Thursday, January 21, 2021

Commonplace books

Moved beyond measure by President Biden's inaugural ceremony yesterday, I've entered the last lines of Amanda Gorman's poem The Hill That We Climb into my "commonplace book".

"When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."

I've kept a so-called commonplace book since 1986, when my sister gave me a sleek blank notebook with thin ivory-light pages and a black leather cover that looked ever so sophisticated. A "commonplace book" is somewhere to copy out pieces of text that you don't want to lose: perhaps they appeal to you by ringing emotional bells, putting words together like music, or reflecting what you feel, think or hope. Amanda Gorman's poem uses the 110th page and after 35 years the notebook is still is excellent shape and has enough room in it to last me another 70 if used at the same rate, which will hardly be necessary.

If you've never kept a book like this, I recommend it, because you can measure out the progress of your inner self by what you read back, what you've chosen, why you chose it and where the holes are. I didn't enter anything into it between the month of my father's death in August 1996 and that of my sister's death in March 2000. The latter was poetry by Irina Ratushinskaya and Arthur Rimbaud. The former was an advert for running shoes on TV that stated simply: "Some people quit when they reach their threshold of pain. Some don't."

Back in the 80s, when I was a student, I used to write with an italic pen, trying to preserve these slivers of guiding wisdom in beautiful calligraphy, but it never quite looked as good as I wanted it to (and crossings-out suggest I'd never heard of Tippex then), so in due course I gave up and used a biro, while still attempting neatness. That went out of the window too, so there are a few entries that I can hardly read at all. Now I'm trying again to make things legible so that some day, if we survive this year and manage to grow older and need stronger reading glasses, I'll be able to look back on the latest passages and say "Hm, OK, so that's how we got through that little nightmare..."

In May 1986, I see, I copied out a passage of an interview in The Strad with Raphael Wallfisch, having no clue that I would someday meet and interview him myself. It is about the pace of artistic growth. "It's interesting that everyone develops at different speeds through different circumstances. In the end it does not matter how you are formed. If you've been lucky, as I have, to be surrounded with music and to have had fantastic teaching, then you can go at your own rate without fear of going off on a wrong track." 

This was from a time when I was profoundly unhappy at university, furious about the institutional arrogance, small-mindedness and snobbery I was encountering there, especially when I'd just spent the Easter holidays in New York sitting metaphorically at the feet of some really incredible musicians. That was the year I had a consultation lesson with Richard Goode, went to a lecture by Carl Schachter about Schenkerian analysis at the Mannes College, and met Oscar Shumsky, who put on an LP of Rachmaninov playing his own music, which blew my mind as I had never heard him before. Historical recordings were in their infancy of CD transfer back then, these gems were rare and precious and the idea that one day the whole lot would be available on computer at the touch of a button would never have been even a glimmer in the eye, let alone the ear. With a quick splash of memory, I can see how comforting Raphael's words would have seemed at that moment.

All this can be brought back at the sight of those words, inscribed in slightly smudged black ink.

Over the years the focus of the entries change - from musings on love and friendship from Emily Brontë and Joni Mitchell, to seeking ways forward in writing (Angela Carter, Hermann Hesse, DH Lawrence) and some awfully naive and now slightly embarrassing spiritual texts that were nevertheless helpful around the time my mother died in 1994. There's material from poets and authors from France, Germany, Austria, Bosnia, Russia, America, Ireland, Hungary. Bits of wisdom from Lutosławski and Cage. There's some Ovid, some Keats, some Byron, Betjemen, Dylan Thomas. There's a wonderfully useful poem about how to stop worrying - Mary Oliver's "I worried" - copied out in January 2019, and thank God almighty I didn't know that what I was worrying about just then (Brexit and the likely collapse of our musical world) was in fact entirely justified. 

In the past year I've only made three entries, but that's quite a lot, since there was nothing at all in 2014 and only one apiece in 15 and 16. Since the pandemic struck, I've lighted upon a little phrase of Yeats, a fierce piece by Robert Frost called "Fire and Ice", and an extract from an interview with Hilary Mantel about what historical fiction can do that academic writing on history does not. 

And now from the past to the future: Amanda Gorman, the US's youth poet laureate, 22 and blazing a trail into the future. I hope her words at the inauguration will stand as inspiration and sustenance to us for many years, should we be fortunate enough to be granted them. Now I will have them in my notebook, accessible at the slide of a drawer, for as long as I live. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Rattle leaves sinking ship

Yesterday in the UK 1,564 people lost their lives to Covid-19. Against the horror of mass death and a health service teetering on the brink of collapse, it feels wrong to mourn the passing of a small (if quite large at the time) musical dream. Still, put together with the prospects for British musicians post-Brexit, the news that Sir Simon Rattle is leaving the sinking ship couldn't feel much more emblematic if it tried. That ship is not the LSO, but the UK.

I don't doubt that no conductor in the world could resist the invitation to head the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the German twin peak alongside the Berlin Philharmonic. Besides, Rattle has lived in Berlin for years and his family home is there. On the other hand, this is a musician noted for the all-too-rare practice of staying with one orchestra for a long period - first the CBSO, then Berlin, the latter about 16 years. When he came to the LSO it was his first job in his home country's capital city (prophets, own land, etc) and the partnership looked set to be the jewel in the crown, the cherry on the cake and all the rest of it. 

Moreover, there was the hoped-for Centre for Music, mooted to take over from the Barbican as the LSO's home with state-of-the-art acoustics, plenty of glass for easy observation, top-notch facilities for music education and a heap of money from the City. That was all not quite four years ago. Of course, that project has run into other issues, such as the length of lease on the prospective sites, which turned out not to tally, but I'd put the likelihood of the hall going ahead post pandemic, post impoverishing Brexit and without Rattle to fight its corner at approximately zilch. Rattle, meanwhile, has extended his LSO contract to 2023 and will remain the orchestra's 'conductor emeritus' thereafter. Yet the sense of truncation is palpable. It may not actually be a vote of no confidence in the future of Brexit Island, but it certainly feels like one, and I wouldn't blame him a bit. If someone offered me a job in the EU (or Switzerland) now, I'd go too. 

Fading fast?

Yesterday the PM Boris Johnson was grilled by the Commons Select Committee and was asked a question about the situation facing touring UK musicians. A report in the Independent the other day quoted an anonymous source as alleging that the UK in the Brexit negotiations had actively refused an offer from the EU for reciprocal touring rights. The musical internet nearly exploded. Personally I wouldn't place too much trust in one item quoting only "an anonymous source", and to my mind it is positively immoral to terrify and infuriate a couple of hundred thousand professionals when they are already suffering financial and moral privation from losing all their work and receiving little or no government support in recompense. The report nevertheless enlarged the already gigantic question-mark over whether we can trust our own government to pursue our best interests (the fisheries industry is discovering this today, too). 

In the House of Lords, however, the redoubtable Michael Berkeley is speaking up. The answer that Boris Johnson gave his interviewer yesterday was that musicians have reciprocal free touring rights 90 days out of 180. This is not correct. The PM didn't appear to know the detail. Michael Berkeley pointed out on Twitter last night: "I am afraid the PM is clearly confusing a tourist visa with a work visa. The minute someone is paid they no longer qualify for a tourist visa which is why musicians are up in arms and why the Government needs to sort this out 'Presto'."

Taking a closer look, touring rights actually will vary from country to country within the EU. In some, UK musicians will be able to tour without a visa or permit for 90 days out of 12 months. In others they won't, presently including Spain and, it seems, Hungary. The Incorporated Society of Musicians has assembled a useful fact-sheet bringing all the information together and I would like to refer any worried readers to it for a clearer picture. 

Other worries remain: notably, the prospect of long queues at airport immigration, which could eat up an hour or two of the touring day, rendering unviable the usual red-eye routine of fly-rehearse-concert-eat-sleep of each 24 hour period. With cruel irony, nobody can travel much at the moment anyway, and crowds at airports may be smaller than "usual" for a good while post Covid-19. At a slight tangent: does that touring schedule really make sense artistically, in any case? How can an orchestra possibly give its best when it's been up since 4am? They manage, somehow, and they play well because there is a minimum level below which the best never slip, but I have often been asked by well-meaning friends "why don't you go on tour with Tom more often?" and my usual reply is "you have got to be bloody joking". The problem is that if the process is slowed down and they can't travel and perform on the same day, that means paying for an extra night's accommodation for a full orchestra and the cost is not usually viable. 

Customs requirements pose arguably a greater issue than airport queues. If you are a violinist travelling with an old instrument and bow that might have a tiny bit of a restricted/prohibited substance such as ivory on it, you had better make sure you have the right documentation, otherwise trouble looms. As for bands and orchestras that transport instruments by lorry, this will entail ensuring that a raft of HGV permits (each of which has a cost) are in place. There is also a restriction on the number of times goods can be unloaded and loaded "for hire or reward": 3 times in 7 days within one country (see You will need to check whether your own use of your own instruments falls into the category of "hire or reward". And there's the small matter of Dover. Don't forget Dover...

The issues of whether something is a Brexit problem or a pandemic problem are no longer as simple as we'd like. These two disasters - and three if you have any involvement with America - are inextricably linked now.

My advice to anxious musicians is this:

• Don't trust hearsay and rumour. Things are often misunderstood, misreported, confused and exaggerated.

• Read the small print for yourself and if it's not clear, then consult a professional organisation such as the ISM, the MU or the Association of British Orchestras, another tireless campaigner.

• Re Covid, wear a mask, wash your hands, maintain social distancing, don't break the rules and get the vaccine as soon as you can. And don't buy into the conspiracy theories: they put us all in mortal danger. 

• Don't despair. I know it's difficult. My heart nearly broke when I saw on Instagram a photo of a singer I was meant to work with last year wielding an electric saw for his new job in forestry. I have the utmost respect for everyone who is taking to other work to make ends meet during this terrible time. There are useful things to learn in every field, no matter what. A case in point is a musician of my acquaintance who got a job in a supermarket and was astounded to discover how much better run it was, and how much better the employees were treated, than was the case in most musical organisations he'd worked for. 

• I don't doubt that the pandemic will end, even if it takes longer than we'd hoped, and we will be able to rebuild. We are not the only ones who realise that the cultural industries are the path back to civilisation (see the info towards the end of this article).

• Remember that we will eventually have a ballot box. If the government we voted in has led us up the garden path, wrecked the economy, lives, careers, families and futures through Brexit and caused thousands of needless deaths through mismanagement of the pandemic, we will someday have the chance to vote them out again. Take that opportunity whenever and as soon as it arises.