Making the tricks of memory seem natural

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 June 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Recently I’ve had to memorise various piano pieces by Schubert. I find his music unusually hard to memorise, for a reason that throws light on why it is so profoundly satisfying.

Composers often use themes or musical material which they bring back later in the piece. Sometimes whole passages, whole pages of music come back. Usually when this happens it makes the task of memorising somewhat easier. But Schubert has a special way of bringing back material but changing it very subtly, so that it feels the same as when you first heard it, even though it actually isn’t. Mozart is the only other composer I know who has mastered this art to the same extent.

Sometimes superficial things change, like trills or other kinds of decoration added to phrases which didn’t have any when we first heard them. Sometimes octaves are added or taken away. Inner voices may be introduced, adding a quiet commentary to a returning motif. The same melody may come back, but with a different bass line, or with a new twist of harmony, leading to a new escape route and a new consequence. Sometimes a bit of music comes back but is compressed into a shorter span. Pauses or little rests may be introduced. Chords may retain the same harmonies as before, but reappear in different inversions. Something which was moderately loud in the original context is now reprised softly, or the other way round. A little four-bar digression may be extended to five or more bars when it reappears. A ‘legato’ phrase from the opening section may be non-legato in the closing one. A modulation to a distant key may be reprised with an even more adventurous modulation. Sometimes big things change, and sometimes the changes are so tiny that ‘only a real princess would notice them’.

Most composers use these techniques of variation to mark out a theme’s journey through a piece. But often their technique is plain to see when you study the score, and thus not too difficult to remember. The difference with Schubert (for me at least) is that he seems instinctively to grasp the way that memory works, and to translate the workings of human memory into music. In other words, he understands that we sincerely try to recall something as it was, and think that we have. But in fact we may have forgotten certain elements, or half-forgotten, or adjusted them unconsciously. Time and distance from the original event have rubbed away some of its contours, or made others stand out more vividly than they did. As we listen to Schubert’s music, we may feel that this was indeed the phrase as we first heard it, with all the same details. But it rarely is.

For the listener, all this happens so gently that they may feel they recognize things, just as they were, when they reappear later in the music. But in fact there is constant change. Schubert’s gift is to make this process feel natural, almost undetectable. Natural to listen to, that is  – but incredibly hard to memorise!

Reviews: how can we quote them if the press doesn’t print them?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 June 2016 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Reviews  •  3 Comments

Two recent topics of conversation have come together in my mind to prompt a question.

Topic 1: the number of classical concert reviews is shrinking rapidly. Everyone in the profession has noticed it. Many newspapers are reducing the number of classical reviews they print and the number of days a week on which they print them. Reviews are moved from the print edition to a web page. Critics are moved from salaries to free-lance arrangements, or are ‘let go’ altogether. Budgets are cut and papers don’t want to pay for critics to travel. Therefore many concerts come and go with no recognition in the press.

When I was a young professional musician, I used to go down to the newsagent on the day after a big concert and collect all the reviews. Often there were three or four on the same day, and magazine reviews followed later. I had ‘reviews’ folders bulging with newspaper pages.

But now, getting a review is an red-letter day. None of the old ways of guaranteeing a review –  giving a debut recital, putting on a premiere, exploring unusual repertoire, including interesting guest artists – are guaranteed any more. Even printed reviews are often subjected to the sub-editor’s knife. Occasionally a well-disposed critic has found a way to let me know that they were actually at the concert and did actually write a review, but it was ‘spiked’ (meaning never printed). Once I asked, ‘Can I have a copy of it, to quote from?’ but the answer was no. If it wasn’t officially published, it isn’t officially a review. The critic said, ‘I could let you have it, but it would have no more force than a personal letter from a member of the audience.’

Topic 2: funding bodies, etc. When you apply for money, you have to submit ‘proof of critical esteem’, which basically means reviews. If you apply for a visa to perform in certain countries, you have to send ‘published reviews’ from reputable papers. In the past, you could simply photocopy some recent reviews and attach them to your application. But now things have changed. Often there is no recent review.

However, this does not mean that there have been no successful concerts. There may have been halls full of enthusiastic listeners, but how can musicians prove it? They can send programmes to prove that the concerts happened, but that is no ‘proof of esteem’ in the eyes of funding bodies or foreign immigration departments.

A friend of mine was struggling with this problem lately as he compiled a funding application for a festival. There had been lots of good concerts, but no reviews. So I asked whether he was allowed to quote Tweets, Facebook messages, ecstatic emails from members of the audience? He laughed heartily and said, ‘I hardly think so.’

But something has to change. If official bodies require ‘published proof of critical esteem’, but newspapers are getting rid of their critics, then something has to give. There must be other acceptable ways of proving that your concerts were well-received. I can see the problem: tweets, personal letters and ’emails from members of the public’ would be easy to fake, or at least easy to generate with the help of some sympathetic friends. That’s the whole problem with, say, Tripadvisor. I can appreciate why ‘a published review in a newspaper’ is regarded as a guarantee of impartiality.

But as these grandly impartial platforms fade away, we need other ways of ‘proving esteem’. So how are we to do it?


Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 June 2016 under Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

IMG_20160517_140414218_HDRWe have a lovely cat, Daisy, whom we ‘rescued’ from a cat shelter. Shortly after she moved in, another cat got in through the catflap one evening. We were out and didn’t see what happened, but the two cats had clearly had an epic struggle. Clumps of cat fur were on the stairs. Objects were strewn around as if the cats had been grappling on table tops in various rooms.  Daisy was traumatised by the event.

We decided to splash out on a state-of-the-art high-tech catflap which would be programmed with Daisy’s electronic ‘chip’ and would open only for her. Naturally it was expensive, and so was the joinery required to fit it in the door. But we consoled ourselves by thinking that Daisy would never again have to confront predators inside the house.

Daisy too mulled over the incident and came to the opposite conclusion. She instituted a regime of guarding the catflap. From early morning she stations herself in a viewing position from which she can look through the catflap to check for enemies. Occasionally enemies present their evil faces at the catflap window, but they can’t come in.

But Daisy doesn’t know this and is always alert to danger. Now it is my turn to be tormented by the impossibility of explaining the situation to her. It weighs on my mind to see her carrying out her long vigils when I know that her enemies can’t get in. But how can we explain this concept to Daisy? I often feel there’s a metaphor here, but it never quite crystallises.

A moment of visibility

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 May 2016 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

At the weekend I had an unusual experience. Following the conclusion of BBC Young Musician and viewers’ anger that the result was so under-reported, I wrote a letter to The Guardian about the wider issue. We’ve heard a lot recently about orchestras folding, opera companies struggling, and arts companies disappearing as their funding dries up. Within the profession there’s constant talk of smaller ensembles such as chamber groups disbanding, disillusioned by their lack of earning power (many talented professionals have told me that it’s not difficult to get invitations to play – but it is difficult to get adequately paid for them).

Everyone says that lack of media attention – lack of reviews, previews and interviews, for example – makes it harder and harder to gather decent-sized audiences for classical music. In my letter I drew attention to where all this seems to be leading: to the risk that classical music could eventually disappear. Obviously there are many who would fight like mad to keep it, but there are also many who wouldn’t.

I’ve written letters to the press about classical music on a number of occasions. The response was always muted. But this time was different: as soon as the letter went online I started to get messages saying ‘Bravo!’ For a chunk of Saturday I was getting a message every few seconds. So far, my letter has been ‘shared’ 3500 times (update: now over 4400 times) on the Guardian website.

I had been expecting to be politely ignored, but to my surprise and excitement it seemed that people were listening.  And, though you can never tell why people are ‘sharing’ things, from the responses that reached me I felt there was enthusiastic support. But why suddenly now? Is it the BBC Young Musician effect? Friends told me that they had noticed letters and articles in a similar vein in Other Newspapers. Could it be that classical music is about to have a moment? If so, we should be ready to seize it.

My letter in today’s Guardian

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 May 2016 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings, Teaching  •  6 Comments

In today’s Guardian I have a letter which aroused quite a lot of interest when it appeared online yesterday. Please share it if you agree.

Here’s what I said:

‘Much of the recent discourse around classical music and its troubles has contained a subtext of glee at the notion that a privileged class is getting its comeuppance. The perception of classical music as a posh activity is outdated and wrong, as the success of the brilliant BBC Young Musician Sheku Kanneh-Mason (a pupil at a comprehensive school in Nottingham) illustrates (Letters, 18 May). Love of classical music is not dependent on class, but as music education focuses more and more on having a go rather than mastering a skill, it is less and less likely that young people will even have the chance to fall in love with it.

Trumped-up issues of class and accessibility are distracting us from the real possibility that if classical music continues to be sidelined we may lose something very precious. It’s misleading to say that as long as people are involved in some sort of music-making, it does not matter what sort it is. All music-making is certainly beneficial, but western art music demonstrates a complexity and depth which few other musical genres have attained. To play it and appreciate it requires skill, devotion and understanding, which is why such long training is necessary. There is no shortage of gifted young musicians wishing to undertake this training, but they must wonder why their achievements are largely ignored or even sneered at.

It is hard to understand why classical music is such a scapegoat when other heritage art forms continue to be widely supported. Letting classical music dwindle away for the sake of “democracy” is the equivalent of throwing out traditional literature and filling our bookshops with comics, axing traditional drawing and painting courses, or instructing the RSC to abandon Shakespeare and just improvise plays instead because everyone would understand the language straight away. Lovers of art and literature wouldn’t stand for such nonsense, so why should lovers of classical music?’