post.

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