Wednesday, May 31, 2017

So blessed are the strangers

Being moved by Gregorian Chant does not mean endorsing the actions of the Catholic Church. But exploring the sacred music of Islam quite wrongly carries the stigma of 'going native' and, as a result, a rich repertoire remains virtually unknown. In a thoughtful booklet essay for the nasheed group Shaam's 'Mawlid at Abbey Road' CD Timothy Winter ( Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad) suggests there are parallels between the sacred music of Islam known as nasheed and Gregorian Chant, and laments how the music and rich culture of Islam continue for many in the West to be veiled by the actions of an extremist fringe.

A particularly poignant relevancy is provided by the provenance of the band. Shaam is the Arabic word for the region of Syria around Damascus where the four young musicians studied, and their music is rooted in the Levant. All the group's members live in the Midlands of England, and in 2002 Shaam's first album 'Mercy Like Rain' became a viral hit with young Muslims after receiving extensive airplay on the UK network of Radio Ramadan. The concert video below was recorded in the Albert Hall on one of the few nights when a Mahler symphony was not being played. This 'brains in gear' music challenges established cultural comfort zones and will sound strange at first hearing to Western ears. But as the hadith Sahih Muslim 1/130 explains:

The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said, "Islam begins something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers"

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, May 30, 2017

Brains in gear versus bums on seats

Following a crisis in the Australian film industry during the 1980s the media figure and sometime film producer Philip Adams suggested that film-makers should no longer aim for 'bums on seats' but instead should strive to put 'minds in gear'. Classical music's top heavy business model dictates that it remorselessly pursues a futile strategy of unadventurous bums on seats programming - how many Mahler symphonies does it take to fill the Albert Hall? But as Stéphane Degout pointed out here recently, listeners have a very wide range of gear ratios at their disposal. It just needs some visionaries within classical music to depress the clutch and engage those gears. My recent mind in gear listening has included the newly released and truly visceral double CD of music for cello by Pascal Dusapin played by Arne Deforce. Now listen to music that really engages the gears via this link.

This post is a comp-free zone. 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, May 29, 2017

If even one person is changed, it has been worthwhile

Last week the 4000th post was uploaded to An Overgrown Path. All those posts amount to a total word count of 1.6 million. As a comparison the Qur'an contains 77,449 words and the King James Bible 790,676. And the onslaught continues today with a post about the art of the Afghan rubâb. The raga is usually thought of as a property of the Indian sub-continent; but it is also found in Afghanistan, a country with a rich culture that is unfairly overshadowed by Western-inflicted notoriety. On the featured CD from the Smithsonian Folkways label, rubâb virtuoso Homayun Sakhi - born in Kabul but now living in exile in California - with Afghani tabla player Toryalai Hashimi essays two ragas that exhibit influences from both India and Persia. A concert video of Homayun Sakhi can be viewed via this link, and there is a useful introductory documentary featuring him below.

Despite millions of page views, An Overgrown Path most definitely has not changed the world of music. But as BBC presenter Libby Purves wrote - "To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber and Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is make - and publicize - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile".

As usual, no freebies involved. 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, May 28, 2017

There is a Scott Ross biopic just waiting to be made

Those two archive footage screengrabs show the legendary harpsichordist Scott Ross. His all-too-brief life has all the stuff that blockbuster movies are made of - the paradox of genius, the feel-good factor of cats and orchid breeding, the tragedy of Aids, the legacy of a prodigy, the struggles of an iconoclast, and a final scene where the ashes of the definitive interpreter of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas are scattered from a light plane over the Provencal hamlet of Assas. Unfortunately I can bring you no news of a Martin Scorsese biopic. But in 2005 I wrote here about the invaluable memoir of Scott Ross written and privately published by his friend the luthier Michel Proulx, and over the years that article continues to be read and I receive emails asking about availability of the hard-to-find memoir. Now it is good to report that Michel has ported his medieval word processing files to a contemporary technology platform and his memoir of the legendary harpsichordist An Unfinished Destiny is once again available. For the next best thing to a Scott Ross biopic contact Michel Proulx via his website.

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

How about an experimental plugged-in Prom?

Alex Ross' typically astute chronicle of his visits to the Elbphilharmonie and Pierre Boulez Saal is notable for two particular reasons. The first is that Alex professes to finding the sound in the Elbphilharmonie "a mild disappointment". This view contradicts the acclaim elsewhere for - and I quote - "the world’s first 'acoustically perfect' concert hall", but concurs with the opinion expressed to me privately by a musician whose ears, like Alex's, I trust implicitly. The Elbphilharmonie is undoubtedly an architectural miracle, but there is also some informed feedback that 10,000 unique acoustic panels do not guarantee sonic perfection. The second striking point about Alex's article is its headline 'Germany's new concert temples'. Now temples are places where rituals of worship are enacted, and those rituals are often arcane and rooted in antiquity. One viewpoint is that the Elbphilharmonie and Pierre Boulez Saal are state-of-the-art classical music venues; but another is that they are places where arcane musical rituals rooted in antiquity are enacted. And in view of the continuing preoccupation with finding a new young classical music audience, the second viewpoint should at least be explored.

My header photo* shows a typical recital of Indian classical music. Evident in the photo and evident in virtually every contemporary recital of Indian music are the microphones for amplification. Instruments such as the sitar produce a beautiful sound, but one that is limited in volume. To adapt to larger venues and also to adapt to young ears conditioned by louder popular music, the Indian classical tradition accepted amplification as a sine qua non years ago. Now here is the important point: not only did amplification not drive away the core audience, but Indian musician friends tell me that their classical tradition - unlike its Western equivalent - is undergoing something of a revival with young audiences.

Western classical music has always come down heavily on the 'listener to music' side in the 'music to listener' or 'listener to music' debate. Which means making token concessions such as applause between movements and dispensing with formal attire. But it also means 'pure concert hall sound' is absolutely non-negotiable, despite concert hall sound being an entirely artificial historical construct. As explained in a 2015 post, the pure sound of an orchestra is what we would hear if it played in an anechoic chamber. An anechoic chamber is an acoustically dead space, and anyone who has spent time in one - as I have in the now demolished EMI Research anechoic chamber at Hayes - will know that the thin, dry and dead sound would be unacceptable to any audience, purist or otherwise. The sound of an orchestra in iconic concert halls such as the the Concertguebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna is determined by the acoustic of the hall; the acoustic is the unique character that is added as the sound reverberates. These halls date from the late-19th century and their signature sound - which remains the reference for concert halls - was subjectively optimised for the bass-lite pre-Romantic orchestra.

If classical music wants a new younger audience it must accept that its target listeners like their music loud and visceral. But the convergence of 2000+ audience capacity halls - the Elbphilharmonie seats 2100 - and leaner more musicologically-informed performance styles means today's listening experience is often visceral-lite, particularly in the cheaper seats favoured by classical music newbies. As explained in another earlier post, if a listener is played the same piece of music twice on identical replay equipment at two different levels (volumes), he/she will judge the louder of the two auditions to be “better” quality. The explanation lies in the non-linear frequency response of the human ear which is plotted on the diagram above (source J.Crabbe Hi Fi in the Home). The curved shape of the lower line in the diagram marked ‘Threshold of hearing’ shows how the replay level increases as the range of the human ear increases. This means that extreme highs and lows become audible, giving the music more impact and makes it sound “better” - particularly to a new and uninitiated audience.

Back in 2010 Jonathan Harvey - another person whose ears I was happy to defer to - caused considerable controversy by opining that "The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music... nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions". It was unfortunate that Jonathan turned the spotlight on the very specific solution of amplification, rather than on the problem of relative loudness. However, seven years later classical music remains in denial that the 19th century convention of 'concert hall sound' may be a significant obstacle to attracting a new younger audience. I am not suggesting stacking bass bins on the Elbphilharmonie platform. But I am suggesting that it is time for the music to meet the listener at some mid-point using the latest digital sound-shaping technologies. Just one example of how this could be done is by experimenting sparingly in the concert hall - a one-off 'plugged-in' Prom perhaps? - with the latest non-intrusive tools such as Meyer Sound's Constellation variable acoustic technology used in the highly-acclaimed San Francisco Symphony Soundbox performance space. Giving the new young audience what they actually want in the form of a more involving sonic experience, may well prove more productive than the tired old chestnuts such as classical gigs in pubs that are still doing the rounds after so many years.

* Photo shows Florian Schiertz (tabla), Mohammed Aslam Khan (sarangi), Pandurang Mutalik (sitar) and Shankar (violin) playing at the Hyderabad Western Music Foundation. 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, May 24, 2017

The art of the American record label

It was during those endless trawls up and down the motorway spine of the United Kingdom that Fairport came up with the title of their third album. Unhalfbricking is not the name of some traditional rural custom like 'beating the bounds', but a word which Sandy made up and contributed to a word game called Ghosts which the group played in the back of their van.

The couple featured on the cover of Unhalfbricking are Sandy Denny's parents [above], photographed in the garden of their Wimbledon home while the group take their tea in the background. Fairport's American label A & M considered the image too weird for a potential US audience and replaced the offending shot with a troupe of performing elephants [below].
Quote is from Patrick Humphries' biography of Fairport Convention's Richard Thompson. More on Richard Thompson in I am not from east or west. 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, May 23, 2017

Another book in the wall

While the music industry continues to bet the farm on digital delivery the publishing industry is experiencing a young demographic-driven resurgence in the physical book market. This difference in approach - daring to be different versus fearing to be different - is currently reflected in the output of the music and publishing industries; which means recently I have derived far more gratification from reading new books than listening to new music releases. Nathan Hill's novel The Nix has proved particularly rewarding. Music including a cassette of John Cage's 4'33" figures in the plot, and this exposition by one of the book's protagonists is relevant to the thread:
"You know there used to be a difference between authentic and sellout music. I'm talking about when I was young, in the sixties. Back then we knew there was a soullessness to the sellouts, and we wanted to be on the side of the artists. But now? Being a sellout is the authentic thing... The only fundamental truth is greed, and the only question is who is up front about this. That's the new authenticity.
More arcane but equally rewarding is Sufism and Politics in Morocco: Activism and Dissent by Abdelilah Bouasria. In it Abdelilah Bouasria recounts how he had to ponder for a long time before fully understanding a statement by his economics supervisor at Sussex University John McLean. It is an aphorism that all of would do well to ponder on at the present time:
"What people do does not explain what people do; what people do needs to be explained."
No review samples used in this post. The Nix was in fact a chance buy in Holland at Delft railway station en route to Delft University (TUDelft) where the header photo was taken in the University library. My thanks go to Avradeep Pal who was my host in Delft. 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, May 22, 2017

It makes you want to weep

In Berliner Morgenpost Simon Rattle tells how there were London Symphony Orchestra musicians weeping after the Brexit vote and goes on to say about the post-Brexit visa process "People simply don’t know how complicated it’s going to be". Earlier this year the same LSO musicians with conductor Daniel Harding toured Korea and China. A description of the convoluted visa application process for China begins: "A work visa is required for persons wanting to work in China for pay. It is also issued to aliens who come to China for commercial entertainment performance. It is only granted if you and the employer meet certain requirements..." I have searched in vain for reports of LSO musicians weeping about the complications of non-nationals performing in China. But I did note that like Simon Rattle, Daniel Harding is managed by Askonas Holt. This agency also managed the LSO's Asian tour, and, as previously explained, has more than one finger in the anti-Brexit pie.

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, May 10, 2017

Can you ask for a louder voice than this?

Latest statistics show that the average Internet user spends nearly two hours on social media every day. Over a lifetime this amounts to a total of three years and four months on social networks, with Facebook accounting for 35% of the total. To put that into perspective, in a typical week internet users spend four times as much time on social media as they devote to face-to-face social activities, and each day a netizen devotes more time to social media than to meeting the basic human need of eating. Around 100 million selfies are uploaded every day, and our obsession with social media - which is actually an addiction - is very big business. Facebook, which has annual profits of $10.2 billion, sells the personal data it gleans from status updates - remember that one about a relative's illness? - to Acxiom. This data warehousing giant uses 23,000 servers and 750 billion personal data fields to hold and analyse the intimate profiles of 500 million people. Acxiom then sells that personal information on to rapacious advertisers to generate profits of £362 million. Facebook is not the only culprit: On An Overgrown Path is hosted by Google's free Blogger platform. But it is actually not free: it is funded by the revenue Google generates by harvesting and selling the personal data of users, as are 'free' services from Apple and Microsoft. In an age where the virtual is rapidly displacing the experiential, we must seek out and cherish real world experiences. As a small contribution to this I am now posting some notes on my recent listening and travelling.

My recent listening has included Mala Punica which is composed by James Weeks and sets texts from the Song of Songs. In his introductory essay James Weeks explains that he was attracted to the ancient biblical text by "its mysterious ordering, the entangling of male and female voices, its echoes and symmetries..." The new music vocal ensemble Exaudi of which James Weeks is a co-founder has featured here in projects including John Cage's Songbooks and the infrasound-enhanced performance of Antoine Brumel Earthquake Mass. In the premiere recording of Mala Punica on the Winter & Winter label the choral settings sung by Exaudi are framed by three pieces titled Walled Garden for string and flute trios played by the Hortus Ensemble. In Mala Punica James Weeks explores the outer limits of the prodigious technical and musical capabilities of Exaudi, both as composer and conductor. In his Guardian review of a Spitalfields festival performance George Hall described Mala Punica as "intricate, subtle and often sonically ravishing" and the same description applies to this recording which was captured in the sonically auspicious acoustic of Orford Church, Suffolk where Benjamin Britten recorded The Burning Fiery Furnace in 1967. Hortus Conclusus from Mala Punica can be auditioned via this link.

The Song of Songs is the last section of the Hebrew Bible and the twenty-third book of the Christian Old Testament. As well as direct scriptural links to Christianity and Judaism the Song has more tenuous links with Islam. It is also known as the Song of Solomon as the authorship was at one time erroneously attributed to the biblical King Solomon. A superscription identifies it misleadingly as "Solomon's", and the Muslim prophet Sulayman (Solomon) is an important figure in Islam who is mentioned seventeen times in the Qur'an. There is another even more tenuous link between Islam and the Song of Songs, with some Muslims claiming that the Song of Songs predicts the coming of Muhammad by citing the consonantal similarity between Muhammad's Arabic name and the Hebrew word Mahammaddim - which translates as 'Altogether lovely' - in the sixteenth verse of the Song. However the provenance of the the Song is unproven; but latest research dates it between the 10th to 2nd centuries BCE. Stylistically it has similarities to Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry from the 1st millennium BCE, while the many ecstatic references to 'my beloved' - "My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand" - are a precursor to the style of the great Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafiz.

Mala Punica is one of two settings of the Song of Songs which I have spending time with recently. The second setting takes a more syncretic view of the biblical text. In the sleeve essay for their CD Canticum Canticorum the conductor of the Latvian Radio Choir Kaspars Putniņš expresses the view that the Song is important as a fundamental influence on Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture. He explains that fragments from the Song were chosen to be set in Canticum Canticorum because the text is "an unbeatable masterpiece of love poetry, and it speaks to each and every soul". This view not only reflects that of James Weeks, but also echoes my observation about similarities with Sufi poetry, a theme that is picked up by three Sufi readings for instrumental ensemble by Vladimir Ivanoff which frame the settings of the Song of Songs in Canticum Canticorum.

The Latvian Radio Choir has built an enviable reputation for championing contemporary music and in the past its recordings of the music of Pēteris Vasks, Ēriks Ešenvalds and Bernat Vivancos have featured On An Overgrown Path. Canticum Canticorum originated as a project for the Tenso Days festival of contemporary choral music in Marseille in 2013 and was developed in subsequent festival performances in Riga and Oslo. Five specially commissioned settings of the Song of Songs are linked by Vladimir Ivanoff's three instrumental Sufi readings. Two of the three commissioned composers are women, the British-born Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and the Latvian Santa Ratniece. The other three composers are the Estonian Toivo Tulev, Latvian Mārtiņš Viļums, and the Norwegian Lasse Thoresen. Vladimir Ivanoff contributes the linking Sufi readings and his transcultural early music ensemble Sarband provides instrumental accompaniment.

These contributing composers are a cosmopolitan and eclectic group, with their biographies in the sleeve notes listing influences ranging through Harry Partch, Gregorian Chant, Giacinto Scelsi, Turkish Neva maqam, Olivier Messiaen, Claude Vivier, and Byzantine and Maronite liturgy. Canticum Canticorum is a daring and challenging conflation of different musical styles that reflects the heterogeneous nature of the Song of Songs. It is available in CD and high-resolution download formats from Vladimir Ivanoff's Muse Alliance label website; this is the label which released the Haz'art Trio's Infinite Chase album which featured in a recent post that attracted a large readership. A video excerpt from Canticum Canticorum can be viewed via this link.

My recent travels in Morocco took me to Moulay Idriss at the base of Mount Zerhoun in the Middle Atlas. Moulay Idriss el Akhbar was a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed; his grandparents were the Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and his cousin and first follower Ali. After the Ummayad victory in the war that split the Muslim world into Shia and Sunni sects in the 7th century Moulay Idriss el Akhbar fled to Morocco, where he founded the town of Moulay Idriss and the city of Fes. Moulay Idriss I married the daughter of the king of the Berber tribe that controlled the region, and this union is viewed as starting a chain of events which resulted in the creation of contemporary Morocco.

As it contains the tomb of Moulay Idriss el Akhbar with his direct lineage to the Prophet, the eponymous town is an important pilgrimage centre which is accepted as an alternative destination for those unable to make the full hajj. It is said in Morocco that six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss during the annual festival honoring the saint is equivalent to one hajj to Mecca. The town was only fully opened to non-Muslims in 2005; its altitude of 530 metres in the Middle Atlas coupled with streets that, thankfully, cannot accommodate motor traffic mean it still retains its spiritual ambiance. In the accompanying photos taken during my visit the shrine of Moulay Idriss I is the building with the green roof in the foreground of the first photo, while there are other views of the shrine in photos 3, 6 and 7. In photo 12 the madrasa - Qur'anic school - attached to the shrine can be seen. Photo 10 shows the only round minaret in Morocco can be seen; if this looks somewhat anachronistic it is because it was added to an ancient madrasa in 1939 by a wealthy hajji who had seen a similar structure in Mecca.

For me the experiential calls and the virtual palls, so I am off travelling once again. Some people seek God in great works of art and sacred places. Others seek God on social networks; while others seek something other than God. Wherever and whatever you seek, I leave you with this wisdom from Augustine of Hippo's City of God:

'Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?'

Mala Punica was a requested review sample, Canticum Canticorum was bought online from Muse Alliance. 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, May 09, 2017

Syrian cause and effect

News of Decca/Universal Music's release of an album by a young Syrian refugee violinist Rami leaves me conflicted. Of course the humanitarian tragedy sparked by the Syrian civil war is a terrible thing and any initiative that draws attention to it is laudable. And some of the proceeds from the project are going to the deserving cause of the British Red Cross. But why does a story like this only receive media coverage when it comes from the Universal Music spin machine? And is Decca's motivation in releasing this album entirely altruistic?

Above is a photo taken at the conclusion of a workshop for refugees musicians held this month in Arc-et-Senans, France. The workshop was directed by that tireless advocate of humanitarian causes Jordi Savall who is in the centre of the photo; to his right is the Syrian classical musician Waed Bouhassoun who collaborated with Jordi at the workshop. I am not on the classical music press release circuit, but this workshop came to my attention. So did it not also come to the attention of the Sinfini Music diaspora who so eagerly spun the Decca album?

Coming to that why did these lazy journalists not showcase Jordi Savall's Orient-Occident II, Homage to Syria album, or Waed Bou Hassoun's latest album La Voix de la passion which is steeped in the pain of contemporary Syria? And why did our self-styled cultural commentators not highlight the agonisingly relevant Zyriab from the exiled Syrian brothers Khaled Al Jaramani and Mohannad Al Jaramani? All these albums from independent labels speak of the Syrian tragedy in a musical language that Rami's renditions for Decca of One Republic's Counting Stars, Silent Night and Ode to Joy never can. Yes, Syria desperately needs help and attention. But for me at least, global brands, feel good music and humanitarian causes do not mix well.

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, May 08, 2017

The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings

The subatomic particles we see in nature, the quarks, the electrons are nothing but musical notes on a tiny vibrating string... Physics is nothing but the laws of harmony that you can write on vibrating strings... The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings.
That extract comes from a talk by the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. It is quoted in the recently published The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander, who is a theoretical physicist specializing in string theory and loop quantum gravity and also an accomplished jazz saxophonist. (Stephon Alexander is an African American and senior black physicists are as rare as senior black conductors: when he was a PhD student at Brown University in the late 1990s Alexander was one of just three black physics students at PhD level in the U.S.)

String theory abandons the dogma of traditional physics that a hyper-microscopic view of a vibrating string would show atoms, and instead identifies that there is a fundamental level beyond the atoms which comprises an interlinked network of vibrating strings of energy. String theory is of major importance because it does not just apply to vibrating strings but applies to all matter; which is why it has been dubbed 'the theory of everything'. Stephon Alexander's book is pivotal because it moves the teachings of master veena player and spiritual teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan on the axiomatic role of vibrations - which have influenced many composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jonathan Harvey - from the arena of fuzzy science into scientifically rigorous and peer reviewed academia.

In The Jazz of Physics Stephon Alexander links musical forms to cosmology, pointing out that the millions of stars within galaxies are organised into self-similar fractals, just like the fractal structures found in the compositions of Bach and Ligeti, and he uses variants of Feynman diagrams to explain phenomena such as the symmetrical chords that invoke ambivalence in the music of Ravel and others. Words such as cosmology are not the stuff of which click bait is made. But those who still believe that the way to save classical music is to reduce it to yet another tawdry entertainment should ponder on these wise words from Stephon Alexander:
What I had first seen as psychobabble had become an avenue of productivity. [Wolfgang] Pauli's conversations with Jung, were, after all, what led Pauli to discover a new property of matter and a new law of nature. Since my college days, ideas connecting music and cosmology had been stirring in the back of my brain, and now I was digging them out of my unconscious, facing them, and thinking they were not quite as outlandish as they seemed.
No review sample 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.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

We created you from the same male and female

From the White House Office of Protocol, 2009
From the Qur’an Chapter 49 : Verse 13
Written By American Master Calligrapher

A calligraphic work in Sulus script with ink and gold on Ahar paper with Ebru borders and backing, June 2, 2009.

“O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may recognize one another. The noblest among you in God’s sight is the most conscientious of you. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.”

Presented to
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud King of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
on the occasion of his visit to Saudi Arabia June 2009
Reproduced from website of American Master Calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya. Abdallateef Whiteman's unpublished memoir Average Whiteman led me to Mohamed Zakariy. 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, May 05, 2017

One album cover is worth a thousand words

David Byrne's Luaka Bop label has released The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. In the 1970s Alice Coltrane embraced Vedanta and took the Sanskrit name Turiyasangitananda and this world premiere release was compiled from limited edition cassettes tapes found in the Coltrane archive that were recorded at her Sai Anantam Ashram near Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. The restoration of the tapes was undertaken by Baker Bigsby who produced the original sessions and is celebrated for his work with jazz greats including John Coltrane. This new release, which marks the 80th anniversary of Alice’s birth and the 10th of her death, is the first in a planned series of global spiritual music from Luaka Bop. So it is good to find music industry visionary David Byrne agreeing with me that there is a $27 billion market out there just waiting to be tapped.

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.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Classical recordings do not come much better than this

Warner Classic's 12 CD box of Louis Fremaux's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra recordings is a remarkable document. In an age of celebrity orchestras it provides a salutary reminder that a band does not have to be in the grandee league to sound great. And Fremaux's Massenet disc - a favourite of mine since its 1973 release - is a reminder that music does not need to be clever to be good. But there is also good and clever music in this box, notably John McCabe's Second Symphony. Sometimes I think I am becoming an old bore when I keep banging on about how recorded sound quality has got worse as technology has got better. Then I listen to these CBSO analogue recordings made by EMI between 1970 and 1978 and realise that I may be getting old but my ears are not deceiving me. Most of the sessions took place in the late-Victorian Great Hall of Birmingham University which has an extended reverberation time coupled with an endearing low frequency honk which would not be tolerated in today's designer concert halls with their politically correct acoustics. The producers are a roll call of EMI's great staff producers from the period including David Mottley and John Mordler. Listening to their work shows just how artificial and fatiguing today's close-miked sound has become. In the later Birmingham recordings the orchestra and hall acoustic blend into one cohesive and natural stereo image, whereas so many of today's productions sound as though they are assembled from the sonic equivalent of Lego bricks.

Considerable credit must go the much-derided Warner Classics for this new release. Despite selling in the UK for the astonishingly low price of around £2 a disc, all the recordings have been remastered from the original tapes. Given the budget price the documentation with full details of recording personnel, venue and session dates is laudable, and there is an excellent booklet essay from Richard Bratby who worked for the CBSO, albeit not in the Fremaux era. Richard's essay shows that given the right circumstances the new generation of music journalists can produce quality writing. Which sends me off message to muse about the current state of music writing.

When I worked for EMI Classics in the 1970s my fiefdom included sleeve notes and press releases. Back then, just like today, there were music journalists with super-size egos. But vigilant sub-editors and the absence of social media meant those giant egos were hidden from view, like the large part of the ice-berg that is under the water. Today the demise of sub-editors and the hegemony of unmoderated social media means those egos are free to run amok. And you only need to spend a few minutes on Facebook or Twitter to understand that when the super-size ego of a music journalist runs amok it is not a pretty sight. Now before anyone tells me that the ground rules for social media are different, let my explain that the problem is not social media per se. The real problem is that the hubris which is now the norm on social networks has permeated into all forms of everyday communication. The advent of social media may represent progress. But as auditioning these artistically and sonically outstanding Birmingham recordings from the 1970s reminds us, not all progress is a good thing.

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, May 03, 2017

This new album demands innocent ears

All music comes with baggage of differing shapes and sizes. Richard Wagner's distinctly overweight baggage in the form of his annexation by the Third Reich remains in view. Other baggage is less visible: Olivier Messiaen's ambiguous relationship with the fascist Vichy regime is obscured by the smoke and mirrors of his Catholicism, Joaquín Rodrigo's compliance with the despotic Franco regime is bleached out by the Spanish sunshine of his Concerto de Aranjuez, while Karlheinz Stockhausen's infamous description of the 9/11 attacks as "the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos" is conveniently obscured by the mists of time. Of course it is the music that matters and not the backstory, and, thankfully, we can listen to the music of Wagner, Messiaen, Rodrigo, Stockhausen and countless other music baggage handlers with innocent ears. But some deserving music still struggles to make itself heard over the backstory. As is the case with the new album seen above.

In 16th century Scotland, which had embraced Calvinism under the great reformer John Knox, the organ was banned from churches. The Puritans were very mistrustful of the emotional power of music, which meant that a capella psalm-singing was the only form of Christian music authorised in Calvinist Scotland. If the featured album was pitched as the world premiere recording of a newly discovered 16th century Celtic a capella setting of the liturgy uncovered in a remote Calvinist church on the Isle of Lewis it would, doubtless, attract attention. But as Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ is a contemporary setting of excerpts from the 14th century Islamic dhikr - litany - by Husayn Vayiz Kashifi of Herat in Afghanistan sung in English, Arabic and Farsi to Celtic tunes in Irish, Manx and Scottish modes, it has been consigned to the lost baggage area where it is waiting to be reclaimed.

At a time when bridges between the Muslim world and the West are urgently needed the neglect of this bridge-building project is unfortunate but predictable. On the album the illahis - sacred songs of praise - are sung in nasheed style reflecting a tradition shared with Calvinism of minimal instrumental accompaniment, and the settings for five male voices use only judicious percussion - daf - as accompaniment. Sacred Muslim texts in the vernacular set to Celtic tunes are noteworthy enough, but the musicians involved are also worthy of note*.

One of the singers is Abdal Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter) who also made the translations and music settings. He is a British Muslim scholar, Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College and Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, and has been acclaimed as Britain's most influential Muslim. And to lighten the baggage, let's put on record that Timothy Winter considers the views of Muslim extremists as religiously illegitimate, inauthentic and contrary to the classical canons of Islamic law and theology. He unequivocally rejects suicide bombing and considers the killing of noncombatants as unacceptable in any circumstances. Abdal Hakim/Timothy Winter has been working for many years to bridge the cultural gap between Arab, Persian and Turkish poetry and British musical traditions and sensibilities, and all proceeds from the sale of Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ go towards the Cambridge new mosque project.

Another of the singers on Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ is the British Muslim Ali Keeler. He is the classically-trained violinist who is making waves with his Al Firdaus Ensemble which plays a unique style of contemporary Al-Andalusian Sufi music with a Celtic twist. As recounted in my interview with him, Ali studied tajwid - the art of Qur'an recitation - in Syria and his contribution to the new album includes three exquisite Qur'an recitations.

The distinctive album artwork is the work of Abdallateef who also sings on the album. Abdallateef is better known as Ian Whiteman under which moniker he was multi-instrumentalist for the cult psychedelic folk rock band Mighty Baby in the late 1960s. Ian Whiteman was part of the Bristol Gardens/Wood Dalling Sufi zawiya that I wrote about in a recent post, as was Fairport Convention co-founder Richard Thompson. On Richard and Linda Thompson's classic Sufi-inspired 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver Ian Whiteman plays flute and shakuhachi in the backing band and as Abdallateef designed the album's very striking artwork. After making two increasingly Sufi-oriented albums with Mighty Baby Ian went on to form The Habibiyya, an ensemble which produced the forgotten but inspired 1972 album If Man But Knew. The Habibiyya along with Codona and Oregon were pioneers of a music without borders genre that was eventually misleadingly labelled as 'world music'. Since converting to Islam Abdallateef Whiteman has established a considerable reputation in the Muslim world as a graphic designer. An illuminating interview with him can be read via this link, and the graphic above was created by Ian for a thoughtful article on his blog about the misguided fashion for amplifying all genres of music.

In the halycon years before the advent of dumbingdown BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series called The Innocent Ear which was presented by that polymath Robert Simpson. In his biography of Edmund Rubbra (whose First Symphony was performed on The Innocent Ear) Leo Black describes how the programme "... identified its constituent works only after they had been heard, so freeing the listener's mind of preconceptions". Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ demands to be listened to in exactly that way. In the video below one of the one of the illahis can be heard starting at 4'35". Please check all your baggage at the gate and listen with innocent ears.

* The five singers of Alborán on Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ are Abdal Hakim Murad/Timothy Winter, Ali Keeler, Abdallateef Whiteman, Kamal Nawawi, Mohsin Badat. My thanks go to Abdallateef Whiteman for making his unpublished memoir available to me. 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, May 02, 2017

Is one of these the next Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla?

In a reflection of the zeitgeist Slipped Disc trumpets 'All male winners at the Katheleen Ferrier prize' but overlooks the equally obvious headline of '75 conductors at the Proms and 74 are white'*. A comment by Kevin Scott on my post 'Grammy-winning conductor says please exploit me' offers a more informed view of how classical music can rectify its plural inequalities. So Kevin's comment now gets the solo spot it deserves:
Look, folks, let's get real. John McLaughlin Williams is one of the best conductors out there, period! But this man DOES need to get more work, and so do many other black men and women who have graced the podium! (yes, and that includes this poor schnook!)

But in all seriousness, John has a vast repertoire that he wishes to conduct. Not just the standard repertoire, but also music that deserves to be heard, and not just on recordings or in some concert hall in Europe. He has been invited by the likes of the Colorado Symphony and the Detroit Symphony, but on one-off concerts, so why hasn't he been invited by these major orchestras, and others, on a subscription series?

Now in recent months many people have asked "who is that wonderful black conductor we see on the GMC commercial?" [see below] and the answer is Kazem Abdullah, but apart from a gig with the Westchester Symphony last June, and a recent appearance by the Detroit Symphony performing, among other works, Jeffrey Mumford's Cello Concerto, he has, to my knowledge, not been invited to conduct major orchestras here for the '17-18 season. This also applies to Kirk Smith who, if you have read some of my posts and his, has recently made a recording of works for string orchestra by American composers (this one included :) ), but apart from an appearance with the Houston Symphony last year, I don't see American orchestras clamoring for his services.

And though his reputation is lauded by many in the business, André Raphel does get plum gigs, but in my opinion he should be guesting with more first-tier orchestras in this country, and that's a no if's, and's or but's statement right there! This also applies to Bill Eddins, who is one marvelous conductor in his own right (not to mention a dynamite pianist!)

Ditto Julius P. Williams, Leslie B. Dunner (and he's a MD candidate for the Erie Chamber Orchestra), Vincent L Danner (also a candidate for the Erie position), Jeri Lynne Johnson, Brandon Keith Brown, Marlon Daniel (and he's been invited to conduct Cuba's National Symphony in Havana!), Joseph Young, Roderick Cox, Joseph Jones and most likely a few others who escape my mind at this moment (Please, please, please shout yourselves out!) Bob hinted, if DGG can sign what they say is their "first female cellist" and wish to "exploit" her, then why isn't a major label hooking up with some of these conductors to grant them the exposure they deserve? Is it because they don't want to break the glass ceiling and show the world that black conductors are capable of performing both the standard repertoire as well as new music? Are they afraid that they don't know how to "market" them?

First - we need to be seen as conductors, period. The color should not matter whatsoever, but for those who have made up their minds that black men and women should not hold grace at the podium because...well, this music is not a part of our history, we beg to differ. Second, there are many of us who are guardians of this music and defenders of its faith, and in some cases even more so than one is led to believe! Third and last...because audiences seek new faces, and we are the makers of generations to come and to aspire them to explore this vast repertoire of music.

I said enough!

* Norman could also have said that the one black conductor - Kevin John Edusei with Cheneke! - is consigned to the late-night BBC Proms ghetto. Ungrateful? No, can you imagine the social media outrage if the only woman conductor at the 2017 Proms was consigned to the 10.15pm slot. Then there is the question of whether black conductors are only going to be allowed to conduct BME orchestras at the Proms. And Cheneke! must beware of being annexed as a BBC sub-brand. But like Kevin, I've said enough. Black conductors in my header montage are from top left clockwise, André Raphel, Kazem Abdullah, Jeri Lynne Johnson and John McLaughlin Williams. On An Overgrown Path is also on Facebook and Twitter.