Monday, November 11, 2019

Late night thoughts on listening to my latest CD purchases


Over the past 50 years I have been privileged to hear some truly great musicians in concert. I was also fortunate to work for one of the great classical labels towards the end of the industry's Indian summer in the 1970s. And I have an alarmingly large collection of classical LPs and CDs and listen to more classical music on a daily basis than most people. But when I look back at the many CDs I have bought in recent months* I find just one that fits into the classical category, and even that - the Kronos Quartet's disc of Terry Riley's Sun Rings - sits on the margins.

I don't expect for a minute that the classical industry's great and good will be losing any sleep over this trend in my music purchases; however I think it worthwhile devoting a post to the subject. But before doing that, let me dispose of the argument that I am not a typical classical customer. No, of course I am not a typical classical customer. For the simple reason that the concept of a typical classical listener is a convenient myth created by marketing gurus. As pointed out in an earlier post, the classical audience is richly diverse and constantly changing. Day by day listeners come to classical music, for varying reasons and from different age groups, and each day listeners also depart the art form for different reasons. The classical audience is not monolithic, and it is not 'old' or 'new': it is a highly granular conglomeration of listeners with slightly varying but complexly overlapping tastes. Which means, as another post pointed out, my music is not your music. Now, if you are still with me, let me share with you my recent listening.

Ahmad Jamal is one of my pianistic heroes and his latest album Ballades confirms that status. Exquisite solo playing backed by string bass on just three of the tracks proves conclusively that less is more, particularly when captured with impressively full-bodied piano tone. I feel very comfortable with the way that in jazz it is the music that matters, and the colour of the musician is subordinate to the music they make. On An Overgrown Path was a very early voice calling for musicians of colour to take their rightful place in classical music. I still feel passionately that much more needs to be done to correct imbalances in both ethnicity and gender. But I am also very uncomfortable with the way that ethnicity and gender have been hijacked and used to hype classical music's next big things. Classical music's virtue signalling is now so loud that I simply can't hear these next big things. So instead I buy Ahmad Jamal CDs.

Fazal Inayat-Khan was a maverick late-20th century psychotherapist and Sufi teacher. He taught that old thinking explains, new thinking demonstrates; old thinking puzzles things out, new thinking flashes with intuition; old thinking is the tortoise while new thinking the hare. Rather than reject one for the other, the truly happy person dances between them. For me classical music is becoming increasingly reactionary and falling back more and more on old thinking. Is it possible to turn on BBC Radio 3 without hearing yet another performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony? Where are those essential flashes of intuition? Where is the vital the counter-intuitive 'crazy wisdom' advocated by Padmasambhava and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche? Where is the new thinking that created the Paris premiere of the Rite of Spring? All gone - replaced by the dubious wisdom of the social media crowd.



Thankfully that crazy wisdom can still be found in other genres. I recently postulated that classical music can learn from a trance DJ, and I have been finding much food for thought on the fringes of what can loosely be termed psytrance. (Classical music obsessives should not forget that Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique was one of the first examples of psytrance.) Since 1979 Suns of Arqa have danced between old and new thinking. They are a World Music collective founded by Mancunian Michael Wadada, and since the group's formation more than 200 musicians from around the world have played and recorded with them. Michael Wadada's mission is to explore the infinite possibilities of fusing ancient Hindustani raga systems with styles ranging from Piobaireachd pipe music and Nyabinghi Rastafarian roots drumming to electro dub.

My recent purchases included Suns of Arqa's Kokoromochi first released in 2013. For this the band comprised the great Mumbian bamboo flute mastero Raghunath Seth, santoor player Dhevdhas Nair, Mick Ripsher on tabla, Aziz Zeria on tanpura, and Michael Wadada on bass. Beethoven it certainly isn't. But it is most definitely a powerful tool for that essential task that Alan Watts described as cleaning the ears of the musically educated. And anyway, there will be quite enough Beethoven elsewhere in the next year.

Sexism is, quite rightly, now unacceptable in classical music. But ageism is perfectly acceptable and, in fact, tacitly encouraged. Independent journalist Fiona Sturges illustrated this perfectly with her tweet "My column on the problem with classical music and how a large proportion of R[adio] 3’s audience should hurry up and die - independent.co.uk/arts-entertain..." Elsewhere there are disparaging comments about 'coachload[s] of pensioners' and for years it has been open season on classical's 'ageing audience'. In the classical world young is the new black. Which means all BBC Radio 3 presenters older than 40 should be worried about job security. And male BBC Radio 3 presenters over the age of 40 should be absolutely terrified about job security. (While on the subject of all things feminine, as a parent of a daughter and now a granddaughter, of course I abhor any form of abuse. But am I the only one to find the obsessive gloating elsewhere over every detail of classical abuse scandals rather unhealthy?)

By contrast with its classical cousin, jazz considers advanced age a virtue not a vice. Yes, I have to declare a vested interest. This post is being written days before entering my eighth decade in my present corporeal incarnation. Coincidentally, because it is only the music that matters, Ahmad Jamal is 89 and another of my jazz pianist heroes René Urtreger is 85. René Urtreger studied classical piano before making his reputation in the famous Club Saint-Germain on Paris' Left Bank with his Bud Powell influenced style. He has played with many jazz greats including Miles Davis, and recorded the soundtrack to Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Stairway to the Gallows) with Miles' band in 1957, and his later essays in post-bebop - notably Onirica - prove there is more than one ode to joy. A new CD transfer of early René Urtreger trio recordings from the 1950s is among my recent CD purchases and pleasures. And there is another important lesson for classical music to learn from René Urtreger: he attained the status of a demigod in the jazz pantheon without a Twitter account.

So those are just some late night listening thoughts. My world and my music are never the same, and my music is almost certainly not your music. But remember that in non-Euclidean geometry two parallel lines intersect in the infinite. Perhaps classical music's real problem is that it is stuck in the old thinking of Euclidean geometry.



* Streaming is not part of my listening regime, so CDs are an accurate reflection of my music purchases. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

3 comments:

Pliable said...

The distinctive artwork for Ahmad Jamal's Ballades CD can also teach classical music a thing or two. Compare it for instance with the 'Hey, we have a CD cover to fill - so let's knock something up quickly - graphic for the Kronos' Sun Rings release which benefits (?) from Warner/Nonesuch production budgets and art department - https://kronosquartet.bandcamp.com/album/terry-riley-sun-rings

Chris Isbell said...

Happy 60th birthday! :-)

Pliable said...

Many thanks indeed for that Chris. But you have made me realise my maths are wrong. Now corrected to eighth decade.....