Thursday, March 30, 2017

New music that exposes the axis of eloquence

Given the desperate need to find common ground between the Christian and Islamicate worlds it is surprising that more attention has not been paid to the influence of Persian literature on 19th century Romanticism, an influence which left its mark on many of the great minds of the West. The bridge between the two cultures was built by the German poet, translator, and professor of Oriental languages Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) who translated into German the poetry of Rumi (who he described as "a great Sufi"), Sa'di, Jami and Hāfez.

It was Goethe's admiration for the gazals (lyric poems) of Hāfez in translation that inspired his West-östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Divan) which was published in 1819 and from which Daniel Barenboim's band takes its name. Little is known about Hāfez. He lived all his life (1320-1389, which is contemporaneous with Chaucer) in the Persian city of Shiraz. He was a Sufi master, philosopher, mystic of Islam and spiritual rebel who wrote more than 5000 poems. Only around 700 of these survive, the rest were destroyed by clerics because of their ecstatic and heretical content encouraging union with the Divine - an action which presaed the persecution of Sufis by today's Muslim fundamentalists. Goethe wrote his West-östlicher Divan both as a tribute to Hāfez - who Goethe referred to as his "spiritual leader" - and as a humanitarian treatise that transcends cultures and centuries.

Among the composers who set poetry from the West-östlicher Divan were Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg. The influence of Hāfez's gazals spread beyond Goethe to Victor Hugo and to the pioneer American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who acknowledged him as “a poet for poets”. Goethe's West-östlicher Divan was also one of the routes that led Nietzsche to Persian culture, a route that led on to Thus Spoke Zarathustra and further onwards to Wagner, Hitler and, surprisingly, to Delius.

Goethe's admiration and debt to Hāfez influenced his worldview as well as his poetry. It is often overlooked that Goethe opined that there is "much nonsense in the doctrines of the [Christian] church." (Conversations with Eckermann and Soret, 1832). In his Divan Goethe stresses the benefit of the Sufi teaching of valuing the precious present moment against the Christian attitude of waiting for the next life and therefore, devaluing what God gives humankind in every moment of life. He also denounced sectarianism, saying "If Islam means submission to God, we all live and die in Islam". Goethe read the Qur'an in German translation and his ecstatic poem Mahomets Gesang (The Song of Mohammed) was set in an uncompleted work by Schubert.

Much more recently a 2013 project supported by the Goethe Institut à Paris and Festival d'Ile de France brought together in a new music commission which is available in a CD/DVD release the poetry of Hafez and Goethe . The Divān project was the brainchild of the Syrian-born French-resident composer and musician Abed Azrié; Azrié's 1991 Nonesuch album Aromates is acknowledged by John Adams as an influence on Act 1 of The Death of Klinghoffer, and his syncretic Arabic setting of the Gospel of John featured here in 2010. Divān juxtaposes the poetry of Goethe and Hafez, sung in German by tenor Jan Kobow and Arabic by Abed Azrié respectively. The music by Abed Azrié, which is scored imaginatively for bandoneón, violin, string bass and piano, continues the theme of influence, with the German settings indebted to Schubert and Weill, and the Arabic to Azrié's native Syria - see music samples below.

The recent barbaric attack at Westminster can only be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But the mawkish and unhelpful outpourings of both the mainstream and social media that followed must also be condemned for different reasons. Much reflective silence leavened by sparing exposure to the mystical power of the axis of eloquence that unites East and West is the only balm that will heal the present wounds.

With thanks to Yahya Lequeux of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order. No review samples used. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

It's about how we listen and not where we listen

We are a music that longs to be free and set others free. What happens when we listen to music and just after? Music mixes and becomes part of our waiting and opening to improvisation. Listening was central to Rumi's practice.
There's an inner patience that allows inspiration. We wait to learn the timing of art. I have a friend who as a child when she took piano lessons would sometimes go back and add a note she hadn't played. "The time for that note is over," said the teacher.
Was it a New Yorker cartoon? There's a kid in the subway listening to a man noodling on the sax. His mother is pulling on him. "Come on honey. That's not real music. He's just making it up."Following inspiration and the nudges of intuition sets the vitality of our music in motion.
That is Coleman Barks' introduction to the section Music: Patience and Improvisation in his poetry anthology The Soul of Rumi. Classical music's biggest current problem is undoubtedly a lack of listeners. Yet in the frenzied search for a new audience very little attention is paid to the practice of listening. Which is perverse: because if you want bums on seats you need listeners. Rumi's poetry has reached that elusive mass market, and listening was central to Rumi's practice. More recently the much missed Pauline Oliveros developed 'Deep Listening', a powerful practice that hones listening skills. Neither Rumi nor Pauline Oliveros mandated acoustically perfect designer concert halls such as the much-lauded Elbphilharmonie for the practice of listening. In fact Deep Listening is a plural practice involving bodywork, sonic meditations, interactive performance, listening to the sounds of daily life, nature, one’s own thoughts, imagination and dreams, and listening to listening itself which cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal.

It is conveniently overlooked that the elusive new audience does an awful lot of listening, but not in concert halls. In David Sax's book Reveng of Analog record industry executive Tom Grover, who has worked extensively with new delivery platforms, is quoted as explaining the unprecedented vinyl revival in these words: "As iPods and Facebook became the parent's stuff, kids began searching for something different, because it wasn't cool once your parents did it". Is the uncool concert hall doomed irrespective of dress, applause between movements, etc etc simply because that's where parents go?

We may or may not believe that concert halls are uncool and therefore doomed. However it is a fact that headphone listening is now the de facto standard for consuming music in an increasingly mobile world. I have listened in many of the world's great concert halls; but in recent years headphones have become a more and more important part of my listening practice. And my listening experience has not suffered as a result. In fact I am convinced it has benefitted. Following the practice outlined in Pauline Oliveros' eponymous book I have explored Deep Listening recently in diverse locations including a Benedictine monastery in France and the roof terrace of a riad in Morocco. Via headphones this deep and very rewarding listening has ranged widely, including Eliane Radique's explorations of the inner analogue, John Luther Adams' aching suspension of D-sharp against an E-major triad, Nawab Khan's answer to the growing cry for help, and Brian Jones' psychedelic vision of the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

Another book that has influenced my listening is Ben Ratliff's Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now which explores listening practices in the era of Spotify and other streaming services. Ben Ratliff is jazz critic of the New York Times, and as Michel Legrand explained, there should be no demarcation lines between jazz and classical music, because both have the same goal - good music. So it is not surprising that my recent deep listening has included a jazz album. Haz'art Trio comprises Fadhel Boubaker oud, Jonathan Sell double bass and Dominik Fürstberger drums. Their new debut album* Infinite Chase is worth seeking out not least because their syncretic improvisations are as good as the cover art. Now just deep listen...

* Infinite Chase is produced by Vladimir Ivanoff, founder of the syncretic early ensemble Sarband which has made several appearances on An Overgrown Path. No review samples used. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What a charade in Dubai

Money was doubtless the reason for franchising the BBC Proms to the oil-rich but ethically-challenged emirate of Dubai. However just one of many concerns about classical music's endorsement of the United Arab Emirates is the regime's overt homophobia, which makes demonised Russia look distinctly gay-friendly. As stated by UAE lawyer and government spokesperson Dr. Habib al-Mulla: "This is a conservative society. Homosexuality, conducted homosexuality is an illegal act*. And we are not ashamed of that”. Presumably BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny, who has publicly expressed support for LGBT+ causes and who travelled without demur to Dubai to present the franchised Proms, and BBC Proms controller Alan Davey who is also aligned with the LGBT+ community, are both well aware of the UAE's stance on homosexuality. But in classical music today money speaks louder words, and the Gulf media's critical appreciation of western classical music was clearly not the reason why Dubai was favoured with a Proms franchise; as this extract from the review of the first concert by the UAE's leading English language newspaper The National shows, :
In residence is the renowned BBC Symphony Orchestra which — under the baton of distinguished Proms veteran Edward Gardner — gave over the evening’s second half to William Walton’s Symphony No. 1, a formulaic assault of pomp, grandeur and cliché which, premiered in 1935, chimed a wantonly oblivious note of pride from an empire on the slow march towards collapse.
* Article 177 of the Penal Code of Dubai imposes imprisonment of up to 10 years on consensual sodomy. Before the twitterati complain about negative caricaturing of Emiratis I would point out that the serendipitous header cartoon depicts William Walton with Edith Sitwell in drag and is sampled from a YouTube video of Walton's Facade. 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, March 27, 2017

The art of understanding the ordinary

Understanding the ordinary:
Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to TAO
There is definitely nothing ordinary about the keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which forms an important but too often overlooked bridge between the high baroque of his father's circle and the emerging classicism of Haydn and Mozart. And there is nothing ordinary in the playing of the Croatian pianist Ana-Marija Markovina whose discerning interpretations on a 'modern' Bösendorfer are faithfully captured in Hänssler Classics' 26 CD anthology of C.P.E. Bach's complete works for solo piano. But in an age when the classical promotion machine practises its own nuanced version of 'if it bleeds it leads', I suspect that this admirably bleed-free release will be misguidedly judged ordinary. The TAO tells us* that understanding the ordinary opens the mind. And listening to Ana-Marija Markovina playing C.P.E. Bach also opens the mind.

* Quotation is from Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo's purist translation of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Belief and beyond belief

In tune with the zeitgeist, the London Philharmonic dedicated yesterday's performance of Mozart's Requiem to the four victims of Wednesday's terrible attack at Westminster. But the orchestra passed on the opportunity to dedicate the other work in their programme, Strauss' Death and Transfiguration, to the 200+ Iraqi civilians killed in the coalition airstrike on Mosul five days before the London atrocity - see photo above. Predictable but ironic: because the concert was a central event in the Southbank Centre's much-trumpeted Belief and Beyond Belief festival, which "looks at the broader questions of what it means to be human... in the 21st century".

Photo via LA Times. 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, March 25, 2017

Who needs the Berlin Philharmonic?

A conductor making great music with a first class orchestra is a delight. A conductor making great music with a third class orchestra is a miracle. I will remember Louis Frémaux, who has died aged 95, for the miracles he worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In the 1970s when Frémaux was its principal conductor, the CBSO was a third rate and ill-disciplined band: Simon Rattle tells of how at the time if a conductor asked the violin section to play a passage using the same part of the bow the players would laugh and ask why. Given this, Frémaux's recordings with the CBSO such as the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony - still one of the finest interpretations committed to disc - and Massenet's ballet music from Le Cid are nothing short of a miracle.

EMI recorded the Saint-Saëns in the Great Hall of Birmingham University, although the artwork, of course, shows the Cavaillé-Coll instrument in La Madeleine, Paris. In 1978 relations between the CBSO's management and players broke down completely and Frémaux walked out on the orchestra on the same day as the general manager. This left a gap which Simon Rattle filled; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Above and below is my 1973 SQ quadraphonic pressing of the Saint-Saëns Symphony. That year I worked on EMI's SQ demonstration at the Olympia Audio Fair. This involved playing the Allegro moderato - Maestoso - Allegro final movement of the Saint-Saëns repeatedly at very high levels for three days. Louis Frémaux's interpretation is indeed miraculous. But almost half a century I still cannot hear the work without shuddering.

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).

Friday, March 24, 2017

What is important is to be your own Master

To fresh matters must I now refer, indeed there's much to say.
One night I spent as a passing guest in a friend's house.
Sufficient was the meal, even though today, come what may,
Some men are reluctant to open their doors to visitors.
It takes but little patience to spend the evening together,
Enough time for intentions, worthy and unworthy, to show.
Say what I must, these times are at one good and bad.
As to what fate holds in store, how should we know?
We lack nothing material, yet our minds are in turmoil!
That is the opening stanza of the contemporary Berber ballad Hospitality Betrayed from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco composed by Sheikh Assu of Ishishawn*. The photo is from Cette Lumière by Dominique and Miloudi Nouiga which takes its title from Jiddu Krishnamurti's teaching "L’important c’est d’être à soi-même sa propre lumière, son propre maître et son propre disciple [What is important is to be a light unto yourself, to be your own Master and disciple]". This exquisite French/ Darija book documents life in the village of Ait Hamza in the Atlas Mountains. Paul Bowles documented this region sonically in his 1959 field recordings which have been lovingly remastered for CD release by Dust to Digital. Cette Lumière was purchased on my recent visit to Morocco which included visiting the Middle Atlas - post to follow. Last year I trekked in the High Atlas to a soundtrack of Paul Bowles' recordings and I will return to that region where the magnificent belittles the material later this year.

* Extract is transcribed from the collection Berber Odes by Michael Peyron. No review samples used. 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, March 20, 2017

Music the Internet is hiding from you

Recent compelling rail trip listening included the new CD La Voix de la Passion (Voice of Passion) from the young Syrian singer and oud player Waed Bouhassoun. In 2015 I wrote about her previous album L'Âme du luth (Soul of the oud) and on this new disc she juxtaposes settings of Nabataean poetry from southern Syria and Arab poetry from the cultural Indian summer of Al-Andalusia - sample via this link.

In his 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You Eli Pariser explained the dangers of the little-understood filter bubbles created by the personalisation algorithms used by Facebook, Google and other major Internet players. These algorithms maximise web traffic by personalising - in other words skewing - content to pander to the known likes of individual web users. In very simple terms this means that clicking on or 'liking' Facebook statuses about Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla means your news feed will be skewed to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla-related content, and mentioning Jonas Kaufmann in your Gmail messages will push Jonas Kaufmann-related results to the top of your Google searches . But it also means that as very few readers will have googled Syrian oud music or 'liked' statuses mentioning Waed Bouhassoun, this post about a very fine musician - female to boot - will receive minimal exposure on social media. And this is just one example: because the work of many other deserving musicians from the Western and other traditions is also hidden by the ubiquitous bubble filters. Moreover selective filtering is not confined to the Internet giants.

Eli Pariser describes how "In the filter bubble, there's less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning" and how "Creativity is often sparked by the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures". On both sides of the Atlantic there is currently much righteous indignation about restrictions on the movement of populace across borders that helps spark these vital collisions of ideas. Yet we all (yes, this post is bidding for 30 seconds of social media fame) aid and abet a technology that covertly and very profitably suppresses this vital collision of ideas. The $3 million cost of Donald Trump's weekend Mar-a-Lago getaways and uninformed guesses at the cost of Brexit are the lifeblood of social media; but the filter bubble-driven annual profits of Facebook - $10.2 billion - and Google - $6.8 billion - hardly merit a mention. We live in very strange times.

No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Take the train from Casablanca going south

That photo was taken by me a few days ago and shows the Marrakesh Express pulling in to Meknes. The train was immortalised in a track on Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 debut album which tells how on the journey "Ducks and pigs and chickens call". In a Rolling Stone interview Graham Nash explained that on the 1960s Marrakesh Express "Just like the song says, there were ducks and pigs and chickens all over the place and people lighting fires". As pigs are notably scarce in Muslim Morocco we must surmise that the lyric's reference to "Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my my, my, my, my mouth" describes something more potent than Marlboros.

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).