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The Passionate Art of Flamenco

October 2, 2017


The history of Spain can be written in the history of flamenco, as the 20th c Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla was well aware. Since his student days he had been interested in this Andalusian traditional art form which drew together music, dance and poetry in a spirit of conviviality and community. Having lived in Paris for some years in his 30's, Falla was forced to return to Spain when the First World War broke out. Eventually he settled in Granada where he met Frederico Garcia Lorca. The 22 year old Lorca, an accomplished pianist, as well as a published poet, had been taking flamenco guitar lessons with two gypsies from his home village whom, he wrote, 'sing and play fabulously, reaching the very depths of popular sentiment.' It was from them he learned Cante Jondo, (deep song) the purest form of the Andalusian flamenco.


Thus the monk-like and kindly Falla met his natural collaborator in the much younger Lorca. The two men, along with a mutual friend, Miguel Ceron Rubio, bemoaning the decline of the authentic flamenco and the antiflamenquismo of the current generation, conceived the idea of holding a great competition of flamenco, the Concurso de Cante Jondo of 1922.  Amateur exponents of flamenco from all over Andalusia would be invited to perform and in this way concentrate attention at home and abroad upon the art. And interested composers and poets including, Turina, Mompou, Rodrigo, Ravel and Stravinsky, and amongst many writers, the Andalusian poet Juan Ramón Jiménez (who was later to win the Nobel prize), would be invited to support and participate in the event.  Inevitably they would, in turn, be influenced by what they heard.


Lorca composed a lecture on the art form, in which he drew upon Falla's research. Here he explained that the Byzantine Church's liturgical chant and the arrival of Eastern musical traditions such as quarter tones and melancholy modes during the Moorish invasion of 711 AD, both influenced the music of the Gypsies of Andulusia which seemed to express the very depths of the Andalusian soul in its Cante Jondo. In the second part of his lecture, Lorca spoke about the poetry of Cante Jondo, the coplas, describing their concise nature, their imagery, their obsession with death and their pantheism in which inanimate objects took on human characteristics - all qualities which he felt were inherent to his own personality and writing. He also referred to his discovery of what he felt was a connection between the poetry of Cante Jondo and the Arabic, Persian and Turkish verse he had read in a collection which had been translated into Spanish several decades previously. In his own Poema del Cante Jondo, (1921)  he not only expressed the deepest feelings of his people but was possessed of the mysterious power called duende which for Lorca meant the animating spirit of a performer, an inspiration always related to anguish, mystery and death.


Lorca:  The Guitar


The weeping of the guitar begins...

Impossible to silence it.

It weeps monotonously as water weeps

as the wind weeps over snowfields.

Impossible to silence it.

It weeps for distant things.



The Concurso was held in the Alhambra's Plaza de los Aljibes on the 13th and 14th of June and was a magnificent, colourful and hugely successful occasion. And yet, when it was over, Lorca and Falla, both exhausted from their efforts, abandoned their obsession with flamenco and moved each in other directions. 


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Terry Riley Meets Quantum Physics

In September of this year, the minimalist composer Terry Riley, now aged 81, performed his legendary composition of 1964, 'In C' at London's Barbican Centre. 'In C' can be performed by any number of musicians playing any sort of instrument or even singing. In this case there was roughly a 60 year age gap amongst the 19 musicians playing everything from a viol da gamba to an electric guitar, who all devoted themselves intensely to a composition which involves executing 53 disparate phrases in a prescribed order but for a random length of time.

Imagine a corps de ballet given 53 gestures as in a kind of tai chi. But unlike tai chi, each gesture can be repeated as many times as the dancer wishes or not at all. A gesture can even be omitted if the dancer feels he has fallen too far behind the general momentum. Unlike the choreographed movements of a classical ballet which charm us with their synchronisation, here we would be also charmed by the conversation between gestures. Depending on the number of performers it would, of course, be difficult to keep track of everyone's movements. So having followed for several minutes the young woman in blue endlessly reaching up to the ceiling next to the man in green touching his knees, we might be distracted by an older woman at the right of the stage kicking her right leg. Other dancers, we note are also reaching up to the ceiling, touching their knees, kicking their legs or performing one or two other gestures. But glancing back, we find that the woman in blue, at some unrecognised moment has ceased her reaching and is standing in expectancy watching the other performers while the man in green is now bending to the right with outstretched arm. Movement, synchronisation and interplay shift constantly but the shift always seems to elude us.

Initially, Riley had prescribed no particular tempo or pulse for his players. Each could play as quickly or slowly as he wished. However Steve Reich, Riley's contemporary and colleague suggested that a steady pulse throughout might draw the whole thing together. Riley, taking up the suggestion added a requirement for one of the musicians (“traditionally.. a beautiful girl” he remarks in notes in the score) to play the note C as a quaver pulse throughout. One particularly notable aspect of September's performance was how this pulse inhabited the body of each musician and how each was able to leave and reenter the music by riding on it.

The sonic effect of the interplay of phrases combined with the insistent pulse is influenced by the difference in timbre and tessitura of the instruments that are being used. But the cleverly devised phrases lend to each performance common elements: an effect of unstable and shifting meters and sometimes of almost Baroque canon created by the random entrance of participants; long passages of repetition which succeed in giving the impression both of a mechanistic insistence and a sort of age-old gravitas at the same time; passages which sound like unstructured noise evolving into passages that have a feeling of harmonic grandeur. And always a sense of coming home to where we started: C.

Riley, who had studied composition at the University of California, Berkeley, sites as his most influential teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, a master of Indian classical voice. The Indian tradition is, of course, improvisatory, but based on a very exact structure of ragas, (raga means living soul), or musical modes. The musician may notate suggested groupings of notes from a particular raga and use these to create something new in the moment. The short phrases of melody are superimposed over a looping rhythm called a tala (a device which was also used in the 14th c isorhythmic motet as it happens!) This method of preparing short phrases of music to be manipulated and re-manipulated is very like the modus operandi of 'In C'.

But in considering Terry Riley's work I think it is also important to understand that the Indian musical master is as much a spiritual guru as an instructor of technique and tradition. The music he teaches his disciple to create and execute is not a diversion or entertainment but expresses the unspoken, the unknowable. Its quality is more mesmeric than invasive. At its heart is a spirituality which addresses the most fundamental questions a human being can ask: What is time? Is there a constant truth? What is consciousness or beingness? Is there a God and how might I know Him? Why am I here and what am I to do?

And these are the very same questions that modern physics attempts to address. Both the Indian meditation master and the professor of quantum theory would agree that any discussion or description which attempts to answer these questions will be at best, a very vague approximation and at worst, a severe distortion. For the type of knowing that would serve us as an answer is beyond words or description, is experiential. Perhaps that is what Riley learnt during his years with Pran Nath and perhaps that is what he is trying to address in his 'In C'. In a short film he made with La Monte Young about his teacher, he tells us that trying to imitate Pran Nath was like 'trying to grasp smoke'.

It is interesting that Riley chose the key of C for his 1964 composition. In the music which dominated Europe from medieval times, C major has been the archetypal key, the blue print key upon which other scales pattern themselves. It is not the easiest key for a guitarist or a clarinettist but psychologically, it is the scale to which everything else refers. So Riley is going back to basics.

The insistent pulse of 'In C' holds everything together. It is reminiscent of the inexorable rising of the sun in the morning, the moon's inevitable rising at night and the cycles that both the earth's passage and its satellite moon have made for millenia. The music fits the pulse and not the other way around. The ongoingness of the pulse suggests chronological time, a moving forward and into the distance of the future. And yet 'In C' also seems to suggest both circularity and multi-dimensionality. The first phrases which reiterate and confirm the key of C give way to phrases of more complexity which suggest a movement away from the key. But in the end all players come back to rest in the C pulse. On the way the intensity of the combination of phrases peaks and ebbs with mysterious buildings and decayings of volume and intricacy that always eludes our grasp. What is happening here will soon be happening over there. We have a sense of the multiple Universes that both modern physics and the Bhagavad Gita point to. And unlike Newton's explanation of the workings of space and time which supposes an objectivity and constancy to what surrounds us, we are more aware of the relativity modern physics describes; that time and space are subject to variation in relation to the observer. Certainly, 'In C' provides us with no fixity. The will – or whim – of the performers will vary enormously from one playing to the next. But similarly, the listener even in the course of a single performance will experience something very different to his neighbour, something that I think contains far more variation than 2 concurrent hearings of say, a Beethoven Sonata.

It seems that it is this element of controlled chance which intrigued Riley and which he was so successfully able to evoke. His composition is both controlled by him, by his 53 devised phrases, and at the same time completely dependent on the whim – and skill – of his community of performers. They, in turn are all dependent on oneanother and on 'the rules' of the piece but have huge latitude in what they contribute. Riley has created a perfect interplay of skill and chance rather like the interplay we humans contend with in living our lives day by day. How interesting that the experiment of a 30 year old composer, a sort of potshot at fate informed by years of thought and study should have landed him at the age of 81, with some of the most celebrated instrumentalists of the new generation, on the stage of the Barbican Centre, performing to a sell-out audience eager to hear his now iconic conception. 

LISTEN TO THE REED: Rumi and the Ney


Listen to the story told by the reed,

of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,

I have made this crying sound.”

Jalalu'ddin Muhammad Rumi, the Islamic jurist, scholar, mystic, poet and founder (through his son) of the Mevleviyya order of Dervishes, the so-called 'Whirling Dervishes', dictated these lines to his disciple in 1258 at the age of 51. Rumi was born in Afghanistan, but after the Mongol invasion he spent 13 years of his life travelling with his family through present day Iran and Iraq. The family at last settled in Konya, Turkey where, 30 years later the lines above were uttered in Persian. They were to be the first of a series of almost 24,000 verses divided into 6 books called the Masnavi, in which Rumi sought through poetry and allegory to describe the spiritual journey of man, a Persian Divine Comedy if you will.

Hazrat Inayat Khan who brought the Sufi Order to the West said: “There is a beautiful picture Rumi has made. He tells why the melody of the reed flute, or ney, makes such an appeal to your heart. First it is cut away from its original stem. Then in its heart the holes have been made; and since the holes have been made in the heart, the heart has been broken, and it begins to cry. And so it is with the spirit of the Messenger, … that by bearing and by carrying his cross, his self becomes like a reed, hollow. There is scope for the player to play his melody. When it has become nothing, the player takes it to play the melody. If there was something there, the player could not use it. ... man should remove this wall, this barrier, which (he) has made of self. Then he can become the flute upon which the Divine Player may play the music of Orpheus, which can charm even hearts of stone.”

At any gathering I am there,

mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few

will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.

Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing

that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute

is fire, not wind. Be that empty.

In the last few weeks, while preparing a concert to accompany the poetry of Rumi, in collaboration with David Harries poet and reader, Baha Yetkin oud player and Julia White oboist, I began to realise that we were creating our own version of a Sema, the ceremony of the Dervishes. We would have no dancers except the internal dancing that might be ignited by Rumi's words and the music that we play. And that would honour Rumi, for he believed that the music of the Sema is not necessarily listening but rather for participation. He said that how much we hear and respond to in the music is in direct proportion to how much we are attracted to it. Rumi made a comparison to the moth who is attracted to the flame and circles it. Only when it is burned and exhausted with the desire to know, does it understand the flame. The Mevlevi dervish turns but only when he turns and is in complete exhaustion with the world (the state of non-resistance) can he experience the 'Divine player' without the boundaries of the world. In that 'Divine player', he said, we are all one.

Of course, Julia and I have had much to learn from Baha who has explained to us the Turkish system of makam or scales which, as in Plato's system of Greek modes are associated with different moods and states of mind. Unlike our major and minor scale which form the basis of Western music for over 300 year, the makam also suggest melodic shape. They sound extremely exotic, though not unfamiliar, to our ears as they employ the same interval as our own harmonic minor scale. Baha also explained how whereas Western music divides the whole tone (the step from Do to Re for instance), into 2 half tones, the Turkish system divides the whole tone into 9 tiny segments called commas, almost imperceptible to our ears. What we hear as a wavering or even a false note is an extremely precise expressive devise used by Turkish musician. In trying to make my cello sound like a ney, I have experimented not only with the breathiness and moaning sound of that instrument but with the use of commas which, I'm afraid, will never sound precise to a Turkish ear!

Similarly Baha had things to learn from us. We wanted to play some Western music and settled on Dowland and Bach. How was he to participate? We encouraged him to view his oud as a lute (both instruments in any case descend from a common ancestor) and add, in the case of Dowland, a counterpoint to the melody and in the case of Bach, a bass line. He would have to forego the makam that come so readily to his fingers and the tremolo that he is accustomed to employing.

Our concert had become a sort of illustration of the Universality of which Rumi spoke. In his travels he, himself, had encountered many cultures. Not only did the music we finally chose reflect several cultures but it spanned 1000 years. And we, as players from different traditions, had to find a common language. But Rumi's notion of the Universal transcended place and time. As the Sema was an opportunity to lose one's self in poetry, music and movement in order to arrive at a different sort of knowing, we are hoping that our concert will provide a space to forget the everyday and draw closer to the flame!

Chopin and Me: Bill Evans Meets Frederic Chopin

In advance of our concert this month:  Bach to Blues: Jazz Meets the Classics, I thought I would have some fun playing around with an imaginary conversation between the great jazz pianist, Bill Evans and the great classical pianist and composer, Frederic Chopin. And here it is.

Chopin and Me

It was in 1980, when I was playing at Keystone Korner in San Francisco that I met Freddie. He was sitting at the bar in a blue velvet suit looking really uncomfortable. Really out of place. Now that I'm no longer around and know a little bit better what's what, I am even more convinced he was actually there, although everybody got very worried about me and God knows they could have been right and the Charlie could have cooked him up just as well. I'd been doing a lot of Charlie, way too much. I kind of knew I was near the end and as it happened I only had about a week more to go. But that's another story.

Anyway, this dude had the accent, the courtly manners. I offered to buy him a drink but he said he was happier with coffee. He was very polite. Complimented me on my piano playing in a strange sort of English. I picked up that he liked my chops but wasn't so keen on what I made with them. I'd just played Like Someone in Love, a standard I've dragged out getting on for 100's of times. I know it so well that it's kind of my own private joke that even Dinah Shore wouldn't recognise it now.

'So it's based on a song' said Freddie (I couldn't really call him Mr Chopin let alone Monsieur Chopin and though he winced when I got familiar like that, he was too polite to correct me). Like a folk song perhaps. I often use folk melodies when I improvise. And I even disguise them a little. But you are obviously much better at the art of disguise,' he said, the irony dripping off of him.

I tried to explain it was a little like the painter Miro.

'Freddie, you're a bit too young but this dude Miro, he used to paint buildings and farmland and pictures of things that he loved. And then he just started painting the symbols that meant those things – little shapes and dots and lines.' I think he kind of understood, was kind of intrigued. And as for me, I perked up when he mentioned improvisation. 'But Freddie,' I said, 'you classical musicians don't improvise. You write stuff down.'

'I think, Monsieur Evans, you'll find that you're wrong. I come from a great tradition of improvisors, Mozart, Beethoven... One of my great and consistent sorrows is that I can never quite capture with pen and paper what comes out when I just sit at the piano and play.'

'So why write it down at all then Freddie. Just record it!'

'But exactly Monsieur. I record it – with pen and paper.'

Ah! Game, Set, Match. This tiny man in his blue suit was starting to intrigue me. I used to play his music when I was a kid and I dug it. He was very keen on diminished 7th chords, loads of them. And he was a great experimenter. Did oddball things like crossing his second finger under his third or leaping across the keyboard with – as I was now checking out – tiny hands. He couldn't help it that he was living in the dark ages. What I was really curious about was how he was thinking when he played. Like for me, I'm thinking chords all the time. That's why Like Someone in Love can turn into late Miro! But I suspect Freddie is quite often thinking melody. Folk melody as he'd have it. Come to think of it, he was very keen on folk dances too. The mazurka as I remember. A dance in 3.

'We don't play in 3,' I told him. 'We're kind of 4 square, you see. And all that pulling around of the time. Swing is one thing but the groove has to be really tight. You see Freddie, what you could probably have used is a drummer. You know, keep you honest.'

'But Monsieur Evans, my left hand is my drummer as you put it. My right hand is free but my left hand is a very exacting time keeper.'

I was starting to like this guy. I would have bought him another drink – well coffee - and kept on chatting but we needed to play our next set and when I got back to the bar he was gone. I'm thinking, though that now it's even more likely that I may run into him again.


Getting Out of Our Own Way

Recently a student asked me if I could help him with a problem: 'At home things go very well but here in the lesson I tighten up and everything becomes small, stilted and out of tune,' he said. We all grapple with that problem in one way or another – if not as musicians, as human beings in the world!

Imagine if you were frightened that the way you picked up your cup of coffee was incorrect, maybe even laughable, or worse, offensive. The act of picking up any and all cups of coffee would become difficult and certainly very stilted. If you observe yourself reaching for a cup of coffee - say one that you've ordered at Starbucks and that is waiting for you on the counter - you will notice that many tiny adjustments take place in your body. You probably shift weight and adopt a balance that will support the movement of your arm. With amazing accuracy you judge the arc between your shoulder and the counter. Your fingers form the perfect receptacle for the cylinder of the paper cup and exert just the right amount of pressure so that you neither drop the cup nor squash it. You are a master.

All the actions needed in playing your instrument are just as natural. Noone is asking you to comb your hair with your toes. So what gets in the way of these actions? YOU. And you have to get out of your own way.

I was once told a lovely story about the Inuit soapstone sculptors who apparently knock on the uncut stone to ask: Who is there? When the answer becomes clear, they see their task as simply cutting away all that is not the sculpture. Can we cut away all that gets in the way of the innate coordination and the physical response we all have? Can we cut away all that is not the music?

In a video interview, the great pianist Leon Fleisher comments on the fact that we mistake hours of physical practise, the rehearsing of muscle movement, for an assurance of artistry. Technique, he says, is simply being able to produce what you want. 'But first,' he says, 'you must want something.' Ludicrously obvious, but often missed. And yet if we stop mindlessly repeating the recalcitrant passage for a moment and listen internally, we find that we have a very strong idea of how it should sound. The trick is then to continue the listening as we play, not to what we are playing but to our internal model; a subtle mental shift that allows our instrument to be played rather than for us to play our instrument. As we listen to 'what we want' rather than what we are doing, our body can respond with ease, unimpeded by self-consciousness and self-criticism.

This mental shift reminds me of a popular children's story of the 1950's: Sparky's Magic Piano.

The eponymous Sparky makes a Faustian pact with his piano. The piano agrees to show Sparky how to play well. All Sparky has to do is to run his hands over the keys and the piano will obligingly produce transporting renditions of virtuoso concerti; Sparky need only sit back and watch himself play effortlessly. As in all Faustian stories, the agreement has a sell-by date. But Sparky gets off lightly when his piano ceases to perform for him; he has learned the lesson that nothing comes without effort and that he must practise. We must all, of course, practise to learn the sequence of sounds and motions inherent in the music so well that they are deeply embedded in our being. And then we have to cut away all that is not that.


It recently occurred to me that gesture, by its very nature must be authentic. I don't mean the planned and often stilted gesture of an orator or the opening of arms that accompanies the preacher's Alleluja. I rather discovered the idea by attempting to wag my finger authoritatively while pleadingly voicing a desire. Or conversely to shout 'no' at the same time as making consolatory, stroking motions with my hands. The voice may lie but the body can't.

Several years ago, the actor James Nesbitt attempted to do just that in a brilliant television advert about a man who gets into trouble cutting his niece's hair. He appeases his sister by finding a hairdresser in the Yellow Pages and pretending to reprimand her in front of a plate glass window while his sister watches from the car.

In my memory Nesbitt had performed the impossible feat of demonstrating anger while saying complimentary and kind words. What he does, in fact, is to say kind things in a loud voice with the gestures that would normally accompany anger. Gestures seem inextricably linked to the nature and force of our oral declarations. And we all know that tone of voice has far more impact than what is actually said (hence the need for 'textiquette' and emoticons!)

As an instrumentalist, this all seems hugely important. We speak about gesture in playing to denote a movement of hand and arm that encompasses a neume (an inflective mark indicating the shape of notes to be sung which was the basic element of the earliest form of musical notation). But of course, the hand and arm do not act independently of the body or, as we have seen here, of the mind and emotions. Students of puppetry are taught to feel the emotions of their puppet characters deep in their core and allow their arms to perform the necessary dance from this base.

So it seems that what the performer can attend to is that core of emotion. As Konstantin Stanislawski, the great Russian teacher of acting, discovered more than a century ago, if the actor experiences his character from the inside, his verbal and physical gestures will be authentic. Recently, a friend of mine who is both a very fine amateur violinist and a psychotherapist, told me of his musical epiphany. He said he had been listening to a recording of one of his favourite pianists playing the first Brahms concerto. Suddenly he found himself wondering what one would be feeling if one was making music in that way. Now, he says, "I spend most of my practice time searching for what I would be feeling if the music was flowing from me with authenticity and meaning."

I noticed that my friend had spoken of authenticity and meaning, but not of correctness or perfection. There is no absolute in gesture. We love Bob Dylan for being Bob Dylan, not Maria Callas. Just as we all have our own particular walk and our own way of reaching out for a cup of tea, our response to a musical phrase, the meaning it evokes for us and the gesture it can generate, is peculiar to each of us. To find our own unique response is, as musicians, perhaps our most difficult and greatest task.

Myth, Music and Landscape in Scandinavia

I have been thinking about the connections between music, language, myth and landscape while preparing our concert of Scandinavian music and writing on the 14th May (See Events!). And I've discovered that Scandinavian composers of the 19th c were drawing the same parallels. Sibelius, Nielsen and Grieg have been labelled Nationalists after the musical movement which swept Europe in the late 19th century. But more than the Nationalist composers of other countries, they were inspired by myth, legend, folktale and the breathtaking landscapes that surrounded them.

The Norse Creations Myths

Burning ice, biting flame; that is how life began.”

The Norse creation myth was probably first set down in the late 10th c and later reworked by Snorri Sturluson, the 13th Icelandic author of the Prose Edda. In it, the world that preceded our world is not the formless chaos of Greek mythology or Genesis but a place of terrifying duality: a southern realm of dancing flames and a northern realm of ice and snow. Between them is a vast emptiness: Ginnungagap. Here freezing rime and hot breezes meet and here life quickens into a giant, Ymir, great grandfalther of Odin, the God of poetry, battle and death. It is Odin and his brothers who fashion Asgard, 'a world of night and day, moon, sun and sky, sea, green plains and great shining palaces, giants, dwarfs and men'.

Opposites abound in this vision arising from a realm where the summer sun and heat lasts all day and most of the night, and the winter brings devastating darkness and cold.

Though early poets of Scandinavia tried to explain the world they saw and lived in, they conceived of ideas which also had arisen in other cultures, reinterpreted through their own lense: Noah's flood becomes a deluge of blood from the wounds that Ymir's sons inflict upon him and this flood kills the brutal frost giants. The tree of life of Genesis or of the Kabbalah becomes Yggdrasill, the giant ash whose leafy branches shelter all that is and one of whose roots delves into the underworld. This is the tree from which Odin hangs upside down and saves the world by reciting runes.

No one came to comfort me with bread, no one revived me with a drink from a horn. I peered at the worlds below. I seized the runes. Shrieking I seized them.”

This crucifixion which calls forth the power of the word, enables Odin to sing 18 charms, die and then rise again.

Jean Sibelius and the Kalevala

It was the Runes from the Kalevala, the great 19th century compilation of Karelian and Finnish folklore, that inspired the four tone poems of Sibelius's Lemminkäinen Suite. Sibelius, writing in 1893, retells in The Swan of Tuonela, the story of the handsome Lemminkainen who takes up the challenge of killing the black swan of the river of Tuonela (Land of the Dead) in order to win a young woman he fancies. In this evocative sonic poem, the dark and the shimmering sonorities of the string section seem to depict the initial darkness of the river and then its turbulence, while the English horn is given a modal theme suggestive of the sung poetry of the Kalevala. A hunting call and plucked strings suggest apprehension, and the tone poem ends with irremediable regret which is taken over from the English horn by a lone cello. Sibelius had recorded in his diary next to a description of sixteen swans flying in formation:

One of my greatest experiences...Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon. . . . That this should have happened to me, who have so long been the outsider.” … (They) are always in my thoughts and give splendour to [my] life. [It’s] strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me—nothing in art, literature, or music—in the same way as do these swans and cranes and wild geese. Their voices and being.”

Carl Nielsen and Landscape

In his recent television series, Art in Scandinavia, Andrew Graham-Dixon speculates that '… the Scandinavian mind has been formed by nature - loneliness, melancholy but a determination to endure come what may.' Stephen Johnson in Classical Music Magazine, draws a connection between language and music. Speaking of the Danish composer, Carl Nielsen, he comments: 'As anyone who has spent any time talking to Danes will probably have noticed, the natural melodic curve of Danish speech tends to move up and down within relatively narrow intervals (a minor or major third)... A remarkable number of Nielsen’s melodic lines do the same... Folksong grows naturally from the rhythms and melodic contours of native speech, and Nielsen was as saturated in folksong as in folk speech.' If Nielsen himself was unaware of the influence of the Danish language on his music, he was more than aware of how the vistas of his childhood had influenced the melodies he conceived. In his 1927 memoir, Min fynske Barndom (My childhood on Funen), he wrote of his early years in rural Denmark: 'On the way home after (these) musical evenings through the beautiful landscape, I used to dream and fantasise in music.'

Edvard Grieg and Folktale

Landscape, language, myth and music..

The Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen managed to combine all these strands of his sense of place in his 5 act verse play of 1876, Peer Gynt. Just as the Prose Edda relates how Odin dies and rises again and the Kalevala describes the death and subsequent redemption of Lemminkainen whose mother searches heaven and earth to find a way to restore him to life, the folk tales upon which Ibsen's play is based, tell of the archetypal Peer who is thrown off his path by hubris and is eventually redeemed by the love of the faithful Solveig. Peer undertakes an Odyssian journey which leads him to the Hall of the Mountain King who advises him: Be true to yourself and to hell with the world. Later a troll tells him: Go around. Peer takes both pieces of advise to heart, continually putting himself first and avoiding all that is difficult. It takes Peer all five acts of the play, old age and his confrontation with all he has not done (his unsung songs, his unmade works, his unwept tears and his questions that were never asked) to prepare himself for the absolution of Solveig's love and forgiveness. Solveig sings a lullaby to Peer who, we are led to believe, dies in her lap.

When Ibsen asked the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg to write incidental music for the play, Grieg took up the challenge enthusiastically. He originally produced 22 short pieces for piano duo.

As his wife recorded: 'The more he saturated his mind with the powerful poem, the more clearly he saw that he was the right man for a work of such witchery and so permeated with the Norwegian spirit.'

Eventually Grieg chose 8 pieces to form two suites which were not published in their orchestral arrangement until after his death. The music is simple but so evocative of the surreal fairy world that Ibsen describes that, like Ibsen's play which blends dreamlike tales with realism, Grieg's music has taken its place as some of the most familiar of the 19th c. The iconic 'Morning' whose falling and rising melody may have been inspired by the Kulning tradition of mountain yodelling and the urgent, almost devilish accelerando of the Hall of the Mountain King have become part of not only Scandinavia's shared sense of place but of the collective unconscious of the modern world.

The Specific and the Universal

I find it fascinating that where we live moulds, if unconsciously, how we speak and the stories we sing and tell. It seems inevitable that the Art we make will reflect and rework those unconscious influences. Landscape, language, myth and indigenous music interweave and produce a more conscious Art which, though seen through the lens of the individual, becomes Universal.

String Quartet Playing for Amateurs

 String Quartets Playing for Amateurs

Amateur music making is one of the most pleasant and rewarding leisure activities available. And of all the possibilities of playing with others, the combination of two violins, viola and cello is certainly one of the most beautiful and satisfying.

The notion of four string players making music without a conductor from printed scores arose less than three hundred years ago. It is Josef Haydn who is normally credited with the creation of the first string quartets. In the several hundred years prior to his 1762 Op. 1 quartets, the musical world had witnessed such innovations as the relative notation of pitch (neumes) and then rhythm and the revolutionary idea that more than one musical line or melody could occur at the same time (parallel organum). By the 16th c, luthiers had begun to build the violin, viola and cello that we know today and composers had begun to write for them in consort. However the first music for the traditional ensemble of two violins, viola and cello drew heavily on the notion of basso continuo, a sort of bass guitar part for the cello that outlined the harmonies but didn't contribute to the melodic element of the composition. When Haydn decided to involve the cello in the musical web and to structure his quartets in four movements with specific forms, he was breaking completely new musical ground.

Modern professional string quartets have a rich repertoire to plunder. Most of the great composers have written for the genre, from the 18th c work of Mozart and Beethoven, to the great romantic quartets of Schubert, Schuman, Brahms and Dvorak and the towering 20th c contributions of Shostakovich and Bartok. But chamber music (music designed to be played by small groups of instrumentalists without a conductor in intimate surroundings) was traditionally played by amateur musicians in their homes. Chamber music has been described as the music of friends and by Goethe as 'four rational people conversing'.

Certainly the exercise of sitting with 3 other amateur musicians to play the great masterpieces of the string quartet literature has no real parallel. For one thing, the possibilities of timbre in the string instruments, make them close to the human voice in their range of communication. The four members of the quartet are involved in a physical exercise, a mental challenge, a social enterprise and an emotional journey. They aspire to listen as they 'talk' and to respond in ways that both support their musical friends and persuade them.

While reading through a particular quartet can afford great pleasure – and not a little frustration – rehearsing one can be even more rewarding. Understanding the rhythms and shapes of one's own part in relation to the three other musical lines takes time and thought. Refining intonation so that the harmonies created between the parts are full and resonant affords huge satisfaction. Moving beyond the nuts and bolts to honour the music's form, give it direction and plumb its emotional depths may seem a step too far for many amatuer players, but the challenge of trying is its own reward.

If you are an amateur string player living in London there are various ways of finding yourself a quartet:

The City Lit runs a relaxed and enjoyable String Quartet course on Tuesday evenings where amateurs can play, rehearse and receive coaching:

Or you could look for players on:

To read a wonderful article about playing amateur chamber music go to:

A Reflection on Anais Nin

It was in 1947, in a lift of a New York apartment block that the 44 year old Anais Nin met the 28 year old actor Rupert Pole. They were both on their way to attend a party to celebrate the end of a run of the Duchess of Malfi in which Pole had played a supporting role. From the moment of meeting her, Pole pursued Anais, but she was reluctant to commit.

This kind of attention was familiar to her. She courted it and was practised at eliciting it from most men she met and several of the women. This, despite a deeply felt split in her psyche that years of analysis with both Rene Allende and the celebrated Otto Rank had failed to alleviate: though outwardly confident, powerful and seductive there was a secret Anais who felt small, ugly and vulnerable.

No doubt it was the trauma of her childhood that had contributed to this secret but seemingly ineradicable vision of herself. She was born in Brussels, one of three children, to the Spanish-Cuban composer and pianist, Joaquin Nin and his Danish wife, the soprano Rosa Culmell. It was a music-filled home but also a home that echoed with the sometimes violent arguments between the parents. There is some suggestion that Joaquin was cruel and possibly sexually abusive to Anais.

Eventually he abandoned the family and at the age of 11 she set off with her mother, her brothers Joaquin junior and Thorvald to make a new life in New York. It was on the journey that she began writing her diary as a sort of letter to her absent father for whom she longed and whom she idolised. She was not to see him again for 20 years. Their eventual meeting was explosive and she wrote unashamedly of a sexual union between them which she initiated.

Writing became Nin's home and salvation. Music was the unattainable place of beauty that she longed to inhabit. Ideas, creativity and an openness to all that was new became her lifelong pursuit. She married Hugo Guiler when she was 23 and he supported her both emotionally and financially for the rest of her life.

So when Rupert Pole courted her and then pleaded with her to marry him, she of course had to say no. But Pole was extremely persistent and as he lived in California and her home with Guiler was in New York, she eventually decided that the subterfuge might work. And subterfuge it was, a harrowing tightrope involving a double life and a web of lies that was shattered when after 10 years, Inland Revenue queried why two men had claimed Nin as a dependent. Although Nin was forced to divorce Pole, she continued to live with him, while remaining married to Guiler, until her death at the age of 73 in 1977.

Anais Nin: The Lie Box will be showing at Burgh House, Hampstead on the 22nd of April at 7:30 pm

Mindfulness for Musicians

 Mindfulness for Musicians

In the 1970s, psychologist Noel Burch devised a model for how we master skills and relationships, calling it the "conscious competence learning model." This model suggests four stages of gaining skill: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

It is interesting that the adjective 'unconscious' is used twice in the model, once with negative connotations and once very positively. But perhaps our understanding of this word has to deepen. How often are we aware of our unconsciousness? The question is paradoxical because surely we can't be both unconscious and know we are unconscious. And what kind of unconsciousness would allow us the ultimate in skill? Clearly, the first use of the word implies a sort of obliviousness, a foggy, unclear and uninformed state of mind. A worrying lack of awareness, a diffusion of attention. The second use of the word 'unconscious' must therefore be suggesting a state which is quite opposite to that: clarity, focus and attention. But how are we to understand this kind of clarity and focus? Is it different from the focus and attention we pay when we try very hard to do well, talking ourselves through each step of our task, criticising each tentative gesture to excellence and distracted by our self-congratulation of everything that goes well? Everyone of those little minnow thoughts that redirect our attention, that instruct, criticise or praise are a distraction. In the same way that coaching ourselves to move our right leg and then our left, would disable us from walking with ease, the activities of our mind in a state of conscious competence subtly interrupt the wisdom of the body and the spirit.

When we come to learning how to make music we are engaged in creating a synthesis of physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual activities. But synthesis results from analysis. Through practice we embed information that will be available to us later without our having to consciously draw upon it. Where, therefore will our attention, our consciousness be if it is not engaged in coaching us through a list of directions far too long to attend to in any given moment? Is it possible that we will be present? Is it possible that we will be centred in the moment, aware, engaged, our minds and bodies at one?

Interestingly, given the title of this reflection, I have not yet used the term mindfulness. This term derives from an early Buddhist sutta or discourse which discusses in great detail, a practice of attention to the body, the feelings, the thoughts and the spirit for reasons of purification, the relief of suffering and ultimately to gain enlightenment. In the 1970's a group of American Buddhists who had travelled to the East, brought this practice back to the United States. Later, the American, Jon Kabat-Zinn, developed a clinical model of the mindfulness practice to reduce stress. This approach seems to have become the buzzword of the decade. But in the original sutta, the Pali term 'sati' which has latterly been translated as mindfulness, originally meant 'to remember'. Interestingly we are brought back to the idea of gaining unconscious competence through the practice of conscious competence. We are asked to practise focussing our attention, again and again on a multiplicity of tasks, ideas, movements and feelings in order to commit them to a region of our mind (and I use that word rather than brain with the intention of suggesting a mechanism that is unknowable and mysterious) from which they can emerge holus-bolus at exactly the time they are needed. We are asked to create a bank of responses which we will remember at exactly the appropriate time. And we are asked to practise the still and calm state of being, the focussed attention that eschews a desire for success or a dread of failure. For, poised in the moment, skill will arise!

Mindfulness for Musicians  runs from the 11th of April to the 20th of June at the City Lit, Keeley St, London, WC2B 4BA.   Admissions: 0207 831 7831

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