I spent a long tube journey today reading the newspaper articles and special supplements about tonight’s Champions’ League Final football match between Manchester United and Barcelona. I’m not much of a sports fan, but anything can become interesting once you take the trouble to know something about it, and I can see that in any team sport played to a high level there’s the same fascination as there is in chamber music: the intense collaboration between talented people dependent on one another’s reflexes and powers.
As I read, I wondered what it must be like to have 200 million people waiting to watch on television, thousands of supporters flying out to Rome to attend the match, and thousands more taking time off work to fly to Italy without even having tickets for the match, knowing they will end up watching it on a screen in a field somewhere, but just wanting ‘to be near’. I can hardly imagine. In my line of work, there are passionate supporters and people determined to get to particular concerts, but their numbers are …. well, let’s say they are in the hundreds at most. We did once have a few music students camped in the churchyard at the Peasmarsh Festival, but I can’t say their behaviour caused the local police to tremble. No, we can’t compete with Man U. Yet I can’t believe there is less skill or value in what we do, and I still think lots more people would enjoy it if they gave it a chance.
Today was a Bank Holiday, but I hardly noticed. To me it was just a valuable practice day in the week leading up to the rehearsal period for the trio’s festival. Next Monday marks the beginning of a ten-day period in which we have to prepare all the pieces we’re playing in eight concerts. Once the festival opens, on the very day after the rehearsal period ends, the concerts fall thick and fast, and none of us can afford still to be thinking about notes or fingering. Even though it may look from the outside like an idyllic rural event, the festival is in some ways the biggest challenge of the year.
My left index finger is still fragile. No longer painful, it has however developed a ‘twang’ as if a tiny tendon is out of place in the fingertip. If I strike a note too forcefully, my finger ‘twangs’ as I release the pressure. So I’ve decided it would be wise to spend this week playing everything slowly and carefully.
Every year, preparing for the festival feels like a mountain to climb. And speaking of mountains, I got an important tip from reading about Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who at the age of 65 has just conquered Mount Everest. He said that his mental trick was never to think of the summit. He just kept plodding on, ‘walking for ever’, not allowing himself to wonder if he was near the top yet. Putting one foot patiently in front of the other, one of those steps would eventually be the one that happened to place his foot on the summit. I’m going to try to follow his example.
Bob’s new vegetable patch at the bottom of the garden is being sabotaged by slugs. They emerge at night to munch on his tender lettuces and fledgling bean plants. We know the slugs dislike crawling over certain things, so for a while we collected our coffee grounds and spread them around the plants, but rain kept washing them away. We tried gravel and expensive bands of copper, to little effect. Sometimes Bob goes out at night with a torch and a bucket of water to collect slugs, but he doesn’t feel like doing that very often. (When I first typed that sentence, I wrote ‘Bob goes out at night to collect slugs with a torch and a bucket of water’, but that conjured up an awful vision of torch-wielding aquiferous slugs.)
Now he’s moved the campaign into a new phase by building a little wooden barrier around the vegetable patch, and affixing sandpaper to the outside of the barrier. So far this prickly wall has defeated the slugs.
We’ve been discussing whether it’s enough to have a barrier above ground level. Slugs can also burrow, so it seems likely that on meeting the barrier they may simply dive (if that is the word) under it and rise up triumphant among the lettuces. Should the sandpaper barrier be extended downwards, under the ground? What depth would deter them, and whom else would it deter?
I find that Piotr Anderszewski’s views on chamber music have begun to prey on my mind. Yesterday I said it was no hardship that chamber music has to be performed in an upright position. Since then I have started to wonder if I was too hasty. Now I suddenly feel that if only I could have lain down to play the piano, everything would have been better. Just thinking about my years of enforced perpendicularity to the concert platform makes me feel exhausted.
But what kind of piano would I have played, had I been lying down? I did once see, in the Tate Gallery, an exhibition of work by German artist Rebecca Horn which featured a grand piano suspended upside-down just below the ceiling. Other drastic things had happened to the piano too, but its location was thought-provoking. Arguably such a piano could be manoeuvred by crane into a position where a recumbent pianist could play it. But even if the piano keyboard could be arranged to hang just above one’s chest, it would be very difficult to press the keys upwards instead of downwards, and particularly hard to play loud and fast at the same time. Gravity would say no. And what about the pedals? Would the pianist end up looking like someone at an exercise class doing imaginary cycling? That would take all the fun out of lying down. For all I know, however, it may already be possible for a pianist to lie in bed and play a virtual keyboard projected onto the counterpane, the ‘sound’ created electronically and transmitted to speakers in Wembley Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl. Maybe that’s a way forward for the vertically-challenged pianist.
I’m still mulling over a remark made by the marvellous pianist Piotr Anderszewski in a Telegraph interview I read on the plane to Berlin. Asked why he doesn’t play much chamber music, Anderszewski replied, ‘Well…I’m a solitary person. But also I like to lie down, and you can’t do that if you’re rehearsing with another person. I really love to lie down, it’s the natural position. Standing up is horrible – look! It’s so insecure, and so high!.. I wish someone would invent a piano I could play lying down, I would be so happy!”
This is the most ingenious defence I’ve heard so far for not playing chamber music. But I don’t see why chamber music should be uniquely singled out for its verticality. He might as well say that he doesn’t accept concerto engagements because they require him to be in an upright position. It’s true that most piano concertos require no more than half an hour of public verticality, whereas performances of chamber music generally demand two hours of it. But then so do solo piano recitals. It is very puzzling. Of all the difficulties involved in chamber music, I’d say that the impossibility of lying down is one of the less maddening.
I’m baffled too by his reference to the ‘high, insecure’ pursuit of standing up. Surely he doesn’t stand up to play chamber piano parts? Perhaps, when he thinks of chamber music rehearsals, he imagines himself seated at the piano beside a tall violinist who might at any moment sway, totter and fall on top of him – crying ‘Timbre!’