Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Yes, I still listen to Mahler and Maconchy


These photos were taken by me at Chithurst Buddhist Monastery where we stopped over recently on the long journey from East Anglia to explore parts of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Chithurst is a Theravada Buddhist Monastery in the Thai Forest Tradition with a lineage that includes celebrated teachers such as Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedo. The Thai Forest School of Buddhism appeals because it predates the quasi-superstitious elements found in the higher profile Mahayana tradition. However the reformist nature of Theravada Buddhism means it eschews the exotic rituals found in Tibetan Buddhism and other Mahayana sects. As a result it has no tradition of sacred music such as that practised by the exiled Gyuto Monks of the Tibetan Gelug Buddhist Order.

The Gyuto Monks monks are celebrated for their extraordinary sound produced by overtone singing. In 1986 Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart recorded the Gyuto Monks for an album subtitled 'Tibetan Tantric Choir' for the Windham Hill label. The album was recorded in California using a state-of-the-art studio and the monks were overdubbed to emulate the sound of a full-sized monastic choir. Side 1 of the original album captured the monks singing unaccompanied. On side 2 instruments including a drum made from two human half-crania were added. The sound on the deleted vinyl original and CD transfer is still quite outstanding, catapulting listeners into a new sonic or spiritual world depending on their beliefs or non-beliefs.


Projects such as the the Gyuto Monks Tibetan Tantric Choir album are now a thing of the past, despite the limitless potential of digital technologies for recording and distribution. Today the arts worship at the altar of equality. It is quite right and proper that equality of gender, sexual orientation, faith etc is an urgent priority. But equality is devalued when the the level playing field that is created is peopled with bland and platitudinous players. Which is what is happening in the arts in general and classical music in particular. It is a big step forward to give women musicians their rightful place and to recognise all forms of sexual orientation. But not at the expense at the creative richness that brought us projects such as the Gyuto Monks from the far left - culturally not politically - of the playing field.

Yes, I still listen to Mahler and Maconchy. But among my rewarding recent reading was The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour. This expresses very eloquently the unappreciated danger of the level online playing field.
And because social media has created a panopticon effect, with anyone being potentially observed at any time, any person can suddenly be isolated and selected for demonstrative punishment. With online communities, this produces a strong pressure towards conformity with the values and mores of one's peers. The potential for anything posted on the internet is the entire internet. The only way to conform successfully on the internet is to be unutterably bland and platitudinous.

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