Monday, September 30, 2013

A spoonful of idealism helps the commercialism go down

My recent post What would you do if your homeland was invaded? which questioned Benjamin Britten's pacifist position of "I believe in letting an invader in and then setting a good example" generated a healthy debate. In the main the responses supported Britten's position and my personal ambivalence on the subject was reflected in another post about the Buddhist precept of not taking the life of any living creature. But the difficulty of adopting a consistent position was underlined by my visit last week to the scene of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The obscenity of taking the life of any living creature notwithstanding, it was impossible not to be deeply moved by the ultimate sacrifice made by so many young combatants to protect the personal freedom that we now take for granted.

How to protect freedom threatened by a demonic autocracy while also protecting human life may well be an insoluble koan. But there is no doubt that an important contribution can be made by building trust across the world's divides. This is the principal objective of the global Initiatives of Change organisation, and the celebrated Fitzwilliam String Quartet - who, coincidentally, are leading interpreters of Britten's music - have just released a new CD informed by that laudable objective. The Kickstarter funded Absolutely! - Music for Jazz, Soloists + String Quartet is a collaboration between saxophone and flute virtosos Uwe Steinmetz, jazz violinst Mads Tolling and the Fitzwilliams. Uwe Steinmetz, who studied in Berlin, Bern, Madras and Boston and is a longtime collaborator with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, unfashionably combines his Christain faith and music making to "help people discover a deeper, healing and reconciling truth in an increasingly fragmented society".

Britten connections continue on the new CD with two arrangements by Steinmetz of Purcell Fantasias, while the Initiatives of Change connection is cemented by a dedication in the raga influenced title work to the organisation's Asia Plateau project in Panchgani; this Indian campus was founded by Mahatma Ghandi's grandson Rajmohan and Uwe Steinmetz lived there in 1999. Absolutely! was recorded for the independent Divine Art label in St Martin's Church, East Woodhay by Andrew Halifax and the natural - as opposed to digital - provenance of the reverberation is evident within seconds of auditioning. In my view the final track, an arrangement of Bach's Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in which Uwe Steinmetz's saxophone provides an improvised counterpoint to the violin line, is worth the purchase price of the CD alone.

With its booklet quotations from mystic Gurdjieff and evangelist Frank Buchman this new brave new CD is an easy target for the social media cynics. In fact such cynicism has some foundation as Buchman was founder of Moral Rearmament, the organisation that in 2001 transformed itself into Initiatives of Change, a transformation which is treated sketchily in the organisation's official and revisionist history. Buchman, whose whole doctrine was based on what he termed "absolute moral standards", made a famously unwise reference to Hitler, while the Christian culture of Moral Rearmament movement at times had unfortunate pre-echoes of today's religious right. But it is best to accept that koans are never easy to solve and be glad that Initiatives of Change with its impressive multi-cultural credentials and the energizing music of Absolutely! with its rich meta content add a welcome spoonful of idealism to today's relentless diet of self-interested commercialism.

* The Fitzwilliams recording of John Ramsay's String Quartets featured in Classical music is excited about the wrong things.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How John Cage was totally wired

The apotheosis of the first phase, however, was an extraordinary event called Pseudo Immercion. This grew out of an approach by members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), whose founder had been in the vanguard of the uptown avant-garde for fifty years and had heard about Pseudo through the art grapevine. At the centre of the event was a performance of Suite for Five, a piece first presented in 1956 to music composed by Cunningham’s late partner, the celebrated composer John Cage, with visuals by the MCDC’s designer and sometime stage manager, pop art godhead Robert Rauschenberg.

As New York as lox, Cunningham and Suite for Five awed the young pseudites, while the dancer rejoiced in the youngsters’ energy and sense of possibility. [Dennis] Adamo and [V. Owen] Bush borrowed a sophisticated Silicon Graphics computer animation system which allowed a delighted Cunningham to make a toy monkey dance as if it were alive, with flesh-and-blood members of the Company scattered and projected across the space in a two-hour symphony of sound and movement. The choreographer’s sound designer even brought the original equipment Cage used for his 1976 performance of Branches, which involved attaching microphones to the quills and flesh of a giant cactus, producing ethereal kalimba-like shudders and pulses when ‘played’ by guests; there were also outsized theremin poles, which created an electrostatic field dancers could ‘play’ in the way of a musical instrument with their motion. In return the Pseudo crew built an orchestra pit filled with experimental instruments mixed according to Cage’s chance-based Fluxus system.
That description of a 1995 happening curated by high profile and short-lived web and TV portal comes from Andrew Smith’s Totally Wired. Subtitled The Wild Rise and Crazy Fall of the First Dotcom Dream Andrew Smith’s acclaimed book contains many important lessons for classical music; not least how fame mutates into free-floating celebrity, a form of equity whose Wall Street he identifies as the electronic media.There Is an eighteen year disconnect between the text and the images: I took the photos last week at the annual Scopitone digital art festival in Nantes, France. These images can only hint at the power of these installations which use sound as well as light to transmit a very powerful contact high.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

A little less shit happened in the real world today

Synchronicity abounds: last night I was reading Ajahn Amaro on the first Buddhist precept of not taking the life of any living creature. This morning I woke here at our rented property in France to find the apparently lifeless body of a young cat with its head wedged in a square section metal pipe that had been left lying on the ground nearby. Further investigation showed that the cat was still just alive, but very firmly wedged in the pipe – presumably having chased a mouse into the pipe at speed. Trying to pull the poor creature only produced awful cries of pain. I then tried putting water and shampoo onto its fur to help it slip out, but all to no avail. Which left the awful choice of risking breaking its neck trying to pull it out, or letting it die horribly. Two locals who appeared told me to kill it humanely – humane maybe but still taking the life of a living creature.

By now almost two hours had passed. So in one last desperate attempt I cut four splints out of a plastic milk bottle, lubricated them with moisturising cream, and forced them between the head and the sides of the pipe. I then pulled very hard in the knowledge that either the cat would come free or die of strangulation. First an ear appeared, then painfully slowly the whole head came out; the head was unbelievably big, as cats have flexible skulls I assume it had forced its way past a small ridge at the end of the tube and the skull had then expanded, firmly trapping it.

But its ordeal was not over: although there had been squeals of pain during the rescue the little creature was now seemingly lifeless in my wife’s arms. But women are so much better at mettā than men, and soon there were faint signs of life. For two hours the cat lay still on a blanket. When it started to stir we put a little milk in its mouth and moved it in the sun. After sleeping deeply for a while it woke suddenly, looked at me in puzzlement, stood up and walked rather shakily to the edge of the deck. It then jumped to the ground and trotted off into the undergrowth where we know it lives with its feral family.

There are many morals to this tale; these include the foolishness of sticking your head in metal tubes, the truth of the first Buddhist precept, the importance of one last try and the life-saving properties of plastic bottles and cosmetics. My photo of the cat complete with moisturising cream hair style is proof that thanks to Ajahn Amaro, a little less shit happened in the real world today.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

In classical music all things must pass

'It happens to everything eventually, it all must be trampled underfoot. Whether it is Tibetan culture being destroyed by the red cadres of the Cultural Revolution, British institutions being demolished by Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, or Buddhism being wiped from India by the Turkish invasions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Kali in her many manifestations will take them all. The good things just seem to last longer, but they have to go, their goodness corrupted from within; sometimes they can be like old trees – still outwardly impressive but with rotting centres, waiting to fall with the next storm. The Buddha said that although his teachings would last for five thousand years, they too would eventually disappear.'

That is Nick Scott writing in Rude Awakenings, the chronicle of his pilgrimage with Ajahn Succito to sacred Buddhist sites in India. My photographs taken at a butterfly farm on L’Isle de Noumourtier graphically remind us of how impermanent good things are: in the wild a butterfly’s lifespan is between one and nine months. Nick Scott’s reference to Margaret Thatcher’s handbag locates the writing in the 1980s, but the sentiments apply equally today. In classical music we see an outwardly impressive art form hiding a rotting centre corrupted from within, with the rot currently particularly virulent in certain music blogs and Minneapolis. The Buddhist viewpoint that all things must pass is not nihilistic. Impermanence, a concept which classical music adopted from Buddhism via John Cage, teaches that, although the good things are eventually trampled underfoot and disappear, they are in turn replaced by other good things. The message is quite clear: we should accept the inevitability of impermanence, disassociate ourselves from the rotting centre of classical music and channel our energy into making the next storm the perfect one. That way all the old trees will fall, clearing the ground for a new generation of good things.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

But does it tick the orgasm box?

When considering whether he should or should not conduct Mahler’s reconstituted Tenth Symphony Leonard Bernstein unabashedly said to a colleague “I have one question, will it give me an orgasm?”
That anecdote appears in Jonathan Cott’s Dinner with Lenny. Classical music today is all about box ticking. We ask does it tick the accessibility box? Does it tick the inclusivity box? Does it tick the equality box? Does it tick the funding box? And does it tick the Twitter box? However, somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten the most important question: does it tick the orgasm box?

Dinner with Lenny was borrowed from the Second Air Division Memorial Library, Norwich. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Dalai Lama’s Cat

While on the road read David Michie’s engaging The Dalai Lama’s Cat, photographed enlightened temple cat at Le Jardin des Olfacties and heard Ton-That Tiêt's bracing Les Sourires de Bouddha.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

This post-digital spring feels very right

Modern Occidentalism is threatening to flatten out the whole world and mold it to a single rather dull pattern, throwing away all that diversity whereby man has expressed himself through the centuries. Not only are all the Oriental civilizations in acute danger as a result of the Western encroachment, but also the West itself seems prepared to let go whatever was great or worthwhile in its own heritage.
That is Marco Pallis, who featured in a previous path, writing in his seminal contribution to the perennial wisdom school Peaks and Lamas. He made that prognosis half a century before the digital revolution, but his words are eerily prophetic of how the early promise of digitally-empowered wisdom of crowds mutated into social media-empowered conformity of crowds. However change is a constant and Marco Pallis and his fellow perennialists can justifiably be criticized for opposing progress. But now there are signs that perennial wisdom is mutating into a post-digital Spring which embraces the cultural diversity that Marco Pallis celebrates while leveraging the possibilities offered by inevitable progress. One example is a new CD on the French independent NeoNovo label from the ensemble HeeJaz seen above led by young Egyptian oud player Mohamed Abozekry, who studied under oud master Naseer Shamma in Cairo. Parenthetically titled [Chaos], the new album fuses cultural diversity and contemporary values in an eclectic set delivered by Mohamed Abozekry’s oud and HeeJaz musicians Guillaume Hogan (acoustic guitar), Anne-Laure Bourget (tablas, dehola, cajon, daf) and Hugo Reydet (acoustic bass) - video sample here. [Chaos] is the antithesis of the dull patterns that Marco Pallis laments and everything about this post-digital spring feels very right/rite, with a bonus track dedicated to the ongoing Egyptian revolution available for free download from the band’s website adding topically rich meta content.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Poolside with Lenny

Recent reading has included the newly published Dinner with Lenny, a full-length transcript of Leonard Bernstein’s last major interview which was given to Jonathan Cott in 1989 and originally intended for publication in in Rolling Stone magazine. Their discussion goes where today’s classical music revisionists dare not go and at one point the musician and Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan is quoted in the context of Bernstein’s Mahler interpretations. There is more wisdom in one page of Dinner with Lenny than in the entire oeuvre of today’s self-styled cultural commentators and if Universal Music’s Max Hole and BBC Radio 3’s Roger Wright would but take the time to read it the world would be a slightly better place. My own brush with what Jonathan Cott tactfully describes as the polyamorous Lenny is recounted in Simply chic symphonies?.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Dinner with Lenny was borrowed from the Second Air Division memorial Library, Norwich and my thanks go to Henry Tevelin who sponsored the acquisition of the volume thereby allowing me to share it with readers. Header photo is © On An Overgrown Path 2013. 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)