Precision drifting

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 May 2016 under Inspirations, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

Last week I was in Rome, where I walked into a church one day to hear a group of about twenty nuns chanting an evening service. (I say ‘chanting’ because it wasn’t exactly singing, nor was it exactly speaking, but some melodious hybrid of the two.) There was a small group at the front who sang certain phrases, and then the rest would join in with responses in a pattern repeated many times as we sat there listening. ‘Santa Maria, madre di Dio, prega per noi …. ‘

It was quite fascinating from a musical point of view. First of all, I had never heard the ‘response’ group come in a major third above the others. I’ve heard various intervals used in sacred music, such as fifths and octaves, but never a third. For some reason it sounded curiously modern.

Even more interesting was the way the pitch of the responses ‘drifted’ downwards by a semitone during each repeated phrase. With every entry, the nuns began unerringly on the same note (‘middle C’), but by the end of the phrase they were a semitone lower, and by the end of longer phrases they were sometimes two semitones lower.

At first it seemed as if the ‘drift’ was a natural consequence of the voices tiring. But then I started to notice that the ‘drift’ began at exactly the same point in each phrase. It was repeated enough times that I could actually count the syllables before the drift began. I realised that what seemed accidental was actually very precise (though probably not planned).

It was usually about ten syllables in to the phrase that the drift began, and it never drifted further than one semitone during a short phrase, or two semitones during a longer one. Even the drift from one-semitone-down to two-semitones-down happened at a consistent point in the longer phrase. Then, with the next entry, everyone snapped back to the same razorsharp pitch they started with. Nobody looked at anyone else and there was no-one directing the ‘choir’. It was a perfect example of entrainment, the phenomenon whereby performers synchronise with one another unconsciously. What seemed like drifting was in fact beautifully co-ordinated, like a flock of birds making a slight curve in the air.

‘Reflets dans l’Eau’ played in the BBC Studio

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 April 2016 under Concerts  •  2 Comments

It’s just a week now until my Queen’s Hall solo recital on 25 April at 7.30pm. The programme is called ‘Pioneers of the Piano’ and celebrates some of the composers who wrote in new ways for the piano, or showed it in a different light. I played the programme at home last night for a small group of friends and am now looking forward to performing it in a more generous acoustic.

In the meantime, here’s a clip of me playing one of the pieces from the programme: Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’Eau’. I played it live in the BBC Studios in Glasgow when I went in last Friday to talk about the concert on ‘Classics Unwrapped’.

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?