Friday, November 13, 2015

All that is important is that music speaks to the listener

Most recently of all, I've been contemplating the return of that great theme at the end of the Elgar's First Symphony, asking myself whence come those extraordinary chords that intermittently add stresses. Tangentially, there is a video of Tod Handley conducting the work on YouTube, and I wish I could make it mandatory viewing for all neophyte conductors, above all, keeping in mind that this was an appearance as guest conductor to boot (with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra!). This is great conducting, I would say. What my mind kept returning to was what in Elgar's mind inspired him to write those chords, and I came to think that the answer to a question quite often posed is that all we really need to know is what is in the music, though it would be a huge bonus if we could hear from the composer what thought process it issued from, if any. I can't answer the question whether absolute music 'says' something coming from the mind of the composer, but all that is important is that it speaks to the listener.
That comes from an email sent to me by reader Philip Amos in response to my recent post We are born in mystery, live in mystery, and die in mystery. Reading it and watching the video - a valuable document I had not seen before - compelled me to share Philip's thoughts here. In answer to his question as to where those extraordinary chords in the finale of Elgar's symphony come from, I would quote Saul Bellow's observation about Mozart's music: "All we can say is that it comes from somewhere else". Take care while I am away.

Source of photo used on Facebook and Twitter links to this post is English Symphony Orchestra. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How to future-proof your music library

This streaming service is guaranteed never to go into receivership.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Principles - do you remember them?

There have been successful protests against the proposed visit this week to Cambridge University by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. This welcome revival of the antiquated notion of principles reminds me of a story about the sitar master Ustad Vilayat Khan*:
Khan's irreverence is legendary. One famous incident occured when the Indian prime minister was scheduled to appear at a Vilayat Khan duet performance with shehnai master Bismillah Khan in Delhi. Vilayat Khan always prioritized his audience, and announced he would start on time as planned. The organizers informed Khan that the prime minister would arrive a half-hour late, sit for ten minutes to hear the music,and then leave; and Khan would stop the performance twice, to acknowledge the prime minister's arrival and departure. Khan flatly refused,and had no intention of disrespecting his audience or the music by allowing such interruptions. Indeed, why was the prime minister coming for ten minutes if he knew that such comings and goings would disrupt the concert? After Khan and the promoters reached an impasse, Bismillah Khan agreed to perform solo and go through the rigmarole for the prime minister. Vilayat Khan appeared after an intermission, apologizing to the audience and explaining that he had no desire to compromise his performance for such a charade. As expected, Khan's flagrant snub made headlines, further dramatizing his glacial relations with the establishment.
Ustad Vilayat Khan, whose family was originally Hindu but converted to Islam, died in 2004. So we can only speculate on what his reaction would have been if asked to play for an Indian prime minister with disturbingly sectarian credentials.

* Story is quoted from Peter Lavazzoli's The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. 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.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Classical musician's brave journey from Mozart to Morisco

In the 1950s a number of prominent jazz musicians converted to Islam, including - to use their adopted names - Ahmad Jamal, and Sahib Shihab, Yusef Lateef. One of the most notable converts was the drummer Art Blakey, while the very personal heterodox cosmology of the most celebrated jazz musician of that period John Coltrane was influenced by the beliefs of his first wife Naima, who was a Muslim convert. Many of the musicians who converted were African Americans endeavouring to escape from the shadow of Western colonialism; they saw Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity within the Abrahamic tradition, and jazz at that time was heavily influenced by music from cultures beyond the Judeo-Christian world. These circumstances were unique to the 1950s, and fewer jazz musicians have taken the path to Islam since. But those who have include the bass player Danny Thompson who converted in 1990; he has played with many great musicians, including Nick Drake on the legendary Five Leaves Left album.

Given the rise of Islamophobia, it is not surprising that few classically trained musicians have publicly embraced Islam. However, one rare example is the violinist Ali Keeler. Born in London in 1973 to English Muslim parents, Ali Keeler started learning the violin at the age of seven, studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and played in a string quartet and youth orchestras. But his career path then took a very unusual turn: he 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 performs Sufi music from Andalusia, the Arab world and Turkey with the intercultural Firdaus Ensemble, which he founded. Our paths crossed at the this year's Sufi Culture Festival in Fez, Morocco, where Ali was playing. The Sufi master and poet Rumi tells how when we hear sublime music "We listen and are fed with joy and peace*". Joy and peace were in abundance during Ali Keeler's set in Fes, and it was clear that his music, and the story behind it, deserved to be shared. So I talked to Ali when he brought Al Firdaus to England recently.

Bob Shingleton – Ali, let's do this the right way round and start at the beginning. You went to the the Royal Northern College of Music in 1991 to study violin, and played in several ensembles including a string quartet. Tell us about your time in Manchester and about the music you played there.

Ali Keeler - I studied under the Russian violinist Lydia Mordkevitch. As is frequent with new teachers, it was back to basics and I was only allowed to play simple pieces for several months to work on bowing I seem to remember. While at the Royal Northern I teamed up with other musicians from the second year to form a string quartet. I particularly remember enjoying performing a Mozart quartet. At the weekends I performed with a different group of musicians in quintet formation, busking in the centre of Manchester to earn some pocket money. In terms of composers my deepest love was for Bach, and I used to love playing the solo sonatas and partitas in the chapel at the halls of residence.

Another interesting musical encounter I had at the Royal Northern was with a German guitarist/composer who introduced me to blues, something I was unfamiliar with. I used to listen to him improvise and try to follow. My classical teaching up until then had been to play what was written and nothing more. I had a deep longing to break out of that mould. Already, I had misgivings about following a career in which I would have to play the music that was on the program, irrespective of whether I liked it or not. At the same time the local Muslim community which became my family from home were totally against music, following the strict deobandi school. It was the first time I had ever lived near a mosque, so I could even attend the dawn prayers at the local mosque. Almost everyday I was invited for meals at different houses eating more curry and chapatis than at any other time in my life. They introduced me to another form of Islam, simplistic and black and white which was attractive to me for for a time, and led to my sudden change in direction. I remember when I announced my decision to leave the Royal Northern to the director he was shocked and said to me, “How are you going to earn your bread?” My response was to quote a saying of the Prophet that if we really had complete trust in God we would be like the birds that leave their nests and always return with their provision without any preoccupation.

BS – In the 1990s you played on two of the albums by the trip hop group Archive. How did those rather unusual gigs come about?

AK - Darius one of my elder brothers took a very different musical path starting his rock career on the drum kit and later forming and leading a London based band called Archive in which he is the composer, lyricist and keyboard player. My brother invited me as a session musician to record on his first two albums Londinium and Take My Head, in which I had to improvise a few solos over a chord sequence. My main contribution was on a track from Londinium called “Old Artist”. That was my first experience recording in a studio.

BS – From Manchester your career went in a rather surprising direction, and you moved to Syria in 1995. What triggered that change of direction?

AK - From a young age I had a deep love for the recitation of Quran. Among my father´s large collection of records of traditional music from all over the Islamic world were records of some of the great Egyptian Quran reciters. I used to love to listen to the recitation of Sheikh Mahmoud Al Hussary who was invited to London to recite at the Royal Festival Hall during the World of Islam Festival that my father organised in 1976. Unfortunately I was only three at the time so I didn´t get the opportunity to listen to him live. At the age of fourteen I remember saying, I would like to become a violinist or a Quran reciter.

After giving up music college, I went back to college to do my A levels in Cambridge where my parents had moved. When I completed my A levels, instead of studying at a university in England, I decided to travel to Damascus to study Arabic and the Islamic sciences in a more traditional environment. I had already travelled to Damascus on my way to Mecca in 1991 just before starting at music college, and visited an institute which had an Arabic program for foreigners, so I returned to this institute and registered there with a group of ten students from Birmingham. It is interesting that the majority of the students in our group had musical tendencies and started to learn traditional Syrian songs. After a year most of the group returned to England, and later formed the well-known nashid groups Sham and Aashiq al-Rasul. I would spend another ten years years in Syria, between work and studies.

BS – In Syria you studied tajwid, the art of Quran recitation. This beautiful form of prosody is little known in the West. Can you explain this art form to our readers?

AK – The tradition of Quran recitation goes back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad who used to love to listen to the Quran recited by one of his companions Abdullah bin Mas'oud who possessed a beautiful voice. The Prophet was known to have said “Whoever does not recite the Quran melodiously is not one my people”. Tajweed means to recite with excellence. The first step to reciting with tajweed is to give each letter its right, pronouncing it clearly and correctly and revealing its true character. The Arabic alphabet has a rich range of sounds employing every part of the mouth from the throat to the lips. Some letters are soft in character and some are stronger. Before reciting with melody it is important to pronounce the letters correctly.

Other important components of tajweed are the observation of the long vowels, which are measured in what is equivalent to beats. A short vowel without any prolongation is one beat. The length of the vowels range from 1,2 4,5, and 6 beats. The observation of vowel lengths and doubled letters is what gives the recitation its rhythm. Then there is also the science of where and how to stop during the recitation. As long as these principles are observed the Quran can be recited in different melodic styles. I recently recorded a recitation of Quran in a Celtic mode. The science of tajweed is learnt from masters, in an oral tradition with an unbroken chain of transmission going back to the Prophet, like in all of the sacred sciences of Islam.

BS - In Damascus and Aleppo you learnt to sing in the tradition of the maqam in the zawiyas; these are the Islamic religious schools which in Syria are also associated with Sufism. In 2008 you made the now sadly deleted album Ruh: the Sufi Spirit, with the group Al Kauthar, and you perform with Sheikh Hassan Dyck's sufi ensemble Muhabbat Caravan. Tell us about your involvement with Sufism, which is the inner-directed dimension of Islam that is often described, rather simplistically, as the mystical dimension of Islam.

AK – The zawiya, also called tekke or dergah, is a place dedicated to reunions of dhikr (remembrance of God) and the teaching of the sufi path. These gatherings are typically directed by a Sheikh or sufi master. Though the methods may differ between tariqas, such as the use of musical instruments or dance in the ceremonies, the principles of sufism are the same for all tariqas, the quest to acquire a pure heart, perfected character and ma'rifa ( knowing God). The zawiya is also a place where the disciples from other cities can receive lodging and food. At the age of fourteen, I embraced Islam at the hand of a Sufi Sheikh of the Naqshbandi tariqa. Later in Syria, and Yemen I got to know and studied at the hands of other masters from different tariqas such as the Shadhiliyya and Ba Alawi.

In Damascus and Aleppo I used to attend gatherings of dhikr of the Shadhiliyya in which the art of singing and changing maqam depending on the moment during the gathering, is highly developed and it is in these gatherings that I started to learn to sing. My first experience of the use of musical instruments other than the drum used during a Sufi ceremony, was in Istanbul at the Jerrahi Tekke which has produced some of the best known musicians in Turkey. One sheikh explained to me that the different tariqas were like different coloured cups. What is important is the drink that the cup contains, which is one. A lot of sufi poetry talks about the pre-eternal wine, referring to Divine love. The true sheikh is the one who pours the metaphoric wine into the cups of his disciples according to the capacity of the disciple and when the disciple is ready. The cup needs to be empty and clean before it can receive that wine.

BS – Ali, this talk of Islamic religious schools and Syria will be making some readers uncomfortable. So let's confront the dead moose in the middle of the room. How does your Muslim faith, which you celebrate so powerfully in public performance, square with the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam that dominates the media?

AK – The roots of extremism leading to violence, whether in Islam or any other religion is a lengthy topic. Throughout history man has used religion to justify violence. However, if we study the example of the great Prophets and founders of these religions we realise that these extremists are going against religious principles. Controlling anger and patience are at the heart of the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. One of the most cited sayings of the Prophet is: “Have mercy on the creatures of the earth, so that the One in the heavens may have mercy on you.” Then when war became legitimate to the Islamic community it was accompanied by strict conditions. In warfare it is strictly forbidden to kill innocent civilians, women, and children and priests or monks. However, extremists, act out of anger and frustration and are blind to the true teachings and wisdom of revelation.

BS – While on this thread we should confront another dead moose. Some scholars quote evidence in the Qur’aan and Sunnah that music is haram (forbidden) in Islam. But you obviously believe and practice that it is halal (permissible). What is the basis for your belief that within Islam music is not only permissible, but should also be celebrated?

AK - There are no verses in the Quran that condemn music explicitly. However there are hadiths, (sayings of the Prophet) that condemn musical instruments in a particular context. The scholars who defend the permissibility of some kinds of music look at the context of the hadith. In the hadiths musical instruments are condemned in the context of wine, dancing girls and lewdness. The Prophet's mission was to free his companions from a state of heedlessness and immorality, and guide them on the path of rectitude and consciousness of God in every situation. Whether it is the voice or any other instrument, its permissibility depends on its purpose and also its effect, which can differ from person to person. Music becomes haram when it stirs the baser passions and induces what is haram such as the consuming of drugs or licentious behaviour.

However, music which helps to awaken our consciousness of the Divine or inspires higher principles such as love and compassion, just like other forms of art is not just halal (licit), but recommended. It is also of great importance that there is an alternative to the soulless base music which is all pervasive today. Art has an important role in refining and cultivating our appreciation of beauty, and our sensibility to the world of subtle meanings which connects us to the spiritual. The traditional word for sufi music is samaa' which means 'to listen'. It is only when we are able to listen not just with our senses but with our heart that we can understand the higher realities and read the signs of God.

BS – Your music studies in Syria followed an orthodox route. Yet your music is an unorthodox mix that – as I experienced in Fez - includes Celtic riffs. Do you see this kind of multi-cultural fusion as the way forward?

AK - Modal music whether it is Celtic, Chinese, or African is universal because it is connected to the natural order, and traditional cultures in harmony with that order. Fusion can easily lead to confusion if not done carefully, and the music can lose any clear identity. As we have in our band musicians from different cultural backgrounds; Moroccan, Spanish, and English, embracing diverse musical styles such as Celtic, Western classical, Flamenco, Arabic and Andalusi, my intention is to continue producing music which is rooted in these traditions but has at the same time an original sound identifiable as Al-Firdaus.

BS - What violin do you play?

AK - My violin was made by a Hungarian violin maker and London resident Béla Szepessy in the year 1896. I bought it from my violin teacher Clarence Myerscough, while studying at King´s School Canterbury with a generous donation from my grandparents, may they rest in peace. I must have been about 14 years old at the time. While on the Hungarian connection, after leaving school, I went on to study with a Hungarian teacher called Eszter Boda Katona who prepared me well for my music academy auditions. Eszter Katona and her husband Béla Katona,also a violin teacher were friends of Sir George Solti who was a close friend of my aunt. It was Sir George Solti who recommended me to study with Béla Katona, but as he had a position to teach in Japan I ended up studying with Eszter.

BS - Ali, in 2006 you moved from Syria to Granada in Spain. It was in that year that the violence that escalated into the current terrible civil war in Syria started. Was it the unstable political situation that forced you to leave, and what are your hopes for that conflict torn country?

AK – My move from Syria was way before the political strife started. In fact when I left Syria there were too many foreigners moving into the old city where I lived for my taste. It was a very popular place to study Arabic and also full of journalists. My move to Spain was at a time when I needed a change in my life. It is difficult to see how the Syrian people will recover from this conflict. It will take years. But historically, it is nothing new. The Mongols and Crusaders also devastated this area. Apart from the human disaster the extent of the destruction of Syria´s historical monuments is a great tragedy which will be nearly impossible to recover. Many Syrians have started new lives in other countries and it will be difficult for them to return, especially when their children are brought up in those countries. Syrians are very resourceful and are great at business, so where ever they settle they will prosper no doubt. There are so many foreign interests in Syria fuelling the war on all sides it can no longer be considered as a civil war. The first step to peace will be when there is a real interest from the international community, especially the main players involved in fuelling the conflict to withdraw.

BS – In 2012 you founded the Al Firdaus Ensemble [- seen above]. You have travelled widely performing with them, and the Ensemble's first CD Safa has been very well received. What next for Al Firdaus?

AK - We are here on our first tour in the UK, and that is going really well. We are planning a tour of the US for February 2016 and hope to be able to tour Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia in the near future. Our second video clip for the song Celtic Salawat will be released soon. Our CD Safa is released on our own label, and now we are looking for an international distributor to handle online digital and physical sales of that album and others that will follow. Hopefully with an international distributor our music can be heard by a wider audience.

BS – Ali, finally a question that reflects a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path. You started your career in Western classical music. Winning a new young audience for that art form is a major preoccupation at the moment. What are your views on how Western classical music can rejuvenate itself?

AK - It would be good for Western classical music to connect with other living traditional forms of music and introduce rhythmic elements which are more stimulating and attractive. Another element that is lacking in western classical music in general is improvisation. It is important that this creative element is given a space in classical pieces. This could be a key to its rejuvenation. Then there is also the stuffy elitist image that classical music has which puts off a lot of people of all generations from this genre. Having said that classical music is much more popular and accessible than it used to be.

BS - Ali, listening to you recounting the story of your musical and spiritual journey reminds me of this advice from the pioneer of comparative religion Huston Smith: "Beware of the differences that blind us to the unity that binds us". Thank you for finding the time to share your story with my readers, and let's leave them with Al Firdaus' musical tribute to the Moriscos, the persecuted medieval Spanish Muslims.

* Rumi quotes comes from translation by R. A. Nicholson in ‘Persian Poems‘, an anthology of verse translations edited by A.J. Arberry, Everyman’s Library, 1972. Header photo (c) Zoabir Ali. Other photos from Al Firdaus website. Interview is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, November 06, 2015

We are born in mystery, live in mystery, and die in mystery

Why Bruno Walter's Mozart should exert such a magnetic hold is a mystery. His performance style is politically incorrect, his recordings predate the digital age by decades, and his reputation has never 'benefited' from the wonders of modern marketing. But do we actually need to understand the mystery behind the magnetic power captured on that 1930s archive footage of him conducting the Berlin Philharmonic? Should we not simply accept, as the polymath Huston Smith has told us, that: "We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery". Early next week there will be an extended post here about the mysterious power of music to uplift and unite. After that On An Overgrown Path will fall silent for a while as I travel again in those regions where the digital has not yet totally supplanted the magical.

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Thursday, November 05, 2015

What happens when every journalist makes the same error?

How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? is a forensic and insightful analysis of the rise of MP3 technology and the parallel decline of the record industry. I was particularly struck by author Stephen Witt's observation that the only field that handled the digital transition worse than music was journalism.

No review samples involved in this post. Slivered disc is sampled from the cover of the UK edition of How Music Got Free. 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, November 04, 2015

Conductors have to try to help the composer

But a masterpiece comes when you must be convinced that’s a masterpiece, and I make sure that’s a masterpiece. If you play a very boring performance of the Glazunov Number Six or Number Seven, people will be saying it’s not a masterpiece. You must convince them that’s a masterpiece, and there’s a lot of masterpieces which people don’t know. It’s my idea that we should not to be with only this great stuff of repertoire, which basically everyone conducts. You know them exactly and you love them, this Brahms Symphony Number Four; you love all Brahms’ music. Of course you want to explore very much, but you’re doing it anyway. But that’s a masterpiece. I had to discover the meaning of other composers which are around that did not write a masterpiece. It’s second rate music or third rate music, but don’t tell that to anyone. Try to convince people that’s not. Every conductor says that Glazunov’s music is second rate music or third rate music, but I don’t think so. This kind of ballet music, like Raymonda or the Seasons... or Le Sacre du Printemps or a tone poem like La Mer — only a great composer can create these things.

We have to try to help the composer because basically, nothing is written here — only the notes. It’s only notes and words like poco ritardando, andante, allegro moderato, accented, something, something, ritenuto, meno mosso — it doesn’t say very much. Are we making music? I have to help composers. I can’t make the notes on the page. It’s only some certain line of notes written down, but you have to interpret them, and that interpretation is the main thing which we have to do. If we can’t do that, we can’t say it’s a masterpiece.
That is Neeme Järvi talking to Chicago based journalist and radio presenter Bruce Duffie. The interview from 1987 was flagged up on Facebook by Alexander Colding Smith as a contribution to yesterday's post about the neglect of Alan Hovhaness' music. Neeme Järvi was replying to the question "What is it about a masterpiece that makes it a masterpiece?" and I want to develop this thread by asking another question: "What is it about a great conductor that makes it a great conductor?"

Today conductors are judged to be great or otherwise by their interpretations of recognised masterpieces - notably the symphonies of Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius. Beyond this narrow band of masterpieces the repertoire is increasingly limited to token new music commissions, preferably with media appeal and not too long. Specific current circumstances are exacerbating the narrowing of the repertoire. One of these is the collapse of the record company patronage that resulted in back-to-back concert and studio performances of niche repertoire, another is the damaging obsession with composer anniversaries. But it does not have to be so as Neeme Järvi has proved: in the interview, as well as Glazunov's music, he advocates that of Johan Svendsen, Niels Gade, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Eduard Tubin, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, Paul Creston and Amy Beach.

The assertion that we must try to help the composer is very revealing. Because, today, too many celebrities see the composer as the person who helps them to a contract with a super agent, lucrative tours of China and the United Arab Emirates, and endorsement contracts with Rolex and Bugatti. But it wasn't always like that. In a post back in 2005 I analysed the Berlin Philharmonic programmes conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler between 1923 and 1944. During that period, and despite the latter years being the dark age of Entartete Musik, no less forty-four substantial new works from twenty-seven contemporary composers were played under Furtwängler - see the full list via this link. Another post in the same year pointed out that while music director of the New York Philharmonic, John Barbirolli conducted music by, among others, Daniel Gregory Mason, Joseph Deems Taylor, Abram Chasins, Samuel Barber, Ernst Toch, Arkady Dubensky, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Quinto Maganini, Gardner Read, Charles Griffes, Quincy Porter, Lucien Cailliet, Paul Creston, Jacques Ibert, and Eugene Goosen. Even the notoriously self-interested Herbert von Karajan strayed from the path of established masterpieces, with his advocacy of Arthur Honegger's Second Symphony and Symphonie Liturgigue (no. 3) ranking as one of the great achievements of the gramophone.

The argument that non-mainstream music results in empty seats is a spurious one. Is the main purpose of great art to put posteriors on seats? Empty seats in concert halls are caused by an oversupply of classical music, not misguided programming. Playing more and more Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius is just another short-term solution that does not solve the long-term problem of oversupply. Taking the painful but very necessary steps to bring music supply and demand back inline is the only viable long-term solution. By programming a wide and inclusive repertoire, a few visionary conductors and are not only helping composers. More importantly, they are ensuring the future of classical music by helping audiences understand that there are many masterpieces outside the narrow range of music that is the staple of today's celebrity circuit.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

People don't know what they want until you show them

In 1998 Steve Jobs told Business Week that:
We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base. We also watch industry trends pretty carefully. But in the end, for something this complicated, it's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why a lot of people at Apple get paid a lot of money, because they're supposed to be on top of these things.
Steve Jobs was talking about personal computers, but he could well have been talking about classical music. Classical music is complicated, and it stubbornly resists being rationalised by focus groups and the other fashionable tools of the marketing industry. But the big difference between Apple and classical music is that in Cupertino there are a lot of people who are on top of things, but in classical music central there are a lot of people who are paid to be on top of things, but aren't.

The music of Alan Hovhaness provides an enlightening case study. Classical music is desperate to attract new audiences, and also needs to widen the tastes of its existing audience. In a sleeve note for an album that coupled Alan Hovhaness' Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No 2) with Lou Harrison's Elegiac Symphony, Tim Page enthused that: "Here is beautiful music - straightforward, deeply felt, expertly made yet far removed from deliberate cleverness, serene, affirmative, even holy". Hovhaness wrote sixty-seven numbered symphonies which overflow with straightforward and beautiful music. Yet, to give just one example of his lamentable neglect, not a single note of his orchestral music has ever been performed at the BBC Proms. Squeezed out no doubt by the BBC's ongoing obsession with Mahler; an obsession that resulted in two Mahler symphonies being broadcast on Radio 3 recently within the space of five hours.

Alan Hovhaness' music may often be beautiful, but it can also be challenging. He moved in the same circles as John Cage, and Cage expressed admiration for his music. In what is arguably his finest work, the Symphony No. 19 'Vishnu', Hovhaness uses aleatory sounds to represent the controlled chaos of our solar system. The symphony is subtitled Vishnu, because in Indian mythology Vishnu is the deity who presides over universes, infinite worlds and endless solar systems - hence J. Robert Oppenheimer's famous Vishnu quote from the Bhagavad-Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds".

The power of Alan Hovhaness' music to engage was illustrated by its use in Carl Sagan's popular TV series Cosmos. An excellent recording of the Vishnu Symphony conducted by the composer dating from the early 1970s* is available on Crystal Records. Steve Jobs was quite right when he said people don't know what they want until you show it to them. When will a celebrity conductor emerge who has the courage to show people what they want by swapping just a little of the biblical flood of Mahler for some holy Hovhaness? You've read my point of view: now judge for yourself via this link.

* The orchestra on the commendably full-bodied Crystal Records CD transfer is identified as the 'Sevan Philharmonic. Lake Sevan is the largest lake in Hovhanes' native Armenia. No recording details are given; my guess is the Sevan Orchestra are London session players, and the acoustic sounds like Walthamstow Town hall. 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.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

New audiences are bass literate

There's no such thing as the purist mentality. It's a false concept, a facade. A purist of what? Just because you were in a college at a certain time, something affected you , and it became your ideal music. Suddenly it becomes precious to you, and you retain it ad keep it in one place. But you could move beyond that and keep going if you wanted to. Purists are people who are stuck in the beginnings of true appreciation... The purist is someone who is stuck with their first impressions of what they thought was "the way it goes," or "the way it is." But it's not like that. Music is free, it's open, it's an ocean that continues. Free thinking people know that. But musicians are often stuck. They're not far from sports people in their redundancy, the way that they appreciate things. Painters, writers and filmmakers are probably much more advanced than musicians when it comes to the evolution of their art form.
That is Bill Laswell, bassist, producer and sonic chronicler of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, telling it like it is*. Widespread reaction against the misguided dumbing down of classical music has ossified into a stultifying overreaction dedicated to conserving a purist view of "the way it is". This means that concert halls are fast becoming museums of sound dedicated to what Percy Grainger described as the "musical output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900". With concert recordings now the de facto standard of a beleaguered classical industry, recorded music has simply become another relic in that museum of sound. And as classical music struggles to attract new audiences, London is about to invest millions of pounds in an even better museum of sound.

Psychoacoustics is the scientific study of sound perception. It is not a fuzzy science: in fact the psychoacoustic property of auditory masking and its effect on compression is the exact science that made the MP3 file possible - a technology that changed the music industry forever. When sound passes through the ears to the brain, it stops being a physical phenomena and, instead, becomes a matter of perception. That perception is conditioned by societal, cultural and technological factors, and those factors are changing at an exponential rate. Yet the classical music industry stubbornly refuses to acknowledge those changes.

Purists believe that the 'pure' sound of classical music is what we hear in a concert hall. But that is simply not true. The pure sound is what we would hear if the orchestra played in an anechoic chamber. An anechoic chamber is an acoustically dead space, and anyone who has spent time in one - as I have in the now demolished EMI Research anechoic chamber at Hayes - will know that the thin, dry and dead sound would be unacceptable to any audience, purist or otherwise. The sound of an orchestra in iconic concert halls such as the the Concertguebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna is determined by the acoustic of the hall; the acoustic is the character that is added as the sound reverberates. These halls date from the late-19th century and their signature sound - which remains the reference for concert halls - was subjectively optimised for the bass-lite pre-Romantic orchestra.

Half a century of rock music, the hegemony of headphone listening, the advent of home cinema sub-woofers, and many other developments have changed sonic expectations. One major change is that audiences - particularly younger audiences - have become base literate. A new study titled The Neuroscience of Bass explores how bass instruments are fundamental to music, while in the interview that provides the header quote, Bill Laswell explains that: "Bass is a powerful mood shifter, its low resonant frequencies penetrating the human nervous system at a molecular level". Yet classical music remains stuck in a late 19th century sonic paradigm; a position that purists defend using the argument that the score is sacrosanct. Which indeed it is. However there is an erroneous and dangerous belief that the sound of classical music is defined in the score and is, therefore, also sacrosanct. In fact, the sound is defined by the complex interaction of seven attributes, pitch, rhythm, tone colour, absolute loudness, relative loudness, spatial location and acoustic. The composer's score only defines pitch, rhythm, tone colour and relative loudness (dynamics). This leaves absolute loudness, spatial location and acoustic as non-composer defined variables, and these have been fixed for more than a century by concert hall conventions that no longer reflect how people listen to music.

In the past, the architects of concert halls used passive reflective technologies to marry sonic expectations to reality. Today, different but equally valid active digital technologies are available: for example the San Francisco Symphony's Soundbox experimental performance space - which provides my header photo*** - uses Meyer Sound's IntelligentDC technology to create a variable acoustic. The barrier to meeting changing sonic expectations is not the lack of an enabling technology, but rather reactionary attitudes. Ironically, the very commentators who denounce any nuanced digital intervention in the concert hall, are those who wax lyrically about the power of digitally-saturated music streaming to engage new audiences. Classical music has the technology to meet the sonic expectations of new audiences. But does it have the will?

* Quote is from interview with Peter Lavezzoli in The Dawn of Indian Music in the West.
** Some recent halls have been tuned with an enhanced bass response to meet the requirements of post-classical orchestras. One excellent example is the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.
*** Photo shows percussionist Raymond Froehlich at the San Francisco Soundbox and is credited to AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.

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