Thursday, November 30, 2017

Technophobia has no place in the concert hall

Two different sources determine the signature sound of a concert hall. One is the direct sound coming from the performer to the listener; the character of this sound depends on the technique of the musician and the natural tone of their instrument. The second sound source is indirect sound which comes to the listener as reverberation. The unique characteristics of this reflected sound - reverberation time, frequency range and loudness - determine whether a hall is acoustically 'good' or 'bad'. Since the late-19th century the characteristics of this critical reflected sound have been controlled by the use of hard reflective surfaces. For instance, in the much-lauded Elbphilharmionie 10,000 gypsum fiber acoustic panels line the auditorium's walls to manage the reflected sound.

Today classical music is struggling with the problem of concert halls that are deemed sonically unacceptable such as the Barbican in London. Much attention has been focussed on effectively rendering existing London halls redundant by building a new sonically superior hall at considerable cost. But puzzlingly little - in fact no - attention has been paid to the possibility of easing the problem of inferior acoustics using new technologies. Direct sound determines the essential characteristics of the music. Indirect sound determines the characteristics of the hall. Indirect sound is subordinate to direct sound, and is therefore less demanding in terms of frequency range, transient response etc. Which means that indirect sound is very amenable to sympathetic re-shaping by digital variable acoustics systems.

A variable acoustic system is totally different to amplification: amplification messes with the direct sound and a variable acoustics does not. Variable acoustics use digital technologies to control reverberation time, early reflections, and other key ingredients vital to the sonic clarity, warmth, and resonance of a concert hall. Example of variable acoustic systems are the CSTB's CARMEN® system which I have experienced in Norwich's Theatre Royal and which is deployed in the new Théâtres Les Quinconces-L'espal in Le Mans France seen above, and the Meyer Sound Constellation system. Writing of the latter system none other than Alex Ross explains that:
[With Constellation,] the Meyers have thus had a democratizing influence, allowing ensembles to obtain pleasing results in problematic spaces. They have helped to make classical music a more mobile, adaptable beast, one that is freer to roam the entire cultural landscape. A mirage of the Musikverein can arise almost anywhere, with a few swipes on a screen.
Classical music has mortgaged its birthright to streaming and other new technologies, and welcomes live Facebook concert relays with standing ovations. Yet it remains almost 100% close-minded to considering the nuanced use of digital technologies as an easement for acoustically compromised venues. I am not suggesting amplification of direct sound and I am not proposing the death of the traditional concert hall. But I am suggesting that digital technologies could provide a cost-effective way of enhancing acoustically mediocre venues, thereby expanding the reach of classical music. As an earlier post pointed out, classical music's big challenge is bridging the technology gap

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The emperor's new concert hall

What is wrong with digital audio, be it computerized or not, has been wrong from go. No matter what the bit rate, no matter what the digital delivery system, you simply cannot “sample” the continuous-time sound of instruments or vocalists, turn it into discrete-time numbers, and then turn those discrete-time numbers back into instruments or vocalists without losing some of the very continuousness of presentation—the dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres—that is the very breath of musical life.

Yes, I’m aware of all the real advantages of digital audio in dynamic range, greater frequency extension (at least in the bottom octaves), lower noise, higher resolution, etc. over analog. But I positively dare you to listen to any well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file and played back from a computer via a USB DAC and then listen to the exact same recording on an LP played back via a really good turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phonostage and tell me, with a straight face, that the digital recording sounds more like the real thing than the analog one. It doesn’t—even when the LP is mastered from a digital file!

Before you start throwing rocks at me—and I expect to get pelted good and proper—let me point some things out. First, many of you have not heard a really great analog rig. I have. Until you do, don’t jump to the conclusion that because it’s a near-seventy-year-old technology LP playback has stood still. While digital audio has continued to try to turn beef tartare back into beefsteak, analog has reached a peak of transparency that is astonishing. Today, we hear so much more of what was actually pressed into the grooves—and do remember that what was pressed into those grooves are the actual soundwaves that struck the microphone’s diaphragm, not a sample of those waves but the waves themselves—that it is difficult to find a recording that doesn’t reveal an abundance of previously hidden treasures.

Second, many of you are not concertgoers. Unless you have experience with the sound of the real thing, I’m not at all sure how you can objectively judge a facsimile. “Sounds good to me” listeners will not be troubled by this, and if they’re happy with digital playback I’m happy for them. But those of us who know the sound of actual instruments in a concert or recital hall cannot help but note the artificiality of digital playback—its persistent inability to capture fully the dynamic, harmonic, dimensional, and ambient liveliness of instruments and vocalists. Digital is to analog as a butterfly pinned and pressed under glass is to a butterfly in an open field. In some fundamental and unmistakable way it is fixed, inert, inanimate. In spite of its undeniable dynamic clout, its low noise, its excellent bass extension, its plethora of detail, it also often sounds a bit mechanized, denatured, put together from parts. And nowhere is digital’s fundamental nature more apparent than through a computer-audio pipeline.
That extract is from a guest editorial titled The Emperor's New Server by Jonathan Valin in the Absolute Sound magazine. Endorsement of analogue's sonic benefits is coming from the most unlikely places. Overlooked in all the anti-Barbican brouhaha is the recent release by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic of a new recording of the Brahms symphonies made direct-to-disc entirely in the analogue domain. This laudable project is the recorded media equivalent of the Elbphilharmonie with a price tag to match - £495 for six LPs.

The analogue versus digital argument is well-rehearsed and it is not my intention to re-open it with this post. My point is that many will reject Jonathan Valin's acclamation of high-end analogue sound as just more bad science. Yet it is highly likely the selfsame people will enthusiastically support proposals for a new £278 million London concert hall that promises to deliver the same incremental benefits of increased dynamic range, greater frequency extension, higher resolution etc etc. That is a state-of-the-art £6000 SME Model 15 turntable in the photo; one person's SME turntable is another person's Elbphilharmonie.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

More on that fine line between acoustic excellence and elitism

It was my intention to move on from the recent post about critics demonising the sound of London concert halls. But this new review demands comment. Sorry Richard, but this is silly, self-indulgent and unhelpful music criticism.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

There is a fine line between acoustic excellence and elitism

Current demands for a new London concert hall with 'state of the art' sound need to be put into perspective. One critic recently tweeted "Harder and harder to tolerate the acoustic at the Barbican. Did anyone hear the B[avarian] R[adio] S[ymphony O[rchestra] cellos tonight? 'Cos I didn't." Yes, the three main London concert venues, the Barbican, Festival and Albert Halls suffer from compromised sound. But how compromised is that sound in orders of magnitude? To help answer that question I am proposing a model comparing concert hall and hi-fi sound. This comparison has validity both because recorded sound is now the dominant way music is consumed, and because the critics demonising the sound of London concert halls also review recorded music using hi-fi systems.

Stereophile magazine under the inspired editorship of John Atkinson has for decades provided an objective guide to recorded sound quality. Stereophile publishes an annual listing of the top 500 recommended audio components. Each category is divided into five classes A to E. The following table shows the parameter for inclusion in each class, and the highest priced full-range loudspeakers in each of those classes for the 2017 rankings.

Class A: Best attainable sound for a component of its kind, almost without practical considerations; "the least musical compromise" - Marten Coltrane 3, $100,000 per pair - see photo below
Class B: Next best thing to the very best sound reproduction - Nola Metro Grand Reference Gold, $33,000 per pair
Class C: Lower-fi sound, but far more musically natural than average high fidelity - Larsen 8, $6995 per pair
Class D: Satisfying musical sound, but these components are either of significantly lower fidelity than the best available, or exhibit major compromised in performance - limited dynamic range for example - Sjöfn HiFi (the clue), $999 per pair
Class E: Entry-level products - Dayton Audio B652, a snip at $39.80 per pair.

During my career with the BBC, EMI and elsewhere I was fortunate to share the privilege that music critics enjoy of hearing great orchestras in the world's finest concert halls from the best seats with someone else picking up the tab. This experience allows me to compile an admittedly subjective but nevertheless useful ranking of concert halls using the Stereophile classes. So my ranking places Snape Maltings and Symphony Hall, Birmingham in Class A, the Barbican and Festival Hall towards the lower end of Class B, and the Albert Hall in Class D. Class A - best attainable sound - is undoubtedly the level aspired to both in concert halls and audiophile systems. But the prices quoted above in the Stereophile rankings are for a pair of full-range loudspeakers, not complete audio systems. As a rough guide, an audio system using average Class A components costs around $50k, a Class B system $30k and so on, while building the arguably Class A sound Elbphilharmonie concert hall seen above cost €860 million ($1025m). So Class A sound is a laudable but very expensive aspiration both for live and recorded music.

Which brings me to a crucial point. The critics currently demonising the sound of London's concert halls also review classical recordings for the Gramophone and other publications. So if Class A sound is a sine qua non for appreciating classical music do they use Class A audio systems for their reviewing to make sure the cellos are reproduced faithfully? Both my pragmatic experience and common sense tells me they do not use $50k systems for reviewing. So if critics are not using Class A audio systems for reviewing are they not guilty of double standards?

Knocking London concert halls has become just another silly social media meme. Despite decades of compromised sound classical music survives very well in London because music is remarkably resilient. The brain's miraculous psychoacoustic compensation abilities mean that some of the content can be stripped out without destroying the music's essence - MP3 and other lossy formats depend on this. Sonic excellence is a laudable goal. But classical music can and will survive despite compromised concert halls and compromised audio systems. Like Class A audio systems, acoustically perfect concert halls and are a 'very nice to have' but not a 'must have'. Which means my personal 'desert island' concert performances spans Class A halls, eg. Colin Davis' Elgar 1 at Snape, through Class D, Bruno Maderna's Mahler 9 in the Albert Hall, to sub-Class E, Olivier Holt's Mozart Requiem in a Moroccan school sports hall. There is a fine dividing line between acoustic excellence and acoustic elitism, and current demands for a new London hall are now crossing that sensitive dividing line. It is a paradox of our times that most people involved in classical music consider paying £38k for a Class A audio system an elitist extravagance, but consider paying £278 million plus for a new London concert hall an absolute necessity.

Elitism comes in different guises. London orchestras, London venues and London critics already exert far too much influence over music in Britain. As an example Norwich, near where I live, has a thriving music culture that includes commissioning and premiering Britten's Our Hunting Fathers. But its principal concert venue barely scrapes into Category E for sound quality. The problem with the St Andrew's Hall in Norwich - see photo above - is not that you can't hear the cellos. It is that sometimes you can't hear any music at all because of the traffic noise. Many, many vibrant urban centres outside London would give their eye-teeth for the Barbican, sonic deficiencies and all. Let's hope Simon Rattle brings the LSO to St Andrew's Hall, because he will never complain about the Barbican again.

If the budget really is available and portable, the money should not be used for a new London hall; instead it should be spent on seeding the regions with clones of the acoustically and artistically outstanding Saffron Hall - see photo below - which cost a mere £10 million ($13 m) to build. Just do the maths: the purported £278 million cost of the new London concert hall, which will undoubtedly be exceeded by a considerable margin, would build more than 25 Saffron Halls in towns currently lacking a viable classical music venue. For me at least, the choice between mellow cellos in London and reaching out to a new diverse audience elsewhere is no contest.

Photo of Elbphilharmonie via NDR, Marten Coltrane 3s via manufacturers website, St Andrew's Hall via Norwich Evening News, and Saffron Hall via Saffron Walden Choral Society. Any copyrighted material is included as for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Travels beyond TripAdvisor

These photos were taken on my recent spirit quest in Morocco to the Sufi shrine of Sidi Chamharouch, which is seen above. A 75 minutes drive from Marrakech brought me to Imlil where the road ends and the mountains begin. The hamlet of Sidi Chamharouch - which is one of those blessed places which returns a blank in a Trip Advisor search - is at an altitude of 2350 metres and is reached by a tough and potentially dangerous two hour climb up a rocky path. Access is impossible for wheeled vehicles and supplies are brought in by the mules seen in my photos. Beyond Sidi Chamharouch is Jebel Toubkal, which at 4,167 metres is the highest mountain in North Africa. During my trek I was struck by the similarity between the High Atlas and Ladakh on the border of India and Tibet. Film director Martin Scorsese was also struck by the similarity. With Tibet a no-go zone he used this region for location shooting of his 1997 movie Kundun; this depicts the Dalai Lama's flight into exile from Tibet and is graced by a Philip Glass score. Below is a still from Kundun; the same peaks can be seen in my second photo above.

The High Atlas is Berber country. Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa and it is not commonly known that they were Christian prior to the Arab conquest of the Maghreb and its conversion to Islam in the 6th century. Three early Popes were Berber as was Saint Augustine who was an important figure in the development of western Christianity. A recent Catholic Herald article was titled 'Was St Augustine black?' Which makes good click bait but is somewhat misleading, as Berbers are usually fair skinned. Sidi Chamharouch is a name for the sultan of the jinns (evil spirits). Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures possess a distinct spiritual essence, and in another example of the mixed metaphysics of the region Sidi Chamharouch was originally a pre-Islamic animistic place of worship. Synchronicity abounds here as the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama is strongly influenced by the pre-Buddhist animistic Bon religion. However the soundtrack for my quest was not Philip Glass' Kundun score. While trekking it was the ethereal silence of the mountains counterpointed in the evenings by Paul Bowles' 1959 field recordings from the region in their recent invaluable digital reincarnation. My time among these awe-inspiring peaks not only reminded me forcibly of how insignificant we are as individuals, but also highlighted how insignificant are the differences between the great wisdom traditions. Islam, Christianity, animism and, by the beguiling power of Hollywood, Buddhism mix freely in the High Atlas. But as Robert Graves tells us in his poem Outlaws:
For though creeds whirl away in dust,
Faith fails and men forget,
These aged gods of fright and lust
Cling to life yet.

My thanks go the ever-hospitable Berber team at Dar Adrar guest house in Imlil who made sure that an almost 68 year old solo trekker didn't do anything too stupid. One of the many blessings of Dar Adrar is that internet access is virtually non-existent. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Here's something you may not know

Every single time you go to Facebook or or wherever, you're unleashing a mad scramble of money, data, and pixels that involves undersea fibre-optic cables, the world's best data base technologies, and everything that is known about you by greedy strangers.
Every. Single. Time.
Quote is from the recommended Chaos Monkeys: Mayhem and Mania Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine by Antonio García Martínez. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter; but I won't mind or be surprised if you don't 'like', 'share' or 're-tweet'.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

This land Is your land

'It has been my hard luck many times to choose between what I thought was the truth and a good pay cheque' ~ Woody Guthrie

Thursday, November 09, 2017

I regret being a son of the West

Antal Doráti's contribution to classical music is seriously undervalued. A consummate conductor, his achievements included the second complete cycle of the symphonies of that peerless composer Joseph Haydn (the little-known cycle conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer was the first) and a 1959 Firebird which remains the benchmark against which other recordings of the complete ballet are judged. He studied with Béla Bartók and went on to conduct the world premiere of the composer's Viola Concerto. In 1963 the arch-modernist William Glock appointed Doráti principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; in his four years in the post he conducted premieres of works by composers including Michael Tippett, Roberto Gerhard and Nikos Skalkottas. Doráti's own considerable output as a composer is even more seriously undervalued, and his two symphonies would surely find favour with today's late-Romantic indoctrinated audiences if they were but given the chance.

If Antal Doráti's contribution to classical music is seriously undervalued, his contribution to humanitarian thinking is virtually unknown. In 1987 he was approached by the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) to participate in their concerts and recordings for peace. This working relationship acted as a catalyst for him to write what was literally his last testament titled For Inner and Outer Peace, which is dedicated to IPPNW. This outpouring of a lifetime's previously unvoiced thoughts was written down with great urgency in the last 18 months of his life. In it Doráti states many times that he felt compelled to share his urgent message, and writing the manuscript literally occupied him to his last breath.

For Inner and Outer Peace was published in 1991 three years after Antal Doráti died, and it has long been out of print. In his last years Doráti found solace in Christianity and later compositions such as his beautiful setting of the Pater Noster, and his melodrama Jesus or Barabbas reflect this. But For Inner and Outer Peace is much more than a fascinating footnote to the career of a forgotten musician. The subject of Jesus or Barabbas is the power of the mob, and we now live in a world overshadowed once again by the fear of nuclear conflict, over which the corporeal and virtual mob rule. Which makes the following wisdom from For Inner and Outer Peace painfully relevant:

It is a remarkable fact that - so far - perhaps every real champion of human peace (and there have been few of them compared to the innumerable false ones) began with the quest for that same "inner peace" which they themselves were never able to achieve. The one exception I can think of might be Buddha, whose faraway image emits the rays of complete inner peace. Sometimes, when looking at a pebble, an insect, a plant or a blade of grass, that dream of inner peace - so different to that for which we in our western corner of the earth strive, and yet so complete - I am transported to such high and subtle regions that, upon "awakening", I regret (for a while) being a son of the West. In these moments I resolve to learn more about the East. And I do, a little: but never much, because I am too strongly and obsessively fascinated by the mysteries of the culture that has raised me.
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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

New classical audiences want more bang for their bucks

Are Mahler and Shostakovich so overwhelmingly popular because their symphonies deliver more bang for the audience's bucks? That outlandish proposition is worth serious consideration, because it is very relevant to classical music's commitment to broadening its audience. The concert hall is caught in a pincer movement. On the one hand the elusive new younger target audience is conditioned to bass heavy rock music heard on up-close-and-personal earbuds/headphones and sub-woofer reinforced home cinema systems. On the other hand, the dictates of authenticity mean orchestral sound, particularly in music from the classical and baroque periods, has become leaner; while at the same time concert halls have become bigger and less sonically intimate in response to commercial imperatives. This pincer movement means the new audience wants more bangs, but classical is delivering less bangs. The holy grail is a new younger audience, but that audience craves a more visceral sound. So a Haydn Symphony on period instruments in the Albert Hall fails to cut the mustard. But a full-on Mahler Second in the same hall does. Which may well be why so much Mahler is programmed these days.

Now the purpose of this post is not to moan about the hegemony of Mahler, because that is self-evident. Instead, let's accept for the moment that new audiences want more bang for their bucks. Which means delivering more bangs is the right way forward, but inflicting death by Mahler on both new and old audiences is not. So the answer is very obvious. Give new audiences what they want in moderation; but be a lot more imaginative in choosing the bangs. If Mahler is the gold standard for today's audiences, surely Malcolm Arnold's Mahler-indebted symphonies should be the silver standard. And a revival in big band/big bang classical and baroque is also overdue. If Rodgers and Hammerstein can become a BBC Proms fixture, why not transcriptions of Bach by Stokowski and others? There is a rich vein of other transcriptions by Stoki to be mined, while legitimate arrangements such as Hamilton Harty's Handel suites would surely be new audience pleasers. Also long overdue is a return to big band Haydn and Mozart, as practised so sublimely by one of the greatest-ever Mahler interpreters Bruno Walter.

If Proms audiences want sonic fireworks, Alan Hovhaness' 'Mount St. Helens' Symphony can certainly deliver - the final movement 'Volcano' on the Delos CD seen above on which Gerard Schwarz conducts the Seattle Symphony has some of the most impressive bass ever captured on disc. Forget all those tired and irrelevant arguments as to whether Malcolm Arnold and Alan Hovhaness wrote masterpieces. They wrote excellent, honest and well-crafted music that speaks the same language as Mahler. For the purists, less Mahler and more Hovhaness may represent dumbing sideways. But if it connects with a wider audience, does that really matter?

My thanks for inspiration go to music therapist Lyle Sanford and the link he sent me to the article Music is not for ears. Any copyrighted material is included as for critical analysis and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Today's Internet is too big to provide warmth and intimacy

Communities are supposed to be places of intimacy, warmth, and relationships that sustain... In the Middle Ages, monasteries that grew to more than 500 monks would send some off to create new foundations. More than five hundred brothers could no longer be a true community. The globe is too big a place to provide for warmth and intimacy. The more we connect with those far away, the more we seem to disconnect from those close to us. Will the Internet do on a global scale what the telephone did to the French in Algeria?

When telephones were introduced in Algeria, the French army's Arab Bureau got lazy. The Arab Bureau was responsible for maintaining good relations with the indigène [local people] and for knowing what was going on in the villages. Traditionally, this had been done by officers riding their horses into the bled [backcountry] for several weeks, traveling the circuit, sipping tea with the local leaders for long hours, and building personal relationships. But the telephone made it possible to do away with long, hot, and dangerous rides into the backcountry, thus weakening the ties that only effort and face-to-face relations can create. It was considered more efficient simply to call, have a little chat on the phone, so officers didn't have to waste all that time.
That was written in pre-social media 2002 and comes from The Monks of Tibhirine by John W. Kiser. There is much we can learn from monastic communities: limiting social media contacts to 500 would shift the balance in virtual communities from quantity to quality and suppress the all-pervasive mob rule that blights online discussions. It would also destroy the business models of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which depend on scale to drive their obscene tax-exempt profits. Which is why it will never happen.

Some readers will have seen the deeply moving film Of Gods and Men about the murder in 1996 of seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine by unidentified Algerian terrorists. The film, from which the header image is taken, was based on John Kiser's book which contains far more background research and detail than could be included in the cinema version. The Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962 and the subsequent Algerian Civil War from 1991 to 2002 are largely forgotten. But John Kiser reminds us that important lessons about the dangers of post-imperial religious extremism could and should have been learnt in Algeria. As President Bouteflika of Algeria explained to the French National Assembly in 2000:
The colonialism of the past century opened for us the doors of modernity, but it was a modernity that came into our home like a burglar, a modernity that caused fear, uncertainty, and frustration. And it is true, as well, that modernity discredits itself and denies its own essence when it presents a face that is vicious by its oppression and rejection of others who are different...
No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Vie with each other in good music

It is heartening that in our troubled times this new festival is being launched in Paris. Because as the Quran tells us:
Had God pleased, He could have made of you one community: but it is His wish to test you by that which He has bestowed on you. Vie with each other in good works, for to God you shall return and He will resolve your differences ~ Quran 5:49
But it is sad the music industry supports a website that provides a platform for comments of a hateful and divisive nature while disingenuously hiding behind a flimsy facade of debate and free speech. All who contribute to Slipped Disc, including those who flow review material and news stories/gossip, make comments and share posts, are passively supporting this divisiveness. However nothing will change; because no one cares.
Have not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenenant of our fathers? ~ Malachi 2: 10
More details about the Sufi Festival of Paris 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, November 03, 2017

Why we must tune in to our inner Spotify

Why do I bristle when my news feeds are inundated with puffs for Simon Rattle and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla? Why do I switch off when a Radio 3 presenter tells me what my emotional reaction to a piece of music should be? Why is the negative sum of these ostensibly trivial intermediations so great? These questions have puzzled me for some time; but time spent with Heidrun Kimm recently at her studio in the mountains of Crete has provided some answers.

A 2015 post described my experiences of nada yoga - the ancient yoga of sound - under Heidrun's guidance. Heidrun is also a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine, a therapy which she initiated me into during my recent visit to Crete. Ayurveda is one of the world's oldest holistic ('whole-body') healing systems which focuses on balancing energy flows within the body. These energy flows emanate from the primal energy source known as the kundalini - coiled serpent - at the base of the spine. Ayurvedic yoga releases this hidden strength to empower other energy centres within the body, with the ultimate objective of channeling the energy to the seventh chakra in the skull, thereby opening the door to a higher level of consciousness.

Now please bear with me for just a few more paragraphs before dismissing this post as just more fake science. The Vedic sub-agenda with its chakras and yogis is an optional extra which you do not have to buy. But there are two irrefutable core truths in Ayurvedic medicine which cannot be dismissed. One truth is that all matter is energy, and energy expressed as vibrations is the DNA of music. This is illustrated in the graphic above. And no, this is not a new-agey Buddhist mandala. It shows the vibrations in the music of archmodernist Karlheinz Stockhausen as captured by the German researcher and photographer Alexander Lauterwasser, who coincidentally is the son of Herbert von Karajan's court photographer Siegfried Lauterwasser. Alexander Lauterwasser is a student of the science of cymatics - the study of wave formations. He created the image by transferring the sound waves produced by the music into water, and photographing the results using reflected light. These snapshots of vibrations illuminate the vital path from the musical to the metaphysical. The one below look like a variation on the Stockhausen pattern; but it is, in fact, created by Ravi Shankar's sitar music.

And the awkward but unavoidable link between great music and the ineffable is illustrated by the striking similarity of the two vibration patterns above to the one below, which captures the vibrations of the sacred mantra OM. (All these images and more can be seen in my 2009 post Music and its symbols; the asymetry of Boulez's music provides particular food for thought.).

The second irrefutable truth at the heart of Ayurvedic medicine is that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but can change form. So if classical music wants a new constituency, it must release the primal latent musical energy within its new audience. That energy cannot be transferred by the machinations of social media algorithms or the effusion of radio presenters. In fact these futile attempts actually cause the inner serpent to coil more tightly in protest - which is why the negative sum of these ostensibly trivial intermediations is so great. Our latent musical energy can only be released by the vital activities of music education, learning to play an instrument, or exposure to great, preferably live, music with minimal intermediation. Music appreciation must be released, it cannot be imposed from outside. The hyper mediation currently being imposed on classical music is an obstacle to tapping the audiences' primal musical energy. Many of the current methods of consuming music such as MP3 files are specifically designed to reduce energy flows in the interest of limiting bandwidth requirements. Which explains why live music sounds better than music recorded using lossy technologies. The graphic below shows the energy spectrum of bell percussion captured in a high resolution recording format - source Channel D.

Below is the same bell percussion after standard 44.1 kHz sampling for digital reproduction. This dramatically shows how digital sampling dramatically reshapes the energy spectrum. (Eagle-eyed readers will spot that much of the lost energy is above 20 kHz, which is the approximate upper limit of human hearing. But there is important but little-known evidence that sound above 20 kHz - ultrasound - affects our perception of music.)

There have been three primary influences on this post. One was my exploration of holistic therapies with Heidrun Kimm on Crete. Another was Markos Madias' book George Seferis: The Strong Wind from the East which examines the influences of Eastern philosophies on contemporary Greek culture in general and Greece's Nobel Laureate poet in particular. The third influence is the music of Ross Daly and Kelly Thoma. Like Heidrun Kimm, Ross and Kelly live on the margin of the great mountain range that runs east/west through Crete. This is a region of palpable creative energy - the mountains were thrown up aeons ago by the collision of the European and African tectonic plates. Crete is equidistant from mainland Europe, Africa, and Asia and the island is a cultural fault line between the cultures of those continents. It was ruled by Iberian Muslims for a century (c820-961CE), and returned to Muslim rule as part of the Ottoman Empire for two centuries, and only became part of Greece in 1913.

This interculturation is reflected in Crete's new modal music. In a 2005 post I described how this new music had evolved from Ross Daly's study of the world’s modal traditions. Over the years the music of Ross and his Labyrinth alumnae has increasingly embraced the modal traditions of the East while retaining its centre of gravity in the music of his adopted island. But in a new double album cut with his life and musical partner Kelly Thoma, Ross breaks free of the pull of Cretan gravity and flies into the orbit of global music.

Global music is very different from commercially tainted world music which Ross Daly views as "an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music". Appropriately the new album is titled Lunar and it takes its title and inspiration from the moon, with tracks paying homage to Hindu deities and mythology, Persian symbolism, a pre-Olympian goddess, Persian folklore, and Turkish mythology. Ross and Kelly's instrument of choice for this essay into global music is the Cretan lyre. Their instruments are a contemporary version of the lyre which Ross has developed with his pupil Stelios Petrakis. This adds eighteen sympathetic (resonating) strings to the three bowed strings, and those resonating strings are transducers for the primal energy that permeates this outstanding new release. Tune in to your inner Spotify via this link or, even better, buy the double CD Lunar from Panos Evdemon's most excellent online Greek Music Shop.

Header image via Ajayan. Lunar was a requested review sample. 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, November 01, 2017

Play it again, Sakari

I'm in Boston. Please, GOOD GOD D*MN, enough Mahler. I have enough exceptional, remarkable performances of Mahler at home, recorded over 60 years, and not likely to be bettered on any night I'd attend. More Antheil, Atterberg, Bathory-Kitsz, Bax, Bendix, Berwald, Brian, Cooman, Doyhnanyi, Enescu, Gould, Harris, Harrison, Hartmann, Holmboe, Honneger, Ives, Janacek (not just the Sinfonietta), Jolivet, Kalliwoda, Martinu, Mennin, Nielsen (either one), Panufnik, Petterson, Piston, Quincy Porter ... and that's just to P. If the visiting conductors stamp their little feet about Mahler symphonies, give them Emerson Whithorne's 2nd [listen here] and lock them in a room to study it.
A reader left that comment on my post 'Should a modern maestro decline to conduct Mahler?'. That post has been well-received, so I am now featuring a CD from a modern maestro who is not afraid to defy the all-pervasive Mahler algorithms. Sakari Oramo is, as he proved at this year's Proms, a very accomplished Mahler interpreter. But he is also not afraid to deviate from the algorithmically defined straight and narrow. These deviations brought an invaluable overview of John Foulds' music while at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and a memorable William Alwyn First Symphony at the Proms in his first season as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Moreover during his tenure at the Finnish Radio Symphony Oramo programmed music from, among others, Kaija Saariaho, Kimmo Hakola, Jouni Kaipainen, Armas Launis and Ernest Pingoud.

In 2013 Sakari Oramo recorded the First and Eighth Symphonies of Per Nørgård (b. 1932) with the Vienna Philharmonic no less. Per Nørgård was influenced by Sibelius - the First Symphony briefly quotes from Tapiola - and came into contact with the great man during the Finnish composer's last years. But the much clearer influence is the more abrasive music of Per Nørgård's teacher and fellow Dane Vagn Holmboe (1906-1996). Per Nørgård's First Symphony, which is subtitled Sinfonia austera, dates from the mid-1950s. While showing the influence of established masters such as Sibelius and Shostakovich, it is in no way derivative. In the symphony Per Nørgård's unique voice is heard emerging, a voice that reaches its apogee in his Eighth and to date last symphony composed in 2010-11. In the Eighth tonality is more distant, and the symphony - particularly the chimerical Adagio - inhabits a sound world that we can speculate Sibelius sought but never reached in his own abandoned Eighth Symphony.

The First and Eighth Symphonies were recorded by the Danish Dacapo label as part of a cycle of Per Nørgård's symphonies; the other symphonies are conducted by John Storgards - who is the dedicatee of the Eighth - and Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo is a proponent of the SACD format and the sound captured in the Wiener Konzerthaus is both impressive and totally natural. Per Nørgård is prolific and among his 400+ compositions is the opera/ballet Siddhartha also released by Dacapo. This featured in a 2010 Overgrown Path post.

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.