Sunday, December 31, 2017

Rock in the new year by kicking out the cultural comfort zones

Whilst working on Sufi Spirit, the theme of love emerged as something concrete and essential at a time of tectonic political shifts in the global landscape. As European and American voters seemingly ratchet to the right, Stephan Grabowski speaks with passion about the need to offer an alternative narrative. One of cross-cultural understanding and love shared between normal citizens rather than the divisions encouraged by 'political leaders who whip up discontent'.
That comes from a sleeve essay that challenges comfort zones for a new album that also challenges comfort zones. Sufi rock has had some distinguished advocates, starting with the band that pioneered the genre, Junoon from Pakistan. Rocqawali's Sufi Spirit gives the genre a new twist with its line-up of Danish drummer Stephan Grabowski, Danish/ Pakistani guitarist and sitarist Jonas Stampe, Iranian-born guitarist Tin Soheili, and luminary of one of Pakistan's legendary Qawali dynasties Ejaz Sher Ali. Although Sufi Spirit is clearly not aimed exclusively at the Muslim market, that opportunity is not be sneezed at. The Muslim music market is forecast to reach US$1.4 billion dollars and is driven by that holy grail of music marketeers, a young demographic Two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30 and many of these are on the doorstep of the West in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region south of the Mediterranean*. While classical music struts its celebrity stuff for ageing Western power-brokers in Vienna, why not kick out the cultural comfort zones with this video of Rocqawali's take on the Sufi anthem I'll Allah.

* It also should not be overlooked that within the MENA region are approximately 60% of the world's oil reserves and 45% of the world's natural gas reserves.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Parallel universes

As ever 2017 delivered riches in the concert hall, notably William Alwyn's First Symphony in a rare outing at Snape Maltings and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Avignon's inspiringly ephemeral Opera Confluence. But many readers will, understandably, find it deeply ironic that my most memorable listening in the year came via digital technology. My treks in Morocco's High Atlas brought me back to the Dar Adrar guest house in Imlil by mid-afternoon. It was then time to chill on the roof-top terrace and soak up the wondrous view seen above while listening to my iPod. The High Atlas is steeped in magic and mysticism as is Arnold Bax's music; so one afternoon at the top of my playlist was Bax's Third Symphony in Vernon Handley's recording. In a review of Dilys Gater's speculative book Summer with Bax – a Fresh Take on Reality Christopher Webber explains how "All creative work... requires an opening up of the artist to summoned worlds, more or less plausibly peopled in parallel with our own". That afternoon in Morocco Bax's music took me, as music can on very rare occasions, to a summoned world, a universe parallel to our own.

Great music works magic and the great musician is a shaman who alters reality in his audience by altering it in himself. Many will dismiss talk of parallel universes as New Age mumbo jumbo, but it is a concept that has support from quantum mechanics - the theory of how subatomic particles behave. The not universally accepted 'daughter universe' interpretation of quantum mechanics postulates that for every action there is a karmic range of universes containing different reactions, meaning that we live in many interacting worlds. In that syncretic environment of the High Atlas Bax transported me to a parallel universe redolent of magic and mysticism. But this unique power of music also - and more commonly - operates outside the esoteric regime. For instance the unfairly-derided André Rieu transports millions to a parallel universe - a different level of consciousness - less scarred by quotidien cares.

Music is reductionist. It is most powerful when transporting the listener to a summoned world where preoccupations are diminished. In those parallel universes, whether the animateur is Arnold Bax or André Rieu, less is more. Sublime music experiences are about simplifying, clarifying and focusing; in other words eliminating not adding. Yet, despite this, classical music currently devotes all its energies to adding. These obsessive additions include more listeners, new concert etiquette, increased funding, more celebrities, new concert halls, extended media coverage and inflated social media metrics. The shouting of the classical additionalists is now so loud it is drowning out the music. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee: classical music's New Year resolution should be less is more.

Reading while on the road included:
You Know What You Could Be by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig
Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs
Summer with Bax – a Fresh Take on Reality by Dilys Gater
Tibetan Book of the Dead translated by Robert Thurman

Listening included:
Tinariwen Elwan
Bax: The Symphonies, Vernon Handley & BBC Philharmonic
Rafiki Jazz Har Dam Sahara
Burda by Mustafa Said and Tamin al-Barghouti with the Asil Ensemble for Contemporary Arab Music

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

If one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed it is worthwhile

In his latest 'mine is bigger than yours' boast Norman Lebrecht declares that " it would be remiss on our part not to indicate... statistical shortcomings". A very wise observation that I too will now turn my attention to. In his post Norman states "Slipped Disc is on course to reach 1.5 million readers this month. Google Analytics tells us pretty much who and where they are". But Google Analytics does not measure readers: it measures website traffic volume, which is a different thing altogether. Readers are human beings, traffic volume is a measure of visitors to a website, and those visitors may, or may not be, human. In fact independent research shows that more than half of visitors to websites are bots as opposed to humans. As an example 'feed fetcher' bots that refresh newsfeeds alone account for more than 12% of website traffic, with the Facebook 'feed fetcher' accounting for one third of that traffic.

So if Google Analytics is reporting Slipped Disc site traffic of almost 1.5 million visitors a month, it is statistically incorrect and factually wrong to interpret that as 1.5 million readers: in fact readership is likely to be less than half that number. It should also be noted that Norman uses the wording "1.5 million readers" and not "1.5 million unique readers". The omission of 'unique' may just be an example of the famed Lebrecht carelessness, or it may be that the figures given are for total site hits including returning visitors and not  unique site hits. These are two very different measures and if the 1.5 million does not de-duplicate returning visitors the total is again significantly overstated*.

Norman is celebrated for his pulp fiction. For the reasons above the veracity of his claimed 1.5 million readers can be questioned; but this notwithstanding there is little doubt that Slipped Disc's readership is considerably larger than OAOP's. However that is not something I am losing sleep over; because the truth is that we do not know and will never know with any accuracy what the readership by humans of either blog or any other online resource is. This problem is compounded by the distorting prism of the social media algorithms that determine who reads what online.

Classical music has become obsessed with social media metrics, yet hard evidence shows that chasing topline numbers for social media friends, followers, likes and website traffic is the equivalent of speculating in a currency with an unknown and unknowable value. For instance beleaguered BBC Radio 3 recently tweeted imploringly for more Twitter followers, a metric totally devalued by the widespread availability of free bots that generate Twitter followers and other non-human social media activity. Endorsement metrics, site traffic and other online measures are, when properly understood and used, useful tools. But when, as is increasingly happening, they become an end in themselves rather than a means to the end of wider reach and better quality, they become dangerous conceits.

An important but overlooked problem in the current euphoria about all things online is that many self-appointed classical authorities have only a superficial understanding of the internet. This is instanced by the not infrequent execution errors in Slipped Disc posts. In fact Norman's 'mine is bigger than yours' post provides a prime example. His link to On An Overgrown Path takes readers, at the time of writing, to the home page of my blog, rather than the post he is critiquing. This is because he has used a link to the generic On An Overgrown Path URL and not a permalink which would lead directly to the article he critiques. Not using the permalink facility means his readers see the current article at the top of the home page, and are left to search for the article he refers to.

If we allow classical music to be controlled by social media metrics it will become nothing more than click bait for the ears. The reality is that the chase for big numbers marginalises invaluable activities such as the outreach work of the L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc seen in my photos playing in the streets of Essaouira, Morocco - a country with no indigenous Western classical tradition. Classical music is not about 'mine is bigger than yours' bragging matches. L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc's artistic advisor Olivier Holt nailed it precisely when he said that "My role as conductor is to provoke curiosity and joy". Tawdry gossip may attract an impressively large audience of voyeurs and bots, but it does not provoke curiosity and joy. Instead of peddling click bait the classical music industry should heed the wise words of author and radio journalist Libby Purves:

To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber and Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is make - and publicize - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile".

* There is another reason to suggest that the readership of Slipped Disc is significantly less than the claimed 1.5 million per month. This reason veers into the anecdotal as opposed to independently corroborated, but it is nevertheless worth airing. After 13 years of blogging and 4128 published posts I have a pretty good intuitive feel for the dynamics of On An Overgrown Path's site traffic. When Norman linked to my blog with his recent post it struck me that the volume of traffic coming over from the link was noticeably lower that I would expect, given the claimed readership. This judgement was based on a detailed knowledge of the traffic coming from other large readership 'tastemaker' blogs such as Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise. Because of the problem of bots inflating traffic volumes I use two independent tools to measure OAOP's site traffic. One tool takes a liberal interpretation of site traffic and includes in its measure the majority of bot traffic. The other tool is more discriminatory and eliminates much of the non-human traffic. Due to the different ways the tools parse site traffic there is always a material variance in the level of traffic they report. But when I compared the site traffic at the peak of Slipped Disc referrals the variance was much greater than I have ever seen before. This would indicate that a significant part of the traffic bouncing on from Slipped Disc to OAOP was not human readers. It is also noticeable that since the Slipped Disc link OAOP has added a surprising number of Russian and other visitors of distinctly dodgy provenance.

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Wishing everyone a very Marrakech Christmas

Certainly it is our obligation to show to the whole world that we can live together no matter to which culture and religion we belong... Outside of our religious beliefs there is only one God who attracts us to him and invites us to unremittingly build the world with Him, a world in which man is no longer a wolf to his fellow man, but rather a world in which we recognize each other as brothers and as children of our Father.
That message was the response by the prior of the monastery of Our Lady of the Atlas in Midelt, Morocco to an ill-judged letter from President Sarkozy of France, who had written to the monks about the need for them to participate "in the process of globalisation"*. The Midelt monastery had been established after Our Lady of the Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria was abandoned following the murder of seven monks by terrorists in 1996. The photo was taken by me a few weeks ago and shows the Christmas lights in the avenue leading to Marrakesh's Koutoubia mosque - the mosque can be seen in the background. My own very modest attempt to walk the same walk as those brave monks as well as talking the inclusive talk is reported in Travels beyond TripAdvisor.

* Quote is from The Last Monk of Tibhirine by Freddy Derwahl. 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, December 22, 2017

Yet more on classical music's muddled priorities

Leaders destroy the followers and followers destroy the leaders. You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Setting and not celebrity should be classical music's priority

In defiance of the shift away from blogs and towards the micro-blogging format of social media On An Overgrown Path recorded a modest increase in readership during 2017. Of particular significance are the trends within that remarkably resilient readership and two of these trends in particular are worth highlighting. The first is that social media exposure by the online classical tastemakers now has only minimal impact on readership numbers for my posts. In the world of classical music, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have become a closed loop where the same people say the same things to each other many times a day and every day. These social media addicts have not noticed that the rest of the world outside the loop is not listening and not interested.

The second significant trend is that an important part of the Overgrown Path readership now comes from beyond the classical closed loop. Recent widely read posts such as Classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares, There is a fine line between acoustic excellence and elitism, and What price a new concert hall? have attracted a large readership from professionals on the periphery of classical music in technology companies, acoustic consultancies and architectural practices. These are professionals who have no interest in the background noise of closed loops, but who see that set and setting and not celebrity is crucial to the future of classical music.

Classical music's great gift is to, in many different ways, enhance consciousness. Set and setting is the term used to describe the context of psychoactive consciousness-changing experiences. 'Set' is an abbreviation for mindset, while 'setting' refers to the physical and social environment in which the experience takes place. It is only too obvious that the incestuous closed loop at the centre of the classical music industry is fixated on celebrity and not set and setting. Whether we like it or not, Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog is an accurate measure of the pulse of the classical industry, because it receives the unqualified support of musicians, record labels and orchestras. At the time of writing sixteen of the twenty most recent Slipped Disc posts are about classical celebrities, while three of the others are updates on long-running celebrity-related scandals. Which means that using this measure classical music's priority is 95% celebrities and their dalliances. There was not one story about the setting of the music; not one story is about the physical, virtual, or social environments in which the music is heard.

But for once let's not blame Norman. Slipped Disc's readership is supposedly large, and these are the stories that the readers in the closed loop want, so these are the stories the classical industry is producing. Classical music's core problem is its inability to see further than its own celebrity-fixated closed loop. The past two decades have seen seismic shifts in consumer behaviour and tastes which have triggered dramatic changes in the way music is consumed. Those seismic shifts have all centred on set and setting, specifically the technological and physical changes triggered by digital technologies and mobile computing. Yet classical music remains fixated on celebrities, and its only concession to set and setting is the building of gobsmackingly expensive new concert halls based on 19th century conventions and designed to showcase celebrities.

The ongoing uproar triggered by allegations of inappropriate behaviour away from the concert hall suggests that the concept of the classical celebrity has passed its sell-by date. We should not forget that crucial decisions on music funding and infrastructure are made outside the classical closed loop by policy-makers less obsessed by celebrities and more interested in the changing physical, virtual and social environments in which music is consumed. In view of this the current strategy of lavishing so much attention on classical celebrities and their dalliances is clearly unwise.

Header photo comes via Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall, a commendable initiative which tackles the imbalance between celebrity and technology setting. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, December 18, 2017

What price a new concert hall?

When faced with a three year closure of the city's city's almost 200 year old opera house for a much-needed renovation, the city of Avignon in France came up with a truly innovative solution to keep classical music alive for the city's residents. A temporary opera house/concert hall has been built on vacant ground on the city's outskirts close to the TGV - high speed train - station that links Avignon to Paris and the rest of France. This development area is where the mighty Rhône and Durance rivers meet, so the temporary auditorium is known as Opéra Confluence. The DE-SO architectural practice led by partner Sandrine Charvet has created a temporary auditorium and public spaces using the wooden interior and framework seen in the header photo. This frame is made from gulam bonded timber, with insulation sandwiched under exterior cladding, as can be seen in the external view below.

Below are elevations of the new hall. Recycling was a major part of the brief: some of the 950 seats came from an opera house in Venice, while the remainder and stage structure came from the renovated Liège opera house. The wooden auditorium is specifically designed to be easily dismantled and used at another site in the future. The Opéra Confluence opened at the end of November and a few days ago I attended impressive performances there by L'Orchestre et Choeur régional Avignon-Provence conducted by Samuel Jean. Quite appropriately in these Brexit-dominated times the programme was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony prefaced by René Koering's expanded orchestration of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande suite. The sound was surprisingly good, aided by the reflective wood interior and acoustic tuning panels, although the relatively small auditorium inevitably made the sound somewhat dry. It is also worth noting that the concert late on a freezing December weekday evening tempted a large audience out of the city centre, despite the programme being repeated at an earlier time on the following Sunday.

Purists will tell us, quite correctly, that the Opéra Confluence's acoustics are no match for those of the much-vaunted Elbphilharmonie, and it does not have the designer cool of the €789m German hall. But both projects are in there different ways very relevant to the future of classical music. So it is disappointing but predictable that while the great and good of music journalism have flocked to Hamburg to sing the praises of the Elbphilharmonie, this article is, to my knowledge, the only one about the Opéra Confluence that has appeared outside the French regional press.

The budget for the Opéra Confluence was €1.4 million (£1.24m) with another €18.6m (£16.4m) being spent on renovating the 19th century Avignon Opera House. This €20 million spend compares with first estimates of €315m (£278m) for the new London concert hall advocated by Simon Rattle. So this case study of the Opéra Confluence suggests an attractive alternative solution for London. Commission DE-SO architectural practice to build a temporary concert hall for Rattle and the LSO at a cost of £1.24m on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in the development area of East London, and spend a further (£16.4m) gutting the Barbican and remedying its acoustic deficiencies. Which would leave a useful saving of £260m to be ploughed back into music education. Pie in the sky? No, just European Union best practice. Surely Sir Simon and the rest of the anti-Brexit faction would approve of that?

All costs associated with writing this article includng concert tickets were paid for by the author. Our sincere thanks go to the anonymous angel from Avignon University who solved our unforeseen transport difficulties thereby making this article possible. Photo sources: Baz2coM, photo 2 EcomNews, graphic 3 & photo 4 DE-SO Architects. 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, December 17, 2017

Far from the madding groove

Too many world music releases are a fusion of banal Western riffs and soporific Eastern stasis, which has prompted new modal music progenitor Ross Daly to dismiss world music as “an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music”. Not so however the output from the diaspora of Ross's Labyrinth music co-operative in Crete. Among the practitioners of this contemporary music are the newly-formed trio of multi-instrumentalist Efrén López, luthier and lyrist extraordinaire Stelios Petrakis and percussion genius Bijan Chemirani. Their new CD Taos on the independent Buda Musique label is far from world music's madding groove - sample below.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Why do we all need to be somebody special?

Our reaching out for singularity these days is not unexpected, given that social media bombards us with opportunities to acquire the latest product or the swiftest device to put us out in front of the crowd. Our jobs are sometimes less about intrinsic value or usefulness than position and status and salary. To be special is to be safe—from criticism, from dismissal.

Certainly we are indispensable to our children. And then when they grow up and leave, some of us feel a great emptiness. In our jobs and professions we have the experience of being special to a number of people. And much of our identity and sense of ourselves depends on that relationship. If we stop working, we find out how much we have depended on being so important to others.

But there’s another, not so obvious, dimension of being special: being distinguished in our misfortune or our misery. A victim is somebody special. I’m so unlucky, I’m so very ill, I have so much pain, that person really did me wrong and hurt me so much. Any one of these assertions may be true, but when we begin to build our identity on it, we’re in trouble. For instance, we can let a difficult childhood define our lives and control how we relate to others long after we have grown up. My suffering is unique. I had the worst childhood of anyone...

We share the physical elements and so much else with other beings; our lives are dependent on the conditions prevailing in our environment. This is being nobody special. How do we recognize and surrender to this without thought of image, achievement, comparison? Maurine Stuart advised, “All the simple, ordinary, everyday things we do—walking, cleaning, sitting—are ways to deeply penetrate this.”
Those extracts are from an article by Sandy Boucher in the Buddhist Tricycle magazine. That lady happily doing the everyday task of cleaning was photographed by me near the Tibetan Buddhist Thiksey monastery in Ladakh. It is very obvious that the music industry in particular and the world in general would be a much better place if everybody stopped trying to be special and instead focussed on simple, ordinary, everyday things. Sorry to upset people I'm linked to; but being told on Facebook that you are in the Emirates lounge at Heathrow doesn't impress me at all. It just leaves me wondering what you are over-compensating for.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Music of another era

Writing an earlier post The art of the classical maverick prompted me to listen again to David Munrow's 3 LP box Music of the Gothic Era recorded for Deutsche Grammophon shortly before he took his own life in 1976. What is immediately striking is how fundamentally different these performances of Leonin, Pérotin and their contemporaries are to today's approved 'authentic' interpretations. Amazon reviewers reprimand Munrow for being 'dated', for 'overblown instrumentation', for using 'bells, fiddles, lute, bandora, psaltery, harp, organ, percussion, cornetts, recorder and shawms', and for having 'the mindset that everything must be accompanied by some mentalist walloping away like mad on the tabor and a cacophony of other instruments'. Yet David Munrow attracted radio and television audiences and generated record sales that today's classical industry would die for. Isn't there are a lesson to be learnt here?

In an earlier post I wrote about how the pendulum has now swung too far in the direction of the classical fundamentalists who dictate via the mob-throb of social media not only what we listen to, but who plays it and how it is performed. Another dissenting post suggested that new classical audiences want more bang for their bucks and it seems that David Munrow's mentalist walloping away on his tabor delivered what new audiences wanted back in the 1970s. Aren't authentic performances just another silly convention? Does it really matter what the classical fundamentalists think when politically incorrect Machaut and other aberations such as big band Bach contributed to an Indian summer of recorded classical music. Since then the promised digital long tail has turned into a long wail for the demise of the maverick. The blandness of our algorithmic age is evidenced perfectly by how Universal Classics ditched that stunning 1976 LP artwork seen above for the anodyne CD packaging below.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

Perfect book for the White House nightstand

Recording and book of the year listicles don't do it for me. But one of my book highlights of 2017 demands a heads up. Don't Panic I'm Islamic was commissioned in response to the US travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. Subtitled 'Words and pictures on how to stop worrying and learn to love the alien next door', it includes cartoons, graffiti, photography, colouring in pages, memoir, short stories and more by 34 contributors from around the world.

All too often this kind of book struggles to rise above juvenile humour, but this is most definitely not the case with Don't Panic I'm Islamic. Razor sharp humour is combined with cutting edge graphics and commendable design flair. Two of the graphics are reproduced here. Muslim Panik above is the work of Shadi Alzaqzouq, while Nikee Rider below is by the 'Andy Warhol of Marrakech' Hassan Hajjaj. Don't Panic I'm Islamic is published by London-based independent publishing house Saqi Books with support from Arts Council England. Saqi is a recipient of the British Book Industry Award for Diversity in Literature and its authors include Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Nawal El Saadawi, Samih al-Qasim, Mohamed Choukri and Ghazi Al Gosaibi. It's a book definitely worth a tweet or three.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

The art of the classical maverick

In preparation for returning again to Papal Provence I have revisited David Munrow's 1973 three LP set The Art of Courtly Love. With so much soul-searching about how classical music can reach a new young audience it is worth remembering that David Munrow's BBC Radio 3 Pied Piper programme was broadcast four times a week for five years and introduced a huge audience to the riches of early music. He also presented the TV series Ancestral Voices, a title described as sounding like the greatest Led Zeppelin album never recorded; which may help explain why Munrow's popularity peaked in the early 1970s, when the young and alternative dominated the zeitgeist.

David Munrow was truly multi-talented, and much of his appeal came from his advocacy of composers such as Guillaume de Machaut, Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay, who were totally unknown and alien in style to the wider public in the 1970s. Today Simon Rattle, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Gustavo Dudamel are undoubtedly immensely talented conductors, but they are also essentially single-dimensional musicians whose reputations rest on superior interpretations of familiar mainstream repertoire. David Munrow scorned building better mousetraps from familiar repertoire, instead he reached a huge new audience by literally playing the role of music maverick. There is more on mavericks, technologists and other agents of change in my interview with David Munrow's mentor and recording producer Christopher Bishop, which can be read via this link or heard on SoundCloud.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Forget what you thought you knew about classical concerts

My recent post lamenting the shortage in classical music of mavericks, technologists and other agents of change attracted fewer readers than the joke post about Norman Lebrecht precededing it. Which I guess proves my point. But I don't give up that easily, so I am now returning to the subject of technology and agents of change. In my article I said that classical music desperately needs radical projects that capitalise on the opportunities offered by digital technologies to engage new audiences. So this post provides a heads up to a project that does just that, but which has received very little recognition. Here is the description from the University of Salford website:
Forget what you thought you knew about orchestral concerts; this new and innovative series requests that you DO turn on your mobile phones and tablets.
The BBC Philharmonic, in partnership with the University of Salford, will be exploring new and rarely performed pieces – bringing audience immersion and new technology to the forefront.
The sessions will be featured in an enhanced live stream on the orchestra’s website, which enables the audience to explore the orchestra, receive synced information about the music and even view a live orchestral score.
Bring your devices and help us explore a new way of experiencing an orchestra.
The header screenshot showing Red Brick Session real time content comes from an excellent review of the project by cellist Daria Fussi. The BBC Philharmonic Red Brick Sessions started in autumn 2016 and are commendable both because they explore the opportunity offered by new technologies without cringe-inducing dumbing down, and because they feature an eclectic range of composers including Ligeti, Sciarrino, Adès and Schoenberg. This is a BBC project for heaven's sake. If classical music really wants a new, young, technology literate audience why isn't it being rolled out to the Proms instead of Rodgers and Hammerstein?

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

When will we reach the Tippett point?

Discussions of neglected symphonists invariably neglect to mention Michael Tippett. So it is good to see that Hyperion are releasing Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Tippett's First and Second Symphonies - sample here - as the first instalment of a Tippett symphony cycle. Excellent accounts by Colin Davis and Richard Hickox failed to persuade the wider audience of the indisputable merit of Tippett's symphonies, so it will be interesting to see how the new Hyperion release fares. The problem is that unfamiliar works such as these require repeated concert hall outings to engage audiences, not the one-off pseudo-event treatment that is now standard for non-mainstream repertoire. To treat Tippett and his neglected peers as more than a solitary freak show requires courage and commitment from conductor, orchestra and promoter. So I'm not holding my breath.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

Classical music does not need better mousetraps

There are longstanding overlaps between classical music and Buddhism. Wagner's study of Buddhism is confirmed by his short prose sketch for a Buddhist themed opera titled Die Sieger (The Victors), a theme developed by Jonathan Harvey in his opera Wagner Dream. Jonathan Harvey is one of a number of contemporary composers influenced by Buddhism and his Weltethos was premiered by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic*. Iconoclast Claude Vivier's masterwork is arguably his Siddhartha for orchestra in eight groups, while Philip Glass, whose style has impacted well beyond classical music, is a Tibetan Buddhist adept and composed the score for the film Kundun which portrays the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama. Most famously John Cage, who was a major influence on both 20th century music and culture, is closely linked to Zen Buddhism.

At the heart of Buddhism is the acceptance of impermanence. This is the concept that reality is never constant and everything is in constant flux, or as the 14th century Zen poet Ikkyū put it "Only impermanence lasts". Given the significant overlap with Buddhism it is puzzling that classical music has not only failed to accept the veracity of impermanence, but proactively perpetuates the reality of the 19th century concert format. This blog has been one of the most outspoken voices against the sillier big new ideas propounded by the 'classical music must change or die' gurus. But increasingly I am thinking that the pendulum has now swung too far the other way, a perception reinforced by the emergence of classical fundamentalists committed to preserving the stultifying status quo.

Society and culture are impermanent and the past two decades have seen seismic shifts in consumer behaviour and tastes. These shifts have caused dramatic changes in the way music is consumed, yet the concert hall and the classical concert format have undergone only minor cosmetic change since the 19th century. Projects such as the Elbphilharmonie, the proposed new London concert hall and the endless Mahler symphonies are just better mousetraps created in defiance of impermanence. The problem is that, whether we like it or not, the musical mouse population has genetically mutated into a new and radically different super rodent that resists the bait used in the old traps. I am only too aware it is very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But is there any institution other than the classical concert that has so doggedly resisted change since digital technologies profoundly reshaped consumer behaviour? Yes there is - the established church, and look what is happening to its attendances.

Compounding the problem is the music industry's minimal understanding of what makes these new mutated rodents tick or what bait attracts them. Which is why so much money is wasted on better mousetraps and cheese. Classical music doesn't need expensive new halls and dumbed down old-style concerts. It desperately needs radical projects that capitalise on the opportunities offered by new technologies to engage the new super rodent audience. The 2018 Association of British Orchestras Conference has as its theme 'Collaboration', Classic FM as principal media partner, a Musicians' Union official as keynote speaker, and an agenda lacking even a single mention of technology. Which neatly sums up the desperate shortage in classical music of mavericks, technologists and other agents of change.

~ More on radical projects that capitalise on the opportunities offered by new technologies in Forget what you thought you knew about classical concerts ~

* Either the BPO premiere of Weltethos or the subsequent CBSO London performance, both of which were recorded, demand to be released as a commercial recording to fill an important gap in the Jonathan Harvey discography. 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).

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Friday, December 01, 2017

Turn on, tune in, and...... 'like' on Facebook

Over time, we create a mental model of the real world that is strongly influenced by our beliefs, prejudices and experiences, and our model will differ from that of other people in far greater ways than is usually accepted. The world that we consciously inhabit increasingly resembles our own 'world view'. Should an optimistic person walk down a street, for example, they would be inclined to register happy couples, pleasant weather or playing children. A cynical person walking down exactly the same street might completely miss those details, and see instead the homeless population and the graffiti. Of course, the street itself hasn't changed between the two observations, but this is almost irrelevant, as no one is aware of the 'true' street in its entirety. The same principle applies to every aspect of life, from the mechanism that decides which news stories grab your attention, to the personal qualities in others that you respond to or overlook. The result of this is that the 'world' in which we live is not an objective, distinct environment, but a model constructed in our own image. In the words of Alan Watts, the influential writer on Eastern religions, 'Reality is only a Rorsach ink-blot'. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, 'People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is a confession of character'.

[Timothy] Leary called these personal mental models 'reality tunnels'. Each person lives in a different reality tunnel from everyone else, and is personally responsible for constructing their own existential reality. To be truly 'free' it is necessary to recognise this for, in the words of the Discordians, 'Whatever you believe imprisons you. Convictions create convicts'. This is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is profoundly important in understanding both Leary and his influence. It is the concept that explains the post-modern move away from the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, which viewed reality as an absolute that could be understood through rational inquiry. Enlightenment thinkers assumed that everyone operates in the same reality, but that, Leary believed, was just not true on a practical level. Concepts, relationships and events were now relative, and could only really be understood when analyzed alongside the reality tunnels that created them.
That account of Timothy Leary's foretelling of social media with its reality tunnels, filter bubbles, selective algorithms and multiple realities comes from I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs. Leary, who immortalised the phrase 'Turn on, tune in, drop out', went on to write Chaos and Cyberculture which predicted that 'The PC is the LSD of the Nineties'. Many of us who came of age in the 1960s were influenced by the Moody Blues' In Search of the Lost Chord album with its track Legend of a Mind eulogising Timothy Leary. In 1972 Leary recorded the space rock album Seven Up with 'krautrock' band Ash Ra Tempel and also discussed working with the Moody Blues. But extradition back to America and a subsequent jail term intervened. In his biography John Higgs recounts how, while Leary was in solitary confinement in Sandstone Federal prison in Minnesota, he could hear someone walking up and down outside his window all night repeatedly singing Legend of a Mind with its refrain 'Timothy Leary's dead/No, no, no, no, He's outside looking in'.

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