THURSDAY 25 NOV
I have an unexpected Day Off: singers need time to work with composer McNeff and conductor Domenic Wheeler, stage director John Lloyd Davies and production assistant Matthias Janser need to make all ready for Friday afternoon’s concert.
I decide to do what I didn’t have time for on Monday: Tate Britain (the original Tate Museum), (www.tate.org.uk/britain )Westminster, whatever else there’s time for before meeting Stephen at the ROH-Covent Garden for a Rambert Dance concert.
I don’t make an early start. Tuesday late afternoon a Cold Wave arrived: suddenly, around 5PM, it was clear that we were in some New and Brutal Weather System. Until then, the climate had been more or less normal for London at this time of year, and I was quite comfy in my second-hand Patagonia fleece jacket with thick cotton turtleneck underneath; with hat, gloves, and rebozo. But from that point onwards, the highs during the day were some three degrees Centigrade, and the lows something like minus six or seven. Ouch! The air was an assault on one’s skin!
Wednesday night I’d stayed up way too late reading Harry Potter (which I’ve just been discovering – of this more later) and so it was not hard to have a leisurely morning with coffee and email and laundry, and the adorable McNeff family cats, Bea and Lupin. So I took a bus –YES!, a double-decker, and of course I rode on top!— just across the Vauxhall Bridge and walked a bit along the Thames to the Tate Britain.
I went, of course, to see Turner. It would have been wonderful to see Muybridge –goodness, it would have been wonderful to see the Diaghilev expo at the Victoria & Albert!—but there was only so much time. And I fervently hate the kind of tourism that says you must cram impossible amounts of experience into very small time spans. I seem to have a rather low threshold for museums and such: after a while I am just looking and not really SEEING, and it becomes exhausting and empty.
So here goes … In the Tate Britain they have mounted a new exhibition titled Romantics which is Turner together with Blake, Constable, and others: to give context to the work of all of them. I am a great lover of context so this was really fascinating for me. Highlights: Constable wrote, “painting is another word for feeling”. I actually LIKE Constable, I have friends who don’t. What do I know (this is only my first ever visit to England!), but somehow Constable for me does conjure up a sort of peculiarly ENGLISH countryside together with the activities that went on in it; as distinct from a Spanish or French (or Irish!) countryside, I mean. I actually don’t see Constable only as an avatar of some illusionary and quintessentially pre-Industrial Revolution English countryside … although from today’s perspective it’s hard to NOT see his work that way, even if only as some sort of historical record. I was tempted to write, “a romanticized view” but this exhibition made me remember that we really have to re-examine what Romanticism was, and not loosely throw around those adjectives.
This is clearly yet another of those things about which I need to write more extensively: for now, suffice it to say that I think we sometimes forget that Romanticism also had profoundly to do with issues of social justice and with the importance of the individual and what he (and increasingly she) has to offer. I think these are ideas which have surfaced and gained traction at various times through our chequered human history: hard to point to any one moment in which they surfaced to triumph once and for all. (“Chequered”, OK, I was writing this, or at least experiencing it, in England … so British Spelling Prevails!!)
Two earlier paintings of Turner which trapped my eyes and soul: Waterloo, which is not the triumphal battle painting one might expect but no, something more like my very personal picture of the sixth Brahms Intermezzo Opus 118. It is the battlefield at night: relatives of soldiers have come to seek them among the fallen and scavengers to do their grisly work of seeking booty. Haunting and terrible. Then there is “War”, one of a group of paintings about war and peace, if I remember correctly. It is Napoleon on Elba and its subtitle is “The exile and the Rock Limpet”. Indeed it is an almost ghostly figure which seems to be contemplating the small creature (the rock limpet) a little to his foreground. A few metres to his rear is his guard. The light of the setting sun makes it seem as though the entire scene is bathed in blood.
As all great art can do, it gives us the opportunity to feel horror –and, redemptively, compassion. Or the reverse … We feel –how can we not?—pity for the lone figure lost in contemplation. If we think about it, we realize that few if any of his activities go unobserved. He seems so terribly lonely. At the same time, we are aware that this same lonely figure caused terrible bloodshed. As is the case with Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, who is as you can imagine much on my mind as I see these paintings with my soul alive and vibrating.
In another room close to the end of the Romantics exhibition, an inspired small collection of works by CONTEMPORARY British photographers. They are related to the Romantics because do many of them are about landscape. I find them all haunting and thought-provoking in one way or another:
• Raymond Moore: small B/W, particularly “Pothguin” (I jot down “boy on bike”) and “Maryport”.
• Keith Arnatt: Also B/W; landscapes like those which Constable and Turner painted but with modern elements -- like garbage, mostly, and telephone cables and such. His work makes me think about what we think is garbage, and what garbage might there have been in Turner’s or Blake’s or Constable’s epoch – or would they even have included it? Hmmm. No time to go back and search for garbage in their paintings, I’m starving.
• Jem Southam: color, larger photographs, in that sense more like paintings but clearly photos. Remind me a bit of Canadian Joh Bladen Bentley’s work.
• John Riddy: ditto Southam but very abstract-looking and quite dark.
Fascinating for me to see through modern eyes those same rural or seaside landscapes which so engaged Blake, Constable, Turner. These “seeings” seem to me to be all quite affectionate, not critical as such of the work that went before -- if anything, critical rather of how things are now, although perhaps that is reading something into the work. I suppose in a sense this is like Constable, if we choose to see Constable that way: a kind of record of what is or was happening.
In spite of growling stomach I go finally to the room where there are some ten of Turner’s last paintings: indeed, some of them are unfinished canvasses. I saved this for last because I knew it would spoil me for anything else. This is rhapsodic, ecstatic work so completely sure of its own compelling voice and vision that it’s impossible to confuse them with any other.
Is it firmly of its own time? At that stage of the game, as Turner is close to leaving this world and, I get the feeling, is aware of it, maybe art transcends time and that category of stuff becomes close to meaningless. Whatever the case, I feel this late work of Turner’s dances on the bridge to Impressionism as CPE Bach does on the one to Romanticism. Visionary. As always, and increasingly, makes me question those labels which are so handy for Music (and Art) Appreciation classes, record labels, and the like. Again, more on this elsewhere (look in my new THOUGHTS ON MUSIC AND INTERPRETATION theme) … Meanwhile, I do think yet again that it’s small wonder that Turner is so often associated with Debussy, although Turner’s dates are 1775 to 1851 and Debussy’s 1862-1918.
I jot in my notebook “passion and precision”. For years I’ve felt it’s a combination that characterises great music -- although they’re often conceived of as mutually exclusive. So silly, that confusion! The greatest passion practically dictates precision, exactly because it is so clear about what it wants. Arrau said it very well: “Es un error asociar la velocidad con la passion” (“It is a mistake to associate velocity with passion”). Velocity so often implies imprecision. Is this perhaps why we feel so exhilarated when we listen to someone play at dazzling speed with complete coherence?
I have lunch at the Tate Britain. I know they charge rather a lot by some standards; but what the heck, it’s too effing cold outside to wander about in search of that apocryphal warm pub with its Ploughman’s Lunch or Shepherd’s Pie, so I gladly pay the money for a very tasty salmon cake with mesclun salad attached, some bread with more of that simply amazing British butter, and jiminy, I think I even had an espresso to finish up.
Warmed by good food, I walk along the Thames –towards, I hope with my geographically-challenged mind- Trafalgar Square. Houses of Parliament with Rodin Burghers of Calais. Big Ben: indeed quite imposing. Westminster with monument to Women of WWII. This I found extraordinarily moving. There it is in the middle of a busy street. It is, effectively, a bunch of empty uniforms hung on a base. The fact that they are empty makes them somehow universal. They’re hung any which way, some of them crumpled as though the wearer had barely enough energy to hang up her uniform before crashing into too few hours’ sleep; others neater-looking. For some reason –perhaps the resonance with those two war paintings of JMW Turner in the Tate— I practically start weeping right there on Westminster Avenue or whatever it is. It seems very noble to me to have such a monument, right in a very public space.
And by jiminy, here I am at Trafalgar Square, bless that map! It’s not getting late but it IS getting dark: I am still unaccustomed to these latitudes. I have time to stop by the British Council in Spring Garden and leave some CDs for the person there with whom I was hoping to meet; but oh well, business is business and that person is not available even for a quick saludo: I’m in a different culture here.
So I go to the National Gallery for more nourishment. I have afternoon coffee and spend a couple of hours in the the 16th and 17th-century exhibition. Why did I never know about RUBENS’ landscape painting? So wonderful to see this after my time with Turner and Constable at the Tate Britain. Then, just as the National Gallery closes, it’s time to saunter over to Covent Garden for the Rambert Dance concert.
Which is wonderful. Seems Rambert have been doing this for several years now: a special concert in which Company dancers present their own choreography. Surely this is a way to attract and keep dancers. AND they have Live Music (hard not to use ALL CAPS here … )!! Not only that, they are commissioning music from composers! How cool is that? I am so impressed that just before the second half I comment to Stephen about how wonderful I find this. He responds, with only the slightest touch of irony and sounding very British, “This IS the Royal Opera House, after all”. I am so happy that Rambert have commissioned a piece from Stephen for 2011-2012. Dammit, he is such a fine and adventurous composer, he deserves all the best, sympathetic collaborators and interpreters and everything.
Tomorrow the concert, the ROH presentation: the fruit of these four days of concentrated work at the development session of Stephen’s opera.
SATURDAY I had a really wonderful meeting with a British music writer whom I greatly respect. Wonderful to meet in person someone whose writing I so like. Check out my new section, of various ONGOING THOUGHTS ABOUT MUSIC & INTERPRETATION, for more material like this …
Lots of stuff during our conversation but one issue in particular came up: I was asked, What about this business of composers writing –and being commissioned to write—new music for old instruments?? Hmmm … This is another of those disquisitions which I clearly need to write, but for now these are my thoughts: There should be no limit to what a composer’s sonic imagination can engage with. I suppose one could say that this is just a trend, but really we don’t have the perspective, right now –see, THIS is why I think context is so valuable!— to be able to judge that. And in any case, it may not be, I think, just a passing fancy: Horacio Franco, here in México, has commissioned significant quantities of music for all the recorders (flauta de pico, flute à bec), as has Anna Margules in Spain. Last year Stockhausen’s daughter commissioned a piece for basset-horn (how ‘bout THEM Haydn-apples?!) and orchestra from Ana Lara of México, and has commissioned other works from numerous living composers. So yes, if the idea is interesting to a composer and to an interpreter, then let the good times roll, as they say.
I have to note as well that I think it’s really important for us as interpreters to have very present the sounds of other instruments. Axiomatic, of course, that a pianist should have the sound of an oboe (including a BASS oboe! – quite different from that of a bassoon) and of a ’cello, for example, present in her or his inner ear … but I think it’s also essential to keep in mind what Brahms’ preferred Érard piano must have sounded like. You look at the denseness of Brahms’ left hand writing and you have to imagine –so as to reproduce!– the clarity of that piano’s lower register, unless you want the result to be mud. Even French pianos of more recent vintage give us ample clues to what that must have been like. I remember playing in Cuba (¡in Cuba!) a Gavot. Another pianist who’d played the piano a day or two before complained bitterly that if you just breathed on the damned thing, it made a sound. OK, difficult; but as I’ve written before, that’s part of what we itinerant piano-players do, unless we are prepared to lead the kind of life necessitated by bringing our own instrument with us. And what an opportunity to experience the unearthly sensitivity of such an instrument, such a conception of piano sound.
I also wonder about the opportunity to bring to an audience the experience of such small but expressive sound, in our daily sonic context of assault-sound. And I definitely do NOT mean in the too-often exquisitely precious context of an "original-instrument" concert -- unless such a concert is performed with the idea of magically and inclusively recreating the context in which that music was originally shared with listeners whatever their walk of life: no airplanes, automobiles, televisions, sound-reproduction systems. Does this sound a bit Luddite? no matter, I'm prepared to say that anything which stimulates our imaginative faculty is healthy.
Which brings me full circle: if a composer wants to write for that sonic universe … well, why not? And perhaps even more important, for me at least: why not be able to conjure up, on a modern Yamaha or Steinway, the ILLUSION of the sound of that Gavot or Érard, or even of a clavichord? We interpreters are, among other things, illusionists, ilusionistas, conjurers of illusions and dreams and yearnings. For people who molest me with original instrument dogma, I remind them that Emmanuel Bach knew the harpsichord, organs of various types, and the earliest versions of the pianoforte as well as, of course, the fortepiano; and that on consideration, his favourite instrument was still the clavichord – because in spite of its tiny sound, its expressiveness was unexcelled among the other keyboard instruments. In other words, and he himself says it, the clavichord was capable of the most VOCAL sound.