Sunday, November 24, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Britten looking forward

To celebrate his 50th birthday Benjamin Britten, who was not a fan of anniversary celebrations, was invited to write an article for the Sunday Telegraph. However the result - titled Britten looking back - was not what the newspaper expected, because it was devoted entirely to discussing the creative current that arced between Britten and his teacher Frank Bridge. Transmission - the process by which eternal wisdom passes from teacher to student - has been likened to an electric current arcing from one conductor (electrical not musical!) to another. The master's role is to transmit the teachings that lead to enlightenment, and although transmission is usually associated with Buddhism, it also occur in classical music. In 1963 Britten expressed his dislike of anniversaries when he asked a friend "What's so special about being 50?". So to celebrate his 100th birthday I am not following the well-worn path of eulogizing the man and his music, but instead offer Britten looking forward, a discursive exploration of how the creative dharma passed from him to two contemporary composers.

Britten was not a teacher in the formal sense; but transmission extends beyond formal teachings and Britten gave the essential encouragement that launched a number of young composers on their careers, with Oliver Knussen recently recalling how "Britten pointed me on the right path in the simplest, kindest way". Another composer who benefitted from that essential encouragement was Jonathan Harvey, who in a radio interview with me described how he met Britten at Repton and was then invited to Aldeburgh after showing the senior composer a sample of his compositions. Jonathan tells of how at the Red House he spent time "playing tennis, going for a swim, and meeting rather distinguished people". Britten arranged for Jonathan to formally study with Erwin Stein, but, despite the divergence of their composing styles, Jonathan describes Britten in the interview as:

... a wonderful teacher - brilliant - he could tell immediately what was going to work and what was not going to work, what would be effective and what not, and that was an enormous help.
And just as Jonathan Harvey received transmission from Britten and other masters including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt, so the creative current arced from Jonathan Harvey to another young composer.

Ramon Humet, who is seen above, met Jonathan in 2000 at a summer workshop for young composers organised by the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia. Born in Barcelona in 1968, Humet had studied composition with Josep Soler and his work as a telecommunications engineer had given him a grounding in electronics and acoustics. That meeting in 2000 between Ramon Humet and Jonathan Harvey changed the course of the young composer's career. He began to explore the infinite possibilities offered by spectralism, guided by the senior composer's view that "ultimately spectralism is at the basis of music, it is the nature of sound". An endorsement contributed by Jonathan Harvey to the 2007 recording of Humet's piano cycle Escenas del bosc reads:

Ramon Humet's music is delicate and subtle, with high poetic imagination. Humet is a hope for the future; he has a fine ear, and a spirit full of light.
That reference to "a spirit full of light" shows how the chain of transmission spread beyond the purely musical. In the radio interview Jonathan Harvey describes how Buddhism influenced his life and music, and Eastern culture - particularly Japanese art and the discipline of the haiku - is also an important influence on Ramon Humet. A fascination with the East has found expression in Humet's music; notably in his tetraptych Música del Esse (Music of non-being), and in other works such as Quatre jardins Zen (Four Zen gardens) and Jardí de Haikus (Garden of Haikus). This links Humet not only to Jonathan Harvey, but also to Benjamin Britten, whose fascination with the East influenced many of his works including the three church parables which have been described as "poised between... Zen-Buddhist symbolism and and Christian medieval morality play".

György Ligeti, Toru Takemitsu, Per Norgard and George Benjamin were among the stylistic influences on the emerging composer and in 2007 Humet was awarded the Olivier Messiaen International Composition Prize. This resulted in international recognition in the form of a commission from Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and in 2007 Humet's third book of Escenes del bosc was set as a mandatory piece for the prestigious Concours Olivier Messiaen de piano. The header photo is from the acclaimed 2013 production of Ramon Humet's opera-oratorio Sky Disc (Disc del Cel) for Halle Opera which, with a libretto by Rebecca Simpson, dramatises the story of the mysterious astrological artefact known as the Nebra Sky Disc found near Halle in 1999.

Two recent recordings of Ramon Humet's music are noteworthy. Música del no Ésser, an impressive sounding CD from the Spanish Tritó label, couples the title work with the composer's Piano Concerto "And The World Was Calm". Música del no Ésser is a four movement work and, like Jonathan Harvey's 'Glasgow Trilogy' of Body Mandala, Speakings and …towards a Pure Land, the movements can be performed independently or together. Completed in 2010, the themes of Música del no Ésser are described by the composer as being "generated by a very concise melodic motif". Each movement is inspired by a line from the death poem by the 14th century Zen monk Daido Ichi:
A tune of non-being
Filling the void:
Spring sun
Snow whiteness
Bright clouds
Clear Wind.
Ramon Humet's preoccupation with Japanese culture also informs the newly released CD Niwa on which the London Sinfonietta directed by Nicholas Collon play Quatre Jardins Zen for three percusionists, Jardí de Haikus for violin, cello, piano and three persussionists, and Pètals, for violin, cello and piano. Niwa is the Japanese for garden and, like Toru Takemitsu, Humet's music is influenced and inspired by the stylistic economy of Zen gardens. This new CD is on the new independent Spanish label Neu (New) Records which will also be releasing Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham (Homage to Martha Graham); samples can be heard on the Neu Records website.

Neu Records are trying to beat the hegemony of downloads by releasing physical CDs presented in exquisite packaging and with comprehensive documentation, supplemented by added value downloads offered exclusively to CD purchasers. Niwa, which is seen below, was recorded in both stereo and surround sound mixes and the label makes a major feature of the 24bits/96kHz recordings being made available as FLAC 5.1 downloads to purchasers of the album with the headline of their website declaring 'Surround Contemporary Music'. Their surround sound mixes puts the clock back to the notorious Bernstein/CBS Rite of Spring by locating the listener in the middle of the musicians - see session photo below.

Majoring on the surround mix seems rather a questionable strategy as 5.1 soundcards are not common except among video gamers, and, as well as a 5.1 soundcard, four matching monitor-quality speakers are required to create an acceptable surround image. All of that to put the listener in the middle of the performers; which is somewhere, personally, that I do not want to be. Then there is the question of whether the mix is optimised for stereo or surround listening... Apologies for being rather hard on a new label that is daring to be different. But, personally, I would much prefer Neu Records to offer high resolution multi-channel stereo (front image with rear reverb) and SACD formats. But don't let that technical diversion put you off, because Niwa in its sonically outstanding Red Book CD guise is an excellent introduction to the music of Ramon Humet.

Classical music has an over-abundance of 'outstanding young talents' and 'unrecognised geniuses' and I have no intention of adding to that surfeit. But Ramon Humet's music is particularly noteworthy as an examples of what in the radio interview, and also in Arnold Whittall's invaluable 1999 biography, Jonathan Harvey described as the vital marriage between linear music and global music. By linear music he meant the classical music of past centuries - "composing against what has already happened, what has been established as a pattern". And by global music he did not mean cross-cultural world music, but transcendental music that concerns itself with eternity and spirituality and "seeing everything as a whole, as a unity". This is the music of eternal wisdom - dharma - that evolved in the second half of the 20th century from composers such as Stockhausen and Messiaen.

The transition from linear to global involves "thinking about time in a different way", moving from the detail of the past to a world view that transcends temporal and stylistic constraints. Ramon Humet's Microludis fractals is based on computer generated fractal sequences while Jonathan Harvey used technology to create his own unique fusion of the linear and global in works such Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, Speakings and Wagner Dream. Benjamin Britten was both a beneficiary and critic of the linear technology of the gramophone, and the tension between linear and global appears in recorded music, where the transition from linear technologies such as LPs and CDs to the global technologies of downloads and cloud computing has had a cataclysmic impact on the music industry.

We are currently celebrating the Britten centenary, a genius whose creative span stretched from the linear Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which with its roots in Purcell was composed against the background of the past, to the global Third String Quartet, which looks forward to death and eternity. The Young Person's Guide was written in 1945 when recorded music was only available on shellac 78s, while the Third String Quartet was composed in the same year that Telenet - a commercial computer network that was a forerunner of the internet - was launched. Both classical music and technology have changed beyond recognition since Britten's death in 1976, and Jonathan Harvey and Ramon Humet are just two beneficiaries of a continuing chain of musical and cultural transmission in which Britten is a vital link. Another link is the valuable work of the Britten-Pears Foundation and Aldeburgh Music; with their workshops, residencies and commissions these two organisations continue to transmit the dharma thereby allowing a new generation of composers to create, to quote Daido Ichi, "music of non-being filling the void". Even if official celebrations have not found quite the right balance between the material linear and transcendental global, there are still many good reasons to celebrate the Britten centenary this week.

Sources include:
~ Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whittall
~ Benjamin Britten by Humphrey Carpenter
~ Reincarnation: The Boy Lama by Vicki Mackenzie
~ The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony by Stephen Schwarz
~ Interview with Jonathan Harvey by Bob Shingleton broadcast on Future Radio Sept 5 2010. For broadcast purposes this interview was edited to 28 minutes followed by a performance of Speakings. Following Jonathan's tragically early death this interview has become an important historical document. So the links in this post point to the unedited master file of the interview which contains an additional 28 minutes of material. The includes, just to give one example, Jonathan's memories of Hans Keller. As the interview is unedited there are some minor fluffs, but these are a small price to pay for such a rich document. For copyright reasons the performance of Speakings is faded out.

CDs of music by Ramon Humet:
~ Música del no Ésser on Tritó
~ Escenas del bosc on Ars Harmonica
~ Niwa on Neu Records

Scores of Ramon Humet's music are available from Tritó Edicions

* On An Overgrown Path will now take an extended break as I will be spending Benjamin Britten's birthday and my own numerically less auspicious birthday on the same day in a Benedictine monastery up a mountain in France out of the reach of radio, TV and the internet, but with Gregorian Chant to delight me. Of necessity there will be a delay in moderating comments and answering emails. Back sometime in December I hope.

** Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). V 1.1 30/11 with session photo.

Everything you want to know about Amazon and Sinfini

Cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht proclaims that he...
"dislike(s) everything about Amazon, starting with its immoderation and ending with its dumpbins of good books at penny prices. It renders every writer altogether disposable".
So it is worth noting that Sinfini Music directs buyers of its Norman Lebrecht Album of the Week to Amazon. Which renders every independent record store and many record labels disposable.

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

How classical music painted itself into a corner

My best personal example is that I seem to have developed a resistance to the latest "sensational" pianist/soprano/tenor/whatever. This item provides a convincing rationale. Do I miss something with this attitude? Perhaps ... but if the newest sensation lasts, you usually catch up with them sooner or later anyhow.
That comment was added by a regular reader who is part of classical music's core audience to a recent post about classical music shouting too loudly. It highlights how classical music has painted itself into a corner - the core audience which classical music remains stubbonly dependent on is becoming increasingly resistant to the shrill hype of the PR machine, while the long-promised new audience that the hype is aimed at refuses to materialise.

Reader Scott provides one example of the growing resistance to hype, On An Overgrown Path provides another. Press releases arriving in my inbox are treated with extreme suspicion and stories covered by Norman Lebrecht, Sinfini Music and others in the culturally commentated world are treated as damaged goods. Which is my choice - this is a personal blog and my pleasure is to choose what I write about. But therein lies the problem; As music journalism surrenders to the shrill hype of the PR machine, so it loses authority. For better or worse, On An Overgrown Path's non-aligned position means it has retained a degree of authority, but I find myself increasingly unwilling to exert that authority for fear of becoming just another cog in the classical music PR machine.

These musings were sparked by an unsolicited email from the young British Vienna-based conductor George Jackson. I almost sent it the trash bin together with news of yet another child prodigy. But several things about the email caught my eye: it was written not by a PR agency but by George Jackson personally, and he clearly was a reader of my blog - you would be very surprised how many emails arrive from PR agencies asking me to promote X Factor contestants. Moreover George was sharing a video of his Wiener Musikverein debut conducting Ombres by the contemporary composer Michael Jarrell, and it was nice to see not too many empty seats in the Musikverein for that concert.

Music journalism has traded authority for impact. Which means it is failing emerging talents like George Jackson, because it no longer provides the balanced and independent media coverage needed for their careers to develop in a measured fashion. On An Overgrown Path is also failing these musicians because, in common with most of the core audience, it has developed a severe adverse reaction to the shrill hype of the PR industry. That is how classical music painted itself into a corner.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Pizza and the Wolf

'Peter was a sort of gourmet,' says Elizabeth Sweeting, 'but Ben always liked nursery food.' This consisted of 'herrings, treacle puddings and apple puddings - and his guests got things like that'.
Benjamin Britten's gastronomic tastes are revealed in Humphrey Carpenter's authorised biography. The admirable Britten centenary celebrations in Norwich - Our Hunting Fathers was a 1936 Norwich and Norfolk Festival commission - include 'Pizza and the Wolf', billed as "a unique informal evening of classical music, with pieces you will recognise and remember, including music by Benjamin Britten, enjoyed with pizza!" Given his penchant for nursery food I am sure Ben would approve. But shame about the Wolf/Wulf double entendre.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

What classical music can learn from jumping fleas

Received wisdom (though they back it up with figures) amongst the classical music marketers I know is that audiences are no longer persuaded to listen to an unfamiliar work by the presence of an old favourite in the second half - in fact, that the opposite effect now holds good: 5 minutes of new music in a programme will actually deter people from listening to music they already know and like. I have to say that my own observation seems to support this.
My recent post about how audiences become what they listen to is given painful relevance by that comment which was added to the Facebook discussion on another post about falling attendances at classical concerts. Richard Bratby made the comment in a personal capacity, but as his day job is senior education and ensembles co-ordinator at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra his wisdom is worth noting. Of particularly concern is that the short-term fix of serving up only music that people already know and like now means that classical radio stations are extracting 'greatest hits' movements from complete works; so how long before this idiocy spreads to the concert hall? Just one example of the 'greatest hits' mentality was Tuesday's BBC Radio 3 breakfast programme which served up single movements from each of the following complete works: Tchaikovsky and Mahler symphonies, Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn concertos, a Borodin string quartet, and a Bach cantata. If classical music 'experts' like BBC Radio 3 controller Roger Wright - who recently laughably declared "Context is all - the mundane programme is our enemy" and Universal Music ceo Max Hole - whose condescending classics brainchild Sinfini Music provides my graphics - really want to know why classical music audiences are shrinking they should reflect on this fable:
There once lived a man who trained fleas. As soon as they were born, he carefully separated them and put them in their individual glass jars. He put enough food in each jar for them to survive and sealed them with metal lids which had holes in them so they could breathe. Soon they began to grow larger and larger, and, fleas being flea, began to flex their muscles. Unfortunately, every time they jumped the young fleas would hit the lid. And after several jumps, the fleas learnt to gauge the height of the jump exactly so that they wouldn't hit the lid and damage themselves. In due course the man removed the tops of the jars. At last freedom was possible! However, the fleas had already learnt to jump only so high and no higher. And that's how the freedom that was theirs by birthright and only a short hop away was lost for ever.

Fable comes from Five Minute Stretch by Robert Thé - it's a long story so please don't ask. 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, November 13, 2013

The lost generation of composer sages

News of the tragically early death of John Tavener is followed by an email from John McLaughlin Williams telling me that the neo-romantic composer Arnold Rosner, seen above, has passed away age 68. Rosner was of Jewish descent and lived on the East Coast of the States where his prolific output included operas, symphonies and string quartets. In 2006 John McLaughlin Williams recorded his Symphony No. 5 Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina (Mass without Voices on the Salve Regina cantus firmus) for Naxos. That lamentably overlooked symphony, which is dedicated to 1972 US presidential candidate George McGovern, featured in a 2008 post. When asked why a Jewish composer wrote neo-Christian works Rosner replied "In the last analysis, my answer - if not too glib - is: Music is my Religion". Arnold Rosner is part of a lost generation of composer sages whose talents have been buried by venal forces. Let us hope their time will come.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Farewell to composer who championed the inner truth

So much modern music is taken up with the construction of musical jigsaws. I'm not saying, of course, that modern composers do not think about anything other than music. But from my point of view, their music is an idolatory of systems, procedures and notes. If inner truth is not revealed in our music, then it is false. It is one thing to follow a spiritual inclination and another to suppose that the idolatory of 'art' is any sort of realization of the spirit.
Those are the words of Sir John Tavener who has died age 69. My personal measure of a composer's greatness is how often I listen to their music, and, quite unfashionably, in recent years I have spent a lot of time with Sir John's music. Recently I wrote of his links with the perennial wisdom tradition and his The Veil of the Temple - distilled from the eight hour original to a two hour recording - has travelled with me on my iPod effortlessly across state and cultural boundaries; I remember being particularly moved listening to it in the early morning in a Moroccan Berber village a few years ago. Sir John's spiritual home was, of course, the Orthodox Church and my travels this summer to the Priory of Santa Maria del Vilar in Languedoc, now home to a Romanian Orthodox monastic community, were greatly enhanced by listening to his Ikon of Eros in the recording by the musicians it was written for, the now tragically jeopardised Minnesota Orchestra.

Earlier this year I wrote of how Sir John's later works distilled his wide-ranging esotericism down to something truly approaching the inner wisdom of gnosis, and recommended his Lament for Jerusalem for those blocked by Song for Athene. Two years earlier a post about Sir John's syncretic Requiem described the final movement Ananda, a pulsating arch built around the words "I am that - I am God" sung in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and Arabic, as a thing of both great beauty and truth. A passion for Sir John Tavener's music is almost certainly the only thing enthusiasm that I share with our heir to the throne. Prince Charles commissioned The Beautiful Names, a work based on the ninety-nine names for Allah found in the Qur'an, and Sunnah, and a commercial recording of this paean to perennial wisdom is overdue. After so long in the musical wilderness the tide was at last turning back towards Sir John's timeless vision of inner truth. His early death is a grievous loss and my thoughts go to Maryanna and his family.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Portrait of Sir John Tavener by Páll Guðmundsson via Maryanna Tavener. Quote is from John Tavener: The Music of Silence edited by Brain Keeble. 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).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why was Marin Alsop's London concert half empty?

I have been attending concerts at the Southbank, recitals and orchestral, since 1969. I can attest to the fact the audience composition has changed little in terms of the preponderance of silver hair over that time... But the saddest thing is the sharp decline in total audience size over the last few years. I have seen this in concerts of all types. I was surprised to see a concert with the Suisse Romande Orchestra and Berekovsky in the Grieg Concerto less than half full. Similarly, the recent Berio/Bernstein concert with Marin Alsop and the Sao Paulo Orchestra again was less than half full. The Zimmermann Ecclesiastical Action concert [with Vladimir Jurowski conducting and Ein deutsches Requiem in the second half - Pliable] was less than a third full. These are just a few examples that spring to mind.
That is part of a comment added by David Murphy to Does classical music really understand its audience. Elsewhere David describes the once prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall as:
... a scene now of squalor, holed carpets, shabby seating, destroyed acoustic due to clutter around thd stage, a once ice-cool sixties now degraded foyer with cheap stud partitioning and a group of untidy usherettes who look as if they just left the night shift at a 24hrs Tescos.
and writes of the...
still astoundingly poor acoustic of the Festival Hall... The front rows of the circle give a commanding view, but again the sound is distant, unfocused, unclear and dead. The rear stalls is the Lost World of concert going. I am not kidding when I tell you I have been surrounded by people actually sleeping during a concert, one snoring quite audibly and not out of tune with the Schumann symphony that could be heard playing in the distance like a phantom radio programme on the BBC World Service long wave.
These comments are directed at a specific London venue and there are fine new halls in Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere that do not suffer from all these shortcomings. In mitigation the Southbank Centre's Rest Is Noise festival is, arguably, bucking the trend of declining audiences, while there are draft proposals, without a timescale, to refurbish the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But David Murphy also criticises the Royal Festival Hall which was refurbished - including an acoustic makeover in 2007 at a cost of £111 million. So reports of a half-empty Marin Alsop concert in the Royal Festival Hall after all the mass media exposure she received just a few months before at the Last Night of the Proms should sound alarm bells, even if Camargo Guarnieri and Luciano Berio were on the programme. The Association of British Orchestras recently asked a rock music executive to tell them what is wrong with classical music. So I thought it worth giving one of the ABO's paying customers the opportunity to provide an alternative take on how core audience sizes are dropping, how no compensating new audience is emerging despite high profile initiatives, and how the environment - acoustic and ambient - in which the music is presented is being degraded.

David Murphy's views may be trenchant, but they are shared. Some years ago I was spending much of my life in the Royal Festival Hall, but now I find few compelling reasons to visit it. Last month was a rare exception when I attended some of the Rest Is Noise festival events. In a post I wrote that "the buzz created by the 'access all areas' festival was certainly impressive". But because I am part of the much despised ageing audience and also because some readers think I complain too much - to which I reply perhaps other bloggers don't complain enough - I thought it best not mention the tawdry feel of the Southbank Centre, which is now more suburban shopping mall than world class concert hall - see photo below of foyer. I am sorry, but asking for carpets without holes is not being elitist, it is being realistic - when that elusive new hip young audience finally arrives it will doubtless demand designer carpets without holes. As we walked away from the bustling but tacky Southbank Centre last month my wife and I agreed that it was good to be back, but it would take an awful lot to make us return in the near future.

Yes, of course it is the music that matters and the comments quoted above are directed at one London concert venue in particular. (Although, sorry Promers, but the Royal Albert Hall is no better in acoustic or comfort terms). But in the year when we are venerating Benjamin Britten we have conveniently forgotten his wise words that "music... demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place". What David Murphy confirms is that classical music is destroying those 'special places' while, at the same time, congratulating itself on becoming more egalitarian.

What is breathtaking is classical music's inability to see the blindingly obvious. How can a celebrity musician be paid $16,5 million a year when classical music is pleading poverty and a major London music venue has a seriously flawed acoustic, threadbare carpets and shabby seating? How can classical music continue to reinvent itself as entertainment when it is obvious that, as a result, its core audience is deserting it without any compensating gain in new audience? Sorry to keep complaining; but the alternative is to join the cultural commentators in lauding today's fashionable condescending classics culture while staying silent about classical music's increasing propensity for self-harm. As I said a few days ago and as David Murphy now confirms, classical music is living in cloud cuckoo land.

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Saturday, November 09, 2013

Concerto for fuselage of unfinished model airplane

With a bow to conductor Leopold Stokowski, a bow to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a bow to the audience in Manhattan's Philharmonic Hall, stocky Kimio Eto adjusted his formal robes and settled before a 6-ft.-long stringed instrument that looked like the fuselage of an unfinished model airplane [see photo above]. He bowed again, and a kettledrum thundered to begin the premiere of modernist composer Henry Cowell's Concerto for Koto and Orchestra, the first concerto ever composed by a Westerner for the 1,100-year-old Japanese instrument.
That report is from Time magazine in January 1965. Japanese born Kimio Eto (1924-2102), who was blind from the age of five, was recognised as a master of the thirteen-stringed koto. Although, to my knowledge, there have been no recordings of Henry Cowell's two Koto Concertos, enterprising independent Cherry Red records has just released an excellent CD transfer of the 1962 Kimio Eto - Art of the Koto: The Music of Japan which includes three duets with jazz flautist Bud Shanks. There is a touching description of a 1962 recital in New York by Kimio Seto in Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966 by Thich Nhat Hanh in which the Vietnamese Zen master describes how "Americans like to eat Japanese food, listen to koto music, attend tea ceremonies, and arrange flowers". Topical dependent arising includes a path from Henry Cowell to Colin McPhee and on to Benjamin Britten; read more in Colin McPhee - East collides with West.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

So you wanted a young audience

Photo was taken at last night's Hare Krishna Festival in Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall, a venue more familiar as the University Faculty of Music's performance space and sometime home of the Britten Sinfonia. A few years ago I wrote about the success of the George Harrison produced Radha Krsna Temple records and suggested classical music could capitalise on the enormous mind, body and spirit market. Now in an admirably informative post about The Rest is Noise festival Jessica Duchen quotes Sofia Gubaidulina as saying "Art is always spiritual, because it springs from the subconscious, intuitive part of the mind... it reconnects us with a higher power, the higher part of our own spirit". More on this in Classical music's $11 billion market opportunity.

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Classical music is living in cloud cuckoo land

I grew up around the Boston Symphony because my father was in the orchestra. There was a time, believe it or not, when Boston audiences were more interested in music making than celebrity. The great soloists of the 1960s and 1970s were celebrated because of the way they played or the way they sang. People often went to concerts for the program, and the soloist was a special treat. I remember hearing Rudolf Serkin [seen above] play Brahms.

There were people who loved the orchestra because they loved the principal wind players. Harold Wright and Sherman Walt, for example, mattered far more than "whomever" was conducting. Bernstein may have been heavily marketed (because he exemplified, at least on the surface, the possibilities of celebrity and the popularlizing of orchestral music), but he genuinely made music. He really was a musical giant. For the Boston Symphony his celebrity was worth the price. Hearing great pianists like Richard Goode and Alfred Brendel play Beethoven or Schubert was always about Beethoven, Schubert, and excellent piano playing. Hearing Elly Ameling sing a recital of art songs was all about singing, not whom she happened to be.

I have known my share of important musicians (important because of what they could do with a phrase, a piece, or a whole concert) who had careers during the time before the great cultural change. Somehow I equate the change with the beginning of the Regan administration. That's when the culture shifted in America, and the "marketplace" moved to the cultural center. And American attitudes influenced the rest of the world.

Chamber Musicians used to rely solely on managements to get them concerts, and getting taken under the wing of a management used to be the only way of having a career. Having a "career" used to mean you had lots of concerts to play. Now having a "career" seems to mean something different for all the reasons you mentioned in your post. For the record, I don't give a fig about a career. I care only about the music.

That comment was added to Classical music is shouting so loud people can't hear it by Elaine Fine. It is being reblogged not only because is it a powerful and passionate example of writing that puts the re-heated press releases and salacious gossip found elsewhere to shame, but also because it is so true. Yes, as Elaine point out, there were celebrities in the past. But they were huge and inspiring talents and their expensive celebrity lifestyles did not extend to the legions of middle feeders that classical music now not only supports but also rewards very handsomely.

Elaine hits the nail on the head when she says the problems started when classical music became part of Western consumer culture. As a result there are now too many money junkies in classical music and there is only one way they can all keep getting their financial fixes - by expanding the market exponentially. Which overlooks two rather obvious facts. The first is that the market is not big enough to expand exponentially; the second is that attempts to pull in the entertainment-sized audiences needed to feed their celebrity money habit are not only failing dismally, but they are also driving away classical music's vitally important core market.

Superstar classical musicians may well be paid eye-watering salaries because somebody is willing to pay. But celebrity salaries raise expectations unrealistically elsewhere and create destructive tensions at a time when arts funding is under extreme pressure and fellow musicians face penury. It is a sign of the times that there is more outrage at Valery Gergiev's tenuous links to Russia's despicable anti-gay policies than to his very tangible $16.5 million income. Forget all the smart big new ideas; just tell celebrity musicians and those that surround them that available funding, the size of the market, and, indeed, the art itself cannot support multi-million dollar incomes.
Until that happens classical music is living in cloud cuckoo land.

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Thursday, November 07, 2013

Jazz giant jives to different tunes

An impresario in the broadest and most creative sense of the word, the career of Quincy Jones [seen above] has encompassed the roles of composer, record producer, artist, film producer, arranger, conductor, instrumentalist, TV producer, record company executive, magazine founder, multi-media entrepreneur and humanitarian.. Quincy Jones has been nominated for a record 79 Grammys and won more Grammys than any living musician (27). He produced the best-selling album of all-time (Michael Jackson’s Thriller) & the best-selling single of all-time (We Are the World) and has produced, composed, conducted, arranged or performed on more than 400 albums... With a long history of humanitarian work which began in the 1960’s and 70’s, Jones was one of the key supporters of Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH. In 1985, he pioneered the model of using celebrity to raise money and awareness for a cause with “We Are the World...” - Qunicy Jones official website

The Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC) is a multi-racial, multi-issue, progressive, international membership organization fighting for social change. Our mission is to protect, defend, and gain civil rights by leveling the economic and educational playing fields, and to promote peace and justice around the world... We are dedicated to improving the lives of all people by serving as a voice for the voiceless - Rainbow PUSH website

The Abu Dhabi Festival 2014 is honouring the lifelong artistic contribution of Qunicy Jones the legendary American producer, composer, musician, and music mogul... Quincy Jones, who is currently in the UAE to present Dubai Music Week with the Global Gumbo Group (G3), said: “I am extremely proud that my work in the region is helping to hone and nurture the music and creative development of such a culturally rich and talented nation. I am honoured to have received a certificate of appreciation, and very much look forward to returning to the region to accept my award and enjoy the Festival in 2014” - Abu Dhabi Festival website

The human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) worsened in 2012 as authorities arbitrarily detained and deported civil society activists, and harassed and intimidated their lawyers. In September, an independent monitor found significant problems in the treatment of migrant workers on the high-profile Saadiyat Island project in Abu Dhabi, identifying the payment of illegal recruitment fees as a key concern - Human Rights Watch
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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Classical music is shouting so loud people can't hear it

'And like they say in the East, things have meaning outside the labels or descriptions you might give them. We've got to be conscious of that space. So words should not really be endpoints, but work best as doorways to understanding' - Robert Lax
A comment on Classical music must move to the edge of the network asking What exactly is the edge? reminded me of the wise thoughts above. As for words, so for classical music; which too should not be an endpoint, but rather a door to understanding. Classical music can only open that door if it returns to the space at the edge of the network. Because the centre is filled to bursting point with celebrity musicians, entertainment envy, over-paid radio presenters, commercial intermediaries, wunderkind, rock music executives, ethically tainted music festivals, dumbing down, cultural commentators, low-res audio files, Lamborghinis, classical charts, pop-up restaurants, reality TV, avaricious agents, embedded journalists, social media addiction, unethical sponsors, greed, vertical integration, anniversary tat, condescending classics, saviours, PR agencies, experts, composer anniversaries and other fashionable space wasters.

These big new ideas are part of the problem, not the solution. All classical music needs is the space in which to surprise, delight, challenge and enlighten, and it can learn a lot from my featured double CD. Improviser, composer, world music explorer and bansuri virtuoso Manuel Hermia has recorded a double CD titled The Whisper of the Orient on which Indian ragas, Arabic maqâms and Oriental styles are explored by an international cast of guest musicians. As Manuel Hermia says in the accompanying notes:

"Whereas over centuries, the West has produced the basis for a philosophy developed for reason and managed by it, the East has excelled in philosophical approaches whose wisdom comes from nothing more than the silence of the mind."
Classcial music's problem is quite simple: it is shouting so loud that people can't hear what it is saying. It can only find that essential silence by returning to the space at the edge of the network.

Header quote is from The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax by S.T. Georgiou. 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). No review samples were used in the post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

American Cheese - the cat who never stops smiling

As a counterpoint to reports that the Louisville Symphony Orchestra has appointed a 26 year old music director I offer the good news from Avignon that Wolfgang Zuckermann recently celebrated his 91st birthday and is in good health. Mr Zuckermann - who has become a legend in his own lifetime - played a central role in rehabilitating the harpsichord with his self-assembly kits and influential book The modern harpsichord. During his years in New York Wolfgang Zuckermann supplied instruments to John Cage and many other musicians from his workshop in Greenwich Village. Born in Berlin, he had become an American citizen in 1938 and fought with the Allies in World War II. But in 1969 he sold his harpsichord business and left America in protest against the Vietnam War. After settling in France he became a social activist, environmentalist and, eventually, bookshop owner, and it was in the latter role that I first met him.

In the 1990s Wolfgang Zuckermann worked as an editor and researcher for the Paris-based EcoPlan (also known as The Commons) - a think-tank established with the aim of studying the impact of technology and consumerism on peoples' daily lives and trying to do something about it. During his time at EcoPlan he wrote his fable Alice in Underland. This deals presciently with the now topical theme of the negatives that counterbalance the many positives of new technologies, and prompted Lawrence Ferlinghetti to say "Adults should read this [book] to find out how a sane child might view our demented grown-up world". Coincidentally - or perhaps not bearing in mind the starting point of this path - one of the principal characters in Alice in Underland is American Cheese, the cat who smiles every time you say her name.

I am afraid that is not American Cheese in my header photo: it is the resident cat at the lovingly restored La Lucerne Saint Trinity Abbey in Normandy which I visited recently. Cats are celebrated for their ability to sit for long periods doing nothing more than musing. While at EcoPlan Wolfgang Zuckermann developed an interactive project (which eventually morphed into Buy Nothing Day) called 'Consumer Holiday' - "the one day a year we turn off the economy and think about it". As prophecies of the negative impact of new technologies on our lives come true should we not follow Wolgang Zuckermann's example and instigate an 'Internet Holiday' - the one day a year we turn off the internet and think about it?

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Sunday, November 03, 2013

Classical music must return to the edge of the network

Don't let anyone accuse me of being a luddite when it comes to new technology. I have been professionally involved with the internet since the early 1990, created my first web site in 1995, contributed to the development of electronic commerce in the UK home entertainment market, worked closely with Amazon and other online retailers, consulted on intellectual property management, and have been blogging for almost ten years. But recent posts here have touched on how extended exposure to the internet is rewiring our brains and how online retailing has devastated the specialist independent retail sector. And don't let anyone accuse me of being a lone voice. My 2012 post Is there life after the Huffington Post? - a post incidentally I almost didn't write because I thought nobody would be interested in it - generated one of the largest readerships in the nine year history of On An Overgrown Path. Others believe the insidious influence of the internet goes even deeper and below are some chance thoughts on the subject from wiser heads than mine:
'[Jason] Calacanis has proposed a 'Harris's Law' - named after founder Jason Harris - that at some point, 'all humanity in an online community is lost, and the goal becomes to inflict as much psychological suffering as possible on another person'. Calacanis talks about most committed bloggers burning out after a few years, worn down by the bitter anonymous comments posted namelessly below their work' - Andrew Smith Totally Wired

'I share, therefore I am' - Sherry Turkle

'Controversy is what mediocre people start because they can't communicate anything meaningful' - G. Willow Wison The Butterfly Mosque

'Anonymity is probably the worst thing we have on the internet. It's only the hippy, 60s, Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF] contingent who still want that. Anonymity is great for a mature person; for an immature person or a damaged person, it's not. Empathy filters get turned off' - Jason Calacanis

'Godwin's Law', named after an observation by EEF founder Mike Godwin, predicts that, given enough time, any online debate will end with one party likening another's views to those of Hitler or the Nazis; at which point all hope of dialogue ends.

'Controversy is seen as the best thing for a writer's career short of actual success' -G. Willow Wison The Butterfly Mosque

'Publication is the auction of the Mind of Man' - Emily Dickinson

'We’re harvesting our lives and putting them online. We’re addicted to gaining followers and friends ... and reading comments we get in return. As we look for validation and our daily 15 minutes of fame, we do so at the cost of our humanity. What a shame, because there is so much to be gained from sharing. In summary, how we treat each other does matter. it matters because, without empathy, our lives are shallow, self-centred and meaningless. The internet and technology are turning on us...' - Jason Calacanis

'Intelligence moves to the edge of the network' - old tech adage
Industry experts tell us that classical music's future lies in the mythical mass market at the centre of the network. And that is utter nonsense; because if intelligence moves to the edge, so should classical music - both culturally and technically. Which is hardly a revelation as classical music flourished at the edge of the network before losing its way in the black hole that is now at the centre.

Header graphic is of an interactive electronic sculpture titled Artificial Analog Neural Network by Phillip Stearns and comes via Turbulence blog. 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). 
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Friday, November 01, 2013

How the intermediary has become the message

Perfect sound forever was the promise of the digital age, instead we have compromised sound from low resolution audio files. Citizen journalism was the promise of the digital age, instead we have the trolling of crowds on user-generated content sites such as TripAdvisor. More choice in a long tail was the promise of the digital age, instead we have the hegemony of Amazon and iTunes devastating the vitally important independent specialist retail sector. And disintermediation was the promise of the digital age, instead the intermediary has become the message.

There is no better example of how the intermediary has become the message than in music writing. After a few blessed years of blogs creating an almost level playing field, the arrival of Twitter and other micro-media platforms has imposed an intermediary layer that now largely controls what music writing is read. In July senior blogger Elaine Fine posted a perceptive piece titled The Gradual Fall of Music Bloggery. Since Elaine's post I have been closely monitoring the comprehensive readership data for On An Overgrown Path. Although this does not show the sharp audience decline that Elaine reports, it clearly shows that a broad regular readership has been replaced by a narrow regular readership supplemented by a highly volatile short term readership generated by social media links.

In simple language, if a post is highlighted on Twitter by a few social media gatekeepers it receives a large readership; if not it is dead meat. Let me make it clear that I am not blaming the gatekeepers: they are not self-appointed, but are appointed by an audience which has chosen to let an intermediary decide what it reads. But there are very big dangers in the rise of the social media gatekeeper. It is very easy to identify the hot buttons that appeal to the gatekeepers; the danger is the introduction into writing - consciously or unconsciously - of these hot buttons, irrespective of their merit, in order to open the readership gates.

Anecdotes are unreliable, so I recently carried out some experiments with hot and cold button posts. Contriving a reference to the hot button of Wagner in an otherwise 'cold' post generated almost double the readership of a broadly similar post about an even more deserving subject without a contrived hot button. In another more statistically significant test, I ran hot button and cold button posts with similar content back to back; for reasons of political correctness I will not identify the buttons. This time the hot button post generated a readership 124% greater than the similar but 'colder' post.

Nobody asks us to blog. But the reverse side of the coin is that blogging without an audience is a form of onanism. Technology developments made blogging possible fifteen years ago, and now more developments have brought us social media. Twitter cannot be blamed, nor can the gatekeepers or their legions of followers. But I blog because I want what I write to be judged by my readers, not by intermediaries. The random image grab above shows the diversity of subjects covered On An Overgrown Path. But the incentive to write about anything other than hot topics is fast disappearing. Which means, like Elaine Fine, I am now questioning the future of music blogging.

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