Saturday, January 31, 2009

An inside look at musical collaboration

Susan Tomes is a leading chamber music pianist, with several award winning CDs on her resumé, and who has also published a couple of books about chamber music. The first one, Beyond the Notes: Journeys with Chamber Music, consists mostly of tour diaries dating from her earliest chamber group, Domus, formed in 1979, up through an Australian tour of her current Florestan Trio in 2001. Her ruminations read like extended blog posts, and indeed, she currently writes the occasional column for the British newspaper Guardian.

Beyond the Notes is loaded with reflections on music and musicians, most of them tantalizingly mentioned only in passing. For example, on a break during the Florestan Trio tour in Japan, she goes to a porcelain museum, where an exhibit proclaims that it should ideally be viewed 'at ten o'clock in the morning, on a sunny autumn day, in a room facing north, with one "shoji" sliding paper door.' This leads to a short meditation on whether a musical piece can also have its ideal listening circumstances. Is this the curator specifying these instructions, or the thing itself? And does music have an ideal way that it wants to be expressed, a view from the inside out? Or does the performer find the ideal expression, a view from the outside in?

Such meditations are more focussed in the last quarter of the book, a collection of articles on various topics, including two which describe the process of recording chamber music. Phrases over which the group agonized seem inconsequential on the record. Nothing is recorded in a single pass; instead, the producer tells them that a certain span of measures is acceptable, so on to the next. Releases are pieced together in the engineering room, and a performer's brilliant and sublime performance may be discarded because a colleague missed a note, or worse, a noisy truck drove by the studio.

But the majority of the book is the tour diaries in chronological order, starting with the idealistic musicians testing their mettle against the marketplace. Not all of them succeed in remaining professional musicians, as some of Tomes' colleagues drop out of music to pursue more lucrative careers. They spend a lot of time trying to decide who they want to be, torn between improvisation, entertainment, and the more serious western art music. Keith Jopling at Juggernaut Brew has a recent post directing "pop musicians who are not yet popular" to ask the same questions, leading to the biggest one, their long term plan, whether to focus on the quick deal or sustainability. The search for a musical identity seems common to all small groups, not just chamber music.

The tour diaries demonstrate how Tomes answered these questions, moving from a young musician, open to all kinds of music, to an acclaimed specialist in the core 19th century classical repertoire. Part of this shift was the result of a few years as the pianist in the master classes of violinist Sandor Végh, where he spoke constantly about the great Germanic classical music traditions, how important it was to maintain them, and how they were in danger of being lost. During the early 1980s, Domus played children's concerts, improvisations, a fairly large variety of music. They were counselled to restrict their playing if they wanted to be taken seriously by the classical music establishment, and Tomes apparently took the advice to heart. By the end of the tour diaries, spanning a period of twenty years, she expresses disappointment at audiences who cannot distinguish between her group and other live performances of the same works, despite her acknowledged scarcity of such audiences. (I'm certainly not one. I can count the number of classical works of which I own more than one recording on the fingers of one hand.)

Despite this small touch of disenchantment with her audience, there is a lot to ponder in Tomes' reflections. The conversational tone of her writing, along with relatively few technical sections, make the book a quick read, with pauses only to consider the issues she raises, issues which go beyond genres, to the heart of what drives people to be musicians.

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