￼After a period of intensive work involving other people, every moment of violin practice becomes a delicious treat. So does the pleasure of being alone. And of being in a strange place. Or a beautiful space.
All of these things are pleasures to be savoured carefully. Because in the wrong time or wrong place, or wrong quantity, they can be oppressively overwhelming. But when they all come together unexpectedly, and after a period of absence, they bring with them a welcome magic.
Bad weather cancelled my flight, and I ended up changing planes at a different airport in a different country. For a wonderful couple of hours, I felt like I had completely escaped, for no one but the airline’s computer knew where I was. For once, I was completely uncontactable, and free to roam within the confines of the system that contained me.
The terminal was massive – so long that you could barely see from end to end. I walked for several minutes to the very furthest point, where boarding gates lay empty and there wasn’t a soul to be found. Outside, snowflakes sailed earthwards through the yellow glow of runway spotlights. Planes slid softly past, and baggage trucks crawled caterpillar-like through the dusky haze, pattering their way towards the glowing arrivals hall where they would disgorge their cargo.
￼Big secular spaces with beautiful acoustics are very hard to find, harder still to access, and even harder to find silent and empty. But there was no-one about, and I wanted to know how the building sounded. I pulled my violin from its case and began to play.
The acoustics were magnificent. Tentatively at first, for fear of attracting attention, I drew my bow across the strings, letting the tones resonate against the concrete and glass around me. The violin sensed the capacity of the space, and as I coaxed my travel-weary arms into a vaguely fluid movement, I began to draw more and more sonority from the instrument. First with Bach, then some simple scales, then finally a melody by Mendelssohn, a clarity of sound started to emerge, as both the violin and I began to feel the space together.
Through the window blinds, my eyes became fixated to the machines outside. Mesmerised, my brain zoned out, and my ears were drawn more closely to the phrasing. Again and again I repeated the Mendelssohn melody, searching for the perfect shape.
As I explored how to emphasise the notes, I started to mimic the smooth dances of the machines outside. With infinite variety, they each wove a slightly different pattern in the snow. The snow blower circled around and around, each movement a little fatter or thinner than the last, but always with beautiful proportion. The baggage cars zipped in and out of the blower’s circle, each leaving a pleasingly fresh set of wheel prints in the snow.
The more I played, the more details I started to notice, and the less satisfied with my own musical shapes I became. Yet strangely, at the same time, the overall shapes were ever more convincing. I realised that I would never find just one perfect interpretation. I would never play the melody the same way twice.
Each time would be different, and each time could expand the possibilities, if I wanted it to. The more I drove the phrase in different directions, the more I could feel what it could be, and the more ideas I would have to draw on when performing it. I didn’t even have to end up liking any given version of my interpretation; I just had to believe in it.
An hour had passed, and my flight was called.
As I packed up my violin, and turned to walk back towards the gate, I heard the sound of a person clapping. A lone cleaner, leaning on his maintenance trolley, smiled at me broadly. I hadn’t been completely alone after all.
It was one of those dream-like thoughts that flit through your mind in a utopian stupor whilst daydreaming on the train. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place in Central London where I could teach!”
Most people sensibly let such thoughts pass after a few minutes; I have the unfortunate habit of picking up the phone and trying to make crazy ideas happen.
So it was that, a couple of days later, I found myself impulsively signing a lease on half a building next to Buckingham Palace in Westminster. As you do.
I gave myself three months, and negotiated a break clause for the same. I figured that I could lose money for no more than 2 months, otherwise the venture would be doomed. That was in April.
Now it’s mid-October, and we have well over 40 committed students, plus many more occasional ones. In just six months! It would be a lie to pretend it’s an easy ride, but I now know for sure that the gamble will eventually pay off.
And what an opportunity.
I really didn’t think about it at the time – I just wanted a central-ish box room where I could teach students without having to charge them ridiculously high rates. And then it turned out that the adjoining two rooms were also available. So instead, I seem to have established an actual, very real ‘bricks-and-mortar’ school. This is totally different to private teaching! It is an maelstrom of musical, educational and commercial checks and balances that need to be satisfied and systemised across a really wide spectrum of teachers, learners, and resources. There is one hell of a lot of responsibility. And I am doing everything I can to get things right.
For all my lack of planning, I have some very firm ideas about how a specialist ‘violin school’ should exist, and what it should stand for. You can read the first draft of my philosophy here. At the heart of it lies an embrace of creativity, for therein lies the greatest music making and also the evolution of our great traditions.
The team I am assembling is completely extraordinary – a collection of maniacs with mind-blowing amounts of experience, intelligence, and hard-won wisdom. They’re also genuinely nice people with a lot of integrity, so I have high hopes.
But the sheer amount of work involved in setting this up is fearsome even for me, and I’ve put some things (including PhD and some performing) on hold until the end of the year, by which time I hope the ship will be able to sail its own course without me doing everything myself. So if your email is one of the many hundred sitting unread in my email account, I can only apologise and say ‘I will get back to you soon’…
In the meantime, things are progressing fast. The organisation has been renamed (from London Violin Studio to ViolinSchool), a website – which will soon become an interactive e-learning platform – has been created at www.violinschool.org, and the formal curriculum is in an advanced stage of development. Some brilliant workshops and masterclasses have already taken place, a smallish but nonetheless very real violin library is in preparation, and I have just confirmed that the School’s Christmas concert will take place at the new St James Theatre (www.stjamestheatre.co.uk) that recently opened across the road. Without wanting to reveal too much too soon, I have some really exciting plans that will open up some of the world’s finest ‘violin minds’ to the public, and ViolinSchool will be the vehicle to make this happen.
As the all-consuming challenge of creating administration, finance and technology systems begins to subside – not least thanks to Maria Thomas, a music-business genius whose steady hand guides the school away from my maddest ideas – my attention turns to the legacy of 19th and 20th century violin pedagogy. I started to synthesise and filter these monumental works long ago, and so although I know exactly where the school is headed from a pedagogical perspective, I do still have to find a way of presenting the great violinistic masters (Dounis, Galamian, Flesch, et all) in a way that is relevant to today’s violinists. Violinists of any age and level (for that is our slogan).
Not wanting to give myself a too easy time of it, I thought I’d set the bar high to motivate the team. So we’re aiming to become the world’s pre-eminent Violin School within a couple of years. So wish me luck with that. Ahem.
I recently had the great pleasure of playing on a recording session for Thomas Hewitt Jones, to record music written especially for the 2012 Olympics. He has created a fantastic soundtrack for the ‘Olympics Mascots’ films, which you can hear being played at the Olympic Park throughout the games (or take a look at Tommy’s website to get the album on a CD or download).
As the Olympic buzz (and about 3 million tourists) arrived here in Central London, I invited Wenlock the Olympic Mascot round for a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Locog, where we talked about the emotional effect of musical harmony on unsuspecting Olympics-goers, and how olympic ideals can be expressed through music.
SHJ: So, what was it like working with my brother?
Wenlock: It was a blast. He really spoke our language. He watched us fly about in the sky on rainbows sprinkling Olympic fairy dust everywhere, then translated it all into music for Michael Morpurgo’s films.
SHJ: I’ve seen the videos. Somewhat hallucinogenic! But how on earth do you actually go about translating the adventures of cyclopic lumps of flying metal into music?
Wenlock: Hmm, I’ll take that as a compliment… well, Tommy has a knack for observing the subtleties of different characters. Then he creates sounds that really make you feel what each character feels. He uses tools like harmony and musical pacing to make a complex emotional experience for each listener.
SHJ: Wow… for a Mascot, you know a lot about musicology, Wenlock! But I know what you mean – there are some places in the films where the feeling is really dark; edgy almost. Like the bit where you and Mandeville get trapped in a container and start to be taken away on a ship…
Wenlock: …and the scary music reflects just how we felt at the time – very afraid! But then when the tension resolves… in comes our big tune – I call it the Wenlock and Mandeville signature tune! It’s so catchy, just like a ‘hook’ you get in a pop song. Hear it once and you won’t be able to get it out of your head!
SHJ: You’re right, it’s a serious earworm! But you must have heard it hundreds of times… aren’t you sick of your ‘anthem’ by now?
Wenlock: But you see, that’s the clever thing about this music! Sure, it’s really catchy. But because there are so many things going on beneath the surface – structural musical things, harmonic things – you never get bored of it. Each time you listen, you hear something else in the music. It’s a bit like ‘The Simpsons’ cartoons: children find the slapstick humour funny, but adults also enjoy them for the subtle innuendo and clever wordplay… they’re artforms you can appreciate on many different levels!
SHJ: Nice. So I guess Tommy is trying to appeal to as many different types of listener as possible, right?
Wenlock: Well, he knows a lot of people are going to hear this soundtrack. So I think he wanted to get through to as many of them as possible. Maybe someone who likes the tune and then buys the album will listen to it a few times – and then they are going to start to hear more and more details in the music. At best, this kind of music inspires people to listen a bit more deeply, become a bit more aware of the sounds around them.
SHJ: Are you saying this track will make you a better listener? Is there some kind of socio-political agenda behind all those big tunes?
Wenlock: Well, what’s the Olympics all about?
SHJ: Buying fast food, spending billions of pounds on security, and increasing tourist revenue?
Wenlock: Rubbish! Cynics like you don’t understand: the original Olympic ethos has got nothing to do with all that stuff. It’s about everyone coming together, it’s about the values of participation and cooperation, and it’s about aspiring to be the best you can be. It’s a social philosophy. It’s about how sport can help us develop inter-cultural understanding, peaceful co-existence, and social and moral education.
SHJ: But where does music fit into all of this?
Wenlock: Sport and the Arts can ultimately be a force for good OR ill. It’s up to us. But they can motivate and inspire humanity however we see fit – soundwaves, physical motion, emotion… they’re all extraordinarily powerful energies. So why not make the most of them? That’s why Mandeville and I took up the piano…
SHJ: You’ve inspired me! What can I do to embrace these wonderful philosophies?
Wenlock: You could buy Tommy’s album…
SHJ: I thought you might say that!
Make Wenlock happy! Listen to ‘Rainbow to the Games’ by clicking here:
My group Fifth Quadrant performed at the opening of a conference the other day, where no less a speaker than Malcolm Gladwell was giving a keynote. He had some fascinating insights about how global society is changing (which I think can inform the way in which musical ensembles, orchestras, and musicians model their work).
Generational Paradigm was his term for describing the fundamental shift in mindset that occurs between different generations. For people who lived through World War 2, the militaristic-hierarchical structures that powered much of society’s infrastructure were crucial to their need of forging a secure and stable reality in an environment that had often seemed apocalyptic.
As time passed, things began to change. New opportunities emerged throughout the Western world, and the arrival of the ‘Baby Boomers’ gave rise to a new sense of individualism that built upon the strength of hierarchy. ‘Pay me what I’m worth’, ‘the better/more/etc. that I achieve the higher up the hierarchies I will go’, ‘if I win a reward for what I do, it’s entirely mine to keep and spend’; these are all classic attitudes that have permeated much of the professional world during the final decades of the 1900s.
But as we move into the 21st Century, the ‘Millennials’ – loosely defined by Gladwell as those born in the 1980s and 1990s – have begun to turn away from hierarchical structures. Wikipedia, said Gladwell, is a great example: whereas a paper encyclopedia is a closed, finite structure, created by the few for the many, Wikipedia, is an open, crowd-sourced structure. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of an encyclopaedia. It’s a very different way of achieving the same thing (and brings with it very different problems).
What exactly has caused this change in mindset is beyond the scope of this blogpost, however it’s fair to say that the internet and networked social media has been the predominant force behind the change. Technology has enabled different types of behaviour, and those behaviours have in turn changed the structures that we use to make things happen.
Occupy is a good example of a movement that changed the global conversation about how society works. People grouped together on the basis of shared interest; there were many things they wanted to see happen, and much common ground between people about what they believed in. But they did so without a leader, and without an ideology.
This model of interaction reflects the transformation of how the youngest generation sees the world; the ‘old-fashioned’ offline perception of manifold, wide-ranging hierarchies is replaced by an ‘everyone is equal’ attitude, which mirrors the hyperlinked, social-media-enabled online worlds where everything is just one click away. If everyone can be linked directly to one another online, why not take a similar approach offline?
Of course, there are massive advantages and disadvantages to this ‘network model’ way of thinking that you won’t find in hierarchical models. Network learning, for example, offers big benefits; forget the received wisdom of 10,000 hours to become ‘really good’ at something — if you can eat up the accumulated wisdom of many thousands of other people, then in very little time you can acquire the knowledge of a master.
But therein lies the rub. Acquisition of knowledge is one thing; application is another. Just because you can cut the learning time in half, doesn’t mean that you can shortcut the mastery process. Learning still takes time, and for that, you need the guidance and leadership of someone who has already achieved mastery. In other words, you still need a hierarchy to guide you through. Someone who is committed to a network model instead of a hierarchical model is in danger of missing the important roles that hierarchical relationships have to play. I use learning as the example here, but it is true of many things.
The network model is just as susceptible to corruption as the hierarchical model, only in a different way. What happened in Egypt in 2011 was a perfect example, said Gladwell. The revolution was sparked initially through online networks. But once those online networks were blocked and people were forced offline and out of their houses in order to interact, that revolutionary energy spilled out into the ‘offline’ physical world.
But the revolution was not a success. The network model got things started, for sure, but the lack of effective hierarchy prevented any meaningful followthrough. The net result was that the candidates who finally ended up competing in the elections the following year had very little connection to the revolution at all. One was an incumbent minister of the previous pre-revolution administration, and the other was from the Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept apart from the revolution all along.
When the network failed, the hierarchy came into play. But for the Egyptians who had started the process, they were not the hierarchies which they had had in mind.
So, how do you successfully fuse hierarchy and network?
Culturally, this is going to be one of the biggest questions of the next few years. For music, we have especially interesting models to play with; orchestras and conductors offer fertile ground for exploration, although perhaps it is in the smaller and more subtle models such as the string quartet – where such tensions have always seen the most subtle interplays – that the most interesting insights will lie.
What would a musical ensemble look like if it optimised the best of hierarchy and network models? It certainly wouldn’t be the didactic, Toscanini-led conductor-as-god structure of the 20th century orchestra. What could it be instead?
My plan to ‘blog’ my 3 year RAM research project hasn’t really worked out with the regularity I was planning – ‘events dear boy, events’ – but the research is ploughing on as ever, and I think I’m getting somewhere (and I damn well hope so, as I’m days away from deadlines that really matter!).
What’s happened is that my aim – to ‘understand the relationship between musicians, music and technology’ – has, in a roundabout way, pushed me to several reassessments of what technology actually is.
My best current definition is leading me down a path that is increasingly analogue in nature. I’m not as obsessed as I was about things that beep, about digital shiny things, and about the all-consuming need to reject paper and pencil and use only digital tools to collect information (oh how my all-knowing professors must be laughing!).
Don’t get me wrong, I still see things that beep as pinnacles of technological execution, and I wouldn’t be seen dead giving a violin lesson without a tablet computer or smartphone in the room.
But what really fascinates me now is systems. Where I have previously marvelled at the effect a website or handheld computer has had on my interpretation of a great violin concerto, now I am transfixed by the complexity of the system that powers the website or handheld computer that has had the effect on my interpretation of etc etc blah blah blah.
It’s a bit like going further back towards the source. Up a meta-level.
What does that mean for a musician? Simply that if we understand what’s we are doing at face value, it is useful, but not as useful as understanding it at a meta-level up.
And understanding it a meta-level up is not as useful as understanding it a meta-level up from that, which is not as useful as… (repeat ad nauseam).
[Perhaps you could argue that technology allows us to behave as if we understand the meta-level even when we don't. which gives those who do - and those who program the technology - tremendous power and responsibility.]
Now I just have to work out:
a) what these systems tell me about who I am, as a musician
b) why this is useful to me
c) how it is interesting (or even useful) to you, the reader
Watch this space.
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The 5th Quadrant is at Classical Revolution in London tonight – the 3rd CR show in London! The screen on this page will be live from 7.30pm UK time. We’re on second – full details at www.classicalrevolutionlondon.org
Two weeks from today, I’ll be Piazzoll-ing and Vivald-ing about London with Fifth Quadrant, for my first ‘minitour’ – a set of concerts that will in due course become a twice-annual tour. For now, it’s confined to London, but you can also catch us online via a webcast (of course).
The London dates are:
Wednesday 16th May – Piazzolla at Classical Revolution (Soho), plus a brand new piece by cellist and composer Matthew Forbes
Friday 18th May - Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at Music and the City (Waterloo)
Sunday 20th May - Highlights of all the above (Vivaldi, Piazzolla, Forbes) in a lunchtime event at The Forge (Camden)
Tickets are now on sale for all events! Just click on the links above.
1 May, 1 May… ah yes! 1st May 2005. That was the date that, as a naive undergraduate, I officially incorporated my own music company, funded with a prize from Deutsche Bank.
First as Court Lane, now as a semi-nameless entity that supports Fifth Quadrant, SHJ, London Violin Studio, Music and the City, Classical Revolution London, Road to Jericho, and various other projects that have come and gone. For whatever reason, I thought it would be the most secure route to artistic freedom, and I still do.
Somehow – I don’t quite know how, as it has been a long and winding road – it seems still to be trading and indeed growing. I’m still probably doing a lot wrong, indeed it took me the best part of five years to understand that financial and artistic value has zero tangible relationship except in exceptional circumstances, but I’m as convinced as ever that the core idea is fundamentally right.
Indeed, the whole philosophy – putting the great traditions of classical and contemporary classical music into a more contemporary, relevant context – has never wavered. And even through difficult times, sticking to that clear vision has helped realise some real change.
The next step is very real-world; I’m expanding London Violin Studio into a proper school and research centre, based next to Buckingham Palace in the heart of London’s Westminster. Today, I open two dedicated violin rooms in a location that I hope is something of a statement – I want to encourage culture and the arts to develop and thrive at the heart of the UK government and royal district. I was thrilled to see that there are several organisations doing the same – opposite the new school, in the same street, there is a THEATRE under construction. Yes, really! St James’s Theatre, the first new theatre in London in 30 years, which is being built upon the site of the old Westminster Theatre of 300 years ago, and will open in the Autumn. It’s an undeniably exciting place to be.
And indeed there’s everything to play for. I think that cultural values – as often articulated by the arts – totally belong at the heart of a society, because of the positive influence they have on other aspects of social development. England and the UK enjoy possibly one of the greatest heritages in the world (culturally at least; our international legacy is not so rosy in other areas, as I remember each time I visit a foreign country and find a plaque commemorating the destruction of the area by people based out of Whitehall…). Is that reputation fully justified right now? Is it reflected by the way the institutions that control our society operate? I’m not entirely sure. But I think it should be.