Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Inner Voices

Some years ago we published an account of life on the road with a chamber music ensemble: Beyond the Notes. Pianist Susan Tomes’ diary of her time with Domus and the beginnings of the Florestan Trio captured the imagination of music lovers and critics alike, and remains essential reading for young musicians taking their first steps in the classical music business. Next month the Boydell Press will publish a new book by the same author, Out of Silence. Taking as its inspiration Schumann's remark that 'I am affected by everything that goes on in the world, and I think it all over in my own way', it aims to show how a working musician mulls over and draws energy from the events of everyday life.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be posting some short extracts from
Out of Silence, beginning with this piece about inner voices in music, specifically in chamber music:

After many years of being an amateur wind player, my brother-in-law has given up the French horn and has taken up the viola instead. He feels that playing the horn is getting too strenuous for his lips. I asked him whether he didn’t feel this was his opportunity to grab the limelight and take up the violin instead, to have the experience of playing the top line? Or the double bass, to see what it’s like at the bottom? He says that having played the French horn for years in wind quintets and orchestras, he finds he has become attached to the role of being a middle voice, and wants to continue in this persona, so he is naturally drawn to the viola. Just as he sees the horn as the mediator of the brass section, he sees the viola as the voice of reason in the strings, rarely getting to sing a glamorous aria, but playing a very important stabilising role. He identifies with this role. We agree that an interest in inner voices is one which marks out a certain kind of musician. There’s often so much focus on the leading voice, the top line, the melody instrument, the solo part, and so on, but just as much if not more meaning emanates from the middle voices, often not sufficiently heard or understood. Thank goodness there are people who feel genuinely drawn to playing those middle parts, who see themselves as the binding agent, like eggs in a cake mixture.

There’s something in common with the chamber musician here, though a love of inner voices doesn’t quite sum up the chamber musician’s passion. For us, it’s a little more complicated than that. Chamber players love the diversity of roles they have to play, sometimes being the leader, sometimes a companion, sometimes a supporter or a commentator. They love to find out when they are meant to surge forward, when to step into the limelight, when to comment from the wings, when to contradict, and when to offer another, perhaps more persuasive point of view. They understand that it is a process of layering, and that they must be prepared to explore all the layers. I don’t know whether such people are drawn to chamber music because they are open-minded and naturally good listeners, or whether they acquire a tolerant approach along the way, but one thing’s for sure: you won’t get much out of chamber music unless you genuinely have a live-and-let-live attitude. If you’re convinced your own part is the most important all the time, you’d be better off sticking to solo concertos. In chamber music, even the naturally more dominant instruments, such as the piano (or should I say, even the naturally more dominant instrumentalists, like pianists) still have to weave their way in and out of the plot. Chamber music at its best is a vision of the ideal society, where people converse, exchange and are sensitive to one another, respecting one another’s territories. It seems to me good preparation for life in a free society.

Out of Silence by Susan Tomes will be published by the Boydell Press next month.

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