It can come as quite a shock to encounter a professional musician outside of their natural home of the concert hall. Generally, our only contact with them, as audience members, may be a brief conversation in the green room after a concert or at a post-concert CD signing. When on stage, musicians seem to exist in a strange ‘other’ world separate from ours; this ‘mystique’ is created partly by the musicians themselves who require a certain distance in order to work.

The virtuoso at home can be disappointingly ordinary, as I discovered when, some years before I started writing regularly about classical music, I interviewed a British concert pianist at his home in the leafy suburbs. I had expected something more refined, more esoteric. His piano room was not some Lisztian salon, as I had naively imagined it might be, all crimson swags and a bust of the composer for inspiration, or an ascetic monkish cell, but a tidy “office” equipped with the tools of his trade – a grand piano and a career’s worth of scores neatly lining one wall. What came as more of a shock was that he talked about the fine art of creating beautiful music for others to enjoy as if it were any other nine-to-five job. I later realised that this was his way of balancing his practice time and a busy diary of concerts with his obligations to his family, and the need for “down time”.

In fact, most musicians are normal people: they live in ordinary homes, have families, pets, cars to service, a mortgage or rent to pay. This “ordinariness” has been more than confirmed by the many videos musicians have released online of them playing in their own homes during the lockdowns imposed around the world in response to coronavirus. We got a glimpse into their living rooms and studios and discovered they are, generally, just like us! They “normalise” the incredibly artistic and highly intellectual thing that they do on stage in order to function day to day and get their work (practising) done. Because for them, music is their job.

But of course what marks them out is their ability to transform the normal into the beautiful, the pedestrian into the transcendent, and the everyday into the extraordinary.

Musicians are extraordinary. Their meticulous approach to physical and psychological conditioning is akin to that of an elite athlete and the parallels between sport and music are very close – from day-to-day training to peak performance. Musicians, like elite sportspeople, require discipline, dedication and commitment to do what they do and do it well, and many make huge sacrifices to achieve this.

In addition to finely-tuned motor function, musicians also possess superior cognitive skills as evidenced by their ability to process, finesse and memorise vast amounts of data in the form of notes and directions on the score, an activity in which they engage on a daily basis during the practice and study of the music.

Their working hours are long, arduous and often unsociable – the late nights, the travelling, the Sisyphean accumulation of airmiles, nights spent in faceless continental hotels in beautiful, historic cities they won’t ever have time to explore because of rehearsal commitments…. In addition, the profession is very precarious – and this has been amply and very sadly confirmed by the pandemic. It’s a lifestyle not many of us would choose.

And yet in spite of all of this, musicians have chosen this life. In interviews, many talk about how “the music chose them”, rather than the other way round, and speak of the incredible power music, and the desire to share it with others in performance, exerts over them. This need, this will to play is what drives them, and as audience members we can only marvel at this extraordinary cultural gift which musicians are prepared to give to us.

Image: Photo by Ivanna Blinova on Unsplash

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Guest post by Doug Thomas

I create in order to learn; there has not ever been a piece of music that I have composed without the wish to discover something and develop my artistry.

While it is, I believe, observable in all my works, it is most obvious in Portraits, and the soon to be released Landscapes

With both projects, I intend — through microscopic study — to portrait composers that I have found influential or with whom I have spent considerable musical time. My creative approach consists of identifying the subjective elements that define these composers and, through a process of translation, make them mine. 

Through a broad selection that spans over each main period of Western classical music, I have selected Couperin, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Glass and Stravinsky. Some influences are quite noticeable in my works already, some much less, and some will perhaps become more prominent as I evolve musically.

Let’s take “Vienna 2”, the first of the eight pieces of Landscapes that I have recorded and released, and examine how I have composed it and what the result has been. 

The first phase of creation for this piece is one of learning; through a selection of some of Schubert’s motifs, and rhythmic, melodic or harmonic cells, I analyse, transcribe and identify the elements that make the music so interesting to me. I immerse myself in the composer’s world in order to bring the personality traits out and understand his creative process. It is similar to the work of the archaeologist, who brushes the dust and reveals the keys and symbols. It is a process of listening, reading and copying. 

The second phase is then an opportunity for translation and creation. It is how I adapt Schubert’s vocabulary to mine, how I reappropriate his sentences and make them mine. 

This last phase is crucial for me as it is the one that decides whether the piece will sound like a simple pastiche, or whether it will have the flavours of Schubert’s music, while being truly my own musical DNA. It might translate into improvising over the elements until something emerges or an intellectual process of shuffling the pieces and structuring new elements together. 

What I find truly interesting with such an approach, aside from the enrichment, is the end result. What I see as being very much Schubert’s words out of my mouth has actually become my own expression. Had I not mentioned Schubert, “Vienna 2” might have been perceived very differently, and the secret would have been intact. 

When Richter wrote Infra, a large inspiration was also Schubert’s, and his Impromptus, yet although the musical material is very similar, it is no one else but Richter’s works. 

Hopefully, I can say the same about “Vienna 2”, Portraits and Landscapes. Ultimately, I feel richer. 

Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London. He also publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a regular contributor to this site and its sister site ArtMuseLondon.

Doug Thomas

“I am a beginner. I am always learning”*

Fou Ts’ong

This wonderfully humble quote from Fou Ts’ong, the acclaimed Chinese pianist, who died on 28 December 2020, is a reminder that even those at the top of the profession should never stop learning.

Our learning journey often begins in childhood, with early music lessons under the guidance of a teacher and later, for the aspiring professional, in music college or conservatoire. The support of a teacher or mentor may continue after graduation and many professional musicians return to their teachers/mentors for critical feedback and support during their career, even if they are no longer taking regular lessons.

The decision to cease regular lessons is not a sign that one has ceased learning; rather that one has reached a level of competency and confidence to continue on the learning path alone, and a good teacher can instil in a student the necessary tools to study and learn independently.

Ongoing learning requires curiosity and an open-mind, a willingness to accept and reflect on setbacks, the ability to self-critique one’s work, and to set realistic goals to maintain focus and motivation. This continual learning process is allied to mastery – embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence.

But there’s more, because what I think Fou Ts’ong’s quote also reminds us is that, as musicians (and human beings in general), we should always try to retain that thirst for knowledge and childlike inquisitiveness of the beginner student, unburdened by preconceptions and past experiences. The beginner’s mindset keeps us alert, curious and questioning, ready to accept doubt and open to possibilities and alternatives – important for the musician, not just when learning and refining music but also in performance and teaching.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

The beginner’s mindset can also be helpful when trying to problem solve or overcome obstacles. The “habits of the expert” can actually be an impediment, leading us to overthink or become mired in problems which aren’t really there. The “innocence of first inquiry” (Suzuki) allows us to see things as they are, to simplify, and to problem solve step by step.

Studies have shown that the accrual of greater knowledge can lead not only to us becoming bogged down and distracted by our expertise, but also rather complacent in the face of problems, which then leads us to approach issues in ways which are familiar or habitual, rather than thinking more creatively “outside the box”. Here too, we allow our ego, enhanced by our perceived greater knowledge, to over-complicate a situation. This may also prevent us from finding a better or more creative solution.

The accrual of greater knowledge and expertise, advanced technical facility and musicianship should always be tempered by the beginner’s curiosity and open-mindedness. It can only make us better musicians.

*from an interview with music journalist Jessica Duchen

Guest post by Jessica Duchen

Beethoven year is over. Well, not quite. In Germany, it’s set to carry on well into 2021, and beyond; one tribute I’m involved with in Berlin is postponed until 2022. Fortunately, to some extent every year is Beethoven year.

When the pandemic struck, I was hard at work on my book Immortal, the story of Beethoven’s (probably) real “Immortal Beloved”. It certainly kept me busy during lockdown, and I often thanked heaven that I had Beethoven, of all composers, for company. If there had to be a major anniversary during this grim year, how lucky it was his. I don’t know any other composer who “gives” quite so much to his listeners and, especially, his players. Sit at your piano and practise Beethoven for an hour: you’ll likely come away with your energy replenished, not drained. There’s a comforting heart in his music large enough for the whole world.

Unlike other composers with anniversaries, Beethoven scarcely needs to be reassessed or re-evaluated. There is simply no getting away from the fact that this is music of genius – adulterated only occasionally, when he had to make ends meet (‘Wellington’s Victory’, anyone?) – and his works continue to influence composers even in the 21st century. Anyone who really thinks it’s a good idea to “cancel” him could light a candle now to the patron saint of lost causes, whose name I forget.

Still, if there’s been a revelation about him in 2020, it’s that his music is sometimes associated with struggle at the expense of his sheer joie de vivre. He was drawn to Schiller’s An die Freude – To Joy – from the start: the poem was published in 1785 and it seems he wanted to set it to music even in the early 1790s. Although he did not manage it until the Ninth Symphony, that doesn’t mean glimmers of its underlying spirit can’t be detected in some of his other works.

Beethoven fills his music with an intergalactic range of emotional experience. In his early works he pushed through the boundaries, sometimes within one piece; try the Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 3 with its pitch-dark Largo, or the String Quartet Op. 18 No. 1, in which the second movement is said to evoke the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet – and if he had never written anything else, he would still be revered for these today. At the other end of the spectrum, he was writing odes to joy all his life.

The text of An die Freude in the Ninth Symphony is an extract, heavily edited for public palatability. Read the whole poem and it’s startling, even a bit crazy: ebullience, religious ecstasy, passion, drunkenness, siblinghood, social equality and much else parade through its stanzas in a celebratory carnival. Potentially there’s even more of its spirit in the Seventh Symphony than the Ninth.

Yet, to generalise terribly, the sense of “divine play” that creates Beethoven’s celestial joy is perhaps overlooked too often. Our own preoccupations, preconceptions and insecurities mean that sometimes we sideline joy in favour of reverence to a “towering genius”, the perceived need to be “historically correct” or, heaven help us, an inclination to be “iconoclastic” to evoke a “fresh approach”. If we’re to reach the “real” Beethoven, we need to get out of his way.

Take the Diabelli Variations: it’s full of jokes from start to finish, whether the sideswipe at Don Giovanni, the quirky contrast of hammered octaves and two soft little chords – or even the notion of that daft waltz theme as the basis for such a battalion of ideas in the first place. Once I wrote programme notes for a recital including it, with ample reference to these musical jests, only for a friend who was there to call the next morning and report that not one hint of humour surfaced in the whole performance.

Writing Immortal, I wanted to uncover the human being trapped beneath two centuries of accumulated grime. Behind the hot temper, the anguish, the deafness, the chaotic lifestyle, the self-delusions (there were quite a few) and the impossible – if self-inflicted – situation he faced in attempting to adopt his nephew, I found an individual who could be kind, generous, intelligent, inquisitive, thoughtful and idealistic to an extraordinary degree; one who in his youth could be witty and spirited, and whose self-exclusion from society because of his deafness was an agonising burden.

High-minded, indeed; uncompromising, for sure, as the “Immortal Beloved” herself was to discover. And strong, resilient, overpowering, thanks to his sense of vocation. He wrote in the Heiligenstadt Testament that he felt he could not leave the world until he had brought forth all that was within him. His art kept him alive at a time when he might otherwise have ended his own life; thereafter he lived for that alone.

Sometimes we forget that genius is human: it is a phenomenon found only in human beings. What most of us can’t grasp is the degree of devotion it takes to function at such a level. That would need a chapter of its own – perhaps for the next Beethoven anniversary, in 2027.

Immortal by Jessica Duchen is out now, published by Unbound.

Jessica Duchen writes for and about music. Her work encompasses journalism, fiction, biography and opera/choral librettos. She was a music critic for The Independent from 2004 to 2016 and has written for BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Observer and The JC, among others.

Her latest novel (2020), IMMORTAL, reveals the epic love story behind Beethoven’s famous ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter. Other novels include GHOST VARIATIONS, based on the bizarre discovery and Nazi propaganda conscription of Schumann’s suppressed violin concerto.

Jessica Duchen’s website

Soon after the first UK lockdown began in March 2020, videos began appearing online of people playing their pianos in their homes. Often these home performances – more playing for oneself than for others – were prefaced by an apology for the poor quality of the piano sound. “I’m sorry, my piano is out of tune and I don’t know when the tuner will be able to come to fix it” was a common thread. But somehow it didn’t matter – because many people had to be content with an out of tune piano during lockdown, when tuners, like the rest of us, were ordered to stay at home.

Some of these at home performances were given by professional pianists; many more were by amateurs who, by complying with the government stay at home orders, found themselves with – oh joy! – extra hours with which to indulge their passion, instead of trying to shoe-horn practice time into the daily routine of work and family life.

There was a remarkable outpouring of music in those strange early days and weeks of lockdown. The piano is the perfect instrument for isolation: pianists tend to be, by nature, solitary, and many relished and actively embraced the weeks of confinement. This was an opportunity to learn new repertoire, revisit previously-learnt music, or simply enjoy quality time with the instrument and its literature. It confirmed what most of us, especially amateurs, know – that we play primarily for ourselves, in private, just us and the instrument.

And people forgave a less-than-perfect piano sound and instead embraced and shared this celebration of the instrument and its music. Many of these performances, recorded in people’s living rooms, dining rooms, music rooms, were the result of hours of careful practice; others were spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment occasions. Some people collaborated, using an app, to play duets, remotely yet together. Shared on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, these mini house concerts reminded us of why we love music, and what we were missing with the concert halls shuttered. Commenting on people’s performances, praising their efforts and marvelling at their abilities, was a way of recalling the special shared experience of live music – as performer and audience – and this created a sense of togetherness, even though we were separated.

“I’m so busy!” my piano technician said when he finally came to tune my piano in early July (some three months later than its scheduled half-year tune). All the out of tune pianos of lockdown were finally being treated to some much-needed TLC, and as soon as the tuner had done his/her work, the piano’s owner played to recall what an in tune piano should sound like, and then there was an even greater pleasure in the act of playing.

The videos will continue to be shared online because people find pleasure in sharing their music with others and for amateur pianists in particular, practicing with the intention of recording one’s playing provides focus. But let us hope in 2021 we can also return to live music in concert halls, large and small.

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Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Oft quoted, frequently mis-attributed, this statement nonetheless brilliantly captures the difficulty of writing about something abstract, what Ferruccio Busoni called ‘sonorous airs’ – the music itself.

There’s an over-abundance of writing about music today – academic, analytical, political, sociological, not to mention a wealth of criticism and reviews of concerts and recordings, programme notes,  ‘think pieces’ and celebrity interviews and profiles. But this article is not about these kinds of writing about music; it is about the difficulty of putting the experience of music into words.

Music resists being described in language because it is very hard to convey the abstract aural experience of sound in words. This is one of the things that I – and countless others – love about the experience of music: it defies description because it is deeper than words.

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

Victor Hugo

The problem with writing about classical music is that the artform has existed for too long in a rarefied atmosphere, set apart from other musicks. Tradition and reverence have surrounded classical music with an aura of “specialness”, a distinction which is still continually emphasised by the specialist language and vocabulary used when talking or writing about music. Unfortunately, for many people this kind of specialist technical language is often inaccessible and off-putting; it also contributes to the notion that classical music is “elitist”, for a select, educated few. Until fairly recently, the way music was written about in newspapers, magazines, programme notes and even CD liner notes was either incomprehensible or little use in helping the reader decide whether or not to explore a particular work.

For the general listener, would-be audience member and classical music ingénue, the only way to write about music in a way which brings it to life is to write from the heart. This may sound rather fey or simplistic, but music is about the full gamut of human emotions and experience. We don’t engage with it because it is scholarly, rarefied or elusive; we engage with its because it elicits an emotional response in each of us. It seems incredible to me how politely we often present this extraordinary, heart-stopping artform to its potential audience.

To write convincingly about music, one must engage in lateral thinking to create startling images and metaphors to describe the indescribable in a way which somehow conveys the emotional impact the music has on the writer and brings the experience of hearing it to life for the reader. (Perhaps the greatest compliments I have been paid for my concert reviews is “you made me feel as if I was at the concert with you”.)

But there’s more, for in addition to the emotional experience, one must also try and capture the aural one. What does the music sound like? Musicians have a common language of terms such as legato, staccato, portamento, pizzicato to direct them to the sound effect the composer desires, but to the non-specialist listener/reader translating staccato simply as “detached” (its literal translation) is not sufficient. Staccato can be light, delicate, punchy, percussive, crisp, snappy, spiky…. Similarly legato (literally smoothly or connected) is not confined to one simple description. Then there are the instruments themselves, each with their own distinctive voice: strings which tremble and shimmer, bright metallic brass, the lustrous and mellow clarinet, the rich growl of the lower bass of the piano….

Many of the words used to describe music are drawn from other walks of life – art or nature, for example – to create metaphors for the experience of hearing and playing music. The language of architecture in particular can be useful in describing music’s structures and motifs: arabesques, curlicues, filigree, arching, soaring. Or more physical terms: bouncing, jogging, stamping, limping, dancing, throbbing, breathing, sobbing. Or adjectives drawn from weather: showering, thunderous, misty, dripping, rumbling, splashing.

We often talk about ‘colour’ in music, often in relation to dynamics, from the most delicately nuanced pianissimo to bold fortissimos – and all the subtle shadings in between. Then there is light and dark – ‘chiaroscuro’ – bright, hazy, shimmering, veiled harmonies, plangent tenebrous chords….

Thus the writer must find metaphors and adjectives which amply describe the structure and sounds of the music, the experience of hearing it and the emotions it aroused in a way which captivates the imagination of the reader and avoids clichés. Herein lies the difficulty: an overly liberal sprinkling of adjectives and metaphor can obscure the meaning of the words – and also the music – resulting in florid, purple prose, such as this:

[his] diminuendi could attenuate a note as gently as a thinning fountain that slowly makes slender its spurts

For those of us who write about music, we face the challenge of whether words can really convey music, or if music can be revealed through the medium of language. The secret of any good music writing – whether it’s a puff piece in a concert programme, an in-depth piece of analysis, a programme note or a review of a concert – is that it should make you want to hear the music (or make you glad you didn’t have to hear it!). Either way, the writing should invite and inspire and pique your aural curiosity, not baffle or alienate.

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