Front-of-house book display in Blackwell’s

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 December 2018 under Books, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

I’m not sure my books have ever before made it into the display at the front of a major bookstore, so it was a thrill to find Speaking the Piano just inside the main door of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh (see photo) when we were there to do some Christmas shopping.

What’s more, it was right next to my husband Bob’s ‘Companion to Orchestral Music‘, whether by chance or because the bookstore staff knew we were a couple, I don’t know. Anyway, I couldn’t resist getting Bob to take a picture.

My own favourite reads of the year

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 November 2018 under Books  •  1 Comment

Inspired by the idea of ‘Books of the Year‘ (see blog post below this one), I have been making my own selection of the books I most enjoyed during the year.

Short Stories: Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout. The first book I read in 2018 and one of the finest. I have read all Elizabeth Strout’s books and am sad there is nothing more of hers to look for yet. These short stories recount episodes from the lives of the characters familiar to us from her other books, notably ‘My name is Lucy Barton’, which I saw in its theatrical version in London this year with Laura Linney in the title role. Elizabeth Strout has the gift of entering deeply into her characters’ minds and motives while keeping her descriptions poignantly light.

Novel: Days without End, by Sebastian Barry. The Costa Prize-winning tale of a poor Irish boy, Thomas McNulty, who crosses the Atlantic in the 1850s and signs up for the US army together with his great friend and partner John Cole. They encounter all manner of hardships and live though harrowing violence, but are sustained by their love for one another. The author has a staggering ability to describe scenes and feelings so lyrically and empathetically that he often seems to be writing poetry in the medium of prose.

Novel: Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton. This was given to me by a lovely Australian house guest who said it would give me some insight into why she missed Australia so much. I had never read anything by Tim Winton before, but was entranced by his visionary prose, his uncanny sensitivity to nature and his love for the rough, tough pioneers of hardscrabble Ozzie life.

Vintage Fiction: The Irish RM, by Somerville and Ross (an Anglo-Irish duo of women authors). An anthology of blissfully funny tales, written around 1900, told by Major Yeates, a resident magistrate (the RM of the title) as he attempts to see through the artful shenanigans of rural Ireland and to administer justice as envisaged by an English law which moves in straight lines. Needless to say, the Irish run rings around him in every chapter. I am not much interested in horses, but everyone’s passion for horses and horse-dealing made me temporarily as besotted with the subject as they are.

Novel: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. Arthur Less, a writer who isn’t quite as celebrated as he would like to be, receives news that his former boyfriend is marrying Another. In order to spare himself the pain of having to go to the wedding, Arthur Less suddenly accepts a series of possibly pointless international literary invitations which have been lying unanswered on his desk. The story of his evasive travels and his ultimate redemption is told in wonderfully crafted, limpid prose.

Arts: The Lost Carving, by David Esterly. When the famous limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) were damaged in the Hampton Court fire of 1986, American woodcarver David Esterly was summoned to restore or re-carve them, sometimes starting from scratch to reproduce the master’s work. He describes this year of work in entrancing detail. One of the most thoughtful, informative and beautifully written books I have come across on the subject of art, craft, imagination, and the profound insights which can come to the dedicated artist.

Speaking the Piano is a ‘Books of the Year’ choice

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 November 2018 under Books, Reviews  •  1 Comment

Good news at the weekend about my book ‘Speaking the Piano‘: it has been chosen as one of the Books of the Year by the Financial Times and by the Sunday Times.

‘An all-embracing exploration of how to make music come alive’ (Financial Times, 24 Nov 2018)

‘Studded with gems of insight … a must-read for anyone who plays or loves the piano.’ (Sunday Times, 25 Nov 2018).

Even more thrillingly for our household, on the same day as my book was featured in the Financial Times, my husband’s book ‘The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music‘ was  chosen too. In fact, our books were next to one another on the page (see photo).

‘Other guides to orchestral repertoire offer neat thumbnail sketches, but Robert Philip delves deeper as he surveys the history and analysis of 400 concert works from Corelli to Shostakovich.’ (FT, 24 Nov 2018)

When you write about classical music you get used to being told that it is a niche subject with a small readership, so it is delightful to be recognised by the mainstream press.

Looking for Christmas present ideas for the music lover in your life? These books could be the answer.

Robert Philip’s new book: a playlist and an interview

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 November 2018 under Books  •  Leave a comment

As I’m the one with the website, I’m helping to do some publicity about my husband Robert Philip’s epic study of orchestral music, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music, just out from Yale University Press (see photo of the author with his book).

Two new things to read and listen to:

1. Robert has compiled a great playlist of 20 favourite bits of orchestral music, and he’s written a couple of lines about each. The list is on the Yale blog which links through to Spotify, but you can also go directly to the Spotify playlist.

Please note that the Spotify playlist doesn’t contain Robert’s words about the pieces; for those, you have to visit the Yale blog.

2. The Edinburgh Reporter has just interviewed Robert about his new book. Scroll down in this article to find a nine-minute audio interview/podcast in which Robert talks about the book. Enjoy the scene-setting photo of him with Edinburgh Castle in the background!

Please share these links with friends if you think they’d enjoy them.

Jazz and its women instrumentalists

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 November 2018 under Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

In my new book Speaking the Piano, there’s a chapter about the time I went to America in the 1980s to learn jazz piano.

I loved learning about jazz, but didn’t find a way into the jazz world at that time. One of the reasons was my feeling of discomfort at being a female instrumentalist in a macho jazz world. Women have long been familiar to jazz audiences as ‘songbirds’, but not so much as pianists, despite the achievements of a few women such as Carla Bley, Diana Krall and Norah Jones.

In my jazz chapter I wrote:

‘In 1999 the Open University ran a radio series of ‘Gender and Music’ for which they interviewed leading jazz players such as saxophone player Barbara Thompson, who formed her own group Paraphernalia, and American jazz lecturer and pianist José Bowen. Almost twenty years after I went to Boston, their opening question was, ‘Why are there so few women jazz players when there are so many women singers?’

‘Answering this question, Bowen referred to the ‘very male’ competitive atmosphere among jazz musicians. He mentioned the ‘cutting competitions’ of the 1940s and 50s in which jazz musicians (male) would try to play faster, louder, higher than anyone else on the platform. This was called ‘cutting’ other musicians, an interesting choice of word in itself. (It reminded me unpleasantly of the jazz word ‘axe’ for a musical instrument.) …’There is built into the art form a tendency towards aggression’, Bowen commented, going on to comment (perhaps sarcastically) that ‘in some ways the field was wide open for women if we can get past the social difficulties involved, the hours, and the attitude on the bandstand.’ ‘

Yesterday, several decades after I studied jazz in America, I was startled to receive an email about the upcoming programme in The Jazz Bar, a respected Edinburgh jazz venue which runs an intensive programme of events throughout the year, often with several different artists or groups appearing on a single night. So they know what they’re talking about.

Programmer Edith Kyle wrote in her email:

‘I feel that it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of women in jazz (instrumentalists in particular) as it is still something of a rarity, and with so many accomplished older male musicians on the scene, it can feel like an intimidating atmosphere for women and young musicians to join. I’m making an active effort in the programming to include more and more of these incredibly talented female instrumentalists to showcase as, not only are their performances a fantastic addition to the programme, but representation and visibility is hugely important in inspiring future generations of musicians.’

Good for you, Edith! And absolutely right. But how frustrating to hear that – despite the efforts of the #MeToo generation – women jazz players are still grappling with the same issues I grappled with in the 1980s!!