Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Let's face the facts: Facebook controls classical music

We live at a time when the alleged influencing of the result of a presidential election by Russia triggers an avalanche of righteous indignation; but the possible skewing of the same election by Facebook's news feed algorithms triggers very little protest. So no apologies for returning, yet again, to the insidious impact of social media algorithms. The graphic below is taken from a Techcrunch article titled 'How Facebook news feed works'. Presumably most readers already understand social media algorithms, but for any that don't here is a quick and simple overview. Lots of people read, 'like' and share posts about Mahler, so the algorithms give a high ranking to stories about Mahler, and as a result they are highly visible in news feeds.

Very few people read, 'like' and share posts about Malcolm Arnold, so the algorithms give a low ranking to stories about Malcolm Arnold, and as a result they are virtually invisible in news feeds. Research shows that 67% of American adults use social media as a news source, and that trend is mirrored in other developed countries. So if you are promoting a concert, recording a CD or writing an article about Malcolm Arnold it will achieve minimal visibility on news feeds, and, as a result, will sink without trace or audience. Which means if you are trying to earn a living from classical music and want an audience, Mahler and a small select group of trending composers are no brainers. None of which is a revelation; so why am I writing yet another post on the subject?

The purpose of this new post is to dispel two popular and dangerous myths held within the classical music industry. The first is that the classical music audience is somehow different to the cohort of 44% of adults who rely on Facebook as their news source. Regular readers will know that I am a very light social media user, and I only use Facebook and other platforms as a noticeboard to flag up new posts. Additionally, much of Overgrown Path's subject matter is algorithm unfriendly. But, despite this, Facebook absolutely dominates - or in other words controls - readership of my blog. As this graphic, which is a snapshot of traffic sources for the blog, shows:

On An Overgrown Path has a substantial, stable and representative classical audience. The graphic above shows 67% of its site traffic at that particular point in time coming from Facebook*. That hard fact should strike fear into the heart of everyone in classical music. If a social media averse site relies that heavily on Facebook for its audience, what must the percentage be for classical music's many social media whores? Let's face the facts: Facebook controls On An Overgrown Path's audience; so if the blog is at all representative of classical music this means Facebook controls the classical music audience.

Which leads to the second popular myth within classical music. The many in the industry who are in denial about the dangers of social media will tell us there are benign alternatives to Facebook and its toxic algorithms. Yes, there are other 'cool' alternatives such as Twitter and Instagram. But the problem is they all use algorithms. A Slate article earlier this year described how "As soon as you open it, Twitter quickly collects and assesses every recent tweet from every person you follow and assigns each one a relevance score. This score is based on a wide array of factors, ranging from the number of favorites and retweets it received to how often you’ve engaged with its author lately. At the same time, the algorithm is assessing a variety of other variables—including how long you’ve been away from the site, how many people you follow, and your individual Twitter habits—to determine exactly how those scores will affect what you see in your feed". While a 2016 Guardian article was headlined "New algorithm-driven Instagram feed rolled out to the dismay of users: Say farewell to chronological ordering of posts – users are now seeing their feed as organised by Instagram’s own formula, and they’re not happy".

Quite rightly the classical music industry has railed against discrimination. But discrimination by social media algorithms has not only gone uncensored, it has actually been courted in the manic search for bigger and younger audiences. Facebook and other algorithm-driven platforms now control classical music, as they control the rest of our lives. This affects everyone who earns their living from classical music - musicians, composers, orchestras, record labels and others. Discriminatory algorithms inevitably mean the big get bigger and the small get smaller. So eventually the big dominate and the small disappear. Those are the hard facts, and there is no obvious simple solution. But that does not mean we should simply accept the malign impact of social media algorithms.

* Can any reader shed light on the insignificant number of page views coming from the Telegraph website? Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Inevitably also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, October 30, 2017

How algorithms prevent the soul from taking flight

That album of Jonathan Harvey's choral music from Les Jeunes Soloistes featured in a 2007 Overgrown Path post. The title track The Angels was commissioned for the 1994 service of Nine Lessons and Carols in King's College Cambridge. Sir Edward Burne-Jones once exclaimed that 'The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels I shall paint' and also on the album is How could the soul not take flight. This is Jonathan's setting of Andrew Harvey's - no relation - re-imagining of verses by Rumi. Its injunction to 'Fly away, fly away bird to your native home/You have leapt free of the cage/... Hurry, hurry, hurry, bird, to the source of life' is a powerful reminder of the need to free ourselves from the cage of filter bubbles and recommender algorithms that we have allowed Facebook, Google and their online peers to enclose us with.

Thankfully there is still life outside the cage. On Nov 8th at the alternative London music venue Cafe Oto the London Sinfonietta perform Jonathan Harvey's Other Presences and Ricercare una Melodia together with new music by Lauren Marshall, Javier Alvarez, and Trevor Wishart. But don't expect to see that concert trending on social media. Because those ubiquitous algorithms will latch on to the keywords 'Mahler' and 'woman conductor' and make sure news of Marin Alsop conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican on the same evening in Mahler's First Symphony and Bernstein's Symphony No 1, ‘Jeremiah’ dominates your news feed.

No freebies 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.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A poet of the invisible world

That photo was taken by me in the Madrasa Bou Inania in Fes, Morocco. My recent reading has included Michael Golding's novel A Poet of the Invisible World which treats the antithetical subjects of homosexuality and Sufism with admirable sensibility and sensitivity. On my peripatetic iPod the transient Habibiyya with their album If Man But Knew fulfill the role of sonic poets of the invisible world.

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.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Should a modern maestro decline to conduct Mahler?

Pierre Boulez declined to conduct Tchaikovsky because he did not like his music. To my knowledge there are no modern maestros who do not like Mahler. But it can be argued there is a case for a courageous modern maestro to decline to conduct Mahler on the grounds that the current saturation coverage of his music, excellent as it undoubtedly is, distorts concert programmes and, even more seriously, freezes out other deserving composers. Take the case of the Bernstein 100 celebration being presented this autumn by the London Symphony Orchestra. (Should it not be Bernstein 99 as he was born in August 1918?) All five of the concerts - I am excluding the children's concert - are laudable for showcasing Bernstein's music. But only one other composer is featured. And yes, you guessed, it is Mahler. His music is programmed in two concerts, both conducted by Marin Alsop. In one the Adagio from Symphony No 10 is paired with Bernstein's Symphony No 3, ‘Kaddish’. In the other Bernstein's Symphony No 1, ‘Jeremiah’ is coupled with Mahler's First Symphony, which a few months before had received its thirteenth Proms performance in seventeen years down the road in the Albert Hall.

Yes, Bernstein played an important role in the Mahler revival. But in 1966 Lou Harrison - seen above - was awarded a financially-endowed three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. This was awarded to composers "of mature years and recognised accomplishment" and the awarding committee included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and upcoming birthday boy Leonard Bernstein. 2017 is the centenary of Lou Harrison's birth, but you would not think so looking at concert programmes. There were no tribute performances of his music in this year's BBC Proms season. In fact his music has only ever been performed twice at the Proms; both times in his 80th anniversary year when populism had not entirely hijacked concert planning.

Lou Harrison's Symphony No 2, Elegiac, his Third Symphony and many of his other works - who can not like his Piano Concerto? - demand to be heard in the concert hall. When will a maestro have the courage to say "That's enough Mahler, let's give some other composers a chance"? Have we really reached the point where the only way to make a concert financially viable is to include a Mahler symphony? Memo to the London Symphony Orchestra's new music director. London may, arguably, need a new concert hall. But London, without doubt, needs less performances of Mahler's First Symphony.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

From Tchaikovsky to Buddhism and beyond

There is a passage in Tchaikosky's Pathetique Symphony which I find more moving than anything else in the realm of music. Up to that moment, the melodies have been gay and lilting, with only a trace of underlying sadness here and there. Troikas galop through the sparkling snow, diamonds sparkle on the snowy bosoms of beautiful ladies at the ball, whose hands are extended to the lips of men in splendid uniforms. We smell the hot tallow from the chandeliers, the sweetness of the ladies' bouquets and the perfume discreetly sprinkled behind their shell-pink ears. All is love and joy. The composer, Having snatched a kiss from his beloved, rushes home to dream of his good fortune. Bursting with joy, he sees a letter from her on his desk and tears it open. Then:

Boo-hoo boo-hoo! An agonised cry; an anguished sequence of notes which will be woven into the theme of all that follows. It is stark, it is terrible. In real life, countless Russians and not a few Chinese have committed suicide on hearing that awesome symphony. Boo-hoo boo-hoo! I know that cry so well. I knew it before I ever heard the symphony which, owing to my long absences from Europe, did not occur during those Hong Kong years. That terrible sound was the theme underlying not only the symphony but also my life at the time. Despite days or even months of relative tranquility, every now and then a little breath of air would blow down from the distant, as yet unseen, high mountains of Tibet, still fresh with the purity of diamond-sparkling snow; a little shower of the snow itself, magically unmelted by the hot winds of Sangsara and hell, would blow against my cheek. It spoke to me of beauty imperishable which I had glimpsed and lost, which once seen can never be wholly forgotten, nor the anguish of its loss diminished, nor any other beauty take its place.
In those distant times when online algorithms did not dictate our tastes in music, Tchaikovsky's Pathetique was one of the works which opened the door to classical music for me; so that tantric appreciation resonates with someone who back in the 1960s realised there was life beyond Sartre and Pink Floyd. The extract comes from The Wheel of Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist by John Blofeld. The book's 1959 publication date explains the somewhat fey language and also the absence of any homoerotic deconstruction of the Pathetique. When John Blofeld graduated from Cambridge in 1933 at the age of twenty he left his native England to begin a lifelong sojourn and study in Asia. In China he studied with numerous Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist masters. As well as becoming one of the leading Western scholars and translators of these religions he was empowered in the tantric Vajrayana School - 'Thunderbolt Vehicle' - of Tibetan Buddhism. John Blofeld's written legacy also includes a translation of the I Ching, two explorations of Tantric philosophy and a co-translation of The Life of Milarepa, and he was one of the first Westerners to publicly explore the practical application of Buddhism in everyday life. John Blofeld died in 1987 in Thailand where he had made his home following the Communist revolution in China.

Tchaikovsky and Buddhism are strange bedfellows; however two auspicious but little-known connections deserve highlighting. One is to a conductor whose interpretation of the Pathetique is arguably one of the most powerful committed to record. Sergei Celibidache was heavily influenced by the pioneering German Buddhist Martin Steinke. The paths of Celibidache and Steinke crossed in Berlin where the conductor studied at the Hochschule für Musik from 1936. Steinke founded a Buddhist sangha in the city with his pupils in 1937. This was banned by the Nazis in 1941 and Steinke was arrested for a short time in by the Gestapo. In 1962 Celibidache wrote an appreciation of Steinke's Lebensgesetz (Law of Love) for the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung.

There is a second more direct connection that runs from Tchaikovsky through John Blofeld to one of the most important figures in contemporary music and culture. The only book about Zen that John Cage ever acknowledged as influencing his work was Blofeld's translation of the Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind. The seminal Lecture on Nothing is thought to have been influenced by Blofeld's Zen scholarship. Blofeld's contention that "the Limitless cannot be caught within the limitations of speech" is reflected in Cage's celebrated lines in the lecture declaring "I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry". This leads to the proposition that the Limitless also cannot be caught within the limitation of music, a proposition Cage encapsulated in 4' 33".

Header image of a Tibetan thangka painting of the Wheel of Life (Bhavachakta) is reproduced from the cover of the Shambhala edition of John Blofeld's spiritual autobiography. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No review samples used. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Classical music's big challenge is bridging the technology gap

Using 3D Visualizations to Explore and Discover Music, Predicting genre labels for artists using FreeDB, Optimizing raw audio with convolutional networks, Building Musically-relevant Audio Features through Multiple Timescale Representations, The Need for Music Information Retrieval with User-Centered and Multimodal Strategies, and Geometry in Sound: A Speech/Music Audio Classifier Inspired by an Image Classifier. Those are just a few of the papers cited on one page of the Research at Google online resource. Some of these papers were presented at the annual conference of the International Society of Music Information Retrieval, a non-profit organization seeking to advance the access, organization, and understanding of music information, and the graphics for this post are sampled from some of these papers.

Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, Google and Shazam are among the partners supporting the International Society of Music Information Retrieval and its current president is Fabien Gouyon, the principal scientist at web radio pioneer Pandora. Not one record company and no classical institutions are partners of the International Society of Music Information Retrieval. And I am certain there are very few people - if any - in classical music who will understand what those papers are about. Which very neatly summarises the technology gap facing classical music.

Digital technologies such as streaming have changed the face of classical music forever. The record industry has been humiliated and usurped by digital gatekeepers such as Spotify and Apple Music, and this has had a profound knock-on effect into live classical music. Yet despite this the classical industry's understanding of new technologies and their business models is risible. New technology means just two things to almost everyone in the industry - streaming and social media. Look at the agenda of classical conferences, look at the output of classical journalists. Both are stuck in a technology time warp which simply positions digital solutions as extensions of the decades old analogue infrastructure. Streaming is seen as replacing recorded media, and social media as replacing traditional PR and advertising. This prevailing myopia was succinctly summed up in a recent article by Costa Pilavachi. He is one of the most recent executives to pass through the ever-revolving doors of Universal Classic's boardroom. In a recent article he lectured his classical colleagues on how "Whatever the changes in technology, the fundamentals of supplying that need have remained constant" and went on to predict that "the classical industry is on the verge of another period of growth as we enter the ‘Age of Streaming’".

There is no understanding that smart companies are using digital technologies to reinvent music - their starting point is not analogue models but blank sheets of paper. And there is no understanding that unless the classical industry wises up to new technologies it is sleepwalking towards oblivion. Yes, Google, Amazon and their peers are predatory and disruptive. But they will not go away. They are a whole lot bigger and smarter than the classical rearguard, and they will eat the classical industry alive unless it changes. Classical music needs a whole new breed of smart young and not so young people in the record companies, in the orchestras and in the music media who can read technology as well as they can read music. We already have too much classical music, and some of it is not played enough. So we don't need more composers in residence. Instead we need technologists in residence. And there could be a win/win if these technologists are funded by Google and other cash rich new technology corporations; note that Google currently has an $86.3 billion cash pile.

These technologists will not be curating trendy trifles such as Internet symphonies and YouTube orchestras. They will be working to keep and enhance all that is good in classical music while at the same time bringing it into the digital age. Just to give a few brainstorming examples. They could build models for concert planning. At present this is the fiefdom of shamans in orchestra back offices who supposedly have magical powers to predict what audiences want. Which is a nonsense. Concert planning has become an exercise ground for the prejudices of the shamans and this results in programmes of mind-numbing banality. Predictive models using audience data could produce originative programmes which mix established repertoire with less familiar repertoire selected by identifying unfamiliar works that exhibit similar musical 'fingerprints' to popular works. Another area needing urgent attention where the resident technologists could be agents of change is classical metadata. It is the lamentable quality of the metadata that makes managing classical music on platforms such as iTunes so difficult. With digital media libraries replacing CD collections, inadequate metadata is a barrier to the growth of classical music. Yet how many people in the classical industry know anything about metadata? Has the Association of British orchestras ever discussed the problem of metadata quality at its annual conferences?

In a discussion on a previous post about revitalising classical music Google research scientist Douglas Eck suggested that we need to understand the impact of music recommendation system, and that is another area that could be explored. (Anectdotal evidence from a music teacher in the same discussion suggests that recommendation systems are beneficial for exploring a genre like classical, but not so effective for introducing people to the genre. That's another topic well worth researching.) Resident technologists could give pre-concert talks on how classical fans can get the most out of digital media libraries and recommendation systems, an idea that may appeal to younger technically savvy audiences. They could also give masterclasses to musicians, executives and journalists on how new technologies are changing music. It is important to understand that having resident technologists does not mean replacing musicians with computers. But these technologists could experiment with digital sound shaping, both to find out if a different and more immersive sound would attract a younger audience and to help orchestras' outreach activities by enhancing acoustically compromised venues.

Senior industry executives are very good at telling classical music it must change or die. Which is absolutely true. But those executives are too self-absorbed to understand that it is the senior executives and all the other industry personnel that must change first. Hopefully then the prevailing suicidal attitude that the free streaming of concerts live on YouTube ticks all necessary technology boxes will change. We live in a digital age, and in the digital age only the smart survive. Sorry folks, but in 2017 the classical music industry is nowhere near smart enough.

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Monday, October 23, 2017

To knee, or not to knee: that is the question

That Guardian story ran last week proclaiming that Lewis Hamilton "should be applauded" for the anti-Trump sentiments he expressed on social media ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin. Hamilton had posted on Instagram supporting the #takeaknee protests; however rumours that he would 'take a knee' at the Grand Prix proved to be unfounded and instead his political postings suddenly ceased when the F1 circus arrived in Texas. The fashionably anti-Trump Guardian article delves into the murky past of the F1 franchise under its previous owner Bernie Ecclestone, but totally omits to mention the current franchise owner Liberty Media. And that omission may well be relevant to Lewis Hamilton's decision not to take a knee in Austin.

Colorado-based Liberty Media is F1's and therefore Lewis Hamilton's paymaster. As the Denver Business Journal story below reveals, Liberty Media is a major supporter of Donald Trump and the Republican party, with the corporation and its executives donating around $1 million towards Trump's inaugaration costs. Information elsewhere shows that Liberty Media donated almost $100,000 to Republican causes in the 2016 presidential election; these included donations to ten senators, some of who are politically to the right of the Republican party.

Liberty Media is entitled to donate to Republican causes and Lewis Hamilton is entitled to support #takeaknee on Instagram. But Guardian readers and others are also entitled to know both sides of the story.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Every people has a form of celebration, and this is theirs

My 2015 post about the new modal music from Crete explained how the mystical strand of Islam known as Sufism was a cultural influence during the two centuries of Ottoman rule in Crete that ended in 1913. That Sufi influence still finds expression in the more progressive parts of Cretan culture such as the music of Ross Daly and the alumnae of his Labyrinth workshops. But the majority of Cretans have never forgiven the Turks for occupying their island; this despite their folk hero Nikos Kazantzakis - creator of Zorba - confessing that his father's bloodline contained Arabic - i.e. Muslim - blood.

As a result of this deep dislike of Turkey the influence of Islam and Sufism have been expunged from mainstream Cretan culture. In the city of Chania the waterfront mosque has been shorn of its minarets and is now an anonymous exhibition space. The well-preserved hydraulic system of the historic 17th century Turkish baths in the city, located ironically opposite the Archaeological Museum, was ripped out and the premises converted into shops for tourist tat. Elsewhere in Chania the shrines of two Sufi saints have been converted into a souvlaki outlet, and the nearby tekke (lodge) of Chania's first Mevleni Sufi order is now a run-down municipal building. All of which which makes it very difficult indeed to find any visual evidence of Sufism in Crete. So on my recent travels I was elated to find the postcard seen above pinned to the wall of a restaurant in Paleochora on the south coast of Crete. It shows whirling dervishes outside the Sufi teke (lodge) in Chania and is dated 1908 - five years before the Turks left the island. It seems the postcard was bought in Istanbul by a French lady and sent to the proprietor of the Third Eye vegetarian restaurant on Crete who is a world traveller with a syncretic outlook. An online search has not found any other instances of this photo, so it may be a rare record of Sufism on Crete.

That postcard is just one example of serendipitous links to Sufism that can be found if you dig deep enough on Crete. Daskalogianni Street in Chania runs through the old Turkish quarter away from the main tourist drag, and is our favourite part of the city. A shop in the street sells the usual battered copies of discarded airport novels that are found in all tourist centres. But two years ago in that shop I found a gem, a nearly mint copy of Claude Addas' biography of Ibn 'Arabi Quest for the Red Sulphur. This year - and this surely cannot be a coincidence - the same shop yielded a mint copy of Two Who Attained: Twentieth-Century Saints - Shaykh Ahmad al-'Alawi & Fatima al-Yashrutiyya from the same publisher for the bargain price of 1.60 euros. Shaykh Ahmad al-'Alawi is well-known as Sufi saints due to Martin Lings celebrated biography of him and through Robert Irwin's somewhat more racy but highly recommended autobiographical Memoirs of a Dervish. The latter book opens with the memorable line "It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to become a Muslim saint". But Fatima al-Yashrutiyyae is virtually unknown: as I write there is no English language Wikipedia entry for her, although there a German one.

That is Fatima al-Yashrutiyya above in one of the very few photos of her. She is exceptional because she was a woman in the male-dominated world of Muslim scholars, and because she lived from 1891 to 1978. Which means this rare female practitioner of a venerable wisdom tradition was still alive when men walked on the moon and Saturday Night Fever topped the charts. Fatima al-Yashrutiyya was born in Acre, Palestine, the daughter of a Shaykh of the Shadhili Sufi order. As a result she was immersed in Sufism from an early age; when her father died in 1899 she was only eight and she resolved to continue on the Sufi Path. She studied as many Sufi texts as possible and was helped in her search for knowledge by her father's disciples. She travelled to the Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, and in Damascus she studied with the most erudite scholars in that centre of Islamic learning.

Beirut became Fatima al-Yashrutiyya's permanent home at the end of the Second World War and she wrote the four books that are her spiritual testament there. It was very unusual at this time for a Muslim woman to move in scholarly circles, and her acceptance was due to her very considerable intellectual and spiritual achievements. It is even rarer for a female Sufi to leave a written legacy and this makes her writings even more important. These writings range across many spiritual topics, and as an example I will conclude by quoting from her teaching* on the contentious subject of music in Islam. The language may be arcane and I don't expect this quote will be re-tweeted. But Fatima al-Yashrutiyya's refreshing pragmatism is, if anything, even more relevant in the 21st century:

Those Sufis who permit and make use of spiritual songs base their standpoint on written evidence from the past on this subject. In the Ṣaḥīḥ. of al-Bukhari it states that Ubayd ibn Ismail related from Abu Usama, on the authority of Hisham, on the authority of his father, that Aisha (may God be pleased with her!) said, "Abu Bakr came while I had two slave girls from the Ansar with me. They were singing according to their custom, for that day was one of festivities, but they were not very good singers. Abu Bakr said, 'Are the devil's songs in the house of the Messenger of God, and this on a day of festivities?' The Messenger of God said to him, 'O Abu Bakr! Every people has a form of celebration, and this is theirs."
* This quote is from Leslie Cadavid's translation in Two Who Attained: Twentieth-Century Saints - Shaykh Ahmad al-'Alawi & Fatima al-Yashrutiyy. 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, October 19, 2017

Warning - you are leaving the classical music comfort zone

My post Classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares has attracted an astonishing amount of attention. Among those who responded is Douglas Eck who works at Google researching in the fields of music search and recommendation, and generating music using machine intelligence. He posted the following comment about the post on the Facebook page of a member of the Computational Music Analysis forum.
It would be nice to have some data to support this claim. (Maybe there already is). That's a great research focus for MIR. My very real sense is that overall my 14 year old has a much more diverse selection of music thanks to Play Music and Spotify than I had in the vinyl era. Both products use recommendation systems heavily. My son for example is really into old-school hip-hop* and is able to explore that area deeply. He uses recommendation features like "Similar Artists" to find new music. The question for me is whether this enablement of exploration balances out the "head-heavy" recommendations of collaborative filters. Consider also features like Discover Weekly from Spotify. I've nothing to add about classical music except that I highly suspect that it's popularity was waning before the arrival of recommender systems in music. (None of this is meant to excuse us from our overall responsibility to understand the side effects of our work e.g. amplification of fake news, filter bubbles, etc.)
Please spend a little time browsing the papers cited on Douglas Eck's Google CV. It is not the technology professionals who have caused the current problems in classical music. It is the so-called marketing experts who have misapplied the new technology that are the culprits. Whether we agree with them or not, we must take the views of technology professionals very seriously. In his CV Douglas Eck explains that:
Aside from audio signal processing and machine learning, I worked on music performance modeling. What exactly does a good music performer add to what is already in the score? I treated this as a machine learning question: Hypothetically, if we showed a piano-playing robot a huge collection of Chopin performances--- from the best in the world all the way down to that of a struggling teenage pianist---could it learn to play well by analyzing all of these examples? If so, what’s the right way to perform that analysis? In the end I learned a lot about the complexity and beauty of human music performance, and how performance relates to and extends composition.
As Tim Wu tells us in his book about the hidden commercial agendas that lurk online The Attention Merchants: "Ultimately, it is not our nation and culture but the very nature of our lives that are at stake". Douglas Eck says that we must understand the side effects of filter bubbles. Yes indeed, and it is not just the Internet corporations that are guilty of using collaborative filtering to create comfort zones. Communities of common interest also create their own artificial comfort zones, and none more so than the classical music industry.

The observation from someone deeply involved in the future of future music technology that "I've nothing to add about classical music except that I highly suspect that it's popularity was waning before the arrival of recommender systems" deserves serious consideration by anyone claiming to care about the future of classical music. As do the following statistics. As I write, page views for my post challenging classical music's comfort zones are now approaching 100,000. To put that 100k into perspective, the classical music industry's comfort zone of choice the Gramophone currently has 6890 digital subscriptions and a print copy circulation of 16,272.

* For those who like me are not up on the hip-hop scene the header graphic is The Low End Theory, the second album by the legendary group A Tribe Called Quest. 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, October 18, 2017

Jordi Savall talks about Catalan independence

That interview with Jordi Savall about the Catalan independence movement appeared on France24. There have been many posts On An Overgrown Path celebrating Catalonia and one back in 2011 featured the album Songs from the Thousand-Year-Old Land of Catalonia sung by the much-missed Montserrat Figueras with La Capell Reial de Catalunya directed by Jordi. But, as with Brexit, we must not forget that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

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I like all the sounds that upset people

I was wrung-out: Sun Ra's music is pagan, religious, simple, complex and almost everything else at the same time. There is no pigeon-hole for it. It is ugly and beautiful and terribly interesting. It's new music, but I have been hearing it for ages.
That is from a 1967 Village Voice review by Michael Zwerin. Danny Goldberg's In Search of the Lost Chord tells how Sun Ra and his Arkestra were a fixture at rock shows, countercultural benefits and outdoor celebrations on the East Coast in the 1960s, with the Arkestra's flamboyant performances and mystical intensity complementing the zeitgeist. Elsewhere Barry Miles explains that Sun Ra was on Paul McCartney's stoned playlist in the 60s alongside John Cage and Luciano Berio. The loose Fluxus grouping included Sun Ra and John Cage, and they performed together at the Coney Island Museum in June 1984. There is a commercial recording of the collaboration; but as Cage's contribution was cursory this archive document has little more than curiosity value.

In 1970 Sun Ra and the Arkestra played at the prestigious Donaueschingen Festival of new music; this was the year that Stockhausen's Mantra was premiered at the Festival. Sun Ra's visionary belief in the power of technology meant that many of his performances were recorded and issued on limited edition albums, including his Donaueschingen gig. Between 1978 and 1980 director Robert Mugge filmed Sun Ra and the Arkestra in performance and during downtime. The resulting 60 minute documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise can be viewed below in full. In his highly recommended biography of the interplanetary enfant terrible titled Space is the Place John F. Szwed quotes Sun Ra as expounding his artistic philosophy in the following words:

I like all the sounds that upset people, because they're too complacent, and there are some sounds that really upset them, and man, you need to shock them out of their complacency, 'cause it's a very bad world in a lot of aspects. They need to wake to how bad it is: then maybe they'll do something about it. It is really a far chance to take. but I think they should take it.
Comfort zones anyone?

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Playlist without algorithms

Remembered Music: Abdulmalik Dyck, Alki Keeler, Daud Khan, Sheikh Hassan Dyck
In the Light of Air by Anna Thorvaldsdottir: International Contemporary Ensemble
Ravi Shankar: The Living Room Sessions: Ravi Shankar, Tannoy Bose, Kenji Ota, Barry Philips
The Beauty of Disaster: J. Peter Schwalm
If Man But Knew: The Habibiyya
Jonathan Harvey String Quartets and String Trio: Arditti Quartet
Synaygia: Ross Daly, Rufus Cappadocia, Girogos Symeonidis, Chemirani Trio
Edmund Rubbra Symphonies 6 & 8: Norman del Mar, Philharmonia Orchestra
Songs and Guitar Pieces by Theodorakis: Maria Farandouri and John Williams
Jetsun Mila: Eliane Radique
That is just some of the music I listened to recently on my iPod when visiting the remote Greek island of Gavdos. By choice during three weeks of travelling I did not have access to email, Facebook, Twitter or other online services. That experience reinforced my concerns about our 'always connected' existence and prompted my recent article deploring the online controls exercised over musical life and, indeed, over the whole of our lives.

It is a bitter irony that my rant against algorithms and free content reached a spectacularly large audience - see sidebars - largely due to being picked up by the algorithms of Flipboard and other free content aggregators. Mea culpa; but this massive readership, by far the largest in the blog's thirteen year history, and an overwhelmingly positive response prove that my concerns about algorithmically defined comfort zone are shared by a very large number of people. The network has failed us. Or more accurately we have encouraged the network to fail us by allowing Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al to control our lives. This was brought home to me at the end of my recent off-grid travels. Also staying in our quirky little hotel in Chania favoured by independent travellers were a young Canadian couple. Each morning they appeared for breakfast with their heads buried in their smartphones, and that is how they stayed throughout the meal with not so much as a word being exchanged between them. In fact I believe they were communicating with each other by sending emails across the table.

The Internet originated as a transactional tool and it still has huge value as such. But today it has also become a social tool, or more accurately a social crutch and social drug. Addiction to the social media drug is used by online gatekeepers to generate obscene levels of tax-free profits by selling personal data. Please remember when watching the 'free' YouTube video of Simon Rattle conducting an exquisite performance of the Damnation of Faust that there is no such thing as 'free' content. You are paying dearly for your classical music fix by allowing Google, which owns YouTube, to sell your intimate personal data to the highest bidder. When sharing the next selfie on Facebook please remember Whole Earth Catalog publisher Kevin Kelly's observation that on social media "vanity trumps privacy". And that is not an exaggeration: the celebrated Max Schrems case uncovered that Facebook retained for algorithmic profiling 1200 pages of data in 57 categories on just one person. Among the data was deleted content including photos, and email addresses culled from the address books of Max Schrems' friends.

Wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Sufism and esotericists such as Gurdjieff all stress the importance of direct experience; that is experience without intermediation. When asked if he was a god Gautama Buddha replied no he was not a god, he was simply a man who had awakened. But humankind is becoming a race of zombies who spend their lives sleepwalking under the control of their online masters. As William James explained, our brain and indeed our souls are hardwired to seek direct experience of higher levels of consciousness. This need transcends any religious beliefs, and is the reason why art in general and music in particular are so important. All forms of intermediation such as selective algorithms and filter bubbles short-circuit the neural circuits that enable this vital direct experience. The very wise Jiddu Krishnamurti told us: "You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary". Thank you for being receptive to my views, stay awake and do enjoy exploring my serendipitous playlist without algorithms.

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares

These photos were taken by me in 2008 at independent record retailer Prelude Records in Norwich. Jordi Savall's impromptu viol recital and signing session preceeded two performances at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. One was a solo recital by Jordi in Peter Mancroft Church; the other was an immensely moving performance of his visionary Jerusalem multicultural project at the Theatre Royal*. As reported here Prelude Records closed earlier this year; it was a victim of predatory online retailing, and today its premises stand empty awaiting occupation by a mobile phone or E-cigarette retailer. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been the victim of savage funding cuts, but continues in a more modest form due to the dedicated work of its small management team.

A few days ago I wrote about a two-thirds empty Snape Maltings concert and proposed that classical music's heartland is facing a perfect storm caused by the convergence of the shifts in consumer tastes and the rapidly increasing availability of free online content. Elsewhere Craig Havighurst has written about the same problem in a perceptive article titled The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think which lists the death of context, commercial radio, the media, conflation, anti-intellectualism, movies and games and the demise of music in schools as reasons for the sorry state of music today.

All the explanations propounded by Craig Havighurst and me are valid and important. But I suggest that there is another more important reason why music in particular and the arts in general are floundering. That reason is that, with a very few exceptions, no one cares any more. Much has been made of the transition from an analogue to a binary age. Not so much has been made of the even more insidious transition from a binary to an algorithmic age. There is a limited understanding of the algorithms used by Google, Amazon, Facebook and other social media platforms to create content filter bubbles which ensure that we stay in our self-defined comfort zones. Even less attention has been paid to how the algorithms virus has expanded beyond online platforms.

For example the Guardian uses editorial algorithms to unashamedly slant its journalism towards the prejudices of its readership, and concert promoters use subjective algorithms to present concerts of familiar and non-challenging repertoire. The problem is that no one cares that this is happening. In fact everyone feels very contended in their own comfort zone with ever faster broadband, ever cheaper streamed content, ever more friends and followers, ever more selfie opportunities and - most importantly - ever fewer challenges to their prejudices. And the media - particularly the classical music media - is quite happy to play along; because keeping your readers in their comfort zone means keeping your readers.

Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison had a clear view on our responsibility to the arts:

The history of art, whether its music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists, they're the ones that sing the truth, and that is something that society has got to protect.
Those are stirring words. But the insurmountable problem is that today the vast majority no longer care about protecting the arts. And we are all to blame. This article is being written on a free blogging platform provided by Google, the pioneer of algorithmic determination. If it reaches any audience at all it will be because it is favoured by the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter. However, it is unlikely to reach any significant social media audience because my views are not favoured by the online vigilantes who police the borders of classical music's comfort zones. And for the same reason the dissenting views expressed here and elsewhere are unlikely to find their way into the Guardian or Spectator or to be aired on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters. But why should any of this matter? Why should people care when they can watch safe within the comfort zone of their own home an outstanding performance lasting 2 hours 44 minutes of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust by the world-class forces of Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded in high quality video and audio for free on YouTube?

There is no viable solution because we are all part of the problem. Classical music's biggest challenge is not ageing audiences, disruptive business models, institutionalised discrimination, unsatisfactory concert halls etc etc. The biggest challenge facing classical music is adapting to a society in which no one cares about anything except staying firmly within their own algorithmically defined comfort zone.

~ Now explore my playlist without algorithms ~

* A transcript of my radio interview with Jordi Savall recorded in the 2008 Norwich & Norfolk Festival can be read via this link. 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, October 13, 2017

Boot camp

Georg, who is the the proprietor of the idiosyncratic Pocoloco Hotel in Chania, is also an alpine guide. Crete was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War and on his treks in the island's back country Georg has found these old army boots which now decorate his hotel. The first one seen below is a Greek army boot. This, like many modern Greek governments, was a compromised concept that did not stand the test of time.

Next is a British army boot; nothing fancy but it clearly did its job.

Finally, below is a German army boot which displays notably superior technology in its construction compared with the Greek and British footwear. So the moral of this little story is that the best technology does not always win.

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Droning on about Brexit

That staunch defender of humanitarian and cultural values the Guardian has enthusiastically spun the story of the Brexit-triggered tragedy of the European Union Youth Orchestra moving its head office from London to Rome. The reason the orchestra's chief executive gives for the move is "You can’t ask for EU funding and then not be in the EU". Neither the newspaper nor its many readers who compulsively re-tweeted the story have mentioned that the European Union Youth Orchestra's principal corporate partner - i.e. funder - is based not in the E.U. but in America. The orchestra's principal corporate funder is the world's fourth largest aerospace and defence company United Technologies Corporation, the aerospace and defence businesses of which generate revenues of almost $20 billion. Among UTC's military products are the Pratt & Whitney engines in service with 34 armed forces worldwide, their drone technology is deployed in the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper used for extra-judicial killings by the U.S in the Middle East and until 2015 the corporation manufactured the Black Hawk helicopter used by the U.S. in many theatres of war including Afghanistan. The European Union Youth Orchestra undoubtedly does invaluable work and it is regrettable that around ten talented young British musicians may be discommoded by Brexit. But we should also not forget that humanitarian and cultural tragedy comes in more than one guise.

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

Classical Uber has arrived and this is the result

Last night I was at Snape Maltings for the first day of the William Alwyn Festival. The centrepiece of the evening concert was a powerful and persuasive performance of Alwyn's Fourth Symphony with John Gibbons conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Complementing the little-known symphony were Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia and Elgar's evergreen Cello Concerto with Jamie Walton as soloist. Although William Alwyn was a Suffolk resident his music did not find favour with Benjamin Britten. However and despite this, the blessed venue that Britten created allowed John Gibbons and his forces to remind us - if any reminder was needed - of the scandal of Alwyn's neglect. But......

The screenshot above was taken on the day of the concert. The grey seats were sold, the coloured seats were unsold. Which means Snape Maltings was two-thirds empty for the concert. Many explanations can be proposed for the poor attendance. As I have acknowledged, Alwyn's Fourth Symphony is little-know. But it was coupled with three crowd-pleasing works including the Elgar Concerto which is ranked at seventeen on the Richter scale of musical popularity, the 2017 Classic FM Hall of Fame. Another possible explanation is that the orchestra, conductor and soloist do not have the dubious distinction of being classical celebrities. Undoubtedly the hall would have sold out if Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra had essayed Alwyn's symphony. But those who study form will know that John Gibbons' interpretations of Malcolm Arnold's music have been acclaimed, and further afield his recording of a new 'completion' of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony for the Danish Danacord label has been warmly received by critics. It can also be argued that filling the hall for a mid-week October evening concert on the Suffolk coast is a big ask; but the tickets were commendably low-priced for such a meaty programme. So despite these explanations I was still left pondering as to why an excellent and commendably balanced concert resulted in one of the emptiest halls I have seen in more than fifty years of concert going.

We should be very thankful that the William Alwyn Foundation and Snape Maltings are prepared to promote concerts that dare to omit a Mahler symphony, and they most definitely should not be blamed for the sparse audience last night. Empty seats at a concert of William Alwyn's music may not raise many eyebrows; but those at the recent Salonen Stravinsky/Ravel/John Adams BBC Prom and - even more surprisingly - at the Barenboim Birtwitle/Elgar BBC Proms should. (The many defenders of the classical status quo will cite encouraging overall attendance figures for the BBC Proms. But the Proms enjoy 'free' high profile advertising on BBC Radio and TV which would cost in excess of £1 million if bought at market rates. Attendances at celebrity concerts are also showing more resilience due to classical music's shift to a rock music business model; this resilience is however at the expense of non-celebrity events such as last night's Snape concert).

My thesis is that the empty seats are an indication of a serious malaise that is not only beyond the control of those involved in last night's concert, but is beyond the control of the entire classical music industry. A recent Overgrown Path post highlighted the threat that disruptive technologies pose to classical music. Uber and Airbnb are examples of disruptive technologies that have radically changed the business models of other industries, arguably for the worse. Online entertainment and free content are disruptive technologies that are undermining classical music's traditional business model. Whether we like it or not we are seeing a structural shift in consumer tastes, habits and spending patterns driven by free and very low-cost online content.

The appeal and power of online entertainers is reflected in their earning power. Topping the YouTube earnings chart in 2016 was PewDiePie - sample here if you must - with earnings of $15.5 million; while a star such as Colleen Balinger - who impersonates a tone-deaf singer - lingering as low as number ten in the YouTube ratings earns a paltry $5 million. These earnings are simply a reflection of the popularity of these stars: single YouTube videos from PewDiePie generate up to 20 million views. Arguments about the artistic merit of PewDiePie are redundant. Whether we like it or not he and his emerging form of entertainment are attracting huge online audiences and that will not change. The Internet is now the primary source of entertainment - particularly for classical music's prized young target audience - and the antics of PewDiePie and his peers come at no cost to them. Streaming services, which typically come at an unrealistically low cost, are another major driver in this structural shift in the way entertainment is consumed.

The willingness of the classical music industry from the Berlin Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra downwards to jump on the free content bandwagon has always lacked any convincing rationale. But there is hard evidence of the damage being wrought by free content. Jonathan Taplin's 'must read' Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and What It Means For All Of Us spells out how Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in real terms the average yearly entertainment spend on movie tickets, event admissions including live music, and other entertainment in the U.S. for the sub-25 demographic fell from $393 in 1998 to $249 in 2012. That 37% fall in expenditure is accounted for by the increased availability of free content on YouTube, pirate sites and social media, coupled with the increasing availability low-priced legal streaming services, and there is no reason to believe that the trend is not repeated in other demographic groups and other countries. The much-lamented ageing of the classical audience - sadly the average age at last night's Snape concert was very high - is almost certainly because the erosion of entertainment expenditure started with young early-adopters of digital platforms, and its full impact has not yet reached older demographics.

The LSO conducted by Simon Rattle performing Berlioz's Damnation Of Faust - all 2 hours 44 minutes of it - can be watched free on YouTube. I wonder how many music lovers stayed at home to watch this instead of supporting the Alwyn concert? Of course it is overly simplistic to blame the last night's poor attendance at Snape solely on a shift to online entertainment. But when a butterfly flaps its wings over the Suffolk coast storm clouds gather over Berlin and London. Classical music's heartland is facing a perfect storm caused by the convergence of two off-shore hurricanes: these are the shifts in consumer tastes and the rapidly increasing availability of free online content - four hundred hours of new YouTube content are uploaded every minute. Classical music must adapt to these changes if it wants a healthy future. But key to this adaption is an acceptance that the gross oversupply of classical music, both live and streamed, must be tackled. At the core of the artform's current problems is the mistaken belief that artistic merit and popularity are one and the same thing. This has led to the destructive chasing of audience via dumbing down and the misguided provision of free content, the latter being the artistic equivalent of giving the crown jewels away. Free content on YouTube and Facebook not only threatens live music attendances, but it also supports cynical tax evasion practices that remove money from public funding channels.

Sterling and much-needed work is being done to tackle problems such as gender and ethnic inequality in classical music. But there is currently absolute denial of the equally serious problem of oversupply, because trade bodies such as the Association of British Orchestras have a vested interest in maintaining or even increasing supply chain capacity. Until the problem of oversupply is tackled, and until faddish and damaging solutions such as live Facebook streams are abandoned things will not improve. The sources of oversupply are self-evident: they are not the rare performances of William Alwyn's symphonies, but the New York Philharmonic's hundred-and-nineteenth outing for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony highlighted by Alex Ross in the current New Yorker.

Classical music has become obese and urgently needs to slim by reducing supply in response to changing market conditions and reduced demand. Live music outside the celebrity arena also desperately needs supporting. The celebration of William Alwyn's music continues at Snape until October 15th. If you are in the area please support it. Because if you don't the William Alwyn Festival may have to reinvent itself as a YouTube channel.

Our tickets for last night's Snape concert were purchased at the box office. 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, October 11, 2017

Social media masterclass 2

All humans tend ideologically to conform to what seems to be 'local common sense' in the circles they move in. If a vast majority of our friends espouse a view, we will often go along with it, especially when it fits well with our existing sentiments. When an individual's social network becomes isolated from broader society, it can consequently twist into an extremist echo chamber, draping an aura of plausibility and common sense over even those ideas that are morally reprehensible and utterly disconnected from reality.
Quote comes from a 2015 Independent article by New College, Oxford lecturer Jonathan Maynard Leader. Social media masterclass - 1 can be read via this link.

Header image appears on website of Phoebe Stud, New Zealand. 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.