Jarred by canned music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 June 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

Just back from a successful trip to the Echternach Festival in Luxembourg. We played in a very pretty but wildly over-resonant church whose acoustics were only somewhat subdued by the presence of the audience. During the rehearsal, when the church was empty, we counted a five-second echo. Nevertheless the audience for our concert was extremely warm and appreciative.

My hotel room overlooked the 18th century cobbled square with its fountain, town hall, cafes with wicker chairs and tables on the cobbles, and baskets of flowers trailing from the balconies. My nice old hotel blended perfectly into this scene, except for the canned music playing in all the public spaces.

I was up early and had breakfast by myself, so I had nothing to distract me from this music, no doubt meant to lull me but actually having the opposite effect, because it stopped me from feeling at one with my historical surroundings. After I while I stopped watching the rain bounce off the cobbles outside and focused on the canned music. It was evidently composed to some evil formula which kept it below the threshhold of interest, event or memorability. Singers meandered up and down the same few notes with artificial cheeriness. The pulse never varied, the rhythms were stupidly predictable, there were no key-changes, and all the phrases were the same length. It seemed to say, ‘Don’t look around you! Just relax into this purchasing opportunity.’ And then louder music started up in the square outside. It was market day, and the stallholders had installed blaring pop music to whet people’s appetites.

The other day, we got into a taxi in Berlin and the same kind of music was playing. We asked the driver to turn it off. He said, ‘Whenever I have musicians in the cab they always ask me to turn off the music. That seems funny to me.’

Link to Guardian article

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 June 2009 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

A couple of people have mentioned that they couldn’t immediately find my Guardian article online yesterday, and have suggested I give a direct link. Here it is:


Entering into the role

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 June 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio, Musings  •  Leave a comment

One of the pieces we’re playing in Luxembourg tonight is a piano trio arrangement of Janacek’s first string quartet, known as ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ after a short story by Tolstoy. The story recounts how the narrator becomes jealous of his wife after she forms a musical partnership with a violinist, and in a fit of jealous rage he kills her. In Janacek’s string quartet, the moment of the murder is generally thought to be depicted by music given to the viola player.

I’ve been discussing the work with a violist friend who performed the work many times with his string quartet. Once, they made it the subject of a ‘workshop’ for a group of senior managers from the business world. The managers were interested in how ‘leadership’ and ‘shared responsibility’ work in the ultra-collaborative field of chamber music. After explaining the background to Janacek’s quartet and performing it, the quartet split up and went off into different rooms to ‘workshop’ it.

One of the participants asked my viola-playing friend how he prepared mentally for the act of ‘murdering’ someone. My friend said that he didn’t prepare in that way; he just tried to feel the music’s inner momentum as he played it. But he agreed to explore the idea of identifying with the task of ‘being the murderer’. They discussed whether it was possible to convey the right feeling to the audience if one was not possessed by the right feeling oneself. They talked about the fictional narrator’s state of mind, what it must feel like to be so worked up, what would be the trigger for an actual moment of violence, and how it would influence one’s playing if one really captured such a psychological state.

Afterwards, this discussion preyed on my friend’s mind. When he next joined his quartet to play the piece, he felt a terrible tangle of emotions. As he put his bow on the string, his arm was shaking with tension. He felt hostile to the musicians around him. He felt strangely detached from the performance, and when it came to the moment of ‘the murder’ he was so agitated he could scarcely control his playing. He said it was a powerful experience, but not an empowering one. And it taught him something about the paradoxes involved in performance.

Guardian article tomorrow

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 June 2009 under Concerts, Florestan Trio  •  Leave a comment

I’ve written an article for The Guardian, due to be published tomorrow (Friday 5 June) in the Film and Music supplement. It’s about the trio’s festival plans to perform Beethoven’s Second Symphony in the composer’s arrangement for piano trio.

This year there are several works in our festival which are cut-down versions of works originally written for larger forces. In addition to the Beethoven Symphony, we’re playing a trio version of Janacek’s first String Quartet, and we’re also giving performances of two concertos, one for piano and one for cello, using a string quartet instead of an orchestra as our support. In case you’re wondering whether a ‘reduced’ version of these works means that they are shorter or structurally different, the music is exactly the same, just re-distributed among three instruments instead of being played by a quartet or a whole orchestra. Playing a slimline, frugal version of these works is an idea which arose for artistic reasons, but which now seems to make extra sense in our recession-hit times.

A trip to Luxembourg tomorrow will prevent me from giving the link to the Guardian page. But if you can’t read the paper itself, I hope you’ll easily find it online on Friday.

Transfer Fees

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 June 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Over breakfast this morning I heard the sports announcer say that footballer Roberto Kaka is to join Real Madrid for a record-breaking transfer fee of £56 million. This sum is quite apart from the player’s own prospective earnings, reputed to be in the region of £160,000 a week. And what really amazes me is that even after these enormous transfer fees have been paid, it doesn’t seem long before these top players are moving on again, to another club in another city.

I can’t help comparing it with the world of classical music, which in some ways is also a world of teams. Over the years, many players I know have left one group or joined another, sometimes moving to another country to do so, but never has any money changed hands. Transfers have always been a finance-free zone. Yes, perhaps a player may be lured by the prospect of earning more in another group, but no ensemble ever pays another to release a player. This is probably not so much a question of high moral standards as of lack of money in the profession.

I couldn’t help fantasising about chamber musicians being transferred between groups for vast sums of money. What fun to be poached every other year by a fabulous piano trio from abroad, and then to hear newsreaders say that a transfer fee of many millions had been offered for me!