Thursday, August 31, 2006


The Guardian has a special offer today that could be good news for those of us who still have LPs, 33s, 45s and cassette tapes, but would like to transfer them into digital format. I hasten to add that I haven't tried this at home, so this post does not constitute a recommendation, just an indication of interest in the concept.

Could this be a solution to my archive of interview tapes? There are hundreds of the ruddy things, dating back more than 15 years, and although it's probably been crazy to keep them all, among them a few gems that I'd be sad to see rendered unplayable, eg Shura Cherkassky ("I don't know why I'm telling you all this..."); Witold Lutoslawski ("We played it through on the table edge..."); and Rosalyn Tureck ("I play Bach HIS way"). With my usual techno-uselessness, I've had no idea how to transform their outdated format.

Has anybody tried this system? Or any others?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Thought for the day

Found this as Quote of the Week on Tasmin Little's website:

"People who make music together cannot be enemies,
at least while the music lasts."

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

More where this came from.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Tango passion

Seems that Maureen Lipman, writing in The Guardian today, loves tango too. Wonderful. Good bank holiday Monday reading for those of us who haven't braved the Notting Hill Carnival.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

quick explanation

I've disabled & hidden the comments for the preceding post because I received a snide, personal, abusive missive from some total stranger hiding his/her identity (as such people always do); being short-tempered after a filthy week, I decided to publish it and respond with a strong 4-letter word, which it deserved. Then I got scared that the parent site might decide to blacklist this blog for bad language, and it just wasn't worth the risk.

It's odd, but it has never once occurred to me to post an abusive message on a blog. It has never occurred to me to write snide, personal, abusive anythings to anybody, however obnoxious I think they are (OK, the occasional fantasy now and then, but I don't do it). I just save up their characters for a future novel...

But hey, you don't like it? Don't read it. Spend your time getting a life instead.

The latest...

Now BA says they're not letting any instruments into any cabins, but they're saying it's BAA's fault (=British Airports Authority, which is being widely blamed for the security chaos last week). It seems that everywhere else in Europe is fine...just here... A violin soloist friend tells me that her various colleagues are taking Eurostar to Paris & flying from there. A report in yesterday's Independent said that the Musicians' Union is going to do its best but can't do anything much at the moment because Parliament is in recess (=sun-tanning in Rome while the fiddles burn...?).

SO: our holiday is off, we lose £400 (neither BA nor travel insurance can't be bothered with musicians needing to take their instruments) and I suspect that in fact we're getting off relatively lightly. There are musicians around who stand to lose a hell of a lot more in earnings if they have to factor in extra travel time and cost to get out of Britain before they can get anywhere else. I'm seriously wondering whether two years from now, I'll want to carry on living in this country.

The best thing about London - a crazy, mismanaged, exorbitant place - is that it is a hub of world cultural activity at the highest level. It's immensely multicultural and cosmopolitan, musicians and other creative types gravitate here from all corners of the globe and our friends include people from Italy, France, Canada, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the US, Uganda, South Africa, Edinburgh, Finland, Hungary, Ireland and Denmark, to name but a few. If we are now going to turn into a xenophobic, paranoic, protectionist little island - as the USA appears to be doing its best to become - and our musician friends are forced to base themselves elsewhere, as may yet happen if this bloody mess is here to stay, then I just won't want to be here any more.

Of course everyone is delighted and relieved that this latest terrorism plot was caught in time: the security services did a fantastic job, the airports et al may have been in a mess but have probably done OK, realistically, given the circumstances. Of course all those cabin baggage restrictions are supposed to be for passengers' safety. But this degree of inflexibility is not reasonable. That's what's so frightening. Excessive, unreasoned, ignorant, knee-jerk reactions.

It would be very easy to say that the latest foiled terror plot was a result of Blair's support for Bush's insane policies in the Middle East - quite possibly it is. (I didn't vote for Blair, by the way, & wouldn't have touched Bush with a barge-pole.) That's too simplistic an explanation, but there's no doubt that this hasn't helped. Normally, I'm reasonably proud to be British, thanks to our amazing literary tradition, but frankly, at this moment, I am positively ashamed of it, something I never felt even in the darkest days of Thatcher.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Here we go, here we go, here we go...again

Late August, everyone's away on holiday and it's time to start blustering about the Last Night of the Proms. Yes, it's outdated, too British and pretty bloody silly. Yes, it's probably not the most appropriate programming at times when Tony Blair & co are helping GWB to blast apart his latest choice of adversary. No, it doesn't put people off music. Actually, it attracts thousands to imitation Last Night of the Proms concerts all over the place. And to some, it could also be classified as harmless fun. Naturally, the papers have to come out with the usual stuff all over again. Could that be because there's not much else going on here right now, bar a few nasty Russian operas, one of the most journalistically uninspiring Proms seasons I can remember

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How not to write a book

Right now I should be battling my way through the difficult third quarter of my third novel. This is always a tricky point in the plot - how many operas, for example, founder exactly there? I'll save that topic for another day. Suffice it to say that I've been resorting to unfortunate displacement activities, and the latest I've discovered is the BBC Radio 3 Message Boards, onto which I had previously failed to venture.

I was amused by a discussion that had a good dig at's news section, which was a little slow at the Schwarzkopf obituary starting post. Readers commented on how annoyed they were that the site had posted next to no news for two weeks in July (er, was someone on holiday, perhaps?). Cue a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek contribution from BBC Music Mag editor Oliver Condy, inviting the said annoyed readers to try his online news section instead, and with a dry charm that few could resist. I think he won...

...You see how easy it is to get sucked in to this useless fun. You just pop a few details into the form, pick a user name (obscure composers are popular: in one sitting I found both 'Charles Valentin Alkan' and 'Sorabji'), click a response to the confirmation email they send you, and away you go. Did I come out better informed than before? Not sure. But I managed to while away a perfectly pleasant hour that should have been spent more productively elsewhere on my computer.

Still, with broadband it works out cheaper than your average 'Sex and the City' fan's retail therapy. And it's less fattening than chocolate.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I'm sorry to say that the latest on carrying hand-baggage on flights to/from Britain is that violins appear to be a no-no.

Tom has been carrying his violin into the cabin as hand-luggage for 25 years. Yesterday we hung on for about ten minutes to get through to the airline on which we are meant to fly to France next month, listening to pre-recorded platitudinous messages about their wonderful customer service. Finally Tom was told by some idiot of a rep that he can put his violin in the hold. He explained that he can't: it's liable to be smashed by those shott-putting bag handlers, being 150 years old and worth a five-figure sum. 'In that case you can afford to buy another ticket for it,' said the rep, who evidently hadn't listened to the platitudinous messages about their wonderful customer service.

Another call to the same company, answered by a different rep, produced the information that the new regulations about the size of hand-luggage have been in place since 1 August. A visit to the website produced, after much searching, a kind of afterthought suggesting that they've been in place since 1 July. Nobody mentioned this when we bought our tickets to France. We have the distinct impression that the airline is using the current crisis to cash in.

We're supposed to fly to Nice for a week's long-awaited holiday, then to Nantes for the St Nazaire Festival (hence Tom's need for his violin), then home from Nantes. We may have to ditch the whole plan and drive across northern France to St N instead, thanks to the airline, which by the way is refusing to offer a refund even though this situation is their fault, not ours.

Apparently orchestras on tour should be OK because they have organisational clout and proper equipment. It's the individual violinist, travelling between small chamber music festivals, who is basically up s**t creek without a fiddle.

BUT even as I write, conflicting information is still emanating from every orifice of the airline in question: the latest this morning is that the 'new' regulations about hang-luggage size are the same as the 'old' ones and that the airline can be 'flexible'. Confusing, but promising. So, no panics yet, please...

UPDATE: 12 noon. I think Tom has got it sorted, though I'll only believe it when we are actually on that plane. There's no problem with the French internal flight from Nice to Nantes - the rep we spoke to there seemed to think that Britain and the US have gone completely bonkers, and she may be right. Advice in the meantime: check with the airline before you travel, be polite and persuasive and try to get something in writing about taking the fiddle aboard. A forum on earlier this year about problems on a particular US airline saw several ladies advocating tears as a suitable last resort!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Violin - or out?

You may find the comments on this BBC site interesting re the problems musicians are now facing because they're not allowed to carry their valuable and delicate instruments on to the planes. The security guard who says 'if you don't like it, don't fly, there's more to life than music' is rather missing the point: music is a musician's livelihood! Get real yourself, Laura.

Dear friends who play violins, violas, or anything else that normally flies as hand baggage - please write in and tell us your experiences about travelling over the past few days? What are you going to do? I haven't heard any reports that terrorists are planning to blow up planes using fiddles, which are not liquid, but the blanket ban on hand-luggage nevertheless is playing havoc with musicians' plans. I sincerely hope that the Musicians Union will be able to tackle the airlines and work out something sensible, and fast.

UPDATE, MONDAY 11.45am: this is the latest on the hand baggage situation here in the UK - seems to be easing a bit. As far as I can tell, this means that flutes, oboes and, I hope, violins will be OK, but not sure about violas, cellos and tubas.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Literature for this day

This is from Ian McEwan's SATURDAY (published by Vintage Books):

There are those rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever - mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Questions and answers

A few answers to a few of the more colourful Googles that have provided links to this website:

CLASSICAL MUSIC TO MAKE YOU SMILE: May I suggest the following: Mozart Symphony Nos.29 and 39 to put you in a good mood, or 'A Musical Joke' if you want to take things to extremes; Faure & Messager's piano duets 'Souvenirs de Bayreuth' (the world's most brilliant Wagner take-off); Facade by William Walton; Saint-Saens 'Carnival of the Animals'; and Haydn 'The Creation' for the transcendental kind of smiling. Hope this helps.

HOMEOPATHY RSI: I took Rhus Tox when I had RSI as a student (too much Revolutionary Etude plus extension exercises) and it worked when everything else had failed. The nature of homeopathy, though, is that not everything works for everyone: it's about you as an individual. That remedy suited me but may not be right for someone else. So do consult a qualified homeopath.

a certain amazing pianist GAY: he's not. Bad luck, mate.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

When Steven met Clara...

Here is Steven Isserlis's take on the Schumann, Clara & Brahms story, from yesterday's Guardian. Today, in Aldeburgh, he and Simon Callow will be giving their music-and-words account of it. I can't make it to Aldeburgh myself (I'm currently closeted in my study, in the last throes of finalising the manuscript of ALICIA'S GIFT), but would be very interested to hear from anyone who does. Please write in with your comments! I will post any newspaper reviews I find.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


A quick reminder that this afternoon, Saturday, from 2pm I'll be at Waterstones in Richmond (2-6 Hill Street), Surrey, signing copies of RITES OF SPRING.

Friday, August 04, 2006


An item in the redoubtable Hornblower's Diary of Classical Music Magazine draws attention to a resemblance between the Prime Minister of the UK and a certain Hungarian grand maestro of the piano. There is indeed something about that steady, steely gaze...

Perhaps Mr Schiff would do a more statesmanlike job of sorting out the current horrific world situation than Mr Blair...
[UPDATE, 10.45pm: Mr Blair has not, as we all thought earlier, gone on holiday today, though he was planning to. He's postponed his trip to Barbados for the time being.]

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 1916-2006

The great soprano has died at the age of 90. An iconic figure without whom opera in the 20th century would not have been the same.

I never met her, but when I was a kid, she and her husband Walter Legge lived in the next street from us in Hampstead. The complex of back gardens adjoined. And sometimes, when the weather was fine and all the windows were open, one could hear the sound of singing across the leaves...

UPDATE: Saturday 5 August, 10.25am: read obituary from The Independent here.