Aung San Suu Kyi

Today marks the birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi *, elected president of Burma (Myanmar) in 1990. Ms Suu Kyi's reward for garnering such decisive popular support was to be arrested at once by Burma's military leaders. She has spent eleven of the last eighteen years of her life under house arrest in Rangoon. Communications services are cut and she is denied access to foreign visitors.

For her efforts to bring democracy to Burma Ms Suu Kyi has been awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the the Nobel Peace Prize.

Suu Kyi's latest period of detention began in 2003 when over a hundred of her supporters were beaten to death my military police. Her incarceration was scheduled to expire last month but was extended another year by Burma's military rulers. The UN and other international organizations have declared her continued detention a flagrant violation of international law.

Aung San Suu Kyi has called on the people of the world: 'Please use your liberty to promote ours.' Today, as she turns 62, millions of people around the world are answering that call.

BBC Country Profile: Burma

The Burma Campaign for Democracy, UK
Aung San Suu Kyi (Profile and Timeline)

Aung San Suu Kyi (Answers.com)
National League for Democracy, Burma (Answers.com)

* Pronounced Ong San Soo Chee.



Eine kleine Schreckmusik

I get a little bored hearing the world's greatest music played flawlessly by world-class musicians each week. All that perfection makes me restless.

So, permit me to sing (off-key) in praise of bad musicians. But not just those unable to hit the notes. This is a special type of bad. Let's hear it for artists with tin ears who've proudly lowered the bar of musical performance.

Thus confesses Marc Shulgold, music critic for the Rocky Mountain News (USA). His candor launches an engaging survey of a specialized taste (as it were) among music lovers. The genre is is not to be confused with simple lack of ability, or with the kind of cringe material encountered in crossovers. As Shulgold explains:
Anyone can pick up an instrument they've never clutched and elicit dreadful sounds from it. [...] But being adorably atrocious is tricky - it demands an earnest striving to hit all the notes, but with results that must border on the amusing without being dull or overly painful.
Tune in (but not too precisely) for a primer on the artists who have made the genre what it is. Not to be missed is Shulgold's consideration of American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, a diva who is to the history of song what director Ed Wood is to cinema.

Shulgold's 'Best of the Worst':
Florence Foster Jenkins
The Really Terrible Orchestra
Portsmouth Sinfonia
Jonathan and Darlene Edwards
Elva Miller

(Warning: some sites provide audio.)


Audio quality fuels Classical rise

Naxos Records gave itself a twentieth birthday present with Classics Online, a new music download service. Audio files are DRM-free and thus playable on most any digital system. A number of catalogues are represented with more on the way.

Gramophone magazine gives the site a thumbs-up review and says its prices compare with The Classical Shop offered by Chandos.

Endeavours like Classics Online are becoming more common thanks to the upsurge of interest in downloadable classics. The rise is fueled by formats that accommodate the needs of audiophiles beyond what the MP3 norm has provided until recently. Brian Wise reports on these developments in a recent issue of the Christian Science Monitor:

When Amazon.com recently joined the push to sell digital downloads without copy protection, the implications were particularly meaningful to classical-music fans. By removing the layer of software known as digital rights management, or DRM, customers can not only play their music on any device they choose (PCs, Macs, and iPods), but they also may stand to benefit from improved sound quality.

Even with copy protection, classical music has surprised many doomsayers with its robust sales over the past year. On Apple's iTunes, which controls over 70 percent of the digital market, classical purchases account for 12 percent of sales, four times its share of the CD market. Last year, classical was the industry's fastest-growing musical genre, despite the closing of Tower Records, which represented 30 percent of the total classical market share (this bump was partly due to popular crossover acts such as the Italian crooner Andrea Bocelli and the operatic boy band Il Divo). Industry figures are hopeful that dropping copy protection – thus allowing for big, clear-sounding and noncompressed audio files – will generate even stronger interest in classical downloads.

"It will definitely draw more classical listeners to the download," says Mark Forlow, the vice president of EMI Classics US, whose catalogue includes such artists as conductor Simon Rattle and violinist Maxim Vengerov as well as historical recordings by soprano Maria Callas and cellist Jacqueline Du Pré. "For as long as recorded sound has been in existence, the people who buy classical music like to have the best sound."

A week prior to Amazon's decision, EMI announced it would become the first major label to drop DRM from its iTunes catalogue starting later this month. Mr. Forlow believes there is a strong demand for DRM-free music even though it will come at a premium cost of $1.29, which is $0.30 more than iTunes's usual $.99 rate.

[ . . . ]

Similarly, the Philadelphia Orchestra sells downloads of its performances both as traditional MP3s as well as noncompressed FLAC files, which feature double the encoding rate. Christopher Amos, the orchestra's director of electronic media, says that about half of all sales are in the FLAC format. "We're dealing with a very sophisticated audience," he says. "We've had a lot of traction with specialists."

Wise notes that classical enthusiasts do not appear ready to abandon the CD format any time soon, though, owing to advantages the CD format retains in audio quality, documentation, and versatility of use. Those who are already using portable music players will find the new developments congenial, though, as will adventurous music lovers who are already downloading music of other genres.

Brian Wise. 'A digital boon for classical music.'
Christian Science Monitor, 2007.06.01.



Laurie Anderson

they say that heaven is like TV
a perfect little world

that doesn't really need you
and everything there is made of light
and the days keep going by

here they come . . .

Laurie Anderson
'Strange Angels'

Another birthday goes by today for America's favourite performance artist.

Here's hoping she's out in her red dress kicking up her high-heeled feet.

Laurie Anderson Official Web Site

Laurie Anderson at New Music Jukebox

Laurie Anderson at Answers.com

Photo ©2006 Alton Thompson
Hsinchu, Taiwan

Freeing the Harp

Composer Mark Adamo speaks up for the harp in the latest edition of New Music Box.

The harp is to the orchestra what the bosomy babe is to the spy thriller: sensuous, indispensable, and almost invariably ornamental. Why? Its timbral splash is anything but anonymous. And don't think, in ensemble, it can't be heard! It's no harder to balance with full orchestra than solo violin. You'd think an instrument of such glamour, power, and harmonic resource would have inspired a thousand concerti. You'd be wrong. Somehow—while we have no difficulty hearing the harp—we have a devil of a time paying attention to it. 'The harp is by nature more harmonic than melodic in feeling: solo melodies played on it are generally thin and ineffective,' warns solemn Kent Kennan in his Technique of Orchestration. Few orchestral composers have disagreed. They've conditioned us for centuries to hear the instrument only as accompaniment: the orchestra sings the music, and the harp...decorates it.

A recent commission presented the composer with the challenge of getting past clichés.

But let's say that you have an idea for (and have been asked to write) a harp concerto that's boldly theatrical: your music isn't intrinsically at odds with what the harp does; and you think all the technical and timbral issues are solvable problems. What are the questions you ask yourself?

Well, after accepting a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra for its principal harpist Dotian Levalier, here were mine:

1.) Since the harp is, by design, more impressive spelling out harmony than theme—but I want a theme with a real authority on which to organize the piece—can I come up with a melody that's all harmony and all line at the same time, and yet is still versatile enough to express whatever I need?

2.) Are there unusual technical or timbral resources the harp can muster that are theatrical (read: loud) enough to hold their own in an orchestral texture? Can I design a movement to ask a question to which these timbres would be the answer?

3.) And how do I make this piece not just an orchestra score which happens to have a very large harp part, but a true concerto: one which sounds as if all of its gestures and materials are generated by the soloist? In other words, how do I keep the orchestra, with its limitless melodic potential, from upstaging the harp?

Follow the full detective story to a satisfying conclusion in New Music Box.

Mark's concerto, Four Angels, premieres this week in Washington DC. Dotian Levalier is the soloist as Leonard Slatkin conducts the National Symphony.



Tiananmen Square 1989

Today marks the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in which peaceful demonstrators were killed and imprisoned by their government for seeking democracy.

Eyewitness accounts of the event are provided by the BBC in 'Tiananmen Remembered.'

Amnesty International describes the situation China's people face today, eighteen years after their government did the unthinkable.
The Chinese government continues to stifle public debate over the issue, which remains erased from magazines, newspapers, school text-books and Internet sites in China. Over the last year in particular, official policies on media control and censorship have been intensified, preventing any public analysis or discussion of 4 June 1989 or any other politically sensitive periods in China’s recent history.

As the 18th anniversary of the crackdown approaches, Amnesty International urges the Chinese authorities to ensure greater respect for freedom of expression and information by lifting the official ban on reporting about the tragic events of 4 June 1989. They should also publicly account for and release all those who remain in prison as a result of the crackdown. While such measures fall short of delivering justice for the victims and their families, they would nevertheless constitute significant steps towards transparency and accountability. They would also be in line with promises made by Chinese officials to improve human rights and ensure ‘complete media freedom’ in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics next year.

Concerns over freedom of the press have also been raised recently by the Beijing-based Tiananmen Mothers group which sent an open letter to the National People’s Congress in March 2007, urging the authorities to lift a publishing ban on three books that discuss the events of 4 June 1989, including Searching for the Victims of 4 June, by Ding Zilin, retired university professor who founded the group after her son was killed in the crackdown.

[. . . .]

China’s efforts to stifle freedom of expression have not been confined within national borders. In November 2006, the Serbian authorities reportedly cancelled a Belgrade screening of the film Summer Palace which was set against the backdrop of the 1989 protests, after receiving a letter from the Chinese embassy warning that the film was ‘strictly forbidden’ in China and should be withdrawn to preserve ‘good bilateral relations’. Amnesty International regrets the decision of the Serbian authorities to bow to such pressure and calls on the international community to closely monitor and resist attempts by Chinese diplomats to stifle freedom of expression overseas.

Dozens of people are believed to remain in prison in China in connection with their involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, but official statistics have not been made public and the exact number is unknown. In September 2006, the authorities released Zhang Maosheng, a machinery worker who was originally given a suspended death sentence for ‘counter-revolutionary arson’ for setting fire to an empty military vehicle on the morning of 4 June 1989. Such sentences are usually commuted to life imprisonment and Zhang was released early, apparently for good behaviour after serving 17 years of his sentence. Amnesty International urges the authorities to publicly account for and release others who remain in prison in connection with the crackdown.

The organization continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of those imprisoned more recently for urging a greater public debate on the events of 4 June 1989 or for criticising official policy on the issue. They include the following activists and journalists, considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience:
  • Kong Youping, a former trade union activist who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in September 2004 after he had posted articles and poems on the Internet calling for a reassessment of the 1989 pro-democracy movement;
  • Li Jianping, a former student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, who was sentenced to two years in prison in October 2006 after being convicted for ‘inciting subversion’ in connection with essays that he had posted to overseas websites criticising China’s political system and advocating greater democracy;
  • Shi Tao, who continues to serve a ten-year prison sentence after being convicted for ‘leaking state secrets’ in April 2005. He had posted to an overseas website Communist Party instructions on how journalists should handle the 15th anniversary of the crackdown.
Amnesty International also urges the Chinese authorities to stop the police harassment, surveillance and arbitrary detention of peaceful human rights defenders, many of whom have sought to commemorate the victims of the 1989 crackdown and call for redress. They include Hu Jia and his wife Zeng Jinyan, who have once again been placed under a form of ‘house arrest’ in Beijing after they tried to travel abroad to escape tightened restrictions imposed in the run-up to the anniversary; and Qi Zhiyong, who was shot in the leg during the 1989 crackdown and remains under tight police surveillance in Beijing due to his activities in support of others who were disabled in the crackdown.

Full text: Amnesty International Public Statement

Other links of interest:
BBC News in Pictures
Hong Kong remembers Tiananmen

New Straits Times
Tiananmen Square Survivors Seek Reform

Human Rights in China
Tiananmen Mothers Roundtable Calls for Official Accountability

US State Department
Message on the Eighteenth Anniversary of Tiananmen Square

Asia Observer
Tiananmen Protesters Remain in Prison

Tiananmen Quiet on Anniversary

Reporters Without Borders
China Journalists Imprisoned

Amnesty International
Justice Denied the Disabled