The neverending challenges of intonation

I’ve spent most of my student and professional life experimenting with and practising intonation, so I love it when I read something about it that I find exciting. Years ago, I read Ross W. Duffin’s How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) as if it were some potboiler novel (I couldn’t put it down, and stayed up all night reading it), because it made so much sense of what I’d being trying to accomplish as a string quartet player.

Another such revelation was Barry Ross’ The Violinist’s Guide to Exquisite Intonation, which shows a trick for making your intonation work using the harmonic series on a stringed instrument that was so beautifully simple, I kicked myself that I hadn’t noticed it before.

So I was excited to come across this blog post by the Metropolitan Opera principal bassoonist William Short, which encourages wind players to think about intonation the way brass players do. (I already knew something about that, being married to a trumpeter, but Short’s concise, to-the-point explanation makes it very accessible.)

I hope my students will translate some of this to their daily work on the cello. So much of what we do is experimental guesswork, and the shadow side of this is second-guessing ourselves. Wouldn’t it be great to play in the confident certainty that you were doing the right thing, intonationally?


No expense spared but one

My students are big fans of Game of Thrones, and this semester they begged me to arrange Ramin Djawadi’s stirring theme music for our cello ensemble. I did so, writing it down by ear from a YouTube clip. After a few hearings, it really began to irritate me that instead of hiring a live cellist to play the melody, HBO had used a MIDI version.

When I mentioned this to the students, one of them sent me this blog post by Lara St. John, complete with homemade videos featuring St. John dressed up as Daenerys Targaryen with a pet iguana as the dragon, plus a real cellist she’d hired to play the theme music. The videos and the post are brilliantly funny, but they make a serious point: HBO, while willing to spend between six and ten million dollars per episode, decided to economize on the music by not hiring a cellist–a cost St. John calculates at around $50 per episode.

This is shocking, but sadly not surprising. “They” always economize on music, either by nickel and diming performers, or simply not bothering to hire them at all.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way so many times. When I was a student, I played at weddings to supplement my income, and I figured out pretty quickly that you had to make sure you got your cheque before the service, because afterwards everyone is celebrating and having their photo taken and the mother of the bride isn’t likely to feel like interacting with a disgruntled cellist, if she can be found at all. They might send you your cheque afterwards, but probably not, especially not if the wedding was a very fancy one. Moral of story: no one likes to demand payment up front, especially not a shy teenaged girl, but you simply have to.

Later on, I had a similar experience playing for the Aspen Ideas Festival, an organization from whom musicians might reasonably expect some enlightened treatment. My quartet and I were spending the summer at the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the school’s gigs office had asked us if we’d play for an AIF reception in honour of former president Bill Clinton.

By that stage, we didn’t usually do “gigs” any more, but it seemed like a fun opportunity, so we said we would. Contracts were delivered to us, offering us a sum we thought was pretty paltry–well below half the standard gigging rate for most Colorado cities.

We went to negotiate with an administrator at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and she agreed with us, and changed the contract to a more agreeable amount. Everyone left the meeting happy.

A couple of nights later, we showed up at the extravagantly opulent reception. We goggled at the sight. Liveried waiters were arranging vast platters with hundreds of lobsters. Truck drivers were unloading crates and crates of the most expensive champagne money can buy. The decorations were spectacular–they’d brought in wonderful artworks and sculptures, doubtless at immoderate expense. My memory may be faulty, but I think they had ice sculptures too–at the height of summer, no less. We looked around us, and wondered if we should have asked for more money.

We sat down to play (Haydn and Schubert, as I recall). The moment we were finished, we were hustled out a back door by a woman in Louboutins, presumably so that we wouldn’t besmirch the presence of President Clinton with our commonness, and given an envelope with our cheque.

Which, we discovered, was for the original, insultingly small amount.

The next day, we went to try to get the amount we’d been promised, and were flatly refused. We tried to show them the contract, and they showed us a security guard.

I went back to the gigging office in the hopes that they could help us negotiate. An administrator reluctantly called the Aspen Ideas Festival to find out what had happened.The woman she reached told her that we had shown up and threatened not to play unless the pay was increased (which was not true), and that there was no contract stipulating that we should be paid more (which was also not true).

I am not proud to admit that I threw a bit of a tantrum. But what were we to do? Sue? That would have been ridiculous, and we couldn’t afford it, and they knew it.

Well, I hope they felt good that they economized a scant $200, considering their lobster/champagne/shoe expenses.

I wonder, do “they” screw over and rip off their caterers, wine merchants, decorators and so on like this? Or is it only musicians that get singled out for shabby treatment?

Fantasia and fashion

My husband and I both adored Fantasia as children, and went to see Fantasia 2000 as university students when it first came out on IMAX (independently, since we wouldn’t meet for another eight years). Now that we have our own little daughter, it’s such a pleasure to revisit these old friends and see them through her eyes. Some of the pieces are too scary for a three-year-old, so we fast forward through Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, for example, but others, such as Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the flamingos and yo-yos in the Finale from Carnival of the Animals were just as charming and magical as I’d remembered.

I’d forgotten how Fantasia 2000 pays tribute to Leopold Stokowski by repeating a few things, such as his orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. I think my purist younger self rather disapproved of it, thinking it was this awful old-fashioned thing that wasn’t true to Bach. I’ve changed my mind now, though. We have no way of knowing what Bach would have thought of Stokowski’s reimagination of his composition, but I can’t help feeling that the orchestration is sensitively-coloured to the structure of the counterpoint. It’s been rather out of fashion for my whole lifetime, so I’ve only had the chance to play it once, but it was fun to play. And pretty difficult, with some high fiddly things for the cellos, too.

But just because something is considered a bit politically incorrect these days doesn’t mean it was done cavalierly or capriciously. It makes me think of Busoni’s arrangements of Bach, or Mendelssohn’s adjustments to the St. Matthew Passion–no one could say these great intellects didn’t understand Bach’s music. Perhaps Stokowski, like Busoni, like Mendelssohn, was part of a still-living European tradition of performer-arrangers that is now dead, killed off by the turbulent events of the twentieth century as much as by fashions and recording technology. Perhaps the modern scorners of their editions and arrangements are the ones who don’t understand.

Sleeping in Temples

I’m a huge fan of the pianist and writer Susan Tomes, so when her latest book came out, I bought it right away and read it in between practice sessions and writing syllabuses over our winter break. Sleeping in Temples, like Tomes’ other collections Beyond the Notes and Out of Silence, gives readers a fascinating insight into the life of a musician at the very top of her profession, both in the sense of a memoir and of the interpreter’s journey. I’ve idolized Tomes since I was pretty young, because she’s exactly the kind of musician I’ve always wanted to be–one who both performs and writes about music. The thinking musician’s musician!

In “The Right Tool For the Job,” Tomes compares her early studies in piano and violin, with an explanation of why she ultimately chose piano as her instrument. This essay, a kind of love letter to the piano, was tremendously moving and reminded me of why and how I’d fallen in love with the cello at the age of nine. (Many of Tomes’ descriptions of her early musical education in Edinburgh in the 1960s reminded me of mine in New Zealand in the 1990s. I suppose it’s because so many of our musical traditions came from Scotland along with our ancestors in the nineteenth century, and England too, of course.)

“Temps perdu” points out the illogicality of expectations that certain performers will play from memory while others won’t, and like so many of Tomes’ other essays, caused me to rethink quite a few aspects of memorization that I’d been performing and teaching. I laughed out loud at “Bullfrogs,” where she categorizes different types of audience coughing, coining the term Cough Rampant to describe the unabashed cougher who doesn’t seem to realize that the performers onstage can hear the coughing. (Personally, I’m so grateful for every person who comes to my concerts that I try not to be too annoyed about that sort of thing, but I do wish they wouldn’t cough so much! And yet, under the right circumstances, no one coughs at all–I remember attending a Hesperion XX concert where the audience was so transfixed by the music that there wasn’t a cough all evening.)

While Tomes’ views on conceptual art might be controversial, her provocative comparisons of the avant-garde art profession to the music profession make a lot of sense (“Interesting things happen when you deny people the consolation of technical excellence”). I expect most of us who make classical music for a living take pride in developing and maintaining instrumental or compositional technique, but surely it’s a different story in some popular fields. (The idea of “not needing technique” reminded me of an internet recording I recently heard of what Britney Spears sounds like without Auto-Tune and other “improving” digital editing. I won’t link to it here, to spare your ears, but I imagine most people would be shocked at the faulty intonation and wavering rhythm of Spears’ “natural” voice. And yet the manufactured “product” has made millions. Couldn’t she have spent some of her fortune on a few lessons in singing and musicianship?)

The essays that deal with the life of a touring chamber musician were closest to my heart, and really resonated with my own experiences as a former string quartet member. I remember I always used to feel rather ashamed about the surprisingly rancorous arguments my quartet and I had over which concert outfits we were going to wear, for example, but I feel slightly better to read that a lot of ensembles bicker like this. From the ubiquitous problems with airlines to the squabbles over administrative duties and division of funds (not to mention the almost total lack of funds most of the time), Tomes has been through it all, and probably behaved much more rationally and reasonably than we did.

Despite the bittersweet tone of her essays on the state and the future of the classical music profession, Tomes doesn’t–unlike many current commentators–proclaim that it’s dying. How could it be, with so many thousands of excellent musicians coming out of conservatories everywhere? Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t on the cusp of some kind of enormous change to this compelling, exasperating, contradictory profession of ours. It’s clear, particularly here in America, that the current model isn’t sustainable or necessarily desirable, but will we turn to an earlier model of professionalism and interpretation? Or are technology and social change pushing us towards something we can’t yet imagine? In this climate, Tomes’ thoughtful voice, her search for the sensitive interpretation of music, and her compassionate understanding of musicians’ realities seem more fascinating, and more necessary, than ever. This book, like all her books, should be compulsory reading for everyone who makes music.