On being a musician. Slow cups of coffee.
A rolling article. Summer 2016
Peter Sheppard Skærved
It’s summer and everything has stopped, as it always does, for me. We have made our annual migration west and I have a terrace with a table, a pot of coffee, and a view over the brownstones and water towers of the Upper West Side. And I find that I am in the mood to take stock. This is not going to be a particularly coherent exercise. In fact, I think, I feel, that it is more important that it is not. So let’s begin writing here, early in the morning, with the first slow cup of coffee of the Summer, and see where it leads.
Two days ago, my summer series of concerts and projects ended with a concert at wonderful Wilton’s Music Hall. This concert, I confess, crept up on me, and the ideas it unleashed, are rolling around. This was a concert of old and new, in more ways than one. I will begin with the new, and see where that leads. Edward Cowie’s ‘Particle Partita’, was the premiere on the slate for the evening: this is very definitely a case of a piece whose impact was not measurable until it happened, witnessed, both by audience and performer, interpreted both by audience and performer. Although the composer was not able to be at the performance, there was a palpable sense of his presence. There has been a great deal written, about the death of classical music, and the death of contemporary music. Well, when hundreds of people can sit enraptured for 20 minutes whilst two violinists take them on an utterly uncompromising musical journey into an exploration of space and time, and pay for the experience (which is not necessarily a comfortable one-nor should it be), then I have no understanding what the media is going on about. But that’s true most of the time. Many of them spoke to me about their excitement about the piece, immediately after the concert, and in the 36 hours since, some have written; this piece is very much on their minds.
An Italian engineer, Luca Alesandrini (who has found a way to make violins out of spider-silk) writes:
‘I am sorry if I appeared a bit dazed when we talked, but my words and my expressions were tangling in the attempt of explaining that it has been exactly what I was expecting from it. I am saying this with a positive meaning because, especially the first part, it has been incredibly “visual”. It was possible to see the atoms colliding in the vacuum space as per what said by Democritus…’[i]
The artist, Sally Kindberg, who loves to sit as close to the music as possible, wrote on her blog:
‘… one could imagine particles flying, electrons fizzing and blipping etc as Peter and Mihailo Trandafilovski played … it was quite a physical performance!’ [ii]
These two responses crystalize, and crystalize positively, the disjunct that I have encountered over the years, between the rhetoric of the music establishment about music making, and the response of audiences who encounter adventurous music making away from the frames that tend to be erected around it. And this is going to be the substance of my rant this summer. Adventure, is not ‘adventure’, and as audiences, composers and performers have taught me, we are obliged as artists, to be truthful. Truth can be funny, sad, profound, ridiculous … but I no sure that should every be ‘finished’. And I use this word carefully. Its arrival brings me to Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806), a crucial character in this week’s concert, and a lifelong collaborator of mine. I will come to him later, but while I go and have my day, Keats will help me out:
‘When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
In my early twenties, I became fascinated, obsessed in fact, with the long friendship between Mozart and ‘Michael Haydn’, as we know him today. I have no problem owning to the fact my view of their friendships is very personal one, and the result of my interest in a limited number of pieces, which mark out the trajectory of the relationship. The two composer performers were employees of the Salzburg Kapell, and their works appeared on shared programmes in the late 1760s. But the blue touchpaper was light in 1772, when the Mozarts, father and son, were ordered back, to end their perpetual tour, and to actually bring some lustre to the court of the new Archbishop Prince Colloredo. This is not the place to explore the history of patronage in 18th Century Austro-Hungary. What fascinated me, and continues to fascinate me about the musical conversation between the older and younger men, as they found themselves, for the first time, both playing as Konzertmeister in the bishop’s orchestra. Leopold, of course, was Kapellmeister; it became clear in my mind that he did not approve of Haydn’s influence on his son. A glimmer of evidence for this is to be found in the letters later on, where Leopold urged Wolfgang Amadeus to not neglect his violin playing. It struck me as interesting that at no point that I could find, did the father mention the concerti that Mozart wrote, clearly under the influence of Michael Haydn’s work, and the tenor of their friendship. I sensed that what Leopold found unacceptable was the quality of the street, the tavern, of riot, which flowered in the concerti that Mozart wrote whilst effectively, to use modern argot, a ‘deskie’ with Haydn.
In the hours since writing this, the wonderful composer, Paul Pellay, who was at the concert on the 26th July, has weighed in on the discussion, with a Facebook post, which I will comment on in detail. But his remarks on Mozart and Haydn (and my approach) help me out, a lot, as he has said a lot which I was about to write:
“…. in my formative years I remember being inculcated with the notion that Mozart’s music had to be treated with kid gloves, that something so supposedly fragile, elegant and evanescent could not survive the kind of hearty back-slapping that Beethoven and Haydn so clearly thrive on (conveniently forgetting that Mozart could be as scurrilous and scatological as all composers worth their salt)! In the long run, all that mentality did was to leave me more and more allergic to Mozart than ever. But Pietro has always believed in music being a living, breathing, full-blooded and big-boned thing, and Mozart is certainly no exception: it was a real pleasure to hear this music done so boldly and brazenly, the way it should always be done. It effectively stripped it of the complacency it inevitably acquires in so many of those over-perfumed performances which have driven me away from Mozart for so many years. It all conjured a long-forgotten image I remembered seeing many years ago of Mozart playing billiards (must have been in that old Percy Scholes book I used to pore over at school so long ago).”[i]
But lets back up a little. I did warn that this was going to be incoherent; perhaps, in a few weeks time, I might edit it a little! And I will return to Haydn and Mozart periodically, as this develops.
I am constantly moved by the responses of listeners to music, at the honesty with which they will reveal what performance will give to them. Composer Laurie Bamon sent me a lovely example; this refers to the premiere of David Gorton’s ‘Dowland Caprice’. This took place at the British Museum, in March of this year, as part of a concert which I created with the miraculous harpsichordist Julian Perkins, responding to the Waddesdon Room, the modern Kunstschrank for the extraordinary cabinet of curiosities assembled by the Rothschild Family in the 19th Century. David’s caprice was the latest an extensive series of meditations on John Dowland’s Lachrymae which has occupied him since 2013. Laurie writes:
“I was there with my Grandad, who does not listen to music or spend time with art in any way. Talking to him after the concert, I was happily surprised when he said he really enjoyed David’s piece, explaining “It was sort of… lemon-yellow…” while making a swooping, curving motion with his right hand. The music had got under his skin; it was wonderful” [ii]
This kind of response, full of gesture, emotion, and colour, is so close to the way that musicians and composers talk about music. It reminds me of mid-recording conversation with the composer Hafliði Hallgrímsson about ten years ago. Cellist Neil Heyde and I asked Hafliði how a certain phrase should be played. He thought for a moment, and said:
“Like a sea-gull…”
Seeing the somewhat befuddled expression on our faces, he smiled, and made great, wing-like beatings which his arms. Everything was clear.
It’s 0630, and pouring with rain here in New York City. I am making my first pot of coffee of the day, sitting in the little kitchen at the back of the apartment. For the past three quarters of an hour, I have been outside. Yoga in the rain – just standing postures, as I was not sure that I wanted to sit on wet flagstones today. But that gives me time to remind myself that so much of what we do, as people as artists, is experience. A year or so ago recording Edward Cowie’s wonderful 5th Quartet, the composer said something to me about how he imagined the sound quality of the recording (which was released, to great success on NMC at the beginning of this year). At first, I thought what he said just sounded obvious, then I realised that this was something that we do not say enough. It came to me as I was in ‘Trikonasana’ a few minutes ago, feeling the rain drops on my face, the light north-easterly breeze tugging at my shirt. Edward had said:
“The complexity in my music must sound natural, not modern.”[i]
Since he said this to me, it has come back to me again and again, become a touchstone for what it might be that I am trying to do. It has also become a useful way to clarify, if that is the right word, an understanding of complex material, or activity. It came up the other day, when someone asked what it felt like to play Michael Finnissy’s Nobody’s Jig. I found myself saying:
“Well imagine what it feels like to push through a narrow gap in a hedgerow, with all the branches, leaves, thorns, grasses, pulling at you, the myriad changes of light and colour, sounds at close range, middle distance and far away, and at all angles, the constant changes of surface underfoot, the sense that the whole epidermis is/are your eyes, the changes of scent … and so on.”
Any walker in the English countryside knows this sensation. It’s ‘second nature’, its complexity the same familiarity as the everyday physics of drinking this cooling cup of espresso. There’s nothing ‘modern’ about it.
And this quest for the natural (and, yes, I know that I am using very post-Enlightenment language here), is something to which I find that I must return in thinking what the result of bow on string might be, what the surface, the ‘picture plane’ of a performed piece of music, an individual note. What is more interesting, truer even, the sensation of rubbing my hand over a slab of Dartmoor Granite, or a laminated kitchen work-surface. All too often, I have the impression that some commentators are insisting that we/I produce an amalgam of the two, like the tragically flattened out, shiny memories of rock adorning the walls of the Trump building a few miles from here.
Don’t get me wrong: I make not claims for profundity. As an artist, I am not sure that that should even be my job. Or perhaps it’s just that I am shallow. Many years ago, on some TV programme, I remember watching Sir Hugh Casson talking and drawing (it was an exquisite pen and wash of a row-boat). As he drew, and the form emerged – and it was, to say the least, miraculous – he said:
“I never pretend that I can push my pen through the paper into some awful well of profundity behind.”
That stayed with me, and found company years later, when I was exploring the world of the 18th Century Parisian salonistes, the world of Madames Recamier, de Stael, de Genlis, and Vigée-le Brun. Their mantra was related:
“Glissez! N’appuyez pas.”
Which brings me back to the natural. Just under two weeks ago, my quartet premiered a new work by the Welsh composer Laurie Bamon (who I mentioned earlier). I first met Laurie when she was studying for her doctorate at the RAM, and I proud to say that my entire musical friendship with her was forged and developed in workshop situations. Laurie is, and this was powerfully evident from the start, an artist of heightened sensibilities. There’s a sense that the enormous demands that she makes of her players are just fractional simulacra of the refinement of her experience say, of a light wind on the fore-arm, or the subtlest gradations of greys in the hour before dawn. She is not easily pleased, which means that musicians want to work harder to reach her imaginary world.
The work which we premiered, in Bath, has the most wonderful title. All the Summer Sea-Birds. It has a number of movements based on the Fulmar, and musical evocations of windrush, of the ‘clamour’ of a cliff-side of roosting sea-birds, of a basalt pavement in Iceland, and of shipwrecks.
But the reason that I am bringing her up now, is something that emerged in the workshop process leading up to the premiere of the new quartet. In point of fact, there were no rehearsals as such for this premiere; all the time that we spent with the music prior to the performance, was in the presence of the composer. In fact we were not able to play a single note, without watching the effect of our playing on her face. With some composers this can be a very dramatic, and sometimes depressing experience (with Hans Werner Henze, I remember observing his face turn from contentment to barely contained fury in a heartbeat). But with Laurie, I think that we all found ourselves working very hard to assay what she was thinking. I was reminded of dinghy sailing in Cornwall when was a boy, in light airs; I would spend all the time watching the surface of the water, the leading edge of the mainsail, the streamers on the ratlines, for any sign of the slightest variation in the gentlest breeze, tiny indications which might have great import for sailing a clean line. Laurie is impeccably polite, carefully spoken, and wonderfully difficult to please, so the catspaw reactions on her face as one plays a phrase or colour, are gold-dust on the quest find her kind of ‘natural’.
As I mentioned earlier, this piece has a number of sections evoking something of the nature of Fulmars. These are apparently ‘free’ sections. I have learnt from a lifetime of collaboration that when a composer writes something ‘free’, it never is. As we worked on these sections, Laurie sought to evoke how the lines should interact. It was very clear that she was not looking to hear ‘chamber music’ listening and voicing. Gradually, her descriptions of the phrasing and line, the interactions of line and dynamics, came to evoke the actual behaviour of flocking sea-birds, in flight. Hafliði Hallgrímsson’s ‘sea-gull move’ came to mind, and indeed, we talked about him. But Laurie was looking for something more, and we started to think about the behaviours of individual birds in a flock, about Starlings’s ‘murmurations’, about fish, ‘schooling’, ‘shoaling’, which of course is the same things. And the sound began to emerge, the piece started to sound natural and not modern.
So. Saturday Morning, the 30th, and another cup of coffee, out on the terrace with a family of Robins coming to investigate my intrusion. West-side water towers hovering. A deep breath.
I know that I have been teetering around the edge of what I want to say. I am not sure that I am going to say it now, so forgive me if this is another periphrastic exercise. I have been putting off saying it for so many years that it is not so easy to start; but what the hell, I might as well tear off the Band-Aid, take the plunge (more metaphor-avoidance strategy).
I am sure that it cannot be any surprise that I, like so many artists, have spent my life in varying degrees of bewilderment, frustration, amusement, bemusement, irritation, and most of all, resignation, at the disjunct between what musicians do and what commentators think that we do, think that we are trying to do, think that we should do, and attempt to tell us to do. Is it any surprise that one of the recurring topics amongst performers is our befuddlement at critical responses to our work? There’s only one rule of thumb, and I have experienced this in equal measure to my colleagues: The more that an artist ‘invests’, puts of themselves into their work, the more it seems, that this honesty will be received with insensitivity. I don’t care when it happens to me; I do care when it happens to my friends. But why should anybody care? Who listens anyway? In order to address something of this dissonance, I think that I have to go back to the beginning, to ask and answer the question: why does a musician do what they do in the way that they do?
Perhaps the place to begin is sound, and I need to refer back to the Keats’ ‘truth-beauty’ mantra some way back in this text. Recently, I have been writing a lot about one of my early teachers, Beatrix Marr ‘Trix’ was a the most important musical influence in my life until I went to Ralph Holmes when I has twelve years old. She had an utterly uncompromising attitude to sound. Put simply: if you have not decided exactly what you are going to do, and what it is going to sound like, don’t do anything! I have more than one painful memory of her disdain, and disdain it was, if I ever took the violin from the case, and ‘noodled around’ on it between actually playing. Every sound had to be conceived, and then executed, with the means best suited to bring it back, or as close to, what had been imagined. Technique (which, it was made clear to me, I did not yet have, not by a long chalk) was the means by which an artist could narrow the gap between what was conceived and the result. The distance between these two points was a measurement of failure, and we should aim to shorten it, constantly. Of course, at the time, there was no way that I could know that Trix was of the generation powerfully influenced by Busoni’s 1907 Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, where he describes this process in the context of composition-from ideal, to paper, to performance, and ideally, back to the ideal.
Now, it was also clear in my earliest serious lessons with Beatrix Marr (I was 8 or 9), that beauty was an absolute, and that ‘prettiness’ was intolerable. Given the choice between truth and finish, there was, quite simply, no contest. Aesthetic questions were ethical ones. These conversations with Marr have been mirrored, amplified, refracted and developed in every discussion I have had with a composer, performer, artist and audience member since.
Now I understand, that there is a potentially uncomfortable ‘elephant in the room’ here, the relationship between artist and patron. I have to use the old word here, because it covers more of the ground than ‘paymaster’ ever could. After all, one of our most uncomfortable proverbs is:
“He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
But like ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, this is one of those situations where an apparently obvious cause and effect situation, almost never is what it seems. The origin of what we do is in the tradition of jonglerie, the work of the troubadours, minstrels and jesters of the middle ages. We all know that that function of comedy, is the speaking of ‘truth to power’; famously, in 1340, after defetat at the Battle of Sluys, Philip VI’s jester was the only person brave enough to tell hisking that French sailors didn’t, unlike the English:
“Don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French!”[i]
This was his job; and I was very struck, reading Pepy’s Diary by the description of Thomas Killigrew:
“The King’s fool and jester, with the power to mock and revile even the most prominent without penalty”[ii]
This is a roundabout way of saying that not only do we not have a requirement to perform in the way that our ‘betters’ and ‘paymasters’ might not like, we have a duty to do the opposite if it seems that that we must. Put another way, to paraphrase Al Gore, if the practice of our art reveals an ‘inconvenient truth’, we must reveal it, however awkward that might be.
Initially, I would simply like to relate this to sound, to finish, to ‘perfection’. Without getting too particular, I must refer back to what I wrote earlier:
‘The more that an artist ‘invests’, puts of themselves into their work, the more it seems, that this honesty will be received with insensitivity’.
Of course, there is no requirement for anyone to be nice to artists. We are arrogant, preening, mountebanks and we choose to stand up here, so pot-shot away! But, I would like to bring composers into the frame, and most particularly living composers. Igor Stravinsky (not a living composer), spoke of the ‘passport’ for his music. In the case of the Violin Concerto which he wrote for Samuel Dushkin, the ‘passport’ was the ‘11th’ which begins each movement, a technical shibboleth for the piece. But what has always fascinated me is what happens when a composer ‘issues’ a performer with such a passport. What does it mean, and what does it behove?
In order to begin answering this question, I would like to tell a story, which I have never told before, of my work with the great and wonderful George Rochberg (1918-2005). I collaborated with him closely on his chamber music, and of course on the first recording (together with Christopher Lyndon-Gee) of the complete Violin Concerto which we made in 2002. However the recording which I am proudest of, and which he loved, was the epic Caprice Variations (a 90 minute work for solo violin). When I recorded this, I found myself facing a number of occasions when the music’s insistence that the violinist ‘jump off the cliff’, meant that my producer and I would end up with two versions: the ‘perfect one’ and the ‘truthful one’-which was by definition, rough-hewn. So we sent the options to George. ‘Help’, I begged, ‘I need you to choose’. I remember his laughter on the telephone when we discussed this:
“You knew the answer already,” he said. “There’s only one answer: what I want, is for the music to have its impact on the player who is struggling to play it! In these places, the struggle is the music. And the struggle is real, must be heard. Don’t, DON’T, use those antiseptic versions!”[iii]
I will leave you to guess what the critics said … More to follow.
It’s tempting to back away from what I would like to talk about. If I am honest, I have been tiptoeing around it for twenty years. So forgive me, if I approach the heart of my subject gingerly, and if there a number of digressions, along the way.
Some of you will know that I am a graphic artist. This has always been part of my life, but, at various times has ebbed and flowed, more or less in inverse proportion to my playing. It was a long time before I found an equilibrium between the two, to realise what my old friend Eve Molesworth said to me in my mid-twenties:
“You know, Peter, you will never be a happy musician until you recognise your visual side.”
She was almost completely blind at the time.
But Eve was voicing what I had always known to be the case, that for many of us, we find what we want to say in one medium, through another, or in my case (just for the sake of precision), that what I want to say is the awkward balance between all the senses.
It’s necessary to bring this into tighter focus, to look closely. The place that I might begin is line. When I was very little, my father (Tony) put a pencil in my hand, taught me to shade, and gave me the most important lesson of my life about line. That really, there’s no such thing. I remember that we were drawing sailing ships. I always wanted to draw sail, be it the raked masts of a Baltimore Schooner, the bulging jib of a Thames Barge, or the Patricia, greatest of the wool-clippers on the Australia run, in full spate, boats filled the margins of my school books (I was enjoined never to draw on my music, and funnily enough, that has never happened). So, it was masts, so the lesson concerned, masts and spars, gaffs, bowsprits, yardarms. Of course, I was trying to draw what I saw, using straight lines. My dad said:
No, the eye does not see like that – imagine your eye feeling its way around the shape, draw that, the way that a spar might catch the sunlight for moment, then shadow, then be traversed by a shroud, be momentarily in the shade of foot of a sail-it’s never just a line.
He was right, and I came to realise that he was teaching a fundamental a lesson, the lesson of the first lecture of Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (‘a line going on a walk’).
Nothing could be closer to the experience of the bow on the string. Most of the lines which we make, even playing the simplest of melody, are articulated through multiple bow strokes, and throughout our musical lives we seek to enhance the sophistication of this process. This lies at the very heart of music making.
So, a slight digression. Perhaps the greatest violin precursor to Klee’s wandering line was composed two centuries earlier, in Padua. To this day, it remains the monumental exposition of how one might travel the same short path in countless ways, and it has found its way onto my practice table this summer. It is, of course, Giuseppe Tartini’s l’Arte della Arco, which, by the time of his death in 1770, had become a set of 50 variations, on a Gavotte from Archangelo Corelli’s classic Sonatas Op 5.
Tartini’s variations can be seen as a giant illustration of how to reveal a simple melody in many ways, on the art of the line. This is not a cumulative set of couplets or a passacaglia. In honesty, it comes close to not being music at all; there’s no harmonic exploration or stretching of the material (the bass line is marked by Tartinis ‘sempre … stesso). No, this is the ultimate primmer, of how to divided the melody, and the bow, and traverse the violin in countless different ways in order to reveal the same material. By way of example: Variation 1 – notes grouped in 2s and 3s, short trills, and appoggiaturas, single and double, Variation 2 – short staccato notes, notes groups in in sixes, slow to fast trills on semitones, pairs of couplet notes, split and slurred. You get the picture. There are many hundreds of combinations offered and assayed, and Tartini’s message is clear:
All these you need to learn, to conquer the art of the line.
My friend, the art historian and curator, Lee Hallman, has been helping me to think about line. And lines. She reminds us:
“As Ingres said to the 20-year old Degas: ‘Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both fro life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.”[i]
My mother has pointed out, that I am hardly getting to the difficult subject. Well, that’s because it is difficult. The only definition of getting older as an artist, is that we have a greater collection of wounds.
Coriolanus: ‘I have wounds to/show you, which shall be yours in private. Your good voice, sir; what say you?’[ii]
And with those wounds comes a certain timidity. It’s all very well to say, ‘Be bold, be dynamic, risk everything’, when you are young and no one is relying on you, and there are not bills to be paid, feet to be shod. But then, every ‘bold, dynamic’ artist will have a number of moments when ther risk-taking has real consequence. You fail to deliver what is wanted on a project, and you are sacked, and not only lose heart, but are not paid, and have to buy an air fare home, very suddenly, from somewhere in the middle of nowhere, then face E-mails from the very people who employed you for the ver reason that they sacked you, explain that, no, you won’t get paid, and you should never stand on stage again, and no, don’t have a nice life. And you curl up under the duvet for an hour or so, and then you realise, that violin is calling, that you have not changed. And you start again:
But it takes a lot to stand up again, to sing again, after such. And there is no artist to whom this has not happened. And the attack is on identity – your identity – and you realise that this is a microcosm, the tiniest microcosm, of real crisis feels like, and that this is a luxury problem, and that helps you back to the practice desk. But the wounds are real, and they never go away, and an element of the ‘devil-may-care’, ‘throw-caution-to the winds’ has been lost, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. In my case, it has been the kindness, the generosity of my collaborators, which has brought me back, set me on my ‘stage feet’ again.
And then there are the self-inflicted wounds. These seem less hurtful, apparently more courageous, but are not. Again, you find yourself, probably in the middle of now where, stuck on a project where you have been apparently been hired because of what or who you are. And you realise that the ‘what or who you are’ that you are perceived to be, is not you, and that you can’t do it. And you pay your hotel bill, you apologise, surrender yet another fee, and eat an apple on the way to the airport to buy yet another expensive last-minute plane ticket, before arriving home to explain why, ahem, there’s no money this month! The cost of integrity; but yet again, you remind yourself, that this is nothing compared to the real difficulties that people endure daily. And so the practice begins again.
But the great unsaid, in so much of what artists do today, the thing that I am tiptoeing towards is the distance between adventure and ‘adventure’, between revelation and ‘revelation’. Overheard in a concert hall during one of my early concerts ( I think I was 19 or so):
“I had the […] Quartet in my living room, then they were far less obtrusive.”
When this was relayed to me, all those years ago, I laughed. Little did I know that this would be a comic mantra to which my collaborators and I would return, thankfully, with plenty of good humour, but more mere recognition, that there was a truth here. Artists, are supposed to know their place, not to ruffle the net-curtains. In March 1826, Weber came to London for the premiere of Oberon and, as it happened, to die. The capital was in ‘Weber-mania’, which had begun with the premiere of Der Freischutz. Such would not be seen again until Paganini arrived 6 years later, or perhaps not until the Beatles, 140 years later. He was the toast of the town, celebrated by the ‘Industrious Dustman’ and nobility alike. For all that, he was surprised (politely) to find, that when he was invited to grace the salons and dinner tables of those of bon ton, he was expected to remain behind a rope which was stretched across whatever place he occupied and his betters.
In his Le Livre Blanc; Jean Cocteau expressed his frustration at the distance between art and life:
“The world accepts dangerous experiments in the realm of art because it does not take art seriously; but it condemns them in life.”[iv]
Cocteau knew full well, because he experienced it, what I am talking about, that the distance between adventure and ‘adventure’, in life and art, is one that tears at the hearts of those who live to make. He never acknowledged Le Livre Blanc; perhaps, because it would upset his family to much. For the violinist it is in the realm of sound, the essence of what we do, that the tiny battle of truth, of sincerity, is fought fiercest. So, tomorrow, I promise, the bow, on the string. The difficult subject, Mum.
So we are left with the burning question, as artists: what are you going to say, and how are you going to say it? I have been thinking of what the alternative to saying anything, might be, and found myself drawn to Thomas Hardy:
“Why do you sit, O pale thin man,
At the end of the room
By that harpsichord, built on the quaint old plan?
-It is cold as a tomb,
And there’s not a spark within the grate;
And the jingling wires
Are as vain desires
That have lagged too late.”[i]
I think, that there is a tendency, amongst us, to be content, to say nothing, and not to think about how we say it. … ‘there’s not a spark within the grate’; I am sure, from my own experience, that this result from timidity. There’s no question that much of my timidity comes from bruising, one-sided encounters with critics. A few weeks ago, I started to lose patience with my caution and tweeted, that I had never been asked a question by a critic? There was brief flurry of consternation and disbelief, and one helpful reviewer, himself a composer, asked to do an interview. This piece [LINK] focused on the disconnect between the fourth estate and the collaborative process amongst musicians, and was well received. It’s been helpful, but it’s not enough.
But I knew, that this was only half the story. The real blood on the carpet was to be found, should be found, over the issue of what music, what performance, should sound like, should be about? I notice that I am unable to separate these two; if I think about this harder, I would say that the reason for this is, that as a string player, the very essence of what we do, the vibrating, scratching, tremulous, up and down right angle of horse hair on string is the core of meaning and being for a player. And thinking about it, it is fairly obvious that there has been a move to ‘enclose’ what that vibrating, mobile, oftentimes painful meeting can do.
I have to say that I can’t bear it; I feel like Anthony and Cleopatra:
Cleopatra: If it be love indeed, tell me how much
Anthony: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
Cleopatra: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved
Anthony: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
We have infinite means available to us within the scratch and saw of bow on string; vast universes and infinitesimally detailed microcosms, and we find, time and time again, that we are expected to respect limits of what we can and cannot do and say. These limits, in my experience, have never been prescribed by any composer living or dead, who encourage us to take vast leaps of faith, in sound and sense.
A few examples. The very first impact of Beethoven’s F minor Quartet Op 95, the last notes of Janacek’s Violin Sonata, the ecstasy of Lille Boulanger’s d’Un Matin du Printemps. These leap to mind now. Is this sound, is this meaning, which should respect the bounds and expectations of comfortable, society?
And yet, and yet, the definition of being a classical musician has become proscriptive. There’s more ‘don’t’ than ‘do’. More often than not, the reaction to a performer’s work is predicated on judging whether or not they have stepped over a boundary of ‘good taste’.
There’s no denying that one of the problems, and a huge opportunity for the forces of conservatism, enjoining us to ‘calm down, dear’, is the misunderstanding of the nature of music that does not have words. And we performers have been very guilty of taking advantage of this. Years ago, my wife said to me:
“If only they knew what it was you were talking and singing up there. Music not about life and death, sex, violence, betrayal and reconciliation. It is those things.”[ii]
The musicians that we revere, as performers, are those for whom there was and is no boundary between the doing and the being, where the sound is the means, where the circulation of the lymph is heard. But how many of us have the courage of Billie Holiday, of Ginette Neveu, of Marsyas? We should have.
Of course, there is great history in the world of the visual arts, of outrage, that their adventuring and discovery should be hemmed in by the delicacies of bon ton. But, and this is understandable, we performers want (and for the reasons of survival) need to be liked, to be hired. We have not made our own ‘salons des refusés’, and perhaps I have too long hoped to be admitted into a club of which I would never want to be a member.
So one result is, that in the world of sonic discovery, too much of the vertiginous, the febrile, and the livid, has been left to the courage of new music, and we have allowed the very definition of ‘not new’ music, to become hemmed in by the net curtains, the antimacassars, the knick-knacks, and ‘Nice’ biscuits of our grandparents. They had seen enough adventure and real hardship, so a little comfort was all that they asked. This is not the job of artists.
“Music”, Louis Krasner said to me, “should be mountain-climbing. You can sing, but you should sing whilst climbing a sheer cliff face, holding on by bloodied fingernails. That is lyricism.”[iii]
I wrote that, yesterday, little realising what I would be offered a few hours later, when I stepped out of the elevator onto the third floor of the old Whitney Museum building on Madison and 75th Street. I had an inkling of what I was going to see, but not prepared to step out of the lift and to be confronted with it immediately. I was transfixed. I had to draw.
Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas usually lives in the episciopal palce in Kromeriz, in the Czech Republic. I can’t disagree with Iris Murdoch, who wrote a number of times about the painting. Talking to the Paris Review she said, in the context of remarks, about this Titian:
“A novelist is bound to express values, and I think he should be conscious of the fact that he is, in a sense, a compulsory moralist.” [i]
But I don’t need any one else to help me with my response to this picture, which was probably brought to its final form in the mid-1570s, when Andrea Amati was making his pioneering violins in Cremona, and Elisabeth I declined the sovereignty of the Netherlands.
The story of Marsyas is so well-worn, that it does not need re-telling. I have been drawn to it, mostly unsuccessfully, over the years. In the mid-90s I found myself writing a concertino for violin and oboe (with strings) about the contest. I had the ever more frantic satyr, played, of course, by the oboe, try to win over the increasingly rage-filled god with Bach (the opening of his C minor Sonata for violin and harpsichord), and if I am honest, I stepped away from the cruelty, and looked to the outcome which interested me, which was the river, the Meander, into which the flayed faun was metamorphosed by victorious Apollo. I began my piece, with the river; I was never sure why.
But, the reason that the Titian’s reappearance in my life this week is so helpful, is that his work speaks so clearly to what concerns me. I understand that there has always been tension, between the role of performers as entertainers (in the modern sense of the word) and their duty to as Murdoch puts it about her trade, to be ‘compulsory moralists’. In the world of classical music, this tension spills over, as I have been not-so-subtly insinuating, in the question of what we should ‘sound like’. I would say, that there has been an incremental narrowing of the ‘acceptable’ range of timbre and inflection which we are supposed to use, driven in the main by two forces, the recording industry and the critical community.
So I will make two declarations of negative principle. See how you react to them:
1. The job of musicians is not to provide ‘documentary examples’ of works to help collectors, ‘build a library’.
2. The definition of ‘classical’ music, must not be, adopting a deliberately restricted palette, or placing execution above expression.
Titian has provided me reassurance, much needed, of what it is we are supposed to be doing, that beauty, purity, power, and truth, are to be sought and found, in every possible colour, structure, and surface available to the artist. It’s so clear that this canvas, which Beethoven knew well, was one which the artist laboured over, returned to, over time, again and again; not until he had reached a high-finish, but until it was as true as it could possibly be.
In the same exhibition, Rembrandt’s St Bartholomew, which was completed in 1657. Rembrandt was criticised for the apparently unfinished state of parts of this powerful canvas. His response was something to which I can relate, and speaks volumes as to what it is that artists are meant to be doing, and most particularly, in the context of my obsession here, to the vexed question of what ‘finish’ might mean in the world of ‘bow on string’ as opposed to ‘brush on canvas’ (are they really so different?):
“A work is complete if in it the master’s intentions have been realised.”
I find, that for the next stage of this argument, I must take what might seem, a step back. It seems to me, that there has been a long-term misunderstanding of musician’s relationship with their repertoire, with their individual canons. I am fully aware that my position is a personal one, but know, from experience, that it is shared by many colleagues. So here it is: the interpreter is on a lifelong quest to understand. This question for understanding evolves through discovery, enquiry, and most of all practice. Practice is perhaps most misunderstood, ‘from the outside’. It is a word which we all use, and which we least likely to explain, because it is, fundamentally, private.
So perhaps, I must offer a test case. A movement of Bach, the Sarabande, from the D minor Partita BWV 1004. This is a work which I have performed hundreds of times, and has been on the practice desk since I was 10 or 11. So I have a lot of time and thought invested in it, like thousands of other musicians. A couple of years ago, I recorded it, in the course of my complete recording of the Bach solo works (which I have not had the nerve to release yet). What happened in the recording did not surprise me, and is not exceptional in any way. Yet it might be illuminating in the course of this discussion of ‘what do we do’ and ‘what should we do?’ To do this, I need to go back to Paul Klee, who helped out earlier. Remember that he was a violinist:
“Drawing is taking a line for a walk”
If you substitute the word ‘performance’ for ‘drawing’, and ‘piece’, or even ‘Bach’, or ‘Sarabande’, for ‘a line’, I think that you have an image of what it is that many musicians do. Each work that we know and explore is as intimate to us as the artist’s relationship with line. And the greater our understanding of the techne and materia of that piece, the less we can fully comprehend or predict what will happen when we activate it. I would argue, that the purpose of practise and understanding is to curtail the need to control, to proscribe what might happen, when we breathe the life of performance into Bach or any other work.
And so, when I recorded, I played his short work four times. It’s not technically difficult, so there were no real issues of technique to be ameliorated in the recording process (this emerges with longer, more complex movements, where fatigue is the dominant impediment to 100% digital accuracy). So each time I played it, something happened; I walked through the familiar landscape, and, if you like, Bach showed me different things. I hesitate before using the word ‘revelation’, but after each take, I certainly said:
“That was interesting.” LINK TO FOUR SARABANDES
Bear in mind, that this was a work that I have been considering, actively, or in the background, for over three decades. It’s fair to say that now I have a quandary; in a concert situation, I can simply accept ‘what happens’. In post-production, I have multiple decisions to make. However, the words which I, and my engineer, are most unlikely to use are ‘correct’ or even ‘best’. Something else must go on, and this has to do with the relationship between provisional and permanent, and most of all, with the act of practice.
It’s clear, at this point, that speaking generally, there is a break between what I, and musicians like me, are aiming at, and what it is expected of us. There’s something that often comes up in conversation, talking about Bach, and Bach, like Shakespeare, is useful, since we are all his children. It goes like this:
“Do play Bach all the time?-Yes-Are you worried that you don’t ever give a perfect performance of Bach?-Yes-Do you keep practising in the hope of getting there?-Yes-Do you ever expect to get there?-No-Do you ever expect to give the perfect performance?-No-Will you ever stop practising Bach?-No-So each performance is simply, where you are now?-Yes-Isn’t that reassuring?-Yes”
That is simplistic, but certainly sums up the performer’s point of view. We know, that what we do is always going to be inadequate. We study, constantly, over a life time, in the hope of ‘getting better’, and in the meantime, we travel the path. Our relationships with the music we play are quotidian, our conversations with the composers, living or dead, that we love, fundamental, but in the way that a drink of water, or standing up and sitting down are fundamental. They are what we are, the product of experience, naivety and conversation. But nothing more than that.
But there is something that has to be said, here and now. I am not sure about the importance of judging a work of art. I am certainly sure that, in my world, whether or not an artwork is ‘great’ or not, is not that important to me. The great privilege is the act of communication, with composers, with colleagues, with the audience, with the music, which is the shared breath of all of these. As an interpreter, I enjoy the wonder of trying to be the vessel through which the voice of another musician can pass. I believe that it should be unimpeded, but that, sometimes, the rendering this process ‘impediment-less’ is a true struggle, and sometimes that struggle can feel like, and perhaps should feel like, Jacob, wrestling:
‘And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.’ Genesis 32:24-5
So this brings me back to sound. What sound should we make? How should we sing and speak? Many years ago, one of my violinist friends rang me from Paris and said:
“I’ve just been playing with [violinist x]. He’s really not my cup of tea, but definitely the sort of thing you would like. [The violinist] is always hunting for new colour.”
I was so, I will say it, gob-smacked, that the conversation lapsed, and I did not enquire any further about violinist. It quite honestly, had simply never occurred to me that hunting for colour and timbre was not the activity on which we were engaged, and that there were musicians who didn’t always query, quest, tug at, the physical nature of what we do. I am disabused of that notion now, and happily can say, that this hunt is central to what so many artists pursue. If it’s not, then, perhaps there’s a problem. I suppose that the problem brings us back to the question of technique. There’s an inherent problem with the notion of technique which sometimes emerges from our conservatoire system, and which is encouraged by the time-pressured circumstances under which many musicians find themselves working. It can be put quite simply, thus; sometimes, no, quite often, the bow is drawn across the string, in response to the stimulus of the notes on the page, and the fingers find their way on the fingerboard, and the notes are played in the right order, with the shaping required in the part, and the dynamics are observed, and there’s a big finish, and that’s the concert. Is that it? Is that all we have been working for? Obviously not, but, pressure from some of our professional ‘observers’ sometimes increases the chance that the musician will not venture any more than that.
I treasure the memory of an afternoon that I spent with Toru Takemitsu when I was nineteen. Sir David Lumsden, principal of the Royal Academy, said, ‘he’s got a gap in his schedule. I think that you should take him for tea.’ And so I did, and I remember his delicate fingers on the porcelain, and the smile on his face when I asked him about colour:
“Have you ever been in an old-fashioned Japanese pharmacy? They have these lovely wooden drawers, covering the walls, from the floor to the ceiling, and each of them has a simple label of what is inside? My dream of colour, is that I am facing a vast cliff of these drawers, stretching up, and down, and left to right, further than the eye can see. I find that I have wings and that I am hovering by the wall of drawers. Each of them has a colour, a shade, a texture, inside, all labelled, neatly, with a pharmacy label, and there is an infinite number of them. And I can fly, from one to another, up and down, left and right, pulling out the drawers, searching for whatever I need, wherever I find it. That, I think, is how I feel about composing.”
It was some years, before I found the way to apply this insight to his music, to ‘Between Tides’, or ‘Far beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog’, or ‘Distance de Fée’. But his vision inspired my exploration of all music. It inspires me now, and is, of course, a challenge. Even if we choose to eschew colour, the choice is everything. Two days ago, I stood with my son in front of an unfinished Robert Ryman painting. If he had brought it to fruition, the canvas would be a turbulent plane of pure white, with nothing but the shading which the rough-hewn picture plane would bring to it. The ground was quite dark; painting was the act of bringing light to darkness, and a courageous decision was being made. Takemitsu would have loved it, just as much as he might have loved the ferocity of dark ochres, browns and umbers in the corner of the Titian ‘Flaying of Marsyas’.
You are going to pick up a violin? What are you going to do? How are you going to do it?
It’s been a few days, since I last wrote anything, and in that time, we have transplanted, from the rattle and hum of New York City to the calm of old St Paul, Minnesota. The roar of traffic has been replaced by crickets and cicadas; indeed, nature has taken over in all things. Every time we return to the Midwest, we find our way back out onto some of the prairie land, and I am astonished at the tumbled colour and textures of the grasslands, marsh, and wood. This has coincided with my coming to a better understanding of Tartini’s Arte dell’Arco, his enormous set of 50 variations on the Corelli Op 5 gavotte. In years of studying, playing and recording Tartini (6 hours of solo violin music), I had, I confess, ducked the challenge of this work. I now know why.
Tartini is, for me, that most rare animal, an artist who spent a lifetime learning how to make himself happy. I confess, that this reading does not come from some long-lost journal, but from the music itself, more especially, the sense, practising this music that it was made, for his own use. I will need to default to Glenn Gould to provide direction at this moment:
“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”[i]
This ‘lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity’ is something to which we all strive. For many of us, it is a struggle, and we seek and find it in divergent locations. I have become sure that Tartini found it in the daily ‘practice’ of the violin. Practice is not a word I like to use lightly, and I hinted earlier, that in my view, it is often misunderstood. Oddly, the best way to get a grip on what musicians do is to rewire the word, or rather, to de-specialise it, to think about what we mean by the practice of medicine, by the notion of ‘a practice’, or the notion of cultural or religious ‘practice’. Any practice, or practising, by its nature, reaches out to all the possibilities of the word, from the mundane to the sublime. And most ‘practices’ which reach for the sublime do it, through mundane, means. In Yoga, serenity is sought in quiet, in stillness, (I know that is is very crude), through positions which clear the way for meditation, not unlike clearing a garden of weeds, or wiping the mist from a car window. We talk about the notion of ‘sankalpa’, which, I suppose can mean, ‘affirmation’ or ‘dedication’. Sankalpa can also mean will, or intention. I like to think of it as simply the decision to ‘get on with it’. How we get on with it, is lifelong, very personal, and often puts us on unexpected paths.
But it is the ‘very personal’ which concerns me here. A couple of days ago, I managed to seriously upset a friend here in Minnesota, by revealing that being a musician was, for me, anyway, a very private thing, and much of the activity was not meant for public view. 99% of the dispute was simple misunderstanding, and I was horrified to have upset a friend. But there was an element of truth, in the dissonance between our two perceptions of what art does, its ‘sankalpa’, from the inside and outside. On reflection, I have come to think that that dissonance is important; that the ‘in-public’ moment is one where the artist has to share in a way that takes them somewhere which cannot be achieved in solitude, and cannot be achieved in ‘fixed’ media, such as recording or film. John Major put it brilliantly, in an interview with my dear friend and inspiration, Frances Mayhew:
‘Something is exchanged, across the boards’[check][ii]
But acknowledging that transcendent experience, of performance, demands that we also acknowledge that practice is something very different. Musicians such as Tartini, offer a clue as the complexity of what that difference might mean. Perhaps it begins with alphabets and asanas.
There’s a simple way to define a written alphabet, which is as follows. It will explore the variety of movement available to the wrist, the hand, and sometimes the arm, within a strictly defined range. Mark making is not just about what is marked, but the movements which result in the marks, or perhaps, the movements which result from the marks. Van Gogh is a great example of this; if you regard the patterns which he uses, pen in hand (when writing letters and notes), the shapes which are used, to make foliage, a sky, the pattern of a ploughed field, blossom in an orchard, are rich, because, consciously or not, he is exploring the total range of movement available to his hand holding the pen. It is the same, with ‘asanas’ in the practice of Yoga. It really does not matter which of the modern ‘schools’ of Yoga to which we adhere (and most practitioners end up with a hodgepodge), the asanas which we use will tend to explore every reasonable (and often unreasonable) position and movement available to the body. This is not the aim, the ‘sankalpa’ of Yoga (and I would never dare to say what the aim is), but it is ‘what happens’, and it is mundane and everyday, like washing the dishes, drinking tea, or violin practice. It is what there is.
So, every year, each summer and each winter, I return to the idea of practice as an activity in and for itself, inherently pointless, and utterly private. In each of these retreats, and retreats they are, I don’t decide what is going to be practised, but wait to see what comes along and then walk the line. This summer Tartini’s ‘Art of the Bow’ voted itself the office and devotion of my view. It will take me a while to understand what it is that I really think that Tartini had in mind with this set. But it’s clear, just from the publication dates of its various manifestations (1747-17 Variations, 1758 – 38 Variation, 1798 (posth.) 50 Variations) that it was an exploration over decades, which, like Topsy, who was asked if she knew that God had made her, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and answered:
“I expect I grow’d.”[iii]
It’s this growing process, and w
hat it reveals about practice, to which I will return over the next few days.
Before I go on, I must confess something that has also got me into trouble at various times. It’s a weakness, but a weakness to which I must own up; that I am not very interested in significance, profundity, or renown. This, is, I suspect, a legacy of my religious ancestry. I am the descendant of generations of East End Plymouth Brethren, low (LOW) church Anglicans and a sprinkling of table tapping Spiritualists. My maternal a, who I barely knew (she died when I was seven years old) had a propensity for Quaker mots justes, mainly to do with the sanctity of hard work, which made a great impression on me. She never mentioned them, but there were embroidered examples of these quotes, as I remember, around the house in which my father had grown up. On Sundays we spent long mornings in the tin/clapper-boarded mission church between Chingford and Woodford Green and God, it seemed to me then, was to found in the bare walls, rough blue cushions that barely ameliorated the ferocious discomfort of the narrow pews. My mother played the organ, and on the first Sunday in Advent, we were allowed to go to Evening Prayer (which was mercifully short), and marched home proudly, each with a birthday candle stuck into and orange; The Light of the World. It was miraculous, but, what it took me years to realise as the miracle, was the ordinary power, if power is the word, of a group of people to find something; this, I rapidly came to realise, was not for me, a religious experience, but a human one. Over the crude chancel arch which divided the church in half was written, in oddly indecipherable cod-gothic letters, the famous line from Matthew 18:20:
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Whereas the dogma, the rules, the contractual conjuring trick of faith made progressively less impression on me, this stuck, although I came to realise that the ‘I’ which interested me was what happened when people shared something. Increasingly, I would come to find this, in performance, in art, ‘across the boards’, and in practice. I don’t think that it has anything to do with acclaim, or popularity, and everything to do with people.
This might seem counter intuitive; I am celebrating the importance of the solitude of practice, with the sharing of art, or rather, of human activity, of which the practice of art is a small part, as being at its best when it is communal, communicative. But there does not seem to be a contradiction, and these two activities seem to share one imperative, which we might see as a moral one, that what is done should be done whole-heartedly and openly.
A few days ago, I found myself in conversation with the composer Yigit Kolat in downtown Seattle. I met Yigit over a decade ago, when he was a student in Ankara. From the very first, it was clear that he was a composer who did not have the ability to do anything half-heartedly, and I treasure the memory of first performing the first piece that he wrote for me: Ayin, or ‘rite’ for violin and piano. It was clear from the very outset, meeting him as a young man, that he knew that music had to do something, to touch; and he found a way to do it. This week, he took me a wonderfully hipster Seattle coffee house, with a cheerful assortment of unmatched, battered chairs and tables, and a fantastic collection of board games should the conversation lag. The occasional tourist would pop their head in, and skedaddle for Starbucks; it all felt comfortably ‘Hoxton’. Just like home. The last time that we sat with a coffee, it was a Turkish coffee ‘sarde’ (without sugar) in the old Hizar; now he bought me Seattle’s finest espresso and our interrupted conversation resumed.
Yi?it introduced me to the new works that he is writing; a string quartet and a solo violin piece. He is determined to get to the essence of what music, sound, is. He has evolved a sophisticated notation that reflects everything that the player does producing sound, and we launched into an over-enthusiastic conversation about sound, movement, and colour: “As soon as you start to think about it,” he said, “must involve all of these amazing subteties of timbre, velocity, colour, change of intensity. We can’t do or say anything which is not full of so much.”
It seems to me that where there is much in common, between solitary practice and performance-the act of sharing music-, is that what we do is so complicated, that the smallest factor can, and does have enormous and small outcomes. Think of being on stage: the solitary performer, relaxed or otherwise, is hardwired to respond to everything. When I was playing Xenakis outside a months ago, in a medieval courtyard in Nikosia, the Muezzin over the wall started his Ramadan call to prayer, about 5 minutes in. I felt a palpable reaction from the large audience – some laughed, some gasped – and of course, adjusted to the ‘wave’ coming from the listeners. Then there was calculation; how to incorporate ‘Allah akbar’ into my performance? I decided to let him in, made a bit of space on long notes, and listened, which meant the audience listened, and I listened to them listening, and a chamber music of this shared activity resulted. In the meantime, the last of day’s light had failed, and the swifts about my head were replaced by the occasional bat, the glow in the sky from the last of the sun, by sodium orange, reminding me of childhood nights in East London, now, gone, as the sodium street lighting was binned. So nostalgia, memory, crept into the performance, along with the outdoor awareness of the evening breeze, not only brushing my cheek, but whipping the palm trees behind the house, and threatening to blow my music off the stand, and certainly changing the disposition of my bow on the string. Everything affects what happens: how we listen, how we play, how we share music. Nothing could be fixed. Should it be? I am just asking.
So I have to double back, at this moment, to ask the question ‘what do critics think is going on?’ ‘Classical’ music is not the only performance discipline which involves ‘set texts’, but it is clear that the parameters of acceptability and expectation have become a little narrow, certainly compared to theatre. Let’s just look at it from another angle, and ask, whether in the other disciplines which have come to be seen as ‘interpretative’, there is such an expectation that performers should deliver ‘readings’ (it’s a usefully neutral word) which should be either ‘documentary’ or ‘canonic’. The first is fairly self-explanatory, though, as I will show later, is, in many ways, the most inflammatory requirement made of artists. The second needs some explaining.
In my understanding of the canonic imperative, there’s a link between the slow morph of expectation of canonic performance and the notion of ‘progress’. Progress is not a word which we are so comfortable with today; as a schoolboy, I was introduced to Tennyson’s 1842 scorn for this notion:
“Forward, Forward let us range/Down the ringing grooves of change.”
…but this uncomfortable notion seems ever present in the way that the critical community ‘reads’ the way violinists perform. But there’s a problem here, even if I accept that my performance is part of some ‘stream of time’. Every artist, of every age, is the product of, reacting to and against their personal lineage and that of their teachers and masters. It often seems that it is expected, that we should all accept that our influences, the sound in our ears when we were children, and as we studied, should be the same. Reviewing a performance that I gave in the early 1990s, one critic, I remember, wrote:
“The sheer vehemence of Peter’s phrasing is not the sort of thing that the ___________ Quartet goes in for.”
I took this as a compliment at the time; looking back, I am not so sure that I should have done. What surprised me at the time, and surprises me to this day, is that ‘vehement’ phrasing should cause eyebrows to be raised. Perhaps I celebrate the ‘wrong canon’. But I grew up studying with Ralph Holmes, and Louis Krasner, and listening to Ginette Neveu, Stuff Smith, Andre Gertler and Ida Haendel, to name a few. I am not, for a minute, suggesting that my approach should be seen as an amalgam of any group of musician’s sounds, but it does cross my mind, that I chose ‘dangerous’ influences. And then the veteran musicians that was able to be close to in my teens; Eli Goren, Norbert Brainin, Sidney Griller, demanded truth over all things, that the very definition of great music was that it was duty bound to venture all. It has taken me a long time to come to understand this, but I have to say, that artists have all too easily followed orders to climb back into the box, and much of what we do (and classical music is far from the only culprit) is ‘keeping the aspidistra flying’. What would George Orwell have to say to us? Is our function to make everyone feel comfortable? Thinking back to Titian’s Marsyas, I ask myself whether the we hear him scream? Or are we so pacified, that we don’t listen. One thing is for sure; Titian saw no reason to pull his punches. On a couple of occasions, I have been persuaded to pull mine. I wake up in a cold sweat at that memory, not the times when I tried too much and did not succeed.
But there’s another aspect to this, which I find myself drawn to, writing this surrounded by the astonishing environment of Alaska’s Inland Passage. It’s 11pm and I am writing outside, with the see rolling past in the blackness over the rail. On the table with me, two pieces of translucent quartz, which I picked up from the beach at Behm Canal, resting on a bed of moss which I found just inland from the bay where we kayaked today. The beauty of the marble is enhanced by the life which is growing on it; the most exquisite, emerald green mould, like a watercolour wash on the underside, and the outcrop of jagged, metallic crystals which accent one side of it. The underside of the moss, which I picked from the floor of spruce, fir, and hemlock, literally dripping with Huckle- and Blueberry, is dried out and starched by the shallow topsoil in which it grows. The feel, smell, and taste of these objects takes me back to the magic of the waterside forest I found them, the ancient Eagle nest just along the shore, and the water dripping along my paddle out on the Canal. That is to say, the memories that it recalls are simple and complicated, taking me back to childhood weeks on a stony beach in South Cornwall, the sound of Heron and Curlew up a muddy creek, decades ago, which I did not hear today. There’s no limit to the suggestibility of the mind, and it has taken me back to this line from the wonderful Seven Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli:
“This strange, multicolored and astonishing world that we explore-where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere-is not something that estranges us from our true selves, for this is only what our natural curiosity reveals to us about the place of our dwelling. About the stuff of which we ourselves are made. We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or experiencing intense joy, we are being nothing other than what we can’t help but be; a part of our world.”[i]
I listen to the continuing discussion about the crisis in classical music, and I cannot help wondering, whether the crisis, if there is one, is that we have allowed our expressive range to be hemmed in, bowdlerised, tidied up, as if Charles and Mary Lamb had got their hands on Biber, Telemann and Bartok. There are moments, that I feel like Alfred Doolittle, borrowed by GBS from the street song of the ‘Industrious Dustman’ of the earlier 1800s:
DOOLITTLE. Done to me! Ruined me. Destroyed my happiness. Tied me up and delivered me into the hands of middle class morality.[ii]
And it strikes me that we should not be asking if music should be less intimidating, but more?
So perhaps I need to circle back around and ask the question: how great is the distance between what artists, and in this case, performers, do, and what we are expected to do, and in some cases, told to do? I have met very few people who do not think that there is a gap, and it’s clear that for some of us, the gap, and the effort that has to be made (sometimes) to bridge it, can result in feeling like Alfred P. Doolittle, after his encounter with Higgins.
Perhaps we would do better, to ask, what can be expected from artists? T S Eliot offered a tantalising ideal:
“The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better: the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry and not merely meditate on them poetically.”[i]
This encapsulates much of the problem, if you invert it: it seems to me, that artists are very often required to meditate poetically, rather than offer poetry. I am writing this somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska, on the balcony of a steamer headed for Anchorage. It’s August, but there’s no denying the fact that we are north of the 60th Parallel. It is, for sure, a mild day, of light winds and mild chop, but I am wrapped in two blankets and the sea is seething beneath the rail. Every so often, an Albatross blithely wings past. My hands are nearly too cold to type, but I am determined to be outside; I don’t want to experience this, or communicate it, through glass, on a couch. I confess, that I do have a mug of coffee at hand, but it was cold within moments of my bringing it outside. There’s no real adventure here, no risk, no Nicholas Montserrat. But I want to feel it, and then, when I have the violin in my hand, to find something to communicate of it, of the infinite grandeur of a limitless horizon, the green Northern Pacific, the heave of a ship on the ocean swell. The trick is, not getting in the way. Or maybe, I am wrong. When faced with the impossible blue, the absolute violence, of a calving glacier, should my response be, to box it up?
Two days ago, we lay alongside the dockside at Juneau, and Mounts Roberts and Perseverance loomed over this table. After a morning on the water, I had to go up, so I abandoned my family and walked up, along the oldest road (track) in Alaska, climbing over brutally up-ended ranks of shale, quartz, granite, open-mouthed at the flora and fauna around me, hemlock and spruce barely holding on to the non-existent topsoil, stalked by Steller’s Jay, putting layers on and off, as climate varied, almost yard to yard, standing listening to the churring of a woodpecker in a patch of effective rain-forest within a short march from the snow line. I felt like Charles Darwin, encountering the forest of Brazil for the first time. His response was musical: Handel’s Messiah seemed the only way to express his awe at what he was seeing for the first time
“I felt glad that I was alone: It was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a performance of the Messiah.”
. I am with him; I came back down the mountain, and got my violin out (on the balcony-with the woods, rock and water very much in view). I began playing Bach-began at the beginning, with the G minor Sonata, and worked my way through to the Sarabanda from the D minor, 16 movements in. The Bach that came out, was not Bach that I had played or heard before. It was slower, took time; it seemed that he, Bach that is, was saying: Stop, look at that. At one moment on my walk, a shoe lace had come undone, so I knelt on the path, which at that moment, in the woods, was nothing so much than a broad vein of roseate quartz. And when I knelt, there was another world, of miniature fungi and lichens among the deep moss growing on rotten tree stumps and leaf-mulch. And that found its way into my private, plein-air reading.
So I go back to Eliot, and ask, what does Bach want me to communicate? Is it a poetic meditation, a magic-lantern slide of the beauty of creation, and our place in it? Or is the poetry, which is, I venture to suggest, as close to nature itself, unmediated. I don’t think that I can do that, if I am concerned that someone might not like what I have to say. On the way down, I noticed a fresh bear print in the mud; stupidly, I had not told anyone where I was going. So I sang for a while (until I felt silly), and moved a little faster. But that’s the point, if there’s beauty, there might be a bear, or a beast. You can’t have one without the other; and if I had been eaten, that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
[i] The Sacred World, TSE, (Waste Land and other Writings), The Modern Library, New York City, 2001, P.232
[i] Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli, Translated Simon Carnell & Erica Segre, Riverhead Books, New York, 2016, P.79
Genesis, 32: 24-25, King James Bible, Toru Takemitsu, conversation with PSS, 1986, (Paul Klee), Iris Murdoch, The Art of Fiction No. 117, Interviewed by Jeffrey Meyers, Paris Review Summer 1990
Penance, Thos Hardy, Unexpeted Elegies “Poems of 1912-13”, Selected by Claire Tomalin, Persea Books, New York, NY, 2010, P.50/Malene Skærved to PSS, ca 2006/Louis Krasner, Conversation with PSS, Boston 1988/Lee Hallman, Facebook Message to PSS, 1/8/16/ Coriolanus, William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 3/Samuel Beckett ( I forget where)/Le Livre Blanc, Jean Cocteau, (1928), Translated Margaret Crosland, Peter Owen Modern Classics, 2013, P.75/ Otto, Beatrice K (2001). Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World. University of Chicago Press. p. 113./[ii] (12 February 1668)/[iii] Telephone call to PSS 2001/Edward Cowie, Phone call to PSS, September 2015/Paul Pellay, Facebook post, 28th July 2016/ Laurie Bamon, Facebook Message, 28th July 2016/E mail to PSS 27 7 16/ http://www.sallykindberg.co.uk/notebook/