How to listen to everything

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 April 2016 under Musings  •  2 Comments

I’m reading Ben Ratliff’s ‘Every Song Ever’, an intriguing guide to how to get the most out of the huge range of recorded music now freely available.

If I understand him correctly, he feels that there has been a shift from ‘the composer’ to ‘the listener’ at the top of the musical pyramid. Perhaps this is a similar shift to that put forward by literary theorists some years ago when they proposed that ‘the reader’, not the author, was the prime activist in the reading experience. This seemed to go hand in hand with authors agreeing that when the book left their hands, it took on a life of its own and was no longer ‘theirs’.

Now, because there are such vast swathes of music available for free, and because people have got used to dipping in and out of them, compiling extensive libraries of recorded music from cultures and countries across the world, the person with real power – even creative power – is the listener. They can listen how, when, where, as loudly or softly, as often and with whatever context they like. Of course nobody is trained in how to listen to all the world’s musics, so it makes sense to develop an open-minded way of listening and appreciating that can be applied to any kind of music.

I’m with Ben Ratliff so far. But as a trained classical musician I can’t help blanching when I read on p8 that ‘….understanding Beethoven’s or Bach’s use of melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color and compositional structure might have taught you how to listen well in 1939, when Aaron Copland published his popular book ‘What to Listen for in Music’. … It was an ideal of listening according to an imagined sense of what the composer would have wanted you to understand. But Beethoven and Bach, even combined – and great as they still are – do not prepare or condition you for the range of music that in 2015 is already, or could already be, part of your consciousness.’

I confess that my working life not only was, but still is guided by ‘an imagined sense of what the composer would have wanted me to understand’. I remember once, in a masterclass with György Sebök, asking him if it was ok to ‘make my own sense of’ late Beethoven – for example, by underplaying his extreme contrasts of soft and loud – if I didn’t understand what he was getting at. Sebök replied that by imposing my own limited understanding on Beethoven’s music I might prevent its full meaning from reaching the listener. I accepted this warning, and indeed as time went by I found that there was more to Beethoven’s music than I had been able to grasp as a student.

But according to this new way of placing the listener centre stage, the meaning that the listener derives from any sort of music is the whole point of the exercise. It’s hard to argue against that conclusion. And undoubtedly you can train yourself to listen so closely that any expressive effect – or even lack of expression – becomes interesting. Then it doesn’t matter what sort of music you listen to, because each is as potentially valuable as the next. Nothing has more inherent meaning than anything else. You can get whatever you choose out of anything.

Yet for me, there are limits to the ‘everything is interesting’ approach. I feel it’s also important to acknowledge that some music is more complex, reaches further, elicits a more profound emotional or intellectual response than other kinds. Maybe all music is interesting and enjoyable in its own way – but we need to know how to listen with discrimination, so that we don’t lose touch with exceptional value.

Status, yes/no

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 March 2016 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  5 Comments

In my travels as a guest tutor I come across post-grad and young professional musicians from lots of different countries. For some time now I’ve made it a habit to ask them how they’re getting on with making their way in the classical music profession – easy or difficult? Without exception they reply that they are finding it difficult. As one of them told me ruefully last week, ‘It’s not hard to get concerts, but it’s hard to get adequately paid for concerts.’ Everyone agrees with this.

Recently, as a refinement of the question, I’ve shifted to asking them whether they feel they enjoy a high status in the society in which they live. The answers have been varied. Of course my survey was entirely random; I just asked whoever came in to play to me. It could be that those who spoke up were the ones most worried, or simply the ones who found it easiest to put their situation into words.

So the results may not be ‘typical’, but from my own experience I suspect they are fairly valid. Musicians from Germany and Austria feel they enjoy respect and high status in their own societies (hardly surprising when much of the classical music we love the best emanates from those countries). Musicians from Eastern Europe seemed to feel that they enjoyed high status, but not an easy path to making a living. Chinese and Japanese musicians felt that they were definitely respected, and they seemed optimistic about their chances. I haven’t had a chance to ask any American musicians.

Musicians from the UK and France, on the other hand, said that they felt they had low or ‘marginal’ status. Many of them elaborated on people’s reactions (indifferent, uncomprehending) when they say they are classical musicians. They said their neighbours regarded their practising as a nuisance, or ignored their music-making entirely and never asked about their concerts. Pianists and chamber groups lamented how difficult it is to practise at home without arousing hostility. Whereas a Swiss string quartet told me that lots of their neighbours make a point of coming to their concerts. And a young Austrian player told me that her neighbours often say how it cheers them up to hear violin music floating from her window.

I wonder if these random snapshots fit with other people’s experiences?

Novelty and unusual locations

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 February 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  6 Comments

A young musician announced to me recently that the problem of classical music’s dwindling audiences would be solved by moving concerts into exciting new locations not associated with classical performance.

For example, she mentioned the MultiStory project, an orchestra which performs in a multi-storey car park in the London district of Peckham. Their car park concerts have attracted large audiences. They don’t only play in car parks, but their mission is to ‘forget fusty concert halls’ as a Times review put it.

I confess that when I hear this kind of thing my heart sinks, because I know from my experience with Domus and its dome that merely providing a startling location is not enough to keep audiences faithful in the long term. I do believe in the potential of certain site-specific events, pairing a particular piece of music with a setting which enhances it – be it a cave, a warehouse, a ruined chapel or a forest. If the unexpected setting has good acoustics, so much the better. I can imagine that some settings will open everyone’s ears to new meanings.

But even if audiences like them, I do wonder whether the novelty of wacky locations is enough to sustain the musicians themselves. So much instrumental skill and dedication is required to play these very demanding, complex pieces of music: thousands of hours of practice behind the scenes are necessary. Will the musicians be motivated to put in the work if they feel the main selling-point of the performance is the novelty of its location?

The gimmick will be attractive, but what happens when the surprise has worn off? What if the orchestral sound is lost on the wind and in the din of passing traffic? What if the musicians’ hands are too cold to play? Novelty only works for a moment. After that, we need to be able to hold the audience’s attention by means of the music itself. The big question is: having enjoyed the concert in the car park or the London Underground tunnel, will listeners be inspired to follow the musicians into the conditions in which they prefer to perform – in quiet, sheltered spaces perfect for playing and listening to music?

Playing at the Queen’s Hall

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 February 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

IMG_1301A wonderful night on Monday at the Queen’s Hall playing Schubert with violinist Erich Höbarth (see photo). We were pleasantly surprised by the size of the audience and even more so by their warmth. After such a long build-up to this particular concert it felt very good to be on that stage, playing the lovely new Steinway piano for that appreciative roomful of people.

I must say I was helped by having watched one of the recent BBC4 programmes about the brain, presented by neuroscientist David Eagleman. He explained that when you have trained in something to a high degree, an awful lot of information has been lodged in the unconscious, and if you have done the preparation adequately, then you can and should trust the brain to deliver when the moment comes. Interfering consciously, checking up on yourself and asking yourself whether you really know what you’re doing is not as effective as trusting the security of your specialist knowledge and being in a ‘flow state’.

I knew all this really, but it definitely helped to be reminded in such an articulate way. Eagleman’s explanation stayed with me, helping me to be enjoyably ‘in the zone’ during Monday night’s concert.

Reviews of the Mosaiques weekend, Perth

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 February 2016 under Concerts, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

DSC02792A great weekend of music-making in Perth Concert Hall with the Quatuor Mosaiques came to an end yesterday with  fabulous five-star reviews in The Herald and The Scotsman.

During the residency we had the privilege of staying in Methven Castle with its delightful and tireless owners, Alex and David Murdoch. Here we are outside the castle. Left to right: Alex Murdoch, Andrea Bischhof, me, Erich Höbarth, Anita Mitterer, David Murdoch, Christophe Coin.