Musicians’ Collective

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 April 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Went to a jazz gig performed by a group called ‘Way Out West‘, a collective of about twenty jazz musicians who live in this part of London. Seven of them were there on the night, plus two singers out of the three who were advertised. They explained that ‘Way Out West’ accepts invitations all over the place, fielding whoever happens to be free on the night, so that the next time we heard them, the permutation might be different.

I couldn’t help envying them the flexibility. Imagine if one could confidently accept any booking for ‘the Florestan Trio‘, using any three experienced players who were free on the night! At a stroke one would be freed from the restriction of being able to perform when three particular people were available. Such a thing would never be possible in the world of classical music, alas, for the simple reason that all our music is notated in detail. We couldn’t possibly take the risk of waiting until the very evening to know who would be playing, because those people might not have seen or prepared their parts. In big orchestras there is a degree of variable membership, but the variability is agreed long in advance, and nobody performs in a professional symphony concert without prior rehearsal.

In improvised music, even if a skeleton structure is written down, most of the notes actually played are elaborated on the spot. If someone is feeling out of practice, or not particularly inspired, they can choose to play very little when their ‘solo’ comes, or elect to miss it altogether, as happened once or twice at the event I attended. If someone didn’t feel like playing fast, they didn’t. If someone felt like carving a swathe through the others with a burst of unplanned virtuosity, they did. When a couple of people felt like taking a break, they wandered offstage, leaving the others to play the next number as a smaller cohort. If the bandleader needed to tell people something, he pottered about the stage, whispering in people’s ears while the piece was in progress. During the second half, we learned that one of the advertised singers simply hadn’t turned up – no explanations given. No matter: they pulled out some new parts from the bandleader’s folder, and played on without the singer. All this seemed perfectly in keeping with the traditions of jazz, but would be impossible in classical music.

I sat there wishing that I could copy their formula and found a Classical Collective. What fun to leave more things open to the last minute! But as soon as I started thinking it through, I could see that it wasn’t going to work. There simply isn’t enough leeway in what our composers have demanded of us. Indeed, they want every note to be played as they wrote it. There’s no escape from a reciprocal commitment to specifics.

Splinter groups

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 March 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I went to the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House recently to hear a double bill of contemporary operas. Looking around the audience of several hundred, it struck me that I didn’t recognise a single person, even though I’ve been going to concerts and playing concerts in London for a long time. Over the years I have got to know lots of faces amongst our regular concert-goers, but in the Linbury Studio I felt I was seeing a completely different slice of the music-loving public. As I looked around, making a quick assessment of their style of dress, I also felt that this particular audience didn’t overlap much with the audience for traditional opera in the main theatre.

The same week I went to a lecture-recital at the Royal College of Music. There was a large enthusiastic audience of academics and researchers, none of whom I remembered seeing at concerts. A couple of nights later I went to a jazz gig at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. Again, packed out, and again I didn’t recognise a single person.

Sometimes it seems to me that with all the pressures on ‘serious music’, we can’t afford to have the audience splinter into so many special-interest groups. I’ve often noticed at, say, the Wigmore Hall in London that there seem to be completely different audiences for song recitals, chamber music, piano recitals and early music. The audience for contemporary music has virtually nothing in common with the audience for baroque. And there are nationalist audiences as well, who turn up to support a Russian artist, a French performer, a Japanese musician or an American one. I even think I’ve noticed that the audience for a string quartet has very little in common with the audience for a piano trio, and within the audience for piano trios there are certainly people who would go to hear this group, but not that one.

It strikes me as wasteful and sad that the small audience for classical music is subdivided further and further. Often it seems that people positively enjoy belonging to niche groups with an obsessive focus on one type of performance or performer. In defence of the music we love, we could accomplish much more if we all banded together and supported more kinds of concerts. It reminds me of that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where a newcomer attempts to join a secret meeting of an underground rebel group. As she sneaks into their meeting, she asks, ‘This is the People’s Front of Judea, isn’t it?’

‘People’s Front of Judea?????’ replies an incredulous John Cleese with a look of loathing. ‘This isn’t the People’s Front of Judea! This is the Judean People’s Front!’

Costume drama

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 March 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Every year I feel I have to update my wardrobe of concert clothes, which is a pain because each season I have less and less of a clear idea of how I should look. But what I wear has always been noticed by people in the audience, who comment on it enough to make me feel that I can’t keep appearing in the same outfits. Naturally this feels most unfair when my male colleagues have been wearing the same thing (a suit) for years on end. It’s become difficult to source the right kind of women’s evening wear, and as often as not I find myself looking in charity shops, to which people donate old-fashioned – or ‘vintage’, as it’s now known – clothing that might not be relevant to urban night life any longer, but can still look appropriate on the concert stage.

Or does it? I used to buy long, pretty, flowing dresses, which don’t seem right any more. For women there is no equivalent of the ‘uniform’ that men adopt by wearing dinner jackets, dark suits, tail coats, and so on. Must it be something with a skirt, or are trousers OK? Should it be colourful, or is black the most practical? If I’m appearing in, say, fifty concerts each year I can’t keep wearing the same thing, nor can I keep running to the dry cleaner’s with my outfits. But things you can wash by hand at home are never the things which look grand on the platform. I’ve noticed that students and young professional women musicians have taken to wearing trousers and a simple strap top or smart sleeveless blouse. Somehow I don’t feel this style would suit me, not after years of hearing people say that pianists should keep their arms covered.

The key thing seems to be to look as though you made an effort. But an effort to look like what? Funky, executive, debutante, bohemian? Musicians were once expected to look affluent and aristocratic, two things we’re mostly not. Now the outlook has changed; in the search for new audiences, we want to break the perceived link between classical music and privilege, and the look has to change too. All my musician friends agree that we should try to look a bit more special than the audience does. But the audience doesn’t have a single look. They come to concerts in a vast range of clothing styles, from the most casual of jeans to the smartest Chanel two-pieces. It’s easy to look grander than the jeans-wearers, but not easy to outflank the couture set. I sometimes wish a clever designer would create a ‘uniform’ for me, though I confess I can’t imagine what it would be. Maybe one of those nice fashion writers, like Hadley Freeman at the Guardian, could take me in hand and show me what would send out the right message, if only we could agree what the message is.

Where are the best reviews?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 March 2009 under Daily Life, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

My trio’s latest record came out recently. Friends were soon sending us reviews they’d found, in newspapers and magazines as well as on the web. I read them all and I started to realise something interesting: the best writing was often found in amateur publications, such as websites run by musical enthusiasts. Admittedly the worst writing crops up in these places too. But on this occasion it seemed that the professionals were no match for the best of the amateurs. In the writing of the professional critics there was a distinct flavour of stale cliché, whereas some of the amateurs had clearly spent a lot of time trying to put their insights into words, with good effect.

A few years ago, a musician could not quote a web review in any official capacity because web reviews were not considered ‘bona fide’. However, things are changing, and of course they’re likely to change further as the print editions of newspapers surrender to the huge appetite for internet news. Recently someone at The Guardian remarked to me that it’s almost a misnomer to call it ‘a newspaper’ first and foremost, because the web audience is so much bigger than the print audience, and far more international. Of course the news usually breaks on the website first. Sometimes, when there isn’t space for many arts reviews in the print edition, extra reviews are published on the newspaper’s website. So I think it won’t be for much longer that promoters and embassies and visa issuers can insist on being sent only hard copies of published reviews.

Other forms of arts and leisure activities have already developed extensive ‘user reviews’ which must be far more widely consulted than official guidebooks. If I want to go out for dinner, I look at a customer review site like London Eating to see what recent diners have said about the restaurant. Similarly with hotels: I consult a site like TripAdvisor and am happy to be guided by other visitors, particularly if they happen to mention the kind of things that are important to me. One great advantage of such customer review websites is that they can be far more up-to-date than a book which was handed in to the editor a year before it was printed, and has been on the shelves for another six months since then. Naturally the author cannot know that in the interim, the chef has resigned and the drains have begun to smell, but yesterday’s customer knows.

My guess is that many new kinds of music review sites will come to be taken seriously, not only the ones attached to prestigious newspapers. Of course a newspaper can only support a tiny number of critics, far fewer than the number of well-informed enthusiasts who have something to say but nowhere to say it. Now that it’s so easy to type in to the search box, for example, ‘Florestan Trio Schubert’ and be presented with a whole range of responses, readers will gradually notice where insightful writing is to be found.

The joy of cake

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 March 2009 under Daily Life  •  Leave a comment

It’s a funny thing, but when you spend hours of every day on something as intangible as music, you become very conscious that there’s nothing to show for it at the end of the day. You may have twisted your brain into wild unruly shapes (shapes resembling Beethoven) and strained the muscles of your arms until they ache, but you still can’t stagger out of the practice room holding aloft a Thing that you’ve succeeded in making, a Thing you can call your own and show other people, or put down on a table and use. Even if your time in rehearsal has wrought a whole new interpretation of some piece or other, it is still only potential energy until it meets its audience (which may be weeks or months away), and in the meantime there is nothing that you can actually point to as evidence that you’ve been spending your time constructively. Part of the loveliness of music is its evanescence, but sometimes that quality of not-remaining seems to cry out for its opposite, something that is really there, something created by your labours.

This is one of the reasons that cake plays such a positive role in my life. Growing up in Scotland, of course, cake played an important role. Going out to meet up with friends or relatives, whether in their own homes or in cafes, was an activity blessed with cake, and we all looked forward to it. A home-made cake announced that the maker thought you were worth some effort, and its solid hit of calories often seemed a perfect bulwark against the homeward journey in biting Scottish winds.

For years, on Saturday afternoons, I would come home from music lessons to find the house filled with a warm aroma and my Mum putting the finishing touches to a fruit cake or a Victoria sponge filled with jam or cream. It somehow set up an association between music and cake which continues to this day. If I have a lot of ‘brain work’ to do, either at the piano or at my computer, I often try to find time in the morning to bake a cake. It pleases me to know that even if Beethoven or Schubert have restricted their nutrients to spiritual ones, out there on a plate in my kitchen is a round, buttery-smelling, reassuringly heavy object which didn’t exist beforehand, but which I made, and which exists now without any doubt. Even if I can’t prove that I have made any headway with the sonata I’ve been practising, I can show people the cake and offer them a slice, or eat it myself if there’s no-one there. For me it’s a perfect refutation of the doctrine that the things of this world are only illusion.

Moist Lemon Cake
6 oz (170g) self-raising flour
6 oz (170g) sugar
6 oz (170g) butter
3 eggs
juice and zest of a lemon
a handful of dried coconut (optional)
a handful of ground almonds (optional)

Method: Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well, and add the grated zest of lemon. Sift the flour and fold it in to the mixture, adding some coconut and/or ground almonds if you like the taste (the recipe works perfectly without them though). Pour the mixture into a greased cake tin, preferably with baking parchment on the bottom. Cook slowly on a low shelf of the oven for one hour at gas mark 3 (160 deg C). While it’s cooking, squeeze the juice of a lemon into a bowl and sweeten it with sugar to taste. Take the cake out of the oven, let it rest for ten minutes in the tin, and then turn it onto a plate. While the cake is still warm, prick holes all over the top with a fine skewer or with a fork, making sure you go down almost to the bottom of the cake. Pour the sweetened lemon juice slowly over the top of the cake so that it drizzles down into the holes. Eat as soon as you like.