I went to a lunchtime concert in the City of London, the district where many bank headquarters are. It’s an area I don’t often visit. As I was early, I walked around the streets for a while. They were thronged with incredibly affluent-looking suntanned bankers in beautiful suits, wave upon wave of them, strolling to lunch in the sunshine. Their body language spoke volumes about their sense of well-being. Every restaurant and wine bar I passed was full to bursting. Their price lists seemed to place them in the ‘special occasion’ category, but they were full of people for whom this kind of meal is clearly an everyday occurrence. Champagne corks popped as I glanced in to the dark interiors, and from the open doors came a sort of gratified braying sound. Outside one of the banks, staff streamed nonchalantly past demonstrators mounting a protest about their investment policies.
Observing all this, I was struck by a powerful feeling that the banking crisis has changed nothing in the financial district. It was clearly business as usual, and people were feeling jolly good about it. Our government keeps telling us that ‘we’re all in this recession together’, but clearly we’re not. As I entered the mediaeval church for an hour of chamber music, I felt as if I were entering another world.
Our much-used copy of Claudia Roden’s ‘Book of Middle Eastern Food’ has finally fallen apart, and we’ve bought a new, updated copy. In its honour, Bob made some lovely pastries filled with spinach, aubergine and onion with various cheeses, and a tabouli bursting with home-grown parsley.
We talked about how our favourite cookery books combine cultural glimpses with helpful recipes. Claudia Roden’s book is a good example. You move smoothly from reading about bean soups made in pots on the roof-top, or the daily task of making yoghurt, or the doughs and shapes of pastries favoured by different communities, to discovering how to make these things yourself. As you cook, you feel you’re entering into the world described by the cookery writer. I lamented that this can’t really happen with books about music. Yes, you can describe concerts and so on, but you can’t end each section with a recipe for how to make a lovely piece of your own:
500g of assorted notes
125 grams of accidentals
100 grams of minims
200 grams each of crotchets and quavers
50 grams of dots
A sprinkling of triplets
A generous cupful of rests
Pick through the notes carefully, removing any double flats or sharps …
The other night, Lindsay Davenport and John McEnroe were discussing on BBC TV the poor results of British tennis players in the opening round of this year’s Wimbledon Championships. They agreed that it’s tough at the moment, and not only in Britain, to develop a cohort of good young players. Many outreach schemes have been devised and inspirational players such as Venus and Serena Williams take part in them in the USA, but drawing youngsters into the game is an uphill task. Why? Lindsay remarked that today’s youngsters seem to gravitate more naturally to other kinds of softball games such as basketball. I don’t recall her exact words, but she said something like, ‘There just aren’t that many young people wanting to learn tennis any more.’
The words ‘any more’ surprised me. I had never thought of tennis as ‘old hat’. During the Wimbledon Championships, the only time I pay close attention, it seems such an appealing sport. Especially when the current crop of players contains people from all kinds of nations and backgrounds, such a wealth of good-looking athletes, and so many potential role models, it seems inexplicable that young people should find it resistible. The plus points of tennis remain the same as ever, so it must be the victim of some random and mysterious swing of fashion. And the thought suddenly struck me: maybe tennis has become the classical music of the sports world?
My new book is mentioned in this week’s New Yorker magazine by the leading writer on music, Alex Ross. Alex’s column in the magazine this week is about ballet and its sometimes vexed relationship with the musical score.
Read the article in the New Yorker.
Order ‘Out of Silence’ from Amazon.
To order by phone from Boydell and Brewer’s US outlet in Rochester NY, call 585 275-0419 in the US. To order from Boydell in the US by e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
I finally managed to sign up for the digital music service Spotify. The first thing I did was to listen to some recordings of pieces I’m currently learning, to see what other artists had made of them. I regarded my mind as being still open on the subject, was genuinely curious, and I didn’t feel prescriptive about what I was about to hear.
However, as soon as I heard the recordings I immediately thought, ‘No’. I was struck by the ‘wrongness’ of the tempo, or the mood, or the instrumental tone, the loudness and softness, or the interaction between the players. I hadn’t previously thought of myself as having fixed ideas about the right way to play the pieces, but it turned out that I was ruthlessly quick to spot the wrong way.
In a curious way this kind of ‘negative example’ is just as helpful as hearing a model performance which inspires you with good ideas. I’m not suggesting that the performances I listened to were unsatisfactory in any objective way (indeed, some of them were ‘classic recordings’), just that they helped to clarify my own thinking. Suddenly knowing that a certain way is not your way is quite a powerful energiser.