Did you know that, before modern-day industrial techniques made mass production of rosin possible, local authorities were the only providers of the stuff? They would hang great municipal cakes of it in public places and local fiddlers would prep up their bows en route to the gig.
Thankfully those days are over. While some nostalgic observers lament the disappearance of the dangling amber nugget from the urban landscape, now every string player can treasure their own supply, keeping it nestled in a personalised velvet cushion-lined box, wrapped in a silk handkerchief, until such time as it is dropped and shatters on a stone floor leaving only shards to be applied to the bow hair hair by hair.
Let’s not forget that with their removal, the burden on the taxpayer is now substantially lighter too! And, since we are speaking of burdens being lightened, that brings me to another way in which local government could ride to the rescue of the travelling musician.
By providing cheap and easy access to publicly owned music stands, which would be available on street corners in much the same way as are London’s colourful if ungainly hire bikes, the authorities would alleviate one of life’s most irksome requests: please bring a stand. Even the selfish bastards who generally can’t be bothered to do such a thing (“Oh sorry, I totally forgot/thought there would be enough/had to take it to the dry cleaners”) would benefit, being henceforth able to go through life without having that misdemeanour as a burden tugging on their conscience like rosin on a string.
Daniel Barenboim, piano hipster?
I was as disappointed as everyone to find that Daniel Barenboim’s new piano design, presented to a London public (although not the world) for the first time yesterday, was not some hopeless ramshackle wreck, a tangle perhaps of chicken wire and odd-shaped planks nailed together in a shed somewhere.
No, the actual design and construction was left to the likes of piano maker Chris Maene and manufacturers Steinway & Sons. So rather than standing there aghast, humouring some modern-day, deluded Gambara as he proudly unveiled his wonky handiwork, the crowd of journalists invited to the presentation could listen as Barenboim explained the thinking behind the new design
Part of the idea is that each register of the instrument – each string, even – should have its own sound that the player then has to work to blend together. As he said, “It gives you the opportunity to create a blend yourself as a player – and I like that.”
Already you may be able to detect the overlap with modern currents in food preparation and more besides: the move away from ready-mixed flavours, from homogeneity of blend, the emphasis on personal taste, perhaps even a positive revaluation of older modes of craftsmanship and the use of traditional tools (the impetus for Barenboim’s venture was the experience of playing Liszt’s piano in Siena).
A couple of years ago, the Twitter hashtag #hipsterclassical made a brief appearance. But in general, and using the term in an non-derogatory way (full disclosure: I am myself unbearded), hipsterism has made scant inroads into the mainstream of classical music. But such is its openness to artisan values, once you get past the gloss and sheen, that I wonder if Barenboim has just become one of its more unlikely outriders.
A short while ago I played Mozart’s Requiem, something I could have said on more or less any day over the past 10 years. But on this occasion, as chance would have it, I found myself surrounded by bassoons and basset horns, double basses, cellos and my fellow violas, a somewhat more mellow envelope than the trumpets and trombones that conventions of orchestral seating usually provide.
It was during the Recordare, which everybody knows is the best section in any case, that I really began to enjoy the euphonious combination. So much so that I began dreaming that someone would write a piece for it: not necessarily directly inspired by the Mozart, but drawing on the same ripe instrumental sonorities, the same unheavy mood that hangs around the movement, and bringing them to the fore.
The arrangement of Couperin’s Les baricades mistérieuses by Thomas Adès – a beguiling morsel scored for a quintet made up of low strings, clarinet and bass clarinet – gives some idea of what my dream might have sounded like. But follow that with a longer piece including bassoons and with the clarinettists back on basset horns and you have the potential for a beautiful prelude to the nearly hour-long Requiem.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it happen, not being a composer myself nor being in the position to commission stuff and get it put on. But I’ve added it to my list of imaginary music and will try to enjoy it all the same. Just one thing: please, if you do ever write such a piece, make sure you ask me to play.
Generally speaking, when we start to learn to play an instrument it is on an inferior model. We trade up as and when we improve, partly as a reward for improving and partly as an investment in our future development because we believe this would be limited in scope or rate without the advantages that a superior instrument offers.
This continues even as our technical ability elevates and our musical insights deepen. As musicians, we can easily find ourselves fretting over our instruments, wondering if our dissatisfaction with the noise we are making is because we’ve outgrown them or, rather more simply, because we just need to practise more. Singers, needless to say, have no choice.
The process, if not the fretting, only comes to a halt when the increasingly elevated price of instruments makes further progress up the instrument ladder impractical for all but a very few: those with access to private wealth; those able to arrange financing on the back of stellar careers or career potential; those who secure the benevolence of individuals, corporations and bodies who have instruments to loan.
Almost invariably, the assumption is that the instrument given up must be inferior to the one taken up, at least when the decision is in the musician’s own hands. The generous players at the end of their careers who hand over their fine instruments to younger colleagues, content to continue playing on something less esteemed, are exceptions.
But I wonder, has a master musician ever made the choice to trade down precisely in order to develop as an artist? It may be customary to assume that a fine instrument gives a fine musician access to a greater range of possibilities – it may even be our overwhelming experience. Perhaps it would mean refining our understanding of artistic musical expression, but is it inconceivable that a great musician would deliberately put aside a fine piece of craftsmanship in favour of a poor instrument: the next stage in her development, the true vehicle for her artistry?
The best thing about playing a musical instrument is that it gives you something to do when it’s raining. I’m sort of joking because on an unseasonal day like it is where I am today – non-stop rain and unbroken grey skies forecast for 24 hours – I do feel somehow in some tiny instinctive way as if playing the viola will alleviate the gloom and provide some welcome shelter and warmth.
It never does, though. I guess the viola is just too temperamentally melancholy, or I am. And in the circumstances, I can never think of what to play and end up standing there uselessly, viola drooping under my ear like a waterlogged branch.
So it occurs to me that what I would like is a book of pieces, specially written to be played in the event of rain. Although I am no composer, I imagine they would be little ruminations, incantations, exercises and other whatnots, some intended to ward the bad weather off but others with the more achievable aim of guiding me to a state of patience and acceptance. Perhaps there would be a gentle ritual element involved. Or perhaps they would just be something to do while it’s raining.
Last week at Rhinegold Live, the rush hour concert series at Conway Hall hosted by Rhinegold Publishing, Andrew Litton paid homage to pianist Oscar Peterson. At the end of the hour-long set – transcriptions that he has also recently recorded of Peterson solo performances – he talked about his devotion for the Canadian jazz virtuoso that dates back to the epiphanic moment one birthday in his late teens when Litton was first smitten.
He went on to reveal that, as a conductor, he likes to see orchestras adopt something of a jazz spirit in their playing. That doesn’t mean improvising as a jazz musician does (Litton admitted it’s a skill he does not have), but has something to do with adopting a liberated stance, giving the moment its share as well as the pre-rehearsed.
Of course, it’s a mistake to see jazz as merely anything goes (whether by Cole Porter or not). But it is easy to see how an artist such as Oscar Peterson might be a figurehead for the jazz-curious classical performer. Above all, there’s the phenomenal technique of the sort that classical musicians are supposed to aim to acquire and that some would claim distinguishes classical musicians from those working in other styles. And although this won’t have been what attracted the young Litton, there’s also the refined presentation, his use of fine concert pianos in concerts promoted in the same concert halls frequented by his classical counterparts.
In Peterson’s playing, that technical mastery is very much at the heart of his musicianship. But that’s not the case with every jazz musician. That means that classical musicians need to look further into jazz than the obvious role models like Peterson to find that jazz spirit, or sensibility or call it what you like. How, for instance, can we classical musicians translate the spirit and approach of a Thelonious Monk into our music? Not by emulating his sound or idiosyncrasies necessarily, but in order to discover a classical musicianship that stands in relation to the orthodox in the way that Monk does to Peterson?
For those in daily work, the lunchtime concert offers itself, or is presented, as a pleasing occasional rite: a 30-40 minute midday interlude when another kind of sustenance than the alimentary may be taken in. It’s a pause in the day, a period of contemplation, a walk in the garden that revives the soul in preparation for the return to the afternoon’s duties.
And I suppose as a societal function, that’s fine. But honestly, I dream of playing a recital that turns out to be more than an interlude: a listener decides to take a different path in life, and resolves to go back and hand in their notice, or simply not to go back at all.