Allan Evans: Sound Archaeologist

Allan Evans, the author of this webpage, passed away on the afternoon of June 6, 2020. He was 64 years old. Allan, husband to Beatrice, father to Stefan, my friend and the friend of so many around the world, succumbed to the last of a series of illnesses that had dogged him during his final two astonishingly productive decades. This site will remain as a lasting tribute to Allan’s memory and accomplishments.

 

Allan Evans was an ocean of knowledge, ever expanding its shores. From the beginning his mission was to disseminate those musical artifacts of human culture that he felt were of crucial importance to the world, and that were in danger of being lost forever; this was Allan’s moral imperative.

To provide form and shape for his life’s purpose, Allan launched Arbiter Records in 1996 (Arbiter turned non-profit in 2002). Arbiter’s output comprises 67 cds, with several posthumous releases in the pipeline at the time of writing. World Arbiter, the label’s world music arm, was added in 1998, and is represented by 19 releases. The notes that accompany each Arbiter production were posted by Allan on this webpage. These notes help us to understand that the music and interpreters on the aptly-named Arbiter cds served as vehicles for his penetrating curiosity and missionary zeal.

But his life’s mission was not limited to resurrecting an unjustly forgotten past, dressed for display as a museum exhibit. Allan taught for many years at the Mannes College of Music. He lectured on jazz history, piano interpretation, American southern blues, and the interconnection of world musical culture. He knew that young musicians required an anchor, that they must see themselves as links in a chain. He filled his students with the same spirit that lived within himself, that opened his mind to the wide perspective he came to hold concerning art, history and humanity.

The Arbiter website also features Allan’s blog. His restless, searching mind fills its pages with a huge range of subjects, ideas, and opinions, both positive and negative. In his final blog post, Allan reproduces two photos of Botticelli’s painting “Annunciation”, which alludes to a scene from the 2nd century apocryphon “Protevangelium Jacobi”, used as a source for Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th century compilation of Christian apocryphal hagiographies “The Golden Legend”, which was enjoying great vogue in the mid-15th century, when Botticelli created the work.

The painting depicts a transition, frozen in time, but truly in motion to the observer. An un-named angel, holding the rod of Joseph that had supernaturally burst into bloom, announces the Great Message to Mary concerning her destiny. After 500 years, the painting had been well preserved and continued to produce the mystical effects intended by the painter, with its bright tones, color effects, and spatial arrangement defining the moment. We can feel the texture of Mary’s diaphenous veil. Then came the restorers, triggering Allan’s ire. The brighter colors were intensified after removal of the patina, some subtleties disappeared. Says Allan: “Looks more like a postcard. [Botticelli’s] mystical use of air, light, gesture, all have succumbed to lucre and poster sales.” The Uffizi restorers had sinned against The Lord.

Allan then, in the same blog post, makes his own transition from the visual arts to music – a transitional (!) passage in the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. He posts 4 different pianists performing the passage – each about a half minute of music. The first, Alfred Hoehn, produces a revelation: “Where have you been all my life?” Allan’s Manichaean tendencies are released in his judgements of the following three recorded examples: Rachmaninoff (“Listen and pick out what you can.”), Gieseking (“Notice anything that he doesn’t notice?”), and Rubinstein (“… the venerated Arthur Rubinstein, whom one dare not criticize without being attacked.”).

Allan never tells us to what exactly he is referring in these performances. What is present in the Hoehn performance that is so sadly lacking in the other three? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you, but I did listen to these excerpts numerous times, with ears wide open, receptive to every nuance, every instrument, every counter-melody – in each performance focusing on what was present, searching for what was not. This is how Allan taught.

His essays on this website – in both liner notes and and blogs – display a searching and astute intelligence. A thinker who humbles us, a superior being. One gets the impression that he could never close the book on any subject. The liner notes that accompany his Arbiter cds were often hugely expanded for publication on this website. He tinkered with the transfers, creating downloadable improvements on the performances long after their first release. Allan always sought out the first-hand testimony of the artists’ contemporaries, discovering and assessing never before understood connections and pathways before he reached his own conclusions. These quotes and connections fill every page of the writings published here. Many of the source documents came directly from individuals who quickly recognized Allan’s passion, intelligence and trustworthiness.

One of his finest discoveries was the Hungarian pianist Irén Marik, whose output would surely have gone to the junk heap – an actual junk heap! – without Allan’s intervention. Mme. Marik bequeathed her every document and recording to Allan (read the astonishing story behind Allan’s discovery of Irén Marik in these notes). She trusted him, she admired his intelligence, the passion that simmered beneath the reserved and modest face he presented to those who had the good fortune to know him. Allan made his purposes clear – he wanted the best artistic traditions, in sound and idea, to play a living role in the future, freed from the inaccessible past whence they sprang, or into which they were in danger of falling. Whether the recordings of a neglected pianist, or of traditional music from a distant corner of the world, Allan gave living relevance to the history of musical culture, reconnecting the chain.

Allan Evans was the consummate researcher. As these notes clearly show, Arbiter was never merely a record company that issued “old records” with short biographies of the artists attached. The performances were the material artifacts, but Allan’s search for historical relevance, what lies around, behind and beneath the music, its place in the march of civilization and human intercourse, lay at the golden center of Arbiter.

His researches were not confined to the holdings of great libraries (or what were once great libraries) but involved much shoe leather – literally. Allan visited 40 countries in preparation for his magisterial biography of the ishtadevata he had chosen from his youth, Polish pianist Ignaz Friedman. The book came together during a period of more than 30 years, during which he was also occupied with his record production, teaching, and working at Scuola Italiana, the Italian language school he had founded with his wife. He was also occupied in fighting off the illnesses that continued to afflict him, which grew more serious as the 2009 publication date approached.

Allan often referred to himself as a “sound archaeologist”, his recorded discoveries as “artifacts”. He was the musical equivalent of a palaeontologist. To Allan, unearthing the lost recording of even a fragment, 20 measures of a movement, was not cause for lamentation and disappointment. He experienced the same satisfaction felt by a dinosaur hunter who discovers the single vertebra of a rare, lost species. Like the hunter, he studied what he found, learned from it, and further, passed it along to us for our own inspection. Like the palaeontologist, if he deemed a discovery suitable for rescue, he could not leave it to remain buried in the field. What if no one came along to save it? He was the chosen one, and his duties were clear.

James Irsay

 

 

6 Responses to “Allan Evans: Sound Archaeologist”

  1. Michael White says:

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    I discovered the 19th-century pianists in 1971, as a young flute student from Houston, Texas, studying with Gareth Morris in London. I then started collecting what recordings were available back then, including 78 rpm. Eventually, Ignaz Friedman became my favorite, and I even went through a few reproducing pianos just hear the playing more “live.” Later, of course, I read Allan Evans’s book on Friedman and a bit later the one on Moriz Rosenthal. I am sorry to hear of his passing, but he seems to have enjoyed his time here and certainly contributed greatly to keeping the memory of these artists alive and their recorded artistry available.

  2. Iren Marik was my grandmother’s life partner. Our family will forever be grateful to Alan for his “rediscovery.”

  3. Jerry Wechsler says:

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    Bravo. Loving tribute to a friend I wish I had got to know much better, but whom I met too late in life.

  4. Ruby Ornstein says:

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    He was a lovely man and a brilliant musician. Those of us who study world music have benefitted greatly from the cds he helped to create. We miss him.

  5. Dessi Freeman says:

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    Thank you for creating this wonderful tribute to memorate his amazing work around the world and his generous and kind spirit! Thank you!

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