Failure is not an option. It could be the tag line from any Hollywood movie about a sports star/secret military raid/politician from the last 40 years. Maybe if you’re behind enemy lines failure really isn't an option but in musical performance, it’s more of a state of mind.
There have been many times when I’ve been deeply unhappy with my performance as I trudge offstage and yet colleagues and audience members have congratulated me. Conversely I also remember coming off stage delighted with the way the flute section had played a very difficult piece in a high profile concert; we all felt that it couldn't have gone any better, and yet a reviewer simply said that it ‘was not a great evening for the flute section’…
So which one was the failure?
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail Better.
When I was studying at the Guildhall School of music last century, someone gave me a postcard with these words on after I had managed to get lost in a performance and recapitulated in the wrong key…Nowadays they’d probably just tag me in a meme involving a miniature dog du jour stuck up to its neck in horse manure, or an emoji. The thing is, I didn't understand the postcard, why would I want to fail? I didn’t want to fail and I certainly didn't want fail again, better or worse, richer or poorer…sickness and health is another story. It didn't make any sense and rather than ask someone what it meant I recycled it. I wanted to be a winner, I didn't want to speak loser. It’s a shame that I didn't ask someone like…my flute teacher for instance, the person I saw most regularly and probably failed in front of more than anyone else. It’s more that a shame, it’s ironic as my teacher at that time was Edward Beckett who is the grandson of Samuel Beckett, the author of the quote. Having said that, if I had asked him about it, I’d have probably discovered that although this little chunk of prose is ‘inspiring,’ in context it is much darker. Beckett wasn’t especially well known for his side splitting banana slipping gags or indeed his cheerful outlook. The full piece is more about the inevitable journey to the grave rather than a cute soundbite to camera explaining away your third unsuccessful appearance on Dragon’s Den.
Mortals must age, plans go awry, dreams end too soon.
Love too deep, a shallow grave may hold, 'neath westering sun
The Peony Pavilion - Chapter33: Secret Plans
By Tang Xianzu
The poem carved on my flute spoke of the inevitability of growing old; the passing of time. For a brief moment, the winter sun caught a pear missed at harvest on the tree. Sitting in my kitchen in Surrey looking out over the skeleton of Spring, the once plump fruit, glistening with dew looked like the first bud before the blossom. But as the sunlight passed it revealed itself as the forgotten fruit of summer, shrivelled on the branch. I was practicing in my kitchen because of the view and because it's cold in the music room. I don't mind the cold, but the instrument I'm playing does. Playing my normal silver flute, extremes of temperature or humidity don't really concern me, however the flute I was practicing on was made of wood. Bamboo to be precise. I didn't want the wood to split.
There is something about the simplicity of a bamboo flute that connects with the past. A simple wooden cylinder with a few holes (8 in this case) is one of the oldest instruments known to man. When I think of the past of the modern Boehm flute, my performing predecessors come to mind instantly, as the concert flute that you would recognise was invented in the middle of the 19th century. The simple wooden flute however goes back to the earliest records of man; the players, the millions of flute players creating melodies from a few notes over thousands of years is something we can only imagine. Every culture I can think of has their version of a flute. Irish whistles to Japanese shakuhachi, Indian bansuri to Peruvian pipes. If music is the universal language, then the flute is it's voice.
The instrument I'm playing is from Shanghai and is probably the most famous of all the Chinese flutes, the Dizi (Roughly pronounced Dee-it-zuh). The eight holes consist of 6 finger holes, 1 embouchure hole (The one you blow over) and one between them all which is covered with a thin membrane of the soft internal part of bamboo. It looks a little like a cigarette paper but is even thinner and is called the Dimo. This vibrates when you play creating the distinctive buzzing timbre. I often grow tired of oboe and bassoon players moaning about reeds all of the time, but quite frankly, cutting the dimo to size and getting it in the right place is an art in itself, so I am slightly more sympathetic.
I've had various instruments over the years for use in the LSOs film work. If you really have nothing better to do, you can hear me playing dizi on the film Around the World in 80 days with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But seriously, only if you have nothing to do...it's a terrible film. The flute I was practicing on and in fact, all of flutes I own have Chinese characters painted or carved on them...and I don't mean Jackie Chan. They are often fragments of Chinese poetry, so on a film session years ago I asked Chi what the script on my (very cheap from Camden Market) flute said. I hoped that it would be something to do with the summer breeze, or flower blossom, the passing of time or perhaps a wise proverb echoing through the ages.
"Can you read it?" I asked. It was quite roughly stamped on the headjoint.
"Yes, of course." Chi replied.
"Great! What does it say?" I asked, at last about to discover the true destiny of my flute.
"Made in Hong Kong."
In Beijing, jet lag renders all night as day. The smoke alarm on the ceiling pulses a red ring of light every few seconds and in my dreamlike state, it becomes the ring around a planet in my mind. The air conditioning unit thrums in the background and every now and then the dull ping of the lift drifts under the door as another traveller, lacking heavy sleep goes back to the bar. A late night call to my daughter briefly merges into sleep, but dreams end too soon. I hear a dizi in the distance playing a melody. As I open my eyes, the sound remains. I draw the curtains and look down from the 11th floor to see a man busking outside the tube station below. I'm not dreaming, he really is there. I decide to take this as a good omen. The rest of the orchestra has already left for Shanghai for a day off and it's just a group of five of us left in the hotel. As I descend to breakfast, I suddenly realise that hotels around the world are usually peaceful, half empty places, except when an orchestra arrives and takes over. I sit in relative peace but unfortunately the silence created by the orchestral void means I can hear the music being played through the speakers. It's the same as it's been since we arrived; a continuous loop of the first 40 bars of the 2nd Movt of the Mozart Flute and Harp concerto. It's been driving me mad. On an average leisurely breakfast, you can easily hear the same bit 25 times and I find myself humming it involuntarily for days. Today, the busker outside is winding an uneasy counterpoint, creating a musical landscape that Charles Ives would be proud of; however it's not the East/West fusion I was aiming for and so I quickly go back upstairs to get ready.
Poetry is the reason I was learning how to play the dizi and the reason I'm now sitting in my hotel room in Beijing about to give the world premiere performance of a new piece written for me by Raymond Yiu. We've been away from home for the best part of two weeks and there is a chance that my pear tree now has buds forming, but the view from my room is less than poetic. What I can see through the smog is a five lane roundabout suspended above a motorway that goes through the centre. The dream and reality are often far from each other. In Britain and around the world, William Shakespeare is being celebrated for his 400th anniversary but over here in China, their great poet from the same era, Tang Xianzu is being celebrated in much the same way. In a private concert for our sponsor Reignwood, we have put together a programme celebrating the two writers where East meets West. Tang Xianzu was well known for poetry about dreams, and one of Shakespeare's most famous plays deals with the dreams of midsummer.
The piece that Ray has written is titled, And Nights Bright Days, a line from Shakespeare's sonnet 43. It's a beautiful work inspired partly by the poetry of dreams and longing, (an excerpt at the start of this piece) but it also has a haunting and deeply sad quality - the work is written in memory of Ray's friend Andrew Lindup, who was tragically killed during its composition. It really is an honour to play it.
As I walk out onto the stage of the Reignwood theatre, I stand alone. It's a lonely place for a lonely piece. The pressure of a world premiere as a solo instrumentalist with the composer in the stalls is hard enough. The fact that I'm playing a Chinese flute to an almost exclusively Chinese audience makes me pause, the warmth of the bamboo at my lips. It's like taking coals to Newcastle or more suitably, importing tea to China. Out of the corner of my eye I can see my colleagues standing in the wings, waiting to see what's going to happen, intrigued. Up until now I've been quite coy and kept the dizi out of the LSO gaze, but now here I am, no turning back. I play and as the final note dies away, three hundred camera phones point in my direction approvingly. The sound that I make on the dizi is quite different to the sound of the professional player who entertains us at dinner. He plays with the Peking opera and the intense, distilled sound of his performance fits perfectly with the timbre of the singers and instruments that form their distinctive sound. I had taken their instrument and played it in a different style in a brand new piece - I'm not sure I'd have had the correct sound if I had been trying to play along with my Chinese colleague though! But my intention was never to imitate but using Ray's brilliant new piece, to create a fusion of styles. East meets West. One of the guests at the banquet afterwards came to speak to me.
"Did you enjoy the piece?" I asked
"Yes very much. It was interesting to hear a foreigner playing dizi. I've never heard that before."
"Oh, right. Well, how was it for you?"
"It sounded different, but at it's centre there were dreams and echoes of China."
I expect he writes the poems for the flute manufacturers.
Finally back in my room at the end of the day, I spoke to my family again. Jet lag is still allowing early morning phone calls.
"How did the Chinese flute piece go?" asks my daughter.
"Great! Like a dream darling."
"Good...are you coming home soon dad?"
"Yes, soon. Very soon..."
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day.
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me
Fragment from Sonnet 43 by William Shakespeare
I recently found myself in an unusual position. I had the bank holiday weekend off. Even more unusual was that the weather was good. For those of you not familiar with the traditional British Bank holiday, it usually means enduring hours of traffic jams to get to the seaside whereupon the heavens open. I think it’s possibly no longer just a tradition, but the law. So I was delighted to find myself with a well earned weekend with my family. My eldest son is currently obsessed with buying a classic car. Specifically a Classic Mini. I was alarmed to discover that it was called a Classic Mini. All it is is...well, it’s a mini. An old mini. A nice piece of rebranding that does several things at once. It makes me feel old. It differentiates between the BMW MINI and the… er...Classic Mini. It also gives a boost to the market value of rust. Adding ‘classic’ onto the front of a car marque is a bit like calling a jumble sale, a vintage clothing fair. Some are classics, but there are an awful lot of polyester cardigans with holes in the sleeves going for a lot of money. Anyway, I digress. We went to Mercedes Benz World to a classic car show, where owners observed our approach to their vehicles with the twitchiness of a trigger happy border guard.
And so it seems that classical music provokes strong feelings. I should be pleased really, for when it shuffles out and nobody notices, that’s when it ends. Not with a bang, not with a choral climax, not with a final joyous chord, but with a descent into a silence once filled with sound. Opinions, no matter how polarised will never be the enemy here, the enemy is indifference.
The audience matters and plays as much a part as the performers in a way. I see you. Every night, I see you, and you make a difference. To see the orchestra in rehearsal is to see a work in progress, a lump of rock being chiseled by the sculptor, the build up of colours in a portrait; but come the performance, the final work is revealed, the rough rock now smooth and defined, the numerous colours merge together to reveal a previously hinted at depth. Move a sculpture from the artists studio to a plinth in a square and it becomes a spectacle, a picture from easel to gallery can become a masterpiece despite the fact that they are unchanged from completion to viewing. A symphony though, is different. Nobody in the hall knows what will happen at the first downbeat. An audience may come with expectations, previous heights which they hope can be relived, bettered even; they may come for the first time with no preconceptions - or many. The performers hope to create a culmination of a week of rehearsals...but none of us know for sure where the evening will take us.
I was at Abbey Road studios last night. I didn’t play a note. It wasn’t one of those tedious sessions where you sit for hours waiting to play a note which they never get around to, I was there to talk. People who know me, know that the only time I stop talking is when my flute is on my face, but on this occasion, I was there to talk about the history of Abbey Road Studios and the LSO’s part in it. Such is the aura of the place, a place that isn’t usually open to the general public, that I really didn’t need to say anything at all. When you have a group of people who love music inside those walls, and they are surrounded by photos of the legends who have recorded there, in the corner is the old mixing desk from Sargeant Pepper and a piano used in A Day in the Life, and the Hammond organ from Dark Side of the Moon - well, most people just sit with a grin on their face and soak it up. A man who walks in as a CEO, once through the door is transported back to being the teenager in his bedroom dreaming of stardom once again. Any words or light shows or virtual reality are unnecessary. The zebra crossing, the studio, the history and the instruments speak for themselves and oh how I wish the walls of studio 2 could talk! As producer/engineer Jonathan Allan, who records us regularly in studio 1 said last night, “We record anything here...as long as it’s good.” With a long list of names that span time and genre, Elgar, Menuhin, Bartok, Prokofiev, Glen Miller, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellars, Star Wars, Harry Potter...the list is endless and proves his point.
If music speaks for itself and needs little embellishment, then why is it that the classical music ‘business’ seems intent on continually reinventing itself?
After the thrill of the American tour, it was back down to earth with a bit of a bump this week. In fact, not just a bump, but a bit of a shock. When I heard that John Alley, the keyboard player in the LSO was retiring, I assumed that it was a mistimed April fool or a miscalculation on the birthday spreadsheet. How could he be retiring? John has been part of the LSO ‘family’ (as we have to call ourselves these days) for as long as I can remember. The unmistakeable white haired pianist is not just part of the fixtures and fittings of the orchestra, but of London musical life. There are very few musicians who have affected so many musicians of all ages and abilities as John. Yes, we all know about the internationally famous musicians, the heavily promoted conductors and soloists. We all know how important they are because their agents tell us. They win the awards, the OBEs, the Grammys and Gramophones. But, you mention the name John Alley to anybody who really works in music in London, anybody, and they will smile and have a tale to tell. I could fill the internet with personal recollections, be they his witty one liners which puncture over inflated conductors egos in rehearsal or a raise of an eyebrow during an audition which says more than any ensuing conversation, or the sight of the long white hair and the pencil behind the ear which reassured me during solo outings. John has just been there.
The man lies still on the street, his head ripped off beside his body. He doesn’t move in the heat of the afternoon. A mother and child check their step, and stare. Everybody else carries on, unmoved, in pursuit of the next big win at Blackjack. The child looks up at his mother for reassurance. She smiles, presses something into his hand and nudges him toward the man on the floor. Looking anxious as he passes the dismembered head, he summons up the courage to hand over the dollar bill clutched feverishly in his fist. The man on the floor opens his eyes, breathes out a rasp and takes a swig from a can of Red Bull. He raises himself to his feet, puts the dollar in his tip bag and picks up his head. The boy’s face turns to a smile as the man once more becomes Buzz Lightyear. Welcome to Las Vegas.
After the concert in Santa Barbara, we returned to the hotel in LA by bus. The following morning, before another bus trip to Costa Mesa, there is just time for breakfast. I wait for the elevator. Bing! The doors open and already inside are three women I don’t know and MTT.
“Good morning Gareth and how are we this morning?” he asks with a smile.
“I’m fine Michael thank you.”
We resume normal positions, all lined up like soldiers facing the front, not speaking; elevator etiquette is pretty much the same the world over. The doors close and we glide down towards the lobby in silence. Suddenly Michael speaks again to the lift.
“And...how was your ménage a trois last night Gareth?”
The women in the elevator shift uncomfortably. Silence.
We stop at the next floor, nobody gets in or out. The doors close again and we descend towards the lobby.
“I feel I should explain,’’ i say, still facing the front, “that ménage a trois was the name of the wine we were drinking last night.”
The atmosphere relaxes a little, but all the same, they leave promptly when we reach the lobby. Michael smiles a wicked smile and strides off in the other direction.
I suppose music imitating nature isn’t a new thing. Whether intentional and explicit as in Beethoven’s pastoral or just through the patina of place and time - Shostakovitch perhaps - you can’t get away from it. Walking around New York City earlier this week, I had my headphones on, Nirvana playing as I walked purposefully down to the bottom of Manhattan to visit my favourite bookshop, Strand Books. Nirvana can make quite a noise, but even they couldn’t drown out the sounds of the city which layered themselves on top. The sound of illegal street sellers shouting in one direction and looking for the law in the other, the constant car horns sounded for a thousand reasons and none, music dripping from stores and the chatter of tourists excitedly spotting landmarks for the first time. In the end I gave up, removed my headphones and floated downtown on a jet lagged soundtrack of the city...and you know what, there were no cows, I heard no Sibelius but instead the rhythms and tones of the Gershwin piano concerto we were playing that night, seemed to drift in and out. Not surprising I suppose in this city of infinite possibilities.
I never really got Sibelius when I was a kid. I’m not the only one either. My mother in law has always loved his music, and repeated plays as a child, left my wife slightly traumatised by what has become known in our house as ‘that symphony with the cows.’ She was scared of it as a kid. In case your relationship with sound and visuals isn’t as vivid as my wife’s, the cows in question are the low grunts from the basses, tuba and bassoons that underpin the final movement of his second symphony. You’ve probably never thought of it before, but if you listen with a child’s ears, it does so
...and on the final note of the bass clarinet line, someone coughed and then said, ‘Sorry!’ - it ruined the moment…"
Mark Elder describing an atmosphere breaking interruption in a recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. You know the bit? After that beautiful clarinet solo in the first movement where the bass clarinet takes over on four unbearably quiet descending notes then a brief pause before hell is unleashed? A misplaced cough can ruin a hushed moment for the audience and in this case, as they are the only four notes the bass clarinet plays in the whole symphony, it can ruin their night too. If you go to or perform in a concert at this time of year, the chorus of coughing that marks the end of a movement ranges from the sleeve stifled hack to the full on attention seeking consumptive death rattle.(Conspiracy theorists and hacks, note the non capitalization).
I think we can probably all agree that not managing or bothering to stop coughing, or at least trying to make it quieter is annoying and at worst disruptive. But what about concert etiquette in general? Are there a whole set of unwritten rules for classical music concert going? Do we all know and agree what they are? A friend of mine told me last week that she finds the atmosphere intimidating at orchestra concerts, she feels like she might do something wrong without even realising. That’s not good, and I as a player I don’t want anyone to feel like that.
I’ve got a confession to make. Star Wars was the piece of music that first alerted me to the spectacular sound of the London Symphony Orchestra when I was a kid. The fact that I play in that orchestra and played in the soundtrack for the last two films still brings makes me smile.
That’s not my confession.
The orchestra that first stopped me in my tracks when I was a child was the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The piece that got me hooked was the final movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I know a lot of people love the famous slow movement, but it was those powerful brass melodies from the finale that made we want to listen to more - that and the disco drumbeat of course…
Yep. The first time I heard the ninth symphony (at least before it segued seamlessly into Tchaik 6) was on a Hooked on Classics album. For what it’s worth, my earliest exposure to the foundations of the Baroque flute repertoire was from Hooked on Bach.
I watched Tom Service’s documentary, The Joy of Mozart the night before I flew to Vienna. In it he explored the making of the Mozart myth and the fetishization of the composer; from the little statuettes in the shops in Salzburg which bear no resemblance to contemporary descriptions of the man, to the Mozart Chocolate balls, a weird concoction of marzipan and chocolate. No doubt the Austrian Ambassador spoils his guests with them instead of Ferrero Rocher…
The Mozart ®© that is peddled in the streets of Salzburg and Vienna seems so far removed from the reality of the man (as far as we know) that the actual music and the personality cult industry have become detached. You want to listen to Mozart in Vienna? You’ll be wanting to buy tickets from a man in a cloak, arrive by horse drawn carriage and enjoy it only in the light of flickering candles then…
Sure enough, the second I board my Austrian Airline flight from Heathrow, the loudspeakers are blasting the most unsubtle version of Eine Kleine nachmusik I’ve ever heard. Just as I think it can’t get any worse, The Blue Danube rears its saccharine head and I can’t wait for the roar of the engines to drown out the aural destruction of the music heritage business. I, unlike many, cannot claim to know what Mozart would have made of it all, but a man who could write such extraordinary music encompassing the depth of human emotion would most probably be surprised to see the way his legacy has been airbrushed and sweetened for public consumption in the 21st century.
I’ve lost count of the the number of times I’ve heard a pop song on the radio followed by listeners saying, “Is that it? I could have written that!” The simplicity of the form (that’s why it’s so catchy!) can sometimes make it sound obvious, almost like you’ve heard it before. I heard a story once about Sir Paul McCartney who when he first wrote the famous song, Yesterday, thought the melody so familiar that someone must have already written it. It’s not just music either. Without a doubt, every time I visit the Rothko paintings at the Tate Modern in London, the audience is split. One group will be standing in quite contemplation, staring deep beyond the picture, awaiting the vibrant red canvas to give up its secrets. The other half will walk past and say something along the lines of, “Well...it’s just a red square isn’t it? I mean...I could have done that!”
But they didn’t. Lets be honest, thinking of a great idea immediately after you’ve seen the same idea which had been previously thought up by someone else...well, it’s not a hard won skill is it? The wheel? Well, I coulda thought of that...
This week has been one of those times where a complex idea was deemed to be easy, and something which looked so simple on paper was probably the most challenging moment of my week. If we don’t include concentrating on the music whilst the extraordinary Barbara Hannigan sang and danced a few feet away from me…
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