A taste of elsewhere

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 February 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Teaching  •  1 Comment

In a cheese shop the other day, conversation turned to exotic cheeses and someone mentioned Gjetost, the Norwegian goat’s milk cheese which looks like a block of fudge and has a distinctive, caramel element to its taste. It’s a cooked cheese made with whey and cream, very rich and usually eaten in wafer-thin slivers.

Mention of Gjetost took me back to early school days. At the age of seven, my class teacher was Miss Clarke-Wilson, a formidable lady but very popular with us.

For Geography lessons, she had a genius idea. Whenever we started learning about a new country, Miss Clarke-Wilson would (at her own expense, I imagine) bring in samples of food from that country for us to try.

This cannot have been easy to achieve at a time when Edinburgh shops were not known as emporia of foreign food. Nevertheless she managed to get us lychees when we were reading about China, dates to represent Egypt, and most memorably of all, Gjetost to evoke Norway. Years later, when I played in Norway, I joyfully bought a block of Gjetost and tried to eat it in cubes like fudge, but I quickly saw the point of the wafer-thin slices.

Offering children a taste of food from a faraway country was inspired. I doubt if any of us had been further away than England. Apart from looking at pictures, we had no easy way of imagining life in exotic lands. But a taste of their food produced an immediate sense of connection with them. The tastes were unexpected, strange and tantalising. It was instantly clear that life in other countries had new experiences to offer.

Larks ascending

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 February 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Travel  •  2 Comments

One of our regular walks in the nearby hills takes us past a cornfield, which we discovered in the first lockdown.

It was Spring then, and the field was softly green. We were thrilled to see larks emerging from their hiding-places among the rows of corn, rising up into the sky and singing when they reached a height where we often couldn’t see them any more. During the months of lockdown we were often to be seen standing at the edge of that field, gazing sky-wards, hoping to hear larksong.

Of course, over the winter the birds were silent. It felt as if someone had forgotten to switch on the volume in the treetops. Only rooks seemed to have the energy to go on quarrelling.

But today, for the first time since winter, we saw and heard larks again. The cornfield is still a greyish-brown stubble. But from among the rows of stubble, larks rose up, singing as they went. One of them’s in this photo, so high and distant that you can only see him by zooming in. Nevertheless the pale February sky with its wisps of cloud gives an impression of the morning.

It’s probably heretical to admit that I’ve never fallen in love with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, regularly voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music. It has a lovely atmosphere, but for me it’s rather self-indulgent, prioritising the composer’s emotions rather than evoking nature. When you hear a lark in the countryside, its song is fragile. The bird is often so high in the sky that you strain to hear it; what comes to your ears are delicate fragments blowing past on the wind.

In his setting of George Meredith’s poem, Vaughan Williams beautifully evokes the lines: ‘Our valley is the golden cup/And he the wine that overflows/To lift us with him as he goes’. But to my ear, the song of the lark is less luxuriant than overflowing wine – and perhaps more touching because of it.

Janis Joplin documentary, ‘Little Girl Blue’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 February 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  3 Comments

This week we watched Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary about Janis Joplin, ‘Little Girl Blue‘, which tells Janis’s story with the help of letters she wrote to her family while on tour. It’s an absorbing watch, full of great footage, excellent interviews with her family, friends and bandmates, and touching insights into Janis’s evolution from spiky teenager to powerful rock icon.  I found myself thinking of Amy Winehouse, another super-talented young woman who came to grief through drugs.

However, as a musician myself, there were things I would have loved to know more about – the same things, actually, that are missing from most documentaries about musicians. Janis had a unique vocal style. Where did it come from? What was the musical path she took, and did she work hard to develop it in the privacy of her own room? How did she arrive at what we now think of as ‘classic Janis Joplin’, and was she satisfied with it? Did she consider other styles? A glimpse of what influenced her was given by a telling clip of Otis Redding, but his influence wasn’t really analysed.

The clips of Janis at the height of her fame show her blend of energy, ecstasy and violent intensity. Often that came out in a kind of shrieking. On stage she seemed to be ‘losing it’ – giving herself up to a world of feeling, excitement, maybe rage. Eyes closed, head thrown back, sometimes yelling so loudly that it must have been difficult to hear the rest of the band …. and yet as you listen you realise that she knew exactly where she was in the phrase, in the trajectory of the song.

She knew how many verses she had sung, where to switch to new harmonies, how to approach the end of the song. She knew when the band were going to cut in with instrumental phrases. Clearly this had all been worked out ahead of time, but despite giving the impression of someone in the midst of a full-blown high-decibel meltdown, Janis remained alert to the structure and detail of the song. This is not easy to do. She had a kind of twin-track consciousness – able to follow an objective plan shared with other musicians, yet also to abandon herself to the ecstasy of the moment. Many musicians can do one or the other, but when they try to combine them, something is lost. Janis could combine the two.

I first discovered Janis Joplin when I went to college. She had died not long before, at the age of only 27, so we had a sense of having just missed something precious. I loved her album, ‘Pearl‘.

The possibility for musicians of making a local career

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 January 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Travel  •  6 Comments

I keep coming across articles about the importance of revising our approach to international travel. For the sake of the environment as well as public health, we’re told, we should be working towards the possibility of doing everything in the places where we live. City planners and architects should be thinking how to provide us with all the facilities for a satisfying life within 15 minutes’ travel from our homes.

It’s undoubtedly true that, certainly while the virus is still circulating, musicians will have to consider the risk to ourselves of travelling to perform in other countries, and the risk to them of importing us. Heedless travel will be unacceptable.

In theory, the fifteen-minute city is a lovely idea. But how would it work for artists?

Like most musicians who are predominantly performers, my whole career has been based on the necessity of going somewhere else to play concerts. As someone who was never starry-eyed about the whole airport/hotel scene, I often found it tedious that I had to keep going away. How nice it would be to have audiences at the end of one’s own street! But that was rare. And anyway, local audiences didn’t want to hear you every week. So if your aim was to play concerts and earn fees from doing so, you had to keep moving.

Concert-goers are keen on hearing performers from far away – or at least have been trained to think like that. A glance at the season’s brochure for any big orchestra will show that its concerto soloists are usually from Elsewhere. The same is true of solo recitals and chamber music seasons. Elsewhere is glamorous! (British musicians, of course, benefit from this attitude when they travel abroad and become the exciting foreign visitors.)

However, it may turn out that Elsewhere loses its glamour – at least for a while.

If we are prevented from travelling to make a living, we need to think about about how musicians could make a career by staying local. (Yes, there’s teaching, but that doesn’t suit everyone.) With things set up the way they are, there is currently no way for a concert performer to make a living within 15 minutes of home. Lots of things would have to change. Funding, for example, and promoters’ agendas, and audience’s attitudes.

Could one imagine that UK symphony orchestras would switch to a roster of UK artists for their concerto spots? Could recital and chamber series cultivate a ‘love your local artists’ ethos? It would be great for UK musicians, but would audiences and sponsors embrace the change?

There could be many positives from a new approach which slows down the merry-go-round of musicians who spend their lives whizzing about to play to one another’s home audiences.

This topic is going to be important, and I’ll return to it. Send me your thoughts!

Burns’ Night

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 January 2021 under Books, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

Last night, on Burns’ Night, my book group met on Zoom to read Robert Burns’ poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’. Several members of the group had grown up taking part in annual Burns recitations on January 25, with prizes given for the best or most dramatic performances. They recalled the sound effects and props used by winning speakers to conjure up Tam fleeing from the scene of devilish revelry on his horse Meg, whose tail is plucked off by a pursuing spirit as the mare leaps with Tam to safety across the river (spirits won’t cross running water, it seems).

My eye fell on Robert Burns’ dates – 1759-96. Very similar to Mozart’s dates – 1756-91. Two short but brilliant lives! Did they know of one another? I don’t know, but I imagine they would have shared many attitudes to life and art.

Both were capable of being earthy and cheeky. Both had great sympathy for ‘the common man’ and a healthy disregard for rank and titles. Robert Burns’ famous poem, ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that’, would surely have struck a chord with Mozart. And Mozart’s letters to his family, with puns and jokes about bodily functions, would have made Burns laugh.

Mozart was a good linguist, but even if he knew some English he probably never encountered the Scots vocabulary used by Burns. Burns shot to fame when his volume of ‘Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ was published in 1786, when Mozart was flourishing in Vienna. But as far as I know, those poems were not translated into German until the early 19th century, so Mozart may never have read them.

Curiously, they had birthdays close together – Robert Burns on January 25, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on January 27. Two great artists born under the sign of Aquarius, whose qualities are said to include a love of independence and equality.