Monday, July 31, 2017

Why is social media vetting not trending?

That photo was taken by me during a qawwali devotion at the Nizamuddin Dargah, Delhi during Ramadan and first appeared On An Overgrown Path in 2014. Despite being a kafir I have tried during my thirteen years of blogging to present a fair and balanced view of Islam. In fact my attempts to be fair have, I know, caused some readers to think I am too sympathetic to the Islamic cause. But now those attempts have turned round and bitten me, and the story needs telling .

My travel plans for 2018 included Iran, a country whose present regime I have little time for, but one with a rich cultural history that just begs to be explored. But as my travel planning progressed I came across the recently introduced requirement in the Iranian visa application process to provide details of social media accounts. Now sympathetic to the Islamic cause I may be. But entering Iran into the Overgrown Path search box returns some posts likely to give the mullahs heart attacks. Such as one containing this quote from the sleeve notes for an album of Rumi settings by Iranian singer Ali Rheza Ghorbani: "Those who in other times, have crucified Hallāj and Sohravardi, do not hesitate nowadays to oppress dervishes in Iran, demolish their schools or Khaneghah and their sanctuaries, ban their gatherings, imprison them and persecute them in a thousand different ways".

Then of course there are my numerous posts about Sufism, a mystical tradition frowned upon - or worse - by the Iranian theocracy. And the UK government travel advice for Iran states that many Western CDs remain illegal, which means my iPod Classic with its 160 GB of mainly Western music could pose problems. All of which means I am unlikely to get into Iran*. Or more seriously, if I got in I may not get out. So my planned trip to Iran has been shelved and there will be no photo essays here about the Imam Reza shrine or Iran's many other cultural riches. But there are much more serious implications to this vetting of social media than an aborted trip.

The Iranian government's explanation for the recently introduced measure is that it is a response to the introduction in July of social media vetting for Iranian passport holders by the US government. This is a very dangerous development. The criteria for denying entry into the US or Iran based on social media vetting is unknown. As the US - the 'policeman of the Western world' - has set the precedent for this, how many other countries will follow. For instance will Morocco, a country with an autocratic administration, follow suit? Will I need to be more cautious in the future what I write about Morocco, or about the US coming to that?

With online vetting the decision of visa or no visa is a subjective call by persons unknown using criteria unknown. And the process is not just confined to visa applications. In a survey 48 per cent of hiring managers said they check the social-media and digital footprints of candidates. About a third of the managers admitted to rejecting potential candidates because of questionable personal or professional traits they noticed online, while automated vetting software for corporations and governments is big business. So we are moving into an age where having an opinion about issues of the day may result in marginalisation. Where will this end? Will we be asked to provide details of social media accounts before booking a restaurant to make sure we don't write adverse reviews? - which is not as far fetched as you may think. Or will you need to declare your online activities before booking BBC Proms tickets to make sure you are not an Overgrown Path contributor?

There has been only limited recognition of the dangers posed by online vetting. Guidance issued by the EU Article 29 working party which represents all EU data protection authorities has stated with regard to job applications that unless social media posts are relevant to the role being recruited and applicants have been clearly warned that online vetting will be used, the applicant's privacy rights may be breached. While in the US recent state-level legislation in Illinois and Maryland barred employers from asking job applicants for social media logins.

Online vetting is a threat to at least two fundamental human rights: freedom of speech and free movement across frontiers. It is one of the many paradoxes of our social media fixated age that the as yet unknown negative impact of Brexit on free movement has become an online obsession, while the very real negative impact of social media vetting is attracting so little attention. Maybe the explanation is that most social media users have nothing to fear, because their obsessive online outpourings say nothing at all.

* There is no definitive information on entry criteria for Iran. Information from any readers with first hand experience of the Iranian visa process will be gratefully received. Please contact me via a comment on this post. Your communication will be picked up in the moderation process and will not be published unless you request. Algeria is also on my 2018 travel wishlist; the same information on the entry requirements for Algeria would also be valuable.

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

The terrible danger of avoiding dangers

In this book I am describing a journey into a region whose 'differences' from Europe are too great to be easily bridged: and difference is, in a way, akin to danger. We are leaving the security of our too uniform environment, in which there is little that is unfamiliar and nothing that is surprising, and entering into the tremendous strangeness of 'another' world...

But are we really excluded from that world? I do not think so. Our feeling of exclusion rests mainly on an error peculiar to our Western way of thinking: we are wont to underestimate the creative value of the unfamiliar and are always tempted to do violence to it, to appropriate it, to take it over, on our own terms, into our own intellectual environment. It seems to me, however, that our age of disquiet no longer permits such cavalier attempts; many of us beginning to realize that cultural distances can and should be overcome by means other than intellectual rape: it might perhaps be overcome by surrendering ourselves to it.
Those extracts come from Muhhamad Asad's The Road to Mecca. Muhammad Asad (1900-92) was a Jewish-born Austro-Hungarian formerly known as Leopold Weiss. He converted to Islam in 1926 and took a Muslim name; later he became a Pakistani citizen who held important posts including that of Pakistan's envoy to the United Nations. As well as his administrative roles he was an important author and political theorist. A Guardian tribute recounted how: "Asad was saddened by the intellectual insularity of the Muslim world, the intolerance of the extremists, and was a powerful advocate of the rights of Muslim women. It was Asad’s insistence that the constitution of Pakistan allow for the election of a woman leader that opened the way for Benazir Bhutto".

Muhhamad Asad's The Road to Mecca was published in 1954; but like many forgotten gems contains wisdom that is as relevant today as when written. Take for instance the warning against underestimating the creative value of the unfamiliar. Classical music has for years been obsessed with dispensing with silly conventions. But as one set of silly conventions has been discarded, they have been replaced by yet more silly and familiar conventions.

Silence between movements at a concert has been replaced by the silly convention of applause, no matter how inappropriate or undeserved that applause is. The convention of allowing the music to speak for itself has been replaced by the silly convention of appropriating the music to make sound bite political statements. The convention of physical storage media has been replaced by the silly convention of streaming, thereby rewarding the wrong people. The convention of embracing a wide range of views has been replaced by the silly convention of political correctness policed by the self-appointed social media mullahs. And the silly convention of intelligent music writing has been replaced by "Why you sound better singing naked".

Elsewhere in his book Muhhamad Asad writes about 'the terrible danger of avoiding dangers'. Nowhere is this more true than in Western art music, which in a misguided attempt to woo a wider audience has created a uniform environment in which there is little that is unfamiliar and nothing that is surprising. But elsewhere musicians refuse to avoid danger. My recent explorations of the unfamiliar have taken me to the work of the French-Algerian singer, composer, auteur, inventor of Algerian 'Gourbi-Rock', graphic designer and caricaturist, Cheikh Sidi Bemol who is seen in the header photo. Cheikh Sidi Bemol belongs to a lineage of Maghrebian music theatre activists that stretches back to Moroccan folk revival bands Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala - his latest and recommended album L'Odyssée de Fulay seen above, which is a contemporary take on ancient Berber songs, can be sampled in the video below. (If any further proof is needed of the fear of creative danger, L'Odyssée de Fulay is brought to market not via a corporate media company but by Cheikh Sidi Bemol's own record label CSB Productions.)

One of Western classical music's silliest conventions is the Last Night of the Proms. To this institutionalised silliness has been added a new convention, that of using the Last Night to make click baiting activist gestures. If in the interests of avoiding the often predicted death of classical music we have to accept this silliness, I would like to make a suggestion. In the northern Rif region - traditionally Berber territory - there has been long-running civil unrest. This is Morocco's most serious civil unrest since Arab Spring-inspired rallies six years ago and it potentially could pose a threat to the Moroccan government, which is effectively the royal family.

This unrest has received minimal coverage in the Western media despite Morocco being just 36 miles from the EU frontier. The media lacuna is wrong for many reasons: fundamental human rights are involved, the Moroccan government is an ally of the increasingly bellicose American administration. Moreover Morocco is the fourth domino in a line where the other three, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria have already fallen into internal strife triggered by political unrest and fuelled by religious extremism. So to raise awareness of the Moroccan unrest I suggest that Sidi Bemol's version of 'The drunken sailor' sung in the Berber dialect - audition via this link - is given at the 2017 Last Night of the Proms instead of the mandatory anti-Brexit gesture.

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, July 27, 2017

For every complex problem there is a simple wrong answer

Whatever begins with the criterion, and basic motive of material gain, without having any real feeling, can never be successful, it will never realize its full potential. Music is not made to order, it isn’t just executed, whenever you try and contain it within specific boundaries, to limit it, to play just to make a living, for example, it will never achieve its potential grandeur.
That quote is from the great Cretan lyra player and teacher Kostas Mountakis (1926-91). Among his pupils was the leading exponent of modern Cretan modal music Ross Daly. In Greece today the government's attempt to exit from the EU imposed bailout programme has created a big opportunity for the masters of the financial universe which is causing widespread resentment. This Reuters report explains what is happening: "Big money managers have started buying cheap Greek stocks from banks to lotteries as clouds over talks between Athens and its international creditors gradually clear, anticipating big returns. A deal in May when Greece agreed to more austerity measures raised hopes of possible debt relief for a country that has endured economic hardship for years, resulting in the longest winning streak for the Athens bourse in more than two decades".

This development, together with the financial hardship suffered by so many Greeks and the foolhardiness of imposing fiscal policies designed to benefit urban-centric northern countries on rural-centric southern countries, is completely off the radar of those who salivated over the recent pro-EU gestures at the BBC Proms. This post is not about anti-Brexit versus pro-Brexit. It is about seeing the bigger picture and not just the parts that fit with our own preconceptions. The grandstanding at the Proms and the subsequent social media hysteria simply confirmed H.L. Mencken's assertion that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Mountakis Kostas - Rare live recording is available from the excellent Greek Record Shop in Crete - just one of the countless small Greek businesses that has suffered and continues to suffer from the machinations of the well-connected masters of the financial universe. To learn about Kostas Mountakis pioneering music education the 1999 documentary The Circle at the Crossroads available on YouTube is recommended; it is in German but has English sub-titles. No review sample or other benefits involved in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Schmuck! What do you think you are in?

A watershed moment in the evolution of rock stage-craft occurred one night after Jefferson Airplane had played a three-hour set to an ecstatic Fillimore crowd. Impresario Bill Graham asked guitarist Paul Kantner to go out and take a bow. "Fuck that, that's show business," Kantner responded. Graham's reply was priceless: "Schmuck! What do you think you are in?"
Anecdote is from Rob Chapman's rambling, profuse and only sometimes engaging Psychedelia and Other Colours. Photo shows Jefferson Airplane at 1969 Woodstock Festival. 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, July 25, 2017

Classical music targets a different mass market

An inevitable consequence of classical music's social media obsession is that the big get bigger and the rest get smaller. This is due to the accelerator effect of Twitter 're-tweets' and Facebook 'likes'. Once a topic reaches the social media tipping point it is liked and re-tweeted exponentially, while anything that fails to reach that crucial tipping point is buried beneath the wisdom of crowds. Such as ECM's CD of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian's Requiem. This important new work commemorates the estimated 1.2 million victims of the Armenian Genocide which took place in Turkey in 1915-16, and it speaks profoundly and movingly of the need for humanitarian ideals and unity between nations and cultures - the very subjects that celebrity musicians put centre stage at recent Proms. But with just a few exceptions - take a bow Sequenza21 - this new release was greeted with a crouching ovation on social media and a total absence of 'Tigran Mansurian for prime minister' blog posts.

In the past I have criticised ECM for not matching the creative flair of newcomer non-classical labels such as the rejuvenated Harmonia Mundi Latitudes and Accords Croises labels. However Tigran Mansurian's Requiem is out of ECM's top drawer and ranks alongside their disc of Valentin Silvestrov's Requiem as one of the label's finest achievements. The forces are the RIAS Kammerchor and Münchener Kammerorchester conducted by Alexander Liebrich, and the sleeve essay by Paul Griffiths is a poignant reminder of the damage done to music writing by online self-publishing. Paul's essay concludes with these words: "There is a fully achieved simplicity that words cannot touch, only the mindful ear". I can add nothing to this other than please do audition this new ECM release.

This review used that most rare of creatures, a requested review disc. Thank you David Fraser who is label manager at ECM's UK distributor Proper Music for flowing me music that matters and not music that needs hyping. 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, July 23, 2017

When criticism cuts both ways

This interview with Jordi Savall in La Stampa Cultura has been causing something of a furore. Forgive me if I don't have the story quite right, but the article is in Catalan and behind a paywall. But it appears Jordi's harsh comments about the state of Western classical music - formulaic, self-serving and lacking creativity - have been greeted with social media ripostes from within Spain that people in glass houses should not throw stones.

Readers will know that over the years I have been one of Jordi's biggest fans, so it saddens me to say that I have sympathy for some of the views expressed by his critics. In recent years I have been uncomfortable with certain aspects of Jordi's work. For instance, his puzzling criticism of the Spanish government's arts policy when he was taken funding from the ethically compromised Abu Dhabi regime, the difficulty of reconciling his humanitarian stance with his concerts in China, and the lacklustre book and CD projects which have repeated the same formula too often and sometimes are patched together from concert recordings made at different venues with varying acoustics. Then there are those audible mastering glitches in the SACD layer of his War & Peace CDs which are still uncorrected, and the unacceptable level of ambient noise and compromised sound on his recently released concert recording of Libre Vermell de Montserrat which is generally inferior to his 1979 EMI Reflexe account.

I treasure many of Jordi's CDs, have wonderful memories from his concerts and look forward to his future successes. But there is no smoke without a fire, and I respectfully suggest that he spends a little more time reflecting on the criticism sparked by his interview, and a little less time mimicking other celebrity musicians by flying around the world telephoning in his performances, churning out boilerplate new releases and making Barenboim-like pronouncements about the sad state of the world. Of course a musician must earn a living. But at the age of 76 I believe it is time for Jordi Savall to find a little more of the inner peace that he has so persuasively advocated. Clarification and comment from my Catalan readers would be appreciated.

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'Spirituality' seems to be the label-du-jour

My photo shows the village of Rocamadour in south-west France. The village is on one of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes and pilgrims come to venerate the Black Madonna in the Chapelle Notre-Dame. When I was approaching Rocamadour I was reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh - see this post - and the interior of the Chapelle Notre-Dame seen below also has similarities to Vajrayana Buddhist shrines.

It is easy and fashionable to view all the great wisdom traditions as just being ingredients in one big spiritual potpourri, and it is a view that I confess to having taken many times on this blog. So it was refreshing and invigorating to come across an alternative view recently in the form of David Webster's book titled provocatively Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy. David Webster is principal lecturer in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire where his main work is in Buddhist thought and its relationship to Western philosophy. His thesis provides a bracing antidote to the temptations of syncreticism, so I will conclude by quoting in full the first two paragraphs of his recommended book:

When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch them in the face. Hard. But I don't; partly because it is a poor way to recruit students, and also because it is probably wrong. And I am a coward who fears retaliatory pain. But it does annoy me hugely. It annoys me because confusion is distressing - and when people tell me this, I really don't know what they mean. I do know what they mean in a socio-cultural sense. They are indicating to me that they don't want me to mistake them for one of those 'crazy' religious people - the sort who believe that they are right and other people wrong, the type who is tainted by extremism and religious fundamentalism. They want me to recognise them, though, not as a shallow egotist with a mere mechanistic world-view, but as someone with depth and sensitivity. In this latter desire, 'spirituality' seems to be the label-du-jour.

But beyond its use as a social-cultural identification, I am unsure what empirical content to ascribe to the 'spiritual, but not religious' statement. Does it mean that the utterer has beliefs, but doesn't practice them in any way? Perhaps not. Maybe they mean that they are some sort of syncretist who follows a path of their own faith-conflations - but I can't be sure. Largely I am confused, as I understand a religion as a spiritual activity, and crucially, see spirituality as fundamentally religious in nature. I would suggest that to be spiritual, you have to be religious.

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.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Classical music's marriage with politics is a done deal

Arguments about whether classical music and politics should be mixed are futile. Because the two are irrevocably intertwined. As is shown by yesterday's press release from the City of London Corporation pressing the case for a new concert hall in London's newly designated 'culture mile'. This press release makes much of the Crossrail transport link that will serve the proposed hall. One of Crossrail's non-executive directors is Michael Cassidy. As readers of my previous posts on the subject will know, Michael Cassidy - who, incidentally, is a practicing lawyer - holds a number of influential positions in the City of London Corporation. He is also non-executive chairman of Askonas Holt; this is the management agency that represents both Simon Rattle who is a leading advocate of the new hall, and his new orchestra the London Symphony Orchestra which is expected to be resident there. Daniel Barenboim is also managed by Askonas Holt and he and Simon Rattle have both taken public anti-Brexit stances.

Yet another of Michael Cassidy's roles is chairman of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, a major commercial and residential development in the south of England. Ebbsfleet International Station is a major gateway for travellers to the EU and plans for the area include a £3.5 billion theme park with Europe's largest indoor water park, live music venues and hotels one mile from Ebbsfleet station - see header graphic. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the commercial potential of these projects may be adversely affected by Brexit.

All the foregoing is in the public domain and I am confident it conforms to the relevant corporate governance regulations. There is a cogent argument that London needs a new concert hall. and it can be argued that Britain's exit from the EU has significant downsides. It can also be argued that conductors are entitled to use the podium to air personal political views. But I would also argue that a better understanding of the bigger picture is needed.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

No big bearded imam was going to tell me music was haram

That header photo shows the British Muslim musician Ali Keeler playing with his Al Firdaus Ensemble. The status of music in Islam - forbidden or permissible - is frequently discussed and almost as frequently misunderstood. So I thought it useful to share an extract from an unpublished memoir by Ian Whiteman who was multi-instrumentalist for the mod band The Action and the Sufi-influenced cult psychedelic folk rock band Mighty Baby in the 1960s. Ian went on to make what is, to use a tired and devalued label, an inexplicably neglected masterpiece, the one-off album If Man But Knew by the Habibiyya. In 1971 Ian converted to Islam and became a member of the celebrated Bristol Gardens/Wood Dalling Sufi zawiya founded by the controversial Abdalqadir as-Sufi who later wrote an Islamic interpretation of Wagner's music. After converting to Islam Ian Whiteman took the name Abdallateef and as Abdallateef Whiteman has established a considerable reputation in the Muslim world as a graphic designer. He now lives in Andalusia where together with Ali Keeler and other local musicians he contributes to recording of Islamic sacred music such as the Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ which I praised recently.
In 1994 I was invited to participate in a symposium at the Royal College of Music in London, on the subject “Music in Islam: Permissible or Forbidden”. Two of the speakers were pro music and two hard line against, with myself in the middle trying to have an open mind, and not really knowing much about it either, other than that I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. Music had played an enormously positive part in my life and no big bearded imam was going to tell me otherwise, but I also knew the dangers of music having seen the music business in tooth and claw. We had on the panel one bearded Imam who spoke very much against it and I couldn’t see much light in what he was saying but he did speak a lot about the Fire. His speech had a palpably depressing effect on the symposium. It was just a rant citing the prophetic tradition about how music when accompanied by drinking and fornication was not permissible. But I knew enough to know that traditions can be very misleading and taken out of context can be made to mean almost the opposite of what they appear. The other speaker, who was attacking music was an English convert who had been a musician at one time also spoke about sinister pop recordings which if played backwards spelled out evil incantations.

Those who spoke in defense of music quoted Al-Ghazali and declared therefore its permissibility. There are of course prophetic traditions which seem to defend music in principle as well but I won’t go into that. It is certainly not even mentioned in the Qur’an, the highest legal authority, so on a scale of seriousness it is not even up there with even minor legal infractions which are mentioned in the Qur’an. The truth is that to most scholars it’s not even important – just a matter of taste.

My belief was that music in the company of people seeking spiritual elevation or enjoining good was therefore not only acceptable but a virtue. Music was a passive force which could be used for whatever you wished whether good or bad. I knew the dangers of music, the most obvious being just bad music. It would be like saying speech was forbidden because some people used it profanely. This literalism is deep in the mind set of some people, some scholars included, and is not unconnected to some of the serious problems that beset Muslims and the general public in the 21st century. When a young man untrained in Islamic sciences, with resentments and grudges, gets hold of a book of traditions translated into English he will make enormous presumptions and errors. It has been likened to a man doing brain surgery only having read an article on the Internet. It’s dangerous for everyone concerned and in the case of Islam, lethal.

Ali Keeler who sings with Ian Whiteman and others on the Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ recording is a classically trained violinist and my 2015 interview with him attracted considerable attention. Ali shares Ian Whitman's belief that music in the right context is not only acceptable but a virtue, and like Ian he believes that the definition of 'right context' must be flexible to connect with the zeitgeist. As well as contributing to recordings of sacred Islamic music and being a highly respected exponent of tajwid, the art of Quran recitation, Ali actively explores wider musical contexts. In the 1990s he played on two of the albums by the trip hop group Archive and much more recently he has developed a unique and globally accessible brand of Celtic-tinged Andalusian Sufi music with his Al Firdaus Ensemble. In this his violin and voice is joined by the Spanish cellist Salma Vives, and from Morocco qanun player Yusuf Mezghildi and percussionist Omar Benlamlih; the two accompanying photos taken by me at an Al Firdaus gig show the four musicians, and one of their Sufi musical earworms can be sampled below.

Safa, the first album from Al Firdaus Ensemble has remained high on my playlist for months and now it has been joined by their second album Nur - which translates from Arabic as 'The Light'. The new album delivers more of Al Firdaus' catchy and unique brand of Celtic-tinged Sufism, but with new more commercial and upbeat sound that is suffused with the sonic equivalent of Andalusian sunshine. Nur is available as a download from Amazon and iTunes and a taster video is below.

It is very easy to dismiss Ali Keeler's music and my frequent posts about non-Western music as multicultural hot button fodder that is subservient to the pseudo events which dominate Western culture. But such an attitude is foolish and myopic. My interview with Ali Keeler ranks as the fourth most widely read in this blog's twelve year history. Contributing to this was a tweet by the British-Iranian singer/composer Sami Yusuf. Now Sami Yusuf's name may not mean much to those steeped in the Western classical tradition, but he is a very big property in global markets. To illustrate this, Alex Ross has 106,000 Twitter followers, Sami Yusuf has 769,000.

Those who chant the mantra that Western classical music needs new markets should note that Shelina Janmohamed's recent book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World points out that the global Muslim population is growing more than twice as quickly as overall world population growth. Of 11 countries forecast to join the elite club of economic superpowers this century, six have a dominant Muslim majority and two substantial Muslim minorities. Two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30, representing a huge and rapidly growing market. And those who prefer humanitarian to commercial ideals should note that Al Firdaus have taken their multi-cultural music to countries as diverse as Indonesia and the United States, with a Washington Post reviewer writing "Their music is far from political. It’s all about beauty and faith and peace and devotion..."

I am grateful to Ian Whiteman for making the manuscript of his unpublished memoir Average Whiteman available to me. My copy of Nur was purchased via the the LaunchGood crowdfunding platform. 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, July 19, 2017

Raising the white flag at the BBC Proms

During a 1970s Festival Hall concert conducted by Bernard Haitink a serial cougher decided to accompany the posthorn solo in the third movement of Mahler's monumental Third Symphony. Maestro Haitink continued to beat time with his baton while using his left hand to extract a white handkerchief from his pocket and hold it high over his head to encourage the cougher to mute the intrusive noise.

Such an action would be unthinkable at the Proms today, because the conductor would spend the whole concert with an arm raised holding a handkerchief. At one time the Proms audience had the enviable reputation of being the best audience in the world, but now it is the noisiest. My most recent visit to a Prom was almost certainly my last. Because not only is the Albert Hall sound poor, the sight lines unacceptable, the ambient temperature too high and the foyer facilities inadequate. But I found myself surrounded by people who made it quite clear that they were not there to appreciate the music, but rather to participate in a mass sonic selfie via persistent coughing, distracting talking, playing with mobile phones and the inevitable politically correct applause between movements.

This year a new and important element has been added to this sonic selfie, the conductor's speech. Daniel Barenboim rode his personal hobby horse in his speech at a recent Prom, and next month it is the turn of his fellow Askonas Holt artist Simon Rattle - a shared provenance which, incidentally, I suggest is not insignificant. Let us hope that when Simon Rattle rides his personal hobby horse in his post-Gurrelieder speech he pleads not only for a better London concert hall, but also for a better Proms audience.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Elgar in foreign hands

Elgar's symphonies have hardly been neglected at the BBC Proms and elsewhere. As an example, the Second Symphony has been played 37 times at the Proms, with two of those performances in the last three years; while the First has been given 51 times, including two performances in the last two years. So it is puzzling as to why the social networks are behaving as though Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin brought two undiscovered masterpieces to the Albert Hall, and it is doubly puzzling because his interpretations were passionate but hardly revelatory. Yes, it is noteworthy that this was Elgar from a foreign orchestra. But in 2008 Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra brought the First Symphony to the Proms. However it is not surprising that this European band's Elgar has been quietly forgotten, as Norrington's flexible tempo and vibrato free account ranks as one of the worst musical abominations I have ever had the misfortune to hear.

If you want your Elgar both revelatory and in foreign hands you should try the Romanian Constantin Silvestri's recording for EMI of In the South (Alassio). Silvestri, who is seen above, was principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) from 1961 until his tragically early death from cancer in 1969 aged 55. EMI planned to record the Elgar symphonies and possibly The Dream of Gerontius with Silvestri in Bournemouth, but his premature death meant only In the South - recorded in 1967 - was made as a commercial studio recording, although there are transcriptions of BBC broadcasts of the First Symphony and Cockaigne with the BSO. Silvestri's In the South is one of those rare performances that combines ultra-high voltage electricity with respect for the score. In a time when classical music has become no more than a made-for-media pseudo-event it is sad but hardly surprising that Constantin Silvestri's revelatory Elgar is all but forgotten.

Silvestri photograph comes via Mon Musée Musical. 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, July 17, 2017

Breaking news - 2018 BBC Proms plans leaked

On An Overgrown Path can exclusively reveal that according to an internal BBC source next year's Proms season will consist of 75 anti-Brexit speeches with encores of music.

Photo comes from Guardian article Last Night of the Proms - behind the scenes. 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, July 16, 2017

Now here comes Scott Ross the movie

Fact can be stranger than fiction: in my most recent post about the legendary harpsichordist Scott Ross I said with tongue planted firmly in my cheek that there is a Scott Ross biopic just waiting to be made. But now a reader tells me that not only is a biopic planned, but it is in the final stages of production. See teaser video above and there is more information via this link.

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Rhythms of resistance

Igor Levit's BBC Proms encore was a masterstroke. Not enough political edge to ruffle feathers. But just enough to raise the media profile of an otherwise lacklustre Proms season and spark the Guardian headline 'Proms get political as Ode to Joy features on first night'; all of which is guaranteed to set #bbcproms trending. Well-meaning he may be, but Igor Levit improvised his Ode to Joy protected by the safety-net of a recording contract with multi-national Sony Music, a management contract with multi-national IMG Artists and a career trajectory launched with the help of a New Generation Artists bursary from global media giant and Proms promoter the BBC.

Others also believe that music can make political statements, but they are doing it without the aid of corporate safety nets. Such as the young French-Syrian flautist Naïssam Jalal. Born to Syrian parents in Paris, she trained as a classical flautist. After completing her studies the teenage flautist embraced improvisation and toured Mali with a radical musical collective. When she was 19 Naïssam Jalal left France in search of her cultural and musical roots; her study of the ney (reed flute ) in Damascus, Syria was followed by time as a pupil of the Egyptian master violinist Abdo Dagher. In Cairo she started to explore the common ground between Western and Eastern music while working with Fathy Salama, the Arab World's only Grammy winner.

After returning to France in 2006 Naïssam Jalal worked extensively and toured with the Lebanese rapper Rayess Bek and Egyptian oud player Hazem Shaheen while developing her own unique jazz-influenced style. In 2009 her political awareness and Syrian roots resulted in the album To Resistance and for the last six years she has performed as the quintet Naïssam Jalal and Rhythms of Resistance accompanied by saxophone, cello, string bass and drums. As can be seen from the video below Naïssam Jalal believes in musical as well as political edge, and her style is thankfully far removed from the 'easy fusion' that is insidiously permeating World Music.

Naïssam Jalal has cut two albums with Rhythms of Resistance; her latest release Almat Wala Almazala (Death rather than humiliation) takes its title from the slogan for the 2011 Syrian protests against president Bashar al-Assad, and the album is dedicated to "the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have died under bullets or torture, and those who starved, besieged by the regime and facing the world's indifference". Sadly but predictably the corporate hegemony of the much-vaunted single European digital market means the albums have had to be issued on Naïssam Jalal's own record label, but they are fairly readily available.

Important music is growing in the killing fields far away from the comfort zone of the Albert Hall. Art music needs political edge, and it is good that both Igor Levit and Naïssam Jalal are providing that edge. But I just wish that a little more attention was focussed on the brave activist musicians who are not darlings of the twitterati and who do not benefit from the power of the corporate spin machine.

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.

Friday, July 14, 2017

How the Himalayan Masters use Twitter

Three sages in the Himalayas sit in silence, meditating. Ten years go by, and the first one tweets, "What a wonderful morning." Another ten years go by and the second one tweets, "It might rain". Another ten years go by, and the third one tweets, "When will the two of you ever get off Twitter".
That is my contemporary paraphrase of a story told by Jiddu Krishnamurti and reported in The Beauty of the Mountain published by the Krishnamurti Foundation. I took the photo when crossing a high pass in the western Himalayas en route from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain to the alpine desert of Ladakh - see my photo essay about the journey. Krishnamurti, who taught that "Authority of any kind, especially in the field of thought and understanding, is the most destructive, evil thing.. leaders destroy the following and followers destroy the leaders" had no time for gurus. But books such as Apprenticed to a Himlayan Master by Sri M, and Living with a Himalayan Master and Walking with a Himalayan Master by Swami Ram nevertheless make invigorating reading.

At the core of the occult philosophy of Theosophy as espoused by Madame Blavatsky in Victorian times were telepathic instructions from Himalayan Mahatmas - esoteric masters who dwelt in the Himalayas. Theosophy influenced many celebrated musicians including including Alexander Scriabin, John Foulds, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Dane Rudhyar, while Nicholas Roerich, who collaborated with Stravinsky on the creation of the The Rite of Spring, was one of the prominent Theosophists who visited India in search of the Himalayan Mahatmas.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

What harbour shelters peace?

That photo heads a Rest Is Noise post linked to Alex Ross' New Yorker article about the symbolic power of music. Alex quite correctly credits the photo as appearing in the program booklet for Toscanini's 1944 Red Cross benefit at Madison Square Garden and showing a 1943 mission by the 390th Bombardment Group. But there is another musical connection which Alex may not be aware of. During the Second World War the USAF bomber squadrons were based in East Anglia as the region offered the shortest flight paths to important targets in Germany. and between 1943 and 1945 the 390th Bombardment Bomb Group was based at Station 153 Parham in Suffolk.

Just eleven miles from Parham is Aldeburgh, and for four years from 1785 the poet George Crabbe lived at the Moat House in Parham. Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes* is, of course, based on the eponymous narrative poem in George Crabbe's poetry collection The Borough. Crabbe wrote the poems in The Borough between 1804 and 1809; although they post-date Crabbe's time in Parham it is known that the poet's stay in the village was not a happy one, and it can be conjectured that some of the darkness in Peter Grimes originated in those years.

Alex Ross' New Yorker piece reflects on the bellicose posturing of the new American president, and there are many overgrown paths to be explored between the US, pacifism, and Britten. I, like many of my peers, have lamented the tragic consequences of 'intervention' by the US and other Western powers in the Middle East. But it is also worth reflecting on what the state of the world would be today had not the brave young personnel of 390th Bombardment Bomb Group - which lost 740 aircrew killed in action with a further 754 taken prisoners of war - joined the other Allied forces in defeating Hitler, Allied forces which, incidentally, included heroic Muslims.

* My headline is a quote from the Prologue of Peter Grimes. 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, July 12, 2017

Decoding the zeitgeist

Back in 2012 Alex Ross emailed me about a new bleeding-edge cycle for orchestra and electronics titled Sufi Word by the Belgian composer Jean-luc Fafchamps, and as a result of Alex's generous heads up I have written several related posts. Symbolism is an important component of Sufism, and although Jean-luc Fafchamps explains "I am not a Sufi, or even Muslim and I do not speak Arabic" the music is evolved from the symbolic interrelations between letters of the Arabic alphabet derived from a Sufi chart. This compositional system has parallels with the I Ching-derived chance operations that created the charts for John Cage's Music of Changes.

Recently I was prompted to revisit Jean-luc Fafchamps' musical exercise in Islamicate symbolism by reading the Turkish-American scholar Ahmed Hulusi's book Decoding the Quran: A Unique Sufi Interpretation - free legal download via this link. Ahmed Hulusi's thesis also draws on the decoding of Arabic letters, and is based on the following exposition by the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Hadhrat Ali:
'The secret of the Quran is in al-Fatiha, the secret of al-Fatiha is in the Basmalah,
and the secret of the Basmalah is in the letter B (ب)
And I am the point beneath the 'B' (ب)'
This is interpreted by Ahmed Hulusi as a precursory reference to the contemporary concept of the 'holographic universe' which quantum field theory points towards. In this theory the whole is contained in the part; each and every iota of existence potentially contains the whole, and what we label as the 'whole', or the 'outside world', is no more than our personal hologram. According to Ahmed Hulusi's interpretation we live and are therefore constrained by the virtual projection of our own perceptions and beliefs; a concept that is also central to both the Buddhist and Vedanta traditions where it appears as maya - the Sanskrit word for 'illusion'.

His thesis leads Ahmed Hulusi to the conclusion that there is no 'god out there' administering existence from afar. There is only the One denoted in his interpretation of the Quran by the name 'Allah', and he posits that humankind must learn to reject its holographic preconceptions and achieve unity with the One. It is a tempting thesis particularly in its resonances with other wisdom tradions, but it demands at least questioning. Ahmed Hulusi's thoughtful decoding of the Quran highlights both the benefits and weaknesses of relying on intermediary interpretations of what many believe to be a divine revelation. Another book, Theo Padnos' overlooked Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen, highlights the dangers inherent in interpreting a divine revelation dating from the 7th century. In 2012 Theo Padnos was kidnapped and held hostage for almost two years in Syria by the Nusra Front, which is allied to Al-Qaeda. But the earlier journey chronicled in his 2011 Undercover Muslim takes him from teaching poetry to inmates in a Vermont prison to conversion to Islam and life in the mosques and madrassas of Yemen. It was a journey that prompted him to reach the following conclusion:
When I was in Russia recently the atmosphere of the religious schools I had attended in Yemen and Syria came back to me. The education had given me a healthy disregard for material things, to say nothing of a solid understanding of the Koran, but even as I was memorising, I knew that this education had a harmful side. In two and a half years of study, I had attended three schools and had visited friends in several more. Without exception, these academies taught that evolution is a fable, that Islam is the wisest solution to life's problems, and that the Hebrew bible is a fraud, forced on the world's Jewish population by elders who wish to hide references to Muhammad. In none of these academies were students asked to read widely. In no schools were students directed to use their reading to construct a modern. Self-supporting, nuanced system of ethics. In religious schools in the Middle East if you don't know what to do, you ask the sheikh. He has memorised much more than you. He knows what the Prophet would do and understands the Golden Time of Islam. Whatever the problem is, the sheikh, not the student knows the answer.

That is an extreme view, but then Yemen is an extreme country where extremism has been incubated by the terrible civilian casualties inflicted by Western drone and missile strikes. A more nuanced appraisal of Islam is offered by James Fergusson in his recently published and recommended Al-Britannia: My Country. His appraisal, in my view, provides the appropriate level of balancing and questioning, as expressed in this key extract:
For me, though, there remained a drawback to the Islamic social system... which was that the obligations it imposes on Muslims seem to require a subjugation of the hallowed Western traditions of liberty, free will, and individual choice. Becoming a Muslim is voluntary – the Prophet was clear that there could be 'no compulsion in religion' – but Islam also means 'Submission' and, like many Westerners, I still instinctively distrusted the implications of that. For all the good in Islam, I was wary of the total fealty it demands to its core principles. Because it is based on the literal word of God, Islam comes with a built-in resistance to evolution and reform; it is not good at accommodating social change because the laws and moral values of its patriarchal past, being God-given, cannot be deviated from. And that is problematic for any traditional Muslim living in the West, where laws and values evolve all the time and frequently clash with those of Islam.

Sufism - which has varying liberal interpretations - is currently enjoying a renaissance driven in part driven in part by a reaction against Salafi and Wahabi theological extremism. Ahmed Hulusi's unique Sufi interpretation Decoding the Quran and Jean-luc Fafchamps' Sufi Word cycle are laudable examples of reconciling contemporary culture with divine revelation, and thereby bypassing the resistance to progress highlighted by James Ferguson. So to end this post I am returning to music and presenting a video extract from Sufi Word:

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Every CD tells a story

News of the untimely death of sarangi master Dhruba Ghosh took me down some fascinating listening paths yesterday evening. These included the 2005 disc seen above featuring Dhruba Ghosh's older brother Nayan Ghosh titled Naghma - which is the Farsi and Urdu word for 'melody'. The musicians on the album artwork are from left to right Nayan Gosh (sitar), Paul Grant (santoor), Ross Daly (Cretan lyre) and Bijan Chemirani (zarb). The geographic reach of the music ranges from the Himalayas through Northern India to Kashmir, Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey and Crete, and includes a composition by Nayan Ghosh based on a traditional boatman's song from the Bengal-Ganges Plain.

Every CD tells a story through its music, graphics and sleeve notes, and that intangible but crucial narrative - which touches on the cultural, emotional and personal - loses much when the music is reduced to the postmodern bits and bytes of streaming and downloads. It is well-known that a few celebrated musicians including Olivier Messiaen and Alexander Scriabin were synaesthetes. But the latest neuroscientific research into multi-sensory neurons suggests that synaesthesia - cross talk between the human brain's sensory channels - is not as rare as commonly thought. In fact it is part of the human condition and the five senses of taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing often exhibit considerable overlap.

So it can be postulated that when a musical experience is confined to the single sensory channel of sound, as is the case with download and streaming, vital sensory crosstalk is lost. Which may well explain why the CD refuses to die, why vinyl sales are booming, why live music - which is multi-sensory - always sounds better than recorded, and also why the market for the mono-sensory eBook is in decline.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

His sound will always be written on my soul

The celebrated sarangi player Dhruba Ghosh who is seen above has died at a tragically early age. He was one of that small exalted group of musicians who are both masters of their own tradition and explorers who traveled successfully beyond their personal comfort zones to work with masters of other traditions; just one example was his exploration of the music of Tobias Hume with viol virtuoso Philippe Pierlot which featured here last year. Dhruba Ghosh's fellow explorers included the husband and wife exponents of contemporary Cretan modal music Kelly Thoma and Ross Daly, and Kelly has written the following tribute:
Terrible news today...our dear friend and phenomenal musician Dhruba Ghosh left this world and traveled to another dimension at the age of 59. He was a rare person, wonderful, kind, with great sense of humor, warm and above all a huge musical inspiration for many of us...His sound is and will always be "written" on my soul. May he rest in peace and I hope that in this "other world" he continues sharing music in any form possible or impossible for us to understand...Thank you for everything Dhruba
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Never sit in the comfy chair

Travelling round Northern France, I found myself listening to France Musique. Frank Bridge. Arnold Bax. And the incomparable performance of In a Summer Garden by Barbirolli . Presented in a way that suggested the presenter knew what he was saying.... Cf Petroc Trelawny
That comment was added by a reader to a recent post. By coincidence it was awaiting moderation when I returned from driving from Cahors in the Limousin region of south-west France to the Channel port of Caen, during which drive I too found France Musique's output unusually satisfying. When I cleared the UK border control at Portsmouth and turned onto the M27 I tuned in to Martin Handley on BBC Radio 3. In the past Martin Handley was one of the station's more erudite presenters, but I quickly switched back to the SDHC memory card in my car's audio system. Because Handley's presentation style has descended - or more probably has been forced to descend - into 'Jack and Jill radio' which treats its audience as though they are, and will forever remain, young children. Jack and Jill radio was, of course, was pioneered by Classic FM, then hijacked by Roger Wright - RIP the Aldeburgh Festival - for Radio 3, and taken to its curremt Olympian heights by Petroc Trelawny.

A recent post advocated yet again that classical music should pursue a 'minds in gear' as opposed to a 'bums on seats' strategy. BBC Radio 3 has for years unashamedly chased bums on seats in pursuit of Classic FM. But the latest official RAJAR listening figures show quite objectively that this is not working: in the quarter ending March 2017 Radio 3 had an audience of 1.8 million listeners, down from 2.1 million in the same quarter the previous year. This is a lot less bums on seats than Classic FM, which had an audience of 5.3 million in Q1 2017. So BBC Radio 3 is failing to deliver the holy grail of a big audience; but neither is it - as the comment above confirms - engaging brains, despite new controller Alan Davey's professed dumbing-down lite policy.

My varied reading while in France included Jake Humphrey's The Inside Track. Jake Humphrey who is only 38 fronted BBC TV's Formula One coverage; he then moved on to present BT Sport's football programmes and is co-owner of Whisper Films which currently provides Channel 4's F1 coverage. At first glance Formula One and classical music may appear to have little in common. But in fact Formula One is a cash-hungry big business masquerading as sport, while classical music is a cash-hungry big business masquerading as art, and there is much that classical music can learn from how BBC TV engaged the brains of its Formula One audience.

In his book Jake Humphrey explains how Formula One was very successfully repositioned from 'wallpaper TV' to 'appointment-to-view TV'. Appointment-to-view/listen is where the important loyal and knowledgeable audience is, yet classical radio is still being repositioned with a notable lack of success as wallpaper listening. Jake Humphrey advocates that decision makers in the media and elsewhere should never sit in the comfy chair. Which very precisely nails classical music's current problem: its movers and shakers refuse to move from the comfy chair, and instead spend their time providing even more luxuriously upholstered seats for their dwindling audience.

Header photo of street art was taken by me in Cahors. 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.