Lots of people have written to me today about coughing. Why? Because of a BBC News report about violinist Kyung-Wha Chung’s comeback recital at the Festival Hall in London. She was disturbed by a child coughing in the audience, and remonstrated with the parents. Her response to the coughing divided the audience. Some were shocked or disapproving, others sympathetic, even grateful to her for raising an issue which bothers many music-lovers.
I was interviewed by the BBC last year about coughing in concerts, and for some reason I was quoted in today’s news report – that’s why people wrote to me to ask if musicians are really so sensitive that they are thrown by a bit of innocent coughing?
As a matter of fact, there’s a whole chapter on coughing in my new book. To sum up: it’s complicated. Musicians tend not to mind the genuine cough, particularly if they realise that someone is desperately trying to stifle it. What performers resent is the loud, self-indulgent bark which rings out around the hall. This kind of cough can give a performer a real start. If you study such coughs and their timing, you begin to realise that it’s not a straightforward matter. For example, there’s often a volley of coughing in the quietest passages, when the performers (and hopefully also the audience) are most immersed in the music. Could there be an element of … shall we call it unconscious sabotage? There’s more on the subject in my book.
My book ‘Sleeping in Temples’ has been named as one of the ‘Books of the Year’ by Classical Music magazine. In November it was their ‘Editor’s Choice’ with a five-star review, and now in December it has been upgraded to one of the ten ‘books of the year’. What a fabulous Christmas present!
The November review of my book in Classical Music is now online.
It’s delightful too that one of their other ‘books of the year’ is ‘Capturing Music’, a history of notation by Thomas Forrest Kelly of Harvard University. I knew Tom when I was a student, when he was (I think) a Visiting Scholar, considered extremely charming and witty in that wonderfully dry American way. We lost touch for years and years, but I was very pleased to see his new book alongside mine in the list.
Three more mentions of my new book have appeared this weekend:
Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker and eminent music blogger, includes it in his ‘Recommendations‘.
Frances Wilson reviews it in her Cross-Eyed Pianist blog: ‘This absorbing and insightful book will delight and inspire musicians and music-lovers’.
And broadcaster Sheena MacDonald chooses it as one of her Books of the Year 2014:
‘You hear her music through her words’.
I’m very happy to hear that my new book ‘Sleeping in Temples’ is the Books Choice in the Christmas 2014 issue of BBC Music. ‘Rare insight. Susan Tomes illuminates at the piano and on the page.’
‘Susan Tomes compares her first encounter with chamber music as akin to Dorothy’s flight from her black-and-white homestead to the Technicolor land of the Munchkins. One could extend the analogy to this book, where she plays Dorothy, unmasking not the Wizard of Oz but the hard-to-talk-about myths, conventions and fictions of the classical music world…. Her penetrating intelligence is refreshing in a discourse often reduced to cliché and lazy generalisation. Her thoughts on musical memory and interpretation draw us into a largely hidden world and she asks the hard questions: what is a performer actually doing? How do you play ‘the contents, not the container’ of music? The concept of ‘listening in’ to a score is illuminating, capturing the complex relationship between a performer’s imaginative understanding and a composer’s attempt to codify their work. And I love the idea of the musician as ‘hermeneut’, like Hermes, mediating between Gods and mortals.
‘… Has this colossal commitment been worth it? One has only to think of Tomes’s exceptional playing to understand why her faith still burns bright.’
Thank you, the readers who take the trouble to alert me to these reviews. It’s hard to keep up with the press, especially when many journals have subscriber-only websites, so please keep telling me about things I might otherwise miss.
The current series of ‘Masterchef Professionals’ has provoked quite a lot of interaction between musicians (mostly on Twitter) commenting on how unprepared the competitors seem to be for the cookery challenges which await them. Time after time, in the ‘technical challenge’ section, chefs are asked to do a standard restaurant task like de-bone a piece of meat, prepare a game bird for cooking, or do some classic patisserie. Time after time, when asked if they’ve done this before, they blithely answer ‘No’. And then we see the judges exchange looks of dismay or alarm as the chefs blunder through a task you’d think was part of every professional cook’s basic training.
Not only that – when given the opportunity to cook a ‘signature dish’ of their own, they quite often admit that they have never timed how long it takes to make it, have never made the whole dish at once, or tasted the combination of component parts. Competitors seem to be selected for a certain degree of ignorance so that they can ‘go on a journey’ during the series, learning and mastering things they couldn’t do at the beginning. Human interest, right enough, but not exactly deserving of the title ‘Masterchef Professionals’. I suppose the producers must have decided that it is not entertaining to watch a bunch of supreme experts doing things perfectly.
How different all this is from the world of classical music, where young performers prepare endlessly for their appearance in front of a competition jury. Their preparation includes the usual months of private practice and memorisation, but also consultation lessons with people who can advise about appropriate presentation, not to mention a good many ‘try-out concerts’ of their competition repertoire. No aspiring performer would dream of entering a competition without having played their pieces all the way through a thousand times. It’s not even imaginable that the judges could ask, ‘Have you ever played an arpeggio?’ and receive the answer ‘No’. ‘Have you ever played a piece in A major?’ ‘No. I’ve played a piece in G, but I don’t know if I’ve ever played one in A’. ‘Have you ever played a piece by Beethoven?’ ‘I’ve seen it done, but never played one myself.’
Would it be diverting to hear the principal judge give a very skilful, moving performance of a Bach Partita, and then listen to a group of competitors sight-reading through the same piece without having heard the demonstration? Hmm. Let’s hope nobody pitches the idea to television.