Sunday, June 25, 2006

Pogacnik - out of his box

“If you sit like an empty sack and expect to be entertained, you are lost to music. Music listening is supposed to be sweat, tears and blood. But the musical scene reflects entertainment today – everyone does everything to please the audience, to give them something they are familiar with, something they don’t have to work on. And all this goes back to the passive listening encouraged by recordings.”

Miha Pogacnik, interview with John Harvith and Susan Edwards Harvith, 14 January 1981, in Harvith and Harvith, ed. Edison, Musicians, and the Phonograph

Google violinist Miha Pogacnik and you won’t find a list of Amazon entries, record company sites or any other outlets for the numerous recordings that bolster the career of every other successful musician: he doesn’t even qualify for an entry in Wikipedia. You will however, find over 44 000 other references. Regardless of his abilities and appeal as a virtuoso violinist, Pogacnik has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the recording industry. Instead, as President of the Institute for Intercultural Relations Through the Arts (IDRIART) he’s carved out a reputation as a cultural iconoclast; somewhere between cultural entrepreneur and itinerant shaman.

IDRIART holds an annual conference in Pogacnik’s native Slovenia, at Castle Borl, which claims to have been the residence of Parsifal’s grandfather. The aim of the conferences, and of Pogacnik’s other activities, is to broaden the awareness of the power and significance of the arts in society.

“In 'indigenous' cultures there was no word for Art...because of her total presence in the wholeness of the societal organism. 'Progress' of the modern world has gradually marginalized Arts to entertainment. Now we have 'working' life and 'leisure' life. But, as crisis of meaning is mounting, we are learning to formulate questions about the true interdisciplinary, 'integrational' role of Art."


Following the aspirations of Josef Beuys who believed art to be "a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change”, Pogacnik targets the business world with the aim of using the arts as a means of developing business leaders’ emotional intelligence and as a creative force for peace and transformation. You can read some of the ideas here, and here, and there are a couple of rare video extracts of Pogacnik playing and speaking here.

And then you can book your experience here!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fête de la Musique

Celebrations throughout Europe during the next couple of days will vary from country to country but all are linked to some extent with the summer solstice or equinox. The Swedes set out to enjoy themselves on the 23rd in a typically Nordic fashion with phallic maypoles and as much Bacchanalian revelry as good Puritanism will allow. The Danes and Norwegians do something similar by lighting bonfires and burning the effigy of a witch.

The British, finding little to celebrate - having done with their seasonal ritualistic burning in November - blunder through midsummer more or less unaware, with the exception of a few druids and new-age pagans who attempt a pilgrimage to Stonehenge, only to be thwarted by the Somerset Police.

France, (as well as Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and others), celebrates midsummer’s eve with the Fête de la Musique, one colossal music festival featuring every imaginable musical genre; all free, thanks to the French government.

Organised concerts in churches, museums, cultural centres, jazz clubs, parks and gardens, courtyards and bars are matched by an equal number of spontaneous events taking place on just about every street corner. Each year the Orchestre Nationale de France gives a concert in the Musée du Louvre. This year it's Dvorak’s New World Symphony under the direction of Kurt Masur. Those not fortunate enough to be in the area can listen in live on Radio France Musique.

One of the most interesting world music attractions will be Iran’s Bakhtiari Band, a group of nomads from Farsan, Chaharmahal-o Bakhtiari Province in Northwestern Iran.

The Bakhtiari tribe who make their annual 200-mile trek from the high summer pastures to low winter pastures by crossing the 12,000 ft pass in the Zagros Mountains were the subject of the first ever feature length documentary film, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, made in 1925.

Monday, June 19, 2006

An Extraordinary Rendition

I await with interest the result of the (SNCF) French state railway’s appeal against the recent historic judgement condemning it for nazi collaboration during the Second World War by running trains of extraordinary rendition. Presumably we can expect a raft of similar claims following the alleged use of a number of privately owned charter jets for similar purposes more recently. Although the process of tracing many of the plane’s owners often collapses in an interminable paper chase, some planes are clearly registered to people or companies that do actually exist. The legal representative of the law firm, which according to the Boston Globe represents the owners of one such plane, was unfortunately

“not at liberty to discuss the affairs of the client business, mainly for reasons I don't know,"
which seems an oddly impenetrable excuse. Another, which according to the Daily Kos and the Boston Globe belonged to Phillip H. Morse, vice chairman of the Boston Red Sox, was also used by the CIA to fly to Guantanamo Bay and other overseas destinations.

I can only hope that those suffering the ignominy of illegal abduction were able to elicit some small pleasure from their luxurious mode of travel in the Gulfstream 5 before enduring years of torture and imprisonment without trial. Georges Lipietz and his associates were less fortunate in 1944: they were sent 3rd class and transported in cattle wagons.

Written evidence of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Axis of Idiocy

The General Director of Toronto’s new opera house, Richard Bradshaw, has made it quite clear that the Canadian Opera Company “didn’t want to build a compromise”. Unfortunately nothing suggests the uniform conformity of democratic decision making more powerfully than its utterly uninspiring moniker, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Anyhow, credit where credit’s due – the authorities have at least spent some effort and more than a little money trying to achieve the best possible acoustic result; or at least, to ensure that the hall is properly insulated against external noise, which is not quite the same thing.

Unfortunately for Mr Bradshaw, the design of modern concert auditoria is predicated on compromise. The old-fashioned shoebox shape is widely regarded as a classic design and the most likely to render the finest acoustic. But the problem with halls such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is that a few good seats command the ideal position consigning the rest of the audience to an evening of neck-craning and ear-straining.

The design (Soundspace Design, Fisher Dachs Associates) and construction (Diamond & Schmitt architects) has not met with unbridled enthusiasm. Christopher Hume writing in the Toronto Star describes a utilitarian construction designed by acousticians as “a machine for performing opera” continuing with some bitterness to condemn the hall’s architectural design as a mediocre monument for the city.

He may well be correct – I’ve not been to Toronto to find out – but that the authorities have for once valued acoustics and considered sound above visual aesthetic considerations is, I would venture, refreshingly laudable.

An altogether more encouragingly optimistic article by David MacFarlane in Saturday’s Globe and Mail asks why anyone who has no interest in opera should give two hoots about this new development? His inspiring, cogent and anecdotal answer not only tells Toronto’s public why it should be proud of The Four Seasons, but turns out also to be an astonishingly convincing critique of commercialised contemporary civilisation.

Civilisation, he says, should not pander to ignorance but should instead encourage curiosity rather than depend on

“a balanced exchange of information from someone who knows something to someone else who already knows the same thing. That, if I'm not mistaken, is the axis of idiocy on which a good deal of contemporary life is already based. That is reality TV.

Civilization is about another kind of exchange — from someone who either knows a lot about something or is very good at it, to someone who doesn't know as much, or is nowhere near as good but who is either interested enough to learn or curious enough to become interested; who is, in other words, alive.

The ideal consumer, I sometimes think, would be deceased enough to stay permanently within his or her demographic, but alive enough to still be spending money. As markets get more and more narrowly focused, anything that appears to be outside the confines of a target audience — anything that might arouse something as uncontained as curiosity or as broadly based as learning — is either deleted or explained to death. And as the media increasingly surrenders to the commercial demand to level the relationship between those who send out information and those who receive it, those of us who enjoy the serendipity of general interest, and who depend on the expertise of others to point the way to knowledge or pleasure, or even, perish the thought, to wisdom, look elsewhere for sustenance.

“The one responsibility a city has is the encouragement of the possibility of excellence.”

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Taint Modern

At the end of his recent Guardian article, ‘Isms come back with a vengeanceAdrian Searle worries that the problem with the Tate Modern is its popularity.

“It is difficult to see how it can reasonably cope with the volume of visitors, many of whom will have little chance to pause and savour either individual works or their new contexts. They won't get the gags, they won't be moved or touched. Instead, they'll be crushed.”

Not a new problem for art museums and galleries: the Museé du Luxembourg here in Paris, to name only one, is regularly full to bursting point and the queues that extend around the building by day, and on occasions, late into the night, show no sign of shortening even inside the exhibition hall. But visitor numbers for the Tate exceed the Pompidou Centre, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

So how is it that the plastic arts are able to wallow in a popularity that the art of serious music can only crave? Deyan Sudjic in an Observer article [May 1 2005] covers most of the ground in explaining the Tate’s laudable success although he swiftly glosses over the fact that entry to the museum is free, which I’m sure is of more than passing significance.

The Beeb and the usual pundits made much of the series of free downloads that were available from the BBC last year – expressing astonishment that “The take-up has been absolutely enormous!” While the rather more cautious, considered response from Noseda now seems laden with a certain amount of satirical pessimism.

"I'm thrilled that our performances have reached such a large, new audience and hope this trial will encourage more people to experience and enjoy orchestral music live in concert."
I wonder if it has?

Both of these examples are unquestionably marketing success stories; the former, for reasons explained in Deyan’s article, and because museums remain high on the cultural tourist’s itinerary; the latter because large numbers of people now have conspicuously redundant, acquisitively hungry portable media devices hanging about their necks.

Classical music – or at least the idealised sound of classical music - still has a certain cachet. By appealing to widespread dilettantism it inspires an intellectual elitism, which is why it remains popular in film scores, and why orchestral samples pervade serious news bulletins, ads etc. However, shifting the audience’s transitory interest from the periphery to the core is quite another matter: a matter not of marketing, but of education.

To make any sense of the statistics we’d need to know a few more details. For example: what proportion of the average 103-minute visit do Tate Modern visitors actually spend looking at paintings - as opposed to ascending and descending the various stairways, visiting one of the largest art bookshops in the world and pondering the range of hot or cold beverages? Similarly, we’d need to know how many freeloaders were sufficiently impressed or inspired by wall-to-wall Beethoven to cough-up their hard-earned cash and attend a live performance?

Adrian Searle needn’t worry; if the Tate becomes over-popular they can always starting charging an entry fee. Besides, Nicholas Serota, (the Tate’s director) is struggling with a rather different problem:

“…to deal with the single greatest challenge facing the Tate - its inability to afford to buy new works in an exploding art market. We need people to give us great works.”
And we need musicians to give us great performances – and we too are unable, or unwilling to pay.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More Reciepts than Beats

One could be forgiven for mistaking the online debate between Greg Sandow and his New York chum, Alan Kozinn for a dispute between two accountants. The music industry is at the heart of their debate – by which I mean the business of commerce - not music itself - let alone the love of music.

In my humble opinion there’s a crucial distinction between the parlous state of the music industry, and the condition of classical music, which by contrast, is increasingly threatened by it’s own defenders. Am I even allowed to venture the opinion that sales figures and statistics are not necessarily the only (or even a very useful) indicator of the level of interest in classical music?

I appreciate that these guys are drawing on statistical evidence to back up their assertions but it’s possible to draw all manner of conclusions from such selective data as we can see by the disparity of their views. On a number of occasions (notably in his online book) Greg Sandow has sited the greying and shrivelling of concert audiences as evidence of the imminent demise of the art form. But as this reflects the general demographic throughout much of the western world it’s neither as surprising nor as significant as he’d have us believe.

That the classical music industry is in trouble seems to me as plain as day but the methods used to remedy the problems are in themselves part of the cause. The widespread reverence for contemporary management and marketing practices often has us barking up the wrong tree. Despite Klaus Heymann’s best efforts, I don’t believe that the sales technique of a peanut vendor is a pertinent means of propagating the fine arts. The last 20 years of business development, have left few arts organisations, whether orchestras or major record companies, with a musician or even a serious music lover at their head. Instead we find a businessman/woman leading a large enough team of under managers to form a small orchestra of their own. Decca Records now has more staff than ever before, yet not one of them is a record producer. The LSO has more than 5 times the administrative staff it had 20 years ago – 7 of them engaged in marketing alone. Interestingly enough, in the 1980’s they chose
“a revolutionary orchestral manager plucked from the ranks of the LSO’s cellos to run the orchestra on the basis that he had owned an antique shop and therefore knew how to read accounts – he took on the job without actually knowing what the crisis was. He cleared the deficit in two years – and took the risk in 1985 of mounting Claudio Abbado’s costly – but highly successful - ‘Mahler, Vienna and the Twentieth Century’ festival.”
The LSO: A Century of Triumph and Turbulence by Richard Morrison

But now that we’re in the 21st century, arts organisations no longer have the remit to lead public opinion: to recommend, inform, or educate. Instead they follow popular creed – chasing trends and market share. Some of the small independent record companies still have some success because, for the most part, they continue to be led by a team – or by an autocrat – with clear vision and passion for a particular branch of music. Meanwhile, the so-called majors plunge ever deeper into the pit of mediocrity.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Post Musical

The time is coming when machines will supersede musicians. Once sampling technology is capable of quantifying all the criteria that characterise performance we’ll have no further need of professional practitioners. Such a time is getting closer and closer... The better sample libraries have already amassed gigabytes of samples that codify attack, duration, decay and release. Even slurred liaisons between notes are captured and enshrined: each with every possible type of articulation. All the user has to do is bolt all the bits together in a convincing fashion.

Quite obviously, that’ll take a bit of practice – somewhere around 20 years would be usual if professional musicians are to be believed, but fortunately it’s now possible to buy the New Performance Tool Tutorial DVD-ROM (for a only $39 – which is nothing, when you’ve already spent close on $5K for the big box of audio Meccano) in which Paul Steinbauer

"deliver[s] the expert knowledge you need to maximize your investment in the Symphonic Library. "

But on the other hand, it’ll become increasingly difficult for musicians to maximise their investment, but we’re going to need people who are able to drive this machinery. And without knowing how, when, and why a particular attack follows a particular decay, it’ll be impossible to compose, construct, or even re-construct any convincing performances at all! I’m sure Mr Steinbauer and his counterparts have got this angle covered too, but nevertheless, it’ll be a tricky procedure - at least until they’ve analysed and codified the almost infinite number of variables in this sphere too!

So perhaps there will be some work here for musicians after all. While the boffins are busy quantifying everything from sympathetic secondary resonance to individual characteristic head resonance, we’ll need someone to operate the increasingly complex software – and who better than musicians? After all, they’re already equipped with the expertise: they won’t even need to read the manuals. They might however, need to do a bit of practice from time to time, just to remind themselves how the old instruments actually worked; how gesture translates into sound and how other similar niceties added character to performance. In fact, with such vastly complex sample libraries I can imagine that they might even prefer playing their old acoustic instruments to activating the increasingly complex if perfectly cultivated samples.

Musicians might even be persuaded to endorse personalized sample libraries so that it’d be possible not only to replicate the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, but also to build one’s own unique orchestra of rising stars.

One small difficulty springs to mind though. Once today’s rising stars have peaked and waned, and the erratic, imperfect performances of our past no longer appeal to what will be the contemporary taste for the uniformity of stylised perfection – there won’t be any performers left for us to imitate, replicate and sample!