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.


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