Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Only what changes remains

Everything changes, the only truth.
Time invokes change,
not to change deliberately.
Only what changes remains.
Phoenix or harpy, the cutting edge of simplicity,
the gift of being simple.
The only truth: change.
That is Martha Graham in the photo and the stanza above is from the Catalan poet Mario Lucarda's Homenaje a Martha Graham. Contemporary Catalan composer Ramón Humet, who was championed by Jonathan Harvey, has set Mario Lucarda's homage to Martha Graham as nine songs. These settings are most definitely high-maintenance music, and Humet realised that the emotional intensity of his settings for soprano and piano militated against consecutive performance. So he composed ten complimentary Interludis Meditatius scored for Japanese shakuhachi flute and a percussion ensemble including xylophones, marimbas, bongos, crotales, temple block and wood chimes. The Interludis reflect Ramón Humet's deep interest in Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, and are stylistically linked to his percussion suites Four Zen Gardens and Garden of Haikus which were recorded in 2012 by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Nicholas Conlon for Neu Records, an innovative new independent label based in Barcelona.

Now Neu Records has recorded Ramon Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham with soprano Claron McFadden. Previous Overgrown Path posts have discussed the Catalan label's commitment to literally expanding the boundaries of recorded sound, and this lovingly packaged new 2 CD set captures Humet's shimmering sonic world in demonstration quality sound - listen here - with the bonus of downloads in HD FLAC Stereo and Surround 5.1. Mario Lucarda's poem resonates with Zen Buddhist doctrines, and a lineage extends from Martha Graham through her pupil Merce Cunningham to John Cage, whose music embraced change and impermanence. As Mario Lucarda points out, only what changes remains. Yet so much of the classical music industry's energy is devoted to resisting change and maintaining legacy business and creative practices. There is a smokescreen of change which is no more than tinkering with cosmetics, while the fundamental problems of celebrity culture, oversupply and a grossly imbalanced reward structure are tacitly protected. This outstanding new release by Ramon Humet, Mario Lucarda and Neu Records reminds us that the only truth is change. The classical music industry should take note.

Ramón Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham was a requested review sample. 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.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

In search of nothingness

In the photo above I have just arrived at the Coptic monastery of Dayr al-Salib (Monastery of the Cross) on the East Bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. The Trappist monk, mystic and author Thomas Merton wrote of le point vierge - the virgin point - and described how there is "at the center of our being a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth... which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will". Le point vierge is found in different forms in the great wisdom traditions including the esoteric strand of Islam known as Sufism, and it is from this tradition that Thomas Merton developed his vision of a point of pure truth. In Zen Buddhism the vision is manifested in what Shunryu Suzuki famously described as 'beginner's mind'. This vision is also found in popular culture: for instance in John Lennon's Imagine, which - in an unashamed hymn to le point vierge - implores us to "imagine there is no heaven.. no religion... no countries.. no possessions". My personal search for this elusive point where something approaching pure truth can be glimpsed if only momentarily took me late in 2014 to the Coptic monasteries of Dayr al-Salib (Monastery of the Cross) on the East Bank of the Nile and Dayr Mar Girgis (Monastery of St George) on the West Bank in Upper Egypt, where I took the photos.

The Copts, who are the indigenous Christians of Egypt, believe that they are the direct descendants of the first pharaoh King Narmer, who ruled around the 31st century BCE. The Coptic lineage is remarkably resilient and St Mark, who founded the Coptic church in 42 CE, was the first of an unbroken succession of one hundred and seventeen Coptic popes and patriarchs. Elements of Coptic culture predate Christianity, and the Coptic language, which today survives only in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, evolved out of Ancient Egyptian, and once used the pictorial writing system of hieroglyphics. Coptic theologians have also pointed to parallels between the monotheism of the pharaohs - le point vierge of all the great wisdom traditions - and Christianity, and the Coptic Cross - seen below - is derived from the hieroglyph ankh symbol.

The inherent conservatism of the Coptic Church means that its music tradition has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries. It is generally accepted that the Coptic Church practices not only the oldest form of Christian music, but also the oldest form of any music in the world. It is also thought that Coptic music predates Christianity and has its origins in the Ancient Egyptian religious ceremonies, with the distinguished Egyptologist Étienne Drioton explaining that “the key to the secret of the music of the pharaohs can be found in a good, modern-day rendition of Coptic liturgical music. In an impressive but overlooked exercise in speculative musicology the composer and musicologist Dr. Rafael Pérez Arroyo reimagined Egyptian music from the Old Kingdom (c3000BC) based on studying the iconography and hieroglyphics of the period, instruments of the period conserved in museums and the Coptic litany. One result of this project was the 2001 CD Ancient Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids which used reconstructed period instruments including a seven-string curved harp and with musicians including Jordi Savall' percussionist extraordinaire Pedro Estevan. The sound is impressive with the choral sections recorded in the famous Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos where many great recordings of Gregorian Chant have ben made. Although the CD is deleted it lives on as a download.

Sadly There has been a long history of persecution of Coptic Christians, starting with a pogrom by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third century. In 639 CE the Muslims conquered Egypt, but the transition from a majority Christian to majority Muslim country took another eight hundred years. There are no accurate statistics on the number of Copts in Egypt today, and the alleged manipulation of data by the theoretically secular but actually Muslim biased government has generated considerable controversy. However it is generally accepted that an estimate of eight million Christians (10% of the population) is reasonably accurate. Persecution of Copts became widespread during the reign of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in the eleventh century and has continued to this day. In July 2013 Salafist mobs killed five Coptic Christians in the area we visited recently.

Monasticism is the most important contribution of the Copts to history. Cenobitic (communal) monasticism originated in Egypt, and Saint Anthony of Egypt (251-356 CE) is known as "the father of the monks". An early monastic rule was developed by Saint Pachom in the third century; this was subsequently translated into Latin and taken by travellers to Europe where the rule was adapted to form the basis of the great Catholic monastic orders including the Benedictine. Today there are twelve inhabited Coptic monasteries in Egypt at which more than six hundred monks lead a cenobitic life.

My pilgrimage predated the destruction of the Russian Metrojet over the Sinai desert on a flight from Egypt, which made Upper Egypt a virtual no go areas for foreigners. But during my visit Egypt's already beleaguered tourist industry was totally focussed on its pharaonic heritage: if I had wanted to visit the famous temples at Luxor and Karnak, or the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, that was not a problem at all. But engaging with the rich Coptic heritage was really a struggle. When it comes to the Coptic tradition, collective amnesia afflicts the Muslim population. For instance, the generously staffed Luxor tourist office, which had absolutely no clients other than me, was unable to offer any advice or information about travelling to the nearby Coptic monasteries. You will search in vain on the internet for any information about the two monasteries that I visited - thankfully this is a TripAdvisor free zone! - and thanks go to the Coptic staff of the Gaddis Bookshop in Luxor for their valuable assistance. When I reached the Coptic monasteries there was the inescapable feeling of stepping into a war zone. Because of the continuing attacks on Copts, their monasteries have become fortified communities with massive gates and protecting walls - see photo below. In fact the entrance to Dayr Mar Girgis was protected by an armed soldier when I arrived, and I was the only visitor of any ethnicity at both monasteries.

Coptic churches are celebrated for their art and architecture; below is the interior of the church at Dayr Mar Girgis.

But these are also functional places where believers worship under constant threat of attack and in harsh physical - temperatures stay above 40 degrees celsius in the summer months. So sacred art mixes with defensive walls, air conditioners, and cooling fans. And some of the art is a little less sacred, as can be seen in the photo below advertising the monastic shop at Dayr al-Salib.

The monastery of Dayr Mar Girgis is just one of four in Egypt that venerate Saint George (Girgis = George). Saint George was a Roman soldier and Christian martyr who never visited England and who has absolutely no connection with the country other than being adopted at its patron saint. In the photo below taken at Dayr Mar Girgis the representation of Saint George could have been taken staight from an English pub sign. Saint George is venerated in many other countries including Romania, Lithuania, Iraq and the Ukraine, and is respected by Muslims as a manifestation of the mystical figure al-Khidr in the Qaran.

In 431 CE a dispute over the Monophysite doctrine (the belief that the human and divine natures of Christ were fused into a single nature) caused the Coptic Curch and other Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenian, Syriac, Goan and Eritrean) to split from the established churches of Rome and Constantinople.

Despite this split there are clear visual links between the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

These can be seen from the photos above and below taken at Dayr al-Salib and Dayr Mar Girgis.

In her book Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt Valerie J. Hoffman describes how the liberal Sufi mysticism of Islam has much in common with Christian Coptic spirituality. Examples of this common ground include the mosque built by monks for local Bedouins in the precints of one of the oldest continuously occupied monastery in the world, the Coptic monastery of Saint Catherine's on Mount Sinai. Another example is that the first spiritual master of the celebrated early Sufi saint Ibrahim ibn Adham was a Christian monk called Simeon. The visual common ground between Islamic Sufism and Coptic Christianity can be seen in the following photos. Look at the geometric decoration around the figure of Christ on this gate at Dayr al-Salib.

Then compare it with this decoration at the shrine of the thirteenth century Sufi saint Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj in nearby Luxor.

The representation of living beings is, of course, forbidden in Islam. When the figure is removed the commonality between Islam and the Coptic tradition becomes even more striking. The photo below shows a doorway in a recent addition to the monastery at Dayr Mar Girgis.

Compare it with the photo below taken by me the Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco 3500 miles to the west.

Central to the visual language of both Sufi and Coptic architecture is the dome. The photo below shows the exterior of the church at Dayr Mar Girgis.

Below is the eponymous Sufi shrine in Sidi Ifni on the western margin of Islam in Morocco.

If such le point vierge exists it must be somewhere close to the heavens, and there is a striking resemblance between the minarets of Islam and the bell towers of the Coptic Church, both of which point towards the heavens. This mosque was photographed from the luxuriant gardens of the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor.

While the photo below shows the entrance of the Coptic monastery of Dayr al-Salib.

My Egyptian search for a point of common truth uncovered some surprising common ground between Coptic Christianity and mystical Islam. Some of this commonality may well be tentative. But at a time of escalating tension between extreme elements in both traditions, any path that leading to the point that Thomas Merton described as "inaccessible to... the brutalities of our own will" demands exploration. Because as Hazrat Inayat Khan, who created an ecumenical Sufi order as his contribution to the search for le point vierge' told us: "“If people but knew their own religion, how tolerant they would become, and how free from any grudge against the religion of others”.

Sources include:
* The Churches of Egypt by Gawdat Gabra and Gertrud J.M. van Loon
* Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture by Gawdat Gabra
* Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt by Valerie by J. Hoffman
* Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East edited by James S. Cutsinger
* Egyptian Mystics: Seekers of the Way by Moustafa Gadalla
* Western Sufism by Mark Sedgwick
* Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
* Who are the Copts? by H.P. Rev. Fr. Shenouda Hanna
* Ancient Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids - CD
* Liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church - CD

This post is a revised version of one first published in December 2014. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2017. My trip to Egypt was entirely self-funded. 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, January 27, 2017

We are musicians and our model is sound

That photo shows from left to right Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tristan Murail and George Benjamin listening to a playback of their world premiere recording of Murail's piano concerto Le Désenchantement du monde (The demystification of the World). The concerto is one of three works on a new NEOS CD, the others are György Ligeti's Lontano for large orchestra and George Benjamin's Palimpsests for orchestra.

Tristan Murail was together with Gérard Grisey a pioneer of the spectralist movement, and it was Grisey who reminded his peers that "We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture". Andrew Clement's Guardian review of this new disc does full justice to the music. So in this post I want to focus on the sound captured on it; because just a few minutes of listening provides literally resounding confirmation that the musicians' model is indeed first and foremost sound. George Benjamin conducts all three works, and the orchestra is the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks playing in their primary concert venue, the acoustically blessed Herkulessaal in Munich's Residenz. NEOS is one of the few independent labels which have persevered with the SACD format - another is Jordi Savall's Alia Vox - and auditioning the SACD layer through my high-end system provided a timely reminder of just how good recorded sound can be if managed correctly.

Despite Gérard Grisey's assertion that we are musicians and our model is sound, classical music has always had a schizophrenic approach to sound. In the concert hall sound quality is god, to the extent that more than £300 million may be spent building an acoustically state of the art concert hall in London a few hundred yards from the acoustically imperfect but nevertheless sonically perfectly serviceable Barbican Hall. But many of those clamouring for a new hall delivering acoustic nirvana are record reviewers, and as recounted in an earlier post my past experience has been that some critics audition recordings on less than optimal audio systems. In fact a recent selfie on social media from a record reviewer included a glimpse of what looked suspiciously like a definitely sub-Barbican sound system. Which amused me as that writer is a staunch advocate of the new Rattle Hall. Sound quality, as opposed to performance quality, has become the Cinderella of record reviewing. Would a critic write a concert review without telling us where the performance took place? So how about the critics revealing the replay systems they use? Of course every critic cannot afford a high-end audio system; but it would be illuminating to at least know where the goal posts are.

The truly visceral SACD sound of this new NEOS disc does raise the important question of what is actually wrong with the compact disc format. The resurgence in vinyl sales is put down to a rejection of virtual formats and a return to physical media and collectability. But the CD is also a tactile and collectable format which avoids the problem of fragility that blights the LP. It is not a coincidence that in Japan, a country with a strong aesthetic sensibility and a canny approach to technology, 85% of recorded music sales are CDs compared with a global figure of 39%, and Japan has 6000 record stores compared with 1900 in the U.S.. Portability is the current must-have; but a digital file can be ripped from a CD for personal use in 90 seconds, thereby covering both physical and virtual bases. It should also be said however that the SACD encoding is definitely not the only reason for the sonic impact of Tristan Murail's Piano Concerto and the other works. Ripping the CD to AAC files provided an equally stunning but different sonic experience when replayed via the reductionist solution of my iPod Classic and AKG 451 headphones.

The three works by Tristan Murail, György Ligeti and George Benjamin were recorded at concerts given in 2012 as part of the venerable and esteemed Musica Viva - living music - series in Munich. Several threads link the music on this immensely rewarding new disc. One is that all three composers are in their unique ways more interested in sound than meaning. Another is that all three works provide much-needed reminders that neither the orchestra, nor superlative quality recorded sound, nor classical music itself is dead.

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 reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Walls are being built everywhere

Much righteous indignation elsewhere about Trump's wall. But walls are being built everywhere. For instance, as seen above, a clique of classical music luminaries has built a wall that blocks me from viewing their Twitter feeds. Presumably this is because of my unfortunate habit of trying to assimilate their tweets. But as a very light Twitter user I am logged out of the app most of the time, and blocking only works when logged in. So despite their petulance I still have almost unlimited access to the blocked accounts. What a strange world we live in...

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.

Trauma therapy makes sound sense

Sound is vibrations, and there is a growing acceptance of the healing power of vibrating energy - especially the low frequencies known as ultrasound. In a post last year drawing on a Sufi source I explained how research at the SUNY Department of Biomedical Engineering has identified the healing powers of a cats' purr, specifically how the low frequencies of the purr have as an anabolic effect which stimulates growth and maintenance of the human body. That header photo was taken at Mohammad Alaa Al Jaleel's cat sanctuary in Aleppo before it was destroyed by bombing late last year. Alaa was later evacuated from Aleppo and his plans, which for security reasons he cannot fully disclose, include a new combined "cat garden" and medical clinic where animal therapy can be developed to heal children orphaned and traumatised by the terrible Syrian conflict.

Helping the human and animal victims of mankind's lunacy deserves the highest praise. But Alaa's dream of a pioneering trauma therapy facility raises his game to a whole new level. I have never asked readers to share a post before. But this project needs more funds and awareness, which can be channeled through the closed Facebook group, Il Gattaro d'Aleppo. Would it be too much to ask that just a few of the endless anti-Trump and anti-Brexit tweets are devoted instead to spreading the word about Alaa's vision? Would it be too much to ask that just a few thousand pounds of the £2.5 million being lavished by the City of London on a feasibility study for a sonically perfect but superfluous new concert hall are instead diverted to help make Alaa's trauma therapy centre become reality?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Who pays the piper?

That tweet from Richard Bratby was in response to Overgrown Path posts which gave a platform to pleas by conductor Warren Cohen and baritone Stéphane Degout's for more adventurous concert programming. Now Richard is a good 'virtual' friend and I have great respect for his experience in concert management and for his journalistic prowess. But I do believe that two assumptions in that tweet need amicably challenging, because they reflect entrenched attitudes in the classical music establishment.

The first assumption is that musicians performing at a concert carry no financial responsibility. Many musicians are booked on a per concert basis. As a result their financial responsibility is considerable, because if their performance is not a success they may not be booked again. Moreover a poor performance is likely to have negative financial repercussions for the management that booked them. In fact the financial responsibilities of musicians are increasing: in response to Warren Cohen's criticism of unadventurous programmes violinist Johannes Pramsholer declared on Facebook "SO TRUE also in the Baroque world! A fight that I'm fighting every day and the main reason I decided to set up my own record label". Now I do not need to tell readers that setting up your own record company carries an awful lot of financial responsibility; especially when, as is the case with Johannes' Audax Records, the repertoire includes music by Johann Friedrich Meister and Antonio Maria Montanari.

The second assumption in Richard's tweet which needs challenging is that 'the management' - concert planners, administrators and promoters - pays the musicians. Although the management may sign the cheque, they are not actually paying the musicians. Money to pay the musicians typically comes from three sources: the audience via box office receipts, grants from the public sector, and fundraising from the private sector. The management's difficult task is to balance revenue from the box office and other sources against the cost of mounting the concert in the form of musician's fees, venue hire, promotional costs etc.

A vital part of this balancing process is the decision on what repertoire to programme; because this impacts on both the costs of the musicians and the revenue from ticket sales. Decisions on repertoire are taken by concert management using two main inputs. One is historic data, primarily information on ticket sales generated when a work was programmed in the past. But accelerating changes in lifestyles and tastes are making forecasts based on historic data increasingly unreliable; as the shock election of Donald Trump and the surprise result of the UK EU Referendum illustrate. The other input in concert planning is intuitive judgement, such as backing a hunch on a little-known work. But with objective forecasting becoming less reliable, intuitive decision making on repertoire is veering increasingly towards the conservative in order to reduce the unknowns in the cost/ revenue equation. Which leads, as Warren Cohen explains, to concerts featuring only names the public will know.

As Richard Bratby has previously pointed out there are examples of adventurous programming; such as Gustavo Dudamel's upcoming Barbican Europen premiere of Ted Hearne's 'Place' with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But Warren Cohen and Stéphane Degout are of the opinion that the pendulum has swung too far towards what Richard describes as 'caution', and - very importantly - that this swing is not an accurate reflection of an audience's receptivity. In Stéphane Degout's view, and this is an authoritative view that needs sharing, "The tastes of audiences are often misjudged". So sorry to be boring; but I will continue to provide a platform for deserving and dissenting voices in the hope that we may get, for example, one less Beethoven concerto and one more Bax symphony.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A street cat named Aleppo

My recent post drawing attention to Mohammad Alaa Al Jaleel's selfless work with both children and cats in besieged Aleppo has reached a very wide audience. Now this photo of Alaa travelling with his cat Feras to continue his humanitarian work following their evacuation from Aleppo has appeared on social media. Those readers familiar with the 'A Street Cat Named Bob' books and film will be struck by the uncanny similarity. A BBC News video about Alaa's cat sanctuary in Aleppo before it was destroyed by bombing is below. About 60 of 170 cats in the Aleppo sanctuary were rescued and relocated with families that left the city. But many of the others were were feral and could not be caught and several were killed in a chlorine gas attack that came after the barrel bomb that killed the shelter's dog, It is hoped Alaa's humanitarian work will continue; but because of the very serious security risks in the region donations and further updates are being handled via the closed Facebook group, Il Gattaro d'Aleppo.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.

Pulling the rug from under boring new CDs

Abrash is the term that describes the minute colour variations in handmade rugs from the Near and Middle East. These variations result from dyes being made in small batches; abrash is prized as the minor inconsistencies confirm the imperfection of man as opposed to the perfection of the Almighty. Rugs with abrash exhibit a shimmering quality which enhances their appeal and value; these subtle variations can be seen in the red fields of the Persian Qashqai rug seen above. The shimmering is caused by the slightly different frequencies of light waves generated by the minutely varying colours beating together. Sound, like light, is vibrating energy and the composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987), who was an authority on Near and Middle Eastern rugs, deployed the sonic equivalent of abrash in his late piano work Palais de Mari. This uses microtonal differences in pitch to produce a sonic shimmering from the resulting beat frequencies. Steven Osborne has recorded Morton Feldman's Palais de Mari in a coupling with other Feldman pieces and George Crumb's Processional and A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 on an audacious new release from Hyperion which has been lamentably overlooked by the mainstream classical media.

No review samples used in this post. Image of Qashqai rug via Dingo Gallery. 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, January 23, 2017

And through a woman came forth the better things

In his plea for more imaginative concert planning conductor Warren Cohen lamented the ubiquity of the Emperor Concerto. So staying with the theme of unfamiliar music, today's post features music with connections to another Emperor. Chroniclers from the 9th century recount that when the young and beautiful Kassia (also known as Kassiani) was told by her suitor the Emperor Theophilos that "Through a woman came forth the baser things" she retorted "And through a woman came forth the better things". After rejecting the Emperor's ill-judged advances the proto-feminist Kassia went on to become an influential abbess, poet and composer. So, given the high profile of Hildegard of Bingen's music, it is surprising that Kassia is not better known today; particularly as she predates Hildegard by almost three centuries and is usually awarded the highly marketable title of the first woman composer.

This puzzling neglect may be explained by two factors. One is that Kassia (c810-865AD) was born in Constantinople and spent most of her life in the city, which at the time was the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (now Istanbul) stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, so in our euro-centric culture Kassia is perceived as being on the margins of the Western classical music tradition. This marginalisation is compounded by her membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church in which she is venerated as Saint Kassiani, so she lies outside the great Catholic tradition of sacred music. The second possible reason for her obscurity is her small oeuvre: although more than 50 liturgical works are attributed to her, the provenance of more than half of these is disputed.

Kassia's neglect is reflected in the record catalogue, and to my knowledge the only full length album devoted to her music was recorded in 2009 by the VocaMe early music ensemble*. Fortunately VocaMe's album Kassia - seen above - on the German Christophorus label* provides a very cogent argument for giving the Byzantine hymnographer the attention she deserves. Sequentia, with its mix of voices led by Barbara Thornton and the subtle sound of early instruments, played an important role in the Hildegard revival, and similarly the four female voices of VocaMe are complemented by early music multi-instrumentalist Michael Popp and - looking eastwards from Constantinople - Johann Bengen on santur. VocaMe's persuasive advocacy confirms Kassia's assertion that through a woman came forth the better things. If you don't know her music this album is well worth seeking out.

* A Naxos CD juxtaposes Kassiani's original Troparion for Holy Wednesday with settings by Mikis Theodorakis, Ivan Moody and others.
** The recording of Coptic liturgy featured in a 2013 post was also on the Christophorus label.
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). Reluctantly also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

There is a time for many words and there is a time for sleep

That headline quote comes from Book XI of Homer's The Odyssey which chronicles Odysseus' descent into hell. In my view a second helping of cat bait is justified to counterbalance the gathering global gloom. I took the photo in Essaouira, Morocco where a resilient mystical, musical and feline culture has reassuringly survived the never-ending foolishness of man. An observation by John Tavener is relevant to this image:
There is something deeply mysterious about cats. I think they 'know' things we don't have access to.
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.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The circle game

What is the source of the mysterious power of this image? Ginger is on a pouffe from Morocco decorated with a pattern typical of Islamic art. Cats are cherished by Muslims; so does the circular symmetry suggest the whirling of the Mevlâna Sufis - the mystics of Islam? Or maybe the image reflects the circular symbolism of the Christian Canterbury Cross or the circinate variants of the Tree of Life found in the Kabbalah? (The Kabbalah is in Abraham ibn Musa's reading a Jewish parallel to Sufism.) Or perchance the powerful visual energy come from further afield - from the Far East and the circular mandalas of Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps all these traditions combine in this syncretic orb? On the other hand it may be an uncomfortable reminder of the skeptical Krishnamurti's observation that "We are afraid to leave our own little circle and discover the circle, the barrier, around another". Or was my camera simply in the right place at the right time? Does any of this matter? Because as Joni Mitchell explains:
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
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.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Audiences are not backward children

Among those who shared the post expressing Warren Cohen's frustration at myopic concert planning was violinist Johannes Pramsohler. His Facebook share elicited a comment from baritone Stéphane Degout who is seen above. Stéphane is a big hitter in the operatic world and his comment contains an important message for all those who capitulate to the tyranny of programme planners and marketing experts; so I have posted it below in translation*. As Virgil Thomson told us, never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information.
Forty minutes of Debussy's songs last year, forty minutes of Poulenc/Apollinaire plus a trio of contemporary works in the same programme this year. Programme planners sometimes tell me that my recitals are too rarified, too intellectual, and that no one will come. But the rooms are full and the audience loves it. The tastes of audiences are often misjudged: the public are not backward children who only like what they know, and who have no appetite for the new or willingness to adapt. Quite the contrary! I was often told my programmes “will not interest anyone” and was asked for programmes mixing opera arias and more popular pieces. But I always refused; because I believe one must first acknowledge the audience's intelligence instead of acceding to the wishes of a programme planner who has a narrow outlook and an inbuilt fear of risk.
* Stéphane Degout's comment was in French; I take full responsibility for the loose translation. Photo is via IMG Artists. 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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Instead, they play the Emperor Concerto again ... it's depressing

Goodness knows, I try, but the problem is that I and the other people trying to bring more music, different music and new music to people are obscure and have a very limited audience. I did not go to a big school, I have very few connections with famous musicians, I conduct a couple of obscure orchestras (although one of them is really pretty good!) and have no connections in the media world to get people to pay attention to what I am trying to do. Previn, Bernstein and Monrow were well connected, famous musicians with an ability to reach vast numbers of people, and, more important, they were allowed to do what they thought best.

When Hindemith died Bernstein devoted an entire Young People's Concert to him the very next month - an hour of Hindemith for 9 year olds - and he was allowed to do it. No 'marketing expert" would permit such an outrage today. These are the people who determine what we hear, and, because they think in such a short term way, they cannot tolerate anything that might take a while to grow. Even I am repeatedly told that on every concert I need to have a "name the public will know"- but there are literally only about 10 names on that list, which means we continually recycle the same repertoire. The irony is that because of my limited reach and outsider status, I still have more freedom than the people who should be the ones bringing new music, new ideas and new people to the music world. Instead, they play the Emperor Concerto again, because...Beethoven. It's depressing.
That comment was added by Warren Cohen to my post How classical music squandered its golden opportunity. Warren, who is seen above, is music director of the Scottsdale-based MusicaNova Orchestra and artistic director of the New Jersey Integration Orchestra. Reader's comments are always valued, but when they come from those holding the baton such as Warren and John McLaughlin Williams they are doubly valued. These contributions from the Young Turks of the conducting profession give me faith that all is not lost; although all certainly does seem lost at celebrity level - the very people who, as Warren Cohen points out, should be bringing new music, new ideas and new people to the music world. And no comments please that Hindmith does not put bums on seats. If you want bums on seats programme Ravel's Bolero with a pole dancer.

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Classical music moves towards a single market

The London Symphony Orchestra is one of Classic FM's partner orchestras. There has been much media spin linked to Simon Rattle's 2017 Barbican concerts as the LSO's incoming music director. The spin includes a shower of anti-Brexit and pro-new London concert hall tweets from Classic FM quoting him, and a news story that "Simon Rattle launches first LSO season with swipe at Brexit". Both the Barbican Hall and proposed new London Hall are in the City of London, and the financial community in the City of London has been one of the most vocal critics of Brexit. In another Classic FM news item critical of Brexit, policy chairman of the City of London Corporation Mark Boleat is quoted as saying: "Britain has long been a magnet for global talent. To continue the sector's success, with 12% of City workers made up of European staff, it is important the flow of leading talent to the UK continues".

As pointed out in a 2015 Overgrown Path post Mark Boleat is in favour of the new £278 million+ London concert hall. He is a member of the City of London Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee, and with Michael Cassidy sits on the City of London Property Investment Board. From 2000-2003 Michael Cassidy was chairman of the Barbican Arts Centre, and is currently non-executive chairman of Askonas Holt; which is the agency that manages Rattle and represents the LSO. The recently announced £2.5 million of funding for preparing a detailed business case aimed at keeping plans for the new London concert hall advocated by Rattle alive was approved by the City of London Corporation’s Court of Common Council of which Michael Cassidy is a member.

As well being a member of the City of London Corporation’s Court of Common Council and Property Investment Board, Askonas Holt non-executive chairman Michael Cassidy also sits on the City of London Investment Committee and Markets Committee, and is a non-executive director of Swiss global financial services company UBS which is a vocal critic of Brexit. Among the many sponsors of the London Symphony Orchestra is UBS.

Simon Rattle argues that he has not met anyone who has said Brexit is going to make life easier for the arts. Which may well be true. But it can also be argued that with or without Brexit, the hegemony over classical music that he is party to will not make life easier for the very many fine musicians who are not fortunate enough to share with him membership of a disturbingly powerful and privileged London-centric club.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

How classical music squandered its golden opportunity

David Munrow's Pied Piper BBC radio series broadcast from 1971 to 1976 introduced thousands of young and not so young people to classical music. The title was particularly apt because classical music's Pied Piper led his unsuspecting audience on a rich journey of discovery. In the same way other influential animateurs such as Leonard Bernstein with his CBS television Young People's Concerts and André Previn with his BBC TV Music Night programmes also helped new audiences discover and explore classical music. It was not just media figures that provided leadership on that journey of discovery. Conductor John McLaughlin Williams recently recounted how the proprietor of Serenade Records in Washington DC, which closed many years ago, led him on a journey of discovery through Medtner, Glazunov, Glière, and many other composers. And as a customer I have made many invaluable discoveries in the soon to close Prelude Records in Norwich, England, discoveries which were shared with readers.

No latter-day animateurs have emerged to fill the shoes of David Munrow, Leonard Bernstein and André Previn, and independent record stores are now almost an extinct species. It can be argued very convincingly that the demise of bricks and mortar retailers is a sad but inevitable result of disruptive new technologies and changing lifestyles. But the same new technology - the internet - which triggered the demise of the independent record store opened up a golden new opportunity to lead new classical audiences on that vital journey of discovery and exploration.

Ten years ago classical blogging reached its apogee led by the eclectic Sequenza21 and Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, with the latter blog acting as a curtain raiser for the eponymous and hugely influential book which led countless new listeners on a journey of discovery through 20th century music. But the late noughties saw the arrival of social media led by Facebook and Twitter, which soon replaced blogs as the communication platform of choice. Social media was initially billed as micro-blogging, and presented classical music with a huge opportunity to share discoveries; thereby filling the vacuum created by the neglect of music programming by mainstream media and the disappearance of bricks and mortar record stores. But sadly classical music squandered that opportunity - and how.

Social media could be a powerful tool for the sharing of music discoveries to mutual benefit. Instead it has become a vehicle for ranting, self-promotion, click baiting and the mind-numbingly mundane. There will always be those who abuse an open resource. But did classical music really have to join the race to the bottom with such alacrity? Did music critics really have to join the other 317 million Twitter users peddling the same banalities? How many times in the last month did you learn something about classical music from social media that has made a difference to you? Classical music desperately needs new online animateurs. When will classical music's great and good stop re-tweeting the same tired memes about Trump and Brexit, photos of their dinners and tonsorial revelations*, and instead start inspiring and leading that vital new audience on a contemporary voyage of discovery?

* That header tweet came from Hugh Canning who is classical music critic for the Sunday Times and a member of the Critics' Circle. The tweet was not privacy protected and therefore available to any of the internet's 3.2 billion users. Despite protestations to the contrary Twitter is a medium of record, irrespective of context. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Leading conductor writes in praise of our lost record stores

'Hello Bob, your post on the closure of Prelude Records struck a chord with me, as it doubtless will with many others. Great stores like yours and my Serenade Records in Washington DC are authors of far, far more than they can ever know. The obituary of Nesim Revah who established and ran the shop that was my second home as a very young man can be read here. I didn't know that much about him until reading this. He was always super kind to me, a young black kid with what probably seemed either highly sophisticated or weirdly iconoclastic musical tastes. I learned of Medtner, Glazunov, Gliere, and so many others from Serenade Records. Eventually, Nesim found out what I was studying, and when the Washington Post did a little piece on me, he totally surprised me by cutting it out of the paper and posting it in a very prominent spot in the shop so all could see. (I'm actually getting a bit teary recalling this, now decades in the past, as it moved me so at the time.) Below is the story that appeared in the Post. No one comes from nowhere,and we all receive help and encouragement when least we expect' - email received from John McLaughlin Williams who is seen above and below.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Requiem for a record store

News that a retail store in Norwich - 100 miles from London - is closing is unlikely to attract much attention. But the impending closure of Prelude Records, one of the few independent stores in the UK run by classical musicians for music lovers, will impact on the many readers of this blog all around the world. Many of the posts On An Overgrown Path have been inspired by chance discoveries in Prelude; the kind of chance discoveries which are simply not possible in algorithm-driven online stores. My life will undoubtedly be diminished by the closure of Prelude Records. So the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination means the content of this blog - how long before it too goes the way of Prelude? - will be diminished, and that diminution will affect readers all round the world. Not to mention of course the musicians and small record companies whose viability will be diminished by a further reinforcement of the financial stranglehold of Apple Music, Spotify and other online gatekeepers. Proprietor Andrew Cane - seen above - explains the closure by a decline in business caused by downloads and streaming and says "It's not a sudden change, it's been a gradual erosion. The people who are still regulars are wonderful, but sadly, that's not enough".

My rites of passage playlist included the Moody Blues 1971 album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour which contains this prescient lyric: 'But I'm frightened for your children/That the life that we are living is in vain/And the sunshine we've been waiting for/Will turn to rain'. The closure of Prelude Records is just another small step from sunshine into the rain and darkness of Khali Yuga. Those who still believe the fiction of the 'axis of evil' should ponder on these wise words from Paul Levy's Dispelling Wetiko:
A civilization usually doesn't die from being invaded from the outside, but unless it creates culture which nourishes the evolution of the creative spirit, a civilization invariably commits suicide.
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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Happy Imazighn New Year

Today is New Year's Day in the Berber (Imazighn) calendar, and there are celebrations in Agadir, Tiznit and other majority Berber areas of Morocco. The presence of Berbers in Morocco predates the Arab/Muslim invasion of the country by eight centuries. Around three-quarters of Morocco's 30 million population are of Berber descent and the number of Berber speakers, either as a first language or bilingually with an Arab dialect, is estimated to be around 10 million. The Berbers mix observance of saintly and animistic cults with more orthodox Islam in a syncretic tradition known as Maraboutic Islam. My photo shows our Berber friend Hassan who has featured in several Overgrown Path posts. Hassan is an ace surfer from the Berber village of Tamraght, which is the surfing capital of Africa. I first met Hassan some years ago when he looked after me while I was sea kayaking in the big surf of Morocco's Atlantic coast. Back then Hassan was living in a hut on the beach with fishermen friends. He went on to become a respected surf instructor, and has just become a co-founder of Shaka Surf Morocco. Hassan spends his days on the beach in the region's year-round sunshine and his evenings and most of his nights partying with his clients who include many attractive young ladies. In my next incarnation I hope to come back as a surf instructor in Morocco.

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I read the news today, oh boy...

How long before the fake news row reaches classical music?

'Tis the gift to be free

Among the most read On An Overgrown Path posts in recent weeks has been the one seen above. It dates from the early days of the blog and was created by cutting and pasting the text of Aaron Copland's 1953 testimony to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's notorious Senate Permanent Subcommittee. There could be two reasons why it is attracting so many readers. One is that it now appears to be the only online version of this important document as the link to its source, a US State Congress document, is broken. Another reason could be its topical resonances. The full text of Aaron Copland's McCarthy hearing can be read via this link.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Stop whining about vinyl

Recent news that UK vinyl sales had passed downloads was greeted with the predictable click baiting headline of "This country is going backwards". These endless futile arguments about analogue versus digital are just a distraction. Instead industry commentators should focus on the argument put forward by David Sax in his important and overlooked new book, The Revenge of the Analog:
The choice we face isn't between digital and analog. That simplistic duality is actually the language that digital has conditioned us to: a false binary choice between 1 and 0, black and white, Samsung and Apple. The real world isn't black and white. It is not even gray. Reality is multicolored, infinitely textured and emotionally layered. It smells funky and tastes weird, and revels in human imperfection. The best ideas emerge from that complexity, which remains beyond the capability of digital technology to fully appreciate. The real world matters, now more than ever.
The money quote is "The choice we face isn't between digital and analog". Since the recording angel first took flight there has always been one dominant delivery platform - first cylinder, then shellac, vinyl and finally CD. But now we are moving into the era of multiple delivery - streaming, download, CD, vinyl, SACD, DVD, MP3, AAC, FLAC, etc etc. The future will be both analogue and digital. No single dominant format will emerge; instead there will be constant change as new technologies present new opportunities and old technologies rejuvenate jaded ears. This inexorable move to multiple delivery has important implications. A positive is that it undermines the corporate stranglehold of single delivery gatekeepers such as Apple Music and Spotify. But a negative is that fragmentation makes the administration of royalties, the life blood of musicians, even more torturous. As David Sax tells us, the real world matters, now more than ever. The classical music industry must stop whining about vinyl and instead rise to meet the challenge of multiple delivery platforms.

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Monday, January 09, 2017

How Maestro Dudamel is saving classical music

Newsweek's 2012 profile headlined "Bravo, Gustavo! How Maestro Dudamel is saving classical music" was remarkably prophetic. As his latest property transaction seen above and Rolex brand ambassador role seen below confirm, Gustavo Dudamel has indeed saved classical music. He has saved the celebrity culture with its top-heavy reward structure, he has saved the vital skill of staying onside with the media, and has saved the fine art of embracing just enough new music to stay cool. Moreover he has saved venerable and highly lucrative star vehicles such as the Rolex sponsored Neujahrskonzert der Wiener Philharmoniker, and has saved the casuistry of running with the humanitarian hounds while hunting with an ethically compromised regime. In fact Gustavo Dudamel has saved classical music's elitist and privileged status quo.

Dudamel's many apologists will argue that rich rewards for celebrity conductors are nothing new. Which is quite true. But Herbert von Karajan - famed for his private jet - was in his 50s when he reaped his rewards, while Leopold Stokowski - famed for his intimacy with Hollywood leading ladies - was into his fourth decade before he rose to stardom, and both conductors had served long apprenticeships. By contrast Gustavo Dudamel made his high profile debut in 2005 and became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic just four years later aged 27. In the 2012/13 season his salary in LA was $1.5 million. He was already a Rolex brand ambassador when he became music director, and CNN recently reported that a celebrity watch endorsement contract is worth $3 million. Just two years after starting his tenure in LA Dudamel bought his first property in Hollywood Hills for $1.85 million, following this with the one seen above valued at $3.1 million.

Yes, the maestros of the past had their peccadilloes. But we live in very different times and scarcely a day passes without news of yet another savage cut to arts funding. The classical music industry is in denial, and peddles the sophistry that music funding is separated into hermetically sealed and unconnected compartments, with celebrities isolated in one compartment and grass roots musicians in another. This is self-serving obfuscation: funding does indeed come from many different sources, but just as all rivers lead to one ocean, so all funding ultimately comes from one contracting pot. Chaos theory applies to classical music. So, just as a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico can cause a hurricane in China, so a dude ranch changing hands in the Hollywood Hills can threaten the future of an arts centre in Birmingham, England.

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