Friday, December 30, 2016

Peace on earth and goodwill to all sentient beings

2016 was not one of the Almighty's better efforts. Disquieting political developments dominated the news on both sides of the Atlantic, and the arts' world lost too many of its luminaries. But at this moment the impacts of the US presidential election and the UK's EU referendum remain hypothetical, and many of those that we lost from the creative community had led long and productive lives.

Absolute evil is the evil inflicted by man on man, and the real tragedy of 2016 was the continuing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere, and in particular the Syrian civil war which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, many of them young people who had their lives in front of them. The selfless bravery of Mohammad Alaa Al Jaleel in his work with both children and cats in Aleppo - seen above and below - showed our mealy-mouthed politicians how actions speak so much louder than words. Of course human lives matter most. But thank you Alaa for reminding us in a year when soul food was in very short supply, that, to quote Anatole France, until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.

Violence is the ultimate expression of absolute evil, and the precursor of violence is divisive speech. One of the most disturbing developments of 2016 was the adoption of divisive and inflammatory language as the lingua franca of Twitter and other social media platforms. When sentencing a neo-Nazi troll to jail at the Old Bailey Judge Justice Spencer pointed out that hate "doesn't stay online". Britain and America are currently in the grip of an insidious online violence that could very easily morph into physical violence in 2017, particularly in America where there are 112 guns per 100 residents. Syria has descended into physical violence, and the shooting and killing of British politician Joe Cox weeks before the EU referendum showed how verbal and physical violence are never far apart. As world music maven Joshua Cheek noted recently: "If we need a mirror of our ugliness as a people, as a nation, we need only random sample a single day's tweets".

Laying all the blame for our accelerating descent into Kali Yuga on Donald Trump, Brexiteers, ISIS, Marine Le Pen, the Russians, Nigel Farage and the usual suspects is divisive and delusional. We are one humanity - waḥdat al-wujūd - and each and every one of us must take responsibility for the tragedies in Syria, Berlin, Turkey, Belgium, Pakistan, Orlando and elsewhere during 2016. Trump, Farage and Le Pen are just extreme examples of the 'I, me, mine' ego-driven virus that has infected the whole of our society. Until personal, corporate and national egos are subdued, the descent into the dark age of Kali will continue apace. When formulating new year's resolutions I urge everyone to heed this teaching by Zen practitioner Lin Jensen:

Impression management is an effort to control what others think of you. It consists of persuading others to acknowledge you in the same terms as you acknowledge yourself. If you're caught up in impression management, you're forever at pains to secure a favorable public 'image' of yourself. And when others see you in less favorable terms, it becomes an offense and a threat to your person. Impression management never works, but nonetheless individuals will exhaust themselves in the effort to make it work, and nations will readily go to war in the vain effort of forcing the world to submit to their self-admiring prejudice. Since you can't control how others choose to see you, it should be easy to understand how marketing your personal identity forfeits self-regard and puts you at the disposal of others.
Best wishes for what I suspect will be a very challenging new year go to all readers, and an update on Mohammad Alaa Al Jaleel via this link.

Because of the very serious security risks in the region donations and further updates on Mohammad Alaa Al Jaleel's humanitarian work are being handled via the closed Facebook group, Il Gattaro d'Aleppo.. Quotation is from Lin Jensen's book Together Under One Roof.  Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Reluctantly, also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The joy of jazz

That is Michel Petrucciani in the photo; he made his first appearance On An Overgrown Path eleven years ago and in 2016 I derived many hours of listening pleasure from the 7 CD anthology Michel Petrucciani: The Blue Note Albums. Despite suffering from the genetic disorder bone disorder osteogenensis imperfecta which limited his height to 3' 0" [ 0.91 m ], Michel Petrucciani became a renowned jazz pianist. Originally influenced by Bill Evans and to a lesser extent Keith Jarrett, he went on to develop his own unique voice - watch a full length concert video via this link. Michel Petrucciani died in 1999 aged just 36 and is buried alongside Frederic Chopin in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery.

Michel Petrucciani's resting place acknowledges the close links between jazz and classical music, and there are notable examples of the influence of jazz. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was originally commissioned for solo piano and jazz band by Paul Whiteman, and only later orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. Dave Brubeck studied with Darius Milhaud, and György Ligeti acknowledged the influence of Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk on his Études for Piano. André Previn has recorded a number of successful jazz albums; his 1956 My Fair Lady with Shelly Manne and Leroy Vinnegar became a best-selling jazz albums. At around the same time Randy Weston's jazz trio was resident at the Music Inn resort in the Berkshires and its audience included Leonard Bernstein and musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The trio's bassist was the African American musician Sam Gill, who went on to become principal bass for the Denver Symphony.

Leonard Bernstein championed jazz, and on his 1956 Columbia spoken word LP "What Is Jazz?" he argued against the critics who preached that jazz has low-class origins, is loud, and is therefore not art. But six decades later the barriers between Western classical music and jazz are still there. Supposedly we live in more inclusive times; but inclusivity is becoming increasingly politically correct, which means it is no more than inverted exclusivity. Much futile effort is expended on attracting new audiences into our concert halls. Yet jazz - music that can be loud and avoids the perceived elitism that dogs classical music - is still virtually ignored. Michel Legrand, who worked with many of jazz greats, has an uncompromising view*:

When it came time for [John Coltrane] to solo, he integrated himself thoroughly into my arrangements without sacrificing one note of his own conceptions. I thought about that later, after I followed Coltrane's career through Ascension and Meditations. I began to draw parallels with his music and that of some classical composers I knew, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono. To me, both jazz and classical music have the same goal. There should be no lines of demarcation between them, for the end result should simply be - good music.

* Quote is from Chasin'the Trane by J.C. Thomas. Header photo via 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). No review samples used in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ring out the new, ring in the old

This is the season for album of the year listings. By convention these lists are dominated by new releases, and it is now time to question that convention. Promoting new recordings at the expense of the old is a longstanding practice. But in the past the recorded catalogue was not so comprehensive and technology developments were delivering genuine improvements in recording quality. Whereas today's new releases all too often offer lacklustre accounts by celebrity musicians of a limited repertoire - Mahler, Shostakovich etc - recorded at concert performances in compromised sound. Which is why it is many years since I bought a Simon Rattle album, and why I have never bought one by Gustavo Dudamel. Judgements of merit have been replaced by the commercial imperative of the new. Dead musicians do not earn big commissions for management agents, record company and retailer margins are slim on budget reissues, and Arturo Toscanini and Pau Casals cannot brief their to place Guardian advertorials showcasing their human rights advocacy.

During 2016 much of my listening was devoted to great recordings from the past: the Bruno Walter Edition and two boxes of Stokowski reissues are just two examples which have featured On An Overgrown Path. But my listening has not been confined to recent reissues. A while back I wrote about about my experiments using chance techniques to create a playlist from my extensive CD collection, and this has prompted me to explore the riches on the shelves of my CD library, a trend that will continue in 2017. Albums of the year should be chosen on their ability to inspire and to refresh the spirit, not for their conformity to an ailing business model. The prominence given in 2016 by critics to Warner's reissue of Zuzana Růžičková playing J.S. Bach: The Complete Keyboard Works suggests that even the most dedicated followers of music fashion are realising that classical music's next big thing is, in fact, classical music's last big thing.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

An alternative seasonal message

'When we are caught in notions, rituals, and the outer forms of the practice, not only can we not receive and embody the spirit of our tradition, we become an obstacle for the true values of the tradition to be transmitted. We lose sight of the true needs and actual suffering of people, and the teaching and practice, which were intended to relieve suffering, now cause suffering. Narrow, fundamentalist, and dogmatic practices always alienate people, especially those who are suffering' ― Thich Nhat Hanh writing in Living Buddha, Living Christ
Photo of the Enlightenment Stupa in Benalmádena, Andalucia was taken by me a few weeks ago. This is the largest Stupa in the West, and was built by the members of the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The Benalmádena Stupa is filled with sacred objects including a clay relief attributed to the Tibetan saint Milarepa. Any copyrighted material is included critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Why I do not hate Tchaikovsky

Pierre Boulez once famously declared:"I hate Tchaikovsky and I will not conduct him... but if the audience wants him, it can have him". But much that I admire Boulez I have to disagree with him this time. There are many reasons why I do not hate Tchaikovsky, and Warner's new reissue of André Previn's 1970s recordings of the three great ballets is one of them. Tchaikovsky's ballets fit André Previn's style of music making like a glove, the recordings were made in the mellifluous acoustics of the Kingsway Hall (Nutcracker and Swan Lake) and Abbey Road Studio 1 (Sleeping Beauty) by the legendary EMI production team of Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker, and the sound on these latest CD transfers simply confirms that as technology has advanced, so recorded sound quality has gone backwards.

When Previn's Sleeping Beauty was first transferred to CD by EMI two numbers were cut so that it would fit onto 2 CDs. Somebody at Warner Classics cares, because these cuts have been reinstated and the ballet is now spread over 3 CDs, and fortuitously the 7 CD format means there are no side breaks in any of three ballets' acts. At the time the recordings were first issued EMI's artwork creation came under my management, and it is pleasing that the evocative jugendstil-style artwork by the Native American artist Dick Ellescas for the original LPs of the ballets has been retained, although he is not credited. The icing on this Christmas cake are the violin solos in the first act of Swan Lake which are played by Ida Haendel, who was drafted in at short notice as substitute for the nominated LSO soloist.

Warner Classics' acquisition of the EMI catalogue in 2013 was viewed cynically by many commentators, however this budget reissue is in a different class to the usual corporate back catalogue whoring. It is also worth noting that the 20 CD box of Zuzana Růžičková playing J.S. Bach: The Complete Keyboard Works, a release that has been lavishly praised by one of Warner's universal (Universal?) naysayers, comes from the company's Erato sub-label. Thank you Warner Classics for bringing some much-needed light into a very dark 2016 and for proving the experts wrong. Best wishes for the festive season go to all my readers.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

I'll finish the carol first - O du fröhliche

I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor's bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: "I'll finish the carol first, O du fröhliche!" A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere."
During the bitterly cold Christmas of 1942 the German army was trapped outside Stalingrad . Among the German troops was Kurt Reuber, who was a clergyman and doctor. Drawing on the back of a map of Russia he used a stick of charcoal to portray Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms, and shielding Him with her arms. Kurt Reuber perished in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp, and the extract above is from his last letter before he was captured.

Kurt Reuber's family chose the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin to display the Madonna of Stalingrad, and to pass on the message of light and love contained in this moving icon; a message that is tragically relevant this Christmas. Two copies of the Madonna were sent from Berlin as symbols of hope and reconciliation. One is in Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by German bombs in 1940 and reconsecrated in 1962 with the first performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem; the other is in the Russian Orthodox Church in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad).

First published On An Overgrown Path in 2005 - when will they ever learn? The full story of Kurt Reuber and the Madonna, from which the quotation above was taken, can be read via this link. Image credit - scanned from reproduction purchased in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Why music is called the divine art

Philip Glass, Karol Szymanowski, John Tavener and Jonathan Harvey are among the composers who have set the poetry of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. Books of Rumi's poetry as reimagined by Coleman Barks have sold more than half a million copies, and in 1994 Publishers Weekly announced that Rumi was the bestselling poet in America. But the marketing of Rumi to Western audiences all too often severs him from Islam, and Stephen Schwarz has lamented the reduction of the Sufi master's metaphysics to the idiom of a gift card. Other less sanitised settings of Rumi that have featured On An Overgrown Path over the years include Ali Reza Ghorbani's Songs of Rebirth, the Firebird ensemble's L’Oiseau de Feu, Doulce Mémoire's Laudes, Ali Keeler's Ruh, Sheikh Hassan Dyck's The First and the Last and Trio Chemirani's Dawâr.

Rumi is, of course, celebrated as the founder of the Mevlâna Order of Whirling Dervishes. My header photo shows Julien 'Jalal Eddine' Weiss (extreme right) and his Ensemble al-Kindī performing at a Sufi Sema. Born in Paris in 1953, Julien Weiss studied classical guitar and spent time on the fringes of the counterculture. In the 1970s he began studying the oud and then the qanûn (Oriental zither). He became a virtuoso of the qânun and an authority on Arab classical music, and in 1983 he converted to Islam and took the name Jalal Eddine in homage to Rumi. His conversion to Islam was by his own refreshingly candid admission "partly social - I wanted to be more than an outsider and become part of the Sufi community...". In a Telegraph profile Peter Culshaw wrote of divorcee Weiss that "While he may not be the most devout Muslim (expecting a Frenchman to give up women and wine would perhaps be a tall order), Weiss's spiritual path is through music".

Julien Weiss made his home in a 14th century Mamelouk residence in the then important Arab cultural of Aleppo in 1995. It was in Aleppo that he recorded the influential Ensemble al-Kindī albums such as 'Aleppian Sufi Trance' and 'Whirling Dervishes of Damascus' that shrewdly combine rigorous musicology with Western-friendly titles. It is a mixed blessing that he did not live to see the tragic wanton destruction of Aleppo in the Syrian civil war. He succumbed to cancer in 2015 aged just 61 and is buried alongside many other great musicians in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery. His last concert in the UK was in October 2013, where he played solo at the genre-busting Aberdeen Microtonal Festival after his Syrian musician were denied UK entry visas.

On December 17th, 1273 CE Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī died in Konya, and the day is known as his Sheb-i Arus - Wedding Night - in recognition of his union that day with his Beloved. Each year around the world Semas are held on December 17th to celebrate Rumi's Wedding Night. As a small contribution to the celebrations I am posting a video of a complete performance of Julien 'Jalal Eddine' Weiss' last major project*, his homage to the Muslim and Christian Mary Stabat Mater Dolorosa. In this performance at the 2008 Fès Sacred Music Festival Julien Weiss at the qanûn drives the music forward like a mystic DJ working his turntables at a dance club. As a result this is music that transcends genres and cultures to confirm Sufi master musician and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan's assertion that:
Why is music called the divine art, while all other arts are not so called? We may certainly see God in all arts and in all sciences, but in music alone we see God free from all forms and thoughts. In every other art there is idolatory. Every thought, every word has its form. Sound alone is free from form. Every word of poetry forms a picture in our mind. Sound alone does not make any object appear.

Julien Weiss' Stabat Mater Dolorosa has not been released as a commercial recording. The sound quality on the professionally produced YouTube video from Fès is good, so let's hope Weiss' record label Le Chant du Monde posthumously issue it as a CD together with material from his unfinished solo qanûn project. No review samples used in this post. 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.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Music industry cabal ended a black conductor's career

Guyanese-born Rudolph Dunbar wrote the definitive text book on the clarinet and had a burgeoning conducting career in the 1940s during which he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and in 1945 became the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. But a 2007 Overgrown Path post profiling him explained how in the post-war period Dunbar's high profile career went into mysterious decline and how in 1988 he died in obscurity in London. Subsequent posts based on contributions from those who knew him suggested that intrigue inside the BBC ended his career. Now a remarkable video of Rudolph Dunbar talking in 1962 about his professional denouement has become available from RTBF/Belgium. The brief video from which the two still images are taken is in French, so a translation* is provided below. The video** can be viewed via this link. Please watch it even if you do not speak French; because it is an important and moving testament to the institutionalised discrimination that more than 50 years later still blights the classical music industry.
- I did my musical studies in Paris, Leipzig and Vienna.
- After these studies, where did you started your career as a conductor ?
- In London, in 1955.
- And since this date ?
- Since that, I did concerts in Paris, Berlin, Yugoslavia, Poland, everywhere on the continent.
- Your last concert ?
- It was in Havana a few weeks ago.
- So you are just back ?
- Yes
- How come you have not performed at say, the Festival Hall?
- Ah ah! I did not want - you understand - to be too well known. But at the time I was becoming very popular. Because of this, there was a campaign against me in London and against me everywhere... I was condemned as an alien. Because the English do not like competition.

* My thanks go to readers Antoine Leboyer and Edith Guilbaud for help with the transcription and translation.
** The video is erroneously titled 'Jamaicans or second class citizens (Rudolph Dunbar)'. He was in fact Guyanese and was born in what was then British Guiana in 1907.
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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Harrowing photo archive has classical music connection

All these photos are from a collection of negatives held at the the Eastman Museum Rochester, NY, the world's oldest museum dedicated to photography and one of the world's oldest film archives. I first came across them when researching an Overgrown Path post in April 2005. The 41 contact strips were identified as the 'Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection', but the Eastman Museum web site then attributed them to 'An unknown Nazi photographer', and still does so. My interest was piqued because Siegfried Lauterwasser was Herbert von Karajan's personal photographer, so reader Carol Murchie in the States researched the provenance of the photos for me. Carol was able to confirm that the photographer was indeed Siegfried Lauterwasser, and uncovered a lot more valuable background from Andy Eskind who had researched the collection at the Eastman Museum. My posts of April 19 and April 29 2005 quote in detail Andy's commentary on the photos, but the following from one of his explanatory emails is worth reprising:
In brief, Lauterwasser would have been about 22 in 1935 when he did this work which technically isn't very proficient. Sadly, he never - even at the end of his life - revealed much about how he was engaged to cover the Borman outing to Unteruhldingen in May 1935, the Parteitag Rally that September, nor the subsequent small jobs over the next couple of years. What we do know is that he served in the German Army and survived the War - establishing a reputation as a successful photographer specializing in musicians. Returning home to a French Occupation zone, he apparently feared that possession of these pre-War negatives could get him in trouble. So he simply threw out roughly half of them. The match between the half he kept (which today are in the hands of his family), and the half he threw away (those now at GEH [George Eastman House]) doesn't superficially appear to have much rhyme or reason. Perhaps he did it in haste; perhaps he returned to such a clutter after VE day that they had been accidentally scrambled into 2 batches. Further study may or may not clarify this.

All photos are reproductions of images available on the Eastman Museum Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection web page. 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, December 12, 2016

So much fearless and outspoken campaigning to do

Yesterday's Observer reports on the laudable plans of Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra to play in every abandoned synagogue in Hungary in memory of the expunged Jewish communities. In the article Fiona Maddocks describes Fischer as a fearless and outspoken campaigner. He is clearly on good terms with the United Arab Emirates' government; because in 2015 he took the Budapest Festival Orchestra to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi and received the Abu Dhabi Festival Award - see above. So hopefully he will now use his campaigning powers to persuade the UAE to end its refusal to recognize Israel as a state; which would help the Jewish community by allowing Israeli passport-holders to legally enter the Emirates.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Classical music is suffering from compromise creep

UN Human Rights Day on December 10th prompted a Guardian article by Daniel Barenboim headlined "It will take more than tolerance to protect human rights". Barenboim's invaluable work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Barenboim-Said Akademie is quite rightly held up as a glowing example of the role of the arts in protecting human rights. But that must not stop discussion of how far an artist should compromise in pursuit of their goal. Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra have visited Abu Dhabi twice. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a federal nation with a lamentable human rights record, as independent monitoring organisation Human Rights Watch reports:
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) often uses its affluence to mask the government’s serious human rights problems. The government arbitrarily detains, and in some cases forcibly disappears, individuals who criticized the authorities, and its security forces face allegations of torturing detaineeds. A new anti-discrimination law further jeopardizes free speech and is discriminatory, as it excludes references to gender and sexuality. Authorities denied access to the country to activists who criticized the UAE’s mistreatment of migrant workers. Labor abuses persist, as migrant construction workers facing serious exploitation. Female domestic workers are excluded from regulations that apply to workers in other sectors.
The Emirati government has literally turned reputation laundering into a fine art, and it can be argued that the cash-rich UAE is an inevitable destination on the celebrity classical music touring circuit. But in this case the UAE's involvement goes deeper: as the website of the Abu Dhabi Festival explains:
Gifted Palestinian cellist Faris Amin is the first recipient of The Abu Dhabi Festival Scholarship at The Barenboim-Said Akademie, one of the greatest and latest music conservatories in the world, under the direction of Maestro Daniel Barenboim. This is the first step in a long-term partnership with the Barenboim-Said Foundation, which includes the Barenboim-Said Akademie and its concert hall the Pierre Boulez Saal (destined to open in March 2017). This is the Akademie’s first collaboration with a country from the Arab world.
It can also be argued that compromise is necessary to achieve Daniel Barenboim's admirable goal of teaching students art of listening to each other both as musicians and as human beings. But that must not prevent us from debating the acceptable degree of compromise, and in our supposedly humane times classical music is suffering from a severe case of compromise creep. It is quite right to say that it will take more than tolerance to protect human rights. That is why Pau Casals refused to perform in countries not respecting democratic principles, and why Arturo Toscanini announced his withdrawal from the 1938 Salzburg Festival in protest against the links between the German and Austrian Governments with these words: " I hate compromise. I walk and I shall always walk on the straight path that I have traced for myself in life".

Header graphic is from The National, the "UAE's premier news source". 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.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Imagine what listening to the wrong music can do to you

That photo shows me putting my body where my mouth is and experiencing Nāda yoga - sound yoga - at the hands of radiesthenia practitioner Heidrun Kimm on Crete. Radiesthesia is the interaction between the vibrational fields of the human body and external objects, and the photo first appeared in a post last year which discussed what John Luther Adams describes as ""the strange power of noise". An earlier post had highlighted the little-understood importance of ultrasound, the sound at frequencies above the upper frequency limit of the ear, while another post described how medical research has shown that audiences become what they listen to. On the same path, my tribute to Jonathan Harvey last week touched on quantum field theory and postulated that the vibrating energy of music can transform the brain and, as a result, can transform lives. Just five days later the BBC ran a story reporting that doctors at a leading London hospital have used non-invasive ultrasound to operate deep inside the brain. In that story a leading neurosurgeon stated that ultrasound brain surgery had an "enormous future" and could be used to treat other movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease. I am indebted to Winnipeg Classic FM presenter Paul von Wichert for prompting this post, and for his Facebook comment of 'Imagine what listening to the "wrong" kind of music can do to you!'

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Classical music cannot ignore these 140 characters

Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Jordi Savall and Joyce DiDonato are among the leading musicians who have performed in the Gulf States in recent years, and the the inaugural BBC Proms Dubai festival takes place in March 2017. So, given classical music's ongoing love affair with social media, the launch of the 140 Characters website deserves a heads up. This is the work of Human Rights Watch, and in recognition of Twitter’s 140-character limit, the interactive website profiles 140 prominent Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Omani, Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati social and political rights activists and dissidents - see images above - and describes their struggles to resist government efforts to silence them. All 140 have faced government retaliation for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and many have been arrested, tried, and sentenced to fines or prison.

Dubai, which is hosting the BBC Proms, is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, and Abu Dhabi, which has a high profile classical music festival, is the capital of the Emirates. Seventeen of the activists are from the UAE; the profile on 140 Characters of just one of them says it all:
Osama al-Najer is a social media activist and the son of the political detainee Hussain Ali al-Najer al-Hammadi. Al-Najer used Twitter to campaign for the release of his father and other political detainees in Abu Dhabi and to criticize the conviction of 69 Emirati nationals in the "UAE 94" trial in July 2013. In September 2012 al-Najer was quoted in a Human Rights Watch news release that contained credible allegations that detainees had been tortured during interrogations. Authorities arrested al-Najer on March 17, 2014 and in November 2014 the Federal Supreme Court sentenced him to three years in prison under the 2012 cybercrimes law on charges including "damaging institutions" and "communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information." Authorities also fined him 500,000 AED ($US 136,127), confiscated his electronic devices, and ordered the closure of his Twitter account.
Classical music at celebrity level is cash hungry, and it is unrealistic to expect a boycott of the cash rich but ethically tainted Gulf States. But in these days when Twitter is the communication channel of choice of even the US president-elect, is it too much to ask that Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Jordi Savall, Joyce DiDonato and the BBC put the 140 Characters website in their pipe and tweet it?

Before any clever clogs points out that there are 119 and not 140 faces in the header image, the reason is that photos of the other 21 activists are not available. 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.

And now for some genuinely new music

Catalonia is a creative powerhouse: Pau Casals*, Joan Miró, Antoni Gaudí, and Salvador Dalí were all proud Catalans, and today Barcelona is a vibrant centre of the arts. Jordi Savall is just one of the contemporary Catalan musicians who has had a global impact, and modern modal master Ross Daly's Crete-based music co-operative has an annual Labyrinth in Catalunya outreach workshop.

My recent plea for the composers in the photo above taken at the summer workshop of the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia in 2000 to be identified has been answered by Santi Barguñó of Neu Records with help from Ramón Humet who is in the photo. They are from left to right: Benet Casablancas (bio & music), Marcos Bosch (bio & music), Josep Maria Guix (bio & music), Carles Tort, Moisés Bertran (bio & music), Ramón Humet (bio & music), Enric Riu (bio & music), Joan Guinjoan (bio & music) and Jonathan Harvey.

I have added links to biographies and music samples for the composers**. These are contemporary composers with something new to say. So why not take a break from the depressingly predictable albums of the year and Grammy nominee listicles, and instead explore some genuinely new music.

* One item of little-known music trivia is that Pau Casals - typically stereotyped as being rather po-faced - was a close friend of the Russian composer Thomas De Hartmann who is best known for collaborating with the controversial mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. Although Hartmann is remembered for his joint compositions with Gurdjieff he was a prolific composer in his own right, and Casals performed Hartmann's Cello Concerto opus 57 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Pianist Elan Sicroff has recently masterminded a 7 CD overview of Hartmann's previously unrecorded chamber music.
** I could trace no information on Carles Tort. If anyone can supply links to a biography of him and music samples I will add them.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Tao of arts criticism

The demise of professional arts criticism is, quite rightly, receiving the attention it deserves. But its murder by what is known in the media industry as user-generated content is receiving less attention. Prime examples - in more ways than one - are the user-generated reviews on Amazon. The authority of a professional critic is determined by the number of reviews written by her/him, and their subject matter and critical perceptiveness. With professional critics being axed as user-generated contributions replace paid for content, there is no reason why the same criteria should not be used to judge the authority of user-generated reviews.

Here is an example. A classical music related book was recently promoted on social media by drawing attention to its seven five star Amazon reviews. The identity of the book is not relevant to this discussion; but the authority of the reviewers as measured by number of reviews, and their subject matter and critical perceptiveness - all of which is in the public domain and easily accessible - is relevant. The seven Amazon reviewers of the book in question have contributed a total of just 29 reviews. For one reviewer the five-star review is the only one they have contributed. Another reviewer has written only two reviews, the other one a five star accolade for a title from the same publisher. While another reviewer has contributed a total of six reviews, all five star - one is for the subject book and two others for books by the same author. Of the 29 reviews none are for classical music recordings, but one is for Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

It is good that seven readers have enjoyed the five star book and I wish it every success. Amazon reviews have their uses as a quick and dirty guide. But user-generated content needs to be treated with caution. Because not only are these reviews notoriously unreliable - that leading exponent of user-created content TripAdvisor is a good example of this unreliability - but user-generated content is hastening the death of irreplaceable professional arts criticism. I will let the Taoist text Chuang Tzu, Book XII Part II Section V Thien Ti (Heaven and Earth) provide the last word on user-created content:
Tell a man that he is merely following (the opinions) of another, or that he is a flatterer of others, and at once he flushes with anger. And yet all his life he is merely following others, and flattering them. His illustrations are made to agree with theirs; his phrases are glossed:-- to win the approbation of the multitudes. From first to last, from beginning to end, he finds no fault with their views. He will let his robes hang down, display the colours on them, and arrange his movements and bearing, so as to win the favour of his age, and yet not call himself a flatterer. He is but a follower of those others, approving and disapproving as they do, and yet he will not say that he is one of them. This is the height of stupidity.
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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

How new music can appeal to a wider audience

Jonathan Harvey's daughter Anna has posted via Twitter the new to me photo above of Jonathan outside IRCAM where he created among other seminal pieces Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. In the Music Machine electronic music anthology Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is highlighted, together with Désintegrations by Tristan Murail and Digital Moonscapes by Wendy Carlos, as an outstanding example of a composition using spectral analysis, and Jonathan's composition is cited as - and here comes the money quote - evidence that esoteric technology can produce music that appeals to a wider audience. There is a valuable spoken introduction in French to Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco from Pierre Boulez and others at IRCAM on YouTube.

My 2013 post 'Britten looking forward' told how Jonathan met the young composer Ramón Humet at a summer workshop for young composers organised by the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia, and how Jonathan went on to endorse the 2007 recording of Humet's piano cycle Escenas del bosc. The Catalan composer and musicologist Benet Casablancas - sample his music via this link - recently posted the photo below on Twitter. That is Jonathan on the extreme right and Benet Casablancas on the extreme left. Presumably it was taken at the 2000 summer workshop in Catalonia. Is that Ramón Humet in the centre of the back row? Can any readers identify the other composers and provide links to their music? Writing in 2000 Jonathan described Ramón Humet as "A hope for the future; he has a fine ear, and a spirit full of light". Microludis fractals by Ramón Humet can be heard via this link.

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Sunday, December 04, 2016

How could the soul not take flight

 BS: Staying with global cultural influences, in 1966 you set a poem by the Sufi saint and mystic, Mawlānā Rumi. 'How could the soul not take flight' is inspired by the ecstatic vision of Sufism, and that’s far removed from the contemplative Christian text you set fifteen years earlier in your 'Passion and Resurrection'. Can music cause spiritual elevation? And taking the discussion further, into the esoteric realm – and in fact I think you touched on this, when you were talking about Rudolf Steiner – can music transform matter?

JH: Yes, let’s, first of all, look at spiritual elevation – I think I’ve always believed that, even in 'Passion and Resurrection', the resurrection music is for me a new sort of music that I wrote, which is not bass dominated, it’s sort of centred around the middle and it floats from the middle, either side of this middle structure. And that for me represents the change of the world, at the time of the Resurrection, and the elevation there, the release from gravity, of Christ rising. So I think that’s been there all along, with my Sufi settings and many things – a release into a world of ecstasy – this is what music does. And the question of whether music can transform matter is a very big question. We all know about the soprano shattering the wine glass. It’s all vibrations, I mean music and the world, everything is oscillation.
Energy is oscillation, largely. And when we say we are stirred by a piece of music, we’re excited, we are moved, and so on, we’re talking as if we are like a tuning fork which has been struck by some music, and it’s continued to vibrate for some time, and then it stops vibrating and you’re no longer moved by that experience – it may last a few minutes or a few hours or a few weeks. It depends on the intensity of the striking. So music is always putting us into vibration. I was talking to a neurologist who’s done very interesting, hyper-sophisticated brain scans, for people listening to music, and she has published results showing how the neurons affected vibrate in precisely the rhythm of the music being played. And if the tempo of the music being played to the subject changes, so does the neuron visibly change its firing tempo - this probably proves what we sense intuitively.
But your question, ‘can music transform matter?’ – when we look at that computer screen and see this in the form of the matter of the brain being transformed by the music, it’s rather moving, and rather important I think. And the whole cultue of music, probably from the very beginnings, has been founded on vibrating together, in a community, to a drum beat. We all begin to dance, we all begin to sing, in unison. This unison of a community of people has been profoundly important for the human identity. The identity of tribes and nations and groups. So at many many levels one can find music transforming the brain, and I think the material world.
That extract is from my 2010 radio interview with Jonathan Harvey. The subject of quantum entanglement - the permeable membrane between the observer and the observed that allows music to transform matter and matter to transform music - has recurred here over the years. My early expositions met with incredulity and even hostility, with one reader commenting "You've finally reached a level of twaddle that prompts me to stop reading your blog". But recent posts such as 'The Tao of acoustics' have met with a much more positive reaction. In that 2010 interview Jonathan made his famous observation that classical music should drop its silly conventions. Those silly conventions extend far beyond the all too familiar targets of concert etiquette to the fashionable convention of treating classical music as just another entertainment product. Music can transform the brain, it can transform lives, and it can cause spiritual elevation; so we should stop selling it short. Nobel Laureate quantum physicist and bongo player extraordinaire Richard Feynman described in an accidental quatrain worthy of Rumi how everything is oscillation :
You can't say A is made of B
or vice versa
All mass is interaction
Posted in memory of Jonathan Harvey whose soul took flight on December 4th 2012.

Jonathan Harvey's eclectic personal mysticism embraced Christianity, Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism. Quantum mechanics' assertion that all mass is interaction provides scientific confirmation of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-arising, and the accompanying photos were taken by me a few days ago at the Enlightenment Stupa in Benalmádena, Andalucia. This is the largest Stupa in the West, and was built by the members of the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The Benalmádena Stupa is filled with sacred objects including a clay relief attributed to the Tibetan saint Milarepa; these emanate a spiritual energy field that radiates from the Stupa which overlooks the Mediterranean from a high bluff. If even the less abstruse of Richard Feynman's legendary lectures on physics are beyond you - as they are for me - James Gleick's biography Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics is recommended. No review samples involved, and 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.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

A composer and his guru

This post leads down a path with the kind of salacious side turnings usually found on more click bait oriented music blogs. But there is a serious purpose to retelling the story of Olivier Greif, whose tragically short career and truncated talent have many disquieting parallels with another underrated composer of the late 20th century, Claude Vivier. Olivier Greif was born in Paris in 1950, his father was a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz. Greif's musical talent was identified when he was three and he entered the Paris Conservatoire aged ten to study piano and composition. He went on to study composition with Luciano Berio in New York where he moved in the same circles as Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Leonard Bernstein. All the accompanying photos, with the exception of my header montage, come via the Olivier Greif website and include images of Greif with Dali - whose lost opera prompted another path - and Bernstein; see photos below.

In 1970 Olivier Greif was appointed Luciano Berio’s assistant at the Santa Fe Opera and started exploring the music of West Coast composers including Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Despite his eclectic musical tastes Greif rejected serialism and electronics and instead developed a unique style influenced by Britten and Shostakovich, and as a pianist made a now deleted commercial recording of Britten's piano music. Greif's compositions can be divided into two periods. 1961 to 1981 was the period when he developed his own voice as a composer. Then came a ten year creative hiatus which ended in 1991 with a series of darker and more intense pieces by the experiences of his father and other members of his family in the death camps. In later years his music became more experimental and in 1981 his chamber opera was premiered in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a performance given in collaboration with IRCAM and Olivier Messiaen, who mentored Greif, with Pierre Boulez in the audience.

After two serious illnesses Olivier Greif was found dead seated at his piano in his apartment in Paris on Friday, May 13, 2000. The autopsy could not identify the cause of death but established that he had been dead for several days when found. He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery.

Today Olivier Greif is a forgotten figure, although, fortunately, he remains represented in the CD catalogue. At which point the reader can be forgiven for expecting a plea for Greif's music to be more widely programmed or a heads up for a new recording of his music or a book, coupled with a plug for an upcoming concert. But conventional narratives do not interest me, so instead we turn to the little known story of the composer's ten year creative hiatus.

In 1976 Olivier Greif begins a spiritual quest with his guru Sri Chinmoy who is seen in the photo above; two years later Greif took the new first name Haridas, which means “God’s servant”. Sri Chinmoy was an Indian spiritual teacher, poet, artist and athlete who moved to the U.S. in 1964. He was the founder of the Sri Chinmoy Centre organisation. a composer of sacred music, mainly songs in Bengali and English, and a prolific writer on music. Sri Chinmoy advocated "self-transcendence" by expanding one's consciousness to conquer the mind's perceived limitations. Among his followers were Mikhail Gorbachev, Roberta Flack, Olympic gold-medalist Carl Lewis, John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana. McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra takes its name from the spiritual moniker given to him by Sri Chinmoy. In the photo below a picture of Chinmoy can be seen on Greif's piano.

In April 1970, Sri Chinmoy was invited by UN Secretary-General U Thant to give twice-weekly meditations at the United Nations and in 1994 he received, jointly with Martin Luther King’s wife Coretta Scott King, the ‘Mahatma Gandhi Universal Harmony Award’ from the American based Indian cultural institute. But inevitably Sri Chinmoy's activities generated controversy. In a Rolling Stone interview Carlos Santana said his guru was "vindictive" when they split, and elsewhere there are allegations of homophobia. In 2009 Jayanti Tamm published her best selling book of life as a Chinmoy disciple Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult in which she documents his "masterful tactics of manipulation", and there have also been allegations of sexual misconduct. Sri Chinmoy died in 2007, the Independent's obituary described him as "spiritual leader and peace activist" and Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar were among those who paid tribute to him.

During the 1980s Olivier Greif, or rather Haridas Greif, became the face of Sri Shinmoy in France. He curated conferences on meditation and opened a book store on the Boulevard Saint-Germain devoted to his guru. In 1979 he premiered his settings of Three poems of Sri Chinmoy for voice and piano and he also appeared on an LP of Chinmoy's music with the New Light Ensemble. The photo above shows Olivier Greif with Sri Chinmoy circa 1995, but during the final years of his life Greif moved away from his spiritual master and reverted to his given first name. Probably his best known work, his Sonate de Requiem (1979-1983) dates from the years of his involvement with Sri Chinmoy. In his own note Greif describes the single movement work as a dedication on death seen from three viewpoints: death as a departure, death as a journey away from the earthly regions through successive planes of consciousness, and death as contemplation as the soul meets with the Source.

Just as empathy with Cardinal Newman is not required to appreciate Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, so empathy with Sri Chinmoy is not required to appreciate Olivier Greif's Sonate de Requiem. The composer's dalliance with celebrities and an Indian mystic is just a fascinating sideshow to the main event - his music. There is a catalogue of Greif's three hundred and thirty one compositions online. They include an incomplete Symphony No. 1 for solo voice, male chorus and orchestra 'Hiroshima' dating from 1994 which which sets testimonies of survivors of Hiroshima in English and the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, and a Little Black Mass (1980) which combines the sacred liturgy with popular American songs. For those interested in further exploration the Olivier Greif website has a discography. A number of the listed releases are now deleted, but recommended are the Sonate de Requiem and Trio on Harmonia Mundi and the Battle of Agincourt for two cellos coupled with his Second String Quartet, which sets Shakespeare sonnets for baritone, on Zig Zag Territoires.

Revised version of post originally published in March 2012. No review samples involved in this post. Image credits official Olivier Greif website except header montage. 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). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.