New technology

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 May 2019 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

The other day I gave a copy of one of my own CDs as a gift to some young musicians.

They thanked me politely, but I caught them eyeing the CD with a certain blankness. Suddenly a thought occurred to me and I said, ‘…Don’t tell me you haven’t got CD players!’ They all shook their heads sadly. ‘We haven’t even got CD drives in our laptops’, they said.

Gosh! It made me feel old. When I first started making records, the beloved LP format was just going out of style. It was replaced by the cassette, which reigned for about five minutes, until we all got fed up with the tapes getting snarled up. CDs were the next great invention. Small, light, durable, don’t need to be turned over, can’t be scratched with needles – a format which would last!

So as vinyl ‘became obsolete’ (little did we know), we all started replacing our scratched LPs and our tangled-up cassettes with CDs – at considerable cost, I might add. A few years later the record industry started saying that DATs were the latest in crisp, contemporary sound quality. But DATs seemed to fizzle out almost before we had grasped that they were available. Then there were DVDs, Blu-Ray, MP3s, downloads, online playlists and streaming. Physical copies of recordings have vanished into The Cloud. And now I hear that young musicians don’t even have CD drives on their laptops.

Mind you, these same young people were playing on 200-year-old, even 300-year-old string instruments, made of wood, which they cart around all over the world and love with a passion. They play them with wooden bows strung with the tail hairs of a horse. Not only are these formats not obsolete, but the instruments have proved easily superior to most newer ones in terms of tonal quality, projection, and character. So it seems that not every sound source has been superseded by a newer, cooler one.

Fake news

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 May 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

There’s so much talk about ‘fake news’ at the moment. Most of us are gradually getting better at spotting it.

Fake news often seems to be accompanied by a certain style of presentation, which we often see in public speaking. Smiles that don’t arise from the inside. An over-developed sense of confidence and authority, a self-centred deafness to other views. There’s a lot of it in public life and the UK has its own brand.

As a musician I’m also aware of a certain intonation – rise and fall of pitch, use and variation of tone – which alerts me to the possibility that I am being manipulated. How does one know when tonal variation is fake? Well, our experience of listening to people speak all the time, in everyday life, seems to equip us with good antennae.

As everything is connected, I find myself on the look-out for fake news in the world of the performing arts as well. I suppose it’s always been an element of my response, but now my search for ‘real news’ seems to have risen to the top of the pile.

It’s not straightforward, because the relationship between the surface and the content is complicated. Just because someone is a good showman does not mean that they are not a fine musician. On the other hand, just because someone is modest, sweet and prone to mistakes does not mean their interpretation is ‘truer’ than that of someone confident. It’s perfectly possible to be sincere and incompetent. But it’s also possible, and one sees it all the time, to be masterful and play perfectly in tune with no heart. Ideally one would be sincere, technically superb and wonderfully communicative; sometimes it does happen!

How to align style and message in the best way? That’s a task which musicians have always grappled with, but it feels particularly important in a world of fake news.

Gaps between hype and reality

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 April 2019 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

Recently for work reasons I’ve had to look through the websites of lots of different young musicians and chamber groups. Websites are dazzling! It’s clear that everyone now employs sophisticated media skills and professional designers. Gorgeous artwork, glamorous photos easily mistaken for fashion shoots, web pages that dance about to a mysterious rhythm; video, audio clips, starry biographies, subscriber opportunities … the design values are very high.

I was contrasting these images in my mind with the low-tech publicity we used when I was starting out in the profession, before websites existed. Xeroxed sheets of information typed on an old manual typewriter. Simple, basic artwork. Photos taken in someone’s back garden with your flatmate’s camera. Badges designed by one of the players! (see photo).

Today, having been seduced by Vogue-level images and professionally edited sound clips, I’m sometimes disappointed by the reality of people whose images turn out to have been burnished to an unjustifiable sheen.

In the old days, there was also a gap between hype and reality, but it was the other way around. Publicity was so simple that it didn’t lead you to expect anything grand, but often one was pleasantly surprised by the high level of the actual playing, and even by the appearance of the people whose homely snaps didn’t do them justice.

On balance, I think I preferred the days when the reality outshone the publicity.

Musicians studying across Europe

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 April 2019 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

I’ve just returned from a week in Germany, on the jury of the Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition in Weimar (see photo of the splendid Music Conservatory where it all happened).

There were groups from most corners of the world. Many of them were living proof of the benefits of cross-European study. Although there were a few groups whose players came from the same country, it was actually more common to see names from three or four different nationalities. This is because since the 1980s it has been easy (and cheap, if not free) for people from mainland Europe to come to study in London, and for Brits to study in Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna and so on.

In Weimar there were a couple of groups ‘from London’, but in fact their members were (for example) Swedish, Dutch, Bulgarian and German as well as British. All have been able to take advantage of Erasmus and other reciprocal schemes which facilitate study across Europe. The result is a lively mix of people who have developed mutual tolerance as well as a wider spectrum of musical styles and approaches.

As Brexit approaches, and with it the prospect of these schemes closing a) to British students wanting to study in the EU and b) to European students wishing to study in the UK, I must say I spent a lot of the week contemplating the young chamber groups with a sense of poignancy, almost a feeling of sorrow for something about to be lost, or at any rate made harder.

Some of the best music-making was by groups with diverse nationalities. That cannot be a coincidence. Offering young musicians a taste of life in other countries and of other cultures’ attitudes to music has been hugely beneficial. They make friends and forge working relationships across Europe. It seems to me that without exception they become more open-minded.

Let us hope that whatever happens, ways will be found to keep open these educational pathways which lead to mutual understanding.

40 years of women in mixed Cambridge colleges

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 March 2019 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

Last weekend I was at a dinner in Christ’s College, Cambridge to celebrate 40 years of women in the college (founded 1505).

Women have only been allowed to study at the University of Cambridge since 1869, when Girton College was founded. Newnham followed in 1872, but even for decades after that, women were not considered full members of the university. They could study, take exams, and have their results recorded, but the awarding of full degrees to women didn’t happen until 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War.

Mixed colleges didn’t get going in Cambridge until 1972, a date which means a lot to me because I was one of the first women admitted to King’s College (founded 1441).

40+ years of women in mixed colleges is a milestone, of course, and thank goodness the path has been opened up, but there were quite a few  women at last weekend’s dinner who expressed the view that it wasn’t exactly something to celebrate, as forty years is a mere blink of an eye in comparison to centuries of exclusion. Even after four decades of co-ed colleges, there are still invisible barriers to women’s full equality with men in the university – and of course elsewhere. So it was with a sense of rueful pride that we raised our glasses.

I was reminded of a marvellous quote from The Women’s Journal of 1891. Defending women against the charge that history does not list  many women in its public roll-call of scientific or artistic geniuses, the editor wrote:

‘When women have had for several centuries the same advantages of liberty, education and social encouragement in the use of their brains that men have, it will be right to argue their mental inferiority if they have not produced their fair share of genius. But it is hardly reasonable to expect women during a few years of half liberty and half education to produce at once specimens of genius equal to the choicest men of all ages.’