Cardiff Singer of the World

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 June 2019 under Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been a keen follower of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition for many years. This year it seems even more appealing¬† as a distraction from what’s going on with the Tory leadership contest and all the rest of it.

It’s remarkable to see how the twenty singers who make it through to the televised rounds are drawn from all across the world – each time from further afield, it seems. Equally remarkable is how ‘global’ the style of singing is. It’s not possible to listen with eyes shut and identify someone as coming from China, Brazil, America, South Korea, or indeed the UK. There seems to be a sort of agreed international style which all must conform to. This is practical for singers whose careers see them jetting from opera house to opera house in different countries, but is it a good thing? Sometimes I long for a distinctive sound which instantly gives me the flavour of another culture.

Because opera arias have a text, and are sung by a character with a particular role to play, it’s easy to know what the music is ‘about’ – much easier, I daresay, than with abstract instrumental music. So one can straightaway begin to assess whether the singer is successfully bonding with the words and conveying the drama.

As usual, there are examples on both sides of the perfect line. Some singers over-emote and put too much pressure on the words. Others seem preoccupied with vocal technique and make the words sound mechanical. Now and then one comes across someone who can walk that line beautifully, naturally alive to the meaning of the words yet also in full control of a glorious melodic line.

For those of us who have to put across the meaning of music without words or opera characters, there’s a lot one can learn from watching these excellent singers.

Edinburgh Book Festival appearances

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 June 2019 under Books  •  Leave a comment

At the BookFest launch

Last night the Edinburgh International Book Festival launched its 2019 programme, and what a programme! Writers from every corner of the world will be coming to Edinburgh to discuss topics from politics, nature and storytelling to history, fashion, poetry and activism.

There’s also a huge strand devoted to children’s books. Seeing the children enjoying the festival activities and reading their books on the lawns of beautiful Charlotte Square (in the sunshine, with luck) is one of the festival’s most enjoyable features.

This year I’ve been invited to talk about my book ‘Speaking the Piano’. On the 13th August at 8.45pm I’ll be in conversation with broadcaster Sheena McDonald. Tickets go on sale to the general public on 25th June. The book festival is wildly popular so be ready to book your tickets early!

Friends will be pleased to hear that Robert Philip is also appearing at the Book Festival to talk about his monumental ‘Companion to Orchestral Music’. His event is on Monday 12 August at 7.15pm.

Today’s Edinburgh Reporter carries a column about the writers resident in Edinburgh who are making appearances at the BookFest. They’re a distinguished bunch! We’re pleased to be included.

‘They would have been x years old today’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 June 2019 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

It was my father’s birthday yesterday. He’s no longer with us, but of course we think about him each year on his birthday, and we always say, ‘He would have been [x years old] today.’

My dad reached the age of 91, as far as I know the greatest age that any member of my immediate family has achieved. He died seven years ago, so it still seems perfectly plausible to say, as I did yesterday, ‘He would have been 98 today.’ One can easily imagine it.

But a younger member of the family asked, ‘How long are you going to go on saying “So-and-so would have been such-and-such an age today?” Surely there must come a point when it’s no longer reasonable to speak as though they’re still around, celebrating birthdays in some sort of parallel dimension?’

But what is that point, where imagination should accept a reality check? As lifespan increases, the point must be gradually advancing. At the moment, common sense would probably stop me from saying that a person ‘would have been x years old today’ once the number goes above 100. It doesn’t feel quite reasonable to say ‘So-and-So would have been 117 today’.

On the other hand, each January 27th I seem to find it quite normal to mention that Mozart, to take this year as an example, ‘would have been 263 today’. Somehow that doesn’t seem ridiculous!

New technology

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 May 2019 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

The other day I gave a copy of one of my own CDs as a gift to some young musicians.

They thanked me politely, but I caught them eyeing the CD with a certain blankness. Suddenly a thought occurred to me and I said, ‘…Don’t tell me you haven’t got CD players!’ They all shook their heads sadly. ‘We haven’t even got CD drives in our laptops’, they said.

Gosh! It made me feel old. When I first started making records, the beloved LP format was just going out of style. It was replaced by the cassette, which reigned for about five minutes, until we all got fed up with the tapes getting snarled up. CDs were the next great invention. Small, light, durable, don’t need to be turned over, can’t be scratched with needles – a format which would last!

So as vinyl ‘became obsolete’ (little did we know), we all started replacing our scratched LPs and our tangled-up cassettes with CDs – at considerable cost, I might add. A few years later the record industry started saying that DATs were the latest in crisp, contemporary sound quality. But DATs seemed to fizzle out almost before we had grasped that they were available. Then there were DVDs, Blu-Ray, MP3s, downloads, online playlists and streaming. Physical copies of recordings have vanished into The Cloud. And now I hear that young musicians don’t even have CD drives on their laptops.

Mind you, these same young people were playing on 200-year-old, even 300-year-old string instruments, made of wood, which they cart around all over the world and love with a passion. They play them with wooden bows strung with the tail hairs of a horse. Not only are these formats not obsolete, but the instruments have proved easily superior to most newer ones in terms of tonal quality, projection, and character. So it seems that not every sound source has been superseded by a newer, cooler one.

Fake news

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 May 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

There’s so much talk about ‘fake news’ at the moment. Most of us are gradually getting better at spotting it.

Fake news often seems to be accompanied by a certain style of presentation, which we often see in public speaking. Smiles that don’t arise from the inside. An over-developed sense of confidence and authority, a self-centred deafness to other views. There’s a lot of it in public life and the UK has its own brand.

As a musician I’m also aware of a certain intonation – rise and fall of pitch, use and variation of tone – which alerts me to the possibility that I am being manipulated. How does one know when tonal variation is fake? Well, our experience of listening to people speak all the time, in everyday life, seems to equip us with good antennae.

As everything is connected, I find myself on the look-out for fake news in the world of the performing arts as well. I suppose it’s always been an element of my response, but now my search for ‘real news’ seems to have risen to the top of the pile.

It’s not straightforward, because the relationship between the surface and the content is complicated. Just because someone is a good showman does not mean that they are not a fine musician. On the other hand, just because someone is modest, sweet and prone to mistakes does not mean their interpretation is ‘truer’ than that of someone confident. It’s perfectly possible to be sincere and incompetent. But it’s also possible, and one sees it all the time, to be masterful and play perfectly in tune with no heart. Ideally one would be sincere, technically superb and wonderfully communicative; sometimes it does happen!

How to align style and message in the best way? That’s a task which musicians have always grappled with, but it feels particularly important in a world of fake news.