Saturday, January 31, 2015

In search of the lost chords

Wars and tense political situations have had a profoundly negative impact on cultural life in a number of Arab countries and have endangered the transmission of musical tradition. Alongside Baghadad, Aleppo and Damascus belong to the most important music capitals of the Arab world and the cultural collapse underway in these places is accompanied by the loss of numerous historical documents, books, writings and artists' livelihoods and wisdom. By producing this CD we hope to save musical cultural assets from disappearing and, at the same time, to contribute something of our own. It lies in our hands to pass on traditions, to safeguard the fire and stoke it so that brilliant new colours may radiate from it.
That is Nora Thiele writing in the sleeve note for the new CD Ahlam Babiliyya (Babylonian Dreams). On it Nora Thiele plays frame drums with the Iraqi born oud player Saif Al-Khayyat in a programme of modern Iraqui maqam music - sample here. Middle Eastern music is based on a series of unique maqams or tone scales. In his fascinating new book Divine Attunement oud player and educator Yuval Ron describes how the rich diversity of the maqams has been distilled in the West down to the major scale (Ionian mode) and minor scale (Aeolian mode). He shares Nora Thiele's concerns, and argues in a chapter titled The Vanishing Modes that the globalisation - aka Westernisation - of Eastern music is putting at risk vital and diverse tonal traditions.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

New audiences - give us the facts not the spin

Great numbers revealed at the Association of British Orchestras conference proclaims a Sinfini Music tweet. It refers to the good news given by the director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden in her keynote speech - see photo above - that 33,000 tickets for the 2014 BBC Proms were sold to first time purchasers. So as the good news has been widely circulated on social media, it is worth drilling down into the numbers.

It is difficult to obtain information on Proms audiences, because the BBC only releases figures that spin well. But from data in the public domain, we know that the Proms audience expressed as a percentage of venue capacity dropped from 93% in the 2013 season to 88% in 2014. This means that the total attendance fell by 17,000, despite 33,000 Proms neophytes swelling the numbers. So in 2014 the Proms gained 33,000 first time ticket purchasers*, but lost 50,000 of its core audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. This picture is mirrored by Radio 3 audience figures for Q3 2014. In this period, which included live broadcasts of all the Proms, Radio 3 total listening hours plunged by 9.2% year-on year. Which paints a very different picture to the one painted by Helen Boaden at the ABO conference that "there is no crisis".

The new Proms audience of 33,000 was undoubtedly attracted by concerts which included the Pet Shop Boys, Chrissie Hynde, Paloma Faith, a BBC Sport Prom, and Kiss Me, Kate. But for me to imply that these attractions also drove away 50,000 of the core Proms audience would be playing the BBC's disingenuous game of taking numbers out of context. We do not know what impact these efforts to expand reach are having on classical music's vital core audience. But we cannot afford to ignore the impact, and we must not forget that the distasteful view so succintly expressed by Independent radio critic Fiona Sturges that "a large proportion of BBC Radio 3's audience should hurry up and die", is surprisingly widely held.

Total audience size is far more important than the number of new ticket purchasers. Because if, as was the case at the 2014 Proms, a gain in new audience is more than offset by a loss of established audience, the result is a net audience loss. It is very easy to make quotable keynote speeches talking up gains in new audiences. It is much more difficult to face up to the uncomfortable possibility that classical music's big new ideas - the latest is what Helen Boaden described yesterday as "creation of 'snackable' content" - may actually be driving the essential core audience away. Which is why I said in a recent post that "Listening to common sense and not to so-called 'industry experts' is another way of serving the music". Balance and facts are what is needed in the debate about how to reach new audiences, not self-interested spin.

* The accuracy of the 33,000 figure stated by Helen Boaden is open to question. When I bought my ticket for the Alwyn/Vaughan Williams Prom last year from the Albert Hall box office I was not asked if I was a first time purchaser. So it is very likely that the quoted statistic for first time ticket purchasers is derived, as is standard industry practice, from the venue's Tessitura box office system using customer address matching, with no address match defining a ticket buyer as a first time purchaser. As was explained here last year, there is a significant margin of error in this process. Which means that, if ticketing system data was used, the first time purchaser number is almost certainly overstated. This assertion is supported by a previous BBC report - conveniently ignored by Helen Boaden in her presentation, that "more than 32,000" bought tickets for the first time in 2013. The almost identical first time purchaser figures for 2013 and 2014 suggests that a fairly constant level of error in address matching is accounting for a material element of the reported first time purchaser number.

Header photo via ISM tweet. Any 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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stop trying to serve everybody, instead just serve the music

John Cage's 26'1.1499" for a string player became a signature work for cellist and icon of the avant-garde Charlotte Moorman. She embellished Cage's original score by adding a section in which she set her instrument aside and played the body of a half-naked Nam June Paik as if it were a substitute cello. Considering Cage's reputation as an iconoclast, it is surprising to learn that he disapproved of Moorman's embellishments. In her definitive life of Charlotte Moorman, author Joan Rothfuss describes how "Cage and some of those in his immediate circle began to dismiss her interpretation - and her work in general - as overly concerned with self-presentation", and quotes Cage as saying "Paik's involvement with sex, introducing it into music does not conduce towards sounds being sounds".

Today, classical music will try almost anything to reach new audiences, as can be seen from my header photo; a PR stunt for the 2014 BBC Proms so dire that even Norman Lebrecht disapproved. It is two years since Universal Classic's Sinfini Music web site started "cutting through classical" and Universal Music ceo Max Hole made his much spun pronouncement that classical music must 'ride the wave of change' or die. But you would have to be a fully paid up member of the Universal Music fan club - and there are many of those around - to argue that anything has changed in classical music; except for an acceleration in the rate of attrition within the art form. Yet more evidence that it will take an awful lot of Max Holes to fill the Albert Hall came earlier this month in the form of a rather secretive release by the conductor formerly known as an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist. Gustavo Dudamel's new Wagner download is listed on Amazon as released on the Gustavo Dudamel label, not on Deutsche Grammophon. Which suggests that the saviour of classical music is failing to perform the miracle predicted by Max Hole of turning the water of rock audiences into the wine of classical music sales.

Western classical music grew from the fertile soil of sacred music, and there are many parallels between the Western classical tradition and the great faith traditions. In his invaluable little book The New Religions, philosophy professor Jacob Needleman describes how established religions have, to their cost, dispensed with esoteric technique, method, discipline and rituals in their frantic search for new congregations. Despite established churches "riding the wave of change" in this way, congregations have continued to fall. Today just 800,000 worshippers attend a Church of England service on the average Sunday, a drop in attendance of more than 50% since the 1960s.

It is a sobering fact that religion is only proving resilient in its radical manifestations. My own fascination with the radically traditionalist and very resilient Catholic monastery of Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux in France has been the subject of many posts here. I am not a member of the Catholic Church, I abhor several of its teachings and disagree strongly with some of the views held by the monks and nuns at Le Barroux. But in a 2012 post I described the many positives that can be found at Le Barroux, and cautioned against the dangers of dualist judgements between normal and deviant. The guidebook published by L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine contains the following illuminating passage. "What purpose do monks serve? How many times do we hear the question?... Monks have no purpose. They serve a person - God". In the same way classical musicians serve no purpose other than to serve the lesser god of music. For many decades classical musicians have made the mistake of also serving celebrity and riches. But recently they have started serving another false idol - one dedicated to the vast and lucrative new audience that, if ever reached, it is believed will somehow solve every problem currently facing classical music.

As John Cage showed us, radicalism in classical music is a complex discipline, and the current fashion for "cutting through classical" and trying to serve everybody, simply confirms that for every complex problem there is a simple answer that is wrong. Following the example of contemplative traditions, radicalism is about serving the music at the expense of everything else, and that is not a simple task. It means serving all music from Joseph Haydn - not heard at the BBC Proms since 2012 - to John Luther Adams, and not just serving Mahler, Shostakovich and late Romantic birthday boys. Serving the music means giving performances in a sympathetic acoustic and ambiance, not turning it into vaudeville. Serving the music means acknowledging the importance of classical music's core older audience, instead of sacrificing it as cannon fodder in the search for the elusive young audience. Serving the music means valuing independent and professional music writing. And serving the music means returning challenging contemporary music its rightful place alongside the mainstream repertoire, instead of marginalising it.

Serving the music also means taking hard decisions. This means telling celebrity musicians that their profligate demands can no longer be met. Serving the music means embracing business models that secure the long term future for composers and rank and file musicians, instead of sacrificing their interests on the altar of new streaming technologies. Serving the music means rejecting the twelve pieces of silver offered by music festivals backed by repressive political regimes. Serving the music means dramatically reducing the influence of management agents, whose self-interest distorts the music. Serving the music means re-balancing financial models to reduce dependency on ethically tainted sponsors. Serving the music means thwarting the ambitions of cradle-to-grave corporations such as Universal Music, the BBC and Amazon. Serving the music means correcting the oversupply of classical music. Serving the music means putting music education back on the agenda. And serving the music means eliminating discrimination in every form.

Listening to common sense and not to so-called 'industry experts' is another way of serving the music. Max Hole made his infamous 'ride the wave of change' speech at the Association of British Orchestra's 2013 conference. The 2015 conference opens today, and the keynote speaker is Helen Boaden, director of BBC radio. Which, in view of the recent lamentable performance of Radio 3 both in terms of quality and audience size, is like inviting the designer of the Titanic to give a keynote speech on building an unsinkable ocean liner. There is more likelihood of pigs flying than of me being invited to give the ABO conference keynote speech. But if I was invited, my message to our orchestras would be short and blunt. Stop obsessing about new audiences, and stop trying to serve everybody. Because, by so doing, you are pleasing nobody. Simply serve the music. If you do, audiences - both new and old - will come.

* More on Helen Boaden's ABO keynote speech in New audiences - give us the facts not the spin.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Philip Glass meets the Pope

Well not quite: but during recent travels I came across the double CD seen above in a splendid shop selling monastic artefacts in the medieval city of Troyes. Dominique Fauchard (b. 1968) trained as a classical organist, but branched out into jazz. Ex Sermonibus is a sequence of variations on Gregorian themes for piano. But, fear not, there is none of the Marian piousness of Charles Tournemire and the other Gregorian extemporisers. Instead it is more Philip Glass meets Ludovico Einaudi and Keith Jarrett during Mass. No, it's not the Hammerklavier Sonata, but it is all done with a beguiling lightness of touch and lack of pretension. This is music you either like or hate, and I feel guilty about being in the former camp. In fact, given the music's provenance, my guilt forced me to confess to liking Dominique Fauchard's transmuted plainsong. As penance I was told to listen to BBC Radio 3's breakfast programme for a week. Such is the price of sin.

Ex Sermonibus is released on the Bayard Musique label, and samples can be heard on their website. Bayard Musique also released Jacques Burtin's 3 CD kora anthology that featured in a 2011 post. Any 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.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Music with something important to say to our cynical times

Nonetheless, I maintain hope that Rubbra’s time will come. There is too much quality in his work, in its craftsmanship and its distinctive voice, for it to forever remain in the shadows. He just needs a champion of suitable standing to bring his symphonies back to Britain’s concert halls. Even if you don’t share Rubbra’s religious faith (and I don’t) the essential goodness in his music surely has something important to say to our cynical times: its patient optimism, beautiful organic patterning and deeply felt spirituality are a welcome antidote to much of modern life. I was pleased to hear that comic writer Armando Iannucci included Rubbra’s eighth symphony in his choices for Radio 3’s Essential Classics last September. Such big-name advocates can only help more people discover this wonderful music.
That extract comes from Simon Brackenborough's blog Corymbus . Simon's persuasive and beautifully crafted essay on Edmund Rubbra, which ignores all the silly conventions that prevail in contemporary music writing, is one of the most impressive examples of music writing that I have read for some time. Like Rubbra's music, this kind of writing has something important to say to our cynical times.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Classical music must go on a diet to survive

In a comment on my post about orchestras touring China and the United Arab Emirates longtime reader Joe Shelby argues: "Better an orchestra with occasional trips to places we'd rather they not go, then no orchestra at all". I don't want to take Joe's comment out of context, because he quite rightly advocates more activism by musicians. But the view that classical music has to turn to ethically challenged destinations and also to ethically challenged funding to survive needs challenging.

During a much reported presentation in 2013, Universal Music ceo Max Hole told orchestras they must change or die. He was right up to that point, but he was woefully wrong when he went on to tell orchestras how to change. The dogma expounded by Max Hole and generally accepted across the classical music establishment is that 'change' involves tinkering with the cosmetics of concert presentation.

To date there has been absolutely no recognition of the very obvious problem - that there is too much classical music. This oversupply exists because:
1. Demographics and cultural tastes have changed.
2. New technologies have made recorded classical music available anywhere and anytime.
3. Supply has been concentrated on major metropolitan areas and a narrow band of repertoire.

The problem of oversupply has been exacerbated by:
1. Reduced funding for live music.
2. Collapse of the traditional record company business model, which was an important revenue source for performing ensembles.
3. Rapid rise of streaming of recorded music; this effectively makes the supply of classical music infinite and reduces the perceived value of classical music.
4. Unequal distribution of revenues in favour of celebrity musicians and prestige ensembles - what Kenneth Woods has dubbed 'the one-percent problem'.

The combination of these five factors has produced the perfect storm that is threatening to shipwreck classical music. Elementary economics tells us that if the supply of a commodity outstrips demand, first you try to increase demand. If this does not work, you then have to cut supply. For years classical music has been trying to increase demand using a panoply of tactics that can be grouped under the pejorative of dumbing down. That the art form remains in perpetual crisis is simple confirmation that demand cannot be increased enough to balance the current oversupply.

My post about China and the Emirates was sparked by a session at next week's Association of British Orchestras conference. This session aims to encourage orchestras to tour China, with a special focus on "how we can tap into the interest in British orchestras in China’s second and third tier cities". The irony that immediately prior to the conference two British orchestras were already touring China at the same time is lost on the ABO. Are China’s second and third tier cities really a viable long term market for British orchestras? Or are these tours simply a way of taking up slack in the supply chain?

In Britain the Ulster Orchestra is teetering on the threat of extinction, for decades there has been a tacit acceptance that London has too many orchestras, the BBC has said it "would be willing to engage in a discussion about "the future of orchestral provision across the UK", and this never ending crisis is mirrored around the world. Yet, despite this, the agenda of the Association of British Orchestras conference totally fails to acknowledge that oversupply of classical music - recorded and live - is the biggest single threat to our orchestras. Instead the conference agenda is a ragbag of quick fixes that even if they work - and that is a big if - do no more than perpetuate the bloated status quo.

Bodies such as the Association of British Orchestras must accept that there is oversupply of music, and they need to tackle the problem. A diet plan agreed within the industry is infinitely preferable to the externally inflicted gastric band surgery that is already starting to happen. But arriving at an internal consensus will not be easy. Any discussion of slimming down the supply chain is inevitably tainted by the threat of job losses. Sadly, these are inevitable; but contributory savings can be made by tackling problem such as the inflated fees enjoyed by celebrity musicians and their management agents, and by celebrity radio presenters.

Also on the Association of British Orchestra's conference agenda is a session titled 'Does classical music need a reboot?' The loaded panel is comprised almost entirely of Max Hole disciples, it is chaired by a Classic FM presenter, and the blurb for the session refers to "the clamour for a re-invention of the classical concert experience". The answer to the question 'Does classical music need a reboot?' is no. What classical music needs urgently is a clean up of its hard drive. Emptying a brimming recycle bin at the same time would also fix a few problems.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Occultism, farce and Milton Babbitt

Despite inhabiting the twilight zone between occultism and farce, my recent post on why live classical music sounds better than recordings attracted a gratifyingly large readership. The Rudolf Steiner inspired explanation came from Joscelyn Godwin's provocative book Harmonies of Heaven and Earth. It is very easy to dismiss a book with chapters titled 'Kepler's Planetary Music', 'Tone Zodiac', and 'Gurdjieff's Law of Octaves', as New Age babble. But that is a dualistic viewpoint. As another quote from this eclectic volume shows:
Milton Babbitt [seen above]... admits that totally serial music is and will always be a concern for the very few. 'Who cares if you listen?' is the title of one of his articles. Yet for those who have penetrated his music, there is a satisfaction akin to that of higher mathematics, in which a perception of order upon order, of realms of totally logical organization, reunites the cerebral intellect with the sense of wonder and the charm of scintillating tone. In Babbitt's composition the goal is reached of a musical microcosm, complete, balanced, and accountable in its every detail, obeying laws sufficient to itself.
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Monday, January 19, 2015

Inconvenient truths about classical music and free speech

Following the terrible Paris shootings classical music has, quite rightly, has thrown its weight behind the freedom of speech movement, So it is worth noting that next week's Association of British Orchestras conference includes a session titled 'Touring China' which explains how orchestras can exploit the lucrative Chinese market. China is now a regular destination for top orchestras and in the last few weeks both the London Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have been touring the country.

The standard measurement of press freedom is the World Press Freedom Index compiled by respected NGO Reporters Without Borders. In the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 countries China is ranked 175th, a ranking which is below the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. In their commentary Reporters Without Borders describes how in China "human rights activists and dissident bloggers such as Xu Zhiyong and Yang Maodong (also known as Guo Feixiong), who were jailed on trumped-up charges are among those who paid a high price in the past year", while the BBC's website was one of many blocked by the Chinese government during the 2014 Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations. American press monitoring group Freedom House has stated that "China’s media environment remained one of the world’s most restrictive in 2013" and currently assigns a press status of 'not free' to China.

Another market that orchestras and celebrity musicians are falling over themselves to exploit is the United Arab Emirates, and following a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert in Bahrain a member of the orchestra wrote that "the Gulf Arab states could well become a popular and attractive part of our touring itinerary". This prediction should be read in the context of the Emirates sharing with China a Freedom House press status of 'not free'. In their overview Freedom House describes how "The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continued its efforts to silence dissent in 2013, convicting scores of activists and bloggers and further limiting an already constrained media environment". Reporters Without Borders reports that in December 2014: "the Abu Dhabi federal supreme court has sentenced online human rights activist Osama Al-Najjar to three years in prison and a heavy fine for tweeting about the mistreatment that his father and all the other victims of the “UAE 94” trial received in detention", and goes on to say "Reporters Without Borders condemns this latest case of the Emirati regime’s persecution of cyber-dissidents".

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, who visited the Emirates in 2010, were among the first high profile Western orchestras to perform in Abu Dhabi, and they were followed four years later by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. Like China, Abu Dhabi and the other Gulf states have an appalling record on human rights that extends far beyond press freedom. The misdemeanours in the Gulf states include the persecution of homosexuals, the malreatment of migrant workers, and discrimination against women. Islamic Sharia is a main source for the penal code in the UAE. This means, to quote Diana Hamade, an Emirati lawyer based in Dubai: "Crimes such as the desertion of Islam, fornication, murder, theft, adultery and homosexuality - all crimes classified as "Al Hudud" in Arabic - are punishable by predetermined penalties (flogging and arm amputation among them)."

Despite this, as has been pointed our here many times, celebrity musicians flock to Abu Dhabi. Among those accepting thirty pieces of silver to perform at the 2015 Abu Dhabi Festival are Riccardo Muti and Anne-Sophie Mutter. It is particularly surprising to find Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra among those appearing this year, as Fischer has been lauded for displaying a "subversive streak goes hand in hand with an uncommon political outspokenness" and has been praised for his blunt criticism of the right-wing political drift in his native Hungary. There is not much that I admire about the regimes in China and the United Arab Emirates. But I do admire how both regimes have created a parallel universe for celebrity musicians, where the otherwise universally accepted principles of freedom of speech and human rights do not apply. There is yet another inconvenient truth here.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

The quiet in the land

With the William Schuman Award following on from a Pulitzer Prize, John Luther Adams is receiving the attention he deserves. His music is rich in linkages, and two of the more arcane deserve to be explored. In an essay Adams acknowledges what he calls "the remarkable book" The Tuning of the World by the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. The two composers have much in common, notably a passion for the wilderness areas of North America and the signature sounds - or lack of sounds - of those wildernesses. John Luther Adams' first string quartet The Wind in High Places has just been recorded, and at the core of Murray Schafer's output are twelve string quartets which, although recorded, are unjustly neglected. The quiet in the land is a leitmotif of Adams' music, and it is also the title of one of the programmes in Glenn Gould's Solitude Trilogy. These three radio documentaries were made for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) between 1967 and 1977. Despite being primarily voice compositions, Gould considered his contrapuntal radio experiments to be music, and even gave them opus numbers. The Solitude Trilogy is a bold experiment that challenges preconceptions about the nature of music. The trilogy can be bought on iTunes, but you unlikely to hear the the programmes broadcast again for the reason explained here.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

If it's muck or mysticism, I'm on the side of the mystics

It is pleasing to see my gentle advocacy of Raga Virga, a fusion of Indian Dhrupad songs and the chant of Hildegard von Bingen, reaching a wide audience via Facebook. My co-advocate is Paul von Wichert who hosts a programme on Winnipeg's Classic 107, and in a comment about Raga Virga Paul says: "I hear a little Tibetan influence in O Splendidissima Gemma". Which prompts me to share another discovery with readers.

Mozarabic Chant was the liturgical plainchant of the Mozarabic rite of the Roman Catholic Church practised by Christians living under Arabic rule in medieval Spain, and it is important as a product of those far-off times when the three religions of the book co-existed in harmony. A pioneering recording of Mozarabic Chant was made by Ensemble Organum directed by Marcel Pérès for Harmonia Mundi in 1994, and this remains in the catalogue today. But, excellent as it is, the Ensemble Organum interpretation is really too hair shirt to reach a wide audience. So enter a more recent performance by Música Antigua titled Canto Visigótico-Mozárabe. This is masterminded and directed by Eduardo Paniagua whose innovative approach to early music was featured here in Multiculturalism beyond Big Music. Eduardo Paniagua subscribes to the admirable school which says that authentic performances are in many ways a silly tradition, and mixes rigorous scholarship with liberal interpretations. Eduardo Paniagua points to a 12th century account of Mozarbic liturgy that describes how "the sound of the bells filled [the] ears", and, based on this, accompanies two voices singing the chant with not only period instruments but a range of bells, including, notably, campanas-cuencos, these are the singing bells better known as Tibetan singing bowls.

Tibetan singing bowls have featured On An Overgrown Path several times previously, notably in the music of John Tavener and Alain Kremski. One of many fascinating books that I read in 2014 was Frank Perry's Himalayan Sound Revelations, subtitled The complete singing bowl book. Frank Perry was a progressive jazz percussionist in the 1960s; he has gone on to become an authority on singing bowls, and has made one hundred and five recordings with a variety of bowls. His substantial volume ranges across biography and performing techniques, music therapy, and on into the more arcane reaches of mysticism. Many paths converge here, including the importance of vibrations as explained by Hazrat Inayat Khan and Jonathan Harvey - Jonathan's Jubilus is scored, inter alia , for Taiwanese temple bowls. In the music of John Tavener, Jonathan Harvey, Frank Perry and others, as in Eduardo Paniagua's Canto Visigótico-Mozárabe, the Tibetan influence extends beyond the sonic into the mystical, reminding us that all the great traditions, including music and faith, come from a common route.

I make no apologies for the continuing drift of these paths towards the mystical. Music writing is rapidly polarising between muck and mysticism; with the latest offering* from the exemplar of future music journalism reading: "Diva’s tales: I binged on food. Then booze. Then men..." So if it's a choice between muck or mysticism, I'm on the side of the mystics. Campanas de Ritual from Canto Visigótico-Mozárabe can be sampled here, and the Pacem Meam here.

* All links to Slipped Disc are indirect to avoid swallowing click bait; the cited reference should appear at the top of the Google search results. No review samples used in this post. 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.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lama in the sky with diamonds

Recent unconfirmed but credible reports that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will open the climactic last day of this year's Glastonbury Festival do not come as a surprise. Last year I was able to observe His Holiness at close range during his Kalachakra teachings in Jammu and Kashmir. That experience prompted me to write about how the Dalai Lama's love affair with the Western media is strangely at variance with the concept of ego-death - anatta - which is central to Buddhism, and how he is eager to use egocentric show business personalities to front his appearances in the West. It is not without reason that The Daily Beast hailed the Dalai Lama as a "Twitter rock star". The pursuit of ego-death does not deter His Holiness and those around him from embracing social media with a fervor that puts many rock stars in the shade, and that unedited header image comes from the selfie saturated Facebook page of a member of the Dalai Lama's inner circle.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent cultural genocide is a tragedy, and the West's refusal to confront China with their crimes is a scandal. But the damage to Tibet is now irreparable and the West's love affair with the Chinese economy is irreversible. His Holiness has stated: "I don't want to convert people to Buddhism - all major religions, when understood properly, have the same potential for good". So why is he appearing at the Glastonbury Festival? Ticket prices for Glastonbury 2015 are £225 per person, a hospitality yurt for four people costs £11,394, and past sponsors have included brewing giant Carlsberg and multi-national mobile phone operator Orange, both corporations with extensive business interests in China. Details of the Tibetan government-in-exiles finances make illuminating reading; but I am quite sure the Dalai Lama is not benefiting personally from his Festival appearance. But are there not better ways to preserve the priceless Tibetan Buddhist tradition than publicly embracing the forces of excess and celebrity that are destroying it?

I travelled to India last year wanting to be bowled over by the Dalai Lama and the venerable tradition that he has been instrumental in keeping alive. But as I explained in my essay about the visit, my spirit quest to Ladak enlightened me in unexpected ways. I believe implicitly in the Buddha's Four Noble Truths and my admiration for the Dalai Lama's past work in championing the Tibetan cause is boundless. However, the prospect of the acclaimed Nobel Peace Prize laureate morphing into Glastonbury headline act saddens me. His Holiness should take note of what happened to another spiritual leader. In 1969 Sri Swami Satchidananda, a guru whose disciples included musicians Carole King and Paul Winter, appeared at the Woodstock Festival. Later, the Swami's ownership of an antique Cadillac and a cherry red Rolls-Royce were the least of the problems that the spiritual leader with a taste for the rock star lifestyle had to contend with.

In a recent tweet to his 10.1 million Twitter followers, the Dalai Lama told them that: "True friendship develops not as a result of money and power but on the basis of genuine human affection". If his Glastonbury appearance is confirmed, will His Holiness exhort his followers to emulate Woodstock by breaking down the fences and turning Glastonbury into a free festival? If he does, a lot of people who cannot afford £225 or who had the cash but lost out in the Glastonbury ticket lottery, will benefit from his undoubted wisdom.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Where's my stuff?

Whenever possible I buy my CDs from an independent retailer. But sometimes availability or price dictates that one is bought from an internet seller. Over the years I have bought hundreds of CDs online, and of those only a handful have failed to arrive. But the occasional disc is lost in transit, and the latest victim is Raga Virga from Ars Choralis Coeln and Amelia Cuni. The online seller has an impeccable rating for reliability, and our local postman is beyond reproach. So what happened to Raga Virga? Are there thousand of undelivered discs condemned to exist in the postal equivalent of saṃsāra? Or is someone in the UK postal system randomly opening CD packages in the hope of finding the latest Alfie Boe release? If so, what was the thief's reaction when instead they found a disc of Indian Dhrupad songs fused with the chant of Hildegard von Bingen? Did the CD go straight in the rubbish bin? Or did this opportunist theft open their ears to the riches of both Hindustani song and Christian plainchant? Will the perpetrator go on to buy Meeting of Angels and Mantra? Is this a new marketing opportunity for the beleaguered classical recording industry? - despatch hundreds of discs of a new release into the postal system to generate viral demand from chance thefts. I will ponder on these questions while waiting for a replacement copy of Raga Virga to arrive.

Very obviously, no review samples were used in this post. 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.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Jordi Savall on the record

That photo was taken when I was interviewing Jordi Savall for a radio programme in 2008. The interview has been available as a streamed audio file since then, but it has never been transcribed. However, the enthusiastic response to Timothy Stevens' invaluable transcription of my interview with Jonathan Harvey has now prompted me to undertake the task. The interview may have taken place seven years ago, but the messages in it - particularly the final paragraph - are, sadly, more true today than they ever were.

BS Welcome to the 15th century church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, and to An Overgrown Path special that celebrates one of the truly outstanding musicians of our time. The viol player, conductor, composer and early music champion Jordi Savall was born in Catalonia in 1941. He started his musical training at the age of six before going on to study at the famous Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland. He founded the early music ensemble Hesperion XX with his wife the soprano Montserrat Figueras in 1974, and has made more than one hundred highly acclaimed recordings. In 1998 he founded his own record label Alia Vox which has gone on to pioneer new methods of presentating CDs to fight back against the record industry move to file downloads. Jordi Savall is also well-known for his work in the cinema, and his soundtrack for the film Tous les matins du monde featuring the music of Marin Marais and Sainte Colombe has sold more than a million copies.

Although known as an early music specialist, Jordi Savall's music making ranges far, and his latest recording includes music by the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt. If that was the whole story, Jordi Savall would be a name to rank alongside other leading musicians who have used early music as a springboard to reach a wide audience. But what makes Jordi Savall truly priceless is his commitment to, and these are his words, "sharing musical experiences with musicians from other cultures and religions". His success in using music for spiritual communion has led to his being appointed an intercultural ambassador for the European Union, and Jordi Savall is here in Norwich tonight to perform a programme of music from the East and West in a celebration of diversity. I am absolutely delighted that he has been able to find time in his hectic schedule between rehearsal and concert to join us tonight.

BS Jordi, welcome to On An Overgrown Path. We are here in Norwich to hear a concert of music from East and West. Can you start by telling us a little about the programme and how it came about.

JS The programme is the result of a dialogue between our music from the Occident, conserved mostly in manuscripts and medieval books, and Oriental music conserved by oral tradition. In Spain different cultures and religions lived together from the 7th to 15th centuries, so we have a long tradition in Spain of this dialogue which stopped in 1492 with the expulsion of the Jews and the end of the Reconquista. There are many paintings and miniatures where you see Moorish, Jewish and Christian musicians playing different sorts of instruments. We have to be inspired in this context to establish a certain dialogue with music from Israel, from Morocco, from Afghanistan, from Greece, and from different traditions combined with Occidental music. The result is very interesting because you never feel a big break, a big separation between the first instrumental music for instance from the British Museum manuscript from the 15th century and pieces we are playing from the Andalusian tradition of Jewish tradition. It's the same language, there are different rhythmic concepts, different harmonic scales and different modes, but the speed is the same, because until the 14th century the same monodic style was used and it is very close to the art of improvisation.

BS In my introduction I talked about the work you have done in cross-cultural communication. Do you see it as your mission to use music to help create this communication and reconcile humanity?

JS I think music is, in the first instance, something that communicates with people. Music was used from very ancient times to communicate with God and with the spirits. Music is the art of memory, music is the art of dialogue, and I think it is the best training, the best school for everybody to learn how to establish a dialogue with other people and with other cultures. Because, when you are making music with people with who you have a sympathy, normally you have to respect them, you have to use the same tuning, you have to listen to them like music,and this is the best school for any dialogue between people holding different viewpoints.

BS I mentioned your work with contemporary composers, and Philip Glass once said that world music is the new classical. Many would see Orient-Occident, which we are to hear tonight, and othe rof your projects as world music. Would you agree, and is world music the new classical?

JS I think world music was probably one of the most important musical discoveries of the 20th century, and it was a discovery that put corrected an imbalance. For many hundred of years it was thought that music was in constant evolution; even Stendhal said in the 19th century that Mozart and Haydn were really great composers who had bettered all the preceding composers. This is a mistake, I believe the essential quality of music is to bring emotion to a person. You can be so touched by a simple voice accompanied with a lute or similar instrument, there can be as much emotion in this simple combination as in a big vocal ensemble with a hundred singers and a big orchestra with a hundred musicians. The quality of the art and the quality of the emotion has nothing to do with the loudness of the sound, the size of the orchestra or the complexity of the music. Of course we have in the Occident, at the centre of our art, the B minor Mass and the Beethoven symphonies and other masterpieces. There are no comparable works in the Orient, but there is still the quality of the emotion and of the art.

BS Occident-Orient and other recent releases are on the Alia Vox label - your own record label. Can you tell us a little about why you started your own label? What is the background to the decision?

JS The background to the decision was more than twenty years working with other companies, mainly doing the things we liked to do. But ten years ago we started to feel that when working with the major companies, it was impossible to create innovative projects that introduced the risks associated with unknown repertoire. This convinced us that we had to be free to make our own decisions, and had to be free to give decisions about the music priority over commercial decisions. This was the starting point for Aia Vox; it is a very small group of people, Montserrat Figueras my wife, myself, an editor, a person who prepares the editions, an export manager, and that's all. Which means we work in the best conditions, because musicians take all the decisions, from conception until the record is finished. Probably Alia Vox is the only record company in the world where musicians are controlling everything. This means we can create projects with the very highest sensibility for the sound, for the repertoire, for the presentation including texts and background history. We are trying to create CD/books that are collectable, and that do not simply exploit the possibilities of the internet; with the texts and background history and graphics making our recordings are physically appealing. This is our way to work, and it opposes the movement towards making music a non-physical commodity available only over the internet.

BS Your latest release Invocation à la nuit includes music by Arvo Pärt, and you commissioned a work by Pärt to commemorate the terrible Madrid terrorist bombings. Do you see early music as a limiting label, and will contemporary music be an increasing part of your future plans?

JS I think the term early music is not appropriate. If you listen to one of our recent releases Estampies & Danses Royales, you will see the manuscript in the booklet. You will see that only around twenty percent of the music we play is conserved in the manuscript. If we only play what is in the manuscript, a piece that on the CD lasts six minutes would only take around one minute or one minute thirty seconds. All the rest is creation, it is re-creation, it is contemporary music we are making. Of course we are making contemporary music, but we are also respecting the style of the time while still spontaneously creating new music. For this, I think the gap between real new contemporary music and contemporary music re-created from early music, will become smaller and smaller. In the piece we asked him to compose, Arvo Pärt used a very old Gregorian chant Pacem Domine, this, in a sense, makes his music at the same time modern and ancient. I believe that there is a renaissance of music in the 21st century, because we are awakening and bringing back to life music that has been forgotten for many hundreds of years. This will mean modern composers will be more influenced by this renaissance, and Arvo Pärt and many others are examples of this.

BS I am afraid Jordi Savall must leave us now to perform here in the church of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich. Jordi, thank you very much for finding the time to join us On An Overgrown Path before tonight's concert.

JS Thank you, before finishing I would like to say we live today in a time of terrible tragedy, with terrorism and other problems in many countries. To live in peace in such a problematic global environment is very difficult, but to live in peace without peace in your own heart is impossible. And music and love are the best way to recover inner peace.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Interview (c) On An Overgrown Path 2015. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Why live classical music sounds better than recordings

There have been a number of musings On An Overgrown Path as to why recordings cannot quite capture the essence of live classical music. So I was delighted to find the following explanation of the shortcomings of sound reproduction in Harmonies of Heaven and Earth by Joscelyn Godwin. The author describes Ernst Hagemann's theory as being on the borderline between occultism and farce. But that is a facile way to dismiss it. In today's recording studios a plethora of digital tools means that only the beautiful forms enter the microphone. As a consequence the ugly spirits are absent, and so the full artistic experience is lacking. Why is why live classical music sounds better than recordings. And before dismissing this post as an amusing mix of farce and occultism, remember that a number of prominent musicians were profoundly influenced by Rudolf Steiner, including Bruno Walter and Jonathan Harvey.
The inevitable question, which could not have arisen before Edison's phonograph (1877) is, What happens when the tones are reproduced mechanically via a record or tape? Rudolf Steiner, speaking in 1923 shortly before his death, had condemned the gramophone as a source of music. Of course the gramophone of that time could only produce a travesty of live music, but according to his follower Ernst Hagemann the rejection was more than aesthetic. In an extraordinary passage on the borderline between occultism and farce, Hagemann solemnly described his own research with clairvoyantly gifted people in order to find out what happens to the elementals' function when music is mechanically reproduced. Not every detail was satisfactorily explained, but the consensus of several clairvoyants working independently was as follows.

On applying their second sight to the surface of gramophone records, they found them thronged with elemental forms - all dead. Looking through a magnifying glass, they could see even more of them! These, they said, are the lifeless replicas of the elementals who were constellated in the air, entered the microphone, and were 'shadowed' upon the record matrix during the original live performance. In order to carry over these dead copies into the physical world via the reproducing device, one needs the cooperation of other living elementals - tiny Gnomes, to be precise - whom the clairvoyants were able to perceive in the diamond or sapphire stylus. (One recalls that gemstones are traditionally associated with these earthly spirits). Through the Gnomes' agency, the very same kinds of elementals - presumably Sylphs and Undines - could be seen emerging from the loudspeakers as had been originally captured in the recording process.

So far the inadequacy of recordings was not proven. But the clairvoyants had more to say. At live concerts they did not just enjoy the visions of beauty which the music throws off into the air above the stage, visions which several artists have tried to capture. They also saw the concert hall beset by Spirits of Undine, vile, spider-like beings who swarm around whenever beauty is manifest, and crawl into our ears and noses while we are entranced by it. Everything must have its opposite, in order to create beauty. Man has to have the stimulus of the ugly. The greatest artistic natures, Hagemann says, are those who have felt this conflict the most keenly - even to a physical degree. During recording, however, it is only the beautiful forms who enter the microphone and whose fair corpses little the grooves of our records. The ugly spirits (who actually are no more evil than the manure with which we nourish our roses) are absent, and so the full artistic experience is lacking.
Header image shows one of the Goetheanum Cupola Motifs of Rudolf Steiner. 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, January 05, 2015

The sound beyond silence

In one of his discourses, Ajahn Sumedho, a teacher in the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition, tells how:
'I notice the kind of background sound which I refer to as the sound of silence, a resonating, vibratory sound. Is it a sound? Whatever it is - "sound" isn't quite accurate - I begin to notice a high-pitched kind of vibration that is always present. Once you recognise this point - at which one is fully open, receptive; when you recognize this sound of silence your thinking process stops - you can rest in this stream. It's like a stream. It isn't like ordinary sound that rises and ceases or begins and ends. The sound of the bell has a beginning and ending, and so does the sound of birds, the sound of my voice. But behind that, behind all other sounds, is this sound of silence. It's not that we create it or that it comes and goes - in my exploraration of this it's always present, it's just there whether I notice it or not. So once I notice it - and it sustains itself, I don't have to create it - then it's just present, pure presence. '
His search for the elusive sound beyond silence took John Cage through the aleatoric maze that led to 4' 33". In this, the absence of any conventional music defines the sound beyond silence as the chance ambient noises that form the background to our quotidian existence. 4' 33" is, quite rightly, revered as a milestone of contemporary music. But an acceptance that the sound beyond silence - the sonic foundation of our existence - is no more than intrusive chance noise, is an essentially nihilistic viewpoint.

John Cage, and others in his circle including Morton Feldman, influenced the development of John Luther Adams as a composer. But Adams has diverged in an important way from the path that led Cage to 4' 33". In his latest work Become Ocean, Adams proposes that the sound beyond silence is not chance background noise, but the resonating, vibratory sound - Nadha Brahma - that Ajahn Sumedho and other clairaudients hear. Nada Brahma is a Sanskrit expression with roots in Indian Vedic spirituality. It is most commonly translated as 'sound is God', but it also has the wider meanings of 'sound is the world', 'sound is joy', and the ultimate 'sound is the central concept'. This theme is developed in the Upanishads which tell us that the essence of sacred knowledge is sound, and the essence of sound is the resonating, vibratory OM.

John Luther Adams has lived for years in the wilderness of Alaska. His earlier work Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing takes its title from a fourteenth Century mystical Christian text which reflects the teachings of contemplative traditions throughout the world, including the Christian, Judaic, Buddhist, Sufi, and Native American traditions. A preoccupation with fusing sight and sound led Adams to creating installations such as The Place Where You to Listen which pay homage to Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk - total artwork. In his note for Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing. the composer describes how "the essence of the contemplative experience is voluntary surrender, purposeful immersion in the fullness of a presence far larger than ourselves". Writing with an eloquence that I can only aspire to, Alex Ross suggests that Become Ocean "may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history", and goes on to describe how:

An aching suspension of D-sharp against an E-major triad recalls the final measures of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. And the low, dark choirs of brass conjure Wagner. Anyone who has secretly wished, during the swirling stasis that opens the “Ring,” that the music would go on like that forever will find much to love in “Become Ocean.”
Like everything that breaks new ground, Become Ocean has its detractors, with a guest blogger On An Overgrown Path describing it as "tediously long". Which is not a problem: because, as I have learned in my advancing years, there are many different truths for many different people. Become Ocean won the 2013 Pulitzer Music Prize from a shortlist that included the other John Adams' 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary', and has been generously praised in the US music press. But here in the UK, where new music is only covered by the self-styled cultural commentators when it is linked to celebrity, sex or scandal, a work that has the potential to repeat the market impact of Nonesuch's 1992 CD of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, has, predictably, been ignored.

To paraphrase Ajahn Sumedho, whatever Become Ocean is, describing it as 'sound' isn't quite accurate. Like Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, this ineffable music speaks of voluntary surrender and purposeful immersion in a presence far larger than ourselves. It is a work of great beauty, great power, and great importance. It is also a work of our time, and the pioneering recording by the Seattle Symphony - which commissioned the work - under Ludovic Morlot on the independent Cantaloupe Music label acknowledges that new audiences want their music up close and personal. Become Ocean comes on two discs. One is an excellent concert hall balance complete with fulsome bass in conventional two-channel sound, while the other disc presents the work in surround sound. But rather than using the almost extinct multi-channel SACD format, the surround disc is encoded to the ubiquitous 5.1 DVD standard and is coupled with pulsating with proto-Gesamtkunstwerk images.

By an auspicious coincidence I had just finished installing a home cinema system for our daughter when Become Ocean arrived, and I was able to audition it in surround sound. In his youth John Luther Adams was a drummer in a rock band and a fan of Frank Zappa. If Max Hole and the other rock music moguls cum classical music revisionists really want to discover how to win new audiences, all they need do is turn up the volume and listen to Become Ocean's low, dark brass choirs in up close and personal surround sound.

The complete recording of Become Ocean can be auditioned here. No review samples involved in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Classical music targets the adult only audience

I have argued before that classical music's new audience is grey haired. So it is good to see Melodiya agreeing and giving their new set of Tikhon Khrennikov's symphonies and concertos a 16+ rating.

No review samples involved in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages 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.