I’ve been taking sneaky breaks from other tasks to watch the Winter Olympics from Sochi. This is partly in homage to my Dad, a keen skater, who imparted to the wider family a love of figure skating and ice dancing which still gets us gathering round televisions whenever there’s some good skating to watch.
And what good skating there has been! I keep meaning to switch off and go and do other things, but I have been mesmerised by the skaters, both pairs and solo. It’s a tribute to their grace and skill that I have enjoyed watching despite the irritations of the recorded music, which doesn’t seem to have moved on much since the days when music of entirely different types, moods and keys was patched together to make a ‘short programme’ with several clumsy musical gear changes. These days there’s a new problem: sophisticated editing has made it possible to take musical classics and fillet them so that individual phrases are unnaturally sewn together, missing out transitions in order to create a precisely-timed medley of ‘the best bits’, or at least, bits of appropriate length. I constantly find myself wondering whether the skaters know the original music and if so, how they can bear to practise day after day to mutilated versions. For me it’s like listening to a beautifully written speech with half the verbs and conjunctions missing.
Despite the musical annoyances, I feel I benefit from watching top athletes on the ice rink, the ski slopes and the half-pipes. There’s always something to be learned from watching people do complicated things ‘effortlessly’. With some notion of the difficulties provided by those who stumble or take alarming falls, one can begin to get an idea of what’s involved in rising above the physical challenges. In some mysterious way, what one learns from watching, even on television, feels as if it’s transferable to other spheres.
Went to see the new Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the tale of a moderately successful American folk singer in 1961, on the cusp of the Bob Dylan era. After the death of his duo partner, Llewyn is trying to make it in Greenwich Village as a solo artist. The title of his new album, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, poignantly assumes that the public is interested in knowing what goes on in his mind. In fact, we don’t really get to know the answer.
For musicians, there are many poignant moments in the film, but one which struck a chord with me was the scene in which Llewyn visits his agent to check on ‘progress’ and is handed a box of his own unsold LP records. Llewyn has no car, so he carries the box around with him until he can dump it at a friend’s house, where he’s staying the night on the couch. His friend is a moderately successful folk singer too. Looking for a place to put the LPs where they won’t be a nuisance, Llewyn lifts up the tablecloth on a corner table and shoves the box underneath, only to find that there is something in the way. He looks to see what. It’s a box of his friend’s unsold records.
Later, Llewyn tries to do something to improve his own situation. Knowing that his agent had sent one of his solo records to a powerful club promoter in Chicago, he drives all the way to Chicago to seek a personal meeting with this promoter. But when he manages to get an interview, he discovers that the promoter has never heard of his record. It was never sent. Or at any rate never listened to.
So poor Llewyn offers to perform something to the promoter there and then. They go out into the cold, dark, deserted performance area. Llewyn sits down with his guitar, and the promoter sits opposite him, his face an unreadable mask. Llewyn performs one of his lyrical folk songs (nicely). There’s a silence, and then the promoter says in a solemn, judicious tone, ‘I don’t see a lot of money here.’
Here I am, lecturing to the British Comparative Literature Association yesterday. At Deptford Town Hall! Who would have expected such a grand Victorian building, with a beautifully ornate staircase, and an excellent Steinway concert grand piano in the Council Chamber? London is full of surprises.
I found it daunting – but also very stimulating – to prepare a talk for a literary and academic audience. The discussion afterwards, about how classical music is perceived, has given me lots of food for thought. Perhaps it’s good to be forced to work outside one’s comfort zone (occasionally).
On Saturday I’m giving this year’s Malcolm Bowie Memorial Lecture for the British Comparative Literature Association. My subject is ‘Music and memory – a musician’s perspective’.
The lecture is free and open to the public. It takes place at 3pm in Deptford Town Hall in London on 25 January and will last for around an hour, with questions afterwards, and then drinks. Further information about how to reserve a place is on this Facebook page.
Malcolm Bowie was an acclaimed scholar of French literature, the author of several books on Marcel Proust, and the Master of Christ’s College in Cambridge. After his death in 2007 this lecture series was named in tribute to him.
Obviously I am no literature expert, so why me? Well, it turned out that Malcolm was a huge music fan. Some years ago, a mutual friend asked me if I knew that Malcolm Bowie came to some of my concerts and had some of my records. He came to the launch of my first book, Beyond the Notes. I played at Christ’s while he was Master of the College, but sadly he was already very ill by that time. The next time I played at Christ’s was at his memorial service, a very moving event at which I realised that I had known very little of his achievements, and the enormous range of his interests. Music was only a part of it.
Anyway, when I was asked to give this lecture I looked at some of Malcolm’s writings about music as inspiration. It has been very interesting to try to write about music for a literary audience.
I’m getting ready for a trip to the Hochschule fuer Musik in Basel, where I’m giving three days of chamber music masterclasses on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. If you should be reading this in Basel, the classes are open to the public and take place from 10am-6pm each day.
After all the rain here recently, I admit I was rather looking forward to the prospect of some snow in Switzerland – my lazy mental picture of Switzerland always includes snow, but this year it seems the Swiss are having a mild, wet winter like we are. The unseasonal mildness feels strange and oddly disappointing. In my garden, snowdrops are already opening, and it’s only halfway through January.
I looked through a list of the students who’ll be playing to me in Basel. As always these days when I look through lists of music students, I’m struck by the sheer internationality of the names, from every corner of the globe. It is a curious thing. On the one hand, there’s much talk of the challenges facing classical music. People say the audiences are shrinking. On the other hand, it seems that never before have classical music colleges had such a cosmopolitan – and talented – bunch of students. It’s no longer a surprise that there are applicants from China, Korea, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and so on. Sometimes it even seems as if names from the locality are missing. I certainly feel so in London, where it often seems that foreign students are the norm rather than the exception.
I’m touched that these enterprising young people are coming halfway across the world to study music written a couple of hundred years ago in western Europe. What all this means, though, is anyone’s guess. I suppose it proves the anthropologists’ theory that culture is always migratory.