Edinburgh International Book Festival event

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 July 2019 under Books  •  5 Comments

As August approaches, Edinburgh is suddenly full of posters advertising the thousands of Festival and Fringe events about to be unleashed upon us. You can feel the city is about to overflow with visitors.

One of the most popular of the several festivals which co-exist in the city in August is the Book Festival which takes over Charlotte Square and a portion of George St with an array of pop-up venues and an intense programme of events more or less on the hour, every hour for two weeks.

This year both Bob and I have been invited to speak about our latest books. His talk is on orchestral music, and he’s preparing recorded examples to illustrate his points. Mine is largely about piano music and I’d like to be able to play some live examples.

Because of the practical difficulties and expense of putting an acoustic piano in a tent for an hour, I’m going to use a digital piano. With some reservation though – I don’t consider myself an expert on the digital piano, and I’m not sure it quite conveys the beauty of the 18th and 19th century music I want to play. But live music is better than no music, so I’ll do my best.

It may not be widely realised that the digital piano works in a different way from the acoustic one. On the digital piano, each note is the recording of an individual note. A chord of several notes is basically the simultaneous playing of several recordings of individual notes which know nothing of each other.

On the acoustic piano, where there are steel strings that resonate when the hammer strikes them, the strings vibrate in sympathy with one another, especially if the note being struck is closely related to them on the harmonic series. If you press down the sustaining (‘loud’) pedal, which lifts all the dampers, every string is free to resonate with any other. This produces sympathetic resonances which contribute to the complexity of piano sound, and can be used by the pianist to enhance its beauty. If you are used to that sound it is very disconcerting to play a piano which doesn’t offer it. The digital piano has many advantages, and is developing all the time, but currently it doesn’t match the classic sonority of the traditional grand.

Putting fuel in the tank

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 July 2019 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

After a recent concert a member of the audience was telling me how much she’d enjoyed it. ‘I always say it’s great to hear top professionals playing, because it’s only when people have really mastered the notes that they can think about how music communicates’, she said.

Actually, I feel sad when I hear people say things like this. To my way of thinking, too many people condemn themselves to spend too long practising ‘the notes’ routinely without realising that right from the beginning they can think about the music’s mood, character, and how it communicates.

Even when you begin to learn a piece, you can wonder what inspired the composer to put pen to paper, and how they hoped you might bring their music to life. Instead of putting your fingers down mechanically on the keys, you can touch the keys with the intention of creating a mood and a sound to go with it – dreamy, perhaps, or cheerful;  dance-like, songful or energetic. You can look ahead, get an idea of the whole piece and ask yourself what sort of shape it has.

On the simplest level, a lot of pieces have an A-B-A structure. An opening section is followed by a contrasting middle section, and then the first section returns. It’s very helpful to ask yourself: does the opening material feel different when it returns? If so, how can you play it so that the change of atmosphere comes across?

It’s a mistake to tell yourself that you can’t think about music until you’ve practised the notes a thousand times. Things will go more quickly if you let your imagination be involved from the very beginning. Otherwise, it’s like trying to drive a car with no fuel in the tank.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 July 2019 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Last week I had the opportunity to sit at the side of a church and watch the faces of the audience as they listened to a wonderful concert. It was interesting to observe the array of expressions, some clearly related to the music, others not. I saw people who were:

Transfixed, taken out of themselves

Mutinous, wishing not to have to be there

Eyes closed, smiling, grateful for this respite

Uncomfortable, glancing around for clues as to how to behave

Leaning forward, keenly observing the interchange between the players

Fidgety, not even trying to listen

Solemn, watchful

Awkward, slightly shamefaced, as if embarrassed by the beauty of music

Sunk in thought, using the music as soundtrack to some inner narrative

Faces upturned as if waiting for rain

When you’re one of the players, you often hope to produce a
certain effect on your listeners, but sometimes it’s good to be
reminded how little control you have over the audience’s reaction.


The artist and their team

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 July 2019 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

The other day I went to the Bridget Riley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery. In one room, there was a large Riley painting, painted directly onto a white wall. I stepped forward to read the plaque. It said the painting was owned by a gallery in Germany. How could it get to Edinburgh, then? Was the whole wall somehow cut out and transported?

Someone explained to me that in fact the artist’s ‘team’ would have come and painted the design on to the wall in Edinburgh, freehand but closely following her specifications. When the exhibition ends, the wallpainting will be painted over or erased in some way.

Many of the works in the exhibition, I was told, would have been painted by Team Riley. She originates the design and works out how it is to be realised, specifying everything from the precise colour of the white wall to the particular shades and densities of colour. The actual realisation is done by a dedicated and specialist band of ‘interpreters’.

‘Is there anything equivalent in music?’ I wondered.

In classical music, the composer is the originator of the idea, but we performing musicians are the ones who actually turn it into sound. After all, the musical score is silent. It has potential power, but musicians give it kinetic power – painting it freehand onto the wall, if you like, to enable others to perceive it. Because this is felt to be a collaboration between composer and performer, we do put our names to these ‘interpretations’ and hope to get some credit for them.

Music is different, though, because it is transient. It doesn’t stay painted onto the wall. (There are recordings, of course, but that’s a whole different story.) It vanishes as soon as it’s over, and has to be created anewNo matter how closely I think I’m following the composer’s instructions, my ‘freehand version’ will probably be slightly different from what they imagined, and it will also be different from the next pianist’s, and the next’s. But I suppose in our own way we are all Team Mozart.

Cardiff Singer of the World

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 June 2019 under Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been a keen follower of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition for many years. This year it seems even more appealing  as a distraction from what’s going on with the Tory leadership contest and all the rest of it.

It’s remarkable to see how the twenty singers who make it through to the televised rounds are drawn from all across the world – each time from further afield, it seems. Equally remarkable is how ‘global’ the style of singing is. It’s not possible to listen with eyes shut and identify someone as coming from China, Brazil, America, South Korea, or indeed the UK. There seems to be a sort of agreed international style which all must conform to. This is practical for singers whose careers see them jetting from opera house to opera house in different countries, but is it a good thing? Sometimes I long for a distinctive sound which instantly gives me the flavour of another culture.

Because opera arias have a text, and are sung by a character with a particular role to play, it’s easy to know what the music is ‘about’ – much easier, I daresay, than with abstract instrumental music. So one can straightaway begin to assess whether the singer is successfully bonding with the words and conveying the drama.

As usual, there are examples on both sides of the perfect line. Some singers over-emote and put too much pressure on the words. Others seem preoccupied with vocal technique and make the words sound mechanical. Now and then one comes across someone who can walk that line beautifully, naturally alive to the meaning of the words yet also in full control of a glorious melodic line.

For those of us who have to put across the meaning of music without words or opera characters, there’s a lot one can learn from watching these excellent singers.