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.
A curious thing happened at a concert of mine last week. We had rehearsed in the afternoon (piano plus string quartet) and when everyone was comfortable with the positions of their chairs and instruments, we marked up the stage with various colours of sticky tape so that the backstage team knew where to put everything in the evening.
A few hours later, we all came back in concert clothes. We went on stage, bowed to the audience and sat down. Almost at once, one of the string players turned round to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got room to play. You’ll need to move the piano back a bit.’ I glanced down and saw that the piano was exactly in the agreed place, its legs precisely within the yellow tape box. And my colleague’s chair was precisely in the same spot as it had been. However, he was waving his arms agitatedly to demonstrate that he didn’t have room to play, so I stood up, and several of us moved the piano a foot or so backwards.
Afterwards, we mused on what had happened. Why did my colleague feel that he had enough room to move during the rehearsal, but not enough during the concert? We agreed that subtle things happen in the performer’s mind between rehearsal and performance. When an audience is present, some performers seem to feel suddenly bigger, others suddenly smaller. I often find that the piano stool, which I’ve carefully left at ‘the right height’, suddenly feels too high or too low when I come on stage for the performance. Even coming back in concert clothes may make a difference. Whatever the reason, it seems that people change in size between rehearsal and performance.
Two more reviews of my book ‘Out of Silence’ have appeared. As neither is online, here’s a glimpse of what they said:
‘In my experience, highly gifted musicians often find it extremely difficult to articulate their ideas about music and reveal the secrets of their craft through writing. Not so Susan Tomes. Her latest book, ‘Out of Silence’, is packed full of fascinating material reflecting upon the difficult and sometimes intangible issues that face a busy professional pianist…Yet the approach here is anything but self-centred, as can so often be the case with autobiographical material. Rather, what emerges from these pages is Tomes’s strong sense of humility, her quirky humour, and above all her tremendous love and driving enthusiasm for her work. … a compelling read.’
BBC Music magazine, July 2010
‘A glorious collection of essays. ..After ‘Beyond the Notes’ and ‘A Musician’s Alphabet’, with this third volume Susan Tomes joins that small band of musicians whose literary skill runs parallel to their musical talent. All of them are male, most are pianists: Glenn Gould, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim and Stephen Hough, for example…
Tomes’s work reminds me of JB Priestly’s life-affirming collection of essays, ‘Delight’. I can offer no higher praise.… Tomes extracts on almost every page a life lesson for the rest of us, whether or not we are musicians.’
Editor’s Choice for July 2010, Classic FM magazine
I played a piano recital the other evening at the home of some friends. It was a lovely evening, and behind the piano, the French doors were wide open to the garden.
About ten minutes from the end of my recital, as I was sailing full steam ahead with the final piece, a black kitten wandered in from the garden. In full view of the entire audience it advanced delicately on to the oriental rug which lay in front of the piano, glanced up to make sure everyone was watching, and proceeded to describe graceful circles around the carpet, occasionally stretching its back and pointing its little feet like a ballerina. It then tiptoed over to the listeners and started to thread its way playfully in and out of the chair legs.
Of course the audience was mesmerised by the kitten. I could feel that everyone was desperately trying to keep their attention on the music, but not really succeeding. Even I was having trouble banishing the kitten’s charming antics from my peripheral vision. I had to decide whether to continue playing, but I had worked up so much momentum that I couldn’t simply stop, and in any case a little voice in my head told me that this kind of thing is just the reason that house concerts are useful practise for coping with unexpected distractions. So I ploughed on. When the applause broke out, the startled kitten shot out from between the chairs and vanished into the garden. Once again I had learned the truth of WC Fields’ advice, ‘Never work with children or animals.’