Janis Joplin documentary, ‘Little Girl Blue’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 February 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  3 Comments

This week we watched Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary about Janis Joplin, ‘Little Girl Blue‘, which tells Janis’s story with the help of letters she wrote to her family while on tour. It’s an absorbing watch, full of great footage, excellent interviews with her family, friends and bandmates, and touching insights into Janis’s evolution from spiky teenager to powerful rock icon.  I found myself thinking of Amy Winehouse, another super-talented young woman who came to grief through drugs.

However, as a musician myself, there were things I would have loved to know more about – the same things, actually, that are missing from most documentaries about musicians. Janis had a unique vocal style. Where did it come from? What was the musical path she took, and did she work hard to develop it in the privacy of her own room? How did she arrive at what we now think of as ‘classic Janis Joplin’, and was she satisfied with it? Did she consider other styles? A glimpse of what influenced her was given by a telling clip of Otis Redding, but his influence wasn’t really analysed.

The clips of Janis at the height of her fame show her blend of energy, ecstasy and violent intensity. Often that came out in a kind of shrieking. On stage she seemed to be ‘losing it’ – giving herself up to a world of feeling, excitement, maybe rage. Eyes closed, head thrown back, sometimes yelling so loudly that it must have been difficult to hear the rest of the band …. and yet as you listen you realise that she knew exactly where she was in the phrase, in the trajectory of the song.

She knew how many verses she had sung, where to switch to new harmonies, how to approach the end of the song. She knew when the band were going to cut in with instrumental phrases. Clearly this had all been worked out ahead of time, but despite giving the impression of someone in the midst of a full-blown high-decibel meltdown, Janis remained alert to the structure and detail of the song. This is not easy to do. She had a kind of twin-track consciousness – able to follow an objective plan shared with other musicians, yet also to abandon herself to the ecstasy of the moment. Many musicians can do one or the other, but when they try to combine them, something is lost. Janis could combine the two.

I first discovered Janis Joplin when I went to college. She had died not long before, at the age of only 27, so we had a sense of having just missed something precious. I loved her album, ‘Pearl‘.

The possibility for musicians of making a local career

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 January 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Travel  •  6 Comments

I keep coming across articles about the importance of revising our approach to international travel. For the sake of the environment as well as public health, we’re told, we should be working towards the possibility of doing everything in the places where we live. City planners and architects should be thinking how to provide us with all the facilities for a satisfying life within 15 minutes’ travel from our homes.

It’s undoubtedly true that, certainly while the virus is still circulating, musicians will have to consider the risk to ourselves of travelling to perform in other countries, and the risk to them of importing us. Heedless travel will be unacceptable.

In theory, the fifteen-minute city is a lovely idea. But how would it work for artists?

Like most musicians who are predominantly performers, my whole career has been based on the necessity of going somewhere else to play concerts. As someone who was never starry-eyed about the whole airport/hotel scene, I often found it tedious that I had to keep going away. How nice it would be to have audiences at the end of one’s own street! But that was rare. And anyway, local audiences didn’t want to hear you every week. So if your aim was to play concerts and earn fees from doing so, you had to keep moving.

Concert-goers are keen on hearing performers from far away – or at least have been trained to think like that. A glance at the season’s brochure for any big orchestra will show that its concerto soloists are usually from Elsewhere. The same is true of solo recitals and chamber music seasons. Elsewhere is glamorous! (British musicians, of course, benefit from this attitude when they travel abroad and become the exciting foreign visitors.)

However, it may turn out that Elsewhere loses its glamour – at least for a while.

If we are prevented from travelling to make a living, we need to think about about how musicians could make a career by staying local. (Yes, there’s teaching, but that doesn’t suit everyone.) With things set up the way they are, there is currently no way for a concert performer to make a living within 15 minutes of home. Lots of things would have to change. Funding, for example, and promoters’ agendas, and audience’s attitudes.

Could one imagine that UK symphony orchestras would switch to a roster of UK artists for their concerto spots? Could recital and chamber series cultivate a ‘love your local artists’ ethos? It would be great for UK musicians, but would audiences and sponsors embrace the change?

There could be many positives from a new approach which slows down the merry-go-round of musicians who spend their lives whizzing about to play to one another’s home audiences.

This topic is going to be important, and I’ll return to it. Send me your thoughts!

Burns’ Night

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 January 2021 under Books, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

Last night, on Burns’ Night, my book group met on Zoom to read Robert Burns’ poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’. Several members of the group had grown up taking part in annual Burns recitations on January 25, with prizes given for the best or most dramatic performances. They recalled the sound effects and props used by winning speakers to conjure up Tam fleeing from the scene of devilish revelry on his horse Meg, whose tail is plucked off by a pursuing spirit as the mare leaps with Tam to safety across the river (spirits won’t cross running water, it seems).

My eye fell on Robert Burns’ dates – 1759-96. Very similar to Mozart’s dates – 1756-91. Two short but brilliant lives! Did they know of one another? I don’t know, but I imagine they would have shared many attitudes to life and art.

Both were capable of being earthy and cheeky. Both had great sympathy for ‘the common man’ and a healthy disregard for rank and titles. Robert Burns’ famous poem, ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that’, would surely have struck a chord with Mozart. And Mozart’s letters to his family, with puns and jokes about bodily functions, would have made Burns laugh.

Mozart was a good linguist, but even if he knew some English he probably never encountered the Scots vocabulary used by Burns. Burns shot to fame when his volume of ‘Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ was published in 1786, when Mozart was flourishing in Vienna. But as far as I know, those poems were not translated into German until the early 19th century, so Mozart may never have read them.

Curiously, they had birthdays close together – Robert Burns on January 25, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on January 27. Two great artists born under the sign of Aquarius, whose qualities are said to include a love of independence and equality.

Brahms Horn Trio on Radio 3’s ‘Building a Library’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 January 2021 under Florestan Trio, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

Over the years, my recordings have often featured on BBC Radio 3’s Saturday morning programme, Record Review. They have a long-running feature called ‘Building a Library’, where each week a reviewer sifts through the available recordings of a classic piece and recommends their favourites. This is always interesting because it gives listeners the chance to hear snippets of lots of different performances. Often I don’t agree with the reviewer about ‘the winner’, but I often find a new favourite of my own amongst the snippets.

If one of my recordings is on the programme, I might happen to hear about it from someone who was listening in, but there have been many occasions when I didn’t even know a CD of mine had been discussed. One isn’t notified by the BBC of an upcoming programme, so it’s complete chance whether I get to know about it or not.

Which is why I was very surprised on 2 January to get back from a walk and find a batch of excited messages from people who had heard my name in Natasha Loges’s round-up of recordings of the Brahms Horn Trio, a delightful work in several movements for French horn, violin and piano. Steve Stirling, Anthony Marwood and I recorded it for Hyperion in 1998 as part of the Florestan Trio’s Brahms Trios set of discs. That was over twenty years ago, obviously; it’s a long time since anyone had mentioned this particular recording to me, so I was delighted to find that it had popped up again and been found to be pleasing.

Ours wasn’t Natasha Loges’s final choice for the no. 1 spot, but her kind remarks about my playing had caught the ear of surprisingly many people who felt the urge to write to me and tell me about them. Which I guess just shows that we are all stuck at home in lockdown, with time to listen to the radio on a Saturday morning. Even better, it seems that people have time (and the wish) to bother to get in touch with the musicians. How nice! A cheering way to start the year.

There are still eleven days left to listen to the broadcast if you’re interested.

Learning to play the spoons in lockdown

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 January 2021 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

Last weekend, reading the Guardian Review, I was struck by a comment of Joe Moran’s about having learned to play the spoons in lockdown.

I was vaguely aware of spoons as musical instruments, but a bit of research put me in the picture: spoons have long been used to produce percussive rhythm in folk music – British, Irish, Canadian, American as well as Russian, Turkish and Greek. And it seems that ancient cultures – Roman, Egyptian – used spoons in various kinds of music-making.

The basic technique is to turn two spoons back to back and hold their handles in one hand, hitting the spoons against your knee so that their curved surfaces clack against one another. Then you hold your free hand a few inches above your knee and hit the spoons down against your knee, and up against the palm of your free hand. The effect is not unlike that of castanets in Spanish flamenco. From simple rhythms you can gradually build up to sophisticated effects, and some spoon players – like the Scotty brothers – have brought the skill to a high level of artistry.

Mastering the basic grip is the hardest part. There has to be a space between the backs of the spoons or they won’t ‘clack’, and the space has to remain consistent. If you relax your grip in the wrong way, the spoons splay apart and the sound is lost (as well as your temper). But with a bit of practice, you can soon be clicking and clacking delightful rhythms to your favourite songs.

In some traditions, spoons (perhaps wooden) are manufactured with the handles joined together so that the precise gap is controlled. But most players just use two ordinary metal spoons (they should be identical) from the kitchen drawer. It’s easy to find YouTube videos on how to learn the correct grip. I find it pleasing that anyone could join in with a folk music session with just a pair of spoons rather than an expensive instrument.

Here I am after the first day’s practice, demonstrating my new hobby to someone I couldn’t invite into the house because of Covid restrictions. Playing spoons on the porch made me feel like an authentic American folk musician.