Book Reviews

‘The most successful writers [on music] are often musicians themselves – Robert Schumann in the 19th century, for example, and Susan Tomes in the 21st.’

Natalie Clein in The Times, 7th Jan 2010

Reviews of “Beyond the Notes” (Boydell Press, 2004)

“Her articles about the craft of musical performance are remarkable for their freshness, honesty, intelligence and circumspection. Tomes has the knack of expressing detailed musical analysis in a way that is easily accessible to all … in the accounts of her tours with the Florestan trio, her language and perceptions are profound.”
The Scotsman, 19th Apr 2004

“We knew that she was a superb player; now we know that she is a superb writer too.”
The Independent, 27th Apr 2004

“Tomes’s delight in the give-and-take of chamber music is wonderfully attested by her performances with Domus, the Gaudier Ensemble and the Florestan Trio. In ‘Beyond the Notes’ she is just as eloquent in print, giving as probing and honest an account as you will read of the cross-currents and creative tensions of making music in a small group.”
CAM magazine (Cambridge Alumni Magazine), Jun 2004

“For once the glowing testimony of a foreword, in this case by Alan Rusbridger, is entirely justified. The book does indeed describe with rare honesty and insight the life of a professional musician … Her analyses of the relationships between performers and audience, between performers and one another, and how different players approach the dots on the page are fascinating. Professional musicians will sigh with recognition at page after page; non-musicians will have their eyes well and truly opened. I found the book absolutely enthralling.”
Classical Music magazine, 5th Jun 2004

“An intensely illuminating picture of the life of a pianist from the inside … a series of brilliant essays and diaries. Just as she magnetises with her playing, so too with her words.”
The Guardian Review, 12th Jun 2004

“Pianist Susan Tomes puts across her ideas about her art in writing with the same expertise and sensitivity as in her playing. In a world where musicians are often misunderstood, this book provides insights into the multifaceted life of a performing musician; sometimes inspiring, often beautiful, and occasionally depressing … Tomes picks apart the dynamics of a chamber ensemble with the delicacy of an expert surgeon. A fascinating volume.” ***** (5 stars)
“Best buy of the month” for Aug 2004
Jessica Duchen in Classic FM magazine, Aug 2004

“Susan Tomes is as sensitive an observer and as subtle a writer as she is one of our finest chamber musicians. The Domus diary is a revealing, intimate and fascinating diary of travelling with the ensemble, its portable dome and the music-making that took place in it. For me this is the highlight of the book, not just because the writing has a winning freshness but because it explores, as few other books by musicians, the dynamic of performing in a group and the many extra-musical influences that affect the way those musicians play the way they do … amid the descriptions of their lifestyle there are numerous forensically observed details that capture so well the different personalities of the group.

The transition from Domus to the Florestan Trio is a fascinating study of the pressure, hopes, aspirations and disappointments that an ensemble is likely to face. That the Florestan Trio is one of the finest piano trios performing today is tribute to the strength and musicality of the three players who formed it – and how lucky that one of them should be able to record the group’s birth with such style.

Susan Tomes is not only a wonderful pianist but also a tremendously engaging writer. This is a book that should be read by practicing musicians and music-lovers alike: here’s one performer who really can communicate in words as well as music.”
James Jolly, Gramophone, Aug 2004

“Susan Tomes is one of the most thoughtful and sensitive of chamber music pianists. This book reveals her talents as a writer, too, one with a capacity for imaginative enquiry and a gift for the telling phrase … as natural and compelling a communicator in words as she is in music.”
BBC Music Magazine, Aug 2004

“A joy to read.”
Pianist magazine, Aug 2004

“Compellingly reveals not only the ideas and personalities which drove the group, but also the opposed imperatives of artistic idealism and practical – often financial – necessity. … All the essays are marked by a rigorous analysis of what performing music involves. At times, Tomes’s honesty is painful … but she also shows the spiritual satisfaction to be gained, prizing those elusive moments where the listener feels that he or she is ‘not only hearing music but also, mysteriously, being given information.’ There are few performers who write as well as Susan Tomes, and still fewer books that convey the rigours and rewards of a performer’s life with as much insight as Beyond the Notes.”
Times Literary Supplement, 10th Sep 2004

“This is definitely my music book of the year, and its wisdoms come to mind and reverberate again and again. It is a compelling read, revelatory in chapter after chapter and ultimately inspiring. Make sure that this book is on your Christmas list.”
www.musicalpointers.co.uk, Oct 2004

“Tomes is a professional musician, a pianist known best for performing chamber music. She has belonged to two notable groups, the piano quartet Domus and the current Florestan Trio. The first part of the book presents her on-the-road diaries with Domus (1981-1983) and Florestan (2000-2001). The second part comprises 11 essays on music, musicians, and performing. Tomes has contributed many music articles to The Guardian, and she writes clear, nontechnical prose. The diaries provide snapshots of life as a traveling musician: artistic issues collide, inevitably, with practical ones, and chamber music provides opportunities for all sorts of personal conflicts (though Tomes seems to have worked mostly with very civil individuals). Every piece is thoughtful, and there is a fair degree of introspection. Portraits of the great performer-pedagogues Sandor Vegh and Gyorgy Sebok are particularly attractive.” Summing up: Recommended.
CHOICE, the journal of American academic librarians, Dec 2004

“This is one of the most richly suggestive books on music I’ve ever read, speculative and down-to-earth, studded with good things.”
Richard Osborne in ‘The Oldie’ magazine, Jan 2005

“Distinguished pianists who are also gifted and accomplished writers have always been rare … Tomes is one of the brightest jewels in Britain’s cultural crown, not only a probing, deeply sentient interpreter but a pianist of extraordinary range, subtlety and technical mastery. If she lacks the fame of many of her colleagues, it is primarily because she has chosen to devote herself to the championing of chamber music, scandalously regarded by many as the poor relation of the solo and concerto repertoire … She writes stylishly, but unflamboyantly, often amusingly, and with unsparing candour. Very few artists have written extensively about the day-to-day experience of a professional performing musicians, and none with greater illumination … This book can be heartily recommended to anyone even moderately interested in how music is made.”
Alan Blakelock in Piano magazine, Jan/Feb 2005

“There is a freshness to Tomes’ writing that will appeal to many. I urge all young performers to read this volume.”
Philadelphia branch of the Delius Society, Feb 2005

“I am something of a sucker for ‘behind the scenes’ books by chamber musicians, and this one is a really great example. Susan Tomes is now best known as pianist for the highly regarded Florestan Trio. Before that she was a founder member of Domus, a group of musicians straight out of college who took chamber music onto the road performing in a geodesic dome (hence Domus) in an admirable, but idealistic, attempt to reach new audiences. The multi-talented Ms. Tomes is also a fine journalist and regular columnist for The Guardian. Beyond the Notes is a lot more than a good ‘behind the scenes’ book. It questions, and debates, many of the fundamental conventions of performing chamber music, including the very relationship between performer and audience. It also chronicles in diary form the author’s metamorphosis from musical maverick to mainstream performer. Like the Florestan’s many superb recordings, Beyond the Notes is brilliantly researched, skillfully executed, and beautifully presented (by independent East Anglian publisher Boydell and Brewer). Recommended.”
theovergrownpath.blogspot.com

“Doing my listening this week, it was impossible not to think of the pianist Susan Tomess recent book Beyond the Notes, a wise and wonderful tour of the practicalities of a chamber musicians life, just issued in paperback. Her comments on the recording process provide some of the most ear-opening insights: the hours spent seeking perfection through retakes and inserted patches; the claims of flow and spirit versus the minute, unblemished detail.”
Geoff Brown reviewing CDs in The Times, 24th Jun 2005

Reviews of the paperback edition:

“This pianist’s diary of 20 years touring and recording with her bands (the Domus ensemble and Florestan Trio), together with a closing encore of incisive essays, is a delight and a revelation. Tomes, wittily informative about gigs, discs and cash, reminds us of the craft and graft of every performance. She writes with Schubertian intimacy, modesty and grace about ” how to make sense of music and of a life in music.”
The Independent, 16th Sep 2005

“For more words on music, consider a wonderful book by pianist Susan Tomes of the Florestan Trio. Just reissued in paperback, “Beyond the Notes: Journeys with Chamber Music” is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the life of the touring concert artist. Her words are intimate and insightful, and her gentle frankness charms as she chronicles the role of the collaborative pianist.”
Ann Arbor News, USA, 6th Nov 2005

“KBAQ’s Randy Kinkel recommends a book by pianist Susan Tomes, “Beyond the Notes”, a peek inside the mind and life of a working chamber musician. Her intelligence, insight and caring help provide a complete picture of the life of a musician … Exquisitely written, this memoir is gold for the classical chamber music lover.”
Book of the Month, March 2007, on KBAQ Radio, Arizona

Beyond the Notes has also featured on:

Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, and on Radio 3’s In Tune. And extracts read by the author were broadcast by Lyric FM in Ireland.

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Reviews of “A Musician’s Alphabet” (Faber, 2006)

“I found myself completely enthralled by each thought-provoking essay.”
Classic FM

“A Musician’s Alphabet deserves a readership way beyond the usual niche market. Let’s hope it gets it.”
BBC Music

“No other musician has pinned down the fugitive essence of chamber music with such perceptive candour.”
Independent

“Fascinating … like a chocolate box of philosophy of music.”
The Guardian

“A literary journey whose goal is a state of being at once concentrated and relaxed.”
Independent

“Thought-provoking and with notable integrity.”
Christmas Books choice, The Times

“A mind-opener for all, whether musical or not.”
Piano Magazine

“Occasionally serendipity (also known as browsable, open library stacks) will turn up a gem which you would scarcely happen upon otherwise … An insightful book, which you may feel tempted to devour in one sitting … like a tempting box of chocolates, but without the effects on your waistline.”
Duke University library magazine, USA

“Susan Tomes’s wise and winning A Musician’s Alphabet (Faber, £12.99), in which the distinguished pianist crafts a set of intimate variations from her own experience as a performer.”
Independent, Best biographies 2006

“The very precision and delicacy of the language she chooses takes us close to an appreciation of the particular state of mind that classical music is uniquely equipped to create.”
TLS, Aug 2007

“Each of the stepping-stone chapters along the way make one want to stop and dwell on what has just been read, but also to leap on to the next in eager anticipation of new insights.”
Classical Music, Aug 2007

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Reviews of “Out of Silence – a pianist’s yearbook” (Boydell Press, 2010)

Out of Silence was chosen as one of the five best books of 2012 by ‘Chopin’ magazine in Japan

‘There have been books about the experience of playing with a quartet or trio, but none by so naturally gifted a writer as Tomes. …She is as alert to her readers as she is to her audiences; we never feel bludgeoned by her opinions, nor do we feel that she is merely trying to please. … Tomes has a particular understanding of humanity rare in writing about music. She has indeed looked ‘beyond the notes’ and seen how the world perceives musicians’.
Times Literary Supplement, 4 June 2010

‘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. …Tomes’s work reminds me of JB Priestley’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

 ‘Unputdownable … by the end, I felt I not only knew more about the author, but also about myself. Highly recommended.’
International Piano, July/August 2010

‘Pianist and five-star essayist Susan Tomes’s ‘Out of Silence’ … For a parent with a musically gifted child, this collection is essential reading.’
Richard Osborne in The Oldie, Summer 2010

‘Tomes has the unique gift of answering questions about the musical life that every other literary register seems to overlook… these pieces explain pianism with a warmth and shrewdness that shelves of theory will never match… Open this insightful and delightful book on any page and learn with pleasure.’
Independent, July 16 2010

‘There has been a welcome increase in the last few years in the number of interpreters and performers willing and able to write in analytical detail about their craft… Susan Tomes has contributed two remarkably probing books, Beyond the Notes and Out of Silence, to the literature.’
Simon Callow in The Guardian, July 17 2010

Out of Silence was mentioned by Alex Ross in New Yorker magazine, 21 June 2010. Read Alex Ross’s article.

‘…In another part of the musical forest, but with just as sure a literary
touch, that outstanding pianist and educator Susan Tomes took us inside the world of the over-worked, under-valued classical player in ‘Out of Silence’. I wish idiots who bleat about the ‘elitism’ of the classical tradition could at least pick up this generous, friendly, revealing diary of a year’s hard slog.’
Best Books for Christmas, The Independent, November 25, 2010

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Reviews of the Japanese edition of ‘Out of Silence’ (translated by Noriko Ogawa)

“A beautiful collection of essays written by a pianist. Her insights are expressed in a wonderfully honest manner.  Her insights invite us to think, look into, speculate about things in life…  Translated by a colleague pianist, very well digested , reads very comfortably in Japanese.”
Nikkei Shinbun (Financial Times), Japan, August 15 2012, ‘This Week’s three books chosen by Connoisseurs’

“The author is a pianist and is also a superb writer. She describes a pianist’s ‘everyday thought’ vividly.  Many essays of very interesting contents are collected…. The publication of this translation is the result of a heartwarming collaboration between two pianists.”
Mostly Classic, Japan, Aug 12

“Although each essay is short, the essays  have deep profundity. Like Tomes, the translator Noriko Ogawa is also a pianist and a writer. Ogawa translates Tomes’ elegant composition into very beautiful Japanese with deep empathy and affection. It is also a happy encounter of author and translator. Whenever you read each essay, you become surely aware that some clear responses remain in your heart. I was illuminated about many musical matters that I have wondered about for some time now. Tomes’ piano-performance itself is also full of love for music. After reading this book, I recommend you to listen to her performance anew. The taste of the performance will surely increase further. Whenever it is opportune, it is an excellent book to read over. I did not hesitate but placed this book next to “In praise of Shadows.”
Ongaku no tomo, Japan, Aug 2012

“The author has always asked herself various questions. As for a certain question, the author puts forward a possible answer, and readers are deeply convinced of her insight and impressed by her wit. The beauty of English of the text can also be guessed from the whole atmosphere.”
Tosho-Shinbun, Japan, Oct 2012

The experience given by reading Susan’s beautiful writing is similar to listening to a good performance of music.”
Akahata-Shinbun, Japan, Oct 2012

“Since the author has an open heart with perfect freedom, she can talk about everything. It is a tasty, excellent book that suggests us a good way of life. And I feel to hear music from somewhere inside while reading it.”
Shun’ei Tagawa, Chief Abbot of Kohukuji Temple, Nara, writing in the Sankei-Shinbun, Japan, Oct 2012

“…I felt such a strong identification with this book that as I read on from page to page, I found myself nodding vigorously …. music is often very difficult to write about in words, but Tomes’s writing weaves a spell.”
Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation magazine, Nov 2012

 

Reviews of ‘Sleeping in Temples’, Boydell Press 2014

‘Those bewitched by Tomes’s three previous books can prepare for bewitchment all over again. The title borrows from the thinking of Ancient Greeks that sleeping in temples might ‘incubate dreams’; to Tomes, ‘temples’ are the works of music which provide the focus for the lives of performers. Well, music has here incubated a fabulously wide-ranging array of essays, some lengthy, some pithily short … her straightforward style captivates through its calming rhythms and unfussy erudition, totally lacking in any vestige of self-indulgence. … At this time of year I’m bound to say that ‘Sleeping in Temples’ will make a marvellous Christmas gift for the musician or music-lover in your life’. *****

Editor’s Choice for November and a Book of the Year 2014 in Classical Music magazine.

 

‘Susan Tomes compares her first encounter with chamber music as akin to Dorothy’s flight from her black-and-white homestead to the Technicolor land of the Munchkins. One could extend the analogy to this book, where she plays Dorothy, unmasking not the Wizard of Oz but the hard-to-talk-about myths, conventions and fictions of the classical music world. … Her penetrating intelligence is refreshing in a discourse often reduced to cliché and lazy generalisation. Her thoughts on musical memory and interpretation draw us into a largely hidden world and she asks the hard questions: what is a performer actually doing? How do you play ‘the contents, not the container’ of music? The concept of ‘listening in’ to a score is illuminating, capturing the complex relationship between a performer’s imaginative understanding and a composer’s attempt to codify their work. And I love the idea of the musician as ‘hermeneut’, like Hermes, mediating between Gods and mortals. …. Rare insight. Susan Tomes illuminates at the piano and on the page.’

Music Books Choice with a top star-rating in BBC Music magazine, December 2014

‘This insightful book will delight and inspire musicians and music lovers, and indeed anyone with an interest in classical music. Highly recommended – put it on your Christmas list.’
Frances Wilson writing in her Cross-Eyed Pianist blog:

http://crosseyedpianist.com/2014/11/30/book-review-sleeping-in-temples-by-susan-tomes/

 

‘Sleeping in Temples’ appeared on New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s ‘Recommendations’ list on 24 Nov 2014:  http://www.therestisnoise.com/2014/11/recommendations.html

 

‘Sleeping in Temples’ was chosen by broadcaster Sheena MacDonald as one of the Books of the Year 2014 in the Herald on 29 November 2014. ‘Susan Tomes uncovers the joys and challenges intrinsic to her chosen life as an internationally renowned pianist in Sleeping In Temples (Boydell Press, £19.99). You hear her music through her words.’

http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/books-poetry/books-of-the-year-2015-herald-choices.1417252613

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