Is the music really that sacred?

Before technology proliferated, composers used the only available technology of the orchestra to deliver imaginative interpretations. Mahler reinterpreted the ländler - a Carinthian folk tune - in his symphonies, and Berg introduced a ländler into the first movement of his Violin Concerto. Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony reinterprets Mahler, Wagner, Glinka and Rossini, while the composers Berio remixed in his Sinfonia - which was written in 1968 on the cusp of media proliferation - are too numerous to list here. Despite these auspicious precedents, and despite quantum leaps in digital technology, Western classical music has suffered a technology seizure. Which means technology is being used as a tool to defend an unsatisfactory status quo, instead of being used to implement much needed change. I use the moniker Western classical music deliberately; because although this it is often difficult to believe, there are other classical musics, and as is often the case the Western art form can learn much from its Eastern cousin.

A valuable case study is Cheb i Sabbah, who used new technology to bring a different classical music and contemporary audiences together. He was born in Constantine, Algeria in 1947 of mixed Berber and Jewish parentage, and moved with his family to Paris in 1960 at the height of the Algerian War of Independence, and built a reputation as a DJ in the burgeoning Parisian discotheques scene. In the May 1968 student uprising in Paris he came into contact with the co-founder of the Living Theatre Julian Beck, whose collaborators included Alan Hovhaness who composed music for its productions in the 1950s, and John Cage, whose Music of Changes was premiered at a Living Theatre concert in 1952. Cheb i Sabbah connected with the Living Theatre's pioneering mix of politics, drama and multi-media and he stayed with the group through the 1970s. While with the Living Theatre he met Don Cherry who was a member of the pioneering world music group Codona; both musicians shared a passion for gender bending and Cheb i Sabbah became Don Cherry's road manager and turntablist until Cherry's untimely death in 1995.

In the late 1980s Cheb i Sabbah presented a show on KPFA Berkeley and promoted Bay Area concerts featuring artists such as qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and bhangra DJ Bally Sagoo. These concerts became experiments in synesthesia, with scents, food and graphics tailored to the music. In 1990 Cheb i Sabbah began turntabling at Nickie's on Haight Street in San Francisco, and for fifteen years his Tuesday night sessions achieved cult status with their eclectic beat-driven mix of world music - the photo below shows him spinning at Nickie's. He adopted Hindu practices and became a devotee of Bhakti yoga, and when the celebrated Indian vocalist Salamat Ali Khan performed in Berkeley, Cheb i Sabbah proposed that they collaborate. The resulting project which challenged the industry status quo by using montaging snowballed to include, among others, sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan, sarodist K. Sridar and bassist Bill Laswell.

The resulting album Shri Durga was released on Six Degrees Records and was a major commercial success that spawned a remix Maha Maya - audition Kese Kese which is based on the Raag Durga via this link. Six Degrees is an independent label devoted to accessible, genre-bending music, and Cheb i Sabbah ensured that his releases received synergistic graphic treatment, as can be seen from the accompanying artwork. Sri Durga and Maha Maya were followed by the more austere mix of Hindu Bhajan (hymns) Krishna Lila - sample here. Cheb i Sabbah's final album before he died of stomach cancer in San Francisco in 2013 was La Kahena: this featured the vocal music of his native Maghreb supplemented by the signature sounds of Bill Laswell’s bass lines, techno drum machine, electronica and ambient effects - sample here.

Cheb i Sabbah did not simply add drum'n'bass to traditional music; instead he used new technology to reinterpret the Eastern classical canon for a contemporary audience, and the integrity of his reinterpretations is confirmed by the role call of respected musicians who agreed to work on them. This was also the case with qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan whose Mustt Musst in a remix with the British trip-hop band Massive Attack becoming a dance floor hit. What is particularly relevant to Western classical music is that a new young audience was introduced to Indian classical music and qawwali by albums which purists consider heretical, but the result has not been a general dumbing down of these mainstream traditions by the widespread adoption of drum'n'bass backing.

Cheb i Sabbah and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provided a bridge from non-classical to classical. But despite a remorseless obsession with new audiences the Western classical tradition ignores the importance of these bridges. (There are a few notable exception such as 'interpretive musicologist' Uri Caine and the puzzlingly overlooked Wagner Transformed) . For me and for others of my generation, the sadly topical Emerson, Lake and Palmer provided a valuable bridge with classical/rock hybrids such as Pictures at an Exhibition, Fanfare For The Common Man and Hoedown. And just as drum machines have not replaced tablas, keyboards and electronic guitars have not replaced symphony orchestras. Today Western classical music is suffering from advanced schizophrenia: the music is absolutely sacred and related arguments about, for instance, applause betweeen movements drag on ad infinitum. But beyond the music anything goes, and I really mean anything - from violinists in wet T-shirts to gutter journalism. Classical music desperately wants a new audience, so where have all the bridges gone?. Nobody is suggesting a resident rock band in Sir Simon's new designer concert hall; but is the music really that sacred? Wagner, Berg, Shostakovich and Berio were prophetic voices who leveraged available technologies to disseminate their message. Western classical music needs to learn from that because as Varun Soni tells us his insightful book Natural Mystics:
Throughout history, prophetic voices have been shaped and defined by the political, commercial, technological, and cultural movements of their milieu. These prophetic voices only endure if their messages are strategically disseminated to the widest possible demographic. That is why the most popular prophetic voices have always been the most technologically savvy. Indeed, prophecy is not only a function of scripture, but also of technology.

Sources include The Dawn of Indian Music in the West by Peter Lavezzoli, Global Beat Fusion by Derek Beres, and Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing by Judith Becker. No review samples were used in this post. Header photo is via MV Galleries. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
But there are two sides to every debate, and I do think this Washington Post article about the futile attempts of churches to attract a new congregation makes some good points -
Graeme said…
Will the BBC ever program the symphonies of Rubbra and Arnold in our lifetimes?
Pliable said…
Graeme, I am not holding my breath in anticipation of BBC Radio 3 changing its ways. But there is some good news elsewhere -

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