The lust for loudness

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 August 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

Articles and letters in The Guardian recently have explored why some of today’s singers suffer from vocal problems, develop nodules on their vocal cords from singing so loudly, etc.  Curiously, the use of powerful amplification has not taken away the need to sing loudly: rather, it seems to create a vicious circle in which everything gets louder and louder. The sight of someone screwing up their eyes with effort and yelling into a microphone has become routine. Even opera singers, trained in the technique of supporting their voices, find themselves swept up in the appetite for ‘projection’.

For many classical musicians this appetite for loudness is troubling. Generally speaking, we don’t use amplification and don’t want to. We rely on acoustic instruments and the power of the human hand and arm to produce a range of expressive sound. Naturally the top end of this range can’t be louder than the hand can produce. We’ve been trained to develop control over fine gradations of tone, which would be lost if they were hugely amplified. The human scale of our sound effects is an important part of the aesthetic.

However, many of us are very aware that these intimate effects seem insubstantial beside the sheer decibel level of many pop performances. I’ve been told that after listening to classical music on record, a live performance of the same music can seem disconcertingly quiet and distant. The musicians are far away on a stage, their instruments unamplified. Listeners find they have to ‘tune in’ to the unexpectedly delicate sound effects. Before amplification, these sounds would have seemed completely normal. Now they seem ‘small’.

Holding out against society’s raging lust for decibels sometimes feels Luddite. What is the point of cultivating subtle nuances when everyone else is boasting about having attended pop concerts which made their hearts thump in their chests and left their ears ringing for hours afterwards? We wonder if we should just ‘get with the program’ and use amplification.

But the kind of music we play was not conceived like that. To make it artificially louder would bring no musical benefit. Better, perhaps, to remember that many of the famous 19th century virtuosi – such as Chopin and Liszt – were as renowned for their quiet playing as for their power. Liszt asked for much of his piano music to be played quietly. Chopin’s pupils reported that he ‘abhorred banging on the piano’. His piano playing was utterly captivating, yet ‘he hardly ever played fortissimo’. He described loud piano playing as ‘a dog barking’. ‘You can be struck dumb with astonishment at unexpected news’, he told his pupils, ‘whether it is shouted loudly or barely whispered in your ear.’

Supplying the scenery from your own imagination

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 August 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Interesting discussions with friends about ‘concert performances’ of operas they’ve attended at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. I have been to two: Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ and Monteverdi’s ‘L’Incoronazione di Poppea’, both excellent, and I’ve been told that Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ was tremendous as well.

We found it intriguing that these operas, performed without a conventional theatre stage, scenery or props, were so satisfying. In some cases the singers even wore conventional concert clothes and didn’t bother with theatrical costumes. They used the line across the front of the stage as a minimal space for acting. Yet these restrictions didn’t seem to matter. In fact, some people said that, far from missing the full theatrical experience, it was a relief not to be confronted by some of the bizarre ‘directorial concepts’  offered to the public in recent years. I know from my own experience how such concepts can come between the listener and the music.

In a good ‘concert performance’, on the other hand, the listener supplies the missing scenery from their own imagination. Perhaps this is easier to do if you have actually seen an opera house production of the piece and have an idea of how a stage setting would work in terms of depth of field, lighting, and so on. But I did speak to one friend who was bowled over by Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ last week despite never having seen it in the opera house.

To perform an opera on the concert stage is usually considered second-best and a disappointing way to economise. But this year’s Edinburgh Festival has made me realise afresh that when the performers are really good, and the music is gripping, one loses very little by not having the whole treasury of opera house effects. In fact, their absence can be liberating.

A five-hour opportunity to ponder audience concentration

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 August 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  4 Comments

Last night I went to a stupendous concert performance of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ at the Edinburgh International Festival. (Thank you, Amber Wagner, Simon O’Neill, Christine Guerke, Bryn Terfel, Karen Cargill, Matthew Rose, conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the RSNO!) The two intervals were kept to a minimum, but the performance still lasted five hours and even though there were no costumes or scenery, the audience was rapt throughout.

We instrumentalists are bombarded by advice to offer shorter concerts, lighter and more mixed programmes, to ‘make contact with the audience’ by chatting to them, taking care not to ‘be intimidating’, etc etc. We’re told that today’s audience doesn’t have the patience for full-length programmes and prefers an hour-long concert to which they can bring a beer. We’re reminded that radio stations like Classic FM thrive by playing movements of things instead of whole pieces.

So I was fascinated by the sight of a packed Usher Hall focusing without strain on five hours of Wagner. Indeed, the roar of applause which greeted the end of each Act was an almost shocking contrast to the hour and a half of quietness that preceded it. It all seemed to make a mockery of the idea that today’s listeners have short concentration spans and need to be catered for accordingly.

Reflecting on it afterwards, I realised that of course in opera there is one element which purely instrumental music doesn’t have: a story. Of course, musicians would say that every piece of abstract music has its own narrative, one which they aim to put across to the audience, but the ‘story’ is not of the overtly dramatic kind that powers ‘Die Walküre’. Take away the singers but leave Wagner’s orchestral music exactly as it is and I expect listeners would be slipping out long before the end. It’s the long arc of the Nibelung myth that enables listeners to follow Wagner’s long-drawn-out exposition patiently.

What can instrumentalists learn from this? We can’t superimpose a storyline on pieces designed as pure music, but we can think about how to map more clearly the ‘journey’ that all good pieces of music invite the imagination to make.

Publicity shots

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 July 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

The Edinburgh Festival and ‘Fringe’ begin this week and the city is plastered with publicity posters. The trend towards anti-glamour continues. Even if a performer wants to look glamorous, they are portrayed in a jarring context. Someone in a beautiful suit lounges in the doorway of a graffiti-covered industrial warehouse. Actors look away from the camera, their faces obscured by deep shadow. Comedians grimace and gurn. ‘Bad hair days’ are the norm. Performers are shown in contexts that have nothing whatever to do with their artistic role. A string quartet walks on the beach. A singer mooches down a disused railway track. Wind players ‘fight’ one another with their clarinets. A cellist ‘sails out to sea’ on his cello.

After passing a whole wall of such posters, I said to my companion, ‘The days of brushing my hair nicely for a publicity photo are over.’

Images have been changing for a while, but classical musicians are still unsure what to do for the best. At least, I don’t know anyone who is sure. We used to be told to dress up, do our hair and make-up nicely and arrange ourselves in an attractive group (girls in front), each person holding their instrument so that viewers would know what played what. Good lighting was imperative, and we rejected any shots where our hair was messed up by the wind. In solo publicity shots I was always required to be playing the piano, or at least leaning against it.

When I started to see images of, say, a chamber group astride motorbikes in the rain, or skulking in sinister wastelands, I wondered what message was being given and whether it was the right one. Since the days when I was part of Domus, travelling with our portable concert hall, we have argued about whether it’s right to pretend that our kind of music is fun, quirky or light-hearted when in fact it’s fundamentally serious and we have worked seriously at it for ages. Yes, we want to attract all sorts of people to come to the concerts, but we don’t want to pretend that this music isn’t what it is.

Most of us are still struggling with this issue. We want to move with the times, but we don’t want to be dishonest. My own publicity has changed to simple head-and-shoulders shots, and I don’t dress up. I don’t mind about hair blowing in the wind, but I haven’t yet felt comfortable about being shown gazing sadly out of a train window, or jumping off a skip in my pyjamas.

The €23 violin

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 July 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  6 Comments

A friend told me a tale of a violinist friend of his who came across a mass-produced violin for sale on eBay for €23. It was even cheaper than it sounds because the price included the violin, a bow, and a case.

He bought the violin, which arrived with a set of terrible strings, so he put on a new set of strings, but that was his only intervention. Then he set about asking people to compare the sound of him playing his own (fine old valuable) violin with the sound of him playing the €23 instrument (in both instances with his own good violin bow). As you might already suspect, not everyone could tell the difference. In a small room, people were pretty sure which was the fine old violin. But in a larger room or a more resonant hall, people often guessed wrongly. He found this distressing.

As a pianist, the result didn’t surprise me, because like (almost) all pianists I have to play different pianos in different venues. I can’t afford to become dependent on the sound of a particular piano, or to think that I cannot ‘sound like me’ on a different instrument. For me, it’s not so much the sound but the way of playing which identifies a pianist. It’s timing, phrasing, the balance between right and left hand. It’s the layering of voices, the approach to tempo, the use of the pedal. All these things can be transferred to whatever piano you’re playing.

I can’t pretend that pure sound quality doesn’t play a part, because some pianos just do sound better than others, but most pianists eventually achieve a Zen-like non-attachment to the sonority of particular pianos. If I think of pianists I know, and whether I could identify them if they played the piano behind a screen, it’s not really ‘their sound’ I’d recognise but rather a composite of elements amounting to what they do musically.

Actually, the same is true of string players, at least in my view. I feel I recognise them from their way of playing on whatever instrument they play. But they generally say that they only feel truly themselves on the instrument which they play every day and in every concert. They are HMHV (Half Man Half Violin).

I have mixed feelings when witnessing this bond. Perhaps I’m just envious, because there’s nothing quite like that for a pianist. But on the whole I feel afraid for them, because basing your musical happiness on the possession of a particular instrument is obviously a fragile thing. I feel they should all perform occasionally on a €23 violin.