Tuesday, November 22, 2016

At home with Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten was born in the house seen in these photos on November 22nd, 1913. The house is 21, Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft in Suffolk. It was Britten's home until 1934, by which time he had composed his Simple Symphony op. 4, based on music written in the house between the ages of nine and twelve.

The photos above shows the attic room that was Britten's bedroom for twenty-one years, and it is here that he composed much of his early music. The top photo shows the room today; the lower one was taken by Britten himself in late 1934. On the writing desk, where he composed, can be seen a small bust of Beethoven.

The North Sea, with its many moods, is a leitmotif that runs through all Britten's music. The breakers can be heard from his bedroom, and the photo above was taken by me looking out to the shore on a typically grey and murky autumn day.

Above is the same view photographed by Britten himself in December 1934. The view to the sea is the same, but 'progress' hadn't yet claimed the area between the house and the sea as a car park.

This photo shows the exterior of 21, Kirkley Cliff Road, or Britten House as it is now known. The Grade II listed Victorian townhouse was bought by Ann and Colin Ceresa several years ago and is now a five star guesthouse after complete renovation. My photographs are the first glimpses of Britten's childhood home after its restoration to its former glory.

This photo shows the house seen from exactly the same viewpoint at the time that the Britten family lived there. Robert Britten, Benjamin's father, was a dentist who built up a substantial practice at the house. 21, Kirkley Cliff Road remained a dentist's surgery after it passed out of the Britten family, and dental equipment was still in the house when it was purchased by its present owners.

The listed house retains may original features, as can be seen from my photo of the entrance hall.

This photo shows the fifteen year old Britten leaving for school through the same entrance hall.

The drawing room is now the breakfast room for the guesthouse.

In Britten's day the drawing room housed the all important piano. This undated photo shows young Benjamin at the keyboard. His prodigious talent is already evident as he is playing four scores simultaneously.

This is another photo of the house which was Britten's home throughout his education. Although he was a boarder at Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk and at the Royal College of Music in London, Lowestoft remained his home base until he started work with the GPO Film Unit in London in 1935. The photo below of schoolboy Britten was taken in the house when he was aged around eleven.

It is wonderful that 21, Kirkley Cliff Road has not become a stuffy museum. Under Ann and Colin Ceresa's ownership it remains a working and welcoming home, and one that can be enjoyed by Britten's many admirers around the world. Benjamin's bedroom is one of the eight comfortable guestrooms. Visit the Britten House website for more details and tariffs. I would like thank Ann and Colin for giving Overgrown Path readers this exclusive view inside Benjamin Britten's home as we celebrate his birthday.

Republished from November 2008. All contemporary photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path except the header which is courtesy of Britten House, Lowestoft. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No complimentary remuneration received for writing this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Tao of acoustics

Frederic Chiu's new recording of the piano music of G. I. Gurjieff/T. de Hartmann Hymns & Dervishes was recorded at Manifold Studios, Pittsboro, NC. In Russia Gurdjieff's circle included Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nicholas Roerich, while in America Frank Lloyd Wright was an early enthusiastic evangelist for the multi-faceted mystic. The music of Gurdjieff/Hartmann has a number of distinguished advocates including Keith Jarrett. But Frederic Chiu gives a refreshingly different interpretation that emphasises the music's lyrical rather than calisthenic nature. I already have many recordings of Gurdjieff's music, but I will be returning to Hymns & Dervishes frequently, thanks I suspect in part due to the Tao of acoustics*.

Photos 1 to 4 show Manifold Studios, which was designed around the sound and dimensions of a concert grand piano by Wes Lachot, who based his design on the acoustic architecture theories of Gurdjieff's student Frank Lloyd Wright. Links between the Enneagram model of human personality that is central to Gurdjieff's teachings and the harmonic ratios that are fundamental to music have been identified. The centuries old discipline of 'speculative music', whose proponents included Johannes Kepler, Alexandra Scriabin, Hazray Inayat Khan and Jonathan Harvey as well as Gurdjieff, views the vibrating energy of music in cosmic terms, and the vibrating energy of the cosmos in musical terms - a view that quantum field theory is now supporting.

Speculative music and other esoteric sonic disciplines can be viewed as elaborations of concepts first found in the Tao Te Ching - the core text from which, arguably, all the other great wisdom traditions flow. In the 4th century BCE Lao Tse, the author of the Tao Te Ching, identified Tao as the principle of energy underlying everything in the natural world - a conclusion confirmed in the 20th century by sub-atomic physics. Various Taoist tools were developed to manage energy flows including Tai Chi, Quigong and feng shui. The science of acoustics manages flows of sound energy, and before its misappropriation by the interior design industry, feng shui was an accepted tool in China for optimising total energy flows in a building.

Einstein's theory of relativity identified the equivalence of mass and energy. All matter including solids is vibrating energy, and quantum field theory has identified the interaction of subatomic particles that are physically distant. To date acoustics has limited its scope to the interaction effect between sound energy and building materials. But we now know that building materials and all solid matter are pulsating energy just like sound waves, and we also know that the interaction effect of energy fields is not limited by distance.

So the Tao of acoustics explains that the reason why London's Barbican and Royal Festival halls refuse to respond to expensive acoustic makeovers is because of the copious amounts of negative energy emanating from the urban wildernesses in which they stand - so forget about the proposed Museum of London site for a new concert hall. Similarly the abundant positive energy of the Suffolk coast contributes to the outstanding sound of Snape Maltings - see photo below - and the magical energy originally harnessed by the mystical Gnawa explains why the unlikely venue of Essaouira in Morocco proved to be such a good venue for Mozart. And before dismissing all this as new age babble, please remember that modern science cannot explain why the most powerful computer is unable to write a symphony, and why a violin made using the latest additive manufacturing technology (3D printing) cannot replicate the sound of a Stradivarius.

Manifold Studios is one of a new breed of studios that leverages the Tao of acoustics. Another studio offering more than Pro Tools is Vega Studio outside Carpentras in Provence. Eagle-eyed readers will note the anachronistic mixing desk at Vega Studio in the photo below. The desk is an EMI TG12345; this was EMI’s first solid-state mixing desk which came into service in 1968 at Abbey Road for the Beatles' post-Sgt. Pepper albums. Its sound is so prized that a Waves software plugin developed with Abbey Road Studios allows modern digital desks to replicate the sonic characteristics of the vintage desk, including optional harmonic distortion and hum and noise! In another example of what literally goes around comes around, Waves also market an Abbey Road Vinyl studio plugin which "gives your music the vintage warmth of vinyl records played on classic turntables and needles" - in other words the Tao of vinyl. But the desk in Vega Studio is not virtual. It is the real thing bought from the EMI Pathé Marconi studios in Paris where the Rolling Stones were among the bands that recorded with it. Vega Studio offers other 'old school' studio equipment as well as the standard digital solutions. One notable album recorded there that is high on my playlist is, quite appropriately, Dawâr, the Trio Chemirani's persussion hymn to the mystical and ineffable.

* Synchronicity continues as Chiu's sleeve note credits the late Julien Weiss, who founded the Al Kindi Sufi music ensemble which has featured here several times, with tuning input. Also credited is another Overgrown Path mystic traveller Alain Kremski. His La Montagne de la Grande Pureté played on sacred percussion instruments from Tibet, Burma, Nepal, India and China ends with Siloti's transcription of Bach's Prelude in B minor, and Frederic Chiu reciprocates by ending Hymns & Dervishes with his own transcription of Erbarme dich, mein Gott from the St Matthew Passion. In a further example of auspicious synchronicity, shortly after drafting this post I read the recently published Soundscapes: A Musician's Journey through Life and Death by the late Paul Robertson, founder of the Medici Quartet. In it Paul Robertson discusses how his music and life were influenced by the teachings of Gurdjieff and his disciples, particularly Dr F. C. Roles. No review samples or other freebies used in this post. Photos 1 to 3 from Manifold Studios website, photo 4 from Studio Vega. 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.

Friday, November 18, 2016

People come to the concert hall looking for answers

A useful Guardian article highlights the boom in new age music. Whales and waterfalls may not be everyone's cup of tea; however it is easy but wrong to dismiss the new age revival as having no relevance to Western classical music. Back in 2011 On An Overgrown Path highlighted the $11 billion opportunity offered by the mind, body and spirit market. Another more recent post proposed that classical music should be answering a cry for help, a proposal that has been given painful relevance by recent political developments on both sides of the Atlantic. The current reluctance to leverage classical music's therapeutic qualities is puzzling as in the past there have been some spectacularly successful fusions examples of music and mindfulness.

Geeta Dayal's Guardian article focuses on the American market for Eastern-oriented new age music, but there is an even longer and more Occidental history on the other side of the Atlantic. In Victorian times it was fashionable for intellectuals to dabble in mysticism and as described in 'Elgar and the occult', the composer wrote incidental music for the Starlight Express*, a play replete with sub-texts drawn from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This qabalistic order dabbled in astrology, tarot divination, geomancy, magic, and astral travel. The Starlight Express only ran for one month in London, but another proto-new age music production had a far more spectacular success.

Glastonbury can lay claim to being the birthplace of the global new age, and Rutland Boughton's The Immortal Hour** was given its premiere in a piano reduction at the very first Glastonbury festival in 1914. The opera (or 'choral-drama'), which is a masterly conflation of mysticism and magic, was staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1921 and moved from there to the Regent Theatre in London's West End. Today, when the classical music industry is obsessed with audience size, it should be noted that The Immortal Hour ran for 216 consecutive performances starting in October 1922. It then ran for another 160 consecutive performances starting in 1923, with further major revivals in 1926 and 1932.

The Immortal Hour is an example of crazy wisdom confounding conventional wisdom. Today conventional wisdom is the dogma of classical music - speaking of Birmingham could not Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla have found something more crazy and less over-exposed than Mahler's First Symphony to conclude her debut concert as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's music director? Yes, I know that Mahler fills the hall. But so did public guillotining at the time of the French Revolution. And I also appreciate that in our cash-strapped age there are massive logistical problems in reviving the Starlight Express and The Immortal Hour; although someone should consider extracting a concert suite from the latter.

But there is an overabundance of underexposed music with new age nuances. Why not give a Bax symphony an outing instead of yet another Mahler One? Again classical music can learn from the past. Arnold Bax's music has received 114 Proms performances, compared with 270 for Gustav Mahler's. So if we take the Proms as a fallible but useful measure of popularity, Bax is almost half as popular as Mahler. But fashion and the music thought police mean that Bax is now a stranger in the concert hall. Every day the news is doom and gloom as we move further into Kali Yuga. So it is worth reflecting on this observation from the contemporary Latvian composer Peteris Vasks:

...people go to the concert hall because they are looking for answers. Above all for a way out of their difficult, unhappy lives. In the concert hall, then, it is not our job to show how the world is, how much aggressiveness, how much brutality there is. People experience those in their everyday lives... We have gigantic technological developments, but the souls of people are neglected. I always ask myself how I can compose so as to bring more light into this world. That is the purpose of music.
* EMI recorded the complete incidental music for The Starlight Express in 1974/5. The recording was to have been conducted by Sir Adrian Boult; but he had to withdraw from the sessions and Tod Handley, who assisted Sir Adrian in his later years, conducted instead. The production was by the EMI dream team of Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker in Abbey Road Studio One. Both performance and sound are exemplary, but sadly the CD transfer is now deleted.
** Hyperion's essential 1983 recording of The Immortal Hour with Alan G. Melville conducting the Englsish Chamber Orchestra is, thankfully, still in the catalogue.
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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Social media-light composers are being overlooked

The current debate about the role of Facebook and other social media in shaping - or misshaping - public opinion is relevant to classical music. Writing my recent post highlighting the music of the contemporary Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen reminded me of Virgil Thomson's celebrated dictum of "Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information". It is a pretty safe bet that very few dedicated followers of classical music have even heard of Lasse Thoresen, yet alone heard any of his music. But it is also a pretty safe bet that many of the same group have heard of John Luther Adams, and quite a few will have heard his music.

Now, let me be clear, I am not belittling the music of John Luther Adams - which was advocated here at an early stage - or comparing the merits of the two composers. But it is undeniable that the difference in their online profile is massive. This despite their music sharing a beguiling mix of innovation and accessibility, and addressing the same important theme of the despoiling of the environment*. We cannot blame John Luther Adams for leveraging social media so excessively and effectively. But, in my view, we can blame social media for overlooking composers such as Lasse Thoresen who choose to maintain a lower online profile.

There is no point in the usual suspects leaping to the defence of social media, because both its virtues and negatives are well rehearsed. It would help instead if the microblogging mavens could spread the word about Lasse Thoresen, Ramon Humet, Rebecca Saunders, Bernat Vivancos, Edith Canat de Chizy and the many other social media-light composers. Because composing - and also playing - important music and exploiting social media are two unrelated skill sets. What matters is the music; not number of friends and followers.

* Another commendable shared characteristic of the two composers is a predilection for exploiting new audio technologies. Both John Luther Adams' Become Ocean and Lasse Thoresen' Sea of Names - see header image - are released by independent record labels in multi-channel formats. 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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

No two hearts beat to the same rhythm

These art works are by the prolific musician and artist Mercan Dede. I first came across his work when I was in Istanbul years ago, and his ambient take on Sufi music featured in my Sounds of Sufism programme on Future Radio in 2010. Born in Istanbul and now resident in Canada, Mercan Dede's music integrates traditional Turkish instruments such as the ney and bendir with electronica to create a mix targeted at young dance club audiences. Sufism's liberal tendencies mean it is marginalised and sometimes persecuted by orthodox Islam, and Mercan Dede - aka DJ Arkin Allen - is in turn frowned on in traditional Sufi circles for, ironically, creatively implementing the Sufi doctrine of not going with the flow, but making the flow.

As can be seen in the three examples, Mercan Dede's art works embrace syncretic themes; a selection of his art and music is on his personal website. Mercan Dede is actively helping make the flow: a portion of the proceeds from sales of his art is used for supporting cultural and artistic projects for young people, and best-selling Turkish author Elif Şafak - who champions minorities - name checks him in her Sufi themed novel The Forty Rules of Love. A quote from that novel is apposite:
No two people are alike. No two hearts beat to the same rhythm. If God had wanted everyone to be the same, He would have made it so. Therefore, disrespecting differences and imposing your thoughts on others is tantamount to disrespecting God's holy scheme.

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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Zen and the art of classical music maintenance

In the 17th century a movement developed in Japan to make esoteric wisdom available to a wider constituency. This movement was rooted in the Buddhist belief that the mission in life of an enlightened being is to bring enlightenment to as many other sentient beings as possible without - to use a 21st century expression - dumbing down the essence of the wisdom. The main drivers in the movement were Basho the haiku poet, the Zen teachers Bankei and Hakuin, and the Zen painter Sengai. Such was the success of the movement that the esoteric discipline of Zen - the art of nothingness - has become in the 21st century a mass market commodity. Just one example of that mass market reach is provided by Robert Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide; an audience that beleaguered classical music would die for.

What is surprising is that the question is not 'what can classical music learn from Zen?', but rather 'what did classical music learn from Zen and subsequently forget?' John Cage's involvement with Zen is widely celebrated, and Kay Larson's book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists is highly recommended. But other influential musicians exploited the Zen credo of less is more in ingenuously nuanced ways. That image showing Leopold Stokowski conducting is a still from the hugely influential Disney movie Fantasia. Stokowski, who was a member of the esoteric Theosophy movement, used Zen-like techniques in the concert hall and on film to focus the audience's attention purely on the music.

This controversial but powerful technique of focussing on the conductor as a channel for the music was taken to its apogee by Herbert von Karajan. Given the endless focus on Karajan's private life it is surprising that his study of the works of the German Jesuit priest and Zen master Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, who in turn was a pupil of the Zen Rinzai priest Harada Rōshi, is overlooked. Karajan's self-directed films of the Beethoven symphonies exude a Zen-like intensity, and at a Karajan concert subliminal forces directed the audience's attention to the the music to the exclusion of everything else. In an age where only three things matter, audience numbers, audience numbers, and audience numbers, it is worth remembering that global sales of Karajan's albums have topped the 200 million mark. And it is also worth remembering that the great majority of those sales were achieved before the advent of Twitter, Facebook and Norman Lebrecht.

Of course classical music cannot wind the clock back to the era of Stokowski and Karajan. But classical music can learn from the past, and it can learn from the Zen principle of less is more. The new gurus are right when they say classical music has too many silly conventions. But they are totally wrong when they advocate replacing those silly conventions with yet more silly conventions transplanted from rock music. What classical music needs is not more and different conventions. It needs less conventions and a more single-minded focus on the music; because the truth is nothing more than the music. And as Robert Pirsig tells us in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "It is a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, 'Go away, I'm looking for the truth,' and so it goes away. Puzzling."

With acknowledgement to Zen and the Beat Way by Alan Watts and Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 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 14, 2016

Thoughts and music for a very special day

Today brings a very special personal celebration. But I have come to the conclusion that social media is no longer an appropriate way to share precious family moments. So as a nuanced public celebration I am publishing a revised version of a post from the archives which I feel is relevant in several ways.

Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen (b. 1949), who is a follower of the Bahá'í faith, has set the teachings of Bahá'í founder Bahá'u'lláh's*, while the syncretic Requiem from Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos (b. 1973) sets sacred Bahá'í texts. Bahá'u'lláh taught that "We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high". Sacred art is prized and music encouraged within the Bahá'í faith. Architecture is particularly prized, and the photo above was taken by my wife when we visited the Bahá'í Lotus Temple in New Delhi designed by Iranian-American architect Fariborz Sahba.

The Bahá'í faith is the youngest of the world's independent religions; it is monotheistic and based on Revelations delivered by Bahá'u'lláh who was born in Tehran in 1817. Baha’i was the world's fastest-growing religion between 1910 and 2010; however the number of followers is still very small compared with the other great traditions. No definitive figures are available, but the total number of Bahá'í followers worldwide is estimated at 8 million. The Bahá'ís faith is inclusive and recognises the authorities of the divine messengers from the other great wisdom traditions. Because the Bahá'ís religion is considered heretical by orthodox Islam, members of the faith have suffered widespread persecution, particularly in Iran.

Personally, I favour Krishnamurti's view that: "A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organise it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others". However, when it comes to organised religions, the following Bahá'í beliefs ring very true:
There is one God
All humanity is one family
Women and men are equal
All major religions come from God
Science and religion are in harmony
The independent investigation of truth
The family and its unity are very important
World peace is the crying need of our time
Our economic problems are linked to spiritual problems
All prejudice – racial, religious, national or economic – is destructive and must be overcome
* Also noteworthy is the newly released album of Lasse Thoresen's orchestral music titled Sea of Names. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Face the contemporary music

A link in yesterday's post exhorting readers to meditate and destroy led to my 2013 advocacy of the contemporary Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiêt's Smiles of the Buddha (Les Sourires de Bouddha) for chamber choir. Elsewhere I have described Ton-That Tiêt's music as exhibiting bracing hints of Penderecki, Ligeti and Stimmung. My advocacy lamented that no samples were available to share; but now reader David Sieber has pointed out that Smiles of the Buddha is available from both iTunes (for $1.99) and Amazon digital music. Wise words in yesterday's post urged us to go "against the stream, to develop wisdom and compassion through our own direct actions". So why not go against the stream, forgo all that social media cack about the US election and Brexit, and instead blow $1.99 on some musical wisdom and compassion.

Photo was taken on my 2014 road trip to the Tibetan Buddhist region of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. 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.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Meditate and Destroy!

For me the tone and quality of the media response to the US presidential election and UK EU referendum has been almost as shocking as the results. One beacon of light in the mainstream and social media darkness is the online Lion's Roar resource which sought the response of Buddhist teachers to Donald Trump's victory. Like all established wisdom traditions, Buddhism has its failings. But the reflections by these teachers on the election result convince me that Buddhism can teach political parties and media pundits an awful lot about Truth. Here is one of the responses; it comes from Noah Levine of Against the Stream
Here in the United States of Samsara ignorance is the status quo. The Buddha’s teachings guide us to go “against the stream” to develop wisdom and compassion through our own direct actions. As the path encourages, “Even amongst those who hate, we live with love in our hearts. Even amongst those who are blinded by greed and confusion, we practice generosity, kindness and clear seeing". Meditate and Destroy!
Army of Tibetan Buddhist monks on its way to meditate and destroy was photographed by me at the 2014 Kalachakra Teaching by the Dalai Lama in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. 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.

Friday, November 11, 2016

There be dragons but no middle ground

It  was very clear to me from the beginning of the project that the object here was not one of finding the common ground shared by two or more traditions and working from that as a starting point. Here the common ground was minimal if indeed it did exist.
That is Ross Daly writing in the sleeve essay for his CD White Dragon*. This album was recorded live at Ross' 2003 Houdetsi Festival on Crete and is a collaboration with the Huun Huur Tu throat singing (khöömei) ensemble from the southern Siberian republic of Tuva, plus guest musicians including the Franco-Iranian percussion group Trio Chemirani. Tuva is known as Russia's Tibet and the republic's religion is a mix of animistic shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. So it is not surprising the album's opening track Mörgül on which Huun Huur Tu deliver an a cappella Buddhist prayer took me back to the early morning puja in the Tibetan Buddhist Thiksay monastery close to the Indian border with Tibet**.

Ross Daly is a musician savant in the mold of Jordi Savall and the late Jonathan Harvey, and his willingness to venture where there is no common ground deserves closer consideration. In his essay he explains that "Perhaps the greatest difficulty for a Westerner working with Tuvan music is to go beyond the "strangeness" of it on a technical level and to simply perceive it as music". In world music - a categorisation which Ross derides but I will use nevertheless - if common ground does not exist it is forcibly created as a safe space that the mass market audience can explore without leaving their comfort zones. The result is invariably a bland fusion that neither offends nor inspires. This enforced migration of unique music traditions to the lowest common ground is not confined to world music. It is the driving force behind the dumbing down of Western classical music. And, not coincidentally, this artificial middle ground provides lush grazing for the intermediary parasites who are the music industry's equivalent of the Davos class.

There is much that Western classical can learn from Ross Daly. His observation on the challenge of appreciating Tuvan music can be reworded to read 'Perhaps the greatest difficulty for a new listener to contemporary Western classical music is to go beyond the strangeness of it on a technical level and to simply perceive it as music'. Or in other words stop trying to create a safe middle ground, and instead reintroduce audiences to the lost art of listening.

* The complete album White Dragon can be downloaded legally for free from Ross Daly's website. There is also a seven minute video of the concert on YouTube.
** Auspicious synchronicity strikes again at this point. My first draft of this post with its mention of Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh - which I visited two years ago - was drafted a few weeks back. To find out more about Tuva I ordered Tuva or Bust: Richard Feynman's Last Journey by Ralph Leighton, one of the few books about the republic. Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) was a scientist, teacher, raconteur, and musician.I was astounded to find the photo and caption below in the book:

Richard Feynman is portrayed here by Pasadena artist Sylvia Posner in the garb of a Ladakhi monk. (The costume, based on photographs in the National Geographic, was made by his wife Gweneth for a costume party. Had the geographical restrictions allowed it, he would have dressed as a lama from Tannu Tuva, the small, isolated land he tried to reach during his last dozen years here on earth.) In the background is the landscape of Los Alamos, where Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. The opened padlock has both literal and symbolic significance. In his right hand is a "Feynman diagram," which Feynman originally invented as a kind of shorthand to help him remember where he was in a complex calculation. Such diagrams have helped physicists around the world unlock the mysteries of Nature. (The diagram here shows one possible way that two electrons can go through space and time: one electron emits a photon represented by the wavy line - and the other electron absorbs it.)
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Wednesday, November 09, 2016

While there is music there is hope

That Washington Post article can be read via this link. Keep hope alive by supporting Ali Keeler's musical celebration of our pluralistic, diverse society via crowdfunding site LaunchGood. As David Montgomery explains: "Their music is far from political. It’s all about beauty and faith and peace and devotion..."

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Monday, November 07, 2016

There are two sides in every war

Too often we forget there are two sides in every war, and too often the great art works remembering humanitarian tragedies of war are the products of the victorious side. A recent post featuring Wilfred Josephs' Requiem led me back to a work commemorating one of the great tragedies of the Second World War. I first wrote about Rudolf Mauersberger's Dresden Requiem ten years ago, and in the week when we remember the war dead my revised appreciation of that overlooked masterwork is published below.

Eleven young choristers from the famous Kreuzchor were among more than 25,000 who died in the British and American bombing of Dresden on February 13th 1945. As well as the terrible human loss of its choristers the famous choir also lost its its Neo-Gothic choir school on the Georgplatz, its library of sheet music and archive, and its very raison d'être, the beautiful Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross) which dated from the 13th century. The history of the Kreuzchor dates back to the 14th century, and its reputation grew through the Reformation and into the 20th century. In 1932 Rudolf Mauersberger was appointed cantor, and the choir's reputation spread through its acclaimed performances of Bach's choral music in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy tradition, and the Kreuzchor made two tours of the USA in the 1930s. A year before he died in 1971 Rudolf Mauersberger recorded Bach's Matthäus Passion with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The two choirs were the Kreuzchor and the Thomanerchoir directed by his brother Erhard Mauersberger from Bach's own Thomaskirche and the soloists included Peter Schreier and Theo Adam. The recording by Berlin Classics remains in the catalogue. Some may view it as inauthentic Bach, but for me it is a Desert Island disc.

Following the destruction of Dresden, Rudolf Mauersberger was determined that music would literally rise from the ashes of the choir school and Kreuzkirche. His first response was the composition of the heartwrenching funeral motet Wir liegt die Stadt so wüst which was first performed by the Kreuzchor in the burnt-out shell of the Kreuzkirche in August 1945, with Mauersberger using the rubble of the ruined church as a podium. We use the adjective 'moving' so glibly these days, but what must the young choristers have felt as they sang this lament not just for their destroyed city, but also for eleven of their own friends who had been killed only six months before? The photo below shows the Kreuzchor singing in the burnt-out Kreuzkirche in May 1946.

The composition of the choral cycle Dresden (RMWV 4/1), from which the funeral motet is taken, was followed by Mauersberger's masterpiece, his Dresden Requiem (RMWV 10). This was completed in 1948, but was revised several times with the final version dating from 1961. Although Mauersberger's reputation was built on his Bach interpretations the Requiem is not re-heated Bach, but is very much a work of the 20th century. Like Brahms' Requiem, which the Kreuzchor sings every year, the Dresden Requiem is sung in German. It draws heavily on Luther's translation and includes six Lutheran chorals which provide links back to Bach. The imaginative scoring is for three choirs (all SATB) in different locations in the church. Spatial effects are used with a distant choir of young voices representing the departed in a dreadfully moving way. The Agnus Dei is an alto solo written for the young Peter Schreier who was a chorister with the Kreuzchor at the time of the first performance. Much of the singing is a capella, but the score also uses a small ensemble of organ, celeste, trombones, double basses and percussion.

These days war horse Requiems are trotted out for so many routine performances, but Rudolf Mauersberger's Dreden Requiem remains unknown. Which is unjust as it is a magnificent and poignant work which ranks alongside Britten's War Requiem in its use of music to reflect on the horrors of war. Perhaps its unjustified neglect is simply because it commemorates the bombing of Dresden, an episode that many on the victorious side would prefer to be written out of history. Fortunately there is a first class modern recording from 1994 by the Kreuzchor under its then cantor Matthias Jung. The recording, which is seen above, is on the Carus-Verlag label, and can be bought from the Carus website or Amazon, and the Carus site has audio samples. Below is a session photo from the Requiem recording in the Lukaskirche in Dresden; the Lukaschirche was the venue for many celebrated recordings including EMI's 1970 Die Meistersinger with Karajan conducting the Dresden State Orchestra and Opera Chorus.

The Kreuzkirche was rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1955. Every year since then the Dresden Requiem has been performed in the restored church. Following the performance a long procession of local people carrying lighted candles walks to the Frauenkirche. As well as remembering the dead the candlelit procession became a symbol of silent protest against the repressive East German regime until democracy returned in 1989. Rudolf Mauersberger was cantor of the Kreuzchor for forty years. Thirty-eight of these were under the tyranny and dictatorship of the Nazis and Communists, and during this time he successfully saved the choir from secularisation in the face of ideological and political pressures. Mauersberger lived to see the reopening of his beloved Kreuzkirche; but he died in 1971 some years before the fall of Communism and that other event which marked the final triumph of light over darkness in Dresden, the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche.

The Dresden Requiem is preceeded in performance (and on the superb Carus recording) by Rudolf Mauersberger's motet Wir liegt die Stadt so wüst. This is a setting in German of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Here are the words which are so horribly relevant to the tragedy that befell Dresden on the 13th February 1945.
How lonely sits the city that was full of people. All her gates are desolate. The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street. From on high he sent fire; into my bones he made it descend. Is this the city, which was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all earth
The exact death toll from the bombing of Dresden will never be known due to the large numbers of refugees in the city; but official estimates put the figure at more than 25,000. In the whole of the Second World War the death toll on the UK mainland from bombing of cities was 60,595, and in North America it was six. As well as the tragic loss of life in Dresden our cultural heritage suffered terrible loss. Among the buildings destroyed in the city by the British and American bombs were the Semper Opera House where eight of Richard Strauss' operas were given first performances, including Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Intermezzo, and where Wagner's Rienzi and Flying Dutchman were premiered. Also destroyed were the Königlich Sächsisches Hoftheater where Wagner's Tannhauser was first performed, and the Frauenkirche where Johann Sebastian Bach played in an organ recital in 1736, and where Wagner conducted the first performance of his Biblical scene Das Liebesmahl der Apostel in 1843. The human and cultural loss caused by the bombing of Dresen was terrible. Rudolf Mauersberger's forgotten Dresden Requiem serves as a poignant reminder that in war there is no winning side, just two losing sides.

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Sunday, November 06, 2016

All that twitters is not gold

That tweet saddens me. It was written by Jeremy Pound who identifies himself without disclaimer on his Twitter account - see below - as the deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine. I don't know Jeremy Pound, but presumably he is a very nice guy who holds a senior position in an influential publication which he reached due to his qualifications and experience. Of course all of us have blind spots in our music appreciation. But is it not the role of a writer to report with a reasonable degree of objectivity that a work fails to engage them, fails to move them, or is beyond their comprehension? And is it not also their role to explore why that vital connection has not been made? Karlheinz Stockhausen has been judged by others with far stronger credentials than Jeremy Pound to be an important if controversial figure in late 20th-century music. To publicly dismiss one of his seminal works as "a load of pish" - definition "variation of piss, most usually used in the north (particularly Scotland)" - is an act of hubris which further undermines my confidence in the future of music journalism.

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Friday, November 04, 2016

Classical music needs saving from its saviours

There is a dearth of click-baitable music stories at the moment. So the Guardian has fallen back on the tired old 'here comes the next saviour' formula with a piece by click-baiter extraordinaire James Rhodes on the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis*. Back in 2005 the Telegraph ran a similar piece on Currentzis which was modestly headlined 'I will save classical music'. Not to be outdone, seven years later Newsweek ran the puff piece above lauding how Gustavo Dudamel is "saving classical music". Each of us will have our own views on whether salvation has finally arrived. But if it has, it clearly does not extend to the avaricious and restrictive management agency system which is responsible for many of classical music's current problems. Dudamel has played the agency game to perfection, and Teodor Currentzis is managed by IMG Artists, which describes itself as "a global leader of performing arts, social media, and festival and events management". Now bring on the real saviours...

* Born in Greece in 1972, Teodor Currentzis started studying conducting in Athens at age 15 and was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory when he was 22. He later became a naturalized Russian citizen. James Rhodes describes Currentzis as a "Greek conductor" and does not mention his Russian citizenship; which is surprising given the conductor's acclaimed work over many years in the Russian city of Perm. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Making the case for Karajan

In a comment on my post about Stokowski the technology visionary, Antoine Leboyer observes that "Karajan also understood the importance of the medium as a message... these days, Karajan's and Stokowski's style have made them out of fashion but who has taken their place?" Who indeed? Herbert von Karajan was a technology enthusiast and his close friends included Sony executive Norio Ohga who was a key figure in the development of the Compact Disc. Like Stokowski, Karajan regarded technology as a servant that could help him achieve his artistic ideals. This attitude contrasts sharply with today's leading musicians who see new technology as a master that has to be obeyed without question. Who among today's celebrity maestros is playing an active role in freeing recorded sound from its straightjacket of compression?

Antoine's observation that Karajan's style has gone out of fashion applies far beyond technology. Today it is modish to dismiss Karajan because of his super-sized ego, his political affiliation and his opportunism. But was his self-promotion any worse than that of today's Rolex maestros? Was his self-serving political affiliation any more odious than those of Valery Gergiev and Gustavo Dudamel? And was his opportunism any more flagrant than that of the celebrity musicians and orchestras who flock to the ethically-challenged honeypots of the United Arab Emirates and China? But, above all, does the Beethoven and Brahms of contemporary icons such as Gergiev, Dudamel and their peers ever reach the exalted heights of Karajan's?

Discrimination in classical music comes in many nuanced forms. One is the division of great musicians into those who lived before the advent of the internet, and those who live in the internet age. As a result musicians from the pre-internet era such as Karajan and Stokowski who did not conform to the politically correct dictates of accessibility and who did not live their lives in the 24/7 glare of social media are now viewed as aliens from another planet. Music is a universal and timeless language that transcends ephemeral fashions. Like all of us, Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski had their faults. But they spoke the universal language of music with great eloquence, and today's musicians can learn much from them.

Image quite appropriately via Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Today's classical music is compressed in every way

Making the case for Stokowski the magician, Lisa Hirsch comments on Twitter that "The long list of works he premiered in the US tells you Stokowski was the real thing", while in a blog comment Philip Amos urges us to "Consider the orchestras he founded... the premiere performances he conducted... the inspired way in which he placed the sections of orchestras." To Lisa and Philip's advocacy I would add Stoki's pioneering work with new technologies. A 2013 Overgrown Path post described Stokowski's experiments in multi-channel sound with Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Philadelphia Orchestra, pioneering work that pre-dated today's surround sound systems by 80 years. And Fantasia, which was released in 1940 with a soundtrack by Stokowski and his Philadephia Orchestra, was the first commercial movie with stereo sound.

Later in his career Stokowski recorded for RCA at the time they were issuing CD-4 quadraphonic LPs; one example is the 1975 Mahler Second Symphony LP seen above. In the 1970s quadraphonic battle EMI/CBS's SQ and Sansui's QS systems encoded the rear channels at the same frequency as the front channels but with the phase of the rear pair shifted. The resulting front to rear separation was minimal and classical producers never took the system seriously: when I was at EMI classical sessions were monitored in stereo and quad remixes were delegated to the editors. In contrast JVC's CD-4 technology did not phase shift the rear channels; instead the LP carried four discrete channels, with the rear pair encoded above audible frequencies. In theory this delivered infinitely better front to rear separation. But the challenge of pressing LPs carrying frequencies up to 50kHZ (the limit of human hearing is around 15kHz) and producing affordable phono cartridges that could track these ultra-high frequencies proved insurmountable. So CD-4 joined SQ and QS as a technological white elephant.

It is one of classical music inexplicable conundrums that the art form is obsessed with new technologies - streaming, downloads etc - yet its celebrity practitioners have, unlike Stokowski, no active interest or involvement in the new technologies other than pumping out as much of their own music as possible. Today's new technologies such as MP3 files depend on compression of both frequency and dynamic range. By contrast the technologies that Stokowski pioneered expanded the frequency and dynamic range of the music. Today's classical music is compressed in every way - sound, repertoire and worldview. But things are changing outside the mainstream. As the New York Times reports, clubs with high-end audio systems delivering sound quality above all else are opening in London. These audio clubs are becoming meccas for listeners searching for the emotional connection to the music that the all-pervasive compression technologies have eliminated. Leopold Stokowski was not just a magician, he was also a visionary.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2016

A taste of the BBC Proms experience in Dubai

The BBC has announced that the inaugural BBC Proms Dubai four-day festival will take place from March 21-24, 2017 at the Dubai Opera. The artists appearing include Benjamin Grosvenor, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Dubai is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates and the human rights infringements in the UAE include the persecution of homosexuals, the maltreatment of migrant workers - see photo above - and discrimination against women. Islamic Sharia is the main source for the penal code in the UAE. This means, to quote Diana Hamade, an Emirati lawyer based in Dubai: "Crimes such as the desertion of Islam, fornication, murder, theft, adultery and homosexuality - all crimes classified as "Al Hudud" in Islamic law - are punishable by predetermined penalties (flogging and arm amputation among them)."

The BBC Proms Dubai will include an authentic Last Night. It was the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at the 2013 Last Night of the Proms that accompanied Joyce DiDonato singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', a performance that was dedicated to those silenced over gay rights. David Pickard, director, BBC Proms talks of "giving audiences in the UAE an opportunity to sample a taste of the BBC Proms experience". But the effusive BBC PR surrounding this latest ethically-compromised cash for culture deal omits any mention of a reprise of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' in Dubai. Over to you Joyce and Marin.

Photo of migrant workers in Dubai via Backpackme. 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.

The taxis are alive with the sound of music

My  recent advocacy of Welsh composers prompted an email from Richard Bratby in which he observed that "I've always... sensed that music as an art, in all its forms, is somehow much closer to the surface of daily life in Wales". Richard is right, as I realised many years ago when I spent time at an EMI production facility in Treorchy, a Welsh town world-famous for its male voice choir. And much more recently I experienced the same integration of music into the quotidian in Crete: when this taxi driver from Sitia heard that we had been with Ross Daly he whipped out his lyra for a spontaneous photo opportunity.

This love of music is just one facet of the crazy wisdom that Nikos Kazantazakis captured so accurately in his Zorba character. Crazy wisdom is counter-intuitive smartness, and Cretans have that in abundance. Conventional wisdom tells us that independent music stores cannot survive. But in Crete, despite Greece's perpetual financial crisis, there were three good independent stores within a few minutes walk of our hotel in Heraklion; in the photo below I am about to part with some serious cash in the Aerakis store. Conventional wisdom tells us that CDs are dead; but independent Greek labels continue to shun iTunes and Spotify. They keep releasing release CDs and people keep buying them. And this crazy wisdom works: live music - and I mean good live music - can be heard in every village and town on the island, and I am pretty sure that there are more CDs of new music released per head in Crete than anywhere else in the world.

Crazy wisdom is what classical music needs. Conventional wisdom dictates that if audiences like Mahler, give them more Mahler. But crazy wisdom proposes that introducing audiences to unknown Mahler-like composers will do a better job of keeping the customers satisfied. Conventional wisdom dictates that ageing audiences should be replaced by younger audiences. But crazy wisdom proposes targeting the many older people who are not concertgoers. (This suggestion is not as crazy as it may seem: by far the largest population growth in the next three decades in the principal markets for classical music will be in the cohort aged 60 and over. Which is an incontestable fact the younger audience obsessives conveniently overlook.)

Most importantly, conventional wisdom dictates that because the current audience for classical music is not large enough to support the cost base, the audience size must be increased. But crazy wisdom proposes that as audience size has not increased in response to frantic promotion, the only option is to accept the current market size and slash the cost base. As Zorba explains: 'You have everything but one thing: madness. A man needs a little madness or else - he never dares cut the rope and be free'.

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