Cithare En Iran

I’ve recently been exploring music of the Persian classical tradition. There’s a lot of it available on YouTube, but I wanted to share one of my favourite discoveries in particular, an album by the santur player Faramarz Payvar (1933-2009).

If you’ve never listened to Persian music before, then a bit of context may help. As musicologist Hormoz Farhat describes, the classical tradition is fundamentally monophonic and modal. It’s related to (but distinct from) the Arabian and Turkish traditions, and it includes improvisation alongside composed pieces.

Farhat’s study is fascinating for its description of the specific dynamics that have shaped Persian music in recent centuries, which include religious censure and flawed attempts to apply Western theoretical models. (He also argues the case for preferring ‘Persian’ over ‘Iranian’, which I won’t try to repeat here but will simply go along with him).

The santur is a type of hammered dulcimer, an instrumental family that doesn’t enjoy huge prestige in Western classical music. But in the hands of a master like Payvar, it is undeniably capable of real poetry. It has a crisp sound, ranging from sweet delicacy to nasal harshness, that is carried in a bloom of decaying notes like a cloud of smoke.

On this record, Payvar shows that monophony need not mean monotony. Rapidly alternating hammers can give the impression of several parts at once, as well as a tremolando effect on a single note that allows for dynamic swells. One instant he makes a driving gallop, the next softly drumming rain. The scope for expressive melodic ornamentation, so important to this tradition, is immense.

Cithare En Iran, Santur was released by the French label Pathé Marconi EMI in 1979, one of their Arabesques series which featured Middle Eastern musicians. Running to 43 minutes, Payvar’s recital showcases a Dastgāh. The Dastgāh is a Persian system for structuring a performance. As Farhat puts is, there are twelve Dastgāhs, but each one:

identifies a set of pieces, traditionally grouped together, most of which have their own individual modes. It also stands for the modal identity of the initial piece in the group. This mode has a position of dominance as it is brought back frequently, throughout the performance of the group of pieces, in the guise of cadential melodic patterns.

In this case the performance is of Nava, one of the less commonly heard Dastgāhs. But being unfamiliar with Persian modes should be no major barrier, as some aspects of the music are very intuitive to grasp.

The introductory Darāmad passages, for instance, unfold in the manner of ruminative preludes, while the Čahārmezrāb facilitates virtuoso display, much like an étude. The cadential patterns that Farhat mentions – Forud – are not hard to discern either. One that occurs here is rather charmingly known as the ‘pigeon’s wing’, a stately drop of the interval of a fourth.

Payvar’s elegant sculpting of lines through pacing, dynamics, and ornamentation makes this album a blissful listen. If you can read French, the impressively detailed sleevenotes by Jean-Claude Chabrier can be found here (and if you can’t, you can still admire their extremely 1970s brown and cream colour scheme).

If you’d like to listen to more Persian classical music, I highly recommend the Hafdang YouTube channel, which is both a fantastic resource and an exemplar of slick music video presentation.

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The Centre Is Everywhere

An album by Manchester Collective was recently released with the intriguing title The Centre Is Everywhere. It features a work of the same name by Edmund Finnis, alongside music by Philip Glass and Schoenberg.

Finnis’s piece is for twelve string players. It drew me in gently on the first listen – I found it both absorbing and enigmatic. But I was surprised that its mystical-sounding title was not explained in any of the record’s marketing, as far as I could see.

Curious to find out more, I got in touch with the Manchester Collective’s co-founder Adam Szabo, who kindly put me in touch with the composer.

As Finnis explained by email, the work owes its title to The Book Of The Twenty-Four Philosophers – a Medieval text which contains different definitions of God. The second of these definitions became quite influential in the following centuries:

An infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.

As one interesting paper describes, this idea of God as a sphere whose centre is everywhere has informed thinkers such as Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. It was also taken up by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan for his concept of ‘acoustic space’ in media – the idea that information comes at us from all sides at once (like sound) and does not have a fixed boundary, whereas written information is sequential and closed off, an extension of the eye.

As Finnis described to me, he borrowed from this theological phrase because it seemed to fit the ideas he was thinking about – of foregrounds and backgrounds in music, and shapes and patterns passing between groups of instruments. And scoring The Centre Is Everywhere for twelve players – a highly divisible number – certainly gives plenty of room for playing with layers.

This music creates its own acoustic space. It uses a framing effect, in that it emerges out of (and back into) a void of whispering, pitchless bowed sounds. The piece does not so much begin as come into focus – at first tentatively, and then more fully. As if we’re tuning in to something beyond normal perception.

A bundle of lines shifts fitfully, trying to find a coherent shape. But it begins to build into longer breaths, as more layers intertwine. Many of the parts rise and fall in scales, others sound like broken-chord figurations – elements which in another work might be accompaniment material, supporting a main theme.

But there is no clear foreground, no main theme. Nothing seems to assert itself over and above the rest: instead the overall effect is of an exquisitely wrought kaleidoscope, in which our attention is everywhere. And that is where the principal fascination comes.

Finnis certainly knows how to exploit the resonance of strings, creating compelling ghostly shades and ethereal shimmers. And while he makes expressive use of dissonance, this piece falls very easily on the ear as it unfolds, expands, and recedes.

But if the centre of our attention is everywhere, then it is also nowhere. A natural consequence is that the piece doesn’t create memorable themes as such – instead it creates a memorably spatial impression. In that sense it seems to mirror the condition of deep contemplation, in which the structures of perception dissolve.

The Centre Is Everywhere is available on Bandcamp. Read more about Manchester Collective at Gramophone and Vents Magazine.

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Le Jeune: Le Printemps

New on Patreon: the charming songs by a composer of the French Renaissance who ‘pulled back suffering rhythm from the tomb where it lay for so long prostrate’. Subscribers can read more about the music of Claude Le Jeune here.

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Clare Hammond – Gubaidulina

First, one of those embarrassing small musical world admissions: the pianist Clare Hammond was a contemporary of mine at university. Although I didn’t know her well, I won’t forget the day I heard her give a solo recital in a college chapel. Many of my fellow undergraduates were excellent musicians, but I was blown away by her playing. It was immediately clear that Hammond was a pianist of the highest standard, with a potential career as a solo artist shining brightly before her. 

As I recall, her programme that day included a piece by the Australian composer Carl Vine. Evidently she was someone who cared about venturing beyond the core classical repertoire and into the world of contemporary music – very much my kind of musician.

That exploratory curiosity has certainly been borne out in the intervening years, as is demonstrated by Hammond’s discography. Her latest album, Variations, brings together pieces by Symanowski, Birtwistle and Hindemith, among others. But the stand-out piece for me is the final track: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, an early work from 1962, coming in at just under ten minutes.

This is a ferocious piece – one I didn’t know before, but which gripped me immediately. It announces itself with broad fortissimo chords like granite blocks, a brutal equivalent to the stately opening you might expect from the title’s Baroque form. Soon we hear the era’s pompous dotted rhythms too. But this is the Baroque recast in a modern mould: dissonances crunch, chords tug mysteriously in parallel movements. 

The first few iterations of the theme keep fairly steady, but soon the music starts to disintegrate, exploding into passages of virtuosity as Gubaidulina furiously reinvents her material, including some terrifying thundering octaves. I love how she toys with the familiar textures of old music – its balanced, intuitive patterns – but then keeps tearing these elements apart. At times it’s as though Bach were reconstructed for the industrial age: resurrected into a world of clanging steel girders and roaring traffic.

And as it happens, this Chaccone is having a bit of a moment in the limelight right now, as it featured in the recent Wigmore Hall livestream by rising star Isata Kanneh-Mason, part of a programme of works for International Women’s Day. Watching Kanneh-Mason’s performance makes an equally strong impression, and I can’t help but feel that if someone like Stravinsky had written this piece it would be revered as a masterpiece of 20th-century piano repertoire.

I highly recommend exploring Hammond’s discography, and in particular I draw your attention to her recording of Unsuk Chin’s formidable Etudes. Hammond wrote an admirably candid article about the effort it took to learn these works, spending ‘months pounding away in a practice room underground’, but eventually finding her own way to make them speak. I wouldn’t trust many musicians to succeed in that aim, but she certainly does.

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Kenneth Leighton: Laudes Musicae

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Green Bushes

Last Sunday was a beautiful spring day, so I decided to go for a walk. I had a route in mind, and drove a few miles to the large, flat expanse of Greenham Common. This former military site – synonymous with anti-nuclear protest camps in the 1980s – once contained one of the longest runways in Europe. Happily, it was converted back to grazing and recreation land about 20 years ago. It’s now a fantastic community resource, and I walk and cycle there a lot. But it was only my starting point this time.

I headed off on a path leaving the common. It follows a wooded gulley which runs down into the Kennet valley below. I love this path – with huge mature trees looming either side of you, and a small stream winding down, it’s like entering a little pocket of another world.

This area is unusually rich in history, even by British standards. Nearby is a site where Palaeolithic hand axes were discovered – the tools of nomadic hunters who camped here as early as 13,000 years ago. Other evidence suggests the possibility of continuous habitation in this part of the valley for the last 10,000 years, though it’s difficult to prove conclusively.

My plan was to get to the canalised river Kennet, then turn west along the towpath, eventually coming back up the hillside on a different footpath which I’d noticed on my OS map, but had never walked before.

A pool beside the Kennet and Avon canal.

Following the river, I started to hum a tune that I’d heard on Radio 3 that morning. It was the folk song Green Bushes, from Percy Grainger’s orchestral setting.

I already knew (and loved) a slightly different version of this tune in The New Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs. The lyrics start with the narrator going for a walk in May, and having a chance encounter with a young girl. He then proposes she forsake her true love and marry him – somewhat hastily, it must be said, but that’s folksong for you.

When I had first seen the tune in my book, I imagined it as a gently flowing melody. But the Grainger version on the radio treated it so energetically, that at first I didn’t recognise it. It sounds slightly demented: a psychedelic spring, bursting with life and libido.

In fact, if you look through an English folksong collection, you’ll find that a remarkable number of them begin with a variation on this theme: walking out in the spring and having a chance encounter. What is it about that scenario? I suppose spring is a metaphor for youth – one reason why poets idealise it. A fine spring day is like discovering life afresh. The land is awakening. No wonder it seems ripe with possibility, romantic or otherwise.

But while instant marriage proposals are mostly the stuff of fiction, spring is certainly a good time to find nature. Last year I heard a cuckoo calling along this stretch of towpath. It was tantalisingly close, and I stood for several minutes trying to spot it among the trees – all in vain. It’s still too early for their arrival this year, so on Sunday I had to make do with the laughing ‘yaffle’ of a green woodpecker, wafting mockingly on the breeze. Meanwhile a wren flitted among the dry reeds, firing its bullet notes beside the sparkling water, a tiny ball of cock-tailed aggression.

When I found the footpath heading back up the hill, I was surprised by a startlingly long perspective: the far end of Newbury Racecourse, its length extremely foreshortened behind a wire fence. On my other side, an enclosed field was bedecked with signs warning me it was ‘not a play area’ (it hardly looked like a plausible candidate for one).

Such sights only remind you how much of Britain’s countryside is enclosed for one private use or another – whether military, agricultural, or moneyed recreation. The colonisation of south-east England by golf courses, for example, is one particularly rampant and much-discussed phenomenon.

This makes the rare instances of public reclamation, like Greenham Common, especially precious. Because in the English countryside you’re always under suspicion of over-stepping a boundary. Any spring walk will almost certainly include chance encounters with the signage of paranoid landowners: Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. At least we can deceive ourselves that birdsong is joyful – this ugly human territoriality only sings a sour note.

Thankfully, a happier discovery awaited me further up the path. It was the entrance to a nature reserve I never knew existed before: Bowdown Woods. Here was a more welcoming sign, showing several nature trails that dip through the wooded gullies carved by streams flowing down to the Kennet.

It was clear that this was a more scenic route back to my car, so I took the diversion. The gamble of trying out a new path paid off, and the ramble up and down the surprisingly steep gulley sides, with glimpses of valley views through the tall trees, was delightful.

I look forward to coming back here again as the months progress. As it happens, I made a firm new year’s resolution to finally spot a cuckoo. If I’m successful, perhaps I will see the same one I heard last year – returning to the Kennet’s side from his African winter, singing in hope of his own romantic liaison.

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A Walk With Haydn

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Anton Arensky, String Quartet No. 2

The YouTube autoplay algorithm took me to a striking place last night. I don’t recall listening to much of Anton Arensky’s music before, if any at all, but while I was busy with other tasks autoplay alighted on his string quartet no. 2. The repeating opening chords at first made me think I was listening to a piece of modern minimalism like Philip Glass, then I glanced at my laptop to see it was composed in 1894.

The quartet is written in memory of the recently deceased Tchaikovsky, and unusually, it features two cellos instead of two violins, shifting the ensemble’s centre of gravity down into the lower, richer registers (an interesting parallel, perhaps, to the four Wagner tubas inserted into Bruckner’s 7th symphony a decade earlier). 

That’s not the only thing that struck me. A while ago I wrote about how much I love hymn tunes used in instrumental music – well here is a prime example, as the first movement is based on an Orthodox Psalm melody, and includes some chorale-like textures amongst its more idiomatic string quartet writing. The second movement is an extensive theme and variations on Tchaikovsky’s own ‘Legend’ from his Children’s Songs Op. 54, and the short finale sets a sombre funeral mass theme that unexpectedly breaks into a triumphant folksong in a quasi-fugal style – as if to remind us that mourning the dead composer should also mean celebrating his life.

Autoplay often serves up forgettable works, but this piece immediately grabbed me. There is such a wonderful sincerity and clarity to Arensky’s melodic scheme – by borrowing widely for his themes, he seems to suggest the whole world is mourning Tchaikovsky. It’s also a superbly written piece, but one which never lets the need to be Serious Chamber Music get in the way of its songful soul. This is a remarkable work, and a fitting tribute to a wonderful melodist – and I look forward to exploring more of Arensky’s music.

You can listen and follow with a score here


Michael East: Amavi

Michael East (1580–1648) is hardly the most celebrated musical figure of the English Renaissance. So it surprised me to learn that he was one of the most published composers of his day, with no fewer than seven books compositions to his name.

That’s what I discovered in the liner notes to Amavi, a new album dedicated to his music by Chelys Consort of Viols in collaboration with Fieri Consort. Chelys and Fieri used crowd-funding to make this project happen, which features the complete set of his eight five-part fantasias, leavened with his madrigals and verse anthems, plus a new commission.

Fantasias for viols were a private form of music played in houses, so they rarely reached the printing press, but circulated in manuscript copies instead. East was therefore unusually enterprising in getting his viol music out into the world, and also unusual is that the fantasias featured here, from his 1610 collection, each have Latin titles. These suggest the traversal of a spiritual journey, Desperavi through to Amavi – despair through to love.

It’s not particularly obvious that this scheme is illustrated by the music. Sure, Desperavi has a slow and solemn opening, and Triumphavi is consistently the most upbeat. But I suspect that East simply contrived a way they could be linked together for publication. It might have been shrewd marketing – perhaps a bit of Christian piety mixed with Classical learning was what the educated music buyer wanted in their collection. (Elsewhere, a set of his fantasias are named after the nine Muses, while others have more whimsical titles, such as Name right your notes).

The  instrumental and sung works are thoughtfully dovetailed on this album, with the choral music linked by mood to the preceding fantasia. There was a flexibility in the domestic musical practices of his day, and his publication lists his songs as ‘apt for viols and voices’. So in addition to the verse anthems, Chelys join in with some of the madrigals too, adding a silvery gilding to the voices.

Listening to the fantasias and choral works side by side, you begin to hear similarities. One common denominator is the fast turnover of texture. East alternates close counterpoint of short phrases with broad chordal passages – elaborate tracery and stately columns. And he also puts lively rhythms into moments of choral homophony that emphasise the words to memorable effect – as I can now attest, you know you’ve been listening to English madrigals can you end up with an ear-worm bearing the words ‘nymphs of Diana’.

I’m so pleased that Chelys and Fieri managed to fund this record. Like the consort music of Byrd and Gibbons, I find this repertoire inexhaustibly listenable. It unfolds without fuss or ego or excessive ambition – simply a beautiful craft of its time wedded to pragmatism, possessed of an unassuming dignity, as dependable and true as an oak table. This is, I feel, less about East in particular than his membership of a flourishing school of composition: a testament to the unpredictable collision of musical elements that came together in his era, and found a magic formula that for a while burned so brightly.

The final track is a new piece for voice and viols by Jill Jarman, setting words of East’s contemporary Henry Wotton. ‘Not wanting to pastiche the era nor stray too far from its sensibility’, as she puts it, Jarman’s approach begins with gently churning viol figurations over which long sung notes soar. It’s an imaginative reworking of the available forces, with some beautiful moments. But nonetheless it’s a jolt – a departure from East’s seemingly effortless craft to the modern composer’s burden: endeavouring, in the face of daunting creative freedoms, to forge something distinctive and meaningful.

Amavi is available from BIS Records.


The Strange Case Of Solomon Eccles

The scene is London in the mid 17th Century. A man takes his musical instruments and music books to Tower Hill, and does something unthinkable. He publicly sets fire to them. Passersby hurry to put out the blaze, but this only makes the man angry, and he breaks the instruments by stamping on them instead.

This shocking act of self-vandalism was apparently the work of Solomon Eccles, a former musician and composer. In his tract A Musick-Lector, written some years after the event, he tells us this renunciation of music was brought about when ‘I through the good hand of God had an eye open in me’.

Eccles had become a Quaker, in the early years of that movement later known as the Society of Friends. He quotes Biblical scripture to justify his actions – the prophet Amos, who warned of destruction to those who ‘chant to the sound of the viol and invent to themselves instruments’, and the visions of Babylon’s music falling silent in the book of Revelation.

But perhaps his bonfire was most inspired by a brief episode in the Acts of the Apostles, where occultists who used ‘curious arts’ were converted, and then burned their books at great price. ‘And is not Musick a curious Art, wilt thou deny it?’, Eccles asks.

It’s certainly a curious story – and a sad one too. What could bring a musician to such an extreme dereliction of their art? To understand, we might look at the peculiarly charged circumstances of the time.

Quakerism emerged out of the long, bitter trauma of the English Civil War. In 1649 the King was tried and executed, a Republic declared, ‘the world turned upside down’ as the ballad went. In those distracted times, radical ideas – both political and spiritual – reached a fever pitch in England. Many wanted to drastically reorganise society. Some believed the ‘end times’ were near, such as the Fifth Monarchists, who foretold Christ shortly coming to reign on earth.

Out of this maelstrom early Quaker leaders, such as George Fox, challenged the authority of the church, speaking with contempt of their ‘steeplehouses’ and their Oxbridge-educated hired priests. Instead he emphasised every person’s ‘inner light’ of God.

The scriptures that Eccles used against music were typical of the early Quaker worldview. They saw themselves reflected in the stories of Christ’s apostles, but they also liked to draw on the dire tones of the Old Testament prophets, and the visionary doom-mongering of Revelation.

The movement quickly gathered both converts and fierce critics. Fox’s journal is a revealing testament of a life on the road, preaching and haranguing clergymen for their deficiencies – provocations which frequently saw him beaten up by angry mobs, and thrown in jail.

He was comparatively lucky compared to another leading Quaker, James Nayler. In 1656 he rode into Bristol to re-enact Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Parliament, unnerved by the spreading movement, seized the opportunity to make an example of him. He was publicly branded, had his tongue bored with a hot iron and was ridden through the streets in humiliation.

Fox shared Eccles’ distaste for music – at least, when it was made by men. But he made an exception for spontaneous singing from the spirit – in prison, he described being moved to ‘sing in the Lord’s power’. Likewise, Eccles mentions a vague music of the ‘inward part alone’ as the kind agreeable to God: ‘there is a difference between the Harps of God, and the Harps of Men’.

But in one particularly poignant passage, Eccles recalls the pleasures of making music:

I was once playing a part with four more, more than 30 years ago; and the parts hit with the Fuige, and came in with the Discords and Concords so very lovely, that it took very much with that part which stands not in unity with the Lord.

This rejection of music precisely because of the pleasure it gives had roots in radical Puritanism. But while church music was suppressed in the Republican years as unsuitable for worship, private music making carried on, so even in those times Eccles’s fundamentalist position was extreme. This is probably why he published A Musicke-Lector as a written-out conversation between a Quaker, Baptist and Musician. That enabled him to speak as the man he once was and as the convert, making plausible defences of music before countering each argument.

And yet surprisingly, Eccles’s bonfire of instruments was not even his chief source of notoriety. He took part in a phenomenon which spread among Quakers in the years 1653-5, described in detail by Kenneth L. Carroll. It was equally provocative: ‘going naked as a sign’.

Public nudity, even if only partial nudity, aimed to shock the complacent masses. George Fox justified one Quaker who spent three years ‘going naked’ in the following terms:

to the priests shewing how God would strip them of their power, and that they should be as Naked as he was, and should be stripped of their Benefices.

However, Eccles didn’t begin ‘going naked’ until 1659. By then the Republic was collapsing, and in this newly anxious atmosphere, Carroll credits him with starting a second wave of disrobing, which continued into the early years of the Restoration.

Eccles wrote a tract about this too, and he had his own eccentric approach: putting a pot of hot coals on his head, sometimes topped up with brimstone, to warn of damnation. He was whipped and imprisoned for his efforts, but his antics earned him mentions by Pepys and Defoe, and even a later depiction in a Victorian painting.

Despite all this, the story of the Quakers after the Restoration is of the gradual move towards discipline and respectability – which no doubt enabled the movement to outlast the other sects of the Republican years, such as the Ranters and Muggletonians.

In the centuries since, Friends have had a ‘precarious’ relationship with music, as an American exhibit from 2004 has described it, and one which very slowly moved towards acceptance. At the same time Quakers came to be associated with other moral causes, in particular the long struggle for the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the story of Eccles and Fox demonstrates that this moral stance evolved too.

In 1671, Eccles was one of several companions on Fox’s mission to the American colonies. Quakers had already reached the ‘New World’ by this time, and some of them even owned slaves.

After weeks at sea Fox’s ship landed in Barbados. Here his men held meetings, including among some of the plantation slaves. As another Quaker on the trip described it:

Solomon and I have had several meetings among the negroes in several plantations, and it’s like must have more yet. […] we feel the Lord’s presence and power in that service, as well as when we speak among the white people.

Fox clearly was troubled by the enslavement he saw in Barbados, and his subsequent travels to Jamaica and Maryland. He spoke out against the cruel treatment of slaves, and emphasised their equality before God.

But he also criticised the ‘loose living’ found among them. It seems Fox wanted slaves to live as Christians and to marry. He clearly felt compassion towards them, and at one point he even suggested freeing slaves after a time served – perhaps 30 years. But he did not go so far as to say the institution of slavery was itself immoral.

There was resistance from slave owners nonetheless. Quakers were accused of encouraging slave rebellion, and in 1676 a law was enacted in Barbados to prevent them bringing Blacks to meetings.

You might well ask how anyone could decry organised music making but see no wrong in organised human trafficking and exploitation. It is certainly hard to understand. But perhaps we can say that the strange forms of Quaker radicalism that emerged during the Republic helped to pave the way for the later victory against the enormous vested interest of slave owners.

Dissenting movements are frequently messy and inconsistent, but they have a vital potential to re-imagine the world, both for good and ill. And as much as we can take it for granted now, Abolitionism would once have seemed as radical to many people as a musician destroying their instruments.

Eccles returned from the colonies to London, and died in 1683. His story is an unusually vivid example of Puritanism in England with regards to music, but thankfully his attitudes didn’t catch on. Nothing illustrates that better than the fact his sons John and Henry, both born after his conversion, went on to be composers.

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