LCMS review of my book

28th August 2015 | Books, Reviews | 2 comments

Excerpt from a review of my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’, in the newsletter of the London Chamber Music Society (you can download the whole newsletter from their site).

‘I don’t usually ‘judge a book by its cover’, but in this case the cover is a lovely place to start: a reflection? an artwork? water and oil? batik? I’m still not sure what it is, but it’s beautiful and credited as a photograph by the author, the pianist Susan Tomes.

Initially unsure whether the book would be a group of lectures, anecdotes or theories, I ended up feeling I had had a few wonderful conversations, full of humour and insight, a very rewarding read. I should have remembered some of the newspaper articles by the same author, articles not to be skimmed, but read with thought. A wide range of ideas is discussed, and music is seen from both the professional and audience points of view.

As I am ‘audience’ I appreciated this angle, as books on musical topics are often geared towards a highly specialised readership. Tomes shows great affinity with her audience, perhaps dating back to the 1980s when she was a leading member of the piano quartet Domus, which took music to new audiences, performed in a geodesic-dome tent. More recently, as well as being a soloist and playing in various ensembles, she has been the pianist with the Florestan Trio, so her performing life has been incredibly varied.

As an audience we sit for a few hours, enchanted by the ease with which musicians perform for us, maybe comparing the music with our recordings at home or just happily humming along in our head or bowled over by a new composition – but probably vastly underestimating the years of study and the hours of practice required. In many ways the pianist has something of a lonely life, usually practising solo and having to adjust to new instruments in new concert halls. Tomes talks, however, of a ‘solitary paradise’, which can occur when a private rehearse achieves a certain clarity of moment, and only the pianist is privy to this.’ …

This is not a solid, solemn book. Anything but.’


  1. James B

    What a lovely review, I agree wholeheartedly with it as I really enjoyed your book, read over cups of tea and coffee in various different summery London cafes from the Seven Dials to Tottenham.

    I must admit that I’ve been thinking quite a lot about your pessimistic view of music today, especially in regard to the three minute ‘sound byte’. It’s a view that initially I shared but I think that I’ve come to a rather different point of view now.

    While it is true that songs usually last for three minutes and the main musical material is the 4 bar introductory riff at the beginning, the key word here is ‘usually’. I can think of a lot of albums that are either ‘symphonic’ – long form music – or essentially all tied together like an avant-garde song cycle. Of the latter, surely Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ album or Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ are song cycles, not just ‘sound bytes’? In fact, many of their melodies are more memorable than melodies from some Brahms lieder. As an example of the former, I am thinking of The Avalanche’s ‘Since I Left You’ album which is a work of genius: they sample other artists and join the result into something entirely new. It’s enormously colourful and has a distinct feeling of development, growing more and more dark before emerging into the light. And what light!
    It is true that the performers are often less skilful than the musicians of the past, on the other hand the sound engineers often accomplish magnificent sound world’s. Isn’t this what Stockhausen’s early electronic works were aiming at?
    It’s also true that the chords I-IV-V form the basis of just about everything, yet could this not be a form of minimalism? It strikes me that songs are unlikely to get shorter, they can only get longer – a new period of exploration will begin soon.
    ‘Classical’ music is no longer the music of our day just as Bach’s music wasn’t the music of Berlioz’s day and that doesn’t mean that Bach is worse than Berlioz or in danger of being lost.
    Regarding music education I do agree that it’s a shambles in most schools. And yet… There are so many music colleges these days where people can study and indeed specialize in music from the past. In the Classical or Romantic periods it wasn’t possible to study, for example, Baroque harpsichord technique and now it is. Perhaps we’re not falling so far behind. Perhaps there is even room for optimism?
    Personally, I have very little desire anymore to hear, for example, an atonal concerto for piccolo and double bass which is devoid of melodies and is full of Nancarrow-like cross rhythms of 15 against 19.
    Composers need to start writing music which people want to listen to. They need to stop writing for a dream audience and come to reality where we are gasping for something to hear that is reflective of our times. At the moment that is pop music. Like since times of yore the good will be remembered and the mediocre will be forgotten.

    • Susan Tomes

      James, thank you, what a great comment, and full of things to think about. I particularly liked your observation that melodies by Fleetwood Mac or Carole King can be more memorable than those by Brahms! Let’s hope you are right that a new period of musical exploration will begin soon.

      In regard to the views expressed in my book, I can only say that even a book is a snapshot of the writer’s state of mind at a particular time. My ‘pessimistic’ view was one I felt strongly at the time and mostly still do, though like you I have musical encounters, sometimes with types of music from other parts of the world, where everything seems rosy again!


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