Monday, June 23, 2014

Why classical music needs to see the light

Morocco is a rhapsody in blue and many other colours; as can be seen from the accompanying photos which were taken during my recent stay in Sidi Ifni - a town named after a Sufi saint*. Colour plays an important part in the all night healing ceremonies called lila of the Gnawa brotherhoods in Morocco. The Gnawa practise a mix of mystical Islam and animism, and in their healing ceremonies music, incense and colours placate the spirits**. Trance inducing music plays as white smoke billows from a brazier burning musk, and, at the start of the lila, black and white benzoin incense is passed around. During the ritual Sidi Mimum is invoked; he is the patron saint of the Gnawa and his colour is black. The spirits in red follow led by Sidi Hamu, he is the spirit of the slaughterhouse and demands blood. As the celebrants emerge from the trance at the conclusion of the lila, lighted candles are passed around as a blessing - baraka - before being extinguished as the celebrants return to the black Mahgreb night.

The Gnawa healing ceremony is a multi-sensory experience which combines sound (music), vision (colours) and scent (incense). A classical concert should also be a form of healing ceremony that placates the spirit with sound and colours. In the West the ear gave way to the eye as the most important gatherer of information at the time of the Renaissance, when the printing press and perspective painting were developed. In a paper titled Acoustic Space - Explorations in Communication Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan explained that most of our thinking is done in terms of visual models, even when using an auditory one might prove more efficient. Since that paper was published in 1970, the swing from the auditory to the visual has been accelerated by the universal adoption of graphic interfaces for computers.

More evidence of the power of the visual - and also of the power of 5.1 surround sound - can be found right on classical music's doorstep. One of the few bright spots in the classical market is DVD sales. Andrew Cane, the proprietor of leading independent classical store Prelude Records, tells me that DVD/Blu-ray sales account for 12% of his turnover, with the overall industry percentage significantly higher, because sales by independents are depressed by Amazon's heavy discounting. In Prelude Records Blu-ray sales are showing double digit growth, and the Aldeburgh Festival Grimes on the Beach - a truly multi-sensory experience - was the store's biggest selling DVD ever.

The visual is an important part of the essential process that R. Murray Schafer describes as "the opening-out of the time-and-space containers we call compositions and concert halls". Yet, despite the efforts of Alexander Scriabin and others, classical concerts remain mono-sensory experiences rooted firmly in sound; with the much celebrated move away from formal concert dress doing no more than replacing black and white formal attire with all-black subfusc. Thankfully, some are trying to change this; these include kinetic artist Norman Perryman working with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and photo-choreographer James Westwood, who have both provided successful case studies in the power of the visual. While very recently respected critic Anne Midgette writing in the Washington Post described a choreographed - musicians not dancers - performance of Appalachian Spring as 'powerfully, viscerally emotional'. That performance, which is more healing ceremony than concert, can be watched here. By contrast, below is a photo I took from one of the better seats during a BBC Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. There is much to recommend the Proms, but that viewpoint does not exactly deliver a "powerfully, viscerally emotional" experience.

Another example of a powerful multi-sensory experience was the Aldeburgh Festival Earthquake Mass that I wrote about recently with unashamed enthusiasm. This was presented as a late-night event in Aldeburgh's long-running Faster Than Sound series, which, to quote the website, "joins the dots between musical genres and digital art forms". Yet, despite this clearly experimental context, the Earthquake Mass was universally dismissed by establishment music critics as failing to conform to the traditional mono-sensory model. What chance does classical music have of reaching new audiences when anything other than the stiflingly conventional is dismissed as "taking us back to the juvenile excesses of the Sixties"? And how is classical music going to survive in a fast changing sensory and technology landscape when any suggestion that the times they are a-changin' is greeted with a hysterical and self-interested defence of the status quo?

One of the biggest obstacles to breaking classical music out of the mono-sensory mindset is the misapprehension that sound and vision are two discrete sensory channels. Synaesthesia, the condition where information switches from one channel (hearing) to another processing track (sight), is prized among musicians. Yet, in fact, every human exhibits a subtle form of synaesthesia: as described in an earlier post, ultrasound - high frequencies beyond the range of the ear - are transmitted to the brain through the eyes, and, in a similar way infrasound - very low frequencies - can be felt as well as heard. As Jonathan Harvey explained in an interview with me, energy is basically vibration, and the energy of light and sound both come from the common root of vibration, albeit at different frequencies. Within the audio spectrum the felicitous combination of sight and sound creates a synergy where the sum becomes far greater than the parts, as happens in the balletic Appalachian Spring and the infrasonic Earthquake Mass.

Censorship based on misguided allegations of anti-semitism and discrimination based on the girth of a singer are wrong, and must be tackled. But eradicating those iniquities will not secure the future of classical music. However, making the music relevant by letting it speak in the contemporary demotic may well secure the future. Today's audiences are multi-sensory literate, and the classical music industry needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Changing with the times does not mean dumbing down or selling out. Dumbing down simply reduces the music to a bland zero-sensory commodity that is easily digested and just as easily forgotten. But perpetuating a performance tradition that was fixed more than a century ago is not the answer either. Instead there needs to be carefully considered accommodation of changes in sensory hierarchies - changes which mean that audiences now want their live music up close and visual.

A recent post pointed out that classical music is bad at handling paradigm shifts, and the inexorable shift from aural to multi-sensory acuity that started back in the Renaissance is a very far-reaching paradigm shift. Scott Ross' approach to Frescbaldi - tight but loose - should be the model for classical music: tight in the protection of core values, but loose in accommodating structural change. The next generation of audiences can only come from Generation M [mobile], a cohort whose cognitive processes are being rewired by prolonged exposure to the multi-sensory imagesphere and social sphere. Sorry if I am starting to sound like Max Hole. But art music can only survive if it is relevant to contemporary culture. Culture and technology has changed dramatically in the last three decades, while classical music stubbornly resists all but cosmetic change. It is not difficult to join up the dots.

* In typical fashion this path meanders a long way from its starting point in Morocco. But it is fair to say that none of my recent sequence of posts on psychoacoustics would have been written if I had not spent time recently in Sidi Ifni. Life in Sidi Ifni is a multi-sensory experience. There is the light and the riot of colours that my photos hint at. But there is also the omnipresent infrasound of the surf, which can be felt and heard as the waves roll in from the Atlantic. As R. Murray Schafer says in his seminal book The Tuning of the World: "The sea is the keynote sound of all maritime civilisations. It is also a fertile sonic archetype. All roads lead back to water." And, in another convergence of paths, Sidi Ifni lies to the south of Agadir, a city that was devastated by a terrible earthquake in 1960.

** One of my more enlightened - in more ways than one - projects was to broadcast a complete uninterrupted performance lasting more than two hours of the Gnawa 'black' lila. This was, I believe, the first and only time a complete Gnawa lila has been broadcast. The broadcast was on Future Radio in 2008 and was a collaboration with Kamar Studios in Marrakech. Unfortunately the stream of the programme is no longer available, but the linked post can be read here.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

We should be playing hard ball with public funding

Following their second defeat in two first round matches, England seems certain to be out of the 2014 soccer World Cup. In the 2010 tournament England was eliminated after being thrashed - the BBC's word not mine - in the second round by Germany. The official valuation of the England team is £550 million, the third most expensive team in the tournament. England manager Roy Hodgson is paid £3.5 million a year by the FA (Football Association), the second highest paid manager at the World Cup. The FA receives £28.4 million annual funding from Sport England for grassroots development of football. Sports England is, in turn, funded by the UK government and the National Lottery, organisations which are both important sources of arts funding. Cue next story on cuts in public funding for grassroots arts projects in England...

My wife took the photo in Agadir, Morocco, a country where football flourishes at grassroots level despite the lack of rock star salaries. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal

In that photo of Groupe Jeune France, the senior composer of the influential group, André Jolivet, is seated at the piano, and Olivier Messiaen is standing on the left, with Yves Baudrier and Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur to his right. The provocative observation by Igor Stravinsky which forms my headline leads to another turning in the Messiaen path. My recent post How Olivier Messiaen became part of the Vichy myth explained that one of the chapters in La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation - the book that has prompted a reappraisal of Messiaen's wartime activities - is contributed by musicologists Yves Balmer and Christopher Brent Murray. Now Caroline Rae, who is a senior lecturer in the School of Music at Cardiff University and an authority on André Jolivet, has contacted me with some pertinent information about her forthcoming book André Jolivet: Music, Art and Literature*. Yves Balmer and Christopher Brent Murray have also contributed a chapter to her new book, a contribution which Caroline describes as "exploring Messiaen's many borrowings from Jolivet". Another chapter is contributed by Christine Jolivet Erlih who collaborated with me on the Messiaen myth post. This chapter discusses Jolivet's many visits to the USSR between 1954 and 1972, and his close links with Soviet composers and musicians. Apparently, he once considered reverse defecting (during the 1960s) because he was disillusioned with musical life in Paris. His music was fêted in Russia, a country where they still admired works called 'symphony' and 'concerto'!

Relevant both to the practice of artists borrowing, and to the Messiaen folklore, is the observation by Caroline Rae in her notes for Erato's invaluable 4 CD Jolivet overview** that the solo violin version of Jolivet's 1937 Incantation "Pur que l'image devienne symbole" is "not unlike" the final movement Louanges a l'immortalité de Jésus of Messiaen's 1941 Quartet for the End of Time. The purpose of this post is not to label Messiaen as a plagiarist or as a lesser composer, but, rather, to draw attention to the influence and importance of André Jolivet. He is just one of the many outstanding composers who are overlooked in an age where media driven idolatry focuses attention on the few at the expense of the many.

In her discussion with me Caroline Rae also spoke of how "there are many myths to be exploded, some of which shed valuable light on the increasing tensions that developed between Jolivet and Messiaen after World War II". One of the ways that Messiaen and Jolivet diverged was in their exploration of spirituality through music. As is very well known, Messiaen's music was informed by his absolute commitment to the Catholic faith. Jolivet also believed implicitly that music should have spiritual meaning, but for inspiration he turned to the mysticism and shamanism of ancient traditions. I have pleaded many times that composer anniversaries should be a time of reassessment and not idolatry. The fortieth anniversary of André Jolivet's death falls on December 20th, 2014. Let us hope that this prompts a reassessment of his music, and also of the myths surrounding Messiaen. Also long overdue for reassessment is Maurice Ohana, a composer who has found a place in the new edition of the Penguin Modern Music and After, because, its author Paul Griffiths tells me, of the advocacy of Ohana's music On An Overgrown Path.

* André Jolivet: Music, Art and Literature edited by Dr Caroline Rae is being published by Ashgate in early 2015. This is an important publication as it is the first English language book on Jolivet

** André Jolivet: the complete Erato recordings, which includes Mstislav Rostropovich playing Jolivet's seriously neglected Cello Concerto No. 2, is on Warner Classics. More on this invaluable set in Avoiding the hazards of reputation inflation.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Olivier Messiaen became part of the Vichy myth

A comprehensive review of the first week of the Aldeburgh Festival by Richard Fairman in the FT revolves around the new production of Owen Wingrave, which is described, quite correctly, as "one of Britten’s most outspoken anti-war works". Among the other works grouped with Owen Wingrave is Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen, which was given a stunning performance by the Festival's artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. In his review Richard Fairman identifies the Messiaen work as being "written in the thick of another war in 1943". Which, again, is perfectly correct; but bracketing Owen Wingrave with Visions de l'Amen can also be interpreted as implying that the Messiaen work shares some of the anti-war context of Britten's opera. Because this implication is a recurring theme in contextualising Messiaen's music, it deserves closer examination.

In a January 2012 post I asked the question Is Olivier Messiaen part of the Vichy myth? By the Vichy myth I meant the now debunked folklore that there was almost unanimous resistance among the French population to the Nazis and its puppet Vichy regime. In the post I explained how in 2008 my exploration of the Vichy path had taken me to the Île d'Yeu where the Vichy leader Marshal Pétain was imprisoned and died, and how the rather equivocal account I wrote then of Olivier Messiaen's connections with the Vichy regime had stayed in my mind. That 2012 post continued to attract a steady flow of readers which recently turned into a flood. Which prompted me to revisit the question of Messiaen's relationship with the Vichy regime. Several readers responded very helpfully to my continued Messiaen musings, and the information that has come to light is worth sharing, as it is not readily available elsewhere in English.

In November 2013 the book La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation, edited by two distinguished academicss, Myriam Chimènes and Yannick Simon, was published in France, and, at the time of writing this book is not available in an English edition*. One of the chapters is a contribution by Yves Balmer and Christopher Brent Murray titled Olivier Messiaen et la reconstruction de sa carrière sous l'Occupation: Le vide de l'année 1941. The two authors are both musicologists, and their carefully researched reconstruction of Messiaen's movements in 1941 contradicts the composer's own account; which leads them to conclude he redacted history to cast himself in a more favourable political light.

There is now widespread acceptance of the version of events given in La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation. But, in fairness to Messiaen, it should be explained that there are two sides to the argument. Allegations that when Messiaen was released from the Görlitz prisoner of war camp in 1941, he accepted a post at the Paris Conservatory replacing André Bloch, a professor of harmony who had been dismissed in acquiescence to the Vichy regime's anti-Semitic laws, predate the publication of La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation by many years. But counter evidence has been produced showing that Bloch had reached retirement age, and had not been dismissed as a Jew. But, despite this lack of clarity, there is compelling evidence that Messiaen falsified his CV to read that he had been released from Görlitz in 1942, which suggests he wished to hide the André Bloch episode. This redacted version became the basis for the first generation of 'authorised' Messiaen biographies, and the redacted version remains in circulation today, as can be seen here.

My Messiaen path eventually led to Christine Jolivet Erlih; who is the daughter of the distinguished French composer André Jolivet, and the second wife of the French born violinist Devy Erlih. Messiaen and Jolivet were contemporaries, and together with Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur and Yves Baudrier they formed the influential Groupe Jeune France that came together in 1936. When I contacted Mme Jolivet Erlih she told me she attended the symposium preceeding the publication of La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation, at which contributors summarised their findings. During the symposium it was reported that Messiaen had expunged from his official biography potentially damaging details of his activities in 1941. Mme Jolivet Erlih also told me how, when researching her father's archives, she uncovered that following Messiaen's release from the Görlitz camp, he travelled directly to Vichy - the seat of the collaborationist government - before returning to Paris. This detour is not described in official biographies, and, to my knowledge, has not been shared in the public domain before this post.

From this new evidence we have to conclude that there is compelling evidence that Messiaen's extra-musical wartime activities have become part of the Vichy myth. In my original post I asked does any of this matter seventy years later? My view is these revelations do matter: because the accepted version of Messiaen's activities in the period 1941-43 is now generally accepted to be inaccurate, although there is debate as to the degree of inaccuracy. Of course the music is most important; but The Quartet for the End of Time is celebrated as much for its context as its music, and that contextualisation extends to other works of the same period, including Visions de l'Amen. Messiaen folk lore, which must now be questioned, describes the premiere of Visions de l'Amen as taking place in "a semi-secret art gallery concert in Nazi-occupied Paris"to which"neither undesirable Germans nor known collaborators were admitted". Another reason why this matters is the "dizzying vision of religious ecstasy" described in the FT review of Visiuons de l'Amen. Possible links between the Roman Catholic Church and the political right matter a lot, both in historical and contemporary contexts.

Given recent research findings, it is not unreasonable to question the quasi-pacifist contexts perpetuated in Messiaen biographies and reviews. But we must beware of sensational allegations of the 'Messiaen was a Nazi collaborator' kind. Survival was the first priority in Nazi occupied Paris, and survival inevitably demanded compromise. This post can do no more than draw attention to new research in France that demands to be made available in English, and I would welcome clarification and correction from fluent French speakers of my interpretation of complex and sensitive matters. These revelations do not detract from the stature of Messiaen's music, or from Richard Fairman's conclusion that Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich's Visions de l'Amen was the stunning highlight of the Aldeburgh Festival opening weekend. But as Christine Jolivet Erlih very wisely said in correspondence with me: "I think that it is now time to give clear information to let people know that Messiaen is among the "great personalities" who have also their own weaknesses."

* Some of the text of La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation is available on Google Books. But, as is standard Google practice, part of the Messiaen chapter is omitted to comply with copyright requirements.

** Header image is watercolour by the Vendéean painter Henry Simon. The story of my discovery of that painting is told in Aquarelle for the end of time.

*** My thanks go to Christine Jolivet Erlih for her generous co-operation. But conclusions reached in this post are mine alone.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Try listening to this without discrimination

A leading music critic's dismissal of a perfectly valid piece of experimental music theatre as a return "to the juvenile excesses of the Sixties" prompts me to reflect on listening without discrimination. In Journey in Ladakh Andrew Harvey writes about the 'European need to be entertained, and stimulated' and how:
The mind's terror of boredom is the more acute because the mind suspects that through boredom, through its extreme experience, another reality might be reached that would threaten its pretensions, and perhaps even dissolve them altogether.
My recent listening has included Simple Lines of Enquiry, which the admirably enlightened Alex Ross describes as "Ann Southam’s immense, mysterious piano piece". In it Ann Southam (1937-2010) creates an extreme but rich experience by developing a single twelve-interval row for fifty-nine minutes. Simple Lines of Enquiry is a perfect example of what classical music should be doing - challenging conventions. Not the peripheral conventions of formal dress and silence between movements, but, rather, the more damaging convention of satisfying the Western mind's need to be entertained and stimulated, a need deeply rooted rooted in what Carl Nielsen described as the "deedless admiration for the conventional". With its nuanced repetitions in the piano's lower registers, Simple Lines of Enquiry evokes auditory driving and meditative, or even trance states*.

In Journey in Ladakh Andrew Harvey describes the Buddhist practice of Vipassanā meditation as 'seeing without' discrimination. Similarly, the practice of listening without discrimination to works such as Simple Lines of Enquiry should be at the heart of classical music appreciation. In recent weeks I have started to feel, again, that my own deedless admiration for the unconventional has started to become conventional. So, it is fortunate that I am now setting out on my own journey in Ladakh. Together with my wife I am travelling to attend the Dalai Lamas' tantric Kalachakra empowerment in the remote 'Little Tibet' region of northern India**. In Tibetan Buddhism tantric practices channel conventional energies into achieving higher levels of consciousness, a discipline that classical music can learn much from. After one more post On An Overgrown Path will, again, lapse into voidness. During that time it will use a dynamic presentation that allows easier access to archive posts. Take care and keep listening without discrimination

* A complete performance of Simple Lines of Enquiry can be found on YouTube.

** Our journey to Ladakh is entirely self-funded. But I have been fortunate to obtain a press pass for the Kalachakra empowerment. Should any media outlets be interested in commissioning coverage of the empowerment, please make contact in the next few days via the email address in the sidebar.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Music critic deplores dumpy sound at Aldeburgh Festival

The following night’s choral event took us back to the juvenile excesses of the Sixties, as the a cappella group Exaudi sang Antoine Brumel’s sublime ‘Earthquake Mass’ with progressively deafening electronic accompaniment representing an aural simulation of a quake. The earplugs handed out at the door seemed to suggest that even the management had belatedly realised this was not a frightfully clever idea.
That is Michael Church - of dumpy soprano fame - resisting paradigm shifts in the Independent.

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I mean a REAL performance where routine is traded for risk...

Yesterday's post about the Earthquake Mass at the Aldeburgh Festival is, quite understandably, creating a big social media buzz. Above is a photo of what was a REAL performance - a one-off where routine is traded for risk and the musicians become players in a drama. Exaudi's director James Weeks has already become a victim of the earthquake and one of his singers can be seen leaving the stage having reached the point where his part in Brumel's score has rotted away, while Russell Haswell is crouching to the right creating his apocalyptic electronic noise. Will the next seismic shift in classical music be a late night Earthquake Mass at the 2015 BBC Proms?

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Art should be dangerous

When did you last experience a true performance? Not one of those musically perfect but soulless concerts by a celebrity maestro and a touring orchestra - Edinburgh yesterday and Salzburg tomorrow - that is more restatement than performance. I mean a real performance, a one-off where routine is traded for risk, where the musicians become players in a drama, an event which, to paraphrae Carl Nielsen, gives us something else, gives us something new, instead of expressing deedless admiration for the conventional. Canadian composer, educator and sound ecologist R. Murray Schafer declared that art should be dangerous, and he would surely approve of last night's Earthquake Mass at the Aldeburgh Festival. Antoine Brumel's Missa Et ecce terrae motus is known as the Earthquake Mass because it is based on the Easter Plainchant from Matthew 28:2: 'And all at once there was a violent earthquake'. Its innovative twelve part writing makes the Earthquake Mass one of the earliest examples of immersive music - what is now known as headphone sound - and when first performed in the early 16th century Brumel's masterpiece must have seemed very dangerous art indeed. The mass was championed by Orlando de Lassus who had it copied for performance at the Bavarian Court in the 1560s. But the only surviving manuscript is damaged and incomplete; so for last night's Aldeburgh performance contemporary vocal ensemble Exaudi and sound artist Russell Haswell used that incompleteness as a remit to create dangerous art.

Three movements of the mass, the Kyrie, Glora and Sanctus were sung with Russel Haswell's electronic infrasound providing a ground bass - in the true sense of the word. For the Agnus Dei, where the extant manuscript has rotted away, singers and sound artist dispensed with the safety net completely and combined in a multi-sensory recreation of the apocalypse. In an immensely powerful coup de théâtre, as each singer reached the point in the Agnus Dei where their part had rotted away, they left the stage, and Brumel's sublime polyphony was gradually engulfed by Russell Haswell's electronic noise. With the stage empty the Earthquake Mass ended in a multi-media apocalypse that left the capacity audience in the Britten studio shaken and distinctly stirred.

Exaudi director James Weeks deserves considerable credit for coming up with the idea for a multi-sensory Earthquake Mass, and sound artist Russell Haswell deserves considerable credit for daring to bridge the gap between tradition and innovation. But, above all, outgoing Aldeburgh Music chief executive Jonathan Reekie deserves maximum credit for bringing the project from proposal to triumphant realisation. Recently I was working with a collaborator on a meaty and complex music related project. In fact the sheer complexity prompted me to express concerns about the viability of the project. In response my collaborator emailed saying: "It is a large but, well, are we going to be all BBC Radio 3 and imagine the people can’t cope?" Jonathan's great strength in his tenure at Aldeburgh was an unshakable conviction that audiences can cope, and that is a strength that, sadly, is found very rarely in classical music today.

Classical music's real problem is not elitism, sizeism, or any of the other fashionable isms. The real problem is a mistaken conviction that audiences can't cope with any music that is remotely challenging. To many people, Jonathan Reekie's decision to green light the Earthquake Mass for the Aldeburgh Festival would have seemed unwise. But it sold out a late night performance against the very considerable competition of BBC TV coverage of England losing yet another World Cup soccer match. The Earthquake Mass was featured on the BBC's flagship World at One radio programme, giving classical music a very healthy dose of positive PR to offset the recent revelations of abuse and size discrimnation. And the appreciative reception by the Aldeburgh audience was one of the most vocal I have heard for a very long time at a classical concert. Much of the thinking behind the Earthquake Mass parallels recent threads here - sound shaping, immersive sound, paradigm shifts etc. Heavens forbid that every concert is turned into an electronic apocalypse. But classical music desperately needs good new ideas that will help attract new audiences. The Earthquake Mass as performed by Exaudi and Russell Haswell is overflowing with big new ideas that work, and that can be repurposed and applied in more nuanced ways. For this reason I suggest it replaces yet another self-serving speech by a so-called industry expert as the keynote event at the next Association of British Orchestras annual conference.

The experience of the Earthquake Mass can be sampled via Soundcloud. But you will need a wide bandwidth audio system to experience the danger. My ticket for the performance was bought at the box office. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Scott Ross and the paradox of genius

On that sleeve for his 1985 recording of the Goldberg Variations, Scott Ross is seen standing in the grounds of Château d'Assas in Languedoc. It was here that many of his great recordings were made. Then, as today, the château dwelt in the twilight zone between grandeur and dereliction, and thirty years ago the recording sessions were regularly interrupted by the sound of rats scurrying across the floor. Scott Ross was born in Pittsburgh in 1951, and moved to France with his mother following the death of his father in 1964. He studied at the conservatoires in Nice and Paris, and first came to Château d'Assas in 1969 to give music lessons to the grandson of its owner Mme. Simone Demangel. When an early music academy was established at the château, the harpsichordist gave masterclasses and became a frequent visitor. At first he stayed in a room in one of the towers, but from 1983 he rented a small house across the road from the château. The photos below were taken by me on a recent pilgrimage to Assas. In the first one the château is on the right with Scott Ross' house on the left. The second photo shows his house, while the third looks through the gates to where the Goldbergs cover photo was taken. There are more scenes from Assas at the end of the post.

Scott Ross' genius at the keyboard was the product of a prodigious talent. But it was also the product of his fascination with the teachings of the 18th century French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot. In the Paradox of Acting (Paradoxe sur le comédien) Diderot taught that, paradoxically, spontaneity and freedom can only be achieved if underpinned by an inflexible, almost mathematical, technique. One of Ross' students quotes him* as explaining that in Frescobaldi's improvisatory passages nothing must be left to chance - "the more you want it to sound free, the more you have to calculate how you'll manage to make it sound free". Diderot was also the originator of the now unfashionable concept of the fourth wall across the front of the stage, which he believed must separate performer and audience. He explained how:
When you write or act, think no more of the audience than if it had never existed. Imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.
Scott Ross' definitive account of Domenico Scarlatti's 555 keyboard sonatas is one of the great achievements of the gramophone. We can only speculate on how Diderot's paradoxical teachings - tight but loose - influenced the narrow but immensely deep recorded legacy that the harpsichordist left behind when he died at the age of just thirty-eight. And we can also only speculate as to how those paradoxes - project yourself as if behind an impregnable wall - influenced Ross as a person, and how it contributed to what the French professor of music Henri Prunières describes in a tribute to the harpsichordist as "the terrifying demands of the artist's condition". At which point the question of whether we should concern ourselves with the personal life of a musician must be raised. Personally, I take Pablo Casals' view that: "A musician is also a man, but more important than his music is his attitude to life" as confirmation that exploring the personal life of a musician serves purposes beyond the merely salacious. So, trigger warning, this tribute will now reach beyond Scott Ross' sublime music making.

It is not a secret that Scott Ross died of HIV/Aids related complications, but none of the biographies to date state that he was gay. This is almost certainly because much of the biographical material dates from the years immediately following his death in 1989, a time when HIV was misunderstood and misrepresented. However, his sexuality is confirmed in Frédéric Martel's book The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968. Scott Ross was an early victim of Aids: the virus was first identified in 1981 and he exhibited the first symptoms of the virus - bronchitis which turned into pneumonia - just two years later. The difficulty of the harpsichordist's final years were compounded because he never formalised his French residency and had not made social security payments. Which meant he was not eligible for professionally qualified medical care; so, in his last months he depended on the support of devoted friends, notably the harpsichord maker David Ley and music producer Monique Davos, who cared for him at his home in Assas until his death. This at a time when attitudes towards homosexuality in rural France were still heavily influenced by the dogma of the Catholic Church. The ravages of HIV can be seen in the still below taken from a very moving video of his final concert, given in Rome just eight weeks before he died.

Yet, despite this, those last years produced some of Scott Ross' finest works. His monumental overview of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas was recorded between June 1984 and September 1985 in Paris, Avignon and Château d'Assas across ninety-eight sessions and 8000 takes, and remains in the catalogue today**. Ross' reputation is safeguarded by his extraordinary recorded legacy. But he should also be remembered as a musician who crossed musical and cultural boundaries. He was an expert breeder of orchids, and his explanation of this passion is also epitomises his wider outlook: “I’m not after the beautiful varieties that florists like,” he said, “What I’m after is strange ones, because I’m always interested in anything unusual.” Michel Proulx suggests it was this dilletantism - in the original meaning from the Latin dēlectāre 'to delight' - that explained his appeal far beyond traditional early music audiences. Perhaps it was Diderot's injunction to think no more of the audience than if it had never existed, that prompted Ross to demolish sartorial conventions decades before informal concert dress became a buzz phrase. He played the keyboard music of the baroque masters dressed in the biker gear seen on his Soler recording above, in the lumberjack outfit seen on the Goldbergs cover, or, even, wearing the ultimate in convention busting attire seen on the Rameau sleeve below.

That paradoxical delight in the unusual found expression in Scott Ross' passion for the music of Brian Eno and the then relatively unknown Philip Glass, and in his enthusiasm for the German punk legend Nina Hagen. He loathed Glenn Gould's playing, but expressed unreserved admiration for harpsichordist Don Angle, who was noted for his pop arrangements. Scott Ross' non-musical interests including weaving; he restored and used an old loom from Château d'Assas and went to become an expert knitter and tailor. His mathematical aptitude made him an early adopter of home computers, which he used to create a database of his complex orchid cross-breeds. Volcanoes and minerals were among his other passions; he amassed a large collection of crystals and climbed Stromboli to see an active volcano close up. He was a keen photographer with his own darkroom, was skilled at carpentry, and his expert restoration of a house in the remote Lozère region gave added significance to his uncommon middle-name 'Stonebreaker'. An accomplished cook, he had a pasta maker decades before they became a designer kitchen accesory, and, like John Cage, was an authority on edible mushrooms. He loved cats, taking his favourites on his commutes across the Atlantic, and it is possible that a great feline musical lineage lives on today in Assas.

Scott Ross died on June 13th, 1989 in the little village house seen in my photos; he was 38 years old. In compliance with his last wishes his ashes were scattered from a plane over his beloved Assas.

* Michel Proulx's Scott Ross: An Unfinished Destiny (published in 2001) was a primary source for this post.

** Scott Ross' survey of the complete Scarlatti keyboard sonatas has been reissued by Warner Music. His recording of the complete Rameau harpsichord music will be reissued by Warner in September; but, alas, without the original cover image. No review samples were used, and my visit to Assas was self-financed. And, believe me, you have to be a serious Scott Ross fan to drive 1000 miles and do battle on the Montpelier ring road in order to visit Assas.

*** Edward Elgar's house can be visited here, and Jacques Lousier's here.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Earplugs provided as Aldeburgh targets a new audience

Important information regarding Faster Than Sound: Earthquake Mass
We are looking forward to welcoming you to what should be a remarkable late-night event in the Britten Studio this Saturday 14 June, 10pm. This will feature contrasts between quiet, unamplified performance and, as befits the title of the event, intermittently loud electronic sound. EXAUDI will sing Brumel’s Mass unamplified. In between the movements sound artist Russell Haswell has produced electronic interjections which, by way of dramatic contrast, are very loud, harking back to the origin of the piece. During these amplified sections some audience members may wish to use earplugs, which will be provided. Our experience is that this will help comfort levels without diminishing the dramatic impact of the performance.
That email arrived today from the Aldeburgh Festival, and sound artist Russell Haswell is seen above. Good to see classical music has not lost its aura at Aldeburgh. And good to see such an imaginative exploration of the middle way between tradition and innovation. If the provision of earplugs doesn't attract a new audience, I don't know what will. Is classical music's next big opportunity the Earthquake Mass market?

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Classical music is not good at handling paradigm shifts

Back in 2006 I ran a post about the Vienna Symphonic Library, a computer program that uses technology to replicate the sound of an orchestra. My post's headline quoted the creator of the program Herb Tucmandl, a former cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic, as saying "I don't think orchestras are threatened". Which is ironic, as a major row has blown up over the use of the Vienna Symphonic Library to accompany singers in a Ring cycle at Hartford Wagner Festival in Connecticut. Let me say at this point that I have a great deal of sympathy for the musicians whose livelihood is threatened by this new technology; although it must be pointed out that the Hartford Festival management has made it clear that a Ring cycle with a conventional orchestra was never a viable option. But what is happening at Hartford Wagner Festival is very disturbing; not only in its potential impact on the future of live music, but also in the confrontational reaction of some orchestral musicians.

Unquestioning capitulation is not the solution, but neither is inflexible resistance to technology driven change. Do the protesting musicians reject email to protect the livelihood of postal workers? Do they boycott mobile phones to protect telephonists? Do they ignore Sibelius and other software aids and transcribe their parts by hand to protect suppliers of music materials? Do they dismiss Eliane Radiques masterpieces as worthless because they are created on an ARP 2500 synthesizer? Do they advocate banning the Touch Press classical music iPad apps? Do they boycott Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony because it uses the synthesized sound of the Ondes Martenot? Do they refuse to buy music downloads to protect record stores?

At the core of the problem is a profound reluctance within classical music to accept fundamental change. As has been pointed out here in recent posts, technology, lifestyles and soundscapes have changed almost beyond recognition in recent years. But classical music has changed very little. And audience figures, particularly among younger demographics, show that serial resistance to change is unhealthy. I feel for the musicians that are threatened. But classical music is not good at handling paradigm shifts. Its future health does not depend on tweaking the peripheral conventions of concert dress and silence between movements. Nor does it depend on the wholesale replacement of musicians by computers. The solution is to find a middle way that accommodates the recent irreversible shifts in technology, lifestyles and soundscapes, while retaining the very essence of art music. The real problem is that, to date, there has been very little recognition within classical music of the need to find that middle way.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Great conductor who was also a great matchmaker

It was with considerable sadness that I learnt of the death of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos at the age of 80. It is always very sad when a great musician passes on. However there was also sadness at a personal level. In 1977, while working for EMI, I was involved in the marketing of maestro Fruhbeck de Burgos recording of Mauel de Falla's opera Atlántida in the posthumous completion by Ernesto Halfter. But there was an earlier and far more important link. In 1973 I took a young and beautiful lady on our first date to hear Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Brahms and Stravinsky at the Royal Festival Hall. Three years later we were married, and thirty-eight years on that love duet is still going strong. Muchas gracias maestro.

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It's the only good bit in the whole thing

Is it my imagination or is the composer anniversary bandwagon finally running out of steam? Today is the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss' birth. But where is the wall to wall Strauss on BBC Radio 3, and where are the Richard and Pauline cufflinks and Rosenkavalier iPhone covers? But the purpose of this post is not to wallow in schadenfreude. It is to draw attention to one of the more imaginative examples of anniversary programming - the recently released CD of Elgar's Second Symphony by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. There were, of course, close links between Elgar and Richard Strauss, and if this acclaimed recording* gives Elgar's masterpiece the audience it deserves outside Britain, I will happily put my dislike of composer anniversaries on hold. Making the connection with Elgar is a positive way to exploit the Strauss anniversary. Let's hope similar imaginative thinking will result in a reassessment of the writings of Herman Hesse - whose poetry is set in the Four Last Songs, and of Zarathustra - whose philosophy is misrepresented by Nietzsche. And talking of Nietzsche and Zarathustra, the soundtrack for 2014 looks certain to be Also sprach Zarathustra. So, in the spirit of anniversary reassessment, I offer this passage from Paul Kriwaczek's book In Search of Zarathustra, which was published in 2002. But please don't shoot the messenger.
I was working on a series of television programmes about the history of music with a young conductor new to the orchestral scene. She wanted to start with something both spectacular and familiar and chose the opening of Richard Strauss's tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. believing it would be known to the audience from Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our orchestra had 112 players - and a huge pipe organ; she wanted to point out the sheer excitement of hearing 'all those musicians playing something at the same time'. I asked her how much of the piece she would get the orchestra to perform. 'Oh, just the well-known beginning', she said, perhaps a little ungraciously. 'It's the only good bit in the whole thing.'
* I don't want to be a party pooper. But the Decca CD/download is just Elgar's Second Symphony, which at little more than fifty minutes is the duration of a rock and not classical release. Could not Barenboim and his Berlin band have also included In the South (Alassio) on the disc? Plot of Zarathustra is from SoundCloud. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, June 09, 2014

There will now be a four month intermission

Kierkegaard declared that too much possibility leads to madness. Today in classical music, possibility is assumed to be synonymous with anti-elitist accessibility, and the result is madness. An alternative approach is to view possibility as the inverse of accessibility. As in the Patria cycle of Canadian composer R Murray Schafer. The twelve parts of Patria dwarf Wagner's Ring and Stockhausen's Licht. They are all written for performance away from conventional music venues. Princess of the Stars, which opens the cycle, is performed by a rural lake and requires the audience to arrive in the middle of the night. The Greatest Show on Earth, part 3, is a carnival for 150 performers and explores accessibility by breaking down the barriers between audience and performers. Part 4, The Black Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos explores medieval alchemy; it has been performed in an abandoned circus building in Liège, Belgium, and in Toronto's Union Station starting at midnight. The central part, The Crown of Ariadne is written for a water's edge venue, and is yet to be given a staged performance. The Spirit Garden part 10, has the audience planting a spring garden and returning in the autumn to harvest it; for this the performance involves a four month intermission. Participation in the epilogue, And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon is by invitation only and requires the sixty-four participants to create ritual theatre in a remote wood for eight days.

All of which may sound inaccessible, incomprehensible and bad news at the box office. Which it is not. In August 2013 two performances of part 7 of Patria, Asterion - an exploration of the labyrinth - were given at a rural location in Ontario; both were sold out. Moreover, each of the sprawling twelve parts of Patria contains individual works which stand very convincingly on their own. The CD seen above contains the immensely accessible Theseus for harp and string quartet from the central unperformed The Crown of Ariadne, and the chamber opera Beauty and the Beast for mezzo, masks and string quartet from The Greatest Show on Earth. Coupled with the two extracts from Patria is Murray Schafer's String Quartet No 8, a tantalising taste of the composer's cycle of twelve quartets. The CD, which is released on the Canadian ATMA label, is difficult to find. But is that a reason for ignoring it?

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So in emptiness there is no form

Emptiness is at the heart of the great perennial traditions. Sufi rituals are a journey from form to the formless. In Buddhism the Heart Sutra describes how: 'So in emptiness there is no form/ no sensation, conception/ discrimination, awareness. Alexander Benzin explains the Buddhist concept of voidness as a total absence of the strange, impossible, ways of existence that we fantasize and project onto our experiences. While Lama Yeshe described the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tantra as dissolving our ordinary perceptions of ourselves and creating an empty space for the essential clarity of our deepest being.

Unlike its Western counterpart, Eastern art music relies on improvisation - using voidness to bridge form and the formless. The Savall family has a long tradition of uniting East and West, and Impro, Ferran Savall's second solo album, documents the evolution of his unique style of improvisation over the last decade. For the thirteen untitled improvisations Ferran accompanies his largely wordless vocals on guitar, theorbo and vihuela, and on some tracks he is joined by percussionist Pedro Estevan and father Jordi on viol. There is an enigmatic bonus track in the form an idiosyncratic rendition of Harold Arlen's Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and, equally enigmatically, the notes include a thank you to Ferran's late mother Montserrat Figuras for "teaching me to walk without fear".

Today, commercial imperatives dictate that art must reinforce our conceptions, projections, and discrimination. But Impro, which is released by Alia Vox, exhibits an essential formlessness which means it does not fit into any of the strange, impossible categories that we project onto art music. So, almost inevitably, commercial voidness will follow. There is more on Ferran Savall in Early music unplugged.

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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Mahler is not the only food on the table

In that photo taken at the Vienna villa of the artist Carl Moll, probably in 1905, the guests at the al fresco dinner are, left to right, Max Reinhardt, Gustav Mahler, Moll and Hans Pfitzner. In response to my post Audience whoring is the blight of classical music, Lauri's List tweets "Hear hear! Mahler is great, but not the only food on the table. On An Overgrown Path tells it like it is". But the Good Luck Restaurant in Rochester, NY disagrees. As part of their Inspired Table dinner series, the restaurant presented last year a performance of a chamber arrangement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony as diners enjoyed a sumptuous five-course dinner. To quote the restaurant: "The dinner is inspired by the symphony's fourth movement, where a child presents his understanding of heaven as a feast for saints. The music will be performed throughout the evening". Come on Good Luck Restaurant, put some other food on the table. How about a curry evening accompanied by a chamber version of Nielsen's Fourth Symphony 'The Inextinguishable'?

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Give us something else, give us something new

John McLaughlin Williams has added a comment to my post Remembering Bryden Thomson pointing out, quite rightly, that: "Thomson did many fine things, but if he is to be remembered for one great thing it should be his pioneering first recordings of the complete cycle of symphonies by Arnold Bax. The true Bax revival began with Bryden Thomson". I can only endorse John's comment, and above is one of the LPs of Bryden Thomson conducting Bax that opened my ears to the composer's music in the 1980s. Twenty years later Chandos went on to record another superb Bax symphony cycle with Vernon Handley; it is the latter that has remained in the catalogue leaving the unfortunate Bryden Thomson as the forgotten pioneer of Bax.

Today there is so much classical radio airtime to schedule, so many concerts to programme, and so much iPod memory to fill. So why we can't have a little Bax among all the Mahler is quite beyond me; particularly as the sound worlds of the two composers are not a million miles apart. This thread started with Carl Nielsen, and the Danish composer wrote eloquently about the curse of dumbing down by repetition. If I was director general of the BBC - dream on - I would make the new BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director repeat these words of Carl Nielsen every day before starting work:
The right of life is stronger than the most sublime art, and even if we reached agreement on the fact that now the best and most beautiful has been achieved, mankind thirsting more for life and adventure than perception, would rise and shout in one voice: give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional.
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