After a concert – Early Morning 20th September 2020

Posted on September 20th, 2020 by

After a concert – Early Morning 20th September 2020

Before the concert 19 9 20

It’s 4am. As normal, I am awake. This has never been a problem. I fell in love with the depth of the night when I was very young, and have always relished the time and space, that not needing much sleep gives me, to read and think … or on a night like tonight to watch the stars and planets. As sit writing this, I face due south, so if I look about 20 degrees to my right, and up 40, there’s Mars, rosily clear. I keep binoculars on the window sill for nights like this, so I can spend a few minutes ‘out there’. And I know that I am not alone in this. With perfect visibility like tonight’s there will be thousands watching right now, pleased to now be asleep. Unlike watching Jupiter, I can’t see Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos (Fear and Panic), but that’s ok.

…because earlier this evening I had a chance to be out there myself. I was taken there by music I love, and by the audience of friends, all experiencing, remembering, it seemed, simultaneously, what draws us together to share the things that we love. I was back on stage, or rather standing under the dome of one of Christopher Wren’s masterpieces, St Mary Abchurch, which he complete in 1686.  Above, me, blazing gold in the centre of William Snow’s 1708 dome painting, the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, surrounded by a glorious gathering of musical angels, St Cecelia, organ, harp and trumpets.

William Snow’s Dome painting

And it’s the music which sets my head spinning. The wonder of a ‘Les Pleurs’ by Jean de Sainte Colombe is absolutely linked to doing it, hearing it, sharing it, together. I have been thinking about July 20th 1969, when the whole world, very briefly, watched and listened, remembered that, as one, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the LEM onto the surface of the moon next to the Theophilus crater.  It’s a vanity, I know, to suggest a link, between the scratch of bow hair on catgut, and that moment. but what can I do? It’s 4am, and I am thinking about Colombi, about Torelli, and about Joni Mitchell, who put it so very much better than I can: ‘We are stardust/Billion-year-old carbon/We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden’. When we gather, it seems, the stellar magic can happen.

Many years ago, rehearsing a very ambitious programme with the pianist Aaron Shorr, he defined what artists are or might be. ‘We’re astronauts’ he said. ‘It’s our mission, always to get to the next rock.’ That stuck with me, and maybe contributed to the hunger which have always relished, to visit the next piece of music, to work out how to live there (the great composer Edward Cowie defines pieces of music as ‘habitats’), and maybe, what we take with us, what we learn.

… And even a little concert like mine can feel like a little space trip, perhaps more Tintin’s Objectif Lune than Voyager 1, but a fantastic nonetheless, and there are wonderful environments to be found along the way, from Thomas Baltzar’s thorny Four Tunings through to the adamant rock forms of Nicola Matteis’ ‘Musica Grave.

Objectif Lune – Hergé (1953)

But of course, this is just as much a journey inwards. After the concert I was standing in Abchurch Yard, outside the building which had cradled the listening and playing with the poet Louise Vale and composer Mihailo Trandafilovski. Louise was enraptured by Mihailo’s new piece Grain (which I had just premiered). ‘I have never heard anything like that – I never thought that music could do that’. Another collaborating composer, Paul Pellay, just posted his response to Mihailo’s piece online (he’s writing too):

‘It reminded me of nothing so much as those recordings of sound waves converted from electromagnetic emissions from distant planets. Delicately frightening and mesmerising all at once…………’. [the dots are Paul’s].

 Mihailo challenges us, player, listeners, space and music, to go deep into its, their, our very materials, to hunt out, to listen for, the light-filled, pulsing, dense and febrile harmonics which are the essence of sound, light, everything. Mihailo is something of an Arthur C. Clarke, and his music always makes me think (this piece even more than most), “My God, it’s full of stars!”, Dave Bowman’s last words entering the monolith in (the book version, chapter 39) 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Making it clear. Mihailo Trandafiloski 12 5 16

But, listening to Mihailo and Louise, I was recalling a technical crisis. Grain begins, with me hunting for, questing, the 7th harmonic partial on the G string, which sounds 31 cents below F natural, (two octaves and a minor (-ish) 7th above. (Later in the piece, he sends me teasing out 8th and 9th partials). And of course (best laid plans) this first ideally shining note was recalcitrant.  It was a humid evening:  every string player knows, humid weather, a wooden instrument, metal strings, and squishy fingertips more or less guarantee that the note IS NEVER where you left it. So, the first sound, like dust settling in the room, was actually my struggle, pianisssssssssimo, to coax this note out of the ether I was having a ‘I’m going to manual’ moment, as Buzz Aldrin looked anxiously at Armstrong as the fuel gauge in the landed dropped to 6-5-4-3-2 percent —and then they landed on the soft grain of the lunar surface- as the spacecraft was literally running on fumes. Because, of course, what fascinates Mihailo, the sound he wants, is the way that these hard-to-find harmonics reveal themselves. It had been Paul Pellay, many years ago, who introduced me to the wonder of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s most famous line:

‘Dopo tanta Nebbia…. a una a una si svelano le Stelle’ (after so much fog … one by one, the stars reveal themselves)

I don’t think (I hope) that Mihailo won’t mind my saying that this is the essence of what I felt happen, piloting my wooden spaceship through the cosmic clouds of Snow’s painting on the dome, and the name of God, Yahweh, begins to glow in the gloom. The note, the piece, becomes audible, because it is being listened to, in time and space. And, we have to believe that it’s there, otherwise we won’t find it.

Perhaps this is like the almost-invisible moons of Mars, not seen for the first time until 1877. It was Asaph Hall (of the U.S. Naval Observatory) who found them, but he would not have done, if a brilliant woman had not insisted, that they were there, to persevere, like the composer instructing this player. Asaph was so disconsolate after not finding satellites around the red planet shining up my right-hand side, that he considered giving up the search. But his brilliant wife and teacher, the astronomer, mathematician, suffragist and abolitionist, Angeline Stickney had worked out that there were there. She urged him to continue, and ‘Fear’ and ‘Panic’ were found. When she asked the U.S. Naval Observatory to pay her for her, she was rudely rebuffed. And they appeared, like Mihailo’s gleaming F’’’, somewhere between my strings, the space, and the ears, the imaginations of his audience.

Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall (1830 – 1892 )

What I rediscovered, after 6 months away from the chamber music of playing with an audience, in a wonderful space, was how much only happens, when we are all together. Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate what that actually is. Pooh and Piglet had a conversation about it:

 ‘Then we all say ‘Aha!/ “All three of us?”/ “yes.”/ “Oh!”/ “Why, what’s the trouble Piglet?”/ “Nothing,” said Piglet, “as longs as we all three say it. As long as we all three say it,” said Piglet, “I don’t mind,” he said, “but I shouldn’t care to say ‘Aha’ by myself. It wouldn’t sound nearly so well.”

Pooh & Piglet by E H Shepard

Of course, one of the strengths of doing something together, is that it, the doing, the being together, is beautiful, wonderful, because it is transitory. ‘While the note lasts’ as T S Eliot has it. For a brief moment, we all met, and listened in Christopher Wren’s ‘Auditory’, under Grinling Gibbon’s swags of flowers, and the spirits of Vitali, Anne Finch, Elizabeth Tipper, Pepys, Colombi, Vilsmayr, came and shared their songs, their stories, their humours with us and listened to our stories, and then it ended, and we found our way back to our billets.

I found myself quoting Sir Thomas Browne on stage, who, shortly before his death, in 1682, wrote: ‘The created World is but a small Parenthesis in Eternity’.

Now Mars, has moved to the west, further to my right, and is at 35 degrees, in the crook of Pisces, where it’s been all evening. It might be time to sleep.