Friday, July 31, 2015

New music livens up industry award shortlist

Very good to see new music in the form of the above CD making the Gramophone Concerto Award shortlist alongside hardy perennials form Bruch, Beethoven et al. At the time of the 2010 premiere of James MacMillan's Oboe Concerto I interviewed soloist Nicholas Daniel together with James MacMillan who conducted the Britten Sinfonia in both the premiere performances and the recording. That interview can be heard on SoundCloud via this link. As well as discussing the music, the interview touches on some familiar Overgrown Path themes including the links between music and spirituality. Nick Daniel plays a mean oboe, but he is also worth listening to talking about Tibetan Buddhism.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sound yoga - ancient wisdom or New Age nonsense?

Classical music cannot stand still; so that means it must find new audiences. Western classical music has evolved into a highly dualist art form with clearly demarcated boundaries around its core offering of the orchestral and operatic repertoire. There is little debate that this repertoire must - and will - remain central to the art form. But it can be argued that to open up new markets the current watertight boundaries around that core offering must become porous. An example of a blurring of these boundaries would be an entry into the mind, body and spirit market; a market which a post here in 2011 pointed out was then worth around $11 billion annually in the US, compared with $200 million for classical album sales.

It is tempting to dismiss the mind, body and spirit market opportunity as no more than 'Mozart for meditation' and 'Gregorian Chant for the soul', but that would be a mistake. As my earlier post noted, the spiritual dimension is found in many of classical music's masterpieces, from Bach's B minor Mass to Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. And, significantly, several respected contemporary composers have proved that the border between the cerebral and the ineffable is already porous. In the programme note for his percussion composition Strange and Sacred Noise, John Luther Adams - who is one of those challenging traditional boundaries - writes of how "the strange power of noise can open a doorway to the ecstatic... beyond the usual expressive associations of "musical" sounds, noise touches and moves us in profound ways". As can be seen in the accompanying photos, I recently had the opportunity to experience the strange power of sound first hand, and this post is an account of that close encounter with the ancient tradition of sound yoga.

Einstein's theory of relativity identified the equivalence of mass and energy. Sound is, like all mattter, a form of vibrating energy, and in the great wisdom traditions which predate Einstein's research by millennia, sound is viewed as a sacred energy. In Indian Vedic spirituality the Sanskrit expression nada Brahma tells how 'sound is God'. Ajahn Sumedho, a teacher in the Buddhist Thai forest tradition speaks of a resonating, vibratory background sound that he identifies as 'the sound of silence', while in his celebration of Rumi The Way of Passion, Andrew Harvey describes how a mystic in a trance can "see the atoms dancing". Quantum physics has shown how atoms are vibrating energy, and noise, sound and music are just different forms of vibrations. In an interview with me Jonathan Harvey explained that: "Energy is oscillation, largely. And when we say we are stirred by a piece of music, we’re excited, we are moved, and so on, we’re talking as if we are like a tuning fork which has been struck by some music, and it has continued to vibrate for some time". In answer to my question Can music transform matter? he replied: "We all know about the soprano shattering the wine glass. It’s all vibrations, I mean music and the world, everything is oscillation", and in Speakings - probably his most ambitious work - Jonathan used IRCAM sound processing technology to reduce speech and music to the common denominator of audible vibrations.

Among the other far-sighted musicians who recognised the centrality of vibrations was the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan who taught that "spirit descends into matter by the law of vibrations, and matter may also ascend toward the spirit". Hazrat Inayat Khan met Alexander Scriabin in Moscow in 1913 shortly before the Russian composer's death. Scriabin was probably the most zealous believer in what John Luther Adams describes as the strange power of noise. He was a member of the Russian mystical Symbolist movement which maintained that a work of art could have a material effect upon reality; one example of this material effect is the soprano shattering a glass. In his unfinished epic for orchestra, organ, piano and voices Mysterium, Scriabin set out to revive the lost theurgic function of ancient mystery plays. His involvement with Theosophy had introduced Scriabin to the Vedic concept of a cosmos permeated by a divine supersensuous energy known as Akâsa, a unitary vibration that possesses spiritual properties. Scriabin believed he could have a material effect on reality by unleashing the energy of Akâsa in Mysterium using music, dancing, light, scents, and sacred architecture. In Scriabin's schema the interaction of these elements would generate a vibration so powerful that it would trigger material disintegration, ecstatic universal death, and communal rebirth on a higher plane. A more recent invocation of the destructive power of Akâsa came at the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival when Antoine Brumel's Missa Et ecce terrae motus (Earthquake Mass) was bravely given in a performance enhanced by sound artist Russell Haswell at which ear plugs were handed out.

The belief of Scriabin and other visionary musicians in the centrality and power of vibrations is vindicated by scientific research. Einstein's theory of relativity explains how mass and energy are closely linked, which means that even an object at rest has energy stored in its mass; while quantum field theory has identified that the interaction of subatomic particles makes the universe a dynamic inseparable continuum. The sudden and catastrophic release of the huge amount of energy stored in dense masses such as plutonium is the mechanism of nuclear weapons - devices which deliver the trigger material disintegration and universal death that Scriabin sought to achieve with Mysterium. Naturally occurring low frequency energy, such as that unleashed by an earthquake, can also be extremely destructive. Infrasound is acoustic energy below the lower limit of human hearing, and there is evidence that these very low frequencies excite resonances in the human cognitive system. Musical sounds extend beyond human hearing into both infrasound and ultrasound (high frequencies beyond the upper limit of ear). Music is not just notes being played: it is pulses of highly complex energy the impact of which on the human body is not fully understood. Cymatic images capture this complex vibrating energy; graphics available via this link include those generated by the first octave of a piano. A post here in 2009 showed cymatic images of the music of Stockhausen and Boulez captured by Alexander Lauterwasser (who is the son of Karajan's court photographer).

The theories of relativity and quantum fields were anticipated thousands of years ago by nada yoga, the ancient yoga of sound, in which musical sounds resonate with energy centres in the human body. Before dismissing this as twaddle remember that the unique and prized sound of a Stradivarius violin is the result of the violin strings exciting sympathetic resonances in energy centres in the body of the instrument, and researchers at Kobe University in Japan have recently discovered that supramolecular nanofibers dynamically align in harmony with the sound of classical music. Nada yoga uses musical sounds to either excite resonances in the body to open the doorway to the ecstatic that John Luther Adams identifies, or to quieten the resonances and produce a very deep and therapeutic relaxation. In the twentieth century the related study of radiesthesia evolved. Radiesthesia is the interaction between the vibrational fields of the human body and external objects. Unlike its distant cousin synthaesthesia, radiesthenia is still commonly dismissed as a pseudoscience; however, the phenomenum of quantum entanglement together with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem mean this harsh judgement may need revising.

It was Scriabin's intention that Mysterium should be performed in the Himalayan region of India, one of those notably 'thin places' where the barrier between the material world and the world of the spirit dissolve. Scriabin's premature death meant that he was not able to unleash the divine vibrations of Akâsa and trigger the promised material disintegration in the Himalayas. However, in a far more modest way I was recently able to experiment with radiesthenia and the strange power of noise in another 'thin place'. Sougia on the south coast of Crete is a place of primal energy due to its proximity to the fault line between the European and African tectonic plates. It was famous as a centre of the counterculture in the 1960s and 70s, and the tradition of embracing alternative thinking continues there. During a recent visit to Sougia I met up with Heidrun Kimm; she studied with Peter Hess who is a leading figure in the field of radiesthesia and its therapeutic applications. Heidrun has lived on Crete for twenty-six years and is an exponent of sound massage. As the accompanying photos show, she uses Himalayan singing bowls to quieten the resonances in the human body and produce a deep and therapeutic relaxation. These complex vibrations can be seen in this video of cymatic images produced by an antique Tibetan singing bowl.

Jonathan Harvey's description of how "...when we say we are stirred by a piece of music... we’re talking as if we are like a tuning fork which has been struck by some music, and it has continued to vibrate for some time" literally resonated with my own experience. During the sound massage my body felt like a tuning fork that vibrated sympathetically with the singing bowls and it continued to vibrate long after the session finished. My own experience was too brief to be conclusive. But it did give me a tantalising glimpse of how nada yoga can provide a bridge between the world of the senses and the indescribable world of the Spirit. In his note for Strange and Sacred Noise John Luther Adams describes how his most powerful experience of the ecstatic power of noise came at the all-night drumming, chant and dance ceremonies of the Iñupiat and Yup'ik Eskimo peoples. These rituals of ecstasy and therapy, the disputed science of radiesthenia, and the strange and sacred noises of an eclectic group of composers all harness the little-understood latent energy of sound.

Newton's mechanistic physics, which viewed the universe as an agglomeration of 'mass points' fixed in absolute space and time, have been superseded by relativity theory and quantum physics that bend time and space, and deconstruct mass into energy in the iconic equation E = mc2. Sound is vibrating energy that interacts with everything - sentient and inanimate - in close and distant proximity. Yet despite an obsession with change, classical music remains firmly rooted in the mechanistic world of Newtonian physics; where Britten's intimate 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener is blown apart by the distancing technology of music streaming, where the market is viewed as a monolithic mass and the interlinked constituents of a performance are rendered into unrelated binary digits. This binary conditioning dictates that a proposition can only be right or wrong, with no possibility of nuanced middle ground. That means, inevitably, this post will be condemned as New Age nonsense by many. Which I suggest is short-sighted: because in their very different ways Bach, Mahler, Scriabin, Jonathan Harvey, John Luther Adams, not to mention numerous communities of monks and nuns, have already successfully exploited the mind, body and spirit market. As I pointed out back in 2011, there are not too many $11 billion market opportunities around; so perhaps it is time for classical music to stop talking entertainment and start talking well-being.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What classical music can learn from John Coltrane

Western classical music has evolved into a highly dualist art form with strict differentiations between masterpiece/minorpiece, celebrity/nobody, young/ageing, prestigious/unimportant, contemporary/mainstream, acclaimed/insignificant, classical/non-classical etc etc. It is my proposition that this rigid dualism erects barriers to engagement with both new and existing audiences. Central to duality is the process of objectifying. This dissects the seamless flow of music making into objects, each with a discrete form delineated by clear boundaries - celebrity conductor, anniversary composer, world class orchestra, prestigious festival etc. Non-dualism dismantles these barriers and returns the music to its original seamless free form - the mystical concept of lata’if. John Coltrane disregarded traditional musical boundaries in his pioneering free form jazz, and my recent listening has included returning to saxophonist Raphaël Imbert's Bach-Coltrane project that I first wrote about in 2008. In his sleeve note for the CD Raphaël Imbert describes John Coltrane as "the only true mystic in the history of jazz"* and establishes his own non-dualist credentials by stating that "wherever we come from, we are all musicians". Sample Raphaël Imbert's take on Bach's Vergnütgte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust BWV170 can be heard via this link.

My header graphic is taken from a new release which is also heavily influenced by John Coltrane. Alwane on the Institut du Monde Arabe label brings together free form jazz proponents Mad Nomad Quartet from France led by saxophonist Thierry Beaucoup, and the Dar Gnawa musicians from a Moroccan Sufi brotherhood. This remarkable collaboration not only dismantles barriers of genre and culture but also explores music theatre by introducing dance, olfactory stimulation (incense!), and audience participation in a contemporary interpretation of a Gnawa possession ritual - watch the video via this link. There is no suggestion that Western classical music should become anything other than Western classical music. But we are told so often that classical music must change; which is quite correct. What is wrong is the fashionable doctrine that classical must change physically - venue, lighting, technology etc. What needs to change is the dualist thinking which has a stranglehold on it, and that is where classical music can learn a lot from John Coltrane and his disciples.

Raphaël Imbert does also credit the spiritual/humanistic aspirations of Duke Ellington, Albery Ayler and Sun Ra. No freebies involved in this 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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The lost art of scaring yourself silly

In Time Out London's current edition music bloggers are sent to Berlin and Brighton to carry out three tasks. One of these is to: "Scare yourself silly - find a gig or DJ that a local has recommended to you that is not your usual musical taste". That injunction to scare yourself silly with music from outside your comfort zone resonates with recent musings here about changing the way we listen. Just as light is defined by shade, so familiar music is made more meaningful by the unfamiliar. But we live in an age dominated by the duality of like or dislike; with personalised content delivery making it all too easy to filter out dislikes, leaving us free to live in a soporific world of likes. This polarisation has seeped by osmosis into classical concerts, with 'health and safety' programming removing the risk of the audience being scared silly by an unfamiliar piece. (Yes, the prospect at the BBC Proms of the Heritage Orchestra playing arrangements of Ibiza dance anthems and a Last Night featuring selfies of the Sound of Music does scare me silly; but for all the wrong reasons).

So instead of going around in what Carl Nielsen pithily termed the "deedless admiration of the conventional", why not use the power of the internet to find something not to your usual musical taste? Recent wanderings outside my comfort zone have taken me to the music of Sun Ra. For those who want to follow this path, I recommend 'In the Orbit of Ra', a 2 CD compilation by Marshall Allen who played with Sun Ra and keeps the flame alive with his own Sun Ra Arkestra seen in the header photo. If Sun Ra's free form jazz does not scare you silly his cosmic philosophy will. There is a sample below; read more via this link and listen here.
In the half-between world,
Dwell they: The Tone Scientists
In notes and tone
They speak of many things...
The tone scientists:
Architects of planes of discipline
Mathematically precise are they:
The tone-scientists
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Monday, July 27, 2015

I know your company looks after the shekels rather carefully

A recent post about Sir Hubert Parry's celebrated Blake setting Jerusalem generated considerable interest; so today I am venturing further down the Parry path. Sir Adrian Boult recorded Parry's Fifth Symphony (a work that should be much better known) in the autumn of 1978 for EMI. The session on 20th December in Studio One Abbey Road was both the last session for the Parry LP and the final session of Sir Adrian's distinguished recording career which had started in 1921. We knew that it would be the 89-year-old conductor's farewell to the studio, and I was privileged to be there for those last takes. The recordings of the three Parry works are still in the catalogue as part of the essential EMI/Warner Sir Adrian Boult: The Complete Conductor 10 CD box, and they completely belie their conductor's age. Yet just a few months before, Sir Adrian had written the following letter to his producer Christopher Bishop. I will be very surprised if our current generation of celebrity conductors are so self-effacing as they approach the end of their Indian Summer.
I keep forgetting to tell you that I fear the 3-hour session will soon be a bit long for an 89-year-old. What is the solution? Would it be wise to engage someone who wants to make use of an hour or so at the end or beginning, or simply to pack up when we have had enough, or to start half an hour later, which would suit the players very much? I don't suppose you have ever had this problem before, and I know your company looks after the shekels rather carefully and will therefore wish to make a plan! Very sorry about it.
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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Classical music is backing the wrong kind of streaming

By supporting Spotify, Apple Music and similar services the classical music industry is backing the wrong kind of streaming. But let me make clear at the start that the purpose of this post is not to condemn music streaming. In fact my thesis is that streaming in a very different form holds the key to classical music's future. Streaming is nothing new; in fact the concept of streaming - at the heart of which is a steady and continuous flow of ideas - has been with us for at least four thousand years. At this point I turn to the Bhagavad-gītā, but please don't leave me; music streaming has its roots in the contemporary knowledge tradition of binary technology, and the Bhagavad-gītā is just another rather older knowledge tradition. The fourth chapter of the Gītā tells us in Sanskrit that Evam paramparā-prāptam, which translates as 'In this way, by handing from master to pupil, the knowledge is passed down'. It is then then explained that sa kāleneha mahatā yogo nastah parantapa - 'However in the course of time this succession became broken'. In Vedānta a mantra is defined as a vibrating sound with the potency to liberate the mind. This wide definition extends beyond the familiar chanted mantras to include any sound that can liberate the mind; so within this definition falls every masterwork of classical music. But the Bhagavad-gītā then tells us that if the potent sound is not passed down through a recognized succession - also known as line of transmission - it will not be effective.

Let's now try to translate this ancient wisdom into contemporary language. For potent ideas - of which classical music is a supreme example - to retain their potency, they must be handed down through a continuous chain of transmission. And the Bhagavad-gītā tells us that if this chain is broken, they lose their potency . My proposition is that this loss of potency is the reason why classical music is struggling to engage with contemporary audiences. Music streaming, which treats the music as a discrete 'object' divorced from sensory contact and context, is just one example of how the train of transmission is being broken. Concerts stripped of reinforcing conventions and rituals are another example. The enforced demise of music education, in which important ideas are transmitted from teacher to pupil, is yet another, as is the swing from live to recorded/streamed music as the primary method of consumption. While the advent of the teenage/twenty-something celebrity musician - where media appeal trumps maturity - and the parallel loss of so many great senior artists is an example of the weakening of the interpretative chain of transmission.

Digital technologies are not inherently bad: in fact they have an important role to play as a distribution tool. What is inherently bad is the binary thinking that slices and dices the complex interdependent process of music making into convenient bite-sized chunks for mass market consumption. Instead, what classical music needs is literally joined up thinking, with potent ideas flowing in an uninterrupted stream from composer to musician and on to listener. But re-establishing this flow requires a dramatic change in mindsets. Vedānta and the other ancient traditions of Buddhism and Sufism all stress the importance of subjugating the ego. Despite received wisdom, classical music's current problems are not caused by the external factors of shifting demographics and shrinking funding: instead they are caused by an internally driven shift away from art towards ego. Today the links in what should be a closely interconnected music delivery chain have separated, with each link becoming a discrete mini-brand that devotes its energies to differentiating itself from those around it. Celebrity musicians assert their status by demanding rock star fees, orchestras and radio stations fight to win the largest audiences, record companies chase sales at the expense of everything else, festivals battle it out for the title of biggest, while journalists will do anything for an exclusive. In classical music 2015-style everyone wants to be a winner, and the music is the loser.

A common defense of classical music's current ego-driven business model is that it has always been that way. However that defense is flawed. Of course there have been giant egos such as Liszt, Stokowski, Karajan (whose vanity I had personal experience of) and Callas. But they were the exceptions in an industry where ego tripping was seen as an indulgence rather than a prerequisite. Today, the ubiquitous dualism of winner or loser is breaking the vital train of transmission. With those at the bottom of the music food chain fighting for survival, the only way that classical music can stop itself plunging into an ego-driven dark Age of Kali is by change starting at the top. And, thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope where it matters. The Berlin Philharmonic's appointment of a new chief conductor from outside the ranks of celebrity maestros is a courageous and prescient move. When Kirill Petrenko was appointed to the Berlin Philharmonic, Norman Lebrecht expressed the view that Petrenko "will need to change fast". As usual Lebrecht had it totally wrong. It is not the low profile Kirill Petrenko who needs to change: it is classical music.

That header image sampled from the poster for the 1967 Mantra Rock Dance has a particular relevance to this post. The happening at the Avalon Ball Room in San Francisco introduced A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to the West. He went on to establish the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and his advocacy of music, in the form of the Hare Krishna mantra, was taken up by influential figures including George Harrison. The anthology of this thinking titled Chant and Be Happy, which was one of the sources used in this post, is recommended. 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.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ah, I see you are one of the sweaty type

One of the many inane things currently doing the rounds on social media is a website devoted to "the greatest poses, facial expressions, hair, and other moments caught on camera, in the history of orchestral conducting". Sir Adrian Boult always eschewed histrionics on the podium. Once he shared a Prom with a young Mark Elder; after a strenuous rehearsal Mark Elder retired to the dressing room where Sir Adrian looked at him over a newspaper and remarked: "Ah, I see you are one of the sweaty type".

Anecdote is told by Mark Elder in a contribution to the BBC Philharmonic Club Magazine, June 1986. Header image is grabbed from YouTube video of Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic in Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.8; this footage illustrates perfectly how a great conductor does not have to be a sweaty type. 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.

Festival with most celebrity musicians does not always win

Applying the non-dualist view of the Open Path to the music business is unexpected and very thought-provoking indeed! It shows very convincingly how too often music is being turned as an object. Dualism is no evil. What may be called for is a more meditative way to listen to sounds, realizing that the most elaborate symphonies are but a hitch to the all-pervading Silence. Also a less discriminative way to appreciate - is not the humming of pygmies hunters as important a contribution as the Bolero? In fact, is the business of music not an illustration of a very general human behaviour?
That comment was added to the post Let us change the way we listen by Karim Noverraz, who is an initiate of the Sufi Way and Open Path. The photos were taken at the Art in the Park Eid celebration in Milton Keynes on July 18/19th. This free event, which was refreshingly devoid of star performers, gave the lie to the fashionable dogma that the festival with most celebrity musicians wins. A Sufi fable offers sound advice about this pernicious cult of the celebrity:
When a seeker knocked at his master's door, he heard the sheikh call out, "Who is it?" "It is I, sir, me," he responds. To which the teacher calls back, "Go away! Where there is an I there can be no instruction. Come back when you are no one".

Musicians are Ali Keeler and Al Firdaus Ensemble (photos 5 & 7), Yemeni Musical Entertainment Group (1 & 6), Unite (9) and Jugnu Bhangra (3 & 10). This post is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

New record label where music comes before money

In a 2011 radio interview Jordi Savall explained to me why he started his own record label Alia Vox - "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". To date Alia Vox has been a Savall family label, with Jordi and his greatly-missed wife Montserrat Figueras as the constants, supplemented by their two children Arianna and Ferran. But now, eighteen very successful years and more than one hundred CDs later, Alia Vox has become an extended family label with the launch of Alia Vox Diversa. This will release recordings made by the pool of talented musicians who are long-term collaborators with Jordi Savall, and the mission of the label is to give the music priority over commercial imperatives by showcasing little-known repertoire.

'Euskel Antiqva' is the first release on the new label. It is a programme of early vocal and instrumental music from the Basque Country performed by the Euskal Barrokensemble. This is directed by multi-lutenist Enrike Solinís, who has played with Jordi Savall's Hesperion XXI, Le Concert des Nations and Capella Reial of Catalunya, as well as with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and Le Concert D’Astrée. Alia Vox's exacting quality standards are applied to the multi-lingual packaging and the sound quality captured in the 14th century hermitage of San Blas in the Basque town of Tolosa is excellent, despite the production being in the hands of freelance engineers rather than the Alia Vox 'house' team. However, unlike previous Alia Vox CD releases, there is no SACD layer. This is disappointing as SACD is a genuine attempt to deliver improved sound quality; however the slow demise of SACD has been evident for some time and the apparent departure of Alia Vox is just another nail in its coffin.

Launching Alia Vox Diversa is a shrewd move by Jordi Savall, and not just because it provides valuable exposure for little-known music and musicians. Jordi is now 73 and he has lost his soulmate and muse, despite which he maintains a punishing performance schedule. Long term readers will know that I have a huge admiration for him as a musician and humanitarian, and it has been a privilege to write the programme essays for his 2014 and 2015 Salzburg Summer Festival performances. But to be totally honest, I have felt a little less enthusiasm for some of his recent work, which has relied heavily on material from earlier projects. His sparklingly new interpretations of Baroque masterpieces such as Bach's B minor Mass and Händel's Jubilate Deo have been a delight; but I miss the thrill of discovery that was the hallmark of his early and middle period transcultural explorations. (The contentious Abu Dhabi backed Ibn Battuta project looks more promising; it is not yet available on CD, but the music programme is listed here.)

Thankfully, the arrival of the first Diversa release removes many of my concerns, because 'Euskel Antiqva' both reaffirms the core values that make Alia Vox a beacon of light in an industry blundering around in corporate darkness, and brings again that thrill of discovery. Jordi Savall is not the kind of person to claim an executive producer credit, but 'Euskel Antiqva' is imbued with all the ideals - artistic, technical and aesthetic - that inform his own projects. This congruence is no more apparent than in track 3 Sibilaren Profezia (Prophecy of the Sybil) from the Song of Sybil. This is the first performance of Sibilaren Profezia in the Basque language in modern times, but Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall recorded the complete Song of Sybil in Catalan in 1998.

Having the freedom to take risks and give the music priority over commercial decisions is why Jordi Savall started Alia Vox, and the launch of Alia Vox Diversa shows that he is still relishing that freedom despite the current harsh market conditions. Can you imagine Universal Music or Warner Classics launching a label devoted to unknown but deserving music performed by little known musicians?

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The sound of dumbed down music

'Announced today on BBC Radio 2’s Elaine Paige on Sunday, budding singers have until 30 August to submit their videos singing Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music. A selection of these entries will be included within a video montage, broadcast on BBC One as part of the Last Night of the Proms, and shown at the Royal Albert Hall and at all four Proms in the Park events across the UK on Saturday 12 September' - from BBC press release
'If you set out to chase ratings, it's quite hard to succeed' - from interview with new BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms supremo Alan Davey
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Monday, July 20, 2015

All we are saying is give truth a chance

In a typical piece of click baitery about the 1916 premiere of Sir Hubert Parry's Jerusalem, Norman Lebrecht writes that*:
The conductor was Sir Henry Walford Davis. He and Parry had previously appeared together on a pro-War ‘Fight for Right’ platform.
In fact the origins of both the 'Fight for Right' movement and Parry's celebrated setting of Blake are far more complex than suggested by that facile 'pro-war' stereotyping. Soldier and spy turned pacifist Sir Francis Younghusband formed 'Fight for Right' as a religious, not militaristic movement created to engage in a spiritual, not military, conflict. Of particular contemporary relevance is that Younghusband's vision was for a movement that would appeal "to the whole of humanity... Hindus, Mohammedans, Buddhists..."

Younghusband believed that the spirit of the people “would respond to music, speech, song”, and this resulted in the creation of Parry's setting of Blake as a rallying anthem for the new spiritual movement. After its premiere Jerusalem achieved the Edwardian equivalent of trending, but 'Fight for Right' fared less well, and in 1917 a split opened in the movement between belligerent patriots and committed pacifists. As 'Fight for Right' became increasingly miltaristic Parry withdrew Jerusalem as its anthem, and Younghusband sided with the pacifists and severed connections, and the movement was eventually wound up.

Anniversary mania means there will be many jingoistic celebrations - i.e. not appealing to ""Hindus, Mohammedans, Buddhists..." - of the Jerusalem premiere next year, so it is worth giving the truth a chance to be heard. My header collage showing Sir Francis Younghusband with Buddha statue and this brief summary of the gestation of Jerusalem are taken from a more detailed account that can be read via this link.

* To avoid succumbing to click baitery the link to Slipped Disc is indirect; the referenced post should appear at the top of the Google search results. 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.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Thought for Eid

'Great art arrives through the artist's openness to the unknown and the unexpected, in addition to his or her history of practice and developed skills' - Pir Elias Amidon,
Pir Elias Amidon is spiritual director of the Sufi Way. Photo was taken by me at the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II Mosque in Fez, Morocco. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Scenes from Cavafy

Che gran rifiuto*

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes forward in honor and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
undermines him all his life.
That poignantly topical poem is by C.P. Cavafy**. Dimitri Mitropoulos, who is better known as a conductor, was the first to compose Cavafy settings - audio sample via this link - while John Tavener also paid homage in his 'Tribute to Cavafy', but the soundtrack for this post is provided by another composer. In their indispensable 'Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer' Leta E. Miller and Frederic Lieberman describe how: "For 'Scenes from Cavafy' (1980), Lou Harrison paraphrased selections from the Alexandrian poet, which he then set for male chorus, baritone solo, gamelan, psalteries, and harp in a celebration of homosexual love". My header photo was taken a few weeks ago in the hills above Sougia in the south of Crete. The iPod soundtrack was provided by Gamelan Pacifica's recording of 'Scenes from Cadafy' and also to hand was the invaluable 'A Greek Quintet', an anthology of poems by C.P. Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianios (who was also set by Dmitri Mitropoulos), George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, and Nikos Gatsos in translations by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

* The title is taken from Dante's Inferno, III, 60, and means "who made...the great refusal".
** Poem is reproduced from the official website of the Cavafy archive in the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The next Rumi?

There was a gratifyingly positive response to yesterday's post Let us change the way we listen. Too often these days I despair of the direction that classical music is taking; but the open-minded response to my advocacy of non-duality shows there is room for an alternative to the pervasive "nips and willies" approach pioneered by Norman Lebrecht and endorsed by so many classical musicians who should know better.

Underpinning my post was the metaphysical cantus firmus of the twelfth-century Andalusian Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi. At the core of his teaching is the concept of waḥdat al-wujūd - oneness of being. This proposes a monist (non-dual) alternative to the more generally accepted dualist thinking of Aristotle, Averroes, Descartes, St. Thomas Aquinas and others. Monism views all existence as being part of a single unitary whole. This leads to the interpretation that all great religious/knowledge traditions converge in a single Truth, a viewpoint that led to Ibn 'Arabi's teachings finding favour with the syncretic counterculture of the 1960s. But since then he has fallen out of fashion. A sleeve note for a 2001 tribute by Moroccan and Andalusian musicians from the Sufi tradition on the innovative Pneuma label - see artwork above - explains that: "As far as we know, this is the first time that a complete recording has been made of the poetry of Shaykh al-Akbar [Ibn 'Arabi] including a broad selection of passages from the Tarjumān".

This neglect of Ibn 'Arabi stands in stark contrast to the popularity of his fellow Sufi Mevlana Rumi. In 1994 Publishers Weekly announced that Rumi was the bestselling poet in America, and an exiled Iranian academic in Pico Iyer's 2003 novel Abandon opines that Rumi is "quickly supplanting Rilke and the Dalai Lama as the reigning king of greeting cards"*. My own comprehensive music library yields, in addition to the Pneuma disc, just four Ibn 'Arabi settings on the CD Mystic by the Syrian/French composer Abed Azrié (who influenced Philip Glass) and the single instrumental track Hommage à Ibn Arabi on Keyvan Chemirani's crosscultural Melos project. To my knowledge there has not been a setting of Ibn 'Arabi's poetry by a Western classical composer; but I may be wrong and I welcome correction by my erudite readership**.

As discussed in an earlier post Rumi has been set by a role call of Western composers including Philip Glass, John Tavener, Karol Szymanowski, and Jonathan Harvey. So why not Ibn 'Arabi whose message transcends sectarian divides? It may well be because of a misapprehension that the opacity of his metaphysics*** carries over into his poetry. If that is the case an acquaintance with Ibn 'Arabi's verse will quickly dispel that misapprehension. Here is what is probably his best known poem 'A garden among the flames' reproduced from the website of the Oxford based Ibn 'Arabi Society:
A garden among the flames

O Marvel,
a garden among the flames!

My heart can take on
any form:
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,

For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur'án.

I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns along the way,
that is the belief,
the faith I keep.

From Poem 11 of the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, translation by Michael A. Sells.
* Franklin D. Lewis' invaluable Rumi, Past and present, East and West gives a salutary warning about the dangers of Rumi-mania which can be read via this link.
** The non-classical Vast Earth Orchestra, which has links with the Ibn 'Arabi influenced Beshara community that sprung from the 1960s counterculture, has recorded some interpretations of his poetry. But, for me, they represent all that is wrong New Age artistic expression, and I cannot recommend them.
*** For an accessible introduction to Ibn 'Arabi, Stephen Hirtenstein's The Unlimited Mercifier is recommended.
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Let us change the way we listen

Nikos Kazantzakis suggested that "Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality". Much energy is being expended by the classical music industry on trying to change the unchangeable reality of shifting demographics, harsh economic conditions, new technologies and new lifestyles. So, since we cannot change these realities let us change the ears that hear reality.

My recent listening to both live and recorded music has been enriched by exploring and applying the practice of non-duality. At this point let's deal with the dead moose in the middle of the room. Some, or probably many, will dismiss this thread as more Overgrown Path hippie babble. Which is, of course, their prerogative. But I would respond by suggesting that as classical music has been led so far astray in recent years by marketing babble, a little babble of a different kind can do no harm. Less facetiously, I would also point out that the practices briefly and inadequately summarised here have produced tangible results for me, and that the contemporary developments in non-duality are rooted in respected and long-established wisdom traditions.

There is clear evidence of how dualist thinking and the pitfalls that come with it can confuse and distort classical music. Universal Music boss Max Hole attends a Festival Hall concert. His dualist mindset and the preconceptions that come with it prompt him to construct a narrative that slams "lighting... like the accident and emergency unit of a hospital" and laments how "the conductor had his back to you". Read his account on the Classic FM website for yourself and note that there is not a single mention of the music played or how he responded to it. And there is no recognition of the possibility that if the hospital lighting was swapped for disco effects a different group of listeners would feel alienated. Max Hole's heavy burden of preconceptions forces him to write the music - the raison d'être for the concert - out of his narrative. However, a non-dual practice would teach him to accept - without judgement - that the lighting at the Festival Hall 'is', the conductor's back 'is', and, above all the music, 'is'. Which would lead him to beneficially share his positive musical experience instead of dissing the difficult to change and largely irrelevant conventions attached to it.

Max Hole and the other self-appointed saviours of classical music are easy targets. But, in fact, all of us, including musicians, media companies and journalists - yes On An Overgrown Path pleads guilty - have become hardwired to force everything into a reassuring narrative that confirms our personal prejudices and preconceptions. New technologies have encouraged this; with the replacement of inclusive broadcast terrestrial media by highly selective narrow-cast online media encouraging dualist decisions of like/dislike, follow/unfollow, rather than delivering the digital promise of infinite choice.

My guide when exploring non-dualist thinking has been a technique called, by auspicious coincidence, the 'Open Path' developed by Elias Amidon. This technique aims to deconstruct prejudices and preconceptions allowing a totally neutral awareness to remain. It is rooted in Buddhism, and the process of arriving at neutral awareness is described very eloquently by the nineteenth-century Tibetan teacher Shabkar Lama:
Looking for it, the vision cannot be seen: cease your search. It cannot be discovered through meditiation., so abandon your trance states and mental images. It cannot be accomplished by anything you do, so give up the attempt to treat the world as magical illusion. It cannot be found by seeking, so abandon all hope of results.
The take-home line is 'abandon all hope of results'. At the root of almost every problem currently facing classical music is an obsession with results. Empirically measured outcomes - audience numbers, sponsorship income, number of social media 'followers', 'friends' and 'likes', and the results of competitions - dominate every agenda. Would the recent Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow have generated any media attention at all if the same finalists had simply performed without a jury deciding a winner and losers? Of course there would have been virtually no media coverage, and the reason why tells us a lot about our current obsession with duality. The reality of the merit of each performances would have been exactly the same, but the removal of the winner/loser dualism would dramatically change the importance - the perceived reality - placed on them. Which is just one example of how the dualism imposed by results distorts reality.

As mentioned earlier, contemporary non-sectarian approaches to non-dual awareness are informed by enduring wisdom traditions; in particular the waḥdat al-wujūd - oneness of being - of the twelfth-century Andalusian Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi, and by the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā - emptiness. In his book The Open Path Elias Amidon advocates constantly challenging our preconceptions by asking 'Is this the view of mine part of a larger story that I keep telling myself?' In music this approach applies not only to the peripheral conventions that surround performances, but also to the music itself. My recent listening has ranged from Vagn Holmboe to Kelly Thoma, and using the non-dual approach I have just let this music be like a river that I swim in, and return to once in a while when I feel like taking a dip; all with no expectation of results.

Being aware of the importance of avoiding the dualisms of like/dislike, masterpiece/minorpiece, classical/non-classical, dumbed down/dumbed up has changed the way I listen to music, and, most importantly, has opened my ears to new discoveries. Which is exactly what classical music with all its marketing babble has been trying to do with such a singular lack of success. So if we cannot change the realities, let's change the ears that hear reality. Or as a poster in the 1970s for the Ibn 'Arabi inspired Beshara movement put it: "You may not be able to change the world, but can you change yourself?" .

Header image via voIPsong. 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.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Foaming at the mouth at the BBC Proms

In a desperate attempt to drum up some controversy-led media coverage for a distinctly lackluster Proms season, BBC presenter Suzy Klein has served up some tasty soundbites defending the concert featuring a chamber orchestra with conductor and vocal soloists performing arrangements of Ibiza dance anthems. But she misses the point that what people are objecting to is not Ibiza dance anthems at the Proms, but dumbed down versions of Ibiza anthems played by a dumbed down chamber orchestra in a dumbed down concert as part of a dumbed down Radio 3's increasingly frantic attempt to stop its plunging audience figures*. If, as Ms Klein claims, the concert was true to the spirit of the Proms - as practised in the William Glock era in particular - the late night event would feature Boulez's Domaines followed by Amnesia resident DJ Marco Carola spinning a techno set from turntables while foam** was pumped into the Albert Hall arena. The only thing that the Heritage Orchestra playing arrangements of Ibiza dance anthems does is to, yet again, make the BBC Proms look like a lonely elderly dowager who drops her drawers in public to attract attention.

* Total listening hours is the litmus test for a radio station, The latest RAJAR audience data (Q1 2015) shows that total listening hours for BBC Radio 3 dropped by an astonishing 9.7% compared with the same quarter in 2014.
** Header photo shows an Amnesia foam party on Ibiza. Needless to say it is not my work: it comes via the Balearic blog. 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.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Enlightenment does not come cheap

Following his headlining appearance at the Glastonbury Festival - tickets £250 - the Dalai Lama returns to the UK in September to appear at the London home of stadium rock, the O2 arena. For this London appearance ticket prices range from £24.75 to £90.25, while packages giving access to exclusive lounge, catering and bathroom facilities are available for an undisclosed sum. Presumably to avoid criticism of high ticket prices the Dalai Lama makes the following disclaimer on his official website:
For your information, as a long-standing policy His Holiness the Dalai Lama does not accept any fees for his talks. Where tickets need to be purchased, organizers are requested by our office to charge the minimum entrance fee in order to cover their costs only.
But that disclaimer, which is repeated on the websites of organisations hosting appearances by the Tibetan spiritual leader, deserves closer examination. Top tickets for Neil Diamond's concerts at the O2 this month cost £97; which is just £6.75 more than for the Dalai Lama, and we can safely assume that Neil Diamond takes a hefty fee. Yes, accommodation, travel, and security costs for His Holiness must be paid for, but so do those for Neil Diamond.

During his visit to the UK last month His Holiness also spoke at an event organised by the Buddhist Community Centre UK in Aldershot. The venue for this low profile appearance was the modest stadium of Aldershot Football Club. But, despite the much lower cost of hiring a fifth division football ground compared with the 20,000 seat state of the art O2 arena, ticket prices ranged from £20 to £75. By comparison the highest ticket price for a football match at Aldershot FC's ground is £19.

These rock star ticket prices are not confined to the UK. In June the Dalai Lama led a five day retreat at the exclusive Fairmont Resort - "the pinnacle of upscale accommodation" - in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Tickets for attendance at this event without food or accomodation were AUD $1500 (£720), while a single room with breakfast and lunch but dinner for six nights during the retreat cost AUD $2,609.24 (£1252). That is the Fairmont Resort in the photo below.

On the same Australian tour the Dalai Lama's appearance at another exclusive venue, Ayers Rock Resort at Uluru, attracted media attention because of the pricing of a "Three-night Inspiration Package" at AUD $1,100 (£530) per couple. Responding to adverse reaction, the Dalai Lama's office said it was unaware of the resort's accommodation package campaign. In mitigation it should be pointed out that the Dalai Lama's teachings in India are free; an example is the five day Kalachakra tantric empowerment that I attended last year, an event with very high infrastructure costs due to its remote location in the alpine desert of Ladakh. There are also considerable costs in running the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala; although no mention is made of income from any of the events featured above being used for these purposes. But, wherever the money goes, premium pricing mean the Dalai Lama is talking exclusively to a very upscale Western audience, which is at variance with the Buddha's message of inclusiveness.

I am only too aware that challenging Joyce DiDonato and the Dalai Lama in quick succession is the ultimate form of self-harm for a blogger. But readers will know I have spent much time exploring the Buddhist path, and, as a result, I fully recognise the Dalai Lama's priceless work on behalf of Tibetan's exiled by the cultural genocide of the Chinese. However, my post The Paradox of the Dalai Lama reflected on how His Holiness maintains a consistently high profile in the Western media that cannot be explained simply by the need to ensure that the Chinese occupation of Tibet is not forgotten, and I went on to describe the official promotional material for the Kalachakra teachings as resembling a poster for the latest album from an ageing rock star.

Too often the explanation is offered that the Tibetan spiritual leader's long-running dalliance with the Western celebrity lifestyle - see photo below of him with the notorious Russel Brand - is the work not of the Dalai Lama, but of his trusted advisers. If his advisers are indeed responsible for the mixed messages currently emerging from Dharmsala, which include disturbing allegations of serious financial irregularities by a senior monk in his inner circle, His Holiness should take note of a teaching from another great tradition: "The righteous should choose his friends carefully" (Proverbs 12:26). Nikos Kazantzakis expressed it perfectly in his autobiographical novel Report to Greco when he wrote: "Of all the people the earth has begotten, Buddha stands resplendently at the summit, an absolute pure spirit'. However, Buddhism comes in many forms, and for one seeker at least the blurring of the line between spiritual role model and rock star both devalues the venerable and vital Vajrayāna school and emphasises the wisdom of the less self-centred - in the true meaning of the word - Theravada school.

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Friday, July 10, 2015

Music and memory

In Memory, Music and Religion Earle H. Waugh identifies how music functions as a tool for subconsciously reclaiming the past. Based on research with the mystical chanters of Morocco's Sufi brotherhoods, he proposes that at the heart of religion is ritual remembrance enabled by music. His theory can be extrapolated to propose that memory is the cultural glue that holds classical music together. Ritual remembrance shapes much of the core repertoire, from sacred remembrance - e.g. Verdi's Requiem - through ethnocentric remembrance - e.g. Smetana's Má vlast - and mythological remembrance - e.g. Wagner's Ring - to existential memories evoked by the symphonies of Mahler. The ritual remembrance need not be backward looking: one of the most widely acclaimed compositions of recent times, John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, looks both forward and back in its evocation of climate change. But conversely music lacking the quality of remembrance - e.g. that of Pierre Boulez (yes, I know he composed Rituel In Memoriam Maderna) - fails to appeal to a wide audience, despite its obvious artistic merit. Ritual remembrance is also at the core of classical music performance: playing styles and concert halls are historically informed, as is the complex etiquette of concerts - dress, silence etc. While until recently listening to recorded music, which involved sitting respectfully in the 'sweet spot' and focussing on a soundstage delineated by two speakers, was also rooted in the historical concert hall ritual.

Today the music we listen to remains rooted in remembrance; however the way we listen to it - performance and listening rituals - has been overthrown by new thinking and new technology. Concert hall conventions are being dismantled in the frantic search for new audiences, while mobile streaming technologies have changed the way we listen to recorded music. Digital concert halls are replacing their physical counterparts, and, the free streaming of virtual performances has, paradoxically, become the standard way of promoting paid for live concerts. Classical music - like everything - is impermanent; which means it must change. But it is widely acknowledged that despite many changes, the art form is struggling to engage with both existing and new audiences. Is the role played by ritual and memory misunderstood? Is the transition from experiential memory to the virtual memory of digital technologies inhibiting audience engagement? Back in 1964 Benjamin Britten suggested, with appropriate qualification, that "the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music"? Streaming services Apple Music and Spotify are also coming under increasing fire for their corrosive business models; so in 2015 has virtual memory become the principal enemy of classical music?

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Just let the music speak for itself

When asked at the recent Glastonbury Festival if music can change the world, the Dalai Lama replied: “If music really brings inner peace, then this Syria and Iraq – killing each other – there through some strong music can they reduce their anger? I don’t think so". Far be it for me to disagree with His Holiness, but Glastonbury may not have been the best place to pass judgement on the transcendental power of music. My view is that music can help change the world; but only when it is stripped of the self-serving rhetoric and covert commercial agendas that pollute it at celebrity level. We should just let the music speak for itself, as in three forthcoming events that span the Atlantic.

'The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights' brings together orchestral musicians, artists and activists, in support of civil rights, social justice, and an end to systemic racism. The concert on July 17th in New York is of music by William Grant Still, Leonard Bernstein and Jessie Montgomery, the latter is a world premiere of a work by the young violinist and composer. The conductors are James Blachly and John McLaughlin Williams, and the venue is the Centennial Memorial Temple, 120 West 14th St, NY. Tickets are outstanding value at $25. If transatlantic flights weren't so expensive I would be there myself.

The Tashi Lhunpo monks are part of the Gelug - yellow hat - Tibetan Buddhist lineage of which the Dalai Lama is the head. There have been several appearances by the Tashi Lhunpos on An Overgrown Path over the years, and the monks are currently touring Europe and performing their unique tantric music at venues from Genoa to Aberdeen. As was noted here, the Dalai Lama has just celebrated his 80th birthday. To mark this auspicious event the Tashi Lhunpo monks have released a digital single of a prayer requesting long life for His Holiness for the benefit of all sentient beings. That is the artwork for the single below: listen and buy it via this link - what else does £1 buy these days?

For me one of the highlights of the recent Fez Sufi Culture Festival in Morroco was Ali Keeler's concert with Sheikh Hassan Dyck's Muhhabat Caravan. Ali Keeler was born in London in 1973; he studied classical violin at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and played in youth orchestras and a string quartet. But his career path then took a dramatically different turn: he converted to Islam and moved to Syria, where he switched his studies from the performance traditions of the West to those of the Muslim world. Ali now lives in Granada and leads the Al Firdaus Ensemble which he founded. The ensemble performs intercultural interpretations of Andalusian Sufi music; sample one of their mystic earworms via this link. This month Ali Keeler brings his Al Firdaus Ensemble to England for their first tour of the country. Dates and venues for the five concerts are on this video; celebrity activists should note that Al Firdaus' open air concert on July 19 is a free event organised by Milton Keynes Islamic Arts Heritage and Culture. On July 24th at the Water Lily, Mile End Road, London Ali Keeler and his ensemble celebrate the festival of Eid in an event with the cross-cultural Khayaal Theatre Company, and I will be there.

The website for 'The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights' describes how the ambitious goal of the event is to demonstrate how music can bring people together in solidarity. That goal is, I am sure, shared by the Tashi Lhunpo monks, the Al Firdaus Ensemble, and all the other musicians working at grass roots level. Music can change the world if it is left to speak for itself, so please support them.

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