Monday, September 26, 2016

Elemental in effect - a great symphony of the 20th century

That rock formation was photographed by me in the Zakros Gorge in the remote east of Crete where I am currently staying. The gorge is known as the Valley of the Dead because of the Minoan cave burials that have been discovered there. After hiking through the gorge yesterday I read John McLaughlin Williams' astute observation on Facebook that Arnold Bax's Fifth Symphony is “elemental in effect.... this is one of the great symphonies of the 20th century”. Bax's Fifth is clearly influenced by Shostakovich without being derivative, just as the symphonies of Malcolm Arnold – the tenth anniversary of whose death has just passed - are influenced by both Mahler and Shostakovich. Contemporary audiences appear to have an insatiable appetite for both Shostakovich and Mahler; yet the cartel of celebrity musicians, agents and concert promoters that controls classical music does not give audiences the opportunity to hear Bax and Arnold. If classical music really wants to expand its reach it should heed these thoughts from the Buddhist teacher Rama-Dr Frederic Lenz*:
Human beings usually train their young to run way from things that they don't understand. It is an old bad habit. They teach their children to hide from, rationalize and be unduly afraid of, death, the immensity of life, and the experience of the spirit. When human beings live this way, they shut out both the high and low frequencies in their lives. This leaves them with the boring midrange experiences in daily living that they perceive to be safe. In this way the world of human experiences is reduced to a world of feeding, toiling for a living, reproducing and continuously fending off the unknown.
* Rama-Dr Frederic Lenz (1950-1988) was a controversial spiritual teacher, sometime record producer and best selling author. He left an $18 million estate which included two homes and two Range Rovers; the proceeds from this have been used to support many Buddhist organisations in the States. 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, September 25, 2016

Art music is going to the dogs

An earlier post gave a heads up to Ross Daly and Kelly Thoma's benefit for street dogs, and now here is the poster for the concert. For those in barking distance of Heraklion who don't read Greek, the concert is on October 4th at 21.00h in the Manos Hatzidakis Theatre and admission is just 5 euros.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

A dog is a musician's best friend

That photo shows Cretan music legend and contemporary modal master Ross Daly with some of his five dogs. All are former street dogs that Ross and his partner in music and life Kelly Thoma have taken into their home – there is an ex-street cat as well. I took the photo a few days ago in the grounds of Ross' Labyrinth music co-operative in Houdetsi, Crete. At the beginning of October Ross and Kelly are playing a concert in aid of the street dogs of Heraklion. Two musicians at the top of their game play a fund-raiser for stray animals; it's a different world here on Crete, and sorry, but I think it's a better one.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I design gardens with music

Zen has cast its influences on figures as different as John Cage and Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu was working in a Western musical language, but, like a Japanese novel translated into English, his compositions contain something different. Takemitsu said he only uttered 80 per cent of any idea, in what could be construed as powerful understatement; the rest is silence, the pregnancy of the unsaid, ma. Ma, a profoundly important concept in Japanese culture, is the silent understanding when friends are together, or when one is contemplating nature or art - when meaning is intense but nothing is expressed.

That is Jonathan Harvey writing in his book In Quest of Spirit: Thoughts on Music. In Japan the silent contemplation of nature reaches its apogee in the art of Zen gardens. Buddhism came to Japan from China via Korea in the 7th century, and the first known garden designed on Buddhist principles was created in 618 by a Korean immigrant Roji-no-Takumi. In this pioneering garden Mount Semeru (the mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe supporting the heavens) was represented by a mound linked to a viewing point by a connecting bridge, and this established the principle of the Zen garden as a visual haiku,. Over the subsequent centuries the art of the Zen garden has been refined, but their function as visual haikus remains their raison d'être. Much of Japan is mountainous, so 94% of the 126 million population is crowded into urban areas where space is at a premium, and the Zen garden allows nature and spiritual symbolism to be brought into urban areas where space is at a premium.

As Jonathan Harvey recounts, Zen was a major influence on Toru Takemitsu. Zen gardens were a particular influence on the composer, and he once explained that 'I design gardens with music'. The Saiho-ji Temple in Kyoto designed by the 14th century Zen priest Muso Soseki inspired Takemitsu's Dream/Window for orchestra. Another work that reflects the composer's preoccupation with Zen gardens is his Spirit Garden; this uses a twelve note row to generate three chords each of four notes, with these sound 'objects' being heard in a sonic garden from different perspectives. This preoccupation is reflected in the numerous botanical references in the titles of Takemitsu's music, including In an Autumn Garden, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, Tree Line, Garden Rain and Music of Trees.

William Glock's discrimination against certain composers in the 1960s and early 1970s is a cause célèbre. The current more nuanced neglect of other composers receives insufficient attention. Takemitsu is an important figure in late-20th century music whose oeuvre is progressive yet accessible. Despite this the last time his music was played at the BBC Proms was in 2010 and his works have only featured in thirteen Proms. It is a pithy comment on the priorities within classical music that in the last six years Paddington Bear has made more appearances at the Proms than Toru Takemtisu's music. For those who have not experienced Takemitsu's exquisite sonic gardens, the low-priced 2 CD Brilliant Classics overview of his music - which includes Spirit Garden - goes where the Proms planners fear to go.

Buddhist author and teacher Stephen Batchelor explains that "A Zen garden can say as much about what the Buddha taught as the most erudite treatise on emptiness". When I first visited Japan in the 1980s I spent time in the famous Zen garden at Ryoan-Ji temple in Kyoto. Since then it become a tradition to create a Zen garden at each of our homes. The accompanying photos show the garden designed and built by my wife and me in our current home in Norfolk. This visual haiku represents the Buddha striving to reach enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya. The barriers to enlightenment are represented by the cluster of rocks seen in the photo above, and enlightenment is depicted by the yukimi-gata (snow-viewing) lantern seen below. Contemplating our spirit garden helps me to understand what Toru Takemitsu meant when he wrote:
...I wish to search out that single sound which is itself so strong that it confronts silence. It is then that my own personal insignificance will cease to trouble me.

Sources include:
In Quest of Spirit: Thoughts on Music by Jonathan Harvey
The Art of Zen Gardens by A.K. Davidson
A Japanese Touch for Your Garden by Kiyoshi Seiko, Masanobu Kudō & David. H. Engel
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor

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Monday, September 12, 2016

The music we write about deserves a wider audience

It is ironic that my recent post on the decline of music blogging attracted a record readership. Unsurprisingly my trenchant post was assiduously ignored by the high profile blogs, despite generating so much interest elsewhere. But others ventured where the grandees feared to go. Cambridge University Library houses among its many riches the papers and manuscripts of William Alwyn, one of numerous neglected composers who have been championed On An Overgrown Path over the years. Writing on the Cambridge University Library blog MusiCB3 Margaret Jones observes that: "Blogging is dead? Well, perhaps not just yet. It can be an unexpected way into academia for music that is not mainstream, or is even considered 'dangerous'”, and Margaret punctuates her typically astute post with links to many useful and little-known music blogs.

On Facebook world music maven Joshua Cheek agreed that my pessimistic assessment of music blogging "sadly hits it on the mark". Significantly one of the most thoughtful responses to my post came from a blog covering music outside the Western classical tradition. The Free Jazz Collective and On An Overgrown Path share a passion for 'dangerous' music such as the album seen above - Jazz Meets India from the iconoclastic Swiss free jazz group the Irène Schweizer Trio. To be meaningful blogging must be passionate, and the dividing line between passion and self-aggrandisement is fuzzy. But the response of Stef writing on The Free Jazz Collective blog spells out very eloquently the reasons why I have blogged for eleven years:

The music we write about deserves a wider audience, and often we write for the converted, but at the same time listening and writing about it has widened my musical horizons, and together with the evolution of the music itself, our readership has gradually expanded too, reaching more people.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Composer offers sound advice

The Last Night of the Proms shenanigans presided over by Sakari - "the Proms should not be dumbed down" - Oramo brought to mind the following declaration by Gérard Grisey:
'We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture'
That is Gérard Grisey (1946-98) in the photo above. Together with Tristan Murail he was a pioneer of the spectralist movement which used as its raw material the DNA of music - sound. Spectralism creates sound colours by exploiting the harmonics produced by combination of tones - sample via this link. Art music has evolved over the centuries through the combination of tones, starting in the East with the Vedic belief in the sacred power of the harmonically complex chanted OM, and in the West with the move from the monody of plainsong to the harmonic complexity of polyphony. Because spectralism has been central to the development of music its exact definition is a movable feast. But evidence of it can be found in the music of, inter alia, Debussy, Varèse, Messiaen, Claude Vivier, and Jonathan Harvey.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Last Night thoughts on the future of music

Culturally, humanity is presently living through an extremely important transitional period. A process is in motion which slowly but surely is bringing together the different cultures of the world to find one terrestrial culture. It seems that this movement is headed more towards an impoverishment than an enrichment. More and more the non-Western cultures are literally being drowned by Western culture without any exchange of culture which would have been desirable for human thought. What we want is the conscious man, who carries with him all the traditions that the earth has brought us. We want a human being who by his/her uniqueness can truly unify the rest of humanity. The future of music cannot be seen without the essential contribution of other cultures. The human spirit can only be cosmic when implementing the whole of its cultural heritage.
I offer that wisdom on the day when Hubert Parry's inspired setting of William Blake will once again be torn out of its context at the Last Night of the Proms. The quotation comes from Claude Vivier (1948-1983) who is seen above, and is taken from his 1977 article in Musicanada titled 'Letter from Bali: Islands of Dreams for Composers'. Vivier's orchestral work Siddhartha was written before the composer's extended visit to Asia. But in his monograph 'Claude Vivier, Siddhartha, Karlheinz Stockhausen, la nouvelle simplicité et le râga' composer and musicologist Jean Lesage draws attention to the similarities between the use of melodic cells in Siddhartha and the raga form of Indian music. It is a sign of encroaching cultural impoverishment that Claude Vivier's music has only had one Proms performance and is all but absent from the current CD catalogue - the excellent 2006 Kairos recording of Siddhartha and other orchestral works is now deleted.

This post draws on the invaluable Claude Vivier: A Composer's Life by the late Bob Gilmore. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No review samples used in the post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Never do as others do

'In life never do as others do. Either do nothing... or do something nobody else does'.
That advice was given to G.I. Gurdjieff by his grandmother*. The Music of G.I. Gurdjieff is on the ECM label.

* Quote comes from Gurdjieff - The Anatomy Of A Myth: A Biography by by James Moore. 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, September 08, 2016

Far from the twittering crowd

Nicholas Kenyon in the Guardian declares God save The Last Night of the Proms post-Brexit and the Telegraph reports that Anti-Brexit campaigners to hijack Last Night of the Proms with EU flags. When will classical music finally realise that until it stops taking the Last Night of the Proms seriously, classical music will not be taken seriously?

A usual I am steering well clear of that annual gathering of the twittering crowd, and instead am off to Crete off to sample some contemporary modal music. A post last year described how exciting and overlooked music was evolving in Crete under the visionary leadership of Ross Daly. Recent listening that has set my pulse racing has included two outstanding new CDs from Ross' pupils. On Thrace lyra prodigy Sokratis Sinopoulos teams up with virtuoso percussionists Bijan and Keyvan Chemirani, and - strange but true - Ensemble Intercontemporain cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. The programme includes Lutoslawki's Sacher Variation, Ross Daly's Karsilam and Jörg Widmann's Étude Digitale which was written in homage to Pierre Boulez on his 90th birthday. From these disparate ingredients four master musicians produce an hour of music that is challenging, uncompromising and infinitely rewarding.

Another Ross Daly pupil Thimios Atzakas, whose instrument is the oud, works with an ensemble that mixes sax, lyra, ney, mantoura, cello, viola da gamba, percussion, marimba and voice on an innovative debut CD titled Udopia which ranges from Satie to a setting of Kazantzakis. These new albums are from labels that refuse to take the 'me too' route of the corporates. Thrace is from the under-new-ownership Harmonia Mundi, while Udopia is from the new Carpe Diem label, and both labels are exhibiting the creative energy that is lacking from so many recent ECM releases. The new modal music that originated on Crete is spreading its wings internationally. Greece too has had a rough ride with the EU. But its creative community is doing rather than whining. Personally I don't give a damn what happens at the Last Night of the Proms.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Sacred drift - music on the margins of Islam

The cover blurb for the 1993 City Lights' first edition of Peter Lamborn Wilson's Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam explains how the book proposes a set of heresies, a culture of resistance that dispels the false image of Islam as monolithic, puritan, and two dimensional. It then describes how Peter Lamborn Wilson takes a 'romantic' view of Islam to radical extremes, to an exotic viewpoint that may not be 'true', but is certainly a relief from academic propaganda and the obscene banality of simulation. The essays range from a scathing critique of 'authority' and sexual misery in puritanist Islam, to exploring the Sufi tradition of travel.

Peter Lamborn Wilson (occasional pen name Hakim Bey) describes how "this is my brand of Islam: insurrectionary, elegant, dangerous, suffused with light - a search for poetic facts, a donation from and to the tradition of spiritual anarchy". Those false and two dimensional images extend to the music of Islam; so, as a small contribution to dispelling these falsities I am sharing some highlights of my recent listening to music on the margins of Islam. Not only because as Rumi exhorts in a translation quoted by Peter Lamborn Wilson: "Music: the tranquility of life's spirit: but known only to those who know life's spirit's spirit... Turn your face towards Mecca, yes, but know this: - music is this world, music is the other world". But also because we cannot ignore the accelerating sacred drift. In her new book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World Shelina Janmohamed points out that the global Muslim population is growing more than twice as quickly as overall world population growth. Of 11 countries forecast to join the elite club of economic superpowers this century, six have a dominant Muslim majority and two substantial Muslim minorities. Two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30, representing a huge and rapidly growing market.

Bigotry comes in many different guises, and one of these is the myth that art music is a strictly Judeo-Christian property. Members of the rapidly growing generation M are young, affluent, and, despite popular stereotyping, in tune with the zeitgeist. Any industry, whether consumer or cultural, cannot ignore them. So here is a personal selection of art music from the margins of Islam...

Marcel Khalife was born in 1950 in Amchit, Lebanon. He studied the oud at the Beirut National Conservatory, and went on to teach at the conservatory from 1970 to 1975. As well as being a leading exponent of the oud he has composed a number of orchestral works including a symphony and concerto for oud. For four decades he collaborated with Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) who is widely regarded as the Palestinian national poet. Mahmoud Darwish acted as a spokesperson for Arab opposition to Israel and until the Oslo Accords of 1993 was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Three times between 1996 and 2003 Marcel Khalife faced criminal prosecution by senior Sunni Muslim clerics in Lebanon for his song 'I am Joseph, O Father', which set the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. The prosecution alleged that Khalife insulted Islamic values by setting a two-line verse from the Qur'an. But he was acquitted, with the judge concluding that "it is necessary to note that human societies have always known – since the advent of religions until this day – forms of behavior that touched the various aspects of life while not always observing all religious rules or abiding by them without that necessarily forming a desecration of the religious sanctity of the texts from which these rules have emerged". On his latest album Andalusia of Love Marcel Khalife sings settings of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry and plays the oud, accompanied by piano, kanoun and percussion. He describes the album as "an hour of unlimited spirituality upon which I have built my heaven... We live in a world that is drenched in garbage and I take refuge in a garden of flowers and butterflies. I have written and still write my life as I see it, documenting my dreams as music".

The poem by Rumi quoted in my opening paragraph is titled The Spiritual Concert. A recent post lamented how the Southbank Centre's forthcoming Belief and Beyond Belief festival - "a festival of music inspired by spiritual belief" - ignored any belief outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Others have taken a less narrow-minded view; notably the 2008 Zurich festival which brought together Die Freitagsakademie, Bern with soloists and conductor Howard Griffiths, and a Sufi Ensemble led by Burhan Öçal. What makes this project special is that it is not the usual uncomfortable fusion of East and West. Two Bach cantatas - BWV 93 and 107 - are given impeccably authentic performances by the period instrument Die Freitagsakademie and solists. These cantatas bookend a condensed Sufi semā with ney, quanun and kemençe improvisations.

On the recording made in Kirche Neumünster, Zürich the discrete segue from the quanun and kemençe improvisation into the opening chorus of BWV 107 reinforces Rumi's message that "music is this world, music is the other world". The CD was released by Guild, who are best known for their recordings of English cathedral organs. Unfortunately the label delivered the double-whammy of the naf artwork seen above and the clunker of a title Sufi/Bach, which is possibly the only album title ever to use a forward slash. Predictably but unfairly the Sufi/Bach CD sunk without trace. But copies can still be found, and are worth seeking out as an example of how the music of two great spiritual traditions can be successfully juxtaposed without compromising artistic integrity. Incidentally, before the Southbank Centre dismisses my advocacy of syncretic concert programmes as box office death they should note that the performances - and I quote - "riveted the Zurich audiences in the fully packed church". And just to prove the point the syncretic programme is being repeated this year; in fact next week to be precise.

Like Marcel Khalife's, Kamilya Jubran's music is also infused with the agony of the Palestinian people. Born in Israel to Palestinian parents, she is recognised as a voice of Palestinian resistance, and has contributed to a a new style of a Arabic song that is part of a developing artistic-political process. For twenty years Kamilya Jubran was leader of the Sabreen ensemble that became the musical voice of Palestinian resistance. On her latest album Nhaoul' - seen above - she is joined by French bassist Sarah Murcia and a string ensemble for settings of contemporary Arab poets and and traditional Bedouin poems from the Sinai and Negev.

Sufism, which is often viewed as a liberal expression of Islam, is a leitmotif through Peter Lamborn Wilson's writings. Master musician and Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was a key figure in bringing Sufism to the West, has been mentioned here many times. His son Hidayat Inayat-Khan (b. 1917) studied at L'Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris where his composition teachers included Nadia Boulanger. Hidayat Inayat-Khan's music expresses the syncretic beliefs of the International Sufi Movement of which he is a senior member, and its tonal idiom is very much out of fashion. Which is a very good reason for exploring works such as his five movement 'Message Symphony' for orchestra and organ, which quotes from Le Sacre du Printemps in its third movement. The episodic nature of the five movement 'Message Symphony' means it lacks a coherent overall structure. But when viewed as five interlinked tone poems the work deserves serious consideration. For instance the fourth movement 'To soothe body, heart and soul' which inhabits the same sound world as Alan Hovhaness and Ferde Grofé could be programmed successfully as a stand-alone work.

The 'Message Symphony' is dedicated to spiritual liberty and was premiered in 1969 by the Munich Philharmonic. The privately released CD seen above with the Netherlands Promenade Orchestra conducted by Jan Stulen is available from Sufi Movement's offices in The Hague, and the symphony can be heard in its entirety via this link. It is also available in another performance coupled with other works by Hidayat Inayat-Khan including his Gandhi Symphony from iTunes. All the scores of Hidayat Inayat-Khan's music, including his 'Message Symphony', can be downloaded from the composer's website. (Incidentally Hidayat Inayat-Khan is missing from a very useful recent listing of Asian symphonies on MusicWeb International).

A recent post mused on the decreasing appeal of international travel. Despite this my peregrinations continue and I took the photo below during a recent visit to Sidi Kouki in Morocco. The village takes its name from a Sufi saint and the photo shows the darîh (shrine) of the marabout (saint). Like the Sufis, the Gnawa form ecstatic brotherhoods that verge on spiritual anarchy. In 1999 the album seen above from jazz saxophonist Patrick Brennan, Gnawi M'allim Najib Sudani and African American percussionist Nirankar Khalsa titled Sudani was recorded direct to a Sony DAT recorder in Sidi Kaouki and the nearby village of Henchen in Morocco, and as an early and persuasive example of jazz/gnawa fusion it has achieved legendary status. Travel, both physical and metaphysical, plays an important role in Sufism, and the Sufi way is seen as a path that ultimately leads to a Truth transcending religious orthodoxies. In the final essay in Sacred Drift Peter Lamborn Wilson reflects on the history and poetics of Sufi travel, and concludes with this observation:
Does Travel have a future? If we are to believe Ibn 'Arabi, it must. We are "all of us wayfarers," he says in the Futuhat, "for there can be no end to wayfaring." This being so, any pessimism would ill suit and serve us. It is always morning, the caravan is always departing. All we can do is share the Prophet's prayer - "O Lord increase our amazement" - and set forth into the Bewilderness.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

With the eyes of a child

Listen, hear the sound
The child awakes
Wonder all around
The child awakes
That sketch was sent by schoolchildren to thank David and Gill Munrow for an early music workshop*. It appears in Margaret Jones' thoughtful essay titled 'In a child's mind' for the MusiCB3 blog on the importance of exposing young people to classical music. My interview with David Munrow's mentor and record producer Christopher Bishop can be read via this link. The verse is taken from John Lodge's Eyes of a Child on the Moody Blues 1969 album To Our Children's Children. As the Sōtō Zen master Shunryu Suzuki told us:
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few... This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.
* Sketch is (c) Music Department of the Cambridge University Library. 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, September 05, 2016

Music blogging #itsover

In April 1963 the Third Symphony of Robert Simpson - who is seen above - was given its first performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hugo Rignold - an unjustly forgotten figure today - and its London premiere by the same forces followed less than a month later at the Festival Hall. The account by Donald Macauley in his biography of Robert Simpson of those first two performances puts the state of music journalism today into sharp perspective. Eight reviews of the new symphony are quoted in depth, ranging from national publications such as the mass market Daily Herald and up market Financial Times, through the Musical Times to regional titles such as the Wolverhampton Express & Star.

Simpson's Third Symphony was reprised at the Festival Hall a year later by the London Philharmonic and Charles Groves and then in 1970 by Jascha Horenstein - who championed Simpson's music - and the London Symphony Orchestra, and no less than twelve reviews of these further performances are quoted by Donald Macauley. The critics penning those reviews are a role call of the art of music journalism - David Cairns, Gilliam Widdicombe, Edward Greenfield, Stephen Walsh, Noel Goodwin, Anthony Payne, Ronald Crichton and Felix Aprahamian. Writing in the Listener in 1964 Deryck Cooke recalled that the symphony was 'defiantly praised by one eclectic intellectual critic despite its unfashionable musical language while one ordinary music lover of a musical journalist could protest that it was "a long way out - a gala night for the avant-garde"'.

Thirty years later the tide had turned, with the deregulation of broadcast media starting a race to the bottom that print media joined with alacrity. By the start of the 21st century that great generation of music writers was fading away, and the developing mass market fixation of both print and broadcast media provided little encouragement for their replacements. In the early noughties new media in the form of blogs arrived offering a platform that was free from the commercial agendas of mainstream media. As lively, informed and free-thinking writing was squeezed out of the mainstream, the hope was that blogs would provide a platform for the defiant viewpoints that Deryck Cooke praised in 1964. But the dream never became reality. As traditional media atrophied, those with something to sell - and there are very many of those in classical music - realised that blogs offered the perfect platform for their sales pitches. So music blogs progressively became vehicles for scarcely hidden self-interest and disingenuous spin pandering to the foolishness of crowds.

In a series of recent tweets Charles Downey assessed the state of music blogs by tracking those in Alex Ross' seminal 2004 listing, and concluded that "Year of last update often somewhere around 2014. Some completely disappeared. Some with one post so far this year. #itsover" Elsewhere attempts have been made to explain the slow and painful death of music blogging, with everything being blamed except the real reason. Music blogs are dying because with very few exceptions they are not worth reading. They are not worth reading because they have become just another expression of the compromised ethics and scarcely disguised self-interest that pervades classical music. In fact most music blogs, like so much social media, are no more than selfies in print posted by a new breed of prosecco activists .

Music blogs are now just another part of a tacky global marketplace where people have principles, but are prepared to change them if the price is right. There is no place in the blogging community for the rich range of independent viewpoints that Deryck Cooke cherished or the constructive debate that such richness of opinions fosters. Charles Downey is right when he observes that music blogging #itsover. Classical music desperately needs a wider and more diverse journalistic constituency. However it is not to be. A golden opportunity has been squandered by music bloggers, and I am in that group. But given the dire state that music blogging is in today, its demise will be regrettable but not a major loss.

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Saturday, September 03, 2016

In music there is no East and West

That exotic and rare instrument is a chitravina. The venerable fretted vina is rare enough, but its fretless cousin the chitravina is only played today by a handful of musicians around the world. In the photo the chitravinist is Vishwanath Sankaran; his guru (teacher) is Ganesh Sudarshan who has loaned him the 120 year old instrument. The header image is taken from a video of his performance of contemporary Carnatic music in Cambridge last Sunday, which also featured Ranjan Vasudevan on electric guitar and Prasanna Sankaran on mridangam. Watch the video via this link and do stay with it through the flaky start.

Playing the chitravina involves sliding blocks of different materials - they can be seen under the instrument - along the strings. This sequeing between pitches without the constraints of frets produces sounds remarkably similar to electronically generated tones. The instrument of master musician and Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan was the vina, albeit the fretted version. It is surely no coincidence that leading exponents of electronic sounds including Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jonathan Harvey were influenced by Hazrat Inayat Khan's teachings on the centrality of vibrations. They were among the visionaries who understood that in music there is no East and West, just sound. Here is an extract in praise of the vina and extolling the therapeutic power of music from Hazrat Inayat Khan's authoritative book The Mysticism of Sound and Music:

In India there are vina players who do not need to play a symphony in order to have influence, in order to produce a phenomenon. They only have to take the vina in their hands and strike one note. As soon as they strike one note it goes through and through. In striking one or two notes they have tuned the audience. It works on all the nerves; it is like playing the lute that is in every heart. Their instrument becomes only a source, the response to which is found in the heart of every person, friend and foe alike. Let the most antagonistic person come before a real vina player, and he cannot keep his antagonism. As soon as the notes have touched him, he cannot prevent the vibrations which are created in him, he cannot help turning into a friend. In India, therefore, such players are often called vina magicians, instead of musicians. Their music is magic.
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Friday, September 02, 2016

Classical music shoots itself in the baton

On An Overgrown Path has been preoccupied recently - some would say obsessed - with the absence of black conductors at the BBC Proms, and recently highlighted this Sunday's admirable concert at the Festival Hall by the Chineke! Orchestra, a professional orchestra made up entirely of black and minority ethnic musicians. So a big splash by Tom Service in the Guardian about Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the soloist in Sunday's concert, should be be good news. But instead it simply provides another example of how classical music is shooting itself in the baton. Tom Service is employed by both the Guardian and BBC. (Some would argue that the Guardian and BBC are one and the same). So in his article Tom Service mentions the BBC in the sub-head seen above, in the opening paragraph, and four more times in the body copy. The immensely talented Sheku Kanneh-Mason is of course a BBC property as he won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition and is the subject of a BBC Four TV documentary later this year. But just days earlier the Guardian had run a pious editorial lamenting the paucity of women conductors in London. However the paucity of black conductors is not on the Guardian agenda. So Kevin John Edusei who conducts Sunday's concert and holds appointments with the Münchner Symphoniker and Konzert Theater Bern but has no exploitable BBC links, does not merit a single mention in Tom Service's piece. In a recent post I opined that the classical music suffers from excessive levels of intermediation and is riddled with self-interest. I rest my case.

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Thursday, September 01, 2016

What would it take to invite a black conductor to the Proms?

There have been more than 500 BBC Proms since 2003, but not one has had a black conductor on the podium. As a recent Guardian editorial declared about the paucity of women conductors "It wouldn’t be acceptable in other professions. It isn’t acceptable here either". Kevin Scott added the comment below to my post We also need more black conductors at the Proms. I am publishing it separately because it provides valuable information on the talented black conductors that are being shamefully overlooked. Another post highlighted the unhealthy level of control over artist appearances exercised by a few large management agencies. A comment from John McLaughlin Williams echoes that view in these words: "I've said before that if administrations and managements want to find someone of color, don't call other admins and managements; they don't possess the resources. They need merely to call one of us, for we know far more qualified individuals than they and are happy to recommend them". If Proms director David Pickard or other concert managers wants assistance in bringing black conductors to major venues they know who to contact.

But let's also enjoy some good news. On Sunday (Sept 4) Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment maintain the status quo at the Proms. But at the Festival Hall Kevin John Edusei [seen below] conducts the Chineke! Orchestra, a professional orchestra made up entirely of black and minority ethnic musicians. The programme includes Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing Haydn's Cello Concerto, the Suite from L'amant anonyme by 'the black Mozart' Joseph Boulogne (Chevalier de) Saint-Georges, and Dvorák's syncretic Ninth Symphony. What a missed opportunity for the BBC Proms.

Kevin Scott writes: The first thing that concert promoters, executive directors and musicians will say is "we don't see color." Fine, and in a Star Trek universe, we wish this was the case where everyone is seen, treated and compensated as equals. Not in this present day, however.

What would it take to invite a black conductor to the Proms? Well, the first thing someone would ask is "can you name me one significant black conductor, American or not, who is on the same footing as Dudamel, Harding, Nezet-Seguin, Gilbert or Welser-Moest?", or any conductor aged between 25 & 50 who holds prominence in classical music circles. The lay listener would be at a loss, because conductors of African heritage, or even indigenous black Africans, have not held positions with major symphony orchestras, let alone being invited to conduct them.

Part of the problem is that those who are known are caught in a Catch-22 trap where they are music directors of orchestras, but the orchestras are considered second-tier. Such is the case with Kevin John Edusei, a German conductor whose lineage is from Cameroon, and he is the music director of the Munich Symphony, an excellent orchestra, but also one that is considered a secondary orchestra when compared against the Munich Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony. The same is with Kazem Abdullah [seen in header photo], who is the general music director in Aachen, Germany, a city renowned for its interest in the arts, but again considered secondary when held up against other major cities in that country.

Both men have won rave reviews for their appearances and their execution of both standard orchestral repertoire and a firm commitment to contemporary music. Both men should be looked at as prime candidates to conduct one of the major London orchestras at the Proms or, better still, bring them to London with their own orchestras and let the public see for themselves what the buzz is all about.

This criteria should also apply to Michael Morgan of California's Oakland Symphony and Andre Raphel of the Wheeling Symphony based in West Virginia. Why haven't either of these conductors, along with numerous other conductors of color such as William Eddins, Leslie Dunner, Brandon Keith Brown, Julius Williams, Kirk Smith, and especially John McLaughlin Williams whose recordings of works by lesser-known American composers have won accolades from the press, have been invited not only to the Proms, but also to appear with major American orchestras as well. Some will argue that most of these men have been welcomed by such orchestras, and those same pundits will also point out that most of the reviews they received from the press say otherwise about their conducting talents, leaving the powers-that-be the decision to bring them back or not, and in some cases, many of these conductors have either had one-shot engagements, or they're relegated to minor concerts that are off the radar.

In the case of black women conductors, there are few that have made any kind of inroad on the national level. Tania Leon, Kay George Roberts and Jeri Lynne Johnson [seen below] are the few who are known, but also make rare appearances with major orchestras, which is why we're seeing a dearth of white, Latino and Asian women grace the podium, but no black woman has been granted the opportunity of major exposure like their peers have. This also has to be corrected.

Photo sources: Kazem Abdullah via his homepage, , Kevin John Edusei KlassikBOX, Jeri Lynne Johnson via Flying Kite Media. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No comps involved in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.