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.