Simon’s cultural round-up, 13/09/18

By chance, Islam has been a recurring theme in my reading and listening. On BBC Radio 4, Remona Aly takes a look at the sometimes rocky relationship between Islam and the female singing voice, and the role of singing as a way of accessing the divine. 

Meanwhile, a great in-depth piece on Aeon examines the problem of falsified miniature paintings depicting historic muslim scientists, some of which have even fooled experts. It asks interesting questions about why these forgeries exist, why we want to believe them, and how much we can really know about the history of science in Islamic countries.

I can only hope there is nothing fake about the beautiful images illustrating this fascinating essay on magic and esoteric traditions in Islam, and their connections to the West. Corymbus readers will know I have an interest in magic, so this essay was hugely interesting.

Perhaps there is some magic in the air at the moment – the Ashmolean in Oxford has a new exhibition called ‘Spellbound’, which I really must get up to see (perhaps inspired by the British Library’s hugely successful exhibition on Harry Potter). To coincide with it, the author Philip Pullman has written an excellent piece in the Guardian about the limits of rationalism and why the magical universe is never far away from our thoughts.

Fans of Written On Skin should definitely check out the excellent long-read profile on composer George Benjamin in the New Yorker. It covers his long journey from child prodigy to painstaking and meticulous composer who has finally found freedom in the field of opera – albeit a freedom that necessitates cutting himself off from the world for years at a time. It gives you little snippets of personal insight – for instance, Benjamin was unable to compose anything for a week after the Brexit vote.

To music: and most urgent is that you have JUST ONE DAY LEFT to watch the video of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s piano concerto Between the Skies, the River and the Hills live in concert in Berlin, with Ivana Gavric and Southbank Sinfonia, before it expires on 14th September. I’ve enjoyed exploring Frances-Hoad’s music recently, and this is an unshowily attractive, at times brooding piece. The concert also includes Mozart and Beethoven (but come on, you can hear those two anywhere, skip straight to 23:55). Look out for more from this composer in my next piece on Corymbus.

Given my article on her last year, I excited to learn that Ruth Gipps’ magnificent 4th symphony was to be given its first modern professional recording by Chandos with BBC NOW/Rumon Gamba. The resulting disc, which also includes the single-movement 2nd symphony and two shorter works, is out now – listen on spotify. Check out those glorious woodwind solos in the slow movement of the 4th, and the way she pulls the climactic end of the finale out of the bag! I can only hope Chandos is also up for recording the 3rd symphony, which has a magical scherzo inspired by a tapestry of a unicorn hunt (that’s the cover illustration sorted already).

In truth, I rarely venture outside my comfort zone with piano music, but a debut album by the pianist Laura Farre Rozada has intrigued me. The French Reverie is a crowdfunded effort, ‘under the conceptual approach of a dream that reviews French music from the 20th century with a multicultural perspective’. It’s a refreshingly varied assortment that shows the directions French composers for the piano have taken after Debussy and Ravel. I was particularly struck by the single-note repetitions of Phillippe Manoury’s Tocatta. Listen here.

Continuing on the modern French theme, the YouTube channel for Ensemble Intercontemporain contains seriously well-produced performance videos. One of the more extraordinary is Serious Smile by Alexander Schubert, which involves a very intense choreographed performance including electronics – and I should probably warn you – strobe lighting effects.

Another consistently excellent YouTube channel is that of San Francisco-based early music ensemble Voices Of Music. While researching Giles Farnaby for my recent article, I discovered this wonderful performance of Downland’s Flow, My Tears sung by Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist.

In my article, I compared this piece to Farnaby’s Loth To Depart – another noteworthy fact is that the latter was orchestrated and expanded on in Rubbra’s fun little suite, Improvisations On Virginal Pieces By Giles Farnaby. Despite the clunky title, it would make a great concert opener, so orchestra programmers please take note – you can listen here.

My Farnaby article also included an album by kora player Toumani Diabaté, and while researching his music, I chanced upon this lovely, hauntingly simple song by his Malian compatriot Vieux Farka Touré, perfect for a bit of chilled late-night listening. Or if you prefer something much more upbeat from the world of jazz, this live recording of Charles Mingus’ Moanin’ is a piece of absolute filth, with a sax riff that goes deep enough to strike oil. Enjoy.

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