Answering some questions: Letter to a Journalist

Posted on June 9th, 2016 by

Letter to a journalist. Midnight, June 3rd 2016

Peter Sheppard Skaerved-at the European Molecular Biology Lab. 25 5 14

Peter Sheppard Skaerved-at the European Molecular Biology Lab. 25 5 14

I have been thinking about how to respond to your questions all evening, and realised that there’s a big set of questions about notation and performance lurking behind them. The marking-up of parts is a fraught (and I use the word carefully) issue for performers, and most particularly for string players. At the heart of it is a question of the value which we place on the materials we use and our ability and readiness to annotate them.

On the practice desk. Pencil and some inspiration: Roman Glass from the Thames at Wapping

On the practice desk. Pencil and some inspiration: Roman Glass from the Thames at Wapping

My wife, the writer Malene Skærved   pointed out to me, years ago, that one of the revolutions of the ‘lead pencil’ was its permanence. Pencil (Graphite) markings do not fade, do not eat away at the paper, and can be erased. Although graphite was being used thus back in the 17th century, the first ‘pencils’ as we would recognise them really emerged at the beginning of the 19th Century; mass production, in Europe and America, really took off in the last two decades of the 19th Century-when companies such as Faber-Castell in Germany established their pre-eminence. Roughly at the same moment, the ‘fountain pen’ made its first appearance. This technology enabled paper to be marked without the use of messy charcoal, publisher’s grease pens, or pigmented markers (like the red orientation markings used by Beethoven’s publisher); and eventually banished the dip-pen to history, though the desks at my school still had the circular indents for the hated ink-wells which made our parents’ lives hell.

The Paganini Project. Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress 15 12 12. On stage, two Strads, the Brookings Amati and the Kreisler del Gesu. Bows by Stephen Bristow and Antonino Airenti

The Paganini Project. Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress 15 12 12. On stage, two Strads, the Brookings Amati and the Kreisler del Gesu. Bows by Stephen Bristow and Antonino Airenti

These new technologies were, I would argue part of the same sets of sweeping changes which affected cultural practice in the arts, literature and sciences, and the generations of musicians who benefited from them were the first where practice was aimed at perfection of execution and not developing the skills for real-time extemporisation on the material in front of them, or improvisation ‘off book’. It’s important to note, that when Niccolo Paganini visited the UK for the first time in 1831, his habit of playing without music was remarked upon; but it would be some while before the cult of memorisation as a performance practice, even as a stunt, became prized – it took the decline of the appreciation of improvisation as central to what we now call classical music to make that happen. With all of this, a new notion emerged, of ‘interpretation’, being the inflections of a set, not mutable text, and with that, a new notion and necessity of practice. It became very important for performers to be bomb-proof their technical approaches so that they were not using the gambits of improvising to generate a narrative, and in addition, began (slowly) to use cumulative markings on printed (not hand-copied) texts to study, and particularly with string players, the rhythm of read-experiment-notate-practice/assay-erase/confirm-write more, the to and fro from the music desk, instrument in hand, pencil and eraser at the ready, as the warp and weft of both practice and teaching. I have a powerful memory of my teacher, the greatest of British violinists, Ralph Holmes, in my lessons, energetically writing and ‘rubbing out’ on the music stand.

With Menuhin's heavily marked part of Bartok's 'Violin Concerto No 1' 4 2 16

With Menuhin’s heavily marked part of Bartok’s ‘Violin Concerto No 1’ 4 2 16

So a score like this one of Menuhin’s, is not atypical of the mid-twentieth century. It did not mirror the practice of his teachers. This edition of Bach was prepared for publication by Adolph Busch, with whom the young Menuhin studied in Switzerland. Busch, according to the absolute authority on the subject, Tully Potter, did not mark scores, but left them clean. By the second half of Menuhin’s career, he had moved on to the colourful options presented by felt-tip pens – however this tended (and I am generalising) to be for works for which he was going to use the score on stage, whereas this Bach was being prepared for a memorised-performance.

There’s a sense, which any performer recognises, looking at such as score, of a ‘digging away’ at the material, almost as if going at it again with the pencil might reveal more, find more of the vein of ore which we all hunt. Many musicians of his generation produced scores that look like this, and of course, to the outsider, they can appear inchoate, chaotic. But for the performer they provide an instant mnemonic for the process of practice, its continuum; the entirety of this process is the very thing that gives us clarity in the moment of putting bow to string. Clifford Curzon’s piano scores were, if anything more encrusted than this example.

I think that it’s important to remember the reason that string players need to mark so much. Every note that is produced on the violin, viola, cello, double-bass, is the result of at least two separate actions. Put crudely an up or down bowing motion at roughly 45degrees to the horizontal, an up or down finger motion, roughly perpendicular to the horizontal, a choice of finger, a choice of string, and a choice of position. To make it very simple; if I take the note A”, it can be played (at the same pitch) with 16 different fingerings, multiplied by the up/down bow factor, on four different strings, and also as a harmonic at least four more positions on the four strings. That’s just one note, and we have not started talking about the range of possible articulations. The proliferation of classical languages and styles which accompanied the explosion of classical languages after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) meant that by the 20th Century, any half-decent string player needed to be conversant, articulate, at lease in a welter of different approaches. This only increased; consequently there was a lot to mark.


In recent years, and I have observed this in my own practice, a number of different approaches emerged. Players began to value the variety which years of engagement with a text could offer them. The manner in which texts were marked has enjoyed a number of sea changes, in which the digital development (which has not yet offered much in advance of the popular print revolution of the age of Swift and Defoe) is playing a small but important part. I think that the most important development is a conceptual one. The arrival of the Boolean mind-set has re-wire us all to not discount steps along the road of understanding, to reconsider the every-slipping notion of the palimpsest (which is perhaps the most attractive notion out there for performing musicians). Performers who love practice, and performers really love practice, increasingly discuss the means in which their performing materials can offer them an easily accessible lexicon of their developing involvement with a text. Some of us (me) are very neurotic about this, marking every gesture with a technical indication, erasing all unwanted editorial ‘help’ from the publisher, and (sometimes) dating the various changes, but without erasing the previous options. New is not always better, and often that which works at 3am on a Tuesday, won’t function (initially) at 5 pm on a Friday. The decline of the cult of memory (face it, it’s there, the horse has long ago left the stable) means that performers are far less likely to regard their texts as what I referred to as ‘bomb-proofed’ technical armatures, but carefully organised rattle-bags of options. I would argue that the ‘everything available all the time’ world of electronic access has had the biggest philosophical impact here, and resulted in another ‘rewiring’ of our approaches, in the same way that the Qwerty keyboard rewires the approach to sentence structure, to thinking, or tabbed browsing has increased a polyphonic thought process for the entire population. By the same token birds sing louder in cities than the countryside; they have to be heard. My point, even if you are fighting the modern world, it will affect your cultural practice.


All of this brings me to the central part of my incoherent response to your very good questions. I am very much a computer person, very involved in how technology enhances our understanding and communication. But. I don’t use a phone, and I have never had an IPad. I don’t want to look at a screen when I play, as I love the quiddity, the thing-ness of the score, just as much as love the scratch of the bow on the string. What interests me is what the new technology reveals to us, helps us with the big question, of what we are notating, communicating to ourselves and to each other; what is the relationship between what we write/read and what we do. Let’s be clear about what I think we all agree that performers are not.


The philosopher John Searle famously posited the thought experiment of the ‘Chinese Room’ to explore the question of whether or not a computer could be conscious of what it could do. But the Chinese Room is essentially about notation. If I am handed a notation, a set of instructions, do I need to know what they mean, to produce a meaningful response, or do I simply follow the instructions, and leave the understanding (or otherwise) to the inventor and the receiver (composer and listener). Stretching across this question is a fault-line, the creatively irreconcilable paradox between ‘notation’ and ‘tablature’. Also hiding somewhere behind all this is the age-old question of what a written text is ‘for’. If we read a book, should it result in a noise or a thought; that’s a well-trodden set of histories, which it’s not my intention to unfurl here, but which is the mass of the iceberg beneath this distracting musical quibbling which I’m indulging in.

Philip Glass 'Strung Out' 2 6 31

Philip Glass ‘Strung Out’ 2 6 16

I can best illustrate this in the music which I have just spent the past three days playing at the Bergen Festival. It’s all solo violin, so, simply put, there are only three communications to be considered: Composer to performer (and vice versa in each case), Composer to Audience, Performer to Audience. I played, in three days, 30 solo sonatas by Tartini, works from the 60s-90s by Henze, Widmann, Xenakis, Lachenmann and Philip Glass, and a brand new work by the Cypriot Evis Sammoutis. In total, about 7 hours music (of which 150 movements are by Tartini). In the course of such a light-foot marathon of violin-playing, a lot a of questions go through the mind. But at the centre of this is the question, broad and precise: ‘What am I doing’? Now this question might be reframed ‘What/how am I being told to do what/how?’ Which brings us back to the tablature/notation question. It is clear that a percentage of the music that I was playing would not reveal itself as music, to the reader. What do I mean? As a trained musician, I can (it’s my job, my craft) look at the score of say a piece of contrapuntal music, which I have not seen or heard before, and it will play in my mind. If I then hear the piece played, I will recognise it, and not necessarily agree with the execution! It might be said to be the Matrix-effect: ‘I just look at the numbers’. I might argue that, for instance, the Tartini, or the Henze works function in this way. However, at the other end of the scale, I find myself playing the 1985 ‘Toccatina’ by Helmut Lachenmann, which like all the 20th Century music in this programme, has been ‘in my hands’ for two decades. They know it very well. But the score does not give me notes to play, but tells me precisely what to do, at extreme levels of precision, without indicating the result – pure tablature. There’s no way to have an ‘artistic’ relationship with the text-any more than you can have a pleasurable aesthetic sensation from the instructions in a Lego kit; you are told what to do, and the sounds come out. But this lutenists approach to notation/execution can also inform the approach to the ‘traditionally notated’ Tartini. After nearly a decade of work researching and recording these works, I still find myself, about to play a phrase which I know, musically, technically, emotionally, backwards and upside down, and saying to myself, ‘trust the composer, put the fingers and the bow where he says, when he says, and see what happens’ – and often the result is so much better.

The workshop in London and Georgia. Working with Evis Sammoutis, on his Nikosia Etudes-preparing for Bergen International Festival and then more . April 21

The workshop in London and Georgia. Working with Evis Sammoutis, on his Nikosia Etudes-preparing for Bergen International Festival and then more . April 21

But then there’s the next level of the intersect between composer and performer, which is the ‘getting in-between’. The new works that Evis Sammoutis and I are developing, some of which I premiered in Bergen, began which an online discussion about a medieval codex, then about my fascination with French Gothic architecture in Cyprus, then went ‘live’ with improvisation in ruined buildings, junk yards, workshops, in traffic, in no-man’s land, along the Green Line in Cyprus, which then morphed into sound-workshops with violin, styrophone, etc. filmed and recorded, and then analysed after the fact, taken into a score form, then workshopped online, using the ‘up-close’ (centimetres) opportunity provided by Skype between my home in London and the composer in Atlanta, and then refined with my pen/pencil annotations on the FULL-COLOUR scan of the composer’s MS, which is mid-way between notation and tablature, which was then premiered and filmed/recorded in Norway, which I have now sent to composer, which informs the next stage of the writing. It’s difficult to pin down when the process is fixed, and the flexibility which technology affords us, at huge distances, to redefine the text, it something which keeps the process fluid. Because here’s the rub: by this stage (and this paradigm applies to all studied music) the score is a memento of what is happening in my hands and the composer’s imagination – we are using the score to try and keep up with this development, not as a tablature of ‘what to do’?


When I first starting working with Sammoutis, he was providing me with printed scores. But a persuaded him that there is so much to be gained from the composer’s hand, that now I work from his handwriting, which becomes encrusted with mine. Every composer’s hand tells a story. These days, most of us never use a scanner, as it’s easier to work with a digital photo (and less onerous at the practise desk). So we are living ironically in an age of total disaster/betrayal of the printed score, and incredible richness of access to the MS and early editions of composers of every age.

Widmann-Etude 1994 Manuscript/Fax

Widmann-Etude 1994 Manuscript/Fax

I would like to finish with an old/new technology story linked to the music which I have played this week. This was the first of the Jörg Widmann Etudes, which he wrote for me in 1995, when he was living in New York. Back then, remote communication between composer and performer was by fax. We worked on this piece in great detail, in a series of overnight communications, by fax. I then photo-copied the faxed material (with all the resulting offsets in the musical staves) onto A3 paper, and when we met up in London, the composer added material to these copies, in bright-blue pen. The authoritative source, the ‘final version’ if you like, is a photo-copy of a dodgy fax, which has both the composer’s and my scrawl on it. The substance of the final version was very much conditioned by the ‘friendliness’ of the fax machine. Widmann does not really like E mail, and now, we don’t use faxes any more. So ironically, the disappearance of that simple piece of tech has removed a fertile field of collaboration.

DNA Bubbles, the film of the server room, Charlotte Jarvis and film crew from BBC Newsnight

Bubbles with my music recorded on the DNA,  the film of the server room, Charlotte Jarvis and film crew from BBC Newsnight July 2015

And that’s what’s always going to happen. New ways of communication, collaborating, reading and recording will always arrive and depart. We no longer use stylus and wax, or the wooden tablet of Roman handwritten gossip found in London this week, ‘white-out’ ink is disappearing (still on my desk), and tablets have become normal in rehearsals, but have not really affected practice … and this year, a piece of music which I wrote and my quartet recorded, became the first piece of music to be encoded into DNA. Unless you have a MinION reader you can’t hear it, but soon this technology (DNA is a near-inert chemical compound with an enormous half-life) will be in all our lives, and my little technological leap will be commonplace.