Monday, August 31, 2015

Awesome, what are you listening to?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was listening to music. Seriously, whenever a friend would call and ask what I was up to, more often that not I would say, “Listening to music.” and the response would invariable be, “Awesome, what are you listening to?” and the conversation would go from there. It seems as though listening to music as a ‘thing’ has lost its way. I’m noticing more and more these days that music has been relegated to background noise while cooking or cleaning or working.
That extract is from an article on White Noise which echoes sentiments that have been expressed On An Overgrown Path in the past, and which chime with recent musings on changing the way we listen. My current foreground listening includes Decca's retrospective Neville Marriner & The Academy of St Martin in the Fields: the Argo Years. Many of these legendary recordings are familiar to me from their original LP release, and all I can say after auditioning the twenty-eight CD transfers is - awesome, what are you listening to?

No freebies used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for t critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, August 28, 2015

I maintain that music is a pathless land

I maintain that music is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any new technology, by any celebrity. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Music, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be made a commercial property; nor should any commercial corporation be allowed to control access to music. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to turn music into a mass market product. Music is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a museum exhibit. This is what global media corporations are attempting to do. Music is being dumbed down and made an ephemeral entertainment. Music cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley. If you want to reach the mountain-top you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices.
With apologies to Krishnamurti for my corruption of his teaching. Matt Haimovitz's limitless, unconditioned and dangerous 'Orbit: Music for solo cello (1945-2014)' featured in yesterday's beyond overgrown path.

No review samples used 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.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The answer, my friend, is sitting on your shelf

All the parties involved in music streaming are rapidly coming to the conclusion that it is no more than a short term fix that will not cure the record industry's long term problems. Record companies are realising that streaming means losing control of their precious intellectual property to predatory intermediaries such as Apple Music. Musicians are realising that streaming makes them wage slaves to the same corporate intermediaries. And consumers are expressing their disaffection by remaining loyal to legacy formats that, according to industry dogma, should now be extinct. Yes, streaming revenues have increased dramatically: but the remarkable resilience of CD sales is conveniently overlooked by crystal ball gazers. In the US in 2014 streaming revenues were $1.87bn (up 29% year on year) while sales of 'moribund' CDs were just a fraction less at $1.85bn (down 12.7%). Both of the formats were eclipsed by download revenues of $2.58bn; but sales of MP3 downloads - which were yesterday's saviour of the record industry - were down 8.7%.

Using the Cartesian logic that prevails in the music industry, CDs should now be almost extinct, while vinyl LPs should have disappeared decades ago. But Cartesian logic does not apply in the music market. The logical explanation that vinyl sales are simply a geek driven niche no longer holds water: in 2014 vinyl sales were up 50% - the biggest growth of any format - and at $315m vinyl becomes a significant player against streaming revenues of $1.87bn. Understanding that the recorded music market does not behave in a logical way is the key to understanding the industry's current problems. 2014 research by ICM Unlimited reported that 15% of consumers buying physical music formats bought music to add to their collection and not to listen to. 53% of these bought a vinyl record and 48% a CD that they had no intention of listening to in the immediate future. Now these findings are very important, because they disprove the industry folklore that vinyl is the only format that is bought for its collectability: in fact the research shows that a significant percentage of CDs - the dominant recorded music format for decades - are bought for their collectability rather than music content. And another important finding given classical music's fixation on young audiences, is that this illogical behaviour is most evident in 18-24 year old music purchasers from the digital generation, with 26% of this cohort buying music to collect rather than to play.

Both objective research and hard market data shows that recorded music is not a disposable commodity, it is a collectable asset. Market data also shows that the 'winner takes all' approach to the format wars is misguided. Downloads were once hailed as the winner that would take all, now it is streaming. In fact the market has fragmented rather than unifying: not only is vinyl now a significant player, but - almost unbelievably - cassette sales are growing. Collectable music is the way forward for the music industry, but it will not be the only game in town. Just as in the early years of the market for classical recordings vinyl LPs and FM classical radio not only co-existed but also complemented each other; so, if managed intelligently, streaming services and downloads catering for mobile listeners can complement collectable music formats.

The success of Jordi Savall's lavish book/CDs, which have been best sellers in independent classical retailers for two decades, is tangible proof of collectable music market's potential. Many Alia Vox releases can be seen in the header photo of my library shelves, while several other noteworthy examples of collectable music feature in the footer image. Back in 2009 I wrote enthusiastically about an early music concert in Aldeburgh given by violinist and Reinhard Goebel protégé Johannes Pramsohler with his Ensemble Diderot. Since then Ensemble Diderot have gone from strength to strength and Johannes has launched his own label Audax Records. Its latest release is a musically outstanding and eminently collectable world premiere recording of the Violin Concertos of Antonio Maria Montanari (1676-1737), which comes in lavish Alia Vox-style packaging complete with stylish session photos and erudite documentation.

Staying with strings, but at the other end of the temporal scale, is 'Orbit: Music for solo cello (1945-2014)'. This is a 3 CD compilation exploring the edges of the contemporary music network by the outstanding and innovative cellist Matt Haimovitz. The composers are too numerous to list, but range from Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov and Elliott Carter to Lennon and McCartney's iconoclastic 'Helter Skelter' and Hendrix's 'Star Spangled Banner'; the latter is captured, quite appropriately, live at the now defunct NYC punk palace CBGB. 'Orbit' is a sonic document that would be totally wasted as a lossy data stream; not least because it is encoded as a high resolution SACD hybrid multichannel disc. Underlining my prediction that plural formats are the way forward, purchasers of 'Orbit' can download a WAV file of the music. One of the tracks on the discs is Tod Machover's raga inspired 'Dadaji in Paradise'; which allows me to segue neatly to my final example of collectable music. The shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi has featured On An Overgrown Path several times, and 'Jashn-e-Khusrau 2013' is a lavish collectable book/CD celebrating the genius of Amir Khusrau (1253-1325 CE). He was a court poet and disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin, and is credited with contributing to the genesis of Sufi poetry and music. 'Jashn-e-Khusrau 2013', which is published by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, outdoes even the most lavish Jordi Savall productions: it comes in handsome coffee table book format complete with three specially recorded CDs which range from traditional qawwali to contemporary fusion. Spend just a few hours with any of these collectable editions, and you will realise, my friend, that the answer to the classical music industry's problems is sitting on your shelf.

Ensemble Diderot's Montanari CD was kindly provided as a requested review sample, all other review materials were purchased. 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, August 26, 2015

Why embracing diverse musical traditions is so important

My essay in the programme book for the Salzburg Summer Festival's celebration of Hindu music and dance contained this little piece of nuanced mischief alluding to a surfeit of Mahler in the mainstream festival:
Indian musician Gita Sarabhai declared "the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences"; ragas remain devoted to this purpose, whereas Western classical music has increasingly become a way of expressing existential angst.
But, in a powerful example of instant karma, since I wrote that a felicitous dusting of bluesy existential angst has been applied to the raga Vasundhara (Mother Earth) on 'Ragas From Dusk Till Dawn', a new release from one of my favourite contemporary Indian musicians. I have had the pleasure seeing Debashish Bhattacharya in concert twice; the first time at Les Orientales Festival at Saint-Florent-le-Viel in France prompted a post back in 2009. Pandit Bhattacharya plays a self-designed adaption of the Hindustani chaturangi slide guitar, an instrument that is a cousin of the Hawaiian slide guitar. On this new disc he adds a subtle contemporary touch to ancient ragas; Vasundhara can be sampled via this link.

'Ragas From Dusk Till Dawn' was high on my iPod playlist during recent travels; which is why I am featuring it here. Mahler and ragas may seem unlikely bedfellows; however, in 1989 the European Youth Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta played to an audience of twelve thousand in Calcutta a programnme comprising Ravi Shankar's Second Concerto for sitar & orchestra Raga Mala (Garland of Ragas) and Mahler's First Symphony. While in another meeting of the existential and the esoteric, Britten based the alto flute melody in 'The Prodigal Son' on an Indian raga. Early sketches suggest that Britten also contemplated incorporating Indian influences into his second Church Parable 'The Fiery Furnace'. Which is not surprising: he visited India in both 1955 and 1965, and the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival included a pioneering recital by Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar), Nikhil Ghosh (tabla) and Ayana Deva Angadi (tamboura) in a programme of ragas coupled with traditional Indian dance by Srimati Rita.

Mixing Eastern and Western music is regarded, quite justifiably, with some scepticism: Zubin Mehta described Ravi Shankar's orchestral Raga Mala as sounding like a "mishmash" to Indian audiences, a viewpoint I echoed in a recent post about Pandit Shankar's embryonic opera Sukanya. But that early Aldeburgh Festival, this year's Salzburg Summer Festival, and Debashish Bhattacharya's 'Ragas From Dusk Till Dawn' have all successfully juxtaposed music from the East and West. My thesis is that these respectful juxtapositions are much more than laudable esoterica: in fact I propose that embracing diverse musical traditions could rejuvenate today's ailing classical music industry. Yesterday Alex Ross took up my theme of how audiences need permission to like different music. Not only do we need to embrace music from the East and West, but we also need to embrace a much wider range of Western classical music. In his post Alex lists just some of the symphonic composers who currently fall outside the embrace of concert hall fashion; masterpieces from Mahler, Sibelius, Bach, Beethoven et al may provide the all-important light, but, if Bax, Hartmann, Pijper et al did not provide compensating shade, there really would be no light.

It is easy to dismiss this advocacy of neglected repertoire as hopeless idealism. But the classical music industry is labouring under the very dangerous misapprehension that the mass market is also a massive market. Norman Lebrecht has repeatedly drawn attention to the very low sales volumes achieved by mass market classical releases, and for once he is right. Classical music's obsession with becoming part of the entertainment industry means it is fixated on best sellers, chart toppers, and blockbusters. Yet there is clear evidence from Nielsen Soundscan sales data that the gap between sales volumes of classical best sellers and the long tail of catalogue titles is narrowing rapidly. This means there is no mass market for classical/art music. But there is a massive diverse market that stretches from Hindustani ragas and Sufi dhikr through baroque and contemporary classical to the more familiar masterworks. Embracing diverse musical traditions is not hopeless idealism: it is sound commercial sense.

No freebies 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.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Art in the age of digital reproduction

You will be amused to hear of a musician who was once invited to play the veena. The musician came and was welcomed. He uncovered his instrument; then he looked here and there, and found some discomfort, some discord, so he covered his veena, saluted, and left. Those present felt disappointed and begged him to play, but his answer was 'No matter what you give me, I do not feel like playing'. This is quite a different thing from making a programme months ahead. The musician in the West is bound six months beforehand to play a certain programme; he is helpless. But in this way it is not music, it is labour, it is done mechanically,
Those are the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan written in the 1920s. The veena (also known as vina) is reputed to be one of the oldest musical instruments still in use, and that is one in my header photo. Hazrat Inayat Khan was a master veena player before becoming the spiritual leader and teacher who brought Sufism to the West. The quote comes from the anthology of his teachings titled The Mysticism of Sound and Music. These teachings on the centrality of energy and vibrations have influenced generations of musicians - Stockhausen's Atmen gibt das Leben has its genesis in a text by Inayat Khan - and have often featured On An Overgrown Path. The photo shows Pratima Madduri playing the veena; it was taken by me last Saturday at the morning ragas presented in Magdalene College by Cambridge University Classical Arts Society, one of a sequence of infinitely rewarding events I have attended this summer on the edge of the music network*.

'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' is a 1936 essay by the German-Jewish philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin, whose ideas are thought by some to be an unacknowledged influence on Marshal McLuhan's celebrated 1964 book The Medium is the Message. The proposition in Walter Benjamin's essay that modern techniques of reproduction have destroyed the aura, or authority, of original works of art is a prescient warning about the shortcomings of denaturalised delivery platforms such as music streaming. Which takes this overgrown path full circle. Hazray Inayat Khan taught that music is simply vibrating energy. That veena player declined to perform because he sensed a surfeit of negative energy; how would he have reacted had he known that his performance was going to be streamed to listeners in extreme negative energy environments such as airport departure lounges? If negative energy outweighs positive energy, the raison d'être of the music is removed. Forget wrong dress, wrong lighting, wrong age audience, wrong [fill in the blank with this week's culprit]. Classical music is struggling to engage contemporary audiences because it has disrupted the vital energy flow between performer and listener. When will the so-called experts ever learn?

My 2012 photo essay on Walter Benjamin is also titled 'Art in the age of mechanical reproduction'. Hazray Inayat Khan's inclusive Sufi teachings are perpetuated by several branches of his lineages, and the Overgrown Path will now take a break while I join some of his followers at their summer gathering in Holland.

* On October 22nd Cambridge University Classical Arts Society are presenting a sarod recital by Ken Zuckerman in St John's College. Ken Zuckerman has appeared on many Jordi Savall recordings playing both the sarod and oud; if you live in East Anglia don't miss this concert. 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.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A fable for our networked age

A man climbed to the top of the highest mountain, and standing on tiptoe, seized hold of Truth. The Devil, who had suspected mischief from this upstart, had directed one of his underlings to follow him. When the demon reported with alarm the man's success in seizing hold of Truth, the Devil was unperturbed. "Don't worry" he yawned. "I'll tempt him to share it on Facebook"
That sequel to yesterday's post 'Social media ate my music' is an update by me of a fable told by the American investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens. The photo of the announcement of the dawn puja was taken by me at the Thiksay Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, India. This was the venue for the Scriabin in the Himalayas concert in June, but in the past two weeks the area has been hit by disastrous flash floods.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Social media ate my music

For some time I have been contemplating writing about the future of music blogging, but a post by Kenneth Woods spares me that onerous task. Although a year old his post 'Facebook ate my blog' tells it exactly as it is, and it isn't a very rosy picture:
Nowadays, what I publish here does little to help other bloggers and instead drives more people through Facebook, Twitter and Google. If I want to promote a new post, the best way to do it is to buy an ad... on Facebook. The game is rigged- the house always wins. All of this has happened without debate, discussion or strife. There has been no resistance because resistance is futile. A revolutionary tool for empowering humanity has been gobbled up by the Borg.
Ken laments how Facebook ate his blog. But that is only part of the problem, and I will add to his eloquent critique a lament for how social media ate my music. In his post Ken describes with total accuracy how "Blogging these days is NOTHING without Facebook and Twitter. Nothing". But again that is only the tip of the iceberg: because these days a classical music concert or recording is NOTHING without Facebook and Twitter. Nothing.

Of course classical music has always needed publicity. But Marshal McLuhan told of the danger of the medium becoming the message. And today the medium - social media - has usurped the message - the power of the music. In the past the publicity machine served the music, now the music serves the social media machine. Social media's micro-mindset rules everywhere. To give just one recent example; for more than one hundred years audiences have listened in awe to the magnificent fifty five minute musical arch that is Elgar's Second Symphony. But no longer: in recognition of the shortened attention span of the Twitter generation, BBC Four TV's delayed relay of the symphony from this year's Proms broke the work's flawless structure into four parts, with each bleeding chunk prefaced by a totally superfluous explanations by conductor Mark Elder of the 'meaning' of the movement. Presumably the BBC's next foray into making artistic masterpieces accessible will be to cut Chartes Cathedral into four pieces and reassemble them a quarter of a mile apart, thereby making the vision of the medieval architects more digestible for 21st century audiences.

Social media is eating classical music in many different ways, with gimmicking down fast replacing dumbing down as the promotional tool of choice. Easily spun gimmicks are the lifeblood of social media. So 2015 is the year of the gimmick Proms, with the complete works in one evening - Prokofiev Piano Concertos and Bach Cello Suites - leading the charge. I fully expect next year's Proms to bring Valery Gergiev conducting all nine extant Mahler symphonies in one evening, complete with Gergiev prefacing each of the symphonies' thirty-nine movements with a five minute talk explaining the movement's 'significance'.

Those who think I exaggerate the pervasive power of social media are referred to the recently published Terms of Service by Jacob Silverman. One of the many chilling fact in it is that most British babies appear on social media within an hour of being born. Yes, the BBC Proms are an easy target - Ibiza dance anthems arranged for the Heritage Orchestra anyone? But the disease of first finding a social media hook, then finding the music to hang on it is everywhere. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Spotify and Amazon run the classical casino, and as Ken Woods explains the house always wins; which means the music always loses. The death of music blogging at the hands of social media is sad, but it is not the end of the world. But the death of classical music as we know it at the hands of the technology corporations is indeed the end of the world. We were promised that digital technology would lead us to the promised land of creative plenitude. But as Steely Dan tells us in King of the World.
No marigolds in the promised land
There's a hole in the ground
Where they used to grow
Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, August 10, 2015

That’s because Mozart did not know what a tabla was

Tabla virtuosos Zakir Hussain is seen playing with the Symphony Orchestra Of India, and the photo comes from a well-informed article titled 'Alaap in C minor' in the Indian online magazine Live Mint. A very useful perspective on the artificial borders imposed on art music is provided by this story in the article:
Last year, Hussain’s brother Fazal Qureshi played the tabla along with a string quartet in a rendition of Mozart’s Divertimento in D, perhaps the first time an Indian instrument had been used in a canonical Western classical piece. “The Western musicians I was playing with were concerned because they said Mozart did not write this with tabla in mind. I told them that’s because Mozart did not know what a tabla was,” Qureshi says.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo credit Narendra Dangiya. 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).

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Let's start a conversation about concert hall sound

Until recently the reference that reproduced sound was measured against was a live performance, because historically live performances were the way most people listened to music. But today most people listen to music via portable devices using earbuds or headphones. Which means the references have been inverted, and today live performances are judged against reproduced sound. And that is causing a major problem: because reproduced sound differs significantly from that heard in a live classical concert: earbud/headphone sound is louder, has better bass transmission and the sound image is binaural - inside the head - rather than stereophonic - outside the head. This variance between live and reproduced sound may well be a significant factor in explaining why classical music is struggling to engage with contemporary - particularly young - audiences: because audience engagement is the name of the game, and subjectively the sound a newcomer hears in the concert is less engaging than they hear via earbuds or headphones. Many, including me, will argue that the sound of a live concert is 'right', and earbud/headphone sound is 'wrong'. But this debate is not about right and wrong. It is about whether classical music is going to recognise and accommodate changes in audience expectations, or whether it is going to ignore these changes and remain a museum of sound perpetuating late-nineteenth century sonic conventions.

As has been described here in the past, sophisticated digital sound shaping technology - which is not the same thing as the much-derided amplification - is available and affordable, and works such as Jonathan Harvey's String Quartet No 4 and 'Speakings' for orchestra call for score-specific sound shaping. However, to date the compelling argument against reshaping the sound of a classical concert for 21st century audiences has been that it is an all-or-nothing process that destroys the historical reference of a 'pure' live sound and alienates the vital core audience. But I use those words 'to date' advisedly; because a new development could make listener-specific sound shaping available in live concerts, without destroying the 'pure' unshaped sound for the many who do not want their music up close and personal.

Technology start up Doppler Labs is beta testing their clumsily named 'Here Active Listening' system. To quote the company, these smart earbuds "puts a computer, speaker, and mic in everyone's ear... with the primary goal of... enhancing the sound of live performances, custom tailored to the listener's own preferences and perspective". Basically, the Doppler system uses a microphone, tiny computer and earbud to manipulate live sounds; giving the option of changing loudness and frequency response (equalisation), plus a whole range of further sound shaping options including flange, reverb, delay, fuzz, and bitcrusher. All these effects can be controlled via a smart phone app. The header photo shows the Doppler smart earbuds, and there is a more detailed description via this link.

If we accept the argument that classical music needs to meet new audiences partway, the Doppler technology offers intriguing possibilities. Newcomers at classical concerts could be offered the loan of pre-programmed smart earbuds, allowing them to experiment with preset sound shaping such as bass boost and compression, together with the option to personalise the sound. Sound leakage should not be a problem as the Dopplers are near zero latency (no time delay), so peak levels on the earbuds would only be reached when the live sound in the hall reaches peak level. Anyway, to minimise disturbance to non-users, a section of the auditorium seating could be set aside for Doppler users.

This post is simply intended to start a conversation about the future of concert hall sound. The classical music community has enthusiastically embraced a fundamental technology and lifestyle driven change from the legacy physical media of CDs to online music streaming; yet it is puzzlingly reluctant to discuss any possibility of a similar technology and lifestyle driven change in the concert hall. Personally, I would be much happier without even non-intrusive sound shaping in the concert hall. But times and audiences have changed and, whether we like it or not, the reference sound has also changed. We need to be more open-minded about introducing new technology into the concert hall. My theory is that offering and promoting Doppler sound shaping could attract a whole new audience; but once those listeners are in the hall they will very quickly realise the sound is more engaging without a smart earbud in each ear. Job done.

My thanks go to reader Paul Dickens for the heads up on smart earbuds; I have no connection whatsoever with Doppler Labs. Header images comes from Doppler Labs via Hollywood Reporter. 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, August 06, 2015

What is a performance?

In January 2013 when raising the problem of metadata quality, I queried Is classical music asking the right questions? Since then the situation has worsened, and classical music has become a community of busy fools who run around asking irrelevant questions about the sex lives of celebrities and whether the Berlin Philharmonic's new conductor has enough media appeal, while ignoring questions crucial to the art form's future. One of these crucial questions is What is a performance? Classical music is not about discrete objects such as celebrities, audiences, and streaming services. It is about a performance, something so intangible, so interconnected and so precious as to be almost indescribable. However, in my view the following passage comes very close to capturing the essential nature of a performance:
A master of Balinese dance once expressed the idea that a performer must consciously see himself as a channel between the world within and the world without. If the ego gets in the way, this channeling is reduced. He described a ball of energy that is created between performers and their audiences. The performers consciously manipulate and expand this energy force using the attention that is given to them by the audience which the control. By being a pure channel and through their skill of relating to the audience, the energy is moved back and forth.
That teaching is very relevant to recent Overgrown Path posts about music as vibrating energy and the chains of transmission that allow energy to flow between performer and audience. But it is of even greater importance, because it speaks to the biggest challenge currently facing classical music - the challenge of how to increase engagement with both new and existing audiences. Viewing a performance as a ball of energy that is passed backward and forward between performer and audience takes us beyond the fashionable dualist thinking that music is an aggregation of discrete objects that can be marketed and consumed in the same way as cornflakes. Instead it opens our eyes to the impermanent, dynamic, seamless, two way nature of a performance. Once we see this, the error of current strategies to increase audience engagement become only too apparent: because these strategies almost without exception cause - in fact encourage - a detrimental narrowing of energy channels.

Classical music has become an ego driven celebrity culture, and, as described in the teaching, egos get in the way of essential energy flows. But the implications of this teaching are far wider: the vital element in any performance is a two way energy flow, yet the shift from live to recorded classical music as the primary method of consumption reduces the flow to one way, thereby removing the feedback loop from listener to musician that is crucial to audience engagement. Current technology trends exacerbate the problem: network bandwidth is a digital age measure of the width of an energy channel, and the move to bandwidth-friendly compressed file formats squeezes energy out of streamed and downloaded music. Even in live performances these vital energy channels are being narrowed by 'innovations' borrowed from the entertainment industry such as disco lighting, tweeting in concerts, and other special effects.

The Balinese dance master defines a performance as an energy flow. The importance of energy is encapsulated in the iconic equation E = mc2, where energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. I propose a derivative of this equation - audience engagement equals accessibility multiplied by energy flow squared. This equation highlights the error of putting accessibility ahead of everything else. Accessibility is an important element in audience engagement, but I suggest that the overlooked component of energy flow is more important by many orders of magnitude. This preeminence of energy has many ramifications. Young audiences have grown up in a high energy environment - rock music is a high energy art form, and headphones - which are now the dominant way of listening to music - are highly efficient energy transducers. To engage with new audiences classical music needs to rejuvenate its energy flows. But we should also remember that like music, audiences are impermanent and constantly changing, so - here I risk arguing against myself - classical music needs to selectively experiment with new technologies to shape these energy flows to meet the changing expectations of listeners.

Living Presence by the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski provides the quote which this post revolves around. My views on the importance of energy channels will doubtless be dismissed by many as more New Age nonsense; however I would refer these naysayers to Benjamin Britten's teachings. Two years ago the classical music industry devoted much energy to milking the commercial opportunity presented by the Britten centenary. But almost no attention was paid to his wise teaching about the 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener. This triangle is a symbolic representation of optimised energy flows, and I suggest it is no coincidence that Britten visited Bali in 1955.. His exposure to the culture of Bali found expression in works such as the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, and it is not too far-fetched to propose that Balinese teachings also influenced Britten's exposition of the energy flow between composer, performer and listener in his 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech. The Canadian born composer Colin McPhee lived in Bali from 1932 to 1935 and studied the Balinese performing arts including dance. In 1940 Britten and McPhee recorded the latter composer's transcription of Balinese ceremonial music for two pianos in New York. More on this forgotten composer, whose Tabuh-Tabuhan was a precursor to the minimalist movement, in 'Colin McPhee - East collides with West'.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Header photo via Classic FM. 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). Parts of this post first appeared in a 2012 post 'Goodbye to Berlin'.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

One picture is worth a thousand words

That photo* of Ture Rangström will probably do more to bring his music to a wider audience than anything I can write. However I will offer some nuanced advocacy, but keep it to considerably less than one thousand words. Ture Rangström was born in Stockholm in 1884 and died in 1947. He came to composing late and did not have a formal musical training, although Hans Pfitzner was among those who he turned to for guidance. At the age of 26 he was awarded the Swedish state composer's scholarship and Jean Sibelius considered him "head and shoulders above any other Swedish composer". The young composer met and was influenced by the ageing August Strindberg; Rangström's three hundred songs include settings of Strindberg and his First Symphony is sub-titled "August Strindberg in Memoriam".

Despite the feline-friendly photo, Rangström was considered to be the enfant terrible of his generation of Swedish composers. When his early orchestral work Dityramb was conducted in Stockholm by Sibelius' brother-in-law Armas Järnefelt critics found the work unacceptably modern, and as a result the young composer's work disappeared from Swedish concerts for some years. Although Rangström admired Sibelius, Sinding and Nielsen, he developed his own robust and abrasive post-Romantic style, and this resulted in him being dubbed Sturm und Drangström by his contemporaries . He composed four symphonies; the first two are well-crafted, but the mature Third and Fourth symphonies, composed in 1929 and 1936 respectively, are the most notable. The Fourth for orchestra and organ was taken up by Kurt Atteberg in a truncated version.

We are fortunate to have excellent recordings of Ture Rangström's four symphonies plus his orchestral Intermezzo drammatico, Dityramb and Varhymn (Spring Hymn)**. Michail Jurowski recorded the symphonies with the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra for CPO in the 1990s, and the 3 CD set can be found at budget price. As Kaikhosru Sorabji told us, talk about immortal masterpieces is rather ridiculous. Overgrown Path readers are wise enough to make up their own minds on the merits of Ture Rangström's symphonies. So I will simply point out that they can be auditioned via YouTube, with the Third and Fourth recommended as starting points. Rangström's links with Sibelius and Nielsen make him, like Robert Simpson, an excellent discovery to be shared in the anniversary year of those two senior Scandinavian composers. It is just a great pity that our leading conductors and orchestras don't see it that way.

* Header archive photo appears in the impressive documentation for CPO's Rangström symphony box, but no date or attribution is given for the image. It was extensively digitally manipulated by me to make the quality acceptable for use on the blog.
** Varhymn is an eight minute Adagio composed for the thirtieth anniversary of Strindberg's death which would make an excellent alternative to the ubiquitous Nimrod, Barber Adagio and Mahler Adagietto when reflective music is required.
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Sunday, August 02, 2015

Music at the edge of the network

An old tech adage tells how intelligence moves to the edge of the network. So I propose a new aphorism that in the music industry, as celebrity and money migrates to the centre of the network, so intelligence in the form of creativity and innovation moves to the edge. My recent travels on the network edge have taken me to Milton Keynes to hear Andalusian Sufi music from the Al Firdaus Ensemble, and this weekend to the Southburgh Festival deep in rural Norfolk to hear Gambian kora virtuosos Sefo Kanuteh - see photo - and to take part in a sacred drumming workshop. This summer it was my pleasure to contribute the programme essay for a series of concerts celebrating Hindu music and dance at the Ouverture Spirituelle, the new festival-within-a-festival at the edge of the mainstream Salzburg Summer Festival. One of the Ouverture Spirituelle events was a sold out performance of morning ragas; those in the UK who like me could not travel to Salzburg can sample similar delights this Saturday (August 8th) in Cambridge, where the University Indian Classical Arts Society is presenting morning ragas at 10.00h in Benson Hall, Magdalene College. Something significant is stirring at the edge of the network, and my recent well-received post on the transformative power of music resonates in the Sonophilia Summer Retreat in Salzburg on August 15th. This inaugaural event, which is the brainchild of pianist Seda Röder, sets out to explore how music affects the body and mind with art, sound and mindfulness workshops. While Seda Röder is exploring one edge of the network in Austria I will be in Holland on another margin at the Sufi Path summer gathering participating in group workshops and music meditations. It's all happening around the edges of the network - watch this space for more updates.

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