Saturday, March 31, 2018

Power to the diverse people


The sleeve essay for Algerian Berber musician Houria Aïchi's new album Chants mystiques d'Algérie explains how "There's a word that Houria Aïchi tends to use frequently as she discusses her latest album: 'people'. However it's neither a political ploy nor the stance of a coyly learned musician. Indeed, her singing belongs very much to people..." My 2013 post about Houria Aïchi was headlined Where has all the diversity gone?. Five years later little has changed: we don't talk about people: we talk about female or male, Christian or Muslim, Western or Eastern, all viewed through the distorting prism of click bait.

It is not insignificant that my header photo of Houria Aïchi appeared on the website of the 2017 Festival Voix de Femmes [Festival of Women's Voices] in Liège, Belgium. The recently announced equality pledge by the BBC Proms, the Aldeburgh Festival and other high profile Western music festivals is much needed. But it is by no means the only game in town. Although judging by the media coverage you would think it was, and we haven't even had the media feeding frenzy of the 2018 Proms launch. Have you ever seen a mention by the cultural commentators of the Liège Festival Voix de Femmes? Have you ever seen a mention of Houria Aïchi? Have you ever seen a report of her brave concertising during the Algerian civil war which was precipitated by religious extremism? Where has all the diversity gone? And talking of diversity: as they say elsewhere, if you like the 1971 album Brian Jones Presents the Pan Pipes at Joujouka you will like Houria Aïchi' equally demiurgic Chants mystiques d'Algérie.




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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Make America musical

Trump's "Make America Great Again" finds its pre-echo, Diduck shows us, in the mid-nineteenth-century campaign to "Make America musical" - a campaign in which musical instrument design was inflected by a rising commercially oriented patriotism, Here, gathering ideological movements to foster American national character, infused with the Protestant ethic and ideas of the "Melting Pot," were routed through music as the burgeoning piano-manufacturing industry responded to the search for instruments by which to cultivate hard work, individualism and equal opportunity. Pianos, Diduck notes, "were the ideal musical machine for the job". The history that emerges then, is one that weaves between "cultures of claviocentrism," the industries and industrial bureaucracies that sprang up to support the triumph of the keyboard, and genealogies of musical automata and the methods of synchronization on which they depended.
That extract but not the photo comes from Georgina Born's introduction to Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the 20th Century by Ryan Diduck. This important book is far more than a history of MIDI technology, and its wider view on the impact of dominant technology platforms is very relevant to the genealogies of musical automata and methods of synchronization practised by YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and their peers.

Fortunately Donald and Melania are not alone in making America musical again. John McLaughlin Williams tells me that on April 7th his colleague James Blachly is conducting the first complete US performance of Ethel Smyth’s opera The Prison - more in this interview. A recent comment by Graeme explained that 'What irks me is that if Radio 3 really meant what they say about women composers, including commissioning 50% of new works, they should do a concert performance of The Wreckers, or another BIG piece, rather than just token bits and pieces of work'. The programme for the 2018 BBC Proms with added gender equality will be announced on April 19th, and James Blachly and his Johnstown Symphony Orchestra have set the bar for BIG pieces by women composers admirably high.

Header image is from Melania Trump's Facebook videos via CNN - be careful what you share on Facebook. 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, March 28, 2018

Winston Churchill 's surprising intimacy with Islam


Morocco was a favourite destination for Sir Winston Churchill's painting trips, and as discussed in a post yesterday he stayed at La Moumonia Hotel in Marrakech. What is striking when reviewing Churchill's Moroccan paintings is the preponderance of Islamic subjects. An example above is his 1948 painting of the Ben Youssef Mosque - famous for its madrasa - in Marrakech. Of course Morocco is a Muslim country rich in visual wonders, so Churchill's preoccupation with Islamic imagery may not be surprising. But there is another more tantalising explanation.

In a 1907 letter to Churchill his future sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie pleads: “Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalise, Pasha-like tendencies, I really have. If you come into contact with Islam your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do fight against it”. Surprisingly Churchill was a close friend of the the orientalist, and anti-imperialist Wilfrid S. Blunt who has been described as the "first Englishman to take up the lance for the Arabs": it is said that Churchill and Blunt together dressed in traditional Arab clothes in private. T.E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - was also close to Churchill and advised him during the post-First World War peace process.



This intimacy with Islam was not a passing fad of Churchill's early career. In October 1940, when Nazi bombing of London was at its peak, he approved plans to build a mosque in central London. His war cabinet allocated a budget of £100,000 and Churchill remained a staunch supporter of what became the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park. His love affair with Muslim Morocco continued throughout his life and he travelled outside Marrakech on painting expeditions: The view of the Ourika Valley above dates from 1948. When I visited this region recently I headlined my travelogue 'This is most definitely not health and safety territory'. What conditions were like for a traveller there almost seventy years ago is difficult to imagine.

Churchill's fascination with Islam is at variance with his reputation as a a die-hard imperialist and quasi-racist. There is doubtless truth in this reputation: in his 1899 book The River War about the Mahdists separatists in Sudan where he had fought, he famously attacked Islam using these words: "How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia [rabies] in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy", and he made similar controversial comments about Jews and Mahatma Gandhi.



The letter from Lady Gwendoline Bertie was discovered by Warren Dockter when researching his book Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East. In it Dr Dockter concludes that Churchill's fascination with Islam was “largely predicated on Victorian notions, which heavily romanticised the nomadic lifestyle and honour culture of the Bedouin tribes”. Although Churchill remained an Islamophile throughout his life, his closest engagement was in the Liberal phase early in his career - he switched his allegiance to the Liberal party in 1904. Sufism is the liberal strand of Islam and it is reported that Churchill was an admirer of Idries Shah's influential book The Sufis. His final painting trip to Morocco in 1958 took Churchill in 1958 to Tahanoute on the road from Marrakech to the Ourika Valley, where, possibly significantly, he painted the view of the shrine of the Sufi saint Sidi Mohammed el Kebir seen below. Churchill, may have been a die-hard imperialist. But, as the inscription over the shrine of the Sufi saint and flag bearer for the plurality of Islam Mevlânâ Rumi in Konya exhorts:

'Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come.'


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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Marrakech in the cool of the evening

Marrakech is a city of powerful experiences, where the sounds, sights and smells of North Africa assault every sense. But what happened next must have been, in the jargon of the day, truly mind-blowing. Nick and his friends went down for a meal in the smart French quarter of Marrakech. As they sat down they noticed the trademark floppy hat of celebrity photographer Cecil Beaton. With him were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Keith's girlfriend Anita Pallenberg and 'several other assorted Stones and hangers-on'... Richard Charkin says that Nick and his friends were astonished. They'd come over 1000 miles from home to immerse themselves in Moroccan culture, only to find themselves in a restaurant with the apostles of the counter culture... Fuelled by some cheap local wine, they told the rock-star party that they should hear their friend... And so it was that The Rolling Stones sat and listened as 18-year-old Nick Drake serenaded them with a selection of Dylan and Donovan covers.
That extract comes from Trevor Dann's Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake. Apocrypha about the antics of pop stars in Morocco abound - witness Hendrix's Castles Made of Sand. But despite that improbable reference to 'Fuelled by some cheap local wine...' - alcohol was unlikely to have been available in a Guelitz restaurant in strictly Muslim Morocco in 1967 - it is a fact that Nick Drake met the Stones in Marrakech.

The 5-star La Moumonia Hotel in Marrakech was a favourite hangout for the Stones, Cecil Beaton and other pop culture celebrities. Long before the swinging sixties the Moumonia was a favourite winter destination for Winston Churchill who wrote that “Marrakesh is simply the nicest place on Earth to spend an afternoon”. In 1943 during a break from the Casablanca Conference, which birthed the Allies' doctrine of 'unconditional surrender', Churchill took American president, Franklin D Roosevelt to visit Marrakech.

My header graphic provides another link between the Moumonia Hotel and a musician who pushed, and continues to push, beyond creative comfort zones. In 1992 African American jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston cut his solo disc Marrakech In The Cool Of The Evening in the basement of La Mamounia using one of the hotel's several grand pianos. The recording was made in tandem with a disc featuring Gnawa musicians from Marrakech on which Randy Weston joins them in a concluding piano improvisation. Both recordings were made directly onto 2-track digital tape using two dummy heads fitted with Blanchet microphones created by filmmaker Vincent Blanchet for location recording. Solo piano sound is probably the hardest to capture, and the piano tone on Marrakech In The Cool Of The Evening is among the best I have ever heard, and it is great jazz as well. The CD is deleted but copies are definitely worth seeking out*, as lossy audio files cannot do justice to the demonstration quality sound.

* The advertising for French cigarette brand Gitans dates the CD cover! 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.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Salt and vinegar or smokey bacon?


That photo was taken by my brother a few days ago at Yangon Central Railway Station in Myanmar. Before dismissing his headline as a nice throwaway line do follow this link.

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Friday, March 23, 2018

It is emotion that goes viral


Our blame culture means convenient scapegoats will be found for the latest social media debacle - take your pick from Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg, Alexander Nix, Aleksandr Kogan, Steve Barron and even Donald Trump. But when this appetite for scapegoats is satisfied, we will all return to posting our intimate personal data on Facebook; after, of course, tweaking a few privacy settings. What is puzzling about the Cambridge Analytica scandal is not that it happened, but how little interest there is in asking why 50 million people put their personal profiles at risk of being harvested.

Some of the answers can be found by studying content farm WittyFeed. Many readers will not even have heard of WittyFeed, so here is some background. It is an online media and viral content company based in Indore, India - co-founder and chief operating officer Parveen Singhal is seen in the graphic above. With an annual revenue of ₹50 crore ($705 million) WittyFeed is the world’s second largest viral content company after BuzzFeed as measured by traffic numbers. It is one of the top 200 websites in the world with 120 million unique visitors and more than 420 million monthly page views. Viral content spreads rapidly online through social sharing and website links, and WittyFeed's most celebrated success story 'What happens to your poop in an airplane toilet will leave you surprised' reached half a million page views within days of going viral. In India - a country with 1.3 billion people - WittyFeed's site traffic is greater than that of Twitter and Instagram. But that success is not limited to the sub-continent: America is WittyFeed's biggest market and contributes 40% of total site traffic.

WittyFeed's maxim of 'It's emotion that goes viral' is key to understanding why Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest personal and intimate information about 50 million people. Facebook alone has 2.2 billion monthly active users and the goal of every user of Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media platforms is virality. We want our stories to go viral. We crave approval in the form of likes, sharing and re-tweeting by lots and lots of people. And as the WittyFeed success story resoundingly proves, it's emotion that goes viral. So Facebook encourages us, no compels us, to share emotions by breaking down all the barriers between our private and public lives. Or as Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly explained rather more succinctly, on the internet vanity trumps privacy.

We live in a post-truth world. Snigdha Poonam's highly recommended book Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World takes the reader inside WittyFeed in a chapter titled The Click Baiters. In it Snigdha Poonam explains that WittyFeed content is approved not because of its news value, but by whether it appeals to base emotions. This principle also applies now both in traditional media, where every news source from the BBC to the Daily Mail is little more than a content farm, and also in social media. As we all know, a factual Facebook post describing being stuck in a traffic jam on the daily commute versus an emotion-jerking photo post of the baby playing with the cat is no contest. Viral is the holy grail and it is emotion that goes viral. So private lives are uploaded to Facebook, and will continue to be uploaded post Cambridge Analytica. This quote from WittyFeed's former director of content Lavanya Shrivastava shows how frighteningly important Facebook is in the viral marketplace:

'We control 1 million reach of Facebook alone through 50,000 pages as affiliates... They share our posts , we share revenue with them based on how many clicks they enabled. Ninety per cent of our traffic comes from Facebook.'
This thread has much relevance to an Overgrown Path's core interest of art music. Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog is a music content farm modelled on Buzzfeed and WittyFeed, and it obeys the post-truth rule that it is emotion and not facts that goes viral. Which explains why Slipped Disc is the most widely read art music blog globally: whatever else Norman gets wrong he does understand virality. In her book Snigdha Poonam writes about twenty-six year old DJ R.J. Shanky whose popular show Josh Factory is broadcast in Ranchi, India. She explains that, like the click baiters of WittyFeed, Shanky doesn't offer his audience of nearly a million listeners music and news, but the emotions with which to react: pride, relief, shame outrage etc. BBC Radio 3 has adopted this fashionable tactic of moderating emotions - 'that heart felt performance of Mahler's stirring First Symphony was passionately played by...' - but unfortunately without the success in winning audiences achieved by WittyFeed and R.J. Shanky.

The future of the post-truth and post-Cambridge Analytica world looks disturbing. As explained above, the second largest dedicated content farm in the world derives 90 per cent of its traffic from Facebook. My own very modest Overgrown Path blog declines to play the emotions game, yet in the past month 65.9% of its site traffic came via Facebook. So I may not play the emotions game; but if I do not play the Facebook game my readership dips below the point of viability. At a macro level Facebook virtually controls classical music through its news feed algorithms - an insidious technology that has disappeared from critical view due to the current preoccupation with profile harvesting. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg will suffer some minor damage from the Cambridge Analytica controversy. But all of us - yes, this post will be linked on social media - have created a monster that will simply shrug off the current attacks. My fear is that the Facebook monster will eventually eat us all.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Is this the greatest-ever woman musician?


Recent celebrations of women musicians as part of International Women's day started me musing on the question of who was the greatest-ever woman musician? There are many great contenders for the title, from Hildegard of Bingen to Maria Callas and Edith Piaf to Janis Joplin. It can be argued convincingly of course that debating greatest-ever rankings is meaningless as any such judgement is subjective and highly personal. But stay with me, as my nominated contender is particularly noteworthy because she is not the stereotypical white Judeo-Christian celebrity woman musician. Despite her ethnicity Om Kalthoum has a very strong claim on the title of greatest-ever woman musician. When she died in 1975 four million Egyptians attended her funeral, and the diva's recordings continue to sell around a million copies a year. Moreover, her claim to the greatest-ever title is not just based on popularity: among those who have acknowledged her influence are not only Maria Callas, but also Bob Dylan and Robert Plant.

Om Kalthoum was born in the Nile Delta in 1898*. Her father was an imam at the local mosque, and taught her to recite the Quran. Learning the art of tajweed - Quranic recitation - was an important part of her music education, as was her experience as a young munshida - Sufi chanter. Her huge popularity is explained not only by her magnetic stage presence and extraordinary vocal technique, but also by her unique repertoire. This overlays its sacred Sufi roots with popular appeal by using traditional Egyptian forces augmented by Western instruments including violins.

Above all Om Kalthoum was a performer and all her great recordings capture concert performances. But she was also an engaged artist whose songs spoke to political and humanitarian concerns, and as a result they remain very relevant today. Due to her high public profile she played an important role in the emerging Third World women's movement. She was also politically active, particularly following the overthrowing of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Although her songs were initially banned due to her connections with King Farouk's regime, after the Suez Crisis in 1956 her song Walla Aaman Ya Selahy (It Has Been a Long Time, Oh My Weapon) became Egypt’s national anthem and later the anthem of the federation of Egypt, Iraq and Syria (the United Arab Republic).



However the true measure of Om Kalthoum's greatness is her influence on other legendary musicians. Robert Plant has said: "When I first heard Om Kalthoum, it was a very important day for me, because it opened, it just enriched my life so much. Even though I hardly understand a word she's singing, because it's in Arabic, I had to take some of the effect it had on me and put it into the music". This effect is reflected in, for example, Led Zeppelin's 1975 classic Kashmir which uses Middle Eastern influenced backing and a vocal delivery in the style of Om Kalthoum. Another legendary musician who has publicly acknowledged Om Kalthoum's influence is Bob Dylan, and these two extracts from interviews are impressive testimonies to her greatness.
From Rolling Stone interview 1978
Bob Dylan: For some reason I've just thought of my favorite singer.
Jonathan Cott: Who is that?
BD: Om Kalthoum — the Egyptian woman who died a few years ago. She was my favorite.
JC: What did you like about her?
BD: It was her heart.
JC: Do you like dervish and Sufi singing, by the way?
BD: Yeah, that's where my singing really comes from . . .

From Playboy interview March 1978
Bob Dylan: I listen to foreign music, too. I like Middle Eastern music a whole lot.
Ron Rosenbaum: Such as?
BD: Om Kalthoum.
RB: Who is that?
BD: She was a great Egyptian singer. I first heard of her when I was in Jerusalem.
RB: She was an Egyptian singer who was popular in Jerusalem?
BD: I think she's popular all over the Middle East. In Israel, too. She does mostly love and prayer-type songs, with violin and-drum accompaniment. Her father chanted those prayers and I guess she was so good when she tried singing behind his back that he allowed her to sing professionally, and she's dead now but not forgotten. She's great. She really is. Really great.

Piracy means sales of legitimate recordings in Morocco are now virtually nil. When I was in Marrakech recently the Virgin store stocked just two groupings of CDs. One was Quaranic recitations, the other was recordings of Om Kalthoum. On offer was a lavish guilt-blocked 20 CD box of Om Kalthoum concert performances which originates from the Emirates and does not seem to be available outside the MENA (Middle East & North Africa region) region**. When I first spotted the boxed set I did not buy it: because, although I am a huge fan of Om Kalthoum, I suspected that 20 hours of her in concert might be a step too far. But I took the plunge and I am very glad I did. Despite their variable technical quality, every one of these concert recordings crackles with the electricity flowing between musician and audience, and I have returned to them time and time again.

Om Kalthoum's claim to being the greatest-ever women musician can be debated, but it is almost certain that her continuing huge popularity in the Middle East means she has sold more recordings than any other women musician. So in this time of rampant Islamophobia it is worth remembering that the best selling women musician is the Muslim Om Kalthoum and America's best-selling poet is the Muslim Rumi. Can you Trump that?



* Birth records were not kept in Egypt at the time so there is no definitive record of the date of Om Kalthoum's birth. An alternative date of May 4, 1904 is also sometimes used.
** Om Kalthou singing Enta Omri (You Are My Life) at a Paris concert can be viewed via this link, and a useful if flaky quality documentary on YouTube about her life narrated by Omar Sharif can be seen via this link.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Assume all technology guilty until proven innocent

1. Since most of what we are told about new technology comes from its proponents, be deeply skeptical of all claims.

2. Assume all technology 'guilty until proven innocent'.

3. Eshew the idea that technology is neutral or 'value free'. Every technology has inherent and identifiable social, political, and environmental consequences.

4. The fact that technology has a natural flash and appeal is meaningless. Negative attributes are slow to emerge.

5. Never judge a technology by the way it benefits you personally. Seek a holistic view of its impacts. The operative question in not whether it benefits you, but who benefits most? And to what end?

6. Keep in mind that an individual technology is only one piece of a larger web of technologies, 'megatechnology'. The operative question here is how the individual technology fits the larger one.

7. Make distinctions between technologies that primarily serve the individual or small community and those that operate on a scale outside of community control. The latter is the major problem of the day.

8. When it is argued that the benefits of the technological lifestyle are worthwhile despite harmful outcomes, recall that Lewis Mumford referred to these alleged benefits as 'bribery'.

9. Do not accept the homily that 'once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back', or that rejecting a technology is impossible. Such attitudes induce passivity and confirm victimization.

10. In thinking about technology within the present climate of technological worship, emphasize the negative. This brings balance. Negativity is positive.
That ten point checklist was compiled by Jerry Mander for his book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations and first appeared on An Overgrown Path in 2014. In the Absence of the Sacred was published back in 1991 when the digital age was just dawning. But, if anything, the checklist is even more relevant today - and I mean today.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

We are alive and we don’t agree


My current reading includes the newly-published The Turkish Psychedelic Music Explosion: Anadolu Psych 1965-1980 by Daniel Spicer. This is thought-provoking, as is the declaration of intent from its publisher:
Repeater Books is dedicated to the creation of a new reality. The landscape of twenty-first-century arts and letters is faded and inert, riven by fashionable cynicism, egotistical self-reference and a nostalgia for the recent past. Repeater intends to add its voice to those movements that wish to enter history and assert control over its currents, gathering together scattered and isolated voices with those who have already called for an escape from Capitalist Realism. Our desire is to publish in every sphere and genre, combining vigorous dissent and a pragmatic willingness to succeed where messianic abstraction and quiescent co-option have stalled: abstention is not an option: we are alive and we don’t agree.
Repeater Books is a new imprint of Watkins Media, a collective of niche businesses which includes that cornucopia of esoterica Watkins Bookshop in Cecil Court, London. Those with a post-social media attention span can listen to Daniel Spicer's substantial Turkish psych compilation via this link, while another Repeater title Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the Twentieth Century is a welcome alternative to the doctrinaire music narratives elsewhere.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Why your James Levine recordings should not be junked


On Facebook composer and conductor Kevin Scott asks will James Levine's recorded legacy become worthless? Will the record companies no longer issue his recordings? It is not a question I can answer; but the following allegory may be relevant. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was first revealed by the great Vajrayana practitioner Karma Lingpa as the Bardo Thodol in the 13th century. The ancient mortuary text only achieved its current status as a spiritual classic following Western translation and interpretations in the 20th century, starting with Walter Evans-Wentz's translation in 1927. The best-selling interpretation of the Bardo Thodol is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by the French-domiciled Tibetan Dzogchen lama Sogyal Rinpoche, which has sold more than 3 million copies.

My 2002 edition of Sogyal Rinpoche's book*, which has an introduction by the Dalai Lama, is seen below. That copy is very well thumbed, because despite being based on an ancient mortuary text it offers much wisdom about contemporary living. Over the years I have returned again and again to Sogyal Rinpoche's interpretation. But over the same years it also emerged that, like James Levine, Sogyal Rinpoche was not the role model he should have been. In 1994 a civil lawsuit was filed against him alleging he used his position as a spiritual leader to induce a female student to have sex with him. Despite an out of court settlement allegations rumbled on and came to a head in 2017 when a letter from senior figures in the Buddhist Rigpa network founded by Sogyal Rinpoche was published citing more examples of abuse. The Dalai Lama distanced himself from the Dzogchen lama, saying: "Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend. Now he is disgraced". Following this condemnation the French Buddhist Union suspended the membership of Rigpa France, and Sogyal retired from his position as Rigpa'a spiritual director.

Given the bad karma accumulating around Sogyal Rinpoche I thought it expedient to shift my allegiance to another version of the Bardo Thodol. All recommendations pointed to Robert Thurmans's 1994 translation. His Tibetan Book of the Dead is more scholarly in execution and in music terms more faithful to the score. But, despite having much to offer, for me it remains is a forensic exposition of a 13th century Tibetan text, whereas Sogyal Rinpoche's vivication speaks directly to our present predicament. Sogyal's interpretation may date from 1988, but its perennial wisdom has a painful relevance in our social media-obsessed age, as this extract illustrates:

Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity, but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our "biography", our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards... It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?

Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn't that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?
Robert Thurman's metaphysically-correct and baggage-free** version of the Bardo Thodol sits on a shelf alongside my other valued Tibetan Buddhism books, while the vibrant version by the disgraced Sogyal Rinpoche stays by my side and is frequently consulted. So, based on that admittedly tangential experience, my advice to Kevin Scott and other is that, abhorrent though James Levine's alleged misdemeamours may be, don't junk his recordings.


* Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey. (The unrelated Jonathan Harvey set Andrew Harvey's reimagining of Rumi's verse in How could the soul not take flight [1996] and Ashes dance back [1997]). Retrospective rethinking within Buddhist circles now, possibly conveniently, emphasises the contribution of the two editors at the expense of Sogyal Rinpoche. A useful account by Patrick Gaffney from 2012 of the creative process sheds light on the relative contributions.

** Actually not quite baggage free.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Carbon neutral classical music has arrived


In a recent post I wrote 'Of course orchestras need to tour; but to my knowledge there have been no attempts within classical music to recognise this environmental impact by, for example, introducing carbon offsets'. Now Paul von Wichert - host on Winnepeg's Classic 107 - has pointed out amicably that I am wrong. Because the Italian ZEBO - Zero Emission Baroque Orchestra - seen above is setting an example by taking a responsible attitude towards classical music's environmental impact. Here is an explanation of their attitude from the orchestra's website:
Now more than ever, in a world grounded on consumerism and waste, it's important to work in an alternative way designed to respect, care and preservation of the environment that should be able to sustain ourselves for a long time.
What's the relationship between this concept and music?
This question is the driving force of our project: a professional orchestra that can work with zero emission.
Zero emission will be our identity and our strong point and we want to show that a cultural activity may be a vehicle of an ethical message.
If you consider culture as personal baggage and social heritage, connected to the relationship between individual and surrounding environment, orchestra public performance can become such a refined and incisive vehicle to expand as much as possible these ideals.
ZEBO wants to join a worldwide movement seeking to achieve a balance between human activity and ecosystem, so much in defence of the culture that is our soul and nature that is our home, food and oxygen demonstrating with its job that you can work without destroying...
All the CO2 emissions produced to create the events will be offset by ZEBO by equivalent reforestation funding...ZEBO cooperate with Climate Action Network and Myclimate for equivalent reforestation fulfillment.
These agencies provide to foreseen amount to be designated to reforestation for every production and performance. For example amount set aside for every concert that take place within 200 to 800 km from Milan or for production of CDs. [ZEBO records for Brilliant Classics].
It is a sign of our doctrinaire times that news of the abolition of all-male concerts at a London music school goes viral on social media and makes the national press, while a carbon neutral orchestra remains classical music's best-kept secret. Similarly, it is very fashionable to lambast President Trump for his cavalier attitude to the environment, but it is deeply unfashionable to question the cavalier attitude of classical music towards the environment. As my recent post asserted, dangerous thinking has been abroad in classical music for years, namely that its role as a priceless form of high art licenses unacceptable behaviour. The ZEBO orchestra is showing how cultural activities can be be vehicles for diverse ethical messages. ZEBO's more illustrious peers in the orchestral world should follow their example. Now experience the sound of zero emission baroque music in this video.



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Friday, March 16, 2018

Leaders destroy followers and followers destroy leaders


'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
Articles from which graphics are taken can be read via this link (Newsweek) and this one (National Review). 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, March 15, 2018

Classical music cannot gloss over its victimless crimes


Quite rightly the shockwaves from recent abuse scandals are reverberating through classical music. These shameful scandals, which have done untold damage to classical music's image, were ticking time bombs that too many people in the know chose to ignore. What is worrying is there are other time bombs that are being glossed over, but which may soon explode causing yet more damage. Dangerous thinking has been abroad in classical music for years, namely that its role as a priceless form of high art licenses unacceptable behaviour. It is this dangerous thinking that resulted in the misdemeanours of several celebrity conductors being glossed over for decades, and it is the same thinking that allows other less emotionally traumatising but still highly questionable behaviour to be glossed over.

One vulnerability that is all too frequently ignored is the lamentable human rights records of regimes that classical music is consorting with. The United Arab Emirates is one of the new 'go to' destinations for touring orchestras. To dismiss classical music's active participation in the ethical whitewashing of the United Arab Emirates as victimless and abuse-free is factually incorrect. A Hindustani Times article reports that at least 450 Indian migrant workers have died on Dubai construction sites alone since 2014 as a result of unacceptably dangerous working conditions, and that situation is mirrored in many other Gulf States. Dubai provides a striking example of classical music's hypocrisy. To much fanfare it was recently announced that the BBC Proms and other leading classical festivals have pledged a laudable 50/50 gender split in their lineups by 2022. But just one year earlier the BBC had launched with equally loud fanfare the inaugural BBC Proms Dubai . Let's ignore, if indeed we can, the maltreatment of migrant workers in Dubai, not to mention the persecution of homosexuals. Instead let's join up the dots and link the BBC' posturing on gender equality with women's rights in the home of the BBC Proms Dubai.

The UAE penal code retains elements of Sharia law, notably in the Sharia-based Personal Status Law covering marriage, divorce and succession. Human Rights Watch reports that "Federal law No. 28 [(Personal Status Law] of 2005 regulates matters of personal status in the UAE, and some of its provisions discriminate against women. For instance, the law provides that, for a woman to marry, her male guardian must conclude her marriage contract; men have the right to unilaterally divorce their wives, whereas a woman who wishes to divorce her husband must apply for a court order; a woman can lose her right to maintenance if, for example, she refuses to have sexual relations with her husband without a lawful excuse; and women are required to “obey” their husbands. A woman may be considered disobedient, with few exceptions, if she decides to work without her husband’s consent. In 2010, the Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling—citing the penal code—that sanctions husbands’ beating and inflicting other forms of punishment or coercion on their wives, provided they do not leave physical marks".



A refusal to acknowledge the very real problem of climate change is another of classical music's vulnerabilities. The Far East, and China in particular, is another new 'go to' destination for orchestras. The aviation industry depends entirely on fossil fuel and consumes a staggering 5 million barrels of oil every day; that is 2.5% of total carbon emissions. A plane flying from Europe to the Far East and back generates 4.5 tonnes of carbon, which compares with average per capita emissions globally of around 1 tonne. A 2010 study by the University of Surrey reported that the UK music industry's activities generate around 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions. Audience travel accounts for 43% of those greenhouse-gases, live venue music events accounted for 23%, and music recording and publishing 26%. Of course orchestras need to tour; but to my knowledge there have been no attempts within classical music to recognise this environmental impact by, for example, introducing carbon offsets.

Vulnerabilities converge in the press release below. The New York Philharmonic's official airline and sponsor Emirates is part of the Emirates Group domiciled in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Its chairman is Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum who is chairman of the Dubai Supreme Fiscal Committee, second vice chairman of the Dubai Executive Council and closely related to the Dubai royal family. Dubai is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Human Rights Watch states that "The United Arab Emirates (UAE) arbitrarily detains and in some cases forcibly disappears individuals who criticize the authorities. The UAE plays a leading role in the Saudi-led coalition which has carried out scores of unlawful attacks in Yemen, some likely war crimes. The UAE was implicated in detainee abuse at home and abroad... The UAE has denied activists and international human rights organizations’ access".

While pursuing this thread it is worth pointing out that in 2011 the chairman of the New York Philharmonic's official airline Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum was involved in a high profile paternity court case. The Telegraph reports he denied being married in a secret ceremony at his Knightsbridge flat and having a son with his partner/wife, claiming she was nothing more than a "courtesan" and an "irregular" sexual partner. The Emirati tycoon, whose net worth is £19 billion, reportedly only accepted the child was his after taking a paternity test using the alias 'Robert Smith'.

The marginalisation of women in Dubai and elsewhere in the UAE is undoubtedly far worse that the lamentable marginalisation of women in Western classical music. And returning to that gender equality pledge, how many orchestras welcomed with open arms at the BBC Proms between now and 2020 will also have strutted their stuff in the UAE where wife beating is sanctioned? How many others will join Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Riccardo Muti, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and Jordi Savall in accepting thirty pieces of silver from Abu Dhabi and other tarnished regimes? How many more feel-good press releases are we expected to swallow without questioning what celebrity musicians do 4500 miles from the Albert Hall?

In conclusion I will say goodbye to any remaining slim chance of 'likes' and re-tweets and raise concerns about the misuse of the gender equality ticket for click bait-friendly ethical whitewashing, as in the example of the BBC Proms cited above. This blog was one of the very first to raise the problem of gender inequality, ironically in an article about the lack of women composers in the 2006 Proms season. Great work has been done to eliminate gender inequality and much work still needs to be done; but classical music must beware of single issue fanaticism. Gender inequality must be eradicated, but so must a number of other ethical malpractices including ethnic discrimination, and cosying up to ethically-compromised regimes and ethically-compromised corporations. Tackling gender inequality is just one component in building a truly diverse and ethical classical music; it is not the only component.



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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My life in Rabindranath Tagore's words

'India has two aspects - in one she is the householder, in the other a wandering ascetic. The former refuses to budge from the cosy nook, the latter has no home at all. I find both of these within me. I want to roam about and see all the wide world, yet I also yearn for a sheltered little nook, like a bird with its tiny nest for a dwelling and the vast sky for flight' - Rabindranath Tagore My Life in My Words
That is a standard of the Chisti Sufi Order in my photo. It was taken in the dargah (shrine) of the Chisti saint Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya in the old Muslim quarter of Delhi. One of the most revered Sufi saints, Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325) was responsible for the Chishti Sufi Order spreading through India, and was the spiritual master of Amir Khusro (1253–1325). Khusro is regarded as the father of qawwali, which is still performed every Thursday evening in the dargah. The scourge of Partition meant that qawwali migrated to Pakistan along with the majority of the sub-continent's Muslims, and qawwali is now regarded as a Pakistani tradition despite its origins in Delhi. My soundtrack is Jaadu (Magic), the celebration of Tagore's two faces of the sub-continent created by acclaimed qawwali Faiz Ali Faiz from Pakistan and French cultural gypsy Titi Robin. Sample their magic below:



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Monday, March 12, 2018

Wild facts with no stall or pigeon-hole


That photo was taken by me recently in Turkish-occupied North Nicosia. There are strong historic links between Sufism and Cyprus due to the close proximity of Turkey. The dergah of the Naqshbandis - an order that has made numerous appearances on An Overgrown Path - is in Lefke in North Cyprus, while the Mevlevi Order of the followers of Rumi came to the island in 1571 when the Ottoman Empire conquered the island. In the heyday of Ottoman occupation there were thirty-six Mevlevi lodges in Cyprus, but these have now all fallen into disuse or disappeared. However the Mevlevi Museum at the Kyrenia Gate in Nicosia keeps the Sufi flame burning, and committed adepts such as the one above keep the tradition alive without devaluing it to a mere folkloric spectacle.

Too often Rumi's poetry is reduced to a transcultural blancmange targeted at the lucrative self-help market. Just one example of this is Deepak Chopra's The Love Poems of Rumi. In his introduction the new age guru confesses that the poems are not faithful translations but “‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi”. As well as conveniently writing out of the script its deep roots in Islam, reducing Rumi's verse to no more than mood poetry is contrary to his and Sufism's core message that humankind is not lost, but has just fallen asleep.

The purpose of the whirling ritual and other Sufi dhikr is to transform by awakening the adept from the sleep realm where the ego rules. This transformation is not a comfortable process, and Rumi's mentor Shams was a polarising figure who divided loyalties. This polarisation is captured very effectively in Michael Ellison's opera Say I Am You - Mevlâna. Michael Ellison splits his time between teaching composition at the University of Bristol and co-directing the Hezarfen Ensemble in Istanbul. Say I Am You - Mevlâna is one of a new generation of uncompromising 21st century operas that includes Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream. The scoring includes Western and Turkish instruments and the pivotal role of Shams is written for a mugam voice - the declamatory Azerbaijani vocal style.

Say I Am You - Mevlâna was premiered in June 2012 by VocaalLAB and the Hezarfen Ensemble in Rotterdam and Istanbul - see performance photo below showing video scenography - but has struggled to break through the first performance glass ceiling that constrains so much new music. You will not find it on Deepak Chopra's YouTube channel, and that absence is a very strong recommendation indeed. But you can hear the opera performed by the forces it was written for in an excellent recording on the Métier label, and substantial extracts are on SoundCloud and elsewhere on YouTube. The persistence of the whirling dervishes and the timeless power of Michael Ellison's opera serve to remind us of the truth expressed by William James in What Psychical Research Has Accomplished:

If there is anything which human history demonstrates, it is the extreme slowness with which the ordinary academic and critical mind acknowledges facts to exist which present themselves as wild facts with no stall or pigeon-hole, or as facts which threaten to break up the accepted system.

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Friday, March 09, 2018

Musical cat takes a bow


My belated contribution to International Women's Day is this priceless photo by Manolis Mathioudakis of contemporary modal music exponent Kelly Thoma. Not only is Kelly a remarkable musician, she is also a remarkable international woman who mixes playing Carnegie Hall with giving benefits for the street dogs of Heraklion on Crete where she lives. Hearing Kelly play an open air gig with her partner in life and music Ross Daly in a village among the foothills of Crete's White Mountains confirmed the assertion by another great woman Julian of Norwich that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Kelly has a wide-ranging discography of solo and ensemble performances; while of particular relevance to International Women's Day is her work with the all-female international folk string quartet Tokso - see video below.



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Thursday, March 08, 2018

I read the fake news today, oh boy


In his latest bragfest which is seen above, Norman Lebrecht perpetuates the falsehood that Google Analytics measures people - ie. human readers. What Google Analytics actually measures is website page hits, which is very different to human readers. A page hit is a measure of a connection between any online device and the Slipped Disc server. The online device may or may not be read by a human, and, as a previous post explained, a large proportion - an estimated 50% - of page hits are robots and not human eyeballs. Which means the real Slipped Disc readership is in all probability around half the claimed 164,188.

What I find puzzling and sad is that everyone professionally involved with social media - and that includes Norman Lebrecht who is certainly not stupid - knows that Google Analytics does not and cannot measure people. Lebrect could easily have explained in a simple sentence that Google Analytics need to be discounted by an estimated 50% to give a measure of human readers. This would give a figure of around 80,000 page hits by readers*.

That corrected daily readership of 80,000 is still impressively large: it is many times larger than On An Overgrown Path's readership and considerably larger I would guess than any other classical blog. Slipped Disc is, for better or worse, undoubtedly the most widely read classical blog. So why the need to knowingly overstate readership? Why the need to undermine the credibility of the whole classical blogging sector by peddling transparently fake news? Well, the answer to those two questions is provided by an influential journalist who wrote in the Evening Standard newspaper back in 2006 that "classical web-chat is opinion-rich and info-poor". And who was the influential journalist who wrote those wise words? It was Norman Lebrecht of course.

* But note that the 80,000 is an estimate of total hits by reader, not hits by unique readers; because the same reader often returns more than once to a website during a single day. So, once again, the claimed readership will be materially overstated. Talking of fake news, is not the same thing as unique readers.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Taking a walk on the wild side


That previously unpublished photo sequence was taken by me at the Kalachakra tantric empowerment in Ladakh in the disputed Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir. In the first photo the Dalai Lama is delivering his teaching from the dais. There is then a disturbance close to the platform - photo 2 - and His Holiness rises from his seat looking somewhat bemused, although his head of security on the extreme right looks rather more concerned. An oracle has entered into a violent trance and is trying to approach the dais. The wayward oracle is restrained - photo 3 - and then unceremoniously carted away - photo 4 - while the overturned floral decorations are sorted in the background. In the final photo the unruffled Dalai Lama is returning to the dais to continue the empowerment*.

Sharing these photos from 2014 was prompted by the arrival of a promotional piece from high-end speaker brand Bowers & Wilkins titled Sound Therapy #1: Does Music Relieve Stress? This is dotted with cool references including Spotify's Ambient Chill and Chill Lo-fi Study Beats, and Max Richter's nine hour Sleep - see footer photo to get a feel for the tone of the article. Max Richter's hymn to sleepwalking was given a heavily-spun airing by BBC Radio 3 in 2015, and since than Radio 3 has jumped on the 'slow radio' bandwagon - "immerse yourself: it’s time to go slow" - and is trying unsuccessfully to staunch its audience hemorrhage by also jumping on the playlist bandwagon.

This blog has been an active advocate of sound therapy. But it is a fundamental mistake to bracket sound therapy and sleep-inducement together. In his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead Robert Thurman explains that trance is the experience between dualistic consciousness and enlightened awareness. The unique power of great music is to transport the listener fleetingly from the world of quotidian triviality to an intermediate state - bardo - between consciousness and laser-like awareness. Meditation and relaxation have a role to play in trance; but the destination is heightened awareness, not soporific sleep. Achieving awareness is not always a comfortable experience, as the oracle in Ladakh found out. But study the Dalai Lama's face in my photos: he is engaged, but not disturbed. Because he understands that the journey to higher states of awareness does not respect comfort zones.

My photo sequence is a powerful study of how Tibetan Buddhism with its tantric rituals can be a walk on the wild side, as can the trance lila of the Moroccan Gnawa. Lama Yeshe taught that Buddhism is not a philosophy or religion but a study of your own mind; and there be dragons. Ambient Chill playlists and the other heavy baggage of the slow music movement kills those dragons. And slaying them also kills the very raison d'être of great music.



* Photos were taken on my venerable Canon SX150 compact digital camera. This is favoured because it is small and uses easily-obtainable AA batteries. But I did have the privilege of a press pass at the Kalachakra empowerement, which allowed me to get unusually close to the Dalai Lama. My thanks go to the Tashi Lhunpo UK Monastery Trust which arranged my press credentials. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.