Thursday, August 31, 2017

Classical music's 'next big thing' obsession is misguided

That spectacular spike in On An Overgrown Path's readership graph was caused by the economics blog Marginal revolutions linking to my posts about the older classical audience and the Ultimate Classic FM chart. I have no time for the 'mine is bigger than yours' bragging that Norman Lebrecht and other bloggers indulge in. But I do think there are lessons to be learnt from how a blog which assiduously avoids eulogising classical music's 'next big things' has retained a significant and wide audience.

The classical record industry was built on the vision of figures such as Fred Gaisberg, Walter Legge and John Culshaw whose roots were deep in classical music. But the 1960s boom sparked by Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and others meant that rock music called the shots in the record industry, and it has stayed that way ever since. Rock music is driven by a remorseless search for 'hits' and 'the next big thing'. Because classical has been subservient to rock for the last half-century, the same remorseless search for hits and the next big thing has been imposed on classical music by a succession of senior industry executives from rock backgrounds, with Universal Music leading the charge. And this misguided attempt to impose the rock paradigm on classical is where it has all gone wrong. Because classical music is not a 'next big thing' art form.

Classical music actually has very little in common with rock music. Rock is defined by its blockbuster hits, while classical is notoriously difficult to define because it is not built on blockbusters. So the obsessive search for the next classical big thing is futile and damaging. As dumbing down - the last classical big thing - rides into the sunset with the BBC coming to the glaringly obvious conclusion that "Strictly and Sherlock audiences fail to stick around", so the next big thing comes into view with the classical Taliban riding shotgun. Take your pick from Simon Rattle's marriage of convenience to the LSO, Classic FM's success in the 'yoof' market, anti-Brexit grandstanding, or a new £300 million London concert hall. Never mind that the graveyard of next big things is overflowing - does anyone remember that darling of the Sinfini set the Bristol Proms which was going to "bring classical music into the 21st-century"? (Incidentally, is The Spectator the new big thing
replacing Sinfini Music?)

As Gautama Buddha told us in his teaching on impermanence, all big things that come will inevitably go; just as that large spike in my reader numbers is declining as I write. It is particularly appropriate that my articles were given a heads up by a high profile blog titled Marginal Revolutions. Because the future of classical music does not depend on finding the next big thing. It depends on marginal incremental gains from many, many not so big things. Simon Rattle, Mahler symphonies and the Titanic soundtrack have their place. But so do an infinite number of small ensembles, small venues, non-celebrity artists, less-celebrated composers and minority voices. I make no claims that my blog can show the classical industry what to do. But perhaps it can point out what not to do.

As I write, musicians featured in the blog's sidebar lists of most popular posts - these are driven in real time by the software - include mystical spectralist Jonathan Harvey, the evergreen Elgar, Sufi adept Ali Keeler, the genre-busting Haz'art Trio, Indian-influenced Paul Horn, ex-saviour Gustavo Dudamel, and Cretan music legend Ross Daly. If there is anything classical music can learn from the resilence of On An Overgrown Path, I suggest it is the idiocy of the next big thing obsession and the vital importance of all the next little things.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

My first classical record

Publication of the Ultimate Classic FM Chart and a subsequent Guardian article has sparked some useful debate about what Kate Molleson terms in her article 'gateway drugs to classical music'. This debate prompts me to republish an article I wrote back in 2005 titled 'My first classical record' which I have conflated with a relevant extract from an even earlier post about collaborative filtering. Too little attention is paid to how people 'get' classical music. I hope republishing these somewhat discursive pieces from a more innocent time of music blogging may prompt others to usefully share the experience of their first classical record.

What was the first classical record you bought? Mine was an LP of Herbert von Karajan conducting Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the 'Pathetique', with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon 13892SLPM. I bought it in 1969 from a music shop in Reading where I was at University. The shop had listening booths with acoustic tiles, and it sold sheet music, musical instruments, and classical records.

The LP is playing as I write. I have just serviced my Thorens TD125 turntable with SME arm (a capacitor in the motor control circuit blew after 30 years) seen below. The LP sound through my Arcam Alpha 10 amplifier and B & W Nautilus 803 speakers is magnificent, when the planets are aligned beneficially vinyl can still deliver a musicality that surpasses CD. (Thankfully I have kept my LP collection, and the surfaces are immaculate apart from the inevitable pressing blemishes).

What overgrown path led me to buy that LP of the 'Pathetique'? Well, I can answer that question quite easily. Some years previously (1961?) I had been taken by my parents, while on holiday, to hear Tchaikovsky 6th played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. The conductor was a dynamic young Singaporean maestro Choo Hoey. (Googling for Choo Hoey pulls up references to a conductor active in the Far East, could this be the same one? - I must have seeen him more than forty years ago).

Did that early hearing of Tchaikovsky 6 burn irreversible patterns into my neural networks a la Mozart Effect? Did the B minor key signature programme me towards an near obsession for Masses in minor keys in general, and Bach's masterpiece in particular? Was it that adiogio lamentoso last movement that inclined me towards the melancholic of the Four Temparaments? (Post coming up, time permitting, on a CD called the Four Temparaments - no not Carl Nielsen - it is an excellent new release from the innovative viol consort Phantasm, and it includes a setting for viols of the Byrd Four Part Mass!)

Could it have been that brooding Siegfried Lauterwasser cover photograph of Karajan (this link gives an interesting perspective on Lauterwasser, who was HvK's 'court' photographer) that headed me towards a career that took me from the BBC, and then to EMI where I worked on some of Karajan's projects including his recording of Debussy's operatic masterpiece Pelleas et Melisande? That project summed up the Karajan conundrum completely, sublime music making and an odious personality. My favourite Karajan story is about when he was conducting at Bayreuth with Hans Knappertsbusch. There were just two lavatories at the end of a long corridor backstage. Karajan's personal secretary, it is said, put a notice on one, 'For the exclusive use of Herr Karajan'. An hour later a notice appeared on the other one written by Knappertsbusch, 'For all the other arseholes'.

I was also involved with others in the Karajan circle. When Walter Legge died in 1979 I created an exhiibition at short notice for the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Legge's wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (below) viewed the exhibition before a Philharmonia Orchestra memorial concert, and complained to me that I had described Legge in the display as an 'entrepreneur.' Now I have often been wrong in my choice of words, but in that instance I am convinced I was dead right.

But the path didn't just lead me to Karajan and his circle . My second LP was Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic in Holst's Planet Suite (A strange choice, the reading with its odd tempi has long since been deleted). Haitink resoundingly disproves the rule that you need an odious personality to be a great conductor. (And also Colin Davis - interesting he has no 'personal' web site, this is a quote from the article I've linked to.. I detest all that charisma stuff. It leads to unmusical things like the pursuit of power. The older I get, the more wary I am of power. It is a beastly ingredient in our society - he said that in 1990!).

I lunched once with Haitink in the staff refectory at Glyndebourne to seek approval for the cover design of his recording of the Brahms Double Concerto with Perlman and Rostropovich (approval was given without a hint of the vanity and petulance cultivated by Riccardo Muti and others). In those days conductors had cover approval in their contracts, nowadays they have to start their own record labels to make a recording. While driving down to Glyndebourne I had been listening to Previn's first (and by far the best) recording of Walton's First Symphony on RCA. I suggested that Haitink looked at the score, and he subsequently recorded it for EMI. It wasn't a great commercial success, it was a lesson in leaving A & R planning to the professionals. (But I do remember suggesting that Previn recorded the Korngold Violin Concerto and Symphony in F sharp in the 1980s, only to be told he wouldn't touch film music. It is amazing how principles adapt to economics). Haitink later did go on to record a fine cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies for EMI after I left. I am always puzzled as to why this fine conductor never plays or records Sibelius. With his achievements recording Bruckner I have always thought Haitink would be a natural Sibelian.

Just recently I've been interested, used, and worked on the peripheries of collaborative filtering. Amazon's recommendations are both maddening and very useful, and I have to say I've bought or borrowed from the library many recommendations. Most of my knowledge of, and passion for classical music has come from the serendipity of switching on BBC's Radio 3 before it was dumbed-down to the commercial benchmark. [This was written in 2004!, hearing a piece of music, and following that thread onwards. Like many I came to Mahler through the serendipidity of Visconti's Death in Venice in the early-70's, a serendipity aided and abetted by the Mahlerian style being digestible by a graduate who had been living with the Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Moody Blues for a few years. That's why I'm interested in musicplasma which I mentioned in an early post, it offers spontaneous links from one musician to another. My dream is to be able to work back from a CD and produce a map of every thread that led me to play it, every piece of music on route, and most importantly every fork that I took to reach it, and equally importantly the forks that I didn't take. I selfishly think that recreating even parts of that route may lead readers to similar delights and discoveries to those that fill my days with sunshine.

Article first published on April 1, 2005. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Now also on Facebook and Twitter.

Batons of gold and feet of clay

Classical music has always had its high earning high profile celebrities. But in the era of Karajan and Stokowski healthy admiration for their music making was mixed with an equally healthy scepticism about their excesses off the podium - see above. In the era of Dudamel and Rattle admiration for their music remains; but scepticism about their excesses - see below - has been replaced by remorselessly enforced approval. This unwillingness to accept that those with golden batons can also have feet of clay is driven by the widespread misapprehension that classical music needs a new messiah, and therefore any prospective saviour must be worshipped without question. Classical music is not dead. But it is under attack by the music Taliban who zealously enforce their own interpretation of the classical revelation. These Taliban use public platforms to deride anyone whose views deviate from the orthodoxy as a "tedious collection of cynics, snobs and the professionally underwhelmed".

Karajan photo via chientewu blogspot. 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, August 29, 2017

Is this really the future of classical music?

Hopefully all the classical music experts who zealously tweeted news of Classic FM's "huge increase in under-35 listeners" have seen the just-announced Ultimate Classic FM Chart of best-selling albums. For those who haven't the top five albums are shown above in reverse order. Is this really the future of classical music? Why don't otherwise very intelligent people think before they tweet?

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Monday, August 28, 2017

When the Beatles' guru produced an album

Like many in the late 1960s the jazz flautist and saxophonist Paul Horn was a devotee of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) guru Maharishi Maheshi Yogi. In early 1967 Paul Horn travelled to Rishikesh to attend the Maharishi's academy of meditation. Due to the heat in the Ganges plain the last weeks of the academy were based in Srinagar in Kashmir. Participants were entertained there by Kashmiri musicians who also practised transcendental meditation. The Maharishi became a fan of Paul Horn's playing and brought him together with the Kashmiri musicians and, to quote Horn: "He proceeded to plan an album with the insight of an experienced record producer. He arranged for album cover photos to be taken early the next morning" - see above.

Maharishi Maheshi Yogi was, like many religious leaders, a controversial figure. He was allegedly a kundalini opportunist, and the Beatles broke with him because of his reported advances to Mia Farrow during a TM retreat, a break that influenced John Lennon's song Sexy Sadie. The prominent Maharishi branding on the original album artwork for Paul Horn in Kashmir - see below - will doubtless attract the attention of anti-cult crusaders. But the cosmic consciousness message should not distract from an album that is quite outstanding in its own right.

Paul Horn is fulsome with his praise, and the image of the Maharishi as producer provides a nice click bait headline. However it would be fairer to credit the cosmic consciousness guru as executive producer - or should that be esoteric producer? Paul Horn in Kashmir was recorded in New Delhi with Horn himself as producer; Pacific Jazz founder Richard Brock supervised and there are no musical genuflections to the Maharishi who was not present at the sessions. Paul Horn's work with Indian musicians predated his guru's intervention and the Kashmir album was actually the second disc that he had cut with Indian musicians during his five month on the subcontinent. The first, Paul Horn in India, was recorded with pupils of Ravi Shankar; the flautist knew Pandit Shankar as he had played with him on the sitar master's Western tinged 1965 Portrait of Genius album.

The two albums that Paul Horn recorded in India are outstanding because they are not a forced fusion of Eastern and Western styles. Instead they capture a master Western-trained flautist/saxophonist sitting in with musicians from the Indian tradition. Egos were checked at the door, and on several tracks Paul Horn shows his respect for his fellow musicians by sitting out. Both Paul Horn in India and Paul Horn in Kashmir have been released as a single CD by UK independent label BGO Records. The sound from the 2013 digital remastering is excellent and totally belies the age and location of the recordings. The CD release reproduces the LP artworks and combines Paul Horn's original liner notes with an excellent essay commissioned for the re-release.

If you are interested in contemporary expressions of the Indian music tradition but have no time for flaccid fusion projects then this CD is a 'must have'. Also worth exploring is the more New Age Paul Horn Inside the Taj Mahal. This 1968 million seller was recorded inside the iconic mausoleum in Agra and captures its unique acoustic in an early foray into soundscape recording. Another album worth seeking out is the more chewy 1975 Paul Horn + NEXUS. This was a collaboration with the Toronto-based NEXUS percussion ensemble whose other credits include Steve Reich and Toru Takemitsu commissions and recreating John Cage's score for a 1942 radio play.

No review samples used. Resources consulted include Inside Paul Horn: the spiritual odyssey of a universal traveler by Paul Horn and Lee Underwood. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

"Multi-million arms deals are signed at major music festivals"

That header photo comes from a 2016 Guardian review of a Wigmore Hall recital. Martha Argerich needs no introduction but her fellow Argentinian and recital partner Alberto Portugheis possibly does. Alberto Portugheis is both a celebrated pianist and teacher, and his masterclasses attract pianists of all ages and from around the world. Like his compatriot Daniel Barenboim he also campaign for peace and human rights, and in 2014 he launched his international movement Humanity United for Universal Demilitarisation (HUFUD).

My recent post 'How classical music swims in very murky water' highlighted the three year corporate partnership between the the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) and the world's fourth largest aerospace and defence company United Technologies Corporation (UTC). Alberto Portugheis has left the following comment on that post:
UTC is only one of many 'Merchants of death' companies or conglomerates that use classical music to gain new contracts, thus killing more people and increasing hunger and other forms of human suffering in the world. Sadly, people in Music Management have always, diplomatically and egoistically, decided to ignore this aspect of music life. Many international orchestras travel the world on political/diplomatic missions, even if the players in the orchestra are unaware of how they are been used. Multi-million arms deals are concocted and signed at International Music Festivals, Salzburg or Bayreuth to give just two names. I wish a Peace lover music journalist would dedicate himself/herself to study the Music-War connection.

Alberto Portugheis
Musician and Founder of HUFUD (Humanity United for Universal Demilitarisation)
Those are very strong words coming from a greatly respected musician. They must be taken seriously, just as Daniel Barenboim's views on European unity are taken seriously. The links between classical music and the military-industrial complex are not benign. Of course the European Union Youth Orchestra, whose conductors include Bernard Haitink and Daniel Barenboim, does priceless work, and around 50% of UTC's revenues come from its non-military businesses. But, as has long been the case with Gustavo Dudamel, there is a large dead moose in the middle of the concert platform.

United Technologies Corporation is the European Union Youth Orchestra's principal and apparently only corporate partner. Annual revenues of almost $20bn are generated by UTC's aerospace and defence businesses which produce military helicopters, jet engines, propulsion systems, aircraft systems and components. The EUYO website describes United Technologies Corporation as ""among the world’s most respected and innovative companies". In fact UTC pleaded guilty in 2012 to supplying technology for China’s first modern military attack helicopters in a serious breach of US arms export controls. The company agreed to pay $75m in fines for the offences, some of which were categorised as criminal.

As this thread was sparked by an appeal by EUYO CEO Marcus Marshall for the world to unite behind Gustavo Dudamel against the oppressive Venezuelan regime, it is also worth noting that another of UTC's innovative export violations was, and I quote Business Insider "...the export to Venezuela of a test stand for an F100 engine used for F-16 fighter planes that was falsely classified as commercial because it used only commercial items".

The European Union Youth Orchestra webpage highlighting the orchestra's relationship with UTC carries a prominent endorsement from Darcy Nicolle who is Vice President, Government Relations Europe, United Technologies Corporation. As if that job title isn't clear enough, Ms Nicolle self-describes her role on LinkedIn as "Lobbying across Europe for a major corporation". In 2008 Alberto Portugheis was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee; his message is very clear and the classical music industry is steering a dangerous course by citing financial necessity as the justification for ignoring it.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

How classical music swims in very murky water

That Guardian subhead of "President Maduro’s cancellation of conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s tour is a clear bid to weaponise the country’s greatest export, its musical education programme" is an unfortunate choice of words. The article, which pleads for the whole world to support Gustavo Dudamel and which condemns a bid to weaponise music education, is written by Marshall Marcus who is CEO of the European Union Youth Orchestra.

The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) has a three year corporate partnership with United Technologies Corporation (UTC), a partnership publicly endorsed by Marshall Marcus. UTC is a large military contractor and earns about 10% of its revenue from the U.S. government. It is one of the largest defense industry political donors. The Center for Responsive Politics, the premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics, reports that in 2016 UTC donated $1.2 million to federal candidates of which 64% went to Republicans. Possibly as a result UTC has quite some influence. In June 2017 CNBC reported UTC CEO Greg Hayes as saying that "President Donald Trump stands out from his predecessors because he listens to the company...[The White House] will actually listen and take our advice and take our input and that's something we haven't seen in a while".

Pratt & Whitney is part of UTC and over 6,500 Pratt & Whitney military engines are in service with 34 armed forces worldwide. UTC Aerospace Systems supplies SWIR enhanced vision systems. Among potential applications for the SWIR system according to a UTC press release is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. This is an unmanned aerial surveillance and attack vehicle - aka drone - developed by General Atomics primarily for the United States Air Force. All this industriousness comes at a cost, and in 2008 researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst identified UTC as the 38th-largest corporate producer of air pollution in the U.S..

It is incontestable that we we need more music education, and it is incontestable that we need our youth orchestras. There is also no doubt that the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela and European Union Youth Orchestra do priceless work. It is also an unfortunate fact that as public funding shrinks, partnerships with corporate entities - ethically challenged or otherwise - are inevitable. But given the current fashion for mixing music and politics, more transparency is needed: the EUYO website describes UTC as "among the world’s most respected and innovative companies". Even in the current funding drought classical music needs to beware of becoming an unction for ethical makeovers. Classical music also needs to realise - as Gustavo Dudamel is now realising - that when you swim in murky water you sometimes get attacked by sharks. And Guardian sub-editors need to choose their words more carefully when dashing out headlines written to please neoliberal readers.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Listening to our world

In his very influential book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World Canadian composer and sound ecologist R. Murray Schafer writes that "For some time I have also believed that the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society". This thesis can be applied usefully to the acoustic environment of today's classical concerts in general and the BBC Proms in particular.

The generally accepted explanation for the dribbles of between-movement applause and other non-musical sounds that now punctuate many concerts is that they are simply a product of the fashionable 'let's do away with silly conventions' movement. But I propose another explanation. The majority of the new inter-movement applauders come from the post-album generation. The post-albums have honed their music tastes using streaming and download services such as Apple Music and Spotify. Many do not own a CD player and the concept of an album - an extended sequence of music - is alien to them. For decades the currency of the record industry was the 60 minute album, but for the post-albums it is a track or song of much shorter duration.

It can be argued with some conviction that the pesky inter-movement applause is just another expression of a fundamental shift in which the way music is consumed today. Another characteristic of the post-albums is their shortened attention span. This is driven by micro communication platforms such as Twitter; if the post-albums struggle to read a typical 200 page book is it surprising they have to dissect a 60 minute symphony into four easily-digested and easily-applauded sonic morsels? The post-albums are also, of course, a subset of the binary generation, a cohort whose worldview is seen through the prism of discrete easily-assimilated packets of data.

Recently I have been listening to a combination of BBC Radio 3 relays of Prom concerts where the sonic signature of the post-album generation dominates and recordings which swim against the post-album tide. The concept album - an interlinked sonic sequence where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts - is another potential victim of the rise of the post-albums. Albums which capture the soundscape that is so important to R. Murray Schafer have always held a particular appeal for me. Among the concept albums that have featured here in the past have been Uri Caine's naughty but nice Wagner E Venezia, Manuel Hernia's transcultural The Whisper of the Orient and Eduardo Paniagua's evocation of the Muslim call to prayer Almuédano .

To this list of recommended soundscape albums I am adding Srdjan Beronja's The Sounds of Varanasi. Srdjan Beronja is a Serbian percussionist, musicologist, composer and producer who was born in Novi Sad in 1976. In 2001, he moved to India and studied the Indian tabla in the city of Varanasi with several Indian masters of the instrument. Ten years later he moved to Seattle / USA where he started an experimental multi-instrumental chamber music project that mixes traditional rhythmic structures, improvisation, notated music, minimalism and trance. His book The Art of the Indian Tabla is both a practical guide to the tabla and a meditation on Vedic theories of Indian rhythms and the centrality of vibrations. Srdjan Beronja has curated two soundscape albums, Sounds of the East and The Sounds of Varanasi. The latter album mixes live recordings of classical Indian music with local field recordings of ceremonies, Sanskrit prayer recitals, temple bells and other sounds including the chattering of monkeys. Both are worth exploring as an antidote to post-album syndrome, particularly as they can be bought for an astonishingly low price from the Arc Music label via Amazon. A sample mix of The Sounds of Varanasi can be auditioned via this link.

Many, including this writer, have reservations about the influence of the post-album generation. But whether we like it or not the post-albums are here to stay. And I suggest that classical music's strategy of paying lip service to change while showing no real understanding of the very different nature of the post-album generation is a major factor in the art forms' inability to engage a new audience. Much emphasis is rightly placed on the importance of music education, but this is invariably limited to academic practices. The post-albums are musically self-taught and much more emphasis needs to be placed on how to listen, as opposed to how to 'do', music.

Visionaries including John Cage, Pauline Oliveros and R. Murray Schafer have emphasised the importance of listening to the total soundscape and not just to the music. So in pursuance of this I have an off-the-wall suggestion that would help the post-albums understand the importance of deep listening. At a Prom concert a celebrity conductor with couilles - are there any left? - should turn to the audience before starting the main work on the programme and invite everyone to sit in five minutes silent meditation while absorbing the soundscape of the Albert Hall. This exercise would be a first step in inducting the post-albums into the lost art of listening, however I doubt if my proposal will find much support. But if a five minute coded lecture about Brexit after Elgar's Second Symphony is acceptable, why is a five minute silent meditation before it unacceptable?

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Shake, Rattle and roll

Simon Rattle is one of a number of celebrity musicians who have spoken out against Brexit because of their concern over the resulting potential restrictions on freedom of movement. For his farewell Asian tour with the Berlin Philharmonic and soloist Lang Lang, Rattle takes the orchestra in November to Chinese cities including Guangzhou, Wuhan and Hong Kong. Human Rights Watch reports that: "On January 29, 2016, the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court’s sentenced Tang Jingling, Yuan Xinting, and Wang Qingying to five, three-and-a-half, and two-and-a-half years respectively for “inciting subversion of state power.” The three men were convicted for promoting the ideas of “non-violent civil disobedience” and of promoting peaceful transformation to democratic rule in gatherings of activists. The guilty verdicts and prison terms reflect the Chinese government’s politicized manipulation of the courts and its increasing hostility toward peaceful dissent". There is more on the persecution of Guangzhou activists in a New York Times story from which the photo* of protesters in the city is taken.

Next stop on Simon Rattle's itinerary is Wuhan. Another human rights monitoring organisation Front Line Defenders reports that: "On 11 April 2016, Mr Liu Xinglian was released from custody in Wuhan No.2 Detention Centre due to ill-health. He had been arrested on 19 June 2015 on charges of 'inciting subversion of state power' by police in Wuhan city, Hubei province. Liu Xinglian is a human rights defender and secretary of the domestic organisations China Human Rights Watch and the Rose Group. Both are domestic organisations which pursue equal rights for all, highlight cases of human rights abuses and assist those who have had their rights violated. Liu Xinglian is also President of the Haikou City Muslim Association and he works with marginalised groups in the Muslim community in Hainan province".

Hong Kong hosts two concerts on the Berlin Philharmonic tour and earlier this year Human Rights Watch reported that: "The Hong Kong authorities’ arrest of 11 pro-democracy advocates over two days raises grave concerns of a politically motivated crackdown. While all have been released on bail, they face prosecution and possible prison sentences. Hong Kong authorities have prosecuted at least 18 pro-democracy political leaders in the territory since the end of the massive Umbrella Movement in December 2014. "Prosecution as persecution seems to be the new norm for the treatment of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong authorities’ abuse of the law to intimidate dissent increasingly resembles tactics employed just across the border.”"

Despite recent widespread approval of political interventions, Simon Rattle and his peers have remained notably silent about human rights abuses by the Chinese regime. The value of the music market in China is forecast to reach $1.05 billion by 2019. So protests about human rights in China are out of the question because classical music's celebrities and their management want a slice of that very tasty cake. This is the world we live in, and please do not let us pretend otherwise.

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Monday, August 21, 2017

Midnight's music

Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight’s Children portrays India’s tumultuous journey to Partition and beyond, and the children of the title are those born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 - the precise moment of Indian independence. It can be argued that the impact of Partition on contemporary Britain is at least equal to that of the Russian Revolution. But, despite this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution takes precedence over the 70th anniversary of Partition in the 2017 BBC Proms season. So there is a veritable glut of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, while works with links to the Indian subcontinent such as Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, Gustav Holst's Savitri and Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream, John Foulds' Song of Ram Dass and Three Mantras, and John Tavener's Requiem are conspicuously absent.

But all is not quite lost. There are two Proms featuring music from the subcontinent; the New Age elevator music of the Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass collaboration Passages which was performed on August 15, and a much more chewy concert of music from the Indian Hindustani and Carnatic traditions together with Sufi music from Pakistan - see photo above - on August 25. That is the good news. The bad news is that both concerts are in the insomniac slot, with the August 25 concert starting at 10.15pm and ending at half past midnight.

Now late night Proms are not a new feature: for example the 1972 Proms performance of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning which featured in yesterday's post started at 9.45pm. But a lot has changed in the four decades since then. Supposedly we live in more inclusive, more cosmopolitan and more multicultural times. So why is any music that is not in the mainstream Western tradition immediately consigned to the graveyard shift?

Preceding the Indian/Pakistani concert are Riccardo Chailly and La Scala Philharmonic playing at 6.30pm a distinctly pedestrian but definitely Western programme of Brahms' Violin Concerto and Respighi's Pines and Fountains of Rome. Of course, it is all about the box office. Brahms, Respighi and Chailly will put a lot more bums on seats than Canartic music. But the maths are not quite that simple: the fee for Chailly, soloist Leonidas Kavakos and the La Scala band is many times greater than that for ten little-known musicians from the subcontinent. So some empty seats for an Eastern music concert in the main evening slot would not bankrupt the BBC, which enjoys a legally protected annual license fee income of £3.7 billion. But if we leave that inconvenient truth aside, is the purpose of the BBC Proms or any other concert series simply to maximise ticket sales?

Consigning this or any other non-mainstream music to the late night slot is a huge missed opportunity. A concert of Indian and Pakistani music spitting its audience out into central London at half-past midnight will only appeal to the committed cognoscenti. The same concert starting at 7.30pm or even in the afternoon will tempt people to try the unfamiliar. And it is not simply a case of Sufi versus Respighi. There is little overlap between the audiences and the Albert Hall is the worst possible venue for intimate devotional music. The Eastern musicians could have played at the same time as the big hitters from Italy, but in a more suitable venue such as the smaller Cadogan Hall which is already used for chamber music Proms.

This is not just about two concerts of Indian and Pakistani music. It is about something much bigger. For years the BBC Proms have been no more than a box ticking exercise. Tick the Mahler box, tick the manufactured controversy box, tick the new music box, tick the Daniel Barenboim box, tick the Shostakovich box, tick the Simon Rattle box, and, above all, tick the cultural Health and Safety box. Integral to ticking the cultural Health and Safety box has been the establishment of a 10.00pm 'watershed', whereby challenging music has to be buddied up with an audience-friendly warhorse to be included in a pre-watershed concert - e.g. Anders Hillborg's Sirens buddied with Rimsky's conveniently Russian but not revolutionary Scherezade in a 7.30pm concert. This cultural apartheid means it is OK to break with the Proms convention of mainstream classical before the 10.00pm watershed with 'safe' innovations such as Oklohoma!. But anything suggesting that there is more to life than Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin' - whether Sufi or contemporary Western music - is marginalised in the late night ghetto.

For too long the Proms have been on auto pilot flying towards destination maximum audience. Root and branch reform is needed to disengage the auto pilot. The budget for the Proms is around £10 million of which two-thirds is guaranteed from the BBC license fee and is therefore independent of ticket sales. With that kind of fiscal safety net in place surely some comfort zone-challenging programmes could be scheduled in the 7.30pm slots in addition to the mandatory Mahler symphonies and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. But let's finish on a positive note. For those who like me do not consider the Circle Line at half-past-midnight to be a consciousness-enhancing experience, a recording of the Indian and Sufi music Prom is being shown on BBC Four TV on Sept. 2.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

When censorship of a BBC Prom was not fake news

As a counterpoint to the latest manufactured Brexit controversy it is worth retelling* the story of a BBC Prom that was actually censored. The Great Learning: Paragraphs 1 and 2 by Cornelius Cardew was scheduled for performance at a 1972 Prom. The work, which sets translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound, generated genuine controversy before its performance. What the BBC management did not know is that Cardew - seen above in proselytising mode - had revised the work in line with his hardening Maoist views. This meant the revised version came complete with his politically motivated programme note and banners for display in the Albert Hall with the message "Apply Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung thought in a living way to the problems of the present". A typically unsatisfactory British compromise was eventually struck between BBC controller of music William Glock who had bravely programmed the work and Cardew. This resulted in an emasculated twelve minute excerpt from The Great Learning: Paragraph 1 being performed without slogans or polemical programme note. In 1972 an audacious choice of repertoire generated the controversy. Today it is fake news which generates the controversy.

This post is based on a 2010 Overgrown Path article. Other sources include Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished by John Tilbury. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Don't shoot the conductor

Sakari Oramo's BBC Proms performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, which I heard via the Radio 3 broadcast yesterday, was unusually satisfying. My guides in appreciating the symphony were Klemperer on disc and Solti and Haitink in the concert hall, and Oramo's interpretation measured up well against those lofty benchmarks. The playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a reminder of how good this band can be if the planets are fortuitously aligned. And the commendable Radio 3 broadcast balance gave the music room to breathe, although it was slightly marred by the usual spotlighting of solo lines and some noticeable gain riding in the final pages. Thankfully the participation of the now notorious Proms audience was minimal, and there was even enough unsullied applause at the end to allow me to mute the sound before Petroc Trelawny gatecrashed the party.

That performance was evidence, if any were really needed, that the most powerful promotional tool at classical music's disposal is the music itself. Ironically Sakari Oramo was one of the principal figures in the latest manufactured Brexit PR stunt, and he has been involved in other silly promotional stunts including the 2014 BBC Proms photo shoot above. In fact his participation in silly spin goes back a long way to some ill-judged remarks about authoritative interpreters of Elgar during his tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

It is probably unfair to put all the blame for these gratuitous exercises in spin on Sakari Oramo. He is managed by the Harrison Parrott agency, which together with Askonas Holt - home of Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle - is a leading proponent of the theory that musicians now need equal measures of skill and spin to reach the peak of their profession. Classical music does not need these silly PR stunts. Far from enhancing the art form they cheapen it by reducing it to just another tawdry entertainment. Anshel Brusilow was a student of Pierre Monteux, associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and concertmaster of Eugene Ormandy's Philadelphia Orchestra. His book Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy is a coruscating indictment of both the manipulative power of management agents and the opportunistic behaviour of celebrity maestros. But in Shoot the Conductor Anshel Brusilow is also optimistic about the future, and classical music's spin doctors and marketing experts should heed his valedictory thoughts:

I've been a little promiscuous about music, quick to enjoy tunes that make me want to dance or sing along. Almost any type of music can make me feel happy or sad. But it is classical music, with its intricacy and large structure, that plumbs the depths of human feeling. It's not a pretty house-it's monumental architecture. The shortsighted are always saying classical music is dying. It won't. It will never be set aside or forgotten. We will die, and a new generation of music lovers in another corner of the globe will discover it and add to its canon.
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Friday, August 18, 2017

More on the political posturing of celebrity musicians

Then there is the oft-heard, surely apocryphal story of a Glasgow U2 gig when Bono silenced the audience and began a slow hand clap, then whispered weightily: "Every time I clap my hands , a child in Africa dies". A voice cried out from the audience: "Well, fucking stop doing it then".
That quote comes from the highly recommended The Frontman: Bobo (In the Name of Power) by Harry Browne. My thanks go to Jayaprakash Satyamurthy for recommending it; the book that is, not the story.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Brexit is the new applause between movements

It is mid-August and BBC Proms attendances are struggling. Most genuine music lovers have abandoned the Albert Hall to the clowns of the one-ring music circus that pitches up there every summer. Most of the prized new young audience have given up on the concerts after realising that crowd surfing and laser lights are not on the bill. And most of the Radio 3 audience has been driven away by Petroc Trelawny's relentlessly patronising presentation. So it is time to bring in the spin doctors and serve up some juicy click bait. Last year's bait was applause between movements. But this year something far more appealing has been found - Brexit. So to keep the ailing Proms high on the media agenda yet another Brexit controversy is manufactured. Hopefully when the Proms have finished, the pro and anti-Brexiteers and the malleable music celebrities will move on to another platform. Then we will be able to concentrate once again on the one thing which really matters, the music.

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Lit up with sound

That photo was taken by me at Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh looking across to the Himalayas. In the programme note for his orchestral Body Mandala Jonathan Harvey wrote:
The score is headed "...reside in the mandala, the celestial mansion, which is the nature of the purified gross body". I was in North India recently where I witnessed purification rituals in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. This work is influenced by those experiences. The famous low horns, tungchens, the magnificently raucous 4-note oboes, gelings, the distinctive rolmo cymbals - all these and more were played by the monks in deeply moving ceremonies full of lama dances, chanting and ritual actions. There is a fierce wildness about some of the purifications, as if great energy is needed to purge the bad ego-tendencies. But also great exhilaration is present. And calm. The body, when moved with chanting, begins to vibrate and warm at different chakra points and 'sing' internally. As it were, 'lit up' with sound.
Below senior Tibetan Buddhist monk Kenrap-la is seen hearing Jonathan's Body Mandala for the first time. He is listening on my iPod as we approach his monastery at Thiksey at the end of the arduous 800 km drive from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to the alpine desert of Ladakh on the border of India and Tibet*. When I took the photo we were more than 1000 km from the nearest concert hall and in a culture where the Western classical music tradition is totally alien. Despite this Kenrap-la was 'lit up' with sound.

* In deference to my readers in Pakistan I should qualify that sentence by adding that Ladakh is in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. 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, August 16, 2017

Music cannot be partitioned

Muslims and Hindus often play together in India together to celebrate the universal message of humanity, with Hindus singing Sufi qawwali, and Muslims singing Hindu bhajans. The music tradition of the Indian subcontinent stretches back to the Vedic period (c. 1500-500 BCE) and is notable for its religious neutrality. One of the many products of the pluralism practised by the early Sultans of Delhi was qawwali music, which sprang from the poetry of the 13th century Indian Sufi Amir Khusrau. Qawwali is still performed every Thursday evening at the dargah (shrine) of his spiritual master the Sufi Chisti saint Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya in the old Muslim quarter of Delhi. The dargah welcomes non-Muslims, and I took the photo above of a qawwali session there. But despite the prevailing pluralism Nizamuddin Auliya was accused of heresy, namely indulging in music and dancing with both Muslims and infidels, by the ulema - Muslim scholars - of the court of the notorious Sultan Balban (1200-1287). Nizamuddin Auliya survived the accusations by answering that for him there were no differences between Muslims and Hindus, because they are both children of God.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Good news - classical music's audience is getting older

Widespread euphoria over Classic FM's recent announcement of a "huge increase in under-35 listeners" highlights a potentially fatal flaw in classical music's survival strategy. This flaw is the dogma that changing the demographic profile of audiences is key to the future of classical music. This widely accepted dogma was expressed succinctly by Independent journalist Fiona Sturges when she tweeted that "a large proportion of Radio 3's audience should hurry up and die". If we leave aside Ms Sturges' repellent ageism, we are left with the canard that classical music's ageing audience will dwindle by attrition, and that the only way for the art form to survive is to tap into a mythical high growth market of affluent young people.

Yes, it is true that the classical music audience is concentrated in middle and older age groups, with 42% in the age group 41 to 60 and 37% aged over 61. Industry dogma tells us that this older audience profile is a bad thing, and scarcely a week passes without yet another often ridiculous initiative targeting a young audience being acclaimed. This thinking need challenging, and demographic data makes such a challenge very easy. The UN 2015 report World Population Ageing spells out what is happening very clearly:
The world’s population is ageing: virtually every country in the world is experiencing growth in the number and proportion of older persons in their population. Population ageing — the increasing share of older persons in the population — is poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century, with implications for nearly all sectors of society...
So classical music has been agonising for years over the terrible problem of having its core audience in the fastest growing demographic market segment. As if that is not enough, enormous resources are being expended on replacing that valuable mature audience with fickle new young listeners, despite the same UN report warning that "the increasing proportions of aged persons have been accompanied, in most populations, by steady declines in the proportion of young persons". The statistics cannot be ignored: classical music markets are concentrated in high income countries, and the ageing process is most advanced in high-income countries. Germany, an important classical market, has the second most aged population in the world with 28 per cent aged 60+.

Another dangerous dogma is that the young market is affluent. In fact young people, unlike the senior cohort, are weighed down by mortgages and student loans. In Britain gross household incomes for the retired almost tripled between 1977 and 2016, but only doubled for working households. A recent Economist article reported that in America the over-50s will soon account for 70% of disposable income, and global spending by households headed by over-60s is forecast to double between 2010 and 2020. Over-60s travel is a booming business opportunity. In Britain older travellers are the largest spending group, with the most rapid growth in the 65-74 age group; this market segment has expanded beyond the traditional stereotypical cruises into adventure and cultural trips. And there is even something in the senior market for Slipped Disc: both and Snap Interactive released new dating products for the over-50s market.

When did you last hear of a classical music marketing initiative aimed at the growing senior market? When did you last read a euphoric press release proclaiming a growth in the over-60s audience? Of course solely targeting the mature audience is just as myopic as solely targeting the young audience. We needs a classical audience with a balanced mix of ages*. But demographic trends cannot be ignored and the fashionable dogma of young good, old bad is both ridiculous and damaging. By pursuing a do or die strategy of attracting a younger audience classical music is sacrificing two birds in the hand in a dubious pursuit of one in the bush.

* It is yet another irony that in its obsessive search for the holy grail of a young audience the classical marketeers have ignored the one market with a young demographic offering tantalising potential. As a recent Overgrown Path post explained two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30, and 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. Yet despite this, Western classical incursions into the Muslim market have been limited with just a few exceptions to pious East meets West projects and lucrative tours to ethically-challenged oil-rich sheikdoms. But there are some notable exceptions: one example is the French conductor Olivier Holt's work with the l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc which I have been privileged to experience first hand several times. But when spin is king, Mozart in Essaouira is no media match for yet another - how many more can there be? - classical night club.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

All kinds of musical magic

Only within can you find the answer. The Divine is what we call the macro, and we are the micro. The goal is to merge the two into one. That is the goal and the answer.
This quote is paraphrased from Piers Moore Ede's All Kinds of Magic: A Quest For Meaning In A Material World. My photo shows Eliane Radique; as the sleeve note for the Imprec label CR release of her Triptych explains, after the premiere of Adnos I in San Francisco in 1974, a group of French students introduced Eliane Radigue to Tibetan Buddhism. When she returned to Paris, she began to explore this spirituality in depth, which slowed her musical production up until 1978. Triptych marks her return to composition, and draws its inspiration from "the spirit of the fundamental elements", water, air, fire, earth....Eliane Radigue likes to add that this has often been useful to her in her moments of research and transitions.

Eliane Radique is one of many women musicians who are still shamefully overlooked. Much more work is needed to give them their rightful place in the musical pantheon. But advocacy based on the context and merit of their music and not based solely on their gender is needed to achieve this. A video portrait of Eliane Radique is below.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Here is my song for the asking

'In a small tribe or in a very large tribe there is a sense of being together, having the same language, the same superstitions, the same kind of political, religious system. And one feels safe, protected, happy, comforted. And for that safety, comfort, we are willing to kill others who have the same kind of desire to be safe, to feel protected, to belong to something. This terrible desire to identify with a group, with a flag, with a religious ritual and so on, gives us the feeling that we have roots, that we are not homeless wanderers' – Jiddu Krishnamurti diary entry 1983
'Most unfortunately our brains are so conditioned and limited by culture, tradition and education that our energies are imprisoned. We fall into comforting and accustomed grooves and so become psychologically ineffective. To counter this we expend our energies in material concerns and self-centred activities' - Krishnamurti talking about 'Brockwood today and in the future'* in 1983
'Man has built in himself images as a fence of security – religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates man's thinking, his relationships, and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man. His perception of life is shaped by the concepts already established in his mind. The content of his consciousness is his entire existence' – from 'The Core of Krishnamurti's Teaching' written by him in 1980
'One has to be indifferent – to health, to loneliness, to what people say or do not say, indifferent to whether one succeeds or does not succeed, indifferent to authority. If you hear somebody shooting, making a lot of noise with a gun, you can very easily get used to it, and you turn a deaf ear; that is not indifference. Indifference comes into being when you listen to that noise with no resistance, go with that noise, ride on that noise infinitely. Then that noise does not affect you, does not pervert you' - Krishnamurti teaching in Bombay, 1962
'That is, man in his relationship with another has not been able to be changed. And 'society', which is an abstraction, is now being changed – not by man but by machines, not by any form of endeavour (political, religious, economic and so on), but it has been changed by a machine which man has invented. It is called the 'computer'' – Krishnamurti teaching in Bombay 1981

* Krishnamurti was referring to his vision of an adult study centre at Brockwood Park in Hampshire as an adjunct to the school that he had established there. All the photos were taken by me at the the Krishnamurti Centre which was designed by Keith Critchlow to reflect sacred geometry and was completed in 1987 a year after Krishnamurti died. There are minimal structured activities at the Centre and describing his vision Krishnamurti wrote that "Brockwood must have no [l]eader or guru, for the teachings themselves are the expression of that truth which serious people must find for themselves. Personal cult has no place in this. It is a place which must demand the awakening of the intelligence which comes with passion and love". My thanks go to the staff at the Brockwood Park who extended such a wonderfully warm welcome to us

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