Today I went to the BP Portrait Exhibition, a favourite annual exhibition. As for some years now, the emphasis was on near-photographic realism, achieved with admirable technical skill but occasionally at the expense of ‘suggestiveness’ if I could put it like that. By which I mean that as I gazed at the portraits, my thoughts seemed to stop at the level of acknowledging the painters’ brilliant technique. For me, there was a coldness to many of the surfaces.
As we had coffee afterwards, Bob wondered aloud if there had been a single happy portrait in the exhibition. Neither of us could think of one. I went back to check. The nearest I could find to ‘happiness’ were a few portraits of people looking thoughtful, serious or peaceful. But actual happiness? No.
On my second time round the exhibition, I was struck by the number of portraits of isolated people. They were in two categories: 1) the isolated elderly and 2) the isolated young. I’m talking about portraits where ‘isolation’ was actually a declared subject of the picture in one way or another. There must have been at least ten paintings of isolated or lonely elderly people, and eleven or twelve portraits of isolated or lonely young people. What does this say about us?
I realise that when you set out to paint a portrait using a sitter, you need a pose which can be maintained over a long period, which presumably rules out smiling, talking or laughing. I couldn’t know, of course, whether the panel who selected the portraits and awarded the prizes had followed a certain agenda, untypical of the work submitted as a whole. But I was certainly struck by the sheer amount of loneliness on show, and couldn’t help reflecting on why this should be, in a world which, as one of the explanatory labels pointed out, ‘expects to be connected 24/7’.
Last week I played a lunchtime recital in Aberdeen, the first time I’d played in the city for ages. I took a train early enough to allow me to see sunrise over the Firth of Forth, followed by a spectacular curve around the coastline of Fife as the first light was touching the landscape (see photo). Made me wonder why I don’t take early trains more often!
Getting out of the train at Aberdeen I was taken aback by how cold it was. I knew I didn’t have long to rehearse, and as I walked up the grey cobbled streets towards the hall in a cutting wind, I started to wonder whether I’d actually have time to warm up, physically as well as in piano-playing terms.
Winter often presents the musician with extra challenges, especially if the performance is in a building with inadequate heating. Despite previous experience of concert situations where the first task is to thaw the fingers enough to be able to play any faster than Andante, it is curiously difficult to factor such knowledge into one’s preparation. You accept another invitation to play in a church in winter, and yet you pack your thin concert outfit and your glamorous shoes, and don’t think of taking a thermos of hot chocolate.
If I feel chilled, I like to warm my hands by putting them in a basin of warm water. This is rarely possible in public buildings where the sinks often have just one tap, sometimes just with cold water. If the water is hot, sometimes boiling hot, it’s un-adjustable with only one tap. And nine times out of ten there is no plug to put in the sink anyway. “Stops people putting the plug in, leaving the tap running, and walking away.” So there’s nothing for it but to do the hokey-cokey with a gush of boiling water. ‘You put your right hand in, you take your right hand out; in, out, in, out, shake it all about…’.
Anyway, after an alarmingly cold morning I got my reward when a huge and welcoming audience turned up to hear the lunchtime concert. And during the concert they were so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. An ideal audience, then, even if they were all sitting there in their coats and scarves.
Over the Christmas holidays I’ve been talking with friends and family about the topic of my next book. I’ve got some ideas of my own, but one night someone suggested to me that I could ‘crowd-source’ ideas from people who read my blog. If ‘crowd-source’ seems a little hyperbolic, let’s say ‘group-source’.
What would people like to read about? What topics do they wish I would address in my next book? What areas do they feel I haven’t covered yet, or haven’t explored in enough depth? Do they long for me to write about something other than music? I try to imagine people going up to the ‘new titles’ table in a bookshop, picking up my book and saying, ‘Oh good! I see that Susan Tomes has written a book on …..[fill in missing words].’
So if you have suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them. You don’t have to post a public comment on this website. You can email me privately at email@example.com
In the meantime, Happy New Year!
It’s hard to keep up with changing perceptions in the world of music. We classical musicians are used to being the butt of complaints that our concerts are off-putting because of their focus on accuracy and daunting accomplishment. Unfortunately there’s no way round it, because you can’t do justice to this complex music without a high degree of technical prowess. First you have to ‘catch the rabbit’ of instrumental mastery.
For decades now, we’ve been repeatedly told that one of the main reasons for pop’s success is that – by contrast – anyone can have a go at it. You can pick up a guitar or a pair of drumsticks and quite quickly become competent enough to play the chords or rhythms that dominate a lot of pop music. You can play in a band after only a short apprenticeship (or even with no apprenticeship at all, as some celebrity careers have proven). And yes, that short training period has been empowering for many who like music and wanted to perform, but were never in a position to grapple with daily practice.
I’ve grown used to hearing that classical music is boringly perfect while pop music is ‘free’. So I was surprised to read about the Spanish group Hinds in today’s Guardian. ‘Pop is about perfection. We’re the opposite….We get messages from girls – and boys – in their rooms, listening to our songs and just being free. They feel they can do it, too. They see us and see that it’s OK not to be perfect.’
Sorry, what – pop is about perfection now? People are relieved to see an indie band whose shows ‘fizz with the highwire sense that they could collapse at any moment’?
Perhaps classical musicians should feel liberated. The mantle of tedious perfectionism has been cast over someone else. Let them see how it feels! We never saw ourselves as grim perfectionists anyway, and perhaps now we really don’t need to.
I have been haunted this week by articles about the New York collaboration between ‘performance artist’ Marina Abramovic and pianist Igor Levit. You can read all about it here. Basically, Marina Abramovic seeks to ‘get the audience into a different state of mind’ in preparation for a performance by Igor Levit of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She summons people to relinquish their phones, watches, tablets, laptops and don noise-cancelling headphones while they sit silently for half an hour ‘in cloth deck chairs designed to Ms Abramovic’s specifications’ before the music begins. ‘They want to listen to Bach, so they have to suffer’, she comments drily.
I discussed this conceit with a few colleagues. We were all afraid it would be greeted rapturously by the very people who usually say they don’t go to classical concerts because they hate being told to sit still and keep quiet.
Most classical musicians crave an atmosphere of silence and concentration. To put it simply, the painstaking work involved in considering and perfecting every tiny musical nuance just isn’t worth it if the details aren’t heard. So with mind-over-matter and body language, performers try to create a powerful focus. In recent years, efforts to foster this have included asking the audience to stifle their coughs and turn off their phones. Some players have remonstrated with noisy audience members from the stage. Though some applaud them for doing so, others find them pompous.
The custom of sitting quietly and paying attention in classical concerts is the single most often-cited reason why the public resents them. I’ve lost count of the complaints about the ‘stuffy’ concert-hall and the ‘old-fashioned’ request to keep still and refrain from texting or tweeting. In fact, in the search for listeners, most musicians have desperately been trying to think of ways they can ‘loosen up’ this allegedly stuffy atmosphere – encouraging the audience to bring in drinks, dress down, move about.
So what are we to make of the fact that a celebrity performance artist is lionised for making the audience surrender their phones and watches and sit in enforced silence for half an hour? And how should we respond when a starry-eyed audience tells us the experience was revelatory?