Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 September 2009 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Travel  •  1 Comment

When I was in the Highlands recently I had the pleasure of meeting the eminent Scots musicologist Dr John Purser, who has been presenting a long-running series of radio programmes on the history of Scots music – much of which has come as a surprise to today’s radio audience. John and his wife Barbara treated us to one the best meals we’ve had in a long time, all cooked from produce they had grown or reared on their croft, or gathered from the shore.

Dr Purser also gave me a copy of a very interesting CD which is about to hit the shops, and I want to recommend it. It’s called ‘Scotland’s Fiddle Piobaireachd’. This Gaelic word ‘Piobaireachd’ is more usually encountered in the form ‘pibroch’, which doesn’t (as I thought) mean ‘bagpipes’ but refers to the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. Over the centuries, pibroch has also been played by Scots violinists who also use the type of ornamentation played by pipers. It’s a very serious type of music which has little in common with the merry jigs and reels we tend to associate with Scots fiddle music.

On this disc, the American violinist Bonnie Rideout, who has made a special study of pibroch, plays it on her violin and viola. Listening to the music has something in common with listening to a solo Bach violin partita. Usually it begins with a haunting melody – a lament, love song or ‘gathering call’ – and then develops the melody in a series of increasingly complex variations, culminating in a virtuosic display. On some of the tracks, Bonnie is accompanied by bronze age horns supplying the ‘drone’ of the pipes. She’s also joined here and there by a flute player, a clarsach, bagpipes and voice.

Bonnie Rideout tunes her violin and viola in all sorts of different ways. For the opening track, ‘MacDougall’s Gathering’, for example, she tunes her viola to B flat, b flat, e flat and b flat. For the closing track she tunes it to D, A, d, a. It’s a most intriguing record and a glimpse into a musical heritage of which I was hardly aware.

Over the sea to Skye

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 September 2009 under Daily Life, Travel  •  1 Comment

live music in the Plockton Inn

live music in the Plockton Inn

Just returned from a ‘summer’ holiday on the Isle of Skye, in the Highlands of Scotland. It rained almost continuously, so we were hardly surprised when we learned that our visit was part of the most prolonged spell of wet weather recorded on the island since 1861. The mountains and lochs had their own beauty in the swirling mists. In a way, bad weather seems to suit them more than sunshine.

One evening we escaped the rain by going to the Plockton Inn on the mainland. First we had a terrific seafood meal in the dining room. Then we moved through to the bar, where a notice on a corner table advised: ‘Reserved for musicians after 9pm’. At that time, some local musicians gathered to sit round the table, playing traditional Scots folk music on mandolin, guitar, violins, banjo and whistle.

To say ‘some local musicians’ gives completely the wrong impression, because these players were extremely fine. Plockton hosts the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music, and it turned out that some of the musicians were tutors at the school. They sat round with their own pints of beer on the table, chatting and laughing until someone picked up their instrument again and drifted into a new tune, which the others would gradually take up. Music flowed in and out of the conversation, and the cosy bar was crowded with appreciative listeners. It was a delightful scene and I only wish I lived near enough to attend their Tuesday and Thursday night sessions more often.

Rattling Cello

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 August 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

A friend has been telling me about a DVD of cellist Bernard Greenhouse giving masterclasses. Greenhouse spoke about the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, with whom he had studied. Casals was well-known for his love of smoking a pipe. Asked how much he smoked, he once replied, ‘As much as possible.’ Lighting his pipe when seated at the cello, he let the spent matchsticks fall where they would; sometimes they fell on to the cello and disappeared through the slender F-holes into the body of the instrument. Once inside, the matchsticks could not easily be removed, and so the cello used to rattle when moved about.

This casual attitude to a valuable instrument (Casals’s cello was a Venetian instrument made probably by Goffriller in about 1730) is awfully different from the one displayed today by people who own similar instruments and are terrified by the responsibility. Prices of string instruments have now risen so high that for many players it can be a choice between buying an instrument and buying a house. Unwilling to be put in that position, many talented players try to put together a syndicate of buyers who invest in the instrument and are legally its owners. Quite apart from the instruments’ musical and emotional value, they have a certifiable financial worth, one that is annually re-appraised if shares in it are to be bought or sold.

All this has created a climate where players of such instruments might feel like doing ritual penance if they let smouldering matchsticks fall into the F-holes. The Casals pipe-smoking story made me feel somehow nostalgic for an era when an instrument was just that, a means to an end, not a unique historical artefact whose value is known and celebrated across the world.

Our cat’s 14th birthday

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 August 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

a big hug

a big hug

This is our cat at her 14th birthday party. She has been having chemotherapy for 15 months now. She’s responded to it extremely well, but all the same we felt that her 14th birthday was something to celebrate.  Now that the cat is on steroids, she has changed the habits of a lifetime and now likes all kinds of food, so she enjoyed the home-made coffee cake as well.

Calligraphy Blues

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 August 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I recently made up a couple of cadenzas for a Haydn piano concerto. I kind of improvised them at the piano, and played them in the concert without ever writing them out. Afterwards, I thought I’d try and note them down before I forgot them entirely. Cadenzas are supposed to be, or at least sound, spontaneous but I’d had one or two nice ideas which I was reluctant to let disappear into the mists of time. So I started to write them down.

What a labour! It’s a while since I had to write music down and I was appalled not only at how long it took, but how strenuous it was for my writing hand. You can speed up your movement to a certain extent, but I found that if I wrote too fast, the note heads became mere diagonal lines instead of little round blobs, and the stems became confusingly detached from the note heads.

And mine were only pieces of music lasting a couple of minutes each. What must it must have been like for Mozart, Beethoven and so on! The sheer time-consuming labour of writing their ideas down on manuscript paper must have far outweighed the time it took to compose the music. I do remember reading somewhere that if someone sat down and simply wrote out all Mozart’s music by hand, working their way through the Collected Mozart Edition with all the symphonies and opera scores and so on, it would take them longer than Mozart’s entire lifetime. Can that be true? As I struggled to write down the details of my flourishes and arpeggios, it felt as if it could be.