Paper trail

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 November 2022 under Musings  •  6 Comments

Last week a friend was showing me how she can call up musical scores on various electronic devices, linking the devices so that she can use whichever best suits her needs at the time. She even had the option of writing in fingerings and expression marks with an electronic pencil; any changes she made would immediately show up across all her devices.

She also showed me the compact Bluetooth pedal she uses at the piano to turn the pages of an electronic score. The pedal had two ‘buttons’, one to turn the page forward and the other to turn it back.

She was enthusiastic about these possibilities. ‘Honestly, I would never want to go back to paper copies’, she said.

Later that day I stood looking at the shelves of (paper) music scores I’ve collected over many years, dating right back to the first little albums I had as a beginner at the age of seven. To me, this library sums up all my different learning phases and performing experiences. Many of the scores contain my pencilled remarks put in during rehearsals. As the years went by, and I found myself playing with different chamber music partners, I occasionally put in little notes of who it was who wanted more time here, or an acceleration there. So the music has sentimental value as well. Tucked inside the pages I sometimes find old concert programmes and other souvenirs. Sometimes I find faxes I received when on tour. Remember faxes?

It’s true that I have spent a ridiculous amount of time lugging around heavy volumes of music (sometimes hardback). When flying somewhere for a concert, I always make sure to have all my music with me on the plane, not in my suitcase in the hold. At least if my luggage goes astray, I can still play the concert. Thus I have dragged a separate bag of music, sometimes weighing several kilos, all over the place with me. A laptop and a Bluetooth pedal would certainly be an elegant upgrade.

But even if I were technologically confident, could I imagine abandoning my books of music? I don’t think so. A laptop would be lighter, but I would probably just be swapping one set of anxieties with another.

Playing in the RSNO chamber series for the first in-person audience since the pandemic

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 November 2022 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

It was great to be part of the RSNO chamber series in Glasgow yesterday afternoon in its first ‘live’ concert for an in-person audience since the pandemic.  That’s a gap of almost three years!

Photo shows (L to R) cellist Pei Jee Ng, me, violist Tom Dunn, violinist Lena Zeliszewska, violinist and RSNO concertmaster Maya Iwabuchi.

Everyone seemed to be feeling particularly cheerful about being back in the New Auditorium of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. It’s a very nice space to play in and I found myself thinking it’s just the sort of hall it would be great to have in Edinburgh.

Our all-Shostakovich programme (the Piano Trio and the Piano Quintet) was perhaps an unusual choice for an event that felt so celebratory, but in fact the audience as well as the players seemed keen to get their teeth into something substantial. I had wondered if it would feel difficult to perform Shostakovich’s sad and powerful Piano Trio on a Sunday afternoon, but in fact the deep attentive silence of the audience seemed to prove that people are hungry for meaningful music.

Kettle’s Yard recital in Cambridge this month

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 November 2022 under Books, Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  1 Comment

I’m preparing for a solo recital at Kettle’s Yard museum in Cambridge on November 24th.

Kettle’s Yard is a beautiful little museum which began in the 1950s as a personal art collection by Jim Ede, who used his own house as the display venue. It was the first gallery I visited where art objects were shown in an ‘everyday setting’. As well as lovely contemporary paintings, ceramics and sculptures, there were things like collections of stones arranged in pleasing patterns on windowsills, their colours subtly graded. As a student, it inspired me to try the same in my own room, and to this day I still try to intersperse little ceramics among the books on my shelves. Such is the power of Jim Ede’s example!

My recital programme is a mixture of things I’ve known for a long time and things I’ve learned more recently. When preparing pieces I’ve known for a long time, I feel I have to ‘dust them’ to begin with. There are little decisions I made long ago, which for some mysterious reason don’t feel quite right any more. Even simple decisions like how loudly or softly to play things may appear in a different light.

Music notation is limited in how much it can convey. Thus the instruction to play softly or loudly can only be a broad brush. How softly? How loudly? What kind of soft or loud, and why? There are  factors which change from concert to concert – the type of piano, the size of the room, the kind of audience. There’s also the pianist’s feeling about what rings true, or doesn’t any more.

When I was a child, I used to mark passages which had especially impressed me in books. They were a little private collection of wise sayings, which I wanted to be able to return to. And when I did, maybe years later, I was often puzzled as to why I had marked them. With more life experience, I often found that my favourite sentences had faded somewhat, while other passages now seemed more insightful. The same is true of music.

For example, I’m polishing up some pieces from Ravel’s Miroirs. In my final student year I played them in a summer concert; at that time I was concerned to put across Ravel’s glittering textures. Now it seems to me that the glittering textures can take care of themselves (if I have practised them properly). What seems important now is to go beyond the textures to Ravel’s mysterious identification with the natural world – the fluttering of moths in the dark, the distant calling of birds in a jungle. Creating an atmosphere is important, and the virtuosic elements should be smuggled in.

Sometimes it seems mad to spend time adjusting these tiny things, which perhaps nobody will notice. But in other ways, doing such work feels positive, even important.

Paperback edition of ‘The Piano’ comes out today in the UK

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 October 2022 under Musings  •  1 Comment

The paperback version of my book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces comes out today in the UK. (It comes out in the US on November 29.)

One can’t take it for granted that a hardback non-fiction book will go into paperback, so I’m grateful to Yale University Press for this mark of confidence.

You’ll remember that the hardback edition has a lovely pink, blue and cream cover design referencing the layout of the piano keyboard. The paperback cover keeps the ‘keyboard’ motif, but goes for a smart, handsome new design with darker colours. The contents of the book are the same, but excerpts from reviews have been added to the opening pages.

I hope the paperback edition will bring the book to the attention of a new readership – and in time to consider it as a Christmas present for the piano-lovers in your life.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s view of the Scottish temperament

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 October 2022 under Books, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits, published in 1887. RLS, as he’s often referred to, is famous for Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and a few others, though in my local library the collected edition of his works runs to 25 volumes.

RLS grew up in Edinburgh, as I did. For the sake of his health he later travelled and lived overseas, but the experience of growing up in Scotland in the mid-19th century left a deep impact on him. In Memories and Portraits he writes about the Scottish temperament.

There’s a kind of lazy belief that Scots are reserved and taciturn compared with the English. Yet that’s not how RLS saw it. He thought the Scots – at all levels of society – were more willing to give of themselves in conversation. And actually that matches my own experience of living in both countries.

‘The first shock of English society is like a cold plunge’, he writes. ‘It is possible that the Scot comes looking for too much, and to be sure his first experiment will be in the wrong direction. Yet surely his complaint is grounded; surely the speech of Englishmen is too often lacking in generous ardour, the better part of the man too often withheld from the social commerce, and the contact of mind with mind evaded as with terror. [my italics]

‘A Scotch peasant will talk more liberally out of his own experience. He will not put you by with conversational counters and small jests; he will give you the best of himself, like one interested in life and man’s chief end. A Scotchman is vain, interested in himself and others, eager for sympathy, setting forth his thoughts and experience in the best light.

‘The ego of the Englishman is self-contained. He does not seek to proselytise. He takes no interest in Scotland or the Scotch, and, what is the unkindest cut of all, he does not care to justify his indifference. Give him the wages of going on and being an Englishman, that is all he asks; and in the meantime, while you continue to associate, he would rather not be reminded of your baser origin. … That you should continually try to establish human and serious relations, that you should actually feel an interest in John Bull, and desire and invite a return of interest from him, may argue something more awake and lively in your mind, but it still puts you in the attitude of a suitor and a poor relation.’

RLS was writing 135 years ago, but many of his remarks still ring true to a fellow Scot – to this one, anyway.