Post archive

Happy Birthday Radio 3!








With my guest, John Finnemore, in the studio

Since my holiday back in August, my feet have hardly touched the ground. It's good to be checking in again! So many good things have been going on: not least, the 70th birthday celebrations of the Third Programme, which grew into BBC Radio 3. We've taken up residence at London's South Bank Centre where our genius engineers erected the famed Pop-up Studio. So lovely to have some natural light, to look out onto the river Thames, and to be surrounded by our very own listeners! Last Friday I was joined by my guest, comedian and writer John Finnemore, who prepared two pieces for us - one was a sketch called One Hit Wonder, and the other a song: Loose Canon. John took the great risk of writing a part for me in One Hit Wonder. Perhaps he had sensed my love of silly voices during our earlier interviews! I had a great time playing The Duchess.

Leading up to our first week of Sound Frontiers, I performed my first gig as a jazz singer, at the Lion Brewery in Ash. As I've mentioned in the past, I studied for two years with the wonderful Laura Zakian at Morley College in London - but this was my first opportunity to sing more than a couple of songs in a session. Many thanks to Simon Cook - pianist, trombonist and gamelan expert (manager of the Ash jam) for making this happen!

I feel like I've juggled quite a few creative balls over the last couple of months, and it's been an interesting experience. I mentioned in my last post the importance of letting go of perfectionism. Honestly, I wouldn't do anything if I felt I had to do it perfectly - even radio presenting, which is my profession. Maybe I feel that if you bring your whole self to every venture, then you are bound to bring along some imperfections. I was dallying with a very interesting book on "deep work" recently, which explored the idea of rejecting distractions and going into a deep state of concentration in order to...well, compete in the workplace. But "deep work" has the ring of perfectionism to me, and I don't care about competing with other people (that's a major creative block if ever there was one). I find that working willingly in a shallow and distracted state can lead on to surprising spells of deep concentration, whereas trying to work deeply is an invitation to despair. I learnt this from my childhood self! That said, it is not pleasant to be distracted by too many concerns, and I've had a few sleepless nights worrying about getting everything done over the last two months. I've decided to take heart from one of my conversations with John Finnemore: John told me how he will count a long, two hour walk as part of his working day, because the increase in efficiency and mood more than makes up for the two "wasted" hours. I told John he should become a creativity guru. And what is better than good comedy for putting everything into perspective? I'm really looking forward to keeping up with John's work, and downloading the podcast of our conversations. Check out this link to benefit from the Finnemore wit and wisdom!


Get Playing!

Basil hides from the drums

As someone who enjoys being creative, my life is pretty full. I play the piano, the flute, I sing, I paint, I write music, I write novels...oh, and there's also the radio job and parenting which take up a fair bit of mental space (maybe 99.9%). So I have already learned the importance of not being a perfectionist. Many times, I've read of the importance of focusing - doing only one thing, and doing it well. Sadly that's not an option I can entertain, due to some genetic weirdness... or perhaps an eccentric childhood is to blame. I don't really mind, though, because I am happy to work on a small scale at what I do. I don't consider my artistic output to be mediocre (though it may be...I try not to judge) - just small. So, for instance, when Hugh Shrapnel and I popped up on Resonance FM recently, I quickly wrote two pieces for us to play (Two Ghosts of London: Katheryn Howard and Handel). I think they lasted about 6 minutes in total. Not great symphonies, then. But they "did what it said on the tin". I was pleased with them despite their many imperfections.

This anti-perfectionist attitude, however deluded, stood me in good stead when I decided to take up a new instrument in response to BBC Music's Get Playing initiative! I couldn't resist the whole idea - just to get people returning to an abandoned instrument or taking up a new one, with a modest-yet-not-negligible aim - to learn a specially-arranged part for Bizet's Toreador Song. The user-friendly website lured me in, with its cute icons of innumerable instruments, and I loved the way that modern technology allows the participant to play along to Marin Alsop's conducting, make a film of themselves, and submit it. The videos will contribute to a "virtual orchestra" giving a "virtual performance" of the Bizet, on the Last Night of the Proms! Talk about incentive! That for me is one of the great bugbears of my classical music life - infrequent opportunities to play with/for others. Playing to oneself can feel a little insane - like talking to oneself. Get Playing does away with this insanity! It's one of the most sane musical initiatives to come my way for ages. I'm learning the drums, by the way, and you can hear my audio diary on In Tune  this week.

Being a beginner has been refreshing and challenging (I still can't do a drum roll, and my part begins with that very thing). I hope lots of other people will join me in Get Playing. It's like a helping hand, welcoming you into music. Or welcoming you back.

Slowing down for Spring













Flowerpots - a recent digital painting of mine


As I write, innumerable birds are tweeting outside the window - a welcome reminder that Spring is here. Radio 3 is going to be featuring quite a bit of birdsong in the near future - both by itself, and combined with music. It's part of a very attractive concept of "slow radio" - encouraging listeners to slow down so they're better able to connect with music and culture. I mentioned this on air today, and was delighted when producer Alex Anderson confirmed that we could round off the programme with Delius's well-loved tone poem, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. It seemed like the perfect way to get in the mood for this very mellow initiative!

The idea of slowing down is one I'm taking to heart. The creative cogs of the mind don't work so well when one is constantly speeding around. There's a fear of slowing down...almost as if we're riding a bike in our heads and must keep wheeling along or else we'll fall over. Sitting still can create anxiety - what chores might we be forgetting to do? And yet, without stillness, it's impossible to extract the greatest possible nourishment from music or art.

Writing lists can very helpful when it comes to quieting the mind. I've certainly got a lot of projects on the go at the moment and each one clamours for my attention. There's always a digital painting to attend to, and I want to learn a couple of jazz songs in time for Tony Woods' jam session tomorrow night. (Oh dear, I have left it too late. Calm, calm...) Also, I want to finish a composition I'm calling Ghosts of London, in time for a broadcast with Hugh Shrapnel  on Resonance FM on the 5th of July. I've been inspired by Wilfred Owen's poem, The Ghost of Shadwell Stair, and Hugh and I are planning to visit Shadwell soon, just for a look around. In the meantime, I'm working on the other two movements - Katharine Howard and Handel - and experimenting with flute and mini electronic keyboard. (Actually, I've a feeling that I'll use piano instead of keyboard. There's just too much of a danger that an inappropriate autorhythm will be set off by accident! Knowing my luck it would be "Techno Pop".*)

Speaking of composing...I met a very interesting professional composer today: Dobrinka Tabakova, who's chairing the judges at BBC Young Musician 2016.  Chatting to Dobrinka, I found her emotional connection to the young players really inspiring: she feels she has an attitude of "respect" rather than "judgement". I'll be presenting the finals on Sunday for Radio 3...and judging by what I've heard so far it's going to be a thrilling occasion, with some very stimulating music (all from the 20th century - and no pianists or violinists this year, so it'll feel a bit different!) The standard of playing in the earlier rounds has all been stunning, and I've really enjoyed gaining an insight into the lives of some truly delightful human beings. Hope you can tune in on Sunday. And don't forget to slow down for the birdsong.

*my new keyboard also has an autorhythm called "Middle Big Band" - what does that mean?


Easter Pottery

Happy Easter! I spent an interesting day, not eating chocolate eggs for a change, but visiting Warner Studios, looking round the Harry Potter sets. I have to say, it was completely fascinating - a homage to creativity, devoted to the people who designed and constructed things like masks, animated werewolves,  costumes, wigs, cottages, castles, wands, literally thousands of hand-made library books, strange objects preserved in glass jars...and much more. The attention to detail was extraordinary, and the level of skill and expertise blew me away. There was even an exhibit about the animals and their trainers! I was really touched to read that many of the dogs and cats were rescue animals, who became devoted to their trainers. Several cats over the years were cast in the role of Hermione Grainger's cat, Crookshanks. When I noticed the resemblance to Basil, I regretted that he had never auditioned:



I feel certain that "Oliver" above must be a Red Persian, just like Basil, (shown on the right as a kitten perched on a speaker).

One exhibit brought back good memories of one of our guests on Essential Classics: actress Pam Ferris. Pam let me into the secrets of how her character, the unpleasant Aunt Marge (in The Prisoner of Azkaban), had been made to inflate and blow away (she had been nasty to Harry). It wasn't all special effects. In fact, it sounded most uncomfortable! I thought of Pam as I gazed upon this exhibit:










 check out Pam's interview - you can download it as a podcast  from the Essential Classics homepage. I certainly intend to listen again now my interest in Harry Potter has been aroused! Oddly enough I became a fan of JK Rowling's adult books first: I've rarely encountered a writer who can so brilliantly evoke characters from all parts of the British social spectrum. She's been there, and it shows. I'm looking forward to reading the latest Robert Galbraith, which I understand contains references to Radio 3! I have huge respect for JK. Her books have not just expanded children's minds, but have given birth to a huge explosion of creativity. The amount of art I saw today was an absolute delight.



International Women's Day



My guest, in next week's Essential Classics, is an extraordinary woman - Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. She's a leading space scientist - a boffin extraordinaire - who is also extremely approachable, a super-warm human being.  Maggie struggled with dyslexia at school, and as a young black girl was not exactly pushed to pursue her ambitions to either go up into space or at least get to understand it better. And now, not only has she contributed to some amazing research (leading to the manufacture of a hand-held gadget to detect land mines, for instance) but she communicates her knowledge to even the youngest children. She's told stories on CBeebies! Respect! Weirdly, it was the day after our interview that the news broke about gravitational waves having been discovered - so I just missed out on asking Maggie about them. But she had many other fascinating things to say, not least about all the music she's been discovering by women composers! Such a warm and engaging presence - she's the ideal guest for the week of International Women's Day.

I met up with Maggie a couple of weeks ago, during a pretty busy time when I was also trawling through around 60 recordings of Beethoven's iconic C minor sonata, the Pathetique. I'll be on Building a Library on the 19th of March, sharing my opinions of the recordings - as many of them as I can fit in. It's heart-breaking to have to eliminate so many excellent recordings. Most of them are omitted because there simply isn't time, and other recordings must take precedence: they might be technically more brilliant, emotionally more convincing, or perhaps they help illuminate something else important about the piece. Or they may simply be more noteworthy - an amazing debut, a final recital, a particularly venerable recording. The aim is, anyway, not to host a competition but to make an interesting 45-minute programme about the piece, using the recordings to illuminate the music, while paying homage to the amazing players. I hope I've succeeded in doing that, and  if listeners do go out and buy my top recommendation for their libraries, then I hope they enjoy it!

My radio work always seems to spark off creative action for me, in one way or another. I've been learning the Pathetique myself, and finding that the issues of interpretation are now a bit clearer in my head. I've got a better idea of how I feel it should go, after gleaning ideas from the Greats, and comparing their different approaches. Building a Library is a fantastic learning experience for the presenter. I never really appreciated the vast possibilities open to me, as an interpreter, until I sat down with a few dozen recordings and really heard for myself how many ways there are, of playing a piece. All different, all valid. Hearing this for myself has made me more confident as a player, and I think I'm capable of projecting a clearer vision of the piece.

Painting-wise, my digital work continues in bits of spare time! It's so brilliant not having to get paints and paper out - I can just grab the iPad and do a little. Here's a recent picture: it's one of the gorgeous carp, seen at Butterfly World on the Isle of Wight. Speaking of which, I'm really excited to be going over there in the summer - they have a new classical music festival called Classic Isle, and I've been invited to talk and play. Will give more details closer to the time!

Paintings and photos

Life in the Heather Gardens

Just wanted to share some pictures with you today. This is my latest digital painting. It's based on one of my own photos, taken at the Heather Gardens in Windsor Great Park. I've been fascinated by the landscape there for many years - there's an intriguing collaboration going on between humans and nature. Despite the cultivation of the land, nothing is contrived. In the Heather Gardens, most of the trees and shrubs are scaled down, so as a visitor, you feel like a giant. It creates a slightly supernatural effect. Adding to the mystery are the birds, who seem to be particularly purposeful - furtive, even - in those gardens. It really is like glimpsing into another world, where as a human being you don't quite belong.

Working from photographs has taught me a lot as an artist. I've learned to be ruthless, and to cut out anything that doesn't add to the effect I want. As a young painter, I thought that missing things out was laziness. It's terrible how distorted our minds become by internalising rules that we don't quite understand. I couldn't have told you the difference between a lazy omission and a structurally (or expressively) sensible one. I never understood the role of backgrounds, and working with photos, and digitally, has helped me to understand. A couple of years ago I did a study of a parrot in a spacious yet unattractive concrete enclosure in a zoo.  Firstly, I conscientiously painted in the bricks. Then I realised that the parrot looked imprisoned. So I greyed out the background. Then the parrot looked as if it was about to be engulfed in a terrible storm. So (with the help of my digital art app) I changed the background into a bright sky blue. That looked better, but meaningless. So I tried improvising a rainforest. That was a lot better, but the whole thing didn't look right until I added two tiny birds flying in the distant sky. At last! This taught me not only about backgrounds, but about birds. A single bird looks incredibly melancholy, unless perhaps it's a robin. I used this knowledge in the painting above, and although the sight of the single blackbird had intrigued me in the first place, I added another bird in the foreground to keep it company. I hope that the picture retains its mystery with the two of them there.

I take hundreds of photographs, and only a handful of them inspire me to paint. Here's a collage of a few sea creatures that I took in the aquarium of Bird World, that were never suitable for paintings, but are fun to look at nonetheless.

Two farewells

Yesterday morning while travelling in to Broadcasting House, I heard the news of the death of David Bowie. At first I was incredulous – only a few days ago I was reading about his latest album, Blackstar, which received rave reviews.  As I said to Petroc when we chatted before Essential Classics, having been absorbed in the classical music world for years, I’d lost touch with Bowie’s music, though had always enjoyed reading about his work and seeing the latest pics of this incredibly charismatic man. He was a part of my childhood and I thought he would be there for ever, and that I would hook up with his music again at my earliest convenience. I now feel tremendously sad that by the time I get hold of Blackstar, it’ll be in the knowledge that it’s his last album.

I read about Bowie’s latest work in Mojo Magazine, which is always to be found lying around my house along with the BBC Music Magazine. I really enjoy Mojo’s positive outlook and respect for all manner of pop musicians from elder statesmen to complete newcomers. Reading about their lives, their triumphs and struggles, I’m reminded how there is no career path for those in popular music (unless they want to take the path determined by the X factor and its ilk).  In whose footprints did David Bowie travel? How has Kate Bush managed her career?  Or Robert Plant?  Ray Davies? These artists have nothing but their own instincts to follow; at every turn they’ve dared to risk losing the approval of fans and backers by creating brand new work…often radical work.  Their courage is a great inspiration to those of us operating in the classical music world. 

Rick Wakeman gave a moving tribute to David Bowie on Simon Mayo Drivetime, on Radio 2. There’s courage here, too, to take one of Bowie’s best loved songs, and simply play it on the piano: no sheet music, no editing, just a man expressing his feelings through the piano, very much in his own style. Here's a link to the tribute.

I can’t sign off without mentioning the other sad news this week, the death of Pierre Boulez. I felt honoured to be in Radio 3’s In Tune studio for a tribute programme the very next day, joined by George Benjamin live in the studio, and with contributions sent in by Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim.  George was a delightful guest, clearly moved by the death of a man who’d inspired him so deeply, and he joyfully shared with me an anecdote revealing Boulez’s sense of humour (it involved an incident in a restaurant involving a lacquered hair-do and some candles). While recognising his role as a polemicist, everyone contributing to the programme mentioned Boulez’s generosity of spirit, his kindness, his interest in helping young musicians. Thanks to all involved, and let’s raise a glass to all creators of new music.

Leeds International Piano Competition 2015

Lucy Parham and I in the Radio 3 box

As I sit in bed typing this blog, Radio 3's coverage of the Leeds International Piano Competition 2015 has commenced! I'm listening while trying to put off unpacking my suitcase...must get the gold silk dress out before it creases too badly...or gets snagged against the heel of one of my gold sandals. Looking at the picture of Lucy Parham and I above, you might imagine that our work had a glamorous side. Yet while Lucy, Peter Donohoe and I lorded it in our balcony seats, my colleagues in production slaved away in their makeshift office in the crypt of the Leeds Town Hall!

Producer Jo Smith in the crypt - it was jolly hot down there.

By now, you may well be aware of the results of the finals (spoiler alert - I mention the winner at the end of the blog post!). I've enjoyed the semifinals recitals and concerto finals immensely. What's struck me most is the incredible individuality of the pianists. One thing that Radio 3 contributor Peter Donohoe has pointed out is how each pianist makes the piano sound completely different. The same instrument, prepared in the same way...sorry, I don't mean prepared in the Cageian sense with screws and erasers...I mean, prepared by master Steinway piano technician Ulrich Gerhartz. What a busy time for Ulrich, and what responsibility!  Cue for another picture!

Petroc Trelawny, me, Ulrich Gerhartz

Petroc was busy presenting for TV, aided by his expert commentators Noriko Ogawa and Artur Pizarro. Such a pleasure to see all three of them! I nearly knocked Petroc over giving him a hug...was charmed to meet Noriko's sister, and delighted that Artur remembered that I'd bought a digital piano on his recommendation...we had a discussion about the addictive qualities of these instruments which never need tuning! Mind you, I would have a traditional piano if only Ulrich were available to maintain it...and if perhaps it could be a Steinway...though how would that fit in our house next to the drums, the vibraphone, the ballet bar (not for me, for my daughter!), the CDs, the cat? (IMPORTANT UPDATE: Basil's pet acne is improving. Thanks to everyone who has expressed concern for my little guy as he has undergone the indignity of having his chin wiped with salt water 3 times a day. The spots are diminishing!)

I'm so grateful to Peter Donohoe and Lucy Parham for being on my team for the Leeds 2015. Their comments were interesting, insightful, always sympathetic. And I mustn't forget to mention my brief meeting with Dame Fanny Waterman herself: a force of nature indeed, and a piano teacher to her very heart. I once met her to discuss some promotional work I was doing for Faber Music, centred around their beginners' books. Dame Fanny listened to me demonstrating her early exercises and believe me, I learnt from her! I felt a great pang of regret that I hadn't studied with her as a child, living only in nearby Barnsley, though I have great memories of my local teachers who set me on my own pianistic path. The next Leeds will be very different of course, without Dame Fanny - but what a team to take over - Paul Lewis and Adam Gatehouse - Adam being a former editor at Radio 3 and one of the first people to give me encouragement in my presenting career. I'm sure the two of them will be watching our winner's career with interest - a powerful and elegant presence at the keyboard, Anna Tcybuleva.

Recording the semifinals programmes at Leeds University with Peter and Lucy

So it's back to Broadcasting House tomorrow...Essential Classics with my new guest, the New Zealand actor, Sam Neill! Hope you can tune in - Sam's interviews will be going out between ten and half past or thereabouts. In the meantime, I do hope everyone listening will get as much out of the Leeds as I did. If you miss the broadcast tonight, it'll be available for another 30 days via the Radio 3 website. And now...I MUST unpack that suitcase.

The benefits of chaos











Elephant and calf: digital painting July 2015

I can't believe it's been three months since I last blogged! It's not as if I have run out of things to report. On the contrary - I've had so many projects on the go, things have felt a little chaotic. On the art side, I've been working on some digital paintings on a mother & child theme, based on photos taken at Whipsnade Zoo. I'm becoming more sensitive to the backgrounds against which I place the animals - the photo of the elephant and calf was taken on a gloomy, cloudy day and the photo itself had a cold atmosphere. I replaced the greys with simple blues and greens. Praise be for technology. I have benefited no end, lazy creature that I am. If I had to sketch and re-sketch the structures and details of my paintings, my inner "battery" of inspiration would soon run low. I came across a fascinating post recently on the subject of preliminary sketches, and how they can use up the motivation to do the final painting. I had never encountered this viewpoint before, and had assumed that I was the only artist in the world who suffered this. The relative speed of digital art has helped me in this respect, and I've been able to refine my eye without studying my subject for so long that I lose interest in it. What a luxury. Of course, I appreciate that my limitations in this respect are just that - limitations. Hence, I am not a professional artist.

The post I mentioned above was on one of my favourite websites, . Many of the posts (most by the artist, Robert Genn) are transferable to other arts, and my piano practice recently has been inspired by a post he wrote called "Stuck"! It's a discussion of how we are put off practising our favourite arts and crafts by the problem of low self-esteem. Genn writes "I've often noted that a healthy ego and a realistic sense of self-worth motivate artists to keep picking up the brush. With confidence brimming, it's rather a joy to pick along at painterly problems." That's the key - to enjoy picking away, and that's what I've been doing recently - practising Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Handel, with a sense of being fascinated by the hurdles they present (rather than feeling that the hurdles  should not be there, and would not be there if only I were more competent). I'm really delighted that I'll be presenting Radio 3's coverage from the Leeds International Piano Competition this year, and hoping to pick up some inspiration. Sometimes you can move your playing along just by copying how someone sits on the stool. Small changes can have knock-on effects.  

So, back to the subject of chaos: the piano is untidy and covered in music. At the side of the bed is the iPad and my stylus which I'm always losing. My laptop, on which I prepare my Essential Classics interviews and make painfully slow progress on my novel (the sequel to Adult Beginners),  is propped up against the bedside table where it is knocked over whenever I try to find my night cream and lavender oil (to counteract insomnia, though so far without success). A folder of poetry and a novel by my "creative buddy" Caroline is squeezed between the bed and bedside table. As for a five-year life plan, well I'm planned out until next Friday when I'm going on holiday. But I'm taking heart from a book I've had for some time - The Art of Creative Thinking  by John Adair. The author quotes from A. A. Milne, who gave a speech upon unveiling a statue of Winnie the Pooh. Milne compared Rabbit's organised way of doing things with the opposite approach, where you "hope to set off in the right direction and probably end up with something quite different. Then you realise it isn't such a bad thing after all. That was Pooh's way and that's how we've done this." I suppose that's how I got into broadcasting!

Pictured below: a couple of our recent guests on Essential Classics. Upcoming guests include a Rock God, a leading comedienne and a well-loved Hollywood actor. All mad about classical music. Watch this space!



Hugh Bonneville; Jonathan Freedland at the Somethin' Else studios      

Women's Day...and the flu








Rob and I, in an intense pre-production meeting prior to our International Women's Day broadcast on BBC Radio 3, March 8th 2015.

It seems a long time since International Women's Day, about which I intended to blog some time ago. But then things got very busy and I went down with the flu, meaning that not only was I out of action, but Rob had to stand in for me on Essential Classics for four days on the trot! He also had to do my interview with the actor, Charles Dance! What a blow - I had been looking forward to that one. I'm very grateful to Rob for standing in for me at very short notice.






Rob and Charles Dance in the studio

Rob and I had a rare chance to broadcast together in the studio back in March - which brings me back to International Women's Day. Rob had chosen a handful of pieces by women composers, which he was to introduce to me, and I did the same for him. I was particularly excited to introduce music by Elisabeth Lutyens  (we heard the title music from the Hammer film, The Skull) - because my good friend, the composer Hugh Shrapnel,  studied with her. I contacted Hugh and asked him if he could dredge up some good anecdotes for me. He came up trumps! Here's an example:

"I remember a talk she gave on writing for films. Appearing on the platform with blood red lipstick and a cigarette holder she declaimed in basso profundo gothic tones, "I wonder why they always give me films about vampires?"

Hugh also passed on many insights about Elisabeth Lutyens' music and her position within the British music scene. He feels she was quite ahead of her time, in her enthusiasm for the European avant-garde. There's a programme to be made at some point, there. No doubt there are other composers with interesting memories about Lutyens.

Another thing I have in common with my friend Hugh Shrapnel is an interest in visual art, and most recently, digital art. Hugh is toying with the idea of buying an iPad, then he can download the excellent Art Set app! I'm already having great fun with it, and feeling quite pleased with some of my recent paintings. The next step is to print some out - have bought special paper for that purpose - the thing is, will it totally drain my printer of ink? Perhaps it's wiser to "outsource" the printing. But I do like being self-sufficient. Here's a recent painting of mine, one of many inspired by Windsor Great Park (not far from where I live). I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a hydrangea, looking out at the world.













I've been back at the park today, taking photographs of Spring scenes, with a view to creating some new digital paintings. The landscape is truly inspiring, with cherry blossom in full bloom, the first of the azaleas, batches of primroses and a few butterflies (spied a couple of brimstones and a peacock - very colourful). I hear the weather is going to get warmer - that's great news for a sun lover like me.'s been great to be back in touch with Stuart Maconie, who was my guest on Essential Classics not long ago (read about that in my last blog post, below). I passed on a few CDs to Stuart, which I thought might be good for his 6 Music show, Freak Zone...and he played All the Gossip, a track from my husband Martin Pyne's album 7 Pictures. I thought it worked brilliantly in the context Stuart created - many thanks, Stuart! You can listen to the track on Martin's Sound Cloud page - click here.



All the latest...

















January has flown by in a haze of interesting guests and good music. As I write, the Twittersphere has been vibrating with admiring messages about the wonderful Stuart Maconie,  the latest interviewee on Essential Classics. Stuart has interesting things to say even about the music he doesn't like! I thoroughly enjoyed our interviews and it's great to know that some of Stuart's fans on 6Music are talking of dipping their toes into the exotic waters of Essential Classics. I hope they'll feel very welcome. It was especially delightful to find that Stuart had requested a piece by my old friend Lawrence Crane  - one of the most original composers I've had the pleasure to meet (and featured in one of my earliest blog posts - scroll down almost to the first entry!). What a shame there isn't a photo of Stuart and me together in the studio - we did the interview down the line as Stuart works in Salford.

That was a busy day, the one when I recorded Stuart's interview. Later on I found myself talking down the line to New York to the pioneering feminist writer,Erica Jong : an all-round creative person who's loved music from an early age. This gave me a great excuse to re-read her ground-breaking early novel, Fear of Flying! An excellent read which has withstood the test of time in many ways. Those interviews will be going out in three weeks' time - to lead up to International Women's Day on March the 8th. Purely by chance, I found a brilliant feministic observation in one of the many creativity books I read on a regular basis: "An amateur artist is one who has a day job. A professional artist is one whose wife has a day job." LOL! It's good news that Radio 3 is turning the spotlight on women who are creative in their own right on the 8th - we'll have an entire day of music by female composers*, and I'll be joining Rob Cowan for his Sunday show to discuss a pile of CDs chosen by the two of us.

Above is posted one of my latest digital paintings. Despite being very busy at work, and still fitting in a bit of piano practice** and jazz singing, I've begun to get painting into my life on a regular basis. Not sure I could have done this with "analogue" painting. Digital makes it so much easier: there's nothing to clean, put away, wait to dry, do all over again after you've made a mistake. It feels like cheating, but I recall the words of artist Alan Kingsbury  in an interview: "I've swept away all of the romanticism and I'm only interested in what the painting looks like - that's all that matters and I don't care how I get there, but I want to get there."

*almost an entire, 99.9 percent. There's a reason, which Rob will explain...                                                                                                                                      ** less practice than usual, though, due to a thumb injury. Pianists, beware dumbells.


Merry Christmas!


Digital painting made on my mobile phone while stuck on a train watching rain dropping into a puddle at Richmond station

As Christmas approaches, I must apologise for the grey theme of this digital painting. However, it's the first of a series that I'm quite proud of. I made them on my mobile phone with the Paintjoy app.  It didn't take me long to realise that drawing figuratively on this tiny screen would be no easier than it is on my iPad, and I devised a way of creating abstracts using a tool bizarrely named "long fur". The linear parts of the painting above were made using "long fur". Oh well...if it works...! I'm finding that using this tool along with "circle flower" I can create some rather expressive pictures. It's fun to look around and take colour schemes from whatever I see - even fellow passengers. The more well-dressed they are, the more harmonious my colour schemes! But even badly-dressed people can throw up colour schemes I might never have considered, thus pushing me out of my comfort zone, which I appreciate. I met the broadcaster Andrew Marr recently (interview going out on Essential Classics in the new year) and chatted to him about digital art. I was gutted to learn that Andrew had lost lots of his own digital paintings when his computer crashed. His "acoustic" drawings can be perused in this book, however!

Digital art has certainly enabled me to create better abstract paintings. With conventional materials, I fall back on old figurative habits. I've encountered similar problems with jazz piano: my hands are moulded to classical shapes and there has to be some sort of intervention in order for new shapes to emerge. Some musical equivalent of "long fur" and "circle flower". Hmmm....

In the meantime, I've been enjoying my classical playing a lot, thanks to inspiration from Lucy Parham, who invited me to take part in her Christmas Celebrity Gala at King's Place. We played movements from Tchaikovsky's Album for the Young, and duets from The Nutcracker (fiendishly arranged). It was great to see some former Essential Classics guests - Niamh Cusack and Alistair McGowan - both on top form! Lucy took this nice pic of me with Niamh, Joanna David (in costume as a naughty fairy) and Stephen Boxer:




What fun to work with these lovely people! And speaking of lovely people...another of my upcoming guests is Jenny Agutter. Can you believe it...she is even nicer in person than on the telly! She was incredibly generous in letting me ask about The Railway Children, and shared her feelings about its musical score - including her opinion on how details in the soundtrack make the "Daddy, my daddy" scene so powerful. Can't wait to hear the finished interviews, going out in the new year. And for Christmas - Victoria Wood is going to be my guest. Can't wait! Have been playing The Ballad of Barry and Freda over and over again. It's certainly getting me in a Christmassy mood. Hope you have a great Christmas and that you'll be able to join me for Essential Classics over the festive season. I'll be in the studio on Christmas Day, trying not to get mince pie crumbs down the faders!













Multi arts





With a recent guest on Essential Classics - William Boyd

If you're a regular reader of this Blog (if so, thank you!) then you'll be aware that I am a keen practitioner of more than one art. I grew up loving music, art and creative writing - I also loved drama at school but had to drop it - can't have a child doing too many arts, they might go mad!;-) During my recent interview on Essential Classics with the author William Boyd, I was delighted to learn that William has written books in the character of Nat Tate, an American artist . Not only that, William produced art work "by" Nat. I instantly related to this, having written music in the character of Godfrey Maxwell Minniver, the tortured composer from my novel Adult Beginners . William did point out that he felt it was a very rare thing to be highly talented in more than one art. But for me, what's important is to make a contribution, even if you're not as talented in one art form as another. Someone might value your modest contribution more than you think.  

So in that spirit...anyone out there fancy having a go at a piano duet which portrays an alien going off into space after saying goodbye to a beloved human friend? Written in a style somewhere between Rachmaninov and Steve Reich? I've just posted The Alien's Farewell on my Free Downloads  page. Hope you like it.



The liberation of digital art


















Digital painting using the Art Set app

A couple of years on from buying an iPad and the Brushes app, I'm finally settling down to doing some digital painting in earnest. My first experiments were very disappointing, but two things have happened to turn things around: firstly I've tried some different apps, including Art Rage and Art Set. I've also dabbled in Sketches, thanks to a tip-off from my Radio 3 colleague Penny Gore (whose digital painting of a bird is still adorning the walls of the yellow studio, next to a photocopy of my own pastel budgie, Ian Skelly's witty bird cartoon and Rob Cowan's pencil sketch of a bird in flight...we had a "draw a bird" day...). I'm particularly enjoying using the Art Set app, and seem to have settled on that one for now. It offers fewer options (brush width, opacity, etc.) than Art Rage, but I've always believed that limitations can provide helpful and sometimes stimulating boundaries for the creative person. If I were painting "acoustically" I would not have an unlimited number of brushes, after all! The other helpful thing came in the form of a one-day workshop with digital artist Joseph Connor . He specialises in outdoor painting and communicated great enthusiasm for the medium of digital art - you can take your tablet out so easily and capture nature or urban landscapes in all their glory, with minimum hassle. Joseph suggested that this new medium marks the start of an exciting new movement in art, comparable to the invention of the squeezy metal tube of ready-mixed paint back in the days of the Impressionists. In those days too, many people were resistant to the innovation: how can you be a real artist if you don't mix your own paint? Misgivings about digital art amount to the same thing: now, we're not even using paint at all, nor paper! I'm still finding a bizarre resistance to scrapping unsuccessful digital paintings and trying again - it still feels so extravagant, like wasting paper - and I think it will take time to really throw caution to the wind and do painting after painting, unburdened by the need to be economical with materials, or worried about how and where I will store the work. To have infinite "materials" feels liberating to me, but having infinite nuances in terms of tools feels oppressive.

The painting above was done using the oil pastel tool on the Art Set app. The rose, below, was mostly done with one of the blending sticks, on an imported photo. I then added touches of pastel to make it look more hand-drawn. It was fun to do, but I can't imagine taking this method any further...though this sort of thing might look quite nice on a birthday card...

Creative questions











My latest wax pastel painting: a flamingo at Bird World (yes, I always seem to be there!)

My guests on Essential Classics are musical in markedly different ways: an endless source of fascination for me. For some, music comes in the form of trips to the opera, with the enjoyment of the drama, the heightened emotions of it. Some zone in on repeating patterns and mathematical relationships; others allow music to evoke memories, or to create a mood which will help them work or relax. My recent guest, the writer Marina Lewycka , explained to me how she approaches music: she listens for events, and asks the question, "why did he do that there?" The answer to that question gives Marina ideas for her own novels; she learns from a composer's decision to make a big statement here, prolong a phrase here, change direction here. I suspect that this is one of the most intelligent ways to listen to music - a great way to become more aware of structure, especially for a creative person.

I've been asking the question "what needs to happen now?" as I work on a piece for an upcoming broadcast on Resonance FM. It's a collaboration with my good friend Hugh Shrapnel  - we've been invited once again to take part in Carole Chant's Friday afternoon show, Sound Out, and we're branching out from playing piano duets to doing a few pieces for flute (me) and piano (Hugh). I find Hugh an inspiring and encouraging force, and his own music serves as a fine example of how to produce well-crafted, highly personal, engaging work. Without his support I would probably not be writing "grown-up" pieces at all - I've written plenty for young pianists and keyboard players, but not so much "proper" stuff. However, I have no qualms about delving further into the art of composition: I don't see why the average musician shouldn't be able to write a simple piece; most of us can pick up a pen and compose a letter in our native language. It's not such a big deal. Of course, in the postmodern age, you could argue that it is a big deal: a great big issue just to figure out what style to write in out of the plethora of stylistic strands and genres available! I've made a conscious choice to bypass that whole issue: I know that once I start thinking, intellectualising, about it (and of course, fearing criticism), then I am creatively lost. When I started work on Goodbye Mao, I asked myself what the piece was about (an elegy on the death of a fictitious cat, from my novel, Adult Beginners), and how such a piece might start; who were the performers, how long should it be, and the level of performing difficulty. Then it was simply a case of "what needs to happen now?" - and a couple of weeks into the process, I am still asking myself that question, and of course going back to the material and asking "was that the right thing to happen there?" and "did I express it adequately?" It's a pretty simple piece but I hope I am at least asking the right questions. that if someone is listening and says "why did she do that there?" - there will be a good reason! Hugh and I are on Resonance on the 4th of July, from 2 o'clock. In the meantime, my interviews with Marina Lewycka are being broadcast on Radio 3 throughout this week - if you miss them, there'll be a podcast of highlights available from the Essential Classics homepage.






With Marina Lewycka in the studio

Melody lives on






Clive Nolan in action - I tried to find a sedate studio portrait in dinner jacket but none was available.;-)

I was recently reading in the BBC Music Magazine about the role of melody - how generations of composers from Haydn to Schoenberg considered it to be the most important element of music. Some would disagree  about that - I recall that John Cage considered rhythm to be more fundamental - but one thing I find fascinating is how there seems to be an infinite source of melodies. Great new tunes are constantly being created from the same old traditional scales. The vast quantity of sonatas by John White testify to that: I was delighted to be invited by Radio 3 producer David Gallagher (producer of Erik Satie Walks to Work ) to present an edition of The Essay on the subject of John, his music and his charismatic personality. It was a pleasure to work with David again, and the programme will be broadcast this coming Monday, the 17th of March. Another composer I know who has a tremendous gift for melody is Clive Nolan.  We studied together at Royal Holloway College, and after taking his Master's degree in classical composition Clive proceeded to make a great career for himself in the world of progressive rock. He'd been an active rock performer, composer and producer during his college days so this wasn't a surprise to me - but when he ventured into the world of musicals, I found this a fascinating new direction. Clive's latest musical, Alchemy , was a great success at the Cheltenham Playhouse Theatre, and now (when he's not touring the world with various bands) he's in the process of finding backing to put the show on in London. He kindly gave me this interview about his musical life.

SW: Clive, you trained as a classical musician, but did you always suspect you'd end up in the field of rock music?

CN: Actually no, not really. As so often the case, it was just a chain of events and opportunities that lead me this way. Once I was on that path it was hard to change the direction.
SW: Has your classical training helped you at all in writing your musicals?
CN: Yes, I think some of that training must have sunk in. To begin with, these shows require orchestra, so my understanding of orchestration was essential. Also there is a need for a contrapuntal attitude regarding the vocals. In fact, I think my classical education has been extremely important.
SW: How different is Alchemy from your first musical, She ? What did you learn from writing She?
CN: I think 'She' still dangled its toes in the relatively safe waters of 'rock'. It was promoted as a 'rock opera', although I didn't really feel that was a totally accurate description. However, I was aware that I didn't want to alienate whatever fan base I had, so I guess i wasn't quite ready for the 'thumbs in waistcoat' 'high kicking' numbers that might have alarmed them somewhat! We seemed to ease quite a few people into the world of musicals with 'She', so I was a lot braver with 'Alchemy', and basically set out to simply write a musical… the kind of thing I would like to hear in the West End. Nevertheless, 'Alchemy' would not exist if it were not for 'She'… it was an important learning curve from the point of view of recurring themes, and vocal styles and of course structure.
SW: What was the most enjoyable thing about creating Alchemy? How long did it take you? Did the musical evolve much during the course of rehearsals?
CN: It took about three years from conception to recording. I spent some time after 'she', trying to find the right novel to set as a show. Every time I found something I liked, it already existed as a musical. In the end I decided to write my own story, and that took a year to develop. I didn't really start writing the music seriously until I could visualise what was happening at any particular point. I think the most enjoyable part, was when I would write a new piece opt material and call in the singer (or singers) to record a demo version. All of a sudden the song would come to life… always a good feeling!
SW: You not only wrote the musical, but performed in it too: what were the challenges of that?
CN: I did indeed perform in both 'She' and 'Alchemy'. I always enjoy a bit of singing, and since I can play the 'it's my ball' card, I have the perfect excuse to do some. The only real problem is that because I was the producer, there was no one there to judge what I was doing in the way that I was with all the other singers. To be fair, I did have a pretty clear idea of what I wanted, so even that wasn't too tricky. I was fun to sing, although less so when we performed live, because I am terrible at remembering lyrics!
SW: You had an amazing band of musicians playing in the musical - I was really impressed with their energy and tight coordination at Cheltenham. What sort of skills did the score demand of them?
CN: Well, due to the practicalities of budget, a lot of the orchestra was programmed. I had a live drummer, guitarist, bassist horn player and violinist. They are all excellent in their field, and therefore really helped to bring life to the score. It makes a big difference with a programmed violin section for example, to add real violin. I think the violinist, Penny Gee, had her work cut out with some of the parts, so I was glad to have her on board.
SW: I remember Penny from Royal Holloway - a superb player! Great that you are still in touch. So, do you have a favourite character in the musical? (& if so, why?)
CN: Well, I guess I would have to say Professor King, because he is the part I played. Unlike Leo in 'She' I wrote this part to suit my voice, so it was a lot of fun to sing. I also like his character that walks a fine line between good and bad.
SW: I noticed that your character is a violinist: is there a particular inspiration/significance behind that?
CN: Professor King does play violin in the show… or to be more accurate, I mime and we use Penny's performance! I studied violin as a student, but my focus and choices went in other directions once I was at university. I suppose this gave me a chance to pretend that I had kept practicing…;) The scene in which king pays the violin is also a kind of nod in the direction of 'Dance Macabre' by Saint Saens, which of course features a violin.  
SW:  That definitely reveals your classical roots! The musical is packed with memorable songs – do you find that strong melodies come to you easily?
CN: I think strong melodies are essential in a musical (well.. pretty much everywhere!), and I strive to provide that. I don't know if out comes easily.. I just keep tweaking things until they sound good to me.
SW: The musical had a fantastic reception at Cheltenham, and you’re now planning to bring it to London: how are the plans going?
CN: That is quite a challenge! We are planning to hire the Jermyn Street Theatre (Piccadilly) for a week in August, and see if we can get some attention from the 'industry'. It's a tiny theatre so we will just use the principal singers (with some interactive video to provide chorus moments etc.), and the challenge (beyond the obvious budget issues) will be to make an engaging performance in this space.
SW: The musical, and your touring and studio work must keep you pretty busy, but can you imagine returning to classical composing one day – even just for an occasional piece?
CN: You know… I would love to! I'm not sure the opportunity will ever present itself, and I'm not sure how I would cope within that discipline any more, but sure… give me the chance..;)
SW: Thanks Clive - looking forward to welcoming Alchemy to London.

Floods, births, jazz




Delighted that my album of Dave Smith's piano music is now being sold as an MP3 download at the Chandos label's Classical Shop

I am feeling very relieved now that the recent flooding has retreated from my street, but the areas around Egham are still very bad. Drove past a playground in Staines yesterday to see the swings and seesaws a couple of feet deep in water. I can't imagine how traumatic it must be to have to leave your home due to flooding - I was chatting to a lady from Surrey at a jazz gig last night who had experience of long-term power cuts, and she said "you simply adapt." A very common sense approach. Personally I was aware of taking things step by step, day by day. There was no point contemplating what I would do a few weeks down the line, faced with a house ruined by dirty water. Our first task was to pile up sandbags, take precious belongings upstairs, and wait. Which we did. It was a tense few days, but I was cheered by many offers of help. And thanks to all the Radio 3 listeners who sent me messages of support. They were very appreciated during a difficult week!

Last week didn't quite turn out as expected in terms of the Essential Classics interview slot! BBC Radio 5Live presenter Richard Bacon was due to be my guest, but his new baby daughter pipped us to the post. We've postponed our interview till March. Richard's music had been chosen by listeners from Radio 3 and 5Live - he's just beginning to explore classical music, so we thought it would be fun to provide a healthy mixture of pieces sent in by listeners...pieces that had particularly inspired them, or helped them to get into classical music. We'll be hearing all of those carefully-chosen works some time in the Spring - watch this space - and of course I have already chosen a "Personal Shopper" piece for Richard, my own idea of a good introduction to classical music. It's a very personal choice for me, something which brings back childhood memories. Very much looking forward to meeting up with Richard in a few weeks' time - and while he was busy with baby Ivy, we heard a repeat of the interviews I did with Top Gear's James excellent interviewee with in-depth musical knowledge and a wonderful, down-to-earth intelligence. It was also fun to hear myself struggling with the old orthodontic brace and being very careful to speak clearly.

I mentioned a jazz gig - it was at Guildford's Jazz Café, at the Electric Theatre,  and I was very proud to hear my husband Martin Pyne playing with the legendary jazz saxophonist Art Themen. Art has only recently retired from his day job as a surgeon. What a guy! Such an inspiring, warm and entertaining presence. The band gelled brilliantly - along with Art and Martin, we heard Marianne Wyndham on bass on Cheryl King, piano. Jazz Café is a wonderful venue - do check it out if you're in the area - the next gig is on 23rd of April with vocalist Jacqui Hicks.

Finally, before the floods claimed my attention, I was ultra-delighted and excited that the record label Chandos are promoting my CD of piano music by Dave Smith on their website. It's available from their Classical Shop as an MP3 download. Click here  for more info!


Suave, serious and sophisticated...

Laura Zakian
I'm now into the second term of improving my jazz singing at Morley College in London. The course has been very fulfilling and I can't believe how much I have improved: my confidence is so much higher, my vocal range has increased and - I think - I'm making a better sound. The course tutor is a total inspiration! She is Laura Zakian,  not just an experienced jazz singer with a beautiful and highly individual voice, but a gifted teacher who brings great warmth and humour to lessons. Somehow with singing, there's a lot of inhibition to get over, and Laura's rigorous yet mischievous approach is a great help. Laura's next album, Songs for Modern Lovers, is being launched on the 27th of January at the Pizza Express in Soho, and she very kindly gave me this interview, explaining the inspiration behind the album.
SW: Laura, can you tell us about the sort of material you're exploring in Songs for Modern Lovers...why you went in that direction, and how you came to choose the album title?

LZ: I love jazz, but felt I had come to a bit of an impasse with 'The Great American Songbook' and wanted to broaden my horizons. I had in mind doing something along the lines of 'The Great British Songbook', singing tunes by British composers of any era.  However, I was beaten to the punch with that title and idea, by three different singers in one year! I then started thinking about the idea of a 'mixtape' - songs I had loved throughout my life and were meaningful to me.  My first song memory is of my mother singing 'You Make Me Feel So Young' while doing the housework. This song and others is featured on Frank Sinatra's iconic album, Songs For Swinging Lovers and so I decided to update that idea - my title is a play on that title.  The material is a contemporary take on tunes from the Sinatra album, mixed with a jazz take on songs I grew up with - especially British pop.

SW: Who are the other musicians on the album? Are they long-time musical partners of yours, or new collaborators?
LZ: The musicians on the album are long time musical friends, but this is a new collaboration. Once I decided on the project, I knew exactly who I wanted: Steve Lodder is on piano, Simon Thorpe on bass, Nic France on drums and percussion, John Parricelli on acoustic and electric guitar, Ben Davis on cello and the horn section is Paul Bartholomew on Baritone, Mark Lockheart on Tenor and Joe Auckland on Trumpet. Their playing is amazing and they were/are a joy to work with!
SW: A fine line up: looking forward to hearing them at the launch! Can you remind us where and when it's taking place...and how can we get hold of a copy of the album?
LZ: The album will be available on 27th January at my launch gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London  and all good record stores - Amazon, itunes, CDBaby.

SW: While you've been busy with the album, you've also found time to run some excellent vocal workshops. What do you most enjoy about teaching? And what is the greatest challenge?
LZ: What I love about teaching, is teaching the thing I love!  I am passionate about singing and the voice, and to paraphrase the New Seekers, I love teaching the world to sing. Also I get to boss people around and listen to the sound of my own voice!  My greatest challenge is patience, or lack of it - I forget students are sometimes shy and new to singing.  Also, my turn of phrase, can be a little fruity!
SW: Fruity? Whatever do you mean! ;-)Your students come from all sorts of backgrounds, but if you have classical music training like me, would you say that can be a help or a hindrance?
LZ: The classical background is an interesting question. It can be a helpful, in that the singing muscle is quite flexible and developed.  But also a hindrance, if the student is too entrenched in the style and vocal quality.  Some singers find it hard to move out of a 'vocal habit'.

SW: I think that's true in radio presenting as well as singing! One last question: if you could describe your new album in just three words, what would they be?

LZ: Suave, Serious and Sophisticated. (and sometimes sexy!)
SW: Thanks Laura - can't wait to hear the album, and all the best with the launch!
Click here to go to Laura's website


Basil attacks the Christmas Tree

Christmas is just around the corner and I have - as promised - posted the remaining chapters of my novel, Adult Beginners, on my novel page. Do have a look if you get time, and I really hope you enjoy it!

I've enjoyed a few opportunities recently to meet up with some old musical friends. Dave Smith premiered his solo piano transcription of The Planets by Holst at Schott's recently. It was stunning - for a piece which is so strongly identified with the orchestra, it sounds surprisingly effective on the piano. I've always enjoyed the piano duet version - featured it on Essential Classics some time ago - but on solo piano the work made a huge impact and Dave was on great form. Sometimes, when guests on the programme request a movement from The Planets, they are a little apologetic about it - after all, it is a bit of a "war horse". But it is music of great individuality and brilliance and fully deserves its huge popularity: no apologies needed!*

Speaking of war, it was a privilege to interview Charles Emmerson recently and to talk to him about his book, 1913: The World Before the Great War. This has to be one of the most digestible history books ever - each chapter focusses on a different city and paints a colourful picture of the overall culture of the place, from policing to concert-going. These interviews will be broadcast in January - hope you can catch some of them. Another pre-recorded guest of mine was the comedian and actor Tim Vine - we'll hear the first of those interviews on December 30th . While our studio manager set up the recording, Tim demonstrated to me his legendary act, Pen Behind the Ear. Incredible agility, precision and patience are required! And the fabulous background music for Pen Behind the Ear was created by Tim himself; he is a master of musical tension. 

And finally, huge thanks to the wonderful pianist Lucy Parham for organising Celebrity Carnival on Sunday the 8th - the first of her superb coffee concert series at King's Place. I was lucky to be one of the pianists she asked to take part that morning, in a multi-player rendition of Schumann's Kinderszenen and Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens. What fun to join actors such as Edward Fox and Niamh Cusack (Niamh will be appearing on Essential Classics in the new year) - and Simon Russell Beale who managed to make time for piano practice while rehearsing for King Lear! A thoroughly good time was had by all - and we sold out the hall so I hope the punters enjoyed it as much as we did. 

Rehearsing for Lucy's concert with Joanna David and Martin Jarvis

*Joining Dave for this concert was the composer John White and his new duo, Bad Dog! Splendid music for electronics and guitar.

Respect, ambition, and a garden ornament

It's been interesting to chat with two very different writers recently on Essential Classics: Michael Dobbs (of House of Cards fame, now a member of the House of Lords) and Philip Pullman (creator of the trilogy, His Dark Materials, to name but one masterpiece). What came over strongly to me was how much respect each of these writers has for their audience. Michael talked about the need to tie up a plot convincingly, and of how he worked hard to make a book easy to read. Philip spoke of his heroine, Lyra, and how he had met many Lyras in the schools he had visited - ordinary children capable of extraordinary courage and insight. Michael and Philip were both a pleasure to interview and chose some wonderful music for the programme - I particularly enjoyed Michael's choice of a recording by the Sarum Consort (with music by Peter Phillips), and Philip proved to be a big Medtner fan who introduced us to the amazing Night Wind Sonata (played by Mark-Andre Hamelin, the pronunciation of whose surname we discussed in depth before the green light went on ;-)). And it's not just respect for the reader that I picked up from these two guests...but also the importance of big ideas, of ambition. You could learn how to overthrow a government from one of Michael's novels. And Philip creates entirely convincing imaginary worlds. I hope my listeners found as much inspiration from the interviews as I did.

Change of subject: on a recent sketching session, I was reminded of John Cage's Zen-like statement: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” I had never quite believed this, then set about sketching a simple little figurine I'd photographed in a fake Roman garden. I barely noticed the figurine during my visit - it was just a boring old garden ornament and I couldn't even have told you whether it was in good taste or bad. Well drawing this figurine over a period of an hour or so, I discovered great beauty in it. Just a simple figure, commercially produced I suppose, but by the time I'd finished I was bonded with it, and "it" had become "she". Here's my finished picture.









By the way, I've just posted the next few chapters of Adult Beginners on my novel page! You can now read up to Chapter 10. Hope the shenanigans of the Millfields Adult Beginners Orchestra (and their feud with l'Orchestre Elite des Intimes du Louvre) gets you hooked. I'm planning to post the remaining chapters soon, so the whole thing will be there by Christmas. 

PS If you fancy a bit more blog reading, do check out the Essential Classics Blog.  Our producers contribute too, so you can find out what Rob and me are really like... ;-)

Smurfing and other vocal techniques











Goldfish - wax pastel and watercolour


Now Rob has taken over in the Essential Classics studio, I'm hoping to get a few more pictures done over the next couple of weeks. A recent trip to Bird World provided fresh inspiration, such as the Lilac Breasted Roller  and some stunning flamingos. The picture above was based on sketches and photos I took in the aquarium there. Speaking of aquariums, I've been busy practising that movement from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens - will be playing a selection of movements with Lucy Parham at King's Place in December. That coffee concert (called Celebrity Carnival ) is a great chance to meet up with some former Essential Classics guests, including the very talented Alistair McGowan and Alan Rusbridger. Lucy asked me to play the 3rd movement of Kinderszenen - the very fast B minor one. I said fine, as long as I could take three runs at it! Must make sure I do a thorough warm-up beforehand...what could go wrong? Actually I'm wondering if Alistair has forgiven me yet for choosing a Personal Shopper piece which he did not like. I suppose I will find out.

Don't know if you heard my conversation with Alistair McGowan last Christmas on Essential Classics, but I recall a very interesting discussion we had about vocal twang. Alistair explained how he'd overcome some problems with his voice by introducing more of that bright, throaty quality - twang. As someone interested in singing, I have come across that term before, and I've heard it again recently in some brilliant jazz vocal workshops I've joined, with singer Laura Zakian.  The classes have been rigorous, and great fun. To help me achieve some high notes, Laura asked me to imitate a smurf. I think my classmates were a little surprised at my readiness to do this, not knowing that I already have a rich repertoire of silly voices which are used when the BBC microphone is shut. I also was asked to imitate a robot. No problem! It's great to know that silly voices can be pathways to vocal healing and improvement.

I'm posting the next instalment of my novel, Adult Beginners, on the novel page . And by the way, the broken link to my PhD thesis on English Experimental Music has been mended. Apparently the old link would break if no-one clicked on it for a couple of weeks! :-0






It was a great privilege to meet the author Julian Barnes - my most recent guest on Essential Classics. Read more about our interview on the Essential Classics blog.











With my Essential Classics guest, Roger Scruton

If you caught any of my last editions of Essential Classics, you may have heard me in conversation with the philosopher and writer, Roger Scruton. Roger chose a wide range of pieces for us, including quite a few Romantic works, which I particularly enjoyed discussing with him. If you heard any of Radio 3's Spirit of Schubert season you'll recall that this historical period is his great passion: in his opinion, the pinnacle of musical achievement in the West. I've always found it interesting that Romanticism is still highly unfashionable - you wouldn't want to enter a composing competition with a Romantic-style symphony - whereas Modernism, a mere 100 years old, is still quite trendy, in both its superficial characteristics of atonality and absence of pulse and its deeper motivations, one of which was the need to shock the bourgeois concert-goers. And yet the world has moved on. Eclecticism is undoubtedly one aspect of the postmodern age - we're aware of a huge range of musical styles now, from the past and from around the world - and it's natural that the things we love end up in our art. In a sonata by John White, for instance, you'll hear echoes of the Romantic world of Bruckner, the contemplative qualities of Satie and the colourful, jarring harmonies of Messiaen. It works because for White, these influences are fully integrated - part of the composer's soul, awaiting expression. This is his genuine voice, and as a listener I can sense that: the styles may not be new to my ear, but novelty is an old, modernist concern.  What I, as a listener, want to hear is a genuine voice - a voice which feels just right for now, from a person who shares some of my experiences of the world. That means the music is likely to be eclectic in some way, though I find that eclecticism employed as a way of trying to shock, impress or make a point doesn't convince me. It has to be natural, to come from within. A tall order in an age where creative artists are judged so harshly and often irrationally (did you read Lucy Worsley's very amusing article On the Perils of Writing Book Reviews?).

I was delighted to find that natural, unselfconscious feel in the writing of Julian Barnes - he's going to be a guest on Essential Classics in a couple of weeks' time, and I've just finished reading his prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. Really looking forward to meeting Julian. And speaking of voices, what a pleasure it was to meet one of the ultimate speaking voices of our time! The actor, Tim Pigott-Smith, who recalled the challenges of his first spoken line on TV: "IT SEEMS TO BE SOME SORT OF EXPLOSIVE DEVICE." What a joy to welcome Tim to the Essential Classics studio, and learn about his musical enthusiasms (and his very musical son, Tom ).

And again speaking of voices, Essential Classics now has its own Blog!  I'm looking forward to contributing and sharing a few behind-the-scenes secrets (and giving news snippets on Basil, who already has his own photo gallery  on the Blog - I negotiated this as part of my contract.;-)).











Basil made a picturesque addition to our holiday cottage.

That's all for now. But before I go, just to say, the next chapter of my novel Adult Beginners has been posted on my Novel page!


Summer memories...

Feeling very fortunate to have holidayed in the UK during our glorious hot summer. Spent time in North Yorkshire, finding lots of inspiration for Bempton Cliffs, Byland Abbey, and Sledmere House where the gift shop is brimming with Hockney prints. Made a note to treat myself to a book of Hockney conversations, as I find him an insightful commentator on the business of making art.  I was pleasantly surprised and rather relieved to read the following: "I've always complained that the trouble with a lot of modern painting is that it is not interested in the visible world. That simply means that artists must go in on themselves, and their art becomes an internal one." Hockney acknowledges that artists can find inspiration internally - that's perfectly valid - but for a naïve amateur like me, well for many years I laboured under the misapprehension that internal inspiration was the only true path. No wonder I hardly painted anything. Happy to say that now, I paint lots more.  The watercolour below is the view from the cliffs at Filey, looking out to Flamborough Head.























And I did this wax pastel at Byland Abbey - it's the tomb of a monk.




















The holiday also gave me a good opportunity to do some more writing, so the sequel to my novel Adult Beginners is progressing fairly quickly! (By the way, I've just posted the next chapter of Adult Beginners on my novel page. Do check it out!)

For my holiday reading material, I tucked into two recently published novels by my friend, the crime writer A.J. Waines. Do check out Alison's website - she has an excellent blog,  informed by her former career as a psychotherapist. Needless to say, her thrillers are also informed by psychological insight and real-life experience dealing with criminally troubled minds. Brilliant, gripping novels.

And then...back to the Essential Classics  studio, where I've had the pleasure of interviewing two of the most delightful (and musical) guests, the poet Lavinia Greenlaw and the actor, John Bird. Lavinia's descriptions of watching Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh were quite magical. And John gave many wry insights into the psychology of his (and John Fortune's) character, George Parr. The last two weeks have flown by. Can't believe summer is still in the air, but I'm not complaining!

Below - pictures of Lavinia and John with me in the studio.




Perfectly grandiose


















I adore butterfly houses - did this wax pastel on the Isle of Wight at Easter

I'm still busily working on the sequel to my novel, Adult Beginners. The sequel's working title is Adult Beginners Get the Blues: the basic idea is that my adult beginners' orchestra decide to dabble in jazz. Can't give too much away right now - it might all be changed in the editing process, after all. But if you're interested in catching up with Adult Beginners mark one, my first novel, well I've decided to serialise it here on my website, while I do the hard work of finding a literary agent! I don't want the novel to languish too long in the desk drawer. So do check out my novel page and I hope you enjoy chapters 1 and 2.

In my ongoing quest to gain a greater understanding and mastery of the creative process, I recently found myself consulting the work of Hillary Rettig,  in particular her book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific.  It's one of the most rigorous and significant contributions to the field that I've come across - aimed at writers but relevant to anyone who would like to be more productive in their creative work. The first chapter describes the dangers of perfectionism. Of course, I've heard of this before, but I never quite realised how insidious perfectionism is, how it can be a mental filter through which we see our entire world. One element of perfectionism that I've found particularly relevant is that of grandiosity. Often we assume that insecurity lies behind our perfectionism, our setting of unachievable standards. In fact, it's just as likely to be an attitude of grandiosity:  believing that our work should be special, and if it's not, then our ego faces certain death. I have caught myself entertaining these delusions! For instance, I have hesitated for years - no, decades - to go for singing lessons, even though I sing every day and adore it. When I finally signed up for a jazz singing workshop recently, I felt bizarre levels of fear and was tempted to just carry on procrastinating. Then it occurred to me that this strange inner conflict was due to grandiosity: wanting to be special but fearing the imminent discovery that one is not. As soon as this thought popped up, the fear was removed. I saw myself with what Hillary Rettig calls "compassionate objectivity" - that I was a person with a perfectly serious attitude to singing and a little bit of ability that any decent teacher could build on. There was nothing to fear, nothing to lose. The point is, before I stumbled upon Hillary's work, I would never have recognised either perfectionism or grandiosity in myself. My insight now is so much better! So that's good news.

Just got home from English National Ballet, where I saw their Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev , including Petrushka and Raymonda. I'm wondering whether watching dance can be physically healthy as well as emotionally stimulating to the observer...I'm sure that watching the movement sparks off certain reactions in my own muscles, tiny sympathetic reactions, so that I am getting some sort of physical benefit! I also remembered why I love sequins. The costumes in Raymonda were stunning, based around an ivory and cream theme, and the stage was brightly lit so that the sequins emitted random little bursts of light, like miniature flash cameras. And the wonderful mezzo soprano Clara Mouriz is appearing at the Proms  tonight, so it's a good day for me.


Composers real and imaginary...








with my friend, Hugh Shrapnel

I was delighted to be invited as a guest on Carole Finer's Resonance FM show, Sound Out, last Friday afternoon, playing piano duets with my friend Hugh Shrapnel. Hugh created some wonderful new music for the programme, including a suite of evocative pieces called Tales of the South East. Hugh captured the lively atmosphere of Lewisham market, the gently Victorian ambiance of Ladywell station, and rounded off the suite with a demonic hunting horn extravaganza called La Chasse. We also premiered a lullaby by Martin Pyne, called Bliss - dedicated to Martin's good friends Simon and Thusita and their new baby Frederick. I was delighted to hear that Frederick was listening and sleeping soundly throughout the piece! However, Simon admitted that Frederick had actually fallen asleep during an earlier piece, and quite a noisy and violent one: Deioneus Inferno Sketch by Godfrey Maxwell Minniver. Godfrey is a new name on the contemporary music scene, though I hope many people will become interested in his life and work...because...I invented him myself! Godfrey is a character in my new novel, Adult Beginners. He was a modernist firebrand in the 60's, became highly successful, then encountered a profound creative crisis - probably due to his obsession with innovation. In the novel, he emerges from his compositional block with the help of an orchestra of adult beginners - complete amateurs whose work Godfrey would at one time have despised. It may be of some significance that he falls in love with their oboist, a strawberry-blonde hippy chick called Tansy who knits her own oboe warmers. I explained some of this in my interview with Carole, before Hugh and I performed Godfrey's piece. Carole asked me what it was like to compose in the character of somebody else. It was actually quite easy; freed from egoistic problems such as "is my style okay?", "what will people think?" and even technical decisions such as "should this atonal language be freely conceived or systemic in some way?", the piece was written very quickly. All I had to do was ask myself what Godfrey would have done. And knowing his mind, his emotions and his history quite intimately, this was easy to achieve. It was a great lesson in effortless creativity: in fact I think Godfrey himself would have been interested in this method of composition, given that he has fallen victim to a harmful self-consciousness! The interview is on SoundCloud - it's not possible to create a link to it, but you can find it by going to SoundCloud Resonance FM, and scroll down to the transmission date/time of 21st June 2013 at 1400 hrs. The conversation about Godfrey is about 7'30 into the programme. 

So, I'm now busy submitting Adult Beginners and hoping to find a literary agent who might fancy a romantic comedy set in the world of new music! Just to sum up the story - it's about an amateur orchestra of adult beginners, based in North London. Their high ideals come under threat as they attend a summer school, only to find that their rehearsal space has been double-booked with an elite orchestra from Paris, who stand for everything that my amateurs despise. There's conflict, hilarity and romance as the two ensembles are forced to work together and help each other through artistic and personal crises.  Do check out the first chapter, on my NOVEL  page! I'm currently busy working on the sequel: Adult Beginners Get the Blues... and celebrating that my orthodontic work is over! After 20 months of lisping, excess salivating and making odd whistling noises (not to mention my teeth looking rather grey in photographs!), I am free of my brace (which corrected an awkward gap in my back teeth). So, smiling lots, and looking forward to getting back to the Essential Classics studio on Monday!





Art in literature














If you read my post Bonjour Biqui, about the artist Suzanne Valadon, back in September 2011, you'll know that I very much enjoy fiction based on the real lives of artists, musicians and writers. So I was totally delighted to discover that my friend, Vicky Woodcraft , has recently had her first novel published (by Indigo Dreams) - and its subject is the artist, Henry Scott Tuke! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Vicky's novel, which is powerfully atmospheric and very insightful: we learn not just about the art of Tuke and his contemporaries, but about the Cornish community in which he lived. Vicky very kindly answered a few questions about her novel, The Improbable Story of Orion Goss.

SW: Tell me a little about your main characters, Orion Goss and Henry Scott Tuke.

VW: Orion is an entirely invented figure. Henry Scott Tuke was well known for painting local youths - the "Quay Scamps" who lived around Customs House Quay in Falmouth. Not enough is known about any of them for me to have dared to use any of them as the central character of the novel. They will very likely have grandchildren - or even children - living in the area who could object pretty strongly. I wanted to write a pure love story about Henry and one of these boys -there's absolutely no evidence that he ever had a physical relationship with any of them and I think it very unlikely that he did - but it made sense to invent my own character.

SW: The character of Henry Scott Tuke is certainly a fascinating one!

VW: I adore him. It seems obvious from our perspective that he was gay but almost certainly repressed this. I think his feelings for Orion - and his other boys - were probably completely pure. He admired, as an artist, their youth and the beauty of their young bodies. The effect of sunlight on the flesh is well documented as one of his obsessions. Beyond this, I'm not sure I think when he speaks of his feelings for Orion as "paternal" he is possibly deluding himself - but perhaps not! How much do we ever know about anyone?

SW: There are some very colourful "baddies" in your book - Orion's father and brother create some really chilling scenes. Are they based on fact?

VW: I've always disliked those cosy books about Cornwall as a county of sand and sea and charmingly colourful characters. It's as full of baddies as anywhere else and it seemed to me that ignorand and uneducated men like Percy and Alfred would not have the sensitivity to see Henry as any more than a pervert. So yes, I suppose they are based on fact - but not on any specific characters. Falmouth, like any port, was a rough area in parts. At lease two schoolfriends of mine were violently raped and another little girl of my age was murdered so I certainly grew up aware of possible dangers.

SW: How much research did you do into other areas of the story?

VW: Lots on fruit and veg growing and traditional market gardening techniques! [Orion is a gardener]

SW: How would you describe the art of Orion?

VW: I based his art work, very loosely, on that of the St Ives artist Alfred Wallis, who was famous for his naive paintings. Orion is nothing like as talented as Henry, who has real artistic skill, but his work has a simple truth about it.

SW: Which aspect of writing the book did you find most enjoyable? And which bit was the most challenging?

VW: I always enjoy writing about Cornwall, the landscape and the people. It seems almost like cheating! I also enjoyed fitting my story into the context of actual events. A lot if known about Tuke's life and movements and I had to make sure he was in the right place at the right time. The most challenging aspect was that the story is told from four different perspectives - Orion's, Henry's, Charles Hemy's and Ida Goss's - and I needed to ensure that they balanced each other and fitted together as part of the narrative.

SW: Now the book is published, what are your current writing projects?

VW: I've completed another novel, also set in Falmouth but in the long, hot summer of 1976 and with an entirely fictional cast of characters. This is being considered by the publishers at the moment. Meanwhile I'm working on a sequel to The Improbable Story of Orion Goss, setting a substantial part of the story in the tin and copper minding area around Redruth - another totally fascinating place.

SW: Thanks, Vicky: looking forward to seeing those novels in print!








Vicky Woodcraft

You can find out more about Vicky's novel The Improbable Story of Orion Goss here , and check out her fantastic website - I highly recommend the Short Stories of the Month - here !



Eyes and ears wide open











Busnoys - image by Sheryl Tait

Red Nose Day now seems a long time ago - I thoroughly enjoyed my busy, slightly surreal day and it was a privilege to help raise money for Comic Relief along with my colleagues from BBC Radio 3. Also a great pleasure to get to know jazz presenter Jez Nelson  a bit better - our paths hadn't crossed very often before that day, but Jez was a real gent in agreeing to play a Baddie to my Hapless Victim, in our fight to be Top of the Baroque. The idea was that Jez had tried to undermine my efforts by fooling me into believing that Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas was originally written with a leading role for a cat. Hard to explain in retrospect but it worked at the time. Many thanks to Jez for being such a sport. (And to Basil, for playing the role of the murderous cat.)

And on the subject of jazz, the trio Busnoys are excitedly preparing for a Really Big Event, to be held at The Forge  in Camden on Sunday April the 21st. They're joining with composer Paul Robinson, who writes fabulous music for silent film, and artist Maria Hayes,  who creates richly colourful digital paintings in response to music. Click here  for more details on the gig, and read on to hear about Busnoys founder Martin Pyne's plans for the evening.

SW: How did the idea for the gig come about?

MP: Paul Robinson proposed the idea initially because he was really excited about two new works he'd written for live performer and film. They wouldn't fill up a whole evening and he liked the idea of collaborating with Busnoys to create an evening of contemporary composition and improvised jazz. To maintain the audio-visual thread, I wanted to invite Maria Hayes to join the team - I've worked with her many times before and it's a treat for both performers and audience to watch her work come to life in real time.

SW:  I've seen this myself - it's a fascinating process (check out a sample here !). So what are these films we're going to see?

MP: One of them is called Magnetic North , and the other is Ornithologies. The films are like a sort of counterpoint to Paul's music; they use multiple images appearing on a split screen - very beautiful and a bit mysterious. Paul is influenced by Jean Mitry, Luis Bunuel, Mauricio Kagel and Busby Berkeley, so you can expect something very eclectic.

SW: And what about your music - Busnoys have had quite a few tracks played on Radio 3's Late Junction  - will we hear any of those, or are you creating new material?

MP: There'll be new music as well as tracks from both of our albums, San Angelo and By Tapering Torchlight.  For the new material I'm exploring the established jazz lineage including Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Bill Frisell, but I'm also looking also further afield to influences such as Americana, electronica and early vocal music. Even Busnoys himself! I'm listening to Trio Medieval a lot at the moment - love their music.

SW: So will Paul's ensemble and Busnoys be doing separate sets?

MP: There won't be separate sets: Paul's music will feature at set points throughout the gig, and at times Busnoys will be joined by ex-Loose Tubes reeds man Dai Pritchard and violinist/violist Adam Robinson, director of the acclaimed Threads Orchestra.  So it will all feel quite organic and fluid. We're looking forward to performing San Angelo as our grand finale - it's a Busnoys favourite and Dai and Adam will be joining us for that.

SW: Sounds great! Remind us of the details!

MP: The gig is happening on Sunday April 21st, at The Forge in Camden, and doors open at 7 o'clock. You can get tickets in advance - they're £10 or £8 concessions. On the door, it's £11 and £9.  In the meantime, click here  to check out Busnoys on You Tube.

Red Nose Day approaches!













Is it a red nose, or a little mini cheese?

As Red Nose Day  approaches this Friday, I'm busy with my campaign for Radio 3's Top of the Baroque.  Five presenters are battling it out, each championing a different Baroque masterpiece. My choice is Dido's Lament, from Purcell's opera, Dido and Aeneas.  Now, you don't have to be a feminist to wonder if Dido's demise is a little unconvincing: from Queen of Carthage to tragic victim in the course of an hour or so, and all because of some Trojan bloke! Could it be that there's another explanation behind her emotional breakdown? On Red Nose Day, you can follow me as I venture deeply into the background of the opera, to find compelling musicological evidence that other forces were at work: feline forces! With the help of a leading Baroque musicologist and an animal trainer specialising in preparing cats for Baroque opera performances, I'll be explaining how Dido's Lament is underpinned by a different sort of betrayal, and my cat Basil is going to illustrate this with the help of the electronic keyboard (I applied for the Radio 3 harpsichord, but it had already been nabbed by one of the other presenters). By doing this, I promise to reveal some exciting sounds that have never before been aired on BBC Radio 3!

Nothing makes me laugh more than Basil and my electronic keyboard. In my Red Nose bid, I've unleashed a powerful creative triangle: the Purcell, the keyboard, the cat. These three unlikely ingredients have a magical chemistry, and when Friday rolls round, you'll be able to hear how they interconnect, in two not-to-be-missed broadcasts made by me and my producer, Richard Denison. But you don't have to wait till then: if you love Dido's Lament, keyboards and cats, then why not support me now, and raise money for Comic Relief? Click here  for more details! 

Time now for Basil's keyboard practice...

Strength and sentimentality











Khatia Buniatishvili rehearsing: photo by Benjamin Collingwood

Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to present the Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert given by the young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili.  I'd come across Khatia's work before, through presenting Radio 3 New Generation Artists - she was a member of the scheme from 2009 to 2011. But this was the first time I'd met her in person and heard her playing live. She is a force of nature - a tremendous virtuoso whose playing is unpretentious and direct, with a feeling of "this is just what I do." Her rendition of Ravel's orchestral showpiece La Valse - transcribed by Ravel himself for solo piano - made a stupendous finale to her recital, and I'm not surprised that this solo version isn't often heard. It's crazily demanding with fortissimo glissandi which must batter the fingernails to a pulp. But equally impressive were the more tender moments of the concert - I think the real highlight for me was the Funeral March movement from Chopin's Piano Sonata no. 2, in particular the heart-rending major-key section in the middle. It's Chopin at his most sentimental - misty memories of someone, or something, that has passed away, and I couldn't help thinking of my dad, who had a taste for sentimental music of this ilk. How he would have loved to hear this music, though he was not a concert-goer and had but one LP, Dvorak's Greatest Hits. He never set foot outside the UK, but loved to meet young people from distant lands - he would have had so many questions to ask Khatia Buniatishvili. a radio presenter you can't sit in concerts blubbing, so I had to get a grip on my emotions. Focus!

I have allowed myself a little sentimental indulgence however, by painting a portrait of my daughter Maria as a baby (a "bubba", says my friend Kevin). Cuteness...we all need it! 

Inspiration for snowy days











Basil is unsure about the changes to his environment


It's no hardship being snowed in while working on some pastel paintings and listening to Rob Cowan on Essential Classics: indeed, I have had a very mellow morning. Particularly enjoyed Rob's interviews with the writer and broadcaster Martin Sixsmith, who is clearly very knowledgeable about music and was delighted with Rob's "Personal Shopper" choice - the G flat Schubert Impromptu. It's one of my own favourite pieces, and I've always been fascinated by the challenge of making the melodic line sing out - coming to the conclusion that you mustn't force it. The fortepianos of Schubert's day can hardly have had more singing power than our own modern instruments, so maybe that melody doesn't need to be quite so predominant. At any rate, the recording by Maria Yudina that Rob played was a very fine one.

Our guests on Essential Classics are always a great source of inspiration, often helping me to look at familiar things with fresh eyes, or introducing me to completely new topics. The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, will be my guest in a couple of week's time, and we recorded our interview yesterday: his book, Play It Again , filled me with fresh enthusiasm for the piano music of Chopin, and thanks to Alan I have immersed myself in the 3rd Ballade over the last few days. Alan's special Ballade is the first one, and his book describes his campaign to master this very challenging work in the course of a year - one of his busiest ever, while dealing with Wiki leaks and the phone hacking scandal. I was overwhelmed with pride and a certain embarrassment to find that I was mentioned in Alan's book: we both took part in an unconventional performance of Schumann's Kinderszenen, each movement played by a different pianist (part of Lucy Parham's 2010 Schumann festival at King's Place: click here  for an interview with Lucy). Interviewing Alan was a great pleasure - he has some inspiring things to say about the value of amateurs to music and the other arts. We even began the afternoon with a little adventure, when we were locked out of the studio - the door closed, and locked itself from within! My bags and notes, plus my copy of Alan's book, were stuck in there, though I managed without them: fortunately Radio 3's In Tune studio was available, so we were able to record the interview there. Then thanks to a locksmith, my things were recovered later!

I've been tremendously busy with painting when out of the studio: my first attempts at acrylics came out reasonably well, then after a trip to the inspiring environment of Birdworld,  and its attached aquarium, my head is now spinning with ideas. Have you ever seen a blue crayfish, or noticed how the sides of piranha fish seem to be specked with glitter? You would not believe the incredible creatures in that aquarium. It's an artist's paradise.











Basil on a kitchen stool: my first go at acrylics. Getting the fur right was far harder than I expected. The stool was surprisingly easy...       

...and here is a blue crayfish.


Christmas and creativity











(c.1979) Angry cat is not lettin u decorate tree

Christmas is a challenging time for the creative person. We are all so busy, meeting work deadlines, Christmas card deadlines (oops - too late already!) buying gifts, wrapping them, posting them, finding that we have lost our relatives' addresses, tidying the house before guests descend...all of these things are challenging, but I have come to the conclusion that it's the mental work of the Christmas season that squeezes out creativity. When I say the mental work, I mean the decision-making. I've recently read an excellent book by Dr Kelly McGonigal, called Maximum Willpower.  Her work reveals that the more decisions we have to make, the more our willpower is tested. Willpower and decision-making go hand in hand. After a busy trip to the supermarket, faced with a hundred different kinds of marmalade to choose from, our willpower - ie. the ability to make decisions which will support our long-term gain rather than provide instant gratification - is drastically reduced. Creativity requires us to make decision after decision; once the creative impulse has arisen, we must decide how to express it, and as we progress, those decisions often become more and more intricate. This requires great concentration and mental energy. My recent painting of Basil (based on the photo in my 23rd September post) seemed to demand a thousand decisions. Where to position him on the canvas? A little to the right? To the left? Should the eyes be central? What colour should the background be? How many layers of paint did the background require? Had I chosen the right colour? Was the texture satisfactory? And so on, and so on. I would not have had the energy to do this in the current period of intense Christmas decision-making. What to cook? When to buy the food? Where to keep it all? How much ready-prepared food should I buy? That's just the tip of the iceberg, as I'm sure you know; the decisions never end. I don't expect myself to have the willpower to get home from the shops and head straight to my piano practice, my painting, my writing. My decision-making ability is used up. I want a mince pie.

There are ways of counteracting this decision-exhaustion. Meditation is recommended; as you gently turn your thoughts back to your breathing - over and over again - you are practising making a difficult decision. You want to think about your obsessions, but you decide to do the more difficult thing, and turn back to your breathing. Exercise is also said to help, and there are many other simple suggestions in McGonigal's book. Certainly, her explanation of the relationship between willpower and decision-making is fascinating and highly relevant to creativity, which, I realise more and more, is all about the making of decisions (and of course, carrying them out). I'll be posting my completed painting of Basil here soon; meanwhile, I thought you might like the picture of my childhood persian, Misty, who always loved Christmas. The only decision for him was whether to sit beneath the tree duffing baubles about, or to climb up the step ladder, thus achieving maximum attention...


Educational matters









with writer Anne Fine in the studio

Meeting interesting people is a most fortuitous part of my work as a radio presenter, and my latest guest on Essential Classics, Anne Fine , had many pearls of wisdom to share. I mentioned to Anne my regret that I didn't enjoy reading very much as a child, and she pointed out that for a child to be interested, they must be given the right book at the right time. A little light bulb moment for me. Anne also pointed out that casting the most competent girls as tomboy figures was a 1960's fashion in children's literature - that intrigued me, as I had felt rather disenfranchised by this as a child. Fortunately for me, I did discover the fun of books a little later: Enid Blyton's St Clare's and Mallory Towers series. I wonder if there could be any significance in the fact that these were set in all-girls schools, where the female characters were rounded individuals rather than contrasting counterparts or plucky little helpers to the boys! The Essential Classics guest who preceded Anne - Professor Dame Athene Donald, mentioned in my last post - pointed out how all-girls schools seem to liberate the behaviour of girls so they select their subjects more freely - Physics, for instance, becoming a common choice in that context but almost unheard of in mixed schools. As my own daughter is almost certainly destined for a mixed school, I'm already wondering how I can counteract this: at least having taken O'level Chemistry at school (very much going against the grain for a girl, though by that time I had given up trying to fit in!) I can introduce her to the joys of a chemistry set and teach her a few basics. Though I mustn't forget, I was deeply engrossed in a chemistry experiment* when I had a devastating accident: a folding stool collapsed under me and my finger was caught between the closing legs. Enough said.

There's another O'level that I'm very pleased I took - Spanish! On Monday, I was lucky enough to introduce the Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, featuring the young Spanish mezzo, Clara Mouriz. I've no doubt that she's destined to become a big star - she has not only a beautiful voice with an extraordinary range, but has a magical, communicative chemistry with the audience that is simply bewitching. Checking through the pronunciations of Spanish song titles with Clara before her recital, those old Spanish lessons came to my aid, and Clara gave me the seal of approval with the words "Fantastic! It's as if you are SPANISH!!" I wished my old teacher, Mrs Grummett, were still around to hear that...although I've no doubt it was more a kindly compliment than the literal truth!!! If only there'd been time to describe some of Clara Mouriz's charisma in more detail to the radio audience: the graceful gestures and expressivity of her face, not to mention her fabulous outfit, a knee-length pewter-coloured brocade dress plus patent black heels. Muy elegante! There are a few Radio 3 videos online where you can watch Clara Mouriz in action... these are my favourites: click here  and, for an interview, here.

*Trying to create the world's smelliest gas.  



Science and creativity








with Dame Athene Donald in the studio

It was a real pleasure to interview the eminent scientist, Dame Athene Donald, and to learn about her life and favourite music on Essential Classics  this week. And I was delighted to read Dame Athene's blog , describing the experience from her point of view! Really glad she enjoyed it too! Although I don't have a science background, I found her work fascinating and felt confident that my listeners would, too - who could not feel a spark of wonder at the idea of the electron microscope , and the idea of coating an insect in pure gold prior to viewing? Or how research into protein aggregation can affect our understanding of Alzheimer's? In fact after discussing such matters with Dame Athene, my own interest in science has been stimulated to the point that I ventured to buy a scarily scientific book - one that prior to our conversation I might never have had the courage to read: Science, Order, and Creativity,  by David Bohm and F. David Peat. I'm very pleased I made this leap, as the book contains some exciting insights into creativity. One theory in particular really resonates with me. Bohm and Peat explore the idea that the system of reward and punishment upon which our education (and society in general) is based is harmful to creativity. This has been demonstrated by experiments with both chimpanzees and young children who, when given paints and paper, will create balanced patterns of colour in a state of blissful concentration, to the point that other needs (such as eating!) go unnoticed.  However, when a reward is offered for the work, the creative activity is fundamentally changed; the painter will now produce only the bare minimum that will satisfy the rewarder. The state of intense passion then dies away, and greater rewards (or punishments) must be offered for the now-boring activity to continue.

This is only a small part - much simplified by me - of a book which addresses the need for greater creativity (not "false play") in both science and the arts. But I homed in on this particular chapter because I have always held instinctive suspicions about the value of conventional feedback in the arts. It's an accepted norm that feedback is considered useful to an artist, whether positive or negative. However, it's a small step from this seemingly benign situation to approval-seeking, and to using our creativity in order to gain rewards: admiration, acceptance, validation. And like the chimp who wants a treat, our motivation to be creative can be significantly distorted by this. Our artistic community (like most of our social structures) is underpinned by the system of reward and punishment - if you want your project to be funded, your creativity must meet with the approval of others. That's why, in my doctorate,  I was fascinated by the system set up by English Experimental Composers: an open, non-judgemental dialogue of artists who use the benign methodology of "I'll play your piece, you play mine." I will never forget composer John White  saying to me, regarding the Experimentalists' system: "When a friend speaks to me, I don't criticise their conversation. I listen." No approval or disapproval, reward or punishment.

This provides a model for a more healthy and creative artistic community where creative work communicates, rather than seeks approval. Back in December 2010, I posted about Creative Buddies: the need to have a pair of friendly hands into which you pass your work. It's nothing to do with feedback - the work simply needs a reader, a listener, a viewer. Decisions regarding the artwork must be made by you, the artist, from that state of intense and unselfconscious concentration which existed before you knew you could be rewarded or punished. Can you imagine talking to a friend about something that interests you, and they reply "I liked how you started there, and although you went on a bit too long, you made good use of adjectives and you made me laugh,"? How would this affect your conversation in future? The question is not whether your skills would improve, but whether you would want to engage in this action of conversation, that had once seemed a natural human response. I reckon you'd end up with Speaker's Block!

Well having dipped my toe into more scientific waters this week, all I can say is I intend to continue. I'm starting to understand more deeply how professional scientists such as Dame Athene (and former guests on Essential Classics such as Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Robert Winston) can be passionately interested in the creative arts as well as their own scientific field; the disciplines have so much to teach each other.

Happy Halloween!









The spine-chilling view through our front room window, with pumpkin, real cat, and Halloween-costumed paper dolls

Halloween is almost here, and my daughter Maria has been busy preparing a sort of hybrid devil-spider outfit and experimenting with the dark swirls of magnetic nail varnish. I, meanwhile, have been preparing for my next week of Essential Classics - the eminent scientist, Professor Dame Athene Donald , will be my new guest, so I've been researching into unfamiliar topics such as the electron microscope, and thinking about what I might choose as Dame Athene's "Personal Shopper" piece, for Friday's show. I'm also trying to become more organised and have bought a 2013 Simon's Cat  diary, though the real reason for this may simply be that I am addicted to Simon's Cat. As a child one of my earliest ambitions was to become a cartoonist, and I admire Simon Tofield's work tremendously - he navigates that delicate path between detail and suggestion, slapstick and honest truth. Knowing his cartoon creations are tucked away in my handbag makes me feel better at all times. Maybe that's more important than being organised. Happy Halloween!


Great moustaches and the theatre of the absurd











                Elgar                            Basil


Some of my blog readers have commented on the similarities between the Basil and the British composer, Sir Edward Elgar. I hadn't noticed anything before, but I can now clearly see the resemblance - for some months, Basil has been cultivating a fine moustache.

I've been both entertained and educated by my two most recent guests on Essential Classics.  Simon Callow,  whom I found the most charming and energising presence,  shared many insights into the relationship between music and theatre: I was fascinated by hearing him talk about the challenges of crowd scenes in opera. I'd always thought they were the easy bits: just give everyone a fake glass of wine and tell them to cheer a bit. Not so. Simon also explained the qualities of good incidental music and the joys of working with composers such as Dominic Muldowney  and John White,  who understand the subtle dramatic tension that must be maintained between changes of scene.  Howard Jacobson - last week's guest - also brought a wonderful combination of humour and intellectual rigour to our conversation. What a pleasure to hear him read from his latest novel, Zoo Time ! I was also impressed by the way in which Howard was able to describe the inner workings of a piece without using technical terminology. In Beethoven's quartets, Howard asserted, you can hear thought itself; you can't tell what it is he's thinking about, but you can definitely sense thought. Thanks to both guests for their contibutions, conversational and musical!

I had a busy Saturday, taking part in a performance of John Cage's Song Books at Toynbee Studios  in Whitechapel. This was a great pleasure and I'm grateful to Stefan Szczelkun  for inviting me to join the ensemble. The Song Books consist of a large collection of solos - theatrical, musical and conceptual happenings - which each performer presents according to his or her own personal plan and without consulting the other participants. We stuck pretty strictly to this, though Michael Parsons and I consulted each other about when we might use the piano, as it wouldn't do to be fighting over it on stage. In the event, I decided to take my toy piano, on which I played Cage's Suite for Toy Piano. I also took along a guitar whose strings I plucked according to the roll of a dice, some LED candles which I switched on and off at different times, a sketchbook & pen, and some food to prepare. As I had expected, the performance contained some brilliant coincidences of sound and gesture which could never have happened had we tried to plan them; that's the wonder of this sort of Theatre of the Absurd. My daughter is still wondering why the grown-ups were going mad, though...


To specialise, or not...














Basil poses for a portrait

It's been a while since my last post, so there are many things to report. Above is a picture of Basil, which I'm planning to turn into a painting. The photo is badly focussed and has an unattractive background, yet the pose is one of those rare ones which really seems to capture the spirit of Basil. I'm planning on trying acrylics instead of my usual pastels (in case you were wondering, I haven't been using the Ipad for art very much, as the stylus I ordered has only just arrived! Still feels a bit weird though, like drawing with the rubber on the end of a pencil).

Really enjoyed my last week on Essential Classics . If you've been listening to Radio 3 for the last few days, you'll be aware that Piano Season on the BBC  is well and truly underway. It's been a great pleasure to feature so many inspiring pianists on the programme - Stephen Hough playing Liszt's Reminiscences de La Juive made me laugh out loud, it was so whole-heartedly virtuosic. I also discovered last week that Stephen Hough is an artist himself . I knew he was a composer - but art too - he's proof that it can be done. We don't have to be specialists. That's a relief!

To be honest, focussing on one art form has always proved very difficult for me. I grew up loving painting, music and writing, and I've found that I tend to express different sides of myself through each art form. I would never want to create a painting that's cynical or dark (tried that as a youngster. Totally wrong...) - if I want to take vengeance on the world, I will turn to words; I'll invent characters and put them in situations where right can prevail and wrong can be thoroughly mocked and derided. For me, art will always be linked to my love of nature and the world around me; words express my feelings about people, politics, emotions. As for music, it's patterns of sound I'm craving, more than emotional things. If I practised just one art form, I would feel very unbalanced. Practising three means that I will never create huge bodies of work in any one, but I don't feel my work is diluted by a lack of focus. I aim to do small things but in a highly focussed way. So today for instance, I've practised a few Scarlatti sonatas, bought a canvas for the Basil picture, and worked on a synopsis for my novel. (Went on a brilliant course on how to get a novel published, last weekend - I really need to work on my pitching skills! And by an astonishing coincidence, the day after the course ended, my Essential Classics guest, Stephen Bayley, very kindly sent me a copy of his book, Life's a Pitch.  Is this the "synchronicity" I've read about in New Age books?)

Finally, what a pleasure it was to meet the peace campaigner and ecologist Satish Kumar,  in the week leading up to International Day of Peace. I always learn a great deal from my guests on Essential Classics (you may have heard Baroness Julia Neuberger, the previous week), and Satish gave particular enlightenment on dealing with hardship. During his many pilgrimages, if he was unable to find shelter for the night, he told himself it was an opportunity to sleep beneath the stars; if he was unable to find food, it was an opportunity to fast. I've found myself trying to copy this way of thinking when dealing with everyday stress. It really works. And quite apart from that, I really enjoyed hearing Satish's musical choices - he took listeners off the beaten track and introduced music from various Eastern traditions such as those of India and Pakistan, always emphasising the links between East and West. He's certainly opened my ears to some new sounds for me - Vedic chanting, the singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the flute playing of Hariprassad Chaurassia. Here's to pilgrimages - of both the ears and the feet!











With Satish in the studio











...and another inspiring guest - Baroness Julia Neuberger

When skills go away

A slightly distorted Scotney Castle - digital finger painting

Having acquired an Ipad, I am learning how to use the Brushes application to create some digital finger paintings. It's a fascinating process; the app is fantastic for doodling - you can be endlessly creative, particularly in non-representational styles - but having decided to do some representational pictures, I set about learning to create the sort of effects that are fairly simple with pencils, pastels and paints. I visited Scotney Castle in Kent on one of our rare lovely days recently, and sat for an hour or so trying to sketch a particular view. I was intrigued by the difficulties. I've always found drawing relatively easy (I was lucky to be taught at a very young age by my dad, and put in loads of early practice) but now, I could neither sketch a straight line, nor a right angle, nor an elipse. I could not draw two lines and make them meet at the desired point. I couldn't make a chimney sit at the centre of a roof; it sat where it emerged. My finger wobbled about all over and I had very little control! This was frustrating, but also brought a certain pleasure: I have dark memories of my drawings being criticised at school for their boring correctness ("You should go into forgery," I was once told) and I envied the exciting primitivism of the other kids. I've never managed to master distortion - I find it hard to look and not recreate exactly what I see. But here I was, looking, seeing, but being able to produce only a distorted version of the scene in front of my eyes! Instant credibility! ;-)

Although I hope to learn to control the Brushes app better in future (eg. I have ordered a stylus!), I have learnt something from this early experiment - that a good way to break out of a tired old style is to somehow handicap myself - make an old skill inaccessible. Maybe I'm just talking about that old chestnut, limitation - one can be incredibly creative when working within strict boundaries...even frustrating ones.

Arranging and improvising

Angela & me - devoted duettists

It was a great pleasure to accompany vocalist Angela Dijksman at the Foresters in Egham recently - we were invited by the Strode's World Jazz Project to appear as guest artists in the interval between the band's two sets. We selected four standards - Cry me a River, Orange Coloured Sky, The Nearness of You, and Someone to watch over me, and I prepared some simple arrangements - some of them inspired by the big band versions we often perform together, and others entirely invented by me. It occurred to me, while sketching in ideas for the solo middle sections, that what I was doing was not truly improvisation, but was quite extensively pre-meditated; I wondered if (given the option of more time to internalise the harmonic & melodic contours of the music) it would be better to allow those sections to be more spontaneous. Then, reassurance landed, in the form of my next Essential Classics artist of the week! He's Leonard Bernstein, and while I was listening to his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (a fully written-out piece that encapsulates many elements of jazz) I contemplated the idea that how music actually sounds may be more important than how it's constructed. Not that I want to forgo the art of improvisation, and write out every note of an arrangement - that would be too tedious, time-consuming and dull...but pre-planning ideas seems to be a good way of getting the imagination to work, without being tied down by the limitations of the fingers. Anyway, I'm looking forward to my next chance to perform with Angela, who is an extraordinary singer! Also looking forward to the next week of Essential Classics: we'll be including not only Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, but the West Side Story Symphonic Dances - another big favourite of mine - and lots of other Bernstein recordings. Hope you can tune in.

Teaching and doing

That old saying, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" has always annoyed me. It is so full of falsehood and spite. Of course there are bad teachers, but there are also terrible doers. Teaching should not automatically be ascribed the lower status. I started thinking about the value and status of good teachers during my research into the work of an upcoming studio guest for Essential Classics - the poet Jo Shapcott, who'll be featured on the programme from the 25th of June. Jo Shapcott teaches brilliantly and is also enjoying huge success in her poetry career; she is representing Britain in the Olympics' Poetry Parnassus. And some of her teaching comes free, on the internet. All young poets should follow this link: - in fact the advice on that website would help any writer...even a composer: it's all about how to make your work grow in length after you've reached an apparent impasse. Jo advises you to leave the work for a short period of time, then return to it and cover up all but the last line. Treat that line as the first line of a new poem. Simple, perfect genius!

By sheer coincidence I stumbled upon another brilliant educational resource on the internet - a lecture on improvisation by the renowned jazz vibraphone player, Gary Burton. Burton plays down the importance of modes, which - it seems to me - dominate current jazz education and encourage a very vertical way of thinking: "what scales can I play over this chord?" He recommends a more horizontal approach; if a jazz standard has an interesting tune, then surely the improvisation should focus on exploring the contours of that tune, not the scalic possibilities of the supporting chords. I've heard that Thelonious Monk often took that approach. When Burton does discuss modes, he focusses on their colouristic attributes, their emotional qualities, rather than their technicalities. In a world brimming with confusing, verbose jazz tutor books, his clarity is very welcome. 

Let me know if you have examples of brilliant teacher-doers...and if no-one springs to mind, do join Rob Cowan & me at 10.30 on weekday mornings...our Essential Classics studio guests are bound to inspire you!

Music, art, therapy

Nigel Hartley

When I performed recently in the Dame Cicely Saunders concert series at St Christopher's Hospice in South London, it was a great pleasure to catch up with my friend Nigel Hartley, who holds the post of Director of Supportive Care. Nigel and I studied for our Master's Degrees together, both focusing on piano, and although our careers seem to have taken us in very different directions, it's clear that Nigel is just as involved with music and arts as I am. As a radio presenter, it's often my hope that my programmes may be helping someone through a tough day. Well Nigel and his colleagues help people through tough days, every day. He kindly gave this exclusive interview specially for my blog, shedding light on art and music therapy, the hospice movement, and on his own very individual career path.

SW: Nigel, you're Director of Supportive Care at St Christopher' important are the arts to your work?

NH: Well, part of what we've achieved at St Christopher's, is bringing together a large team of artists in order to work with our users. Having trained as a musician myself, I've been really aware of how the arts can help vulnerable people in a number of key ways. Most people coming to the end of their lives are looking to make some sense of what is happening to them; the experience can be isolating and frightening as we don't have a language to talk about death and dying. The arts can offer alternative structures and contexts for people in order to help them come to terms with things. For instance, capturing and understanding one's life story or creating a legacy to be left behind, the arts open up possibilities and potential in many ways. The arts are also important to us organisationally and as a senior manager, I am acutely aware of how the arts can help to address some important strategic imperatives. For instance, many of us would rather not talk about death and dying unless we absolutely have to. One of the failings of the modern hospice movement has been the lack of impact on communities for them to address the end of life as part of living. It is not uncommon for people to be afraid of hospices; hospices get a lot of financial support from their local communities, but many of them would never dream of entering the hospice building. I think this is a real challenge and responsibility for the current generation. We will all die and we will all be bereaved. We know that becoming acquainted with death as part of life, can help people understand and contemplate their own death in a different way - Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement said that the way that people die remains in the memory of those that live on. It is unusual for us to think that death can be a good experience and it can be managed well. The media don't help with this - when do we ever see a "good death" on a soap opera? We have a very successful arts project with local schools. This project, which has been championed by our team of artists, has really helped to dispel myths about the work that we do within out local community. We have worked with children from the ages of 10 up to 18 years. The class come to the hospice and over a period of four weeks meet together to create artwork which will either be exhibited or performed, both at the hospice and the school, but also within other community venues such as theatres, libraries etc.. Some of the art projects have been extraordinary, with one group creating a series of death masks from different cultures, whilst others have written songs together and recorded and performed them together, or taken patients' stories and turned them into theatre. This project has been rolled out nationally to other hospices. At the moment, we have a grant from Arts council, England in order to further develop this project into Care Homes across South London. So, our artists are helping us to fulfil another key aim of developing quality services for older people as they come to die in Care Homes. The arts are key to our work at St Christopher's - there is a "bigness" about them that offers potential for people to grow and develop at a time of their lives where this would seem meaningless or even impossible.

SW: The hospice has a fantastic recital room, and for a while now you've had a thriving concert series there. What are your aims with the series?

NH: The concert series has been another attempt to engage with the local community in a more positive way. We are in the third year of the series now and have had some great musicians come and perform - the cellist Robert Cohen, and of course, yourself! Thomas Allen will perform in December this year. We have an eclectic mix of music from classical to jazz and blues, we even had a performance from a Blues Brothers Tribute band. Getting people into the hospice in this way hopefully helps them to see that we are quite normal really, and that difficult things, although distressing, can be well managed. We also, of course, wanted to create an intimate concert venue which could be seen by musicians as a viable "out of town" option when wanting to perform. We are always interested to hear from people who want to try out a programme, so I always encourage people to get in touch with us. The concert series has developed over the last couple of years and is now part of a much larger "Social Programme". All of the Social Programme events are open to our patients and families and friends, as well as staff, volunteers and members of the general public. The programme is available on our website - - but is heavily based around arts experiences. For instance, we have a community choir which meets every Monday evening, and a curry and art night every Tuesday evening!

SW: Sounds great! There's certainly plenty of good food on offer in the intervals of the Dame Cicely Saunders concerts - St Christophers' hospitality is the best! You rubbed shoulders with David Hockney recently, in your project Personal Landscapes - Views from the end of life. Tell me about that, and are your links with the Royal Academy set to continue?

NH: Well yes. This was an interesting experience. Some time back, I spoke at an even at the RA. They had an exhibition on fashion, and our arts team had done an exciting project with the London College of Fashion some time back, where a group of young women, all coming to the end of their lives, came together with postgraduate students from the college to design and create their own outfits of a lifetime. It was an outstanding achievement both for the women involved, but also for our artists and the students. So, I was invited to an event at the RA to present the project and give my thoughts about fashion and illness. It seemed quite natural that we find a way to do some kind of arts project together ,and I have been really impressed by the RA for taking us on and creating a partnership which will now develop on an annual basis. As Hockney's new exhibition was to be about "Personal Landscapes" it seemed a natural fit to base a working project around the same theme - so we called the project "Personal Landscapes - views from the end of life." A group of patients worked together both at the hospice and up at the RA, and created a range of artworks inspired by Hockney's new work. A large 9ft by 16ft landscape, a large quilt and a series of smaller works were exhibited at the RA during the event to celebrate and culminate the work that had been done together. There was also a debate in front of a live audience with myself, Sheila Hancock, Sir Richard MacCormack and Peter Hewitt. These kinds of live events are always interesting, as my experience is that many of the audience want to ask their own questions about death and dying - it makes me realise again that there are very few opportunities for us all to do this. The partnership with the RA is now to be an annual event. The benefits are summed up in the words of one of our patients, who said after being involved in the Hockney project, "I've never painted in my life and now in the last weeks of my life, my painting has been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art - my children will always have that memory..." I would love David Hockney to have been involved in the project in some way, but I understand that an artist at that level needs to remain slightly distant in order to survive! I think he would be impressed by the quality of what's been produced, and also that a large group of people facing their own mortality have been so inspired by his own vision and passion.

SW:  When you trained as a pianist, did you ever imagine you'd end up in a role like this?

NH: God no! If anyone had said that in 25 years you will be a Senior Manager in a hospice I would have thought they were bonkers! However, in retrospect, you do see all kinds of unforeseen connections and drivers. I think one of the problems with music education - all of the arts for that matter - is that it doesn't prepare musicians and artists to be of help to others. What I mean by this is that what I have learned, is that the greatest gift a musician can give is the experience of "being a musician" to those people who have never trained. I learned this through improvisation and using active music making in the past with people coming to the end of their life. I also think that the attention to detail I have learned through creating and performing music has been incredibly useful. I always think that one of the unique things about music making is that you can "hear people listening to each other". Isn't that extraordinary? You know if people are listening in a way that we can never be absolutely sure of when we are using speech. I would never say that music is better than speech, and I hate that phrase "beyond words". I love words and they do extraordinary things - music just does something different - a different and unique way of being together. Training in management, I have also realised the benefits of having been trained to a high standard as a musician - it has helped me to think through problems and issues differently - I am acutely aware of things needing to "flow" and to keep evolving, if that makes sense.

SW. I know what you mean - we can all be resistant to change, but it's the natural order of things! So what do you enjoy most about your job, Nigel?

NH: I love my job and feel as if I'm the most lucky person in the world. I love being able to have ideas and then having the support to make things happen. I also love working with people who are at an extraordinary time in their lives. It doesn't make me less afraid of my own death - but on a good day, I think that I might just be able to bear it!

Click here to learn more about St Christopher's Hospice

Wall Art and Gallery Art

neon tetra fish (wax pastel/watercolour)

Browsing through the Next Directory recently I was intrigued by the product description of those colourful prints they sell (daisies, cappuccinos, you know the type of thing): they are called "Wall Art". I rather like that. It's an honest description of the goods - yes, those pictures are a kind of art - but it's the kind intended simply to enhance your home decor...mass produced, with no pretensions to originality. No-one is going to sue the Next Directory for misleading them, after they ordered some Wall Art. 

Maybe this stuff captured my attention because of the recent furore surrounding the work of Damien Hirst, and the thorny question of whether his work can be classified as art, or whether it is (to use author Julian Spalding's term) Con Art. Personally, I feel that Hirst's work is no more of a con than Wall Art. Those sharks and cows in tanks do have an aesthetic function; they're potentially attractive to anyone who has a big space to fill - a gallery owner perhaps or someone whose home is large enough to benefit from a diverting installation. And as that diverting installation must be relatively exclusive - no point having one if everybody else has, too - then it must be priced accordingly. I'm sure those gallery owners are perfectly clear about the nature of what they're buying and find that their Hirst does its job of impressing the neighbours very well.

However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Hirst's installations are art by virtue of the fact that they make you think, as some supporters of his work have claimed.  Most of us non-Zen masters are thinking all the time, and mortality is surely a very commonplace subject for contemplation....rarely leading to enlightenment. I get the same gloomy feeling when I go into the Natural History Museum. I don't think an art work's worth can be measured by the quality/quantity of words it puts into your head; on the contrary, what I notice about great art or music is that it momentarily stops the flow of words. The artist is saying something - and creating a response - that cannot be expressed in words.

To me, Damien Hirst's pieces are certainly a kind of art: they're Gallery Art - very much bonded to their context; functional, existing to serve that big white space. In fact, maybe Gallery Art and Wall Art exist at opposite ends of the same spectrum. But what is that spectrum? Con Art seems too derogatory a word for it, and I'm not sure if anyone is really being misled by either the gaping-mouthed shark or the cute cappuccino. It's a kind of commercial spectrum, that's for sure - I don't think either work could come into being without the intention of being sold.

The painting above is the latest experiment of a distinctly uncommercial amateur: me. I aimed to recreate the luminous effect of neon tetra fish by using water-resistant wax pastels, overlaid with a watercolour wash. Looking at that picture, the thought enters my might be great fun to construct a huge tank and fill it with fake neon fish, artificially lit! I could create Gallery Art!:-) But hang on, you can buy fake fish tanks from the Argos maybe it would just be Wall Art... :-(



Composer of friendship

Radio 3's season, The Spirit of Schubert, runs from Friday 23rd March to Sunday 31st

I had a highly enjoyable three hours in the studio today - launching the first Essential Schubert programme, and having the pleasure not only of a remarkable studio guest, Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger, but of listening to Tom Service present his Schubert Lab (wearing white lab coat and flanked by a skeleton). Tom's guest this Monday morning was the musicologist Richard Wigmore, and together they explored the idea of the magic of Vienna, and what effect the city may have had on Schubert's music. One thing Richard said really struck a chord with me. The topic concerned Schubert's Viennese predecessors, Beethoven and Mozart, and how they were dependent upon the aristocracy for patronage. Schubert, said Richard, was the first "composer of friendship" - or at least, the quintessential one - not dependent upon the approval of aristocrats, but able to function in a circle of like-minded friends, all eager to create new works of art, music and poetry together. Richard also pointed out that contrary to myth, Schubert was not "unsuccessful" - he enjoyed considerable fame in Vienna; his music spread, despite the absence of publishing deals, large-scale concerts and commissions. The parallels between Schubert's artistic survival system and that of the English Experimental composers whom I studied for my doctorate was suddenly made very clear to me. When studying their music I had paid a great deal of attention to the social side of Experimental music, believing it to be a means of independence from the "Establishment"* - its fashions and its demands. Composers such as John White and Hugh Shrapnel have always espoused a friendly system of "I'll play your piece; you play mine," and as such, their work has remained pure - unconcerned with getting money out of persons of influence who may or may not have a reliable idea of what makes good music. This doesn't mean their music has no respect for the audience: it's not "free" in that sense (I love that line in Suzi Gablik's book, Has Modernism Failed, when she quotes a critic who regrets that "the freedom of the modern artist is like the freedom of the insane; they can do anything they like because nothing they do makes any difference."). Like Schubert, these composers are communicating very meaningfully with a group of like-minded friends: a group that is ever-growing. How intriguing to consider that Schubert's social life was the means for him to stay true to himself artistically, and thereby create works of such genius. I wonder if there are "writers of friendship" and "artists of friendship", too? 

* The's my definition: a network of people who have influence over which kinds of art prevail. It's not necessarily bad nor good.

What you love...

a holiday on the Yorkshire coast

The David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy gave me lots of inspiration and food for thought, as I was expecting. I went round quite quickly, barely to process the enormity of it all - just one room of pictures could keep me happy for hours. In fact, the idea of Abundance (discussed in my October 29th post, 2011) was very much in evidence, and I wondered what this might tell us about Hockney. It has to be significant that he paints what he loves, not what will impress other people . Secondly, he paints with ease; each tree and flower, expressed with just enough energy but not too much. In fact the spontaneity of his work was particularly apparent in a wall of watercolour landscapes: I wasn't expecting to see watercolours (the exhibition was mostly oils and digital work), and was fascinated by his technique, which seemed very different from traditional, wash-based work, yet unselfconscious, uncontrived. I liked this juxtaposition of traditional landscapes with a rejection of the traditional, learned techniques (I've laboured over that traditional approach long enough to wonder if it's just a formula - impressive when done well, but with predictable expressive results). There was even one painting with what looked like a "mistake" on it - a watery blob spreading outwards on an expanse of grass (there's a word for that effect - art teachers call it a "cauliflower".) But the vitality of these watercolours inspired me. To begin every painting with a perfect graded wash, no matter what you're looking at or how you feel about it, seems wrong.

But I think the message of  "do what you love" is ultimately what I took away from that exhibition, and this is a message for people working in any art form. Feeling shame about our true leanings, and choosing instead to produce work which will impress others (and many clever people are not impressed by Hockney's landscapes), is described by Julia Cameron as a kind of artistic anorexia. I once went on a diet with a huge list "forbidden" foods. It didn't take long before I no longer knew what I liked and what I didn't like. A good learning experience for me. I suppose many critics will feel that countryside landscapes have all been done to death and should go on the "forbidden" list. Personally though, I feel a vase of sunflowers or lilies floating on a lake are still perfectly valid subjects - you, the artist, haven't necessarily looked closely at them before, have you? To your eyes, they are new. Seeing the Yorkshire Wold come to life in David Hockney's paintings was quite moving for me: he seemed to be saying "this landscape is important." At last, someone agrees with me!

Pianistic challenges

can you spot Basil?

Now Rob has taken over the Essential Classics chair for the next couple of weeks, my thoughts are turning to jazz. The Strodes Big Band have a gig at Jagz in Ascot on the 20th of March, and one of our numbers is a big piano feature called Cross Currents, by Ellen Rowe. I thought of her last Thursday, International Women's Day - I can't understand why she isn't more famous. She's a composer, pianist, arranger and educator, and her work has all the hallmarks of a first class musician in any genre: a great ear for harmonic direction and colour (amazing voicings - I'm so glad she wrote them all out instead of just giving chord symbols!), superb orchestration, and satisfying structure. I'd like to get to know more of her work, but in the meantime I need to get my brain around the big solo in the middle of the piece. I seem to be practising at the wrong speed, so when I get together with the band, my ideas feel uncomfortably slow. Though it's not easy to practice soloing alone...especially when I sense I am being closely observed by Basil, who has taken to hiding inside the piano.

If you want to come along to the Jagz gig, it would be great to see you! You'll need to book a table - the details are here.

Back to childhood...again!

my first experiment with Neocolor I wax pastels

Testing out my theory that childhood is a golden age of creativity, I recently decided to arm myself with some child-like artistic tools, simply to see where it might lead. So I treated myself to a tin of 30 water-resistant wax pastels - Neocolor I by Caran d'Ache. These crayons certainly inspire a feeling of child-like confidence and enjoyment, and unlike traditional wax crayons the colours are satisfyingly rich and deep. Brushing over the bright red and pink jellyfish with a deep blue wash felt exciting and nostalgic, but it was not possible to leave adult concerns behind entirely: the group of jellyfish still had to be structured, the complex, eggy bits somehow implied. My experiment was fun, but not the return to child-like innocence I had hoped it would be. I'd like to continue working with the pastels and see if I can integrate them with watercolour painting in a different and more expressive way. So I'm thinking of taking a trip to Underwater World (part of the wondrous Bird World near Farnham, an important centre of animal conservation where you can marvel at the most beautiful and bizarre creatures): the little neon tetra fish are very pretty and might be suitable for this sort of treatment. Speaking of which... I love Hockney's statement on prettiness in art: "Loads of people, particularly artists, hate pretty pictures. Now I've never met anyone who didn't like a pretty face." Quite so! Can't wait to see his exhibition - have booked to go next month. Hurrah!

Creativity and redbush tea




The 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth has whirled past us - what a busy week that was for Claire Tomalin, my guest on Essential Classics. Many of my friends have been enjoying Claire's biography of Dickens - I was struck by Claire's modesty in asserting that novels are so much harder to write than biographies - and yet, her biography has a huge appeal to the imagination. Dry facts it is not. Even her pre-history of Dickens was interesting, every character and place described within the context of the writings, the things we all love. I had to break off my reading of the book in order to research my next guest - a man I've admired since my teenage years - Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty! But I'm returning to it soon. 

I want to introduce you to a new blog. My friend Caroline Ridley-Duff, a fantastic poet and writer, has started sharing her thoughts and poems on the internet. We had the following email conversation about it.

Caroline Ridley-Duff

SW: Tell me about the new blog - what's it called and where can I find it?

CR-D: My blog is called Redbush Ramblings, a name inspired by my fondness for redbush tea. I wanted to give my blog a relaxing, "tea break" type feel, and I envisaged it as a chance to talk about all sorts of random subjects in a light and hopefully uplifting way. The blog can be reached at

SW: You've always been quite private about your creative work - why did you decide to go public with the new blog?

CR-D: I kept hearing from friends who had written blogs and I was quite curious about them, so I decided to write my own. To begin with I thought of it as just an outlet for my thoughts, a kind of online diary and I felt it would be a good discipline for me to get into a regular writing habit and a handy way of keeping all my different pieces together in one place for future reference. It's true that I am very private about my creative work, but I've been writing online book reviews for the past 18 months or so and have become more confident with the idea of people reading and evaluating my work. I am very interested in finding strategies to cope with stress and anxiety and I am keen to share my ideas on how to get the best out of life in terms of creativity and personal well being. I don't pretend to be an expert on this or to have all the answers, but it would be great if my thoughts could trigger reflection in others so that new ideas can be developed and exchanged.

SW: What sort of topics is the blog going to cover?

CR-D: It's going to be very random, I hope. I will write about whatever inspires me on a particular day. my aim is to draw "life lessons" from the things I observe in my day-to-day life and the situations I find myself in. However, I want it to be upbeat. I won't be writing about anything depressing! Writing for me can be very therapeutic and I want the things I write to have a calming and uplifting effect on the reader (rather like a cup of redbush tea and a chat!)

SW: I certainly find those things therapeutic! I even keep redbush tea in the Essential Classics studio! Thinking of your poems now - I see you've published some of them on your blog. Where do you tend to find your poetic inspiration?

CR-D: I see my poems as little snapshots, a way of capturing a moment - a passionate moment, a moment of love, hope, elation, etc.. Time can so quickly cloud a memory and there is always a tendency to over-analyse one's experiences, so I like to write poems to capture the rawness of the feeling, before it becomes contaminated by sentiment or cynicism.

SW: You've written novels and stories as well as poetry. Have you ever felt the pressure to get your work published in a traditional sense?

CR-D: I think the pressure is always there. Most people just assume that you are going to try and get your work published and you also have to deal with what I call the "silent critic" in your head, which makes you question why you are writing if you aren't going to try to get published. I am a great believer in writing for pleasure, however, and the fulfillment for me comes from being able to express my ideas and thoughts, to find healthy outlets for fantasies, dreams and memories, to learn thing about myself through the exploration of different subjects. That said, I'm not ruling out trying to get my stories published in the future, but it really isn't a priority for me right now. I'm just loving the journey of writing, without giving much thought to the destination.

SW: What do you think are the greatest challenges to creative people?

CR-D: Finding time for creativity in a busy world is obviously a huge challenge. In particular, those of use who juggle family and work responsibilities are being pulled in so many directions and have to play so many different roles that we need to positively fight to express our individuality and personal space. The busier and more complicated your life is, the more you need creative expression, yet ironically there is less time for it. Finding the right balance is hard.

SW: What's the most valuable thing you've learned in your years as a poet and writer?

CR-D: Be spontaneous. Be receptive to creative ideas all the time but don't force them. Be like the artist who always carries a little sketch pad around with him and takes it out to draw when something captures his eye. Write when something moves you. Sometimes you'll produce a rough sketch, but maybe sometimes you'll produce a masterpiece. Just go with the flow.

SW: Thanks, Caroline, and good luck with the blog!

Click here to check out Redbush Ramblings

A trip to Birmingham

I've just returned from Birmingham, where I was asked to be the after-dinner speaker for the Birmingham Bach Choir's annual dinner. It was a great pleasure to meet lots of new people - many of them Radio 3 listeners - and to catch up with my good friend Tony Wass, the sound engineer for my album of piano music by Dave Smith. For my speech, I did a whistle-stop tour of my radio career and pondered over the things I've learned through presenting a wide range of programmes - not just Essential Classics, but many others including Building a Library (where the differences between equally valid performances can be astonishing) and Pianothon (where I learned to value each performer as a unique individual, and not to bother comparing people).  On the subject of looking for the "best performance", I dredged up an old Zen koan...the one about the customer and the butcher. Master Banzan witnesses a conversation where the customer asks for the best piece of meat in the shop. The butcher replies that every piece is the best; there is no piece of meat that is not the best. On hearing these words, Banzan was enlightened! (I turned to Tony at this point in the speech, hoping he had brought a small gong into the dinner, then he could round off my story with a suitably mystical noise).  Food for thought, if you pardon the pun. 

Also giving me food for thought at the moment is the idea that I must go to the Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy! His work is still a great source of inspiration for me; a man who looks at the world with eyes open to all the magic out there. Not to mention the amazing colours - I've read how Hockney notices the entire colour spectrum in the glittering surfaces of those lush swimming pools he used to paint. By coincidence, I've been studying the Full Colour Seeing method of Susan Sarbach recently - it's based on direct observation and being alert to those myriad colours that we so often miss, believing them not to be there. After early experimentation, Sarbach rejected various common colouristic approaches such as symbolic colour (eg. using red to represent passion), personal colour (eg. I like turquoise so I'll use it a lot), colour contrived to make an object appear to project or recede, and so on. Now, she just looks. 

It's not an approach that all artists would embrace. Not all artists like to look out at the world - some have amazing images in their heads that they long to get down on paper. But I think I'm the looking type, and that's why I find the work of Hockney (and Sarbach) so deeply encouraging. Maybe I was just brought up that way - I remember my Dad telling me to "paint what you see, not what you know to be there." Below, a grittily realistic image of the sort of person I saw at school...;-)

magazine cover designed by me, circa 1979

Jazz at Christmas

Robin in the park, mixed media

It's that time of year when we are all going mad trying to get ready for Christmas...but some of my friends are particularly busy at the moment. Vocalist Nette Robinson and sax player Tony Woods have been preparing for a really special recording for BBC Radio 3, which will be broadcast on Christmas day. It's of Michael Garrick's Peter Pan Suite, and it'll be featured on Jazz Line-Up at 11pm (in fact Tony and Nette will be in the recording studio as I write). Michael Garrick sadly passed away in November; Tony and Nette had worked with him for some time, and I'll never forget the lovely concert I was lucky enough to attend earlier this year at Riverhouse Barn, Walton on Thames - Michael playing piano, Nette singing, Tony on reeds, performing mostly compositions by Michael himself. Enchanting and poetic. Nette very kindly gave me this interview, describing her working relationship with Michael Garrick and giving us a glimpse into the Peter Pan Suite.

SW: How did you get involved with the music of Michael Garrick?

NR: It all started back in early 2009. I had decided I wanted to perform a programme of Bill Evans' compositions as part of the Way Out West series (a musicians' collective that organises a weekly gig in the west London area.) At the time all the projects I led were chord-less bands so there was no obvious choice of pianist to ask to perform with me. It was my husband Tony Woods who put me on to Michael. He occasionally depped in Mike's big band and remembered his son Gabriel saying that if anyone ever needed a pianist for a gig, to think of his Dad. So I phoned him and I arranged to pop down to the next big band gig for which Tony was playing to give him my charts. After the gig, I really thought that would be the end of that - I thought our performing together would just be a one-off. However, a little later in that year Michael phoned to ask me to perform with him and a band in the autumn at his local jazz society (of which he was a founder, honorary Life President and great supporter.) He started sending me his own music in the post which felt a little unnerving - it looked difficult and I only had the written chart to go by and make sense of before our rehearsal! It was an amazing experience. It was clear that he wanted to keep working with me after that gig. That felt a great honour. By the next month he asked me to record an album in tribute to Bill Evans which included some of the wonderful songs Michael had penned. He also asked me to teach on his Jazz Academy residential course.

SW: What was it like working with him?

NR: It was a wonderful, if challenging experience working with him. He expected a lot from me, but because of that my confidence grew enormously and I surprised myself with what I was able to achieve. We formed a really close musical bond over the time and I felt so very much at ease when we performed (most of the time, at least!) That was something very special as I had not worked so closely with someone, nor worked on so much original material. It was a great pleasure to immerse myself in the wonderful songs that he'd just written or indeed, dug out from his musical archives that hadn't been sung for decades - if ever. He loved that I was always keen to learn new songs!

He was such a creative and energetic individual and would constantly be coming up with new ideas and arrangements for compositions. I found it just a tiny bit exasperating sometimes (especially if we'd spent the evening before sorting out arrangements and rehearsing them!) but alongside that, I couldn't help but feel a sense of joy and wonder that he was so open to new ideas. On more than one occasion in the recording studio, or at a sound check, having just run a piece, Mike would completely change his mind on eg. the tempo, the line-up, the feel, etc or would start re-writing parts or be sat at the piano conjuring up some backing figures for myself or the horns!

It was also lovely to spend time away from the bandstand. He often came to Tony and I for dinner, or we'd go to him. Michael and I would often go for an Indian after a recording or mixing session and have a good laugh. I used to enjoy being able to talk and listen to all his many stories when we travelled to gigs together. (Not being a passenger in his car, however. That was a slightly unnerving experience to say the least!)

SW: What do you feel you've learned from him?

NR: I learned a great deal from him - probably more from him than from anyone. Although he wasn't a singer, he taught me a lot about it. I had always been very much focused on clarity of my delivery, but he actually helped me to improve this side of my performance. It wasn't always something I greatly enjoyed at the time, being told how I should be singing in front of the band just before the audience arrive (!), but in retrospect (annoying!) he was always right and I took on board what he said. He also taught me that it's paramount to tell the story. Again that is something I always felt I had focused on, but yet again, on numerous occasions, he showed me that I wasn't always doing that. There was one time when I was struggling to do a take of his setting of one of Shakespeare's Sonnets in the studio. I was tired and getting more stressed because time was ticking by. He came into my booth and said to deliver the message of the song. Then he read the poem and went back to his booth, leaving me with tears in my eyes. We did one more take, and that's the one we used.

SW: Tell me about the Peter Pan Suite that's being broadcast on Christmas would you describe it?

NR: The Peter Pan Suite is great fun and so imaginative. There are 10 pieces, each describing some character or element from the story. It begins with Peter Pan and ends with Never Land. When I listen to the music, I can hear how he used it to reflect the characters.

SW: Why do you think Michael was attracted to the story of Peter Pan?

NR: Michael loved the story - the magic of it, the humour of it, the underlying issues of characters that you didn't get from the "watered down version". He always urged people to read the full, unabridged story and not the simplified version. Tony and I sensed the Peter Pan in Michael. He was very child-like in a lot of ways; his energy, his joy, his playfulness on and off the stage...

SW: I definitely sensed that when I saw you perform together at Walton! So how are rehearsals going?

NR: His son, Gabriel, is leading the band now and he is doing such a great job. He understands how to get the best out of the musicians and is determined to make the rehearsals an uplifting and positive experience. When we all turned up Thursday morning to rehearse the Peter Pan Suite at Maida Vale, the first thing Gabriel did was to get the rhythm section to set up a groove and lead us all into C Jam Blues. It was a great idea just to get everyone relaxed and playing before launching into complex charts that some had never set eyes on. As a horn player, Gabriel understands the need for the band to have a good break before a gig. I know they all very much appreciate that!

SW: He sounds like a wise musician! When I saw you the other day at Jagz in Ascot, you mentioned you've been doing some work with an acting coach - so a new direction for you - what's that been like?

NR: Indeed I have! It has been amazing! For the Peter Pan Suite I am required to narrate as well as sing, thus I felt it was really important to understand more about how to deliver the words in a more convincing and interesting way. I knew it would be extremely useful, but in my great ignorance of acting and speaking, I never appreciated quite how much I would learn. The actor, Caroline Perkins is just incredible - she spent well over an hour dissecting my narrating of little more than 10 lines of one of the pieces. She explained that in certain ways narrating is more difficult than singing; you have no written melody so have far more decisions to make in terms of where to pitch your voice and how to interpret phrases, etc.. She taught that it is essential to understand exactly what you're speaking - every word of it and how you are going to interpret it. "You don't want any surprises," she told me. In other words, to deliver something convincing, you have to have made all your decisions about mood, tone of voice, dynamic etc. before you stand up on stage to perform.

SW: Maybe I could use that advice in my radio presenting! Looking to the future now... do you feel that your involvement with Michael Garrick and his music will have a lasting effect on you?

NR: Definitely. Michael was someone who was inspiring to work with and has given so much in many ways. He has helped me to develop musically and in terms of technique. I had to develop; his music is challenging. The melodic lines are often tricky, the vocal range required is often large. The works are sometimes full of harmonic intricasies and rhythmic complexities. As well as that, the forms of some songs are very long with many lyrics for me to internalise. When I started singing jazz at the age of 18, I thought I would be performing standards for ever more. Full stop. That's what I listened to, that's what I did and I couldn't imagine doing anything else. When I started opening envelopes Mike sent me in the post, I found I was faced with songs that were not 32 bars in length in a nice easy regular 4/4 swing! (Don't get me wrong, I love old standards. Mike loved them too!) But working it was the beginning of an incredible musical adventure! I will continue to perform his music, but I will always take with me all that I learned from such a great friend and musical genius.

Books, broadcasts and other things

Summer herbs from my garden (watercolour) - an image to counteract the cold, dark December days...hopefully...

I've noticed recently how I am reading much more quickly than I have for some time. For quite a few years after the birth of my daughter I found myself unable to concentrate well enough to get much enjoyment out of novels. To be honest, I was too tired, even to read on the train. But I seem to have read more over the past year. Knowing that novelist Mavis Cheek was due to be a guest on Essential Classics spurred me to read her latest novel, The Lovers of Pound Hill, which I devoured with great enthusiasm - and meeting Mavis herself was also a great pleasure. Since finishing her novel I've already reached the end of another one, which I found by chance while searching for something with a historical flavour - Madame Bovary's Daughter, by Linda Urbach. It's a sequel to the celebrated novel by Flaubert, and it prompted me to reflect on the art of the sequel. A few years ago I read Perfect Happiness, by Rachel Billington, a sequel to Jane Austen's Emma. I admired this book for many reasons: not least, that Jane Austen's novel does not cry out for a sequel, having such a joyful, conclusive ending. Still, the author found a way of taking her story forward - and in the style of Jane Austen! Surprisingly convincing and highly enjoyable. Flaubert's novel, too, doesn't exactly cry out for a sequel, after its most interesting character, Emma Bovary, is conclusively and horribly dead of arsenic poisoning. However, I think a sequel is an exciting idea for many reasons. Linda Urbach sets out to right the many wrongs which surround the character of Madame Bovary: the society which doesn't allow her to make her own living and which forces her to enter into her disastrously dull marriage, the inexperience and addiction to fantasy that drive her to spend, spend, spend until she is ruined, the physical desires which lead her to hook up with a handsome man who turns out to be a villain. Flaubert leaves us to assume that the same sort of thing will probably happen to Emma Bovary's daughter Berthe - or perhaps he wants us to hope that Berthe will be more sensible and will settle for the "woman's lot" which was not enough for her foolish mother. Well in this sequel, I'm glad to say that Berthe discovers a "third way".  Born with the same beauty as her mother, and identical desires - for fashion, luxury, and charismatic men - she makes wiser choices, and despite even harsher circumstances, she insists on making her own living. With economic independence comes self-respect and, hey presto, no tragedy! It's as if Victorian Woman has been vindicated, de-victimised in this novel (which reminds me why I love the novels of Wilkie Collins: his women are never victims). What do you think to these modern sequels to classic novels? Let me know.

Persians and poetry

Basil's First Worm - one of the photos that inspired Hugh Shrapnel to write his latest work, Basil (for piano duet). Shrapnel remarked on the "Rothko-like intensity" of the image. ;-)

It's been a great pleasure chatting to poet Michael Rosen in the Essential Classics studio over the last week. Michael was generous in sharing many insights into the making of poetry - how he finds inspiration and how he inspires others. His open-minded attitudes embrace experimental methods, playing with words in a systemic way that, having studied English Experimental music, I very much relate to. I've never dabbled much with poetry, but after talking with Michael, I was inspired to hunt down an old and rather experimental miniature poem I wrote when my daughter was a baby. The poem consisted entirely of baby words, in fact it used Maria's entire vocabulary. It's all in capital letters because it's meant to be shouted. Here goes:


*Ditdy = Dusty, our cat
*Bats = rabbit, her favourite toy

I did realise that it was a bit unformed and not really long enough to make a satisfying poem...but those were the only words available. I arranged them so as to make a pleasing rhythm and to try to express the excitement of being a baby learning to talk! Anyway, meeting Michael Rosen has certainly encouraged me to be more playful with words.

I'm busy rehearsing with composer Hugh Shrapnel this week: Hugh has written a new piano duet, inspired by my cat Basil. Just like Basil himself, the piece has many different moods, from gentle purring to wild, manic activity. There's also a wonderful, gamelan-like quality to the music which reflects Basil's exotic appearance. We're premiering the piece on Resonance FM on December 9th, and we'll also be playing Ladywell Fields from Hugh's album South of the River. Plus music by John White and Satie, and a couple of my own educational pieces including Disco Ball Fever from the Strictly Dancing book. It's proof that I was a child of the 70's!


Lizzie and a sample of her abundant wardrobe

During the half-term break, I had the opportunity to explore Bath Abbey,which was a most enjoyable experience! The organist was clearly trying out the loudest passages of Saint Saens' Organ Symphony, but not wishing to disturb the visitors too much, so we had short blasts of music which made many of us clutch at our hearts in shock and nearly lose our footing on the uneven stone floor. Personally I would have loved to hear more, but on the other hand the hushed, echoey ambiance of a cathedral is very special. While exploring the nave, I was delighted to discover an extraordinary exhibition by textile artist Sue Symons. She had created no fewer than 35 dyptichs, collectively entitled One Man's Journey to Heaven: Thirty-five Episodes in the Life of Christ. The pictures were in the style of illuminated manuscripts, with objects and text rendered in colourful textiles and calligraphy inks. Finding the first picture quite by chance, I was then astonished that the exhibition went on and on. Just five or six of these glowing images would have made an impressive display - but the artist's inspiration (she was sparked off by a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion) was unstoppable - seventy exquisite pictures! This all got me thinking about abundance in relation to creativity, and what a rare quality this is. It's interesting that Sue Symons created the Bath Abbey Diptychs for her own pleasure, not imagining that they would be displayed or published: could this be part of her secret? Not aiming to impress anybody, just setting out to complete a project which would help to develop her calligraphy skills? I'm reminded of that passage in the book Art and Fear - I wrote about it in my post on Perfectionism (22nd Feb 2011) - where a ceramics class is divided into two groups, one being asked to create a single, perfect bowl and the others, as many bowls as they can. The finest products emerge from what you might call the Abundance Group, rather than the Quality Group. A simple lesson, but not an easy one for our artistically self-conscious age. I'm wondering about adding Abundance to my list of the Childhood Rules of Creativity (posted on 8th December 2010): it's another of those things that we relinquish as we become more serious. As a child, I created literally hundreds of outfits for my paper dolls. I made dozens of dolls, too. I've recently revisited them, as my daughter has taken an interest in creating a collection of her own, and I've started designing the little outfits again to get her started. It's great fun, but I hope it will help encourage me to create more abundance in my grown-up creative endeavours. In the here to create your own Lizzie doll from my Free Downloads page!

Why improvise?

A couple of years ago, my husband helped to raise money for our daughter's school by putting his services up for auction: "Dinner Jazz Trio for your function." Sure enough, a lady made a bid, and Martin and his two musician colleagues were booked for a party. However, the party was postponed, and the other two players - a brilliant vocalist and guitarist, both doubling on saxophone - were unable to make the new date. There was only one solution: I would have to stand in, as vocalist and pianist, and we were lucky that Bristol-based drummer Trevor Davies offered to join us. So I spent this summer building up a set list of jazz standards, suited to my own basic crooning skills, and while Martin took on most of the soloing on vibraphone, we decided that I would solo on some tunes. One of the songs we did was Jobim's bossa nova classic, The Girl from Ipanema. I love this tune, as the harmonies are so beautifully shaded, and the melody very subtle: it's not easy to sing without the chords, but even with full backings the phrases in the middle 8 section are hard to pitch, starting on the major 7th of the chord. However, what I found most difficult was soloing, ie. improvising over the structure of the tune. Although I know the piece very well, no improvisatory ideas would come - well, none that convinced me, anyway. It's only in the last few days - weeks after the gig - that I was struck by the idea that perhaps The Girl from Ipanema doesn't lend itself to extensive improvisation. The chords and tune are so profoundly mutually-dependent, that one could not exist without the other. For me, the chords don't invite anything but their own, special tune.

This all made me wonder, what it is that sparks off improvisation, anyway? What are we doing when we improvise? I think improvisation stems from the natural human tendency to hold a tune in your head for a long period of time, singing it over and over, and finding yourself embroidering it, thinking around it, imagining different ways of navigating the corners and cadences, adding descant lines and different rhythmic feels. But it's also true that some chord sequences seem more open to interpretation, and could support a whole host of credible tunes other than the one they were designed to go with - one example that springs to mind is Stolen Moments, which I've played with the Strode's Big Band. I feel the solos could go on forever! 

In the end, my version of The Girl from Ipanema had a short little instrumental section where I just reiterated the tune on the piano, adding a little bit of embroidery but not much. I came right back in with the vocal on the middle 8. Fingers crossed for the old major 7th! 

Bonjour, Biqui!

Suzanne Valadon with her son, Maurice Utrillo

It's been a busy and exciting few days, presenting my first week of Essential Classics. One of the most enjoyable things for me was welcoming Rachel de Thame as my studio guest - a real inspiration, in fact I notice I've been pottering around in the garden a bit more this week, mowing, mending a bird table and gathering up bits of rubbish that were hiding in the lawn (a mushy paper plate, cat toys, you know the sort of thing). It's not up to Rachel's standards yet, but certainly looking a bit neater. 

On my way home from the Essential Classics studio I've been relaxing with an excellent novel on the train. It's called Suzanne: of Love and Art, by Elaine Todd Koren, and it's based on the life of the artist, Suzanne Valadon. I knew her only as the single love affair of Erik Satie, and I recall visiting the street where her studio was located, in the Rue Cortot in Montmartre, close to where Satie had his "placard" - the room which was little more than a cupboard. Researching into the life of Satie aroused my interest in Valadon, whom Satie addressed affectionately as "Biqui", and after learning more about her, I'm surprised she is not better known. Painters such as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec acknowledged her as one of their own - which is quite something, given the tremendously negative attitude to female artists at the time. Elaine Todd Koren's novel is great on many levels - atmospheric, racy and colourful, but also with intelligent insights into the concerns of artists, from their practical techniques to their essential motivation. Here is a writer who "shows" rather than "tells" - so a simple fragment of dialogue, for example, can contain a whole world of meaning. There's a lovely passage where Suzanne tries to reassure her young friend Modigliani ("Modi") that his work is worthwhile. He is having trouble selling his paintings and is tortured by being unable to find his own style. Suzanne, bewildered, tells him: "Just paint what you see." I know that's only a character in a novel speaking, but what wisdom there - paint what you see, and how you see it will be your style! Modi, of course, does find his own style - elongated heads and almond eyes, and though Suzanne is happy for him, she feels this is mannered. I am fascinated by the differences between the two artists expressed in this fragment of dialogue. Modi's self-consciousness is emblematic of 20th century modernism; Suzanne's instinctiveness seems to belong to the past. And yet, her attitude feels exciting. Could it work in our own age? Just paint what you see? I'm going to try it! I've been really inspired by this book. And, of course, how fantastic to meet Satie as a character in a novel! I imagine it was harder for the author to bring him to life than anyone else in the entire book. She's done a great job.


Basil enjoys listening to Radio 3

Something very exciting is happening on Monday morning. Rob Cowan is launching a brand new show on BBC Radio 3 - Essential Classics! Rob will present the first week, and I'm doing the second - then after that we'll be doing two weeks each. We'll have a studio guest, there'll be regular brainteasers (do email or text in your answers! I love reading them out!) and we'll have lots of great recordings of your favourite music (and ours). The programme starts at 9 o'clock. I really hope you can be with us!

Thank you!

A view of the viaduct in Arcueil Cachan, where Satie lived

I just want to say thanks to all the people who have been in touch about my Satie feature, which was recently repeated on BBC Radio 3. Erik Satie remains such a mysterious and fascinating figure, and the aesthetic he created seems just as relevant now, almost a hundred years after his death. His music shows us beauty without Romanticism, simplicity without predictability, and humour without superficiality. The sort of things that today's composers still care about. Following in Satie's footsteps (literally) felt like a way of getting closer to him, and I was able to experience his world from a fresh, everyday perspective during my trek across Paris. I'm really delighted that so many listeners were able to share in this. 

Thinking about Satie recently takes me back to some of the ideas I explored in my old post, Habit and Style (January 2011). I was pondering on the little tics in people's creative work, that beg to be ironed out and replaced with something less automatic, but might in fact represent a person's style, their individuality. You could argue that Satie had ingrained compositional habits. For instance, he mostly wrote for the piano as he had little experience of orchestral instruments. Was that a lazy habit? If so, it's a lazy habit that allowed for the expression of his genius! 

Well, Satie's genius was his alone. But we can all pinch a bit of his attitude, and work diligently and obsessively within our limitations instead of aspiring to the world beyond. For me, that means cultivating my pastel pictures instead of worrying that I've never graduated to oil paint. What does it mean for you?


If you're interested in creativity, you might be familiar with Leo Babauta's blog, I was intrigued to come across his much-read post, The No.1 Habit of Highly Creative People. And the number one habit is...(sorry to spoil the surprise)...Solitude! My first reaction was Yes, I can agree with that. Picasso even said "without solitude no serious work is possible." The trouble is, solitude is a rare commodity, especially if you're a parent or carer, and perfectionist quotes such as Picasso's can be discouraging for us normal folk. Solitude is ideal but if we are determined to be creative we have to learn to function whether we have access to it or not. I'd also suggest that "serious work" is a very loaded term. For many creative people, intending to do serious work can be an expression of approval-seeking, and end up as the pathway to self-consciousness, which is rarely the pathway to genuine originality. Like the quest for perfect solitude, it's a holy grail. I wonder how much solitude Duke Ellington enjoyed when he scribbled tunes down on the back of restaurant napkins while on tour with his orchestra? Or, for a more up-to-date example, how much solitude did JK Rowling have when she started writing her Harry Potter series in the corner of a coffee bar? As well as the background rabble, she also had a baby in tow! And did she intend to do "serious work" or simply take Harry Potter off on some fun adventures? In fact, thinking about this whole "seriousness" business, I believe it was Picasso himself who said "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." I like that quote a lot better. Solitude may be the ideal condition for creativity to take place, but perhaps the really important knack is to go into that bit of your imagination where you are alone, playing like a child. Screen out the background noise as well as you can, and find a sort of virtual solitude. 

A quick pastel sketch of Basil 

Satie walks again!

Arriving at the venerable cabaret, Au Lapin Agile after my long walk across Paris last Autumn. Cabaret owner Yves let me play the cabaret piano. It's a superbly atmospheric venue where you can hear music ranging from French revolutionary songs to Serge Gainsbourg. And you can join in while you sip the lovely cherry liqueur they serve.

Erik Satie Walks To Work is going to be repeated on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday the 27th of August at 12.15pm. Please check out the Radio 3 website for more details.

Holding the baby...

One of the best websites I've ever found in terms of encouraging creativity is The Painter's Keys, built by artist Robert Genn with the aim of building a supportive community of people working in art-related fields. A lot of the practical information is specific to the visual arts, but there's a fantastic database of Art Quotes which give inspiration and encouragement to all creative people, and the "Clickbacks" forum goes deeply into many topics - for instance, the wisdom of taking on a teaching job to support your artwork; the question of whether amateur artists are undercutting professionals; what to do when inspiration fails, and lots more. One of my favourite posts is Art and Motherhood; here, Robert Genn opened a debate on how to continue with your artistic career once a baby has come along. He'd had a letter from the Maryland artist, Cedar Lee, who was having a hard time combining both, and he told readers that "letters like Cedar's come in here like leaves from a shaken maple. I'm conscious that many artists, both male and female, use the advent of parenthood as a scapegoat for failing careers. Artists in this predicament need to examine their true motivation for this popular complaint." Now, taken out of context, that statement sounds unsupportive, and I want to be clear that his overall message is extremely sympathetic. However, quite a few women wrote in to tell him off. "Your response to Cedar Lee contained some finger-wagging that needs to be challenged. First of all, the fact that your art career takes a back seat when you have a baby is real, not "scapegoating." The primary caretaker for babies is responsible for them every minute of every day all the time unless you have regular daycare. This is not "extreme" parenting. It's just normal," as one artist put it. She hits the nail on the head. The ironic aphorism about being left "holding the baby" has its roots in hard truth - to hold a baby takes both arms, and you can barely operate the TV remote control or drink a cup of (cold) tea when you are in charge of a baby, let alone hold a paintbrush. Many commentators seem to think that a baby lounges around in a cradle while you get on with your work. I thought this too, until I had one: then I realised that my life had narrowed to very few possibilities: basically, stand up holding the baby or sit down holding the baby (the liberation of walking while pushing the baby came later). No-one likes to whine about these things - we are lucky to have our lovely babies. But neither should we pretend that it's easy or, dare I say, healthy for creative people to find themselves in this insanely restrictive situation. What can we do about it? Some creative women have responded by writing books which expose and condemn issues such as gender inequality and lack of affordable childcare. Let's hope these books will eventually create change. For the moment though, reading such literature can bring only momentary relief to people who are sad at giving up their creative activities. Ultimately, as parents, we have to fight our own personal battle to retain a reasonable quality of life that allows us the creative expression we need. I have read both useful and useless advice on this subject. "Get up earlier," is particularly offensive to a sleep-deprived artist who cannot predict when the baby will wake up anyway. "Get a neighbour to help" assumes that there is some jobless, childless, sympathetic female stereotype next door just waiting to do your chores! As for "leave the housework" - well that just means you have to do twice as much tomorrow, doesn't it?!!!

I have learned a few things, though, on my own journey through creativity and motherhood. Here are my top tips. They are slight, and few, as this is a near-impossible dilemma. Perhaps my blog readers might be able to contribute some more ideas (wouldn't it be great to create a database of survival skills for creative parents?). 

- Experiment with miniatures. It's the perfect time to do tiny artworks/compositions, and your audience need never know you were forced to work on a small scale because you were exhausted and had only 5 minutes to spare. Make Miniaturism an intentional aesthetic!

- Experiment with the idea of loosening up. Whatever your discipline, cultivate sketchiness; work fast in broad brushstrokes. Like Miniaturism, you can make a virtue out of this.

- Remember that just because you are firing on a single creative cylinder does not mean your work is of poor quality. It might be different from before, but it might also be great, for all you know.

- Expect to be constantly interrupted, and keep on stubbornly returning to your work for yet another five-minute stretch.

- Leave art books lying around so you can delve into them for a couple of minutes at a time.

- Don't shun simple craft projects. They allow you to create pleasing things without the strain of cognitive input, and this can help keep the creative cogs oiled for that moment in the future when your brain is allowed to work again.

- Enjoy the creativity in your child's world: CBeebies and CBBC offer much-needed stimulation if you can cultivate an interest in how programmes are made.

Reading through that list, some of the tips sound a little insane. But early parenthood is an extreme situation which calls for extreme measures. Surrendering to a life without creativity is not an option!









I'm looking forward to presenting a Proms Plus event next Sunday, introducing Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. Being fascinated by creativity, and its survival in a world full of anti-creating forces, I am naturally fascinated by Havergal Brian. This man rarely experienced success as we understand it; performances were few and far between, and what breaks he had, he was unable to build on, being of a shy and self-effacing nature. But musical giants such as Elgar and Richard Strauss respected his work, and he had the determination to carry on composing for the whole of his long life - many of his 32 symphonies were written in his eighties and nineties. There's a gulf between his creative force and his level of "success" in the world that piques my curiosity, and as I delved into the Gothic Symphony I maintained a completely open mind, determined to decide for myself whether the man was misguided or not. If you tune in next Sunday you'll hear my conclusions regarding the Gothic Symphony in particular. But what I want to share with you now concerns the issue of originality. Writing a huge, ostensibly Romantic symphony the 1920's is part of Brian's image problem: we have been taught to give more respect to composers who forged new paths, not danced down the old ones. How can we respect music which seems so old-fashioned, so unoriginal?  I think part of the challenge here is to be clear about what originality means. Robert Simpson, a great admirer of Brian, said: "ultimately we can only do what we are constituted to do: whether we do it well or not is really what matters - and contact with durable human instincts is more truthful than tagging on to fashion." Julia Cameron  echoes that in her creativity manual, The Artist's Way: "It is the ego's demand that our work be totally original - as if such a thing were possible. All work is influenced by other work. All people are influenced by other people. No man is an island and no piece of art is a continent unto itself." Urging artists to put such concerns aside, she adds: "If the demand to be original still troubles you, remember this: each of us is our own country, an interesting place to visit. It is the accurate mapping out of our own creative interests that invites the term original. We are the origin of our art, its homeland. Viewed this way, originality is the process of remaining true to ourselves." The Gothic Symphony resonates with Havergal Brian's inner world, and that world is incredibly rich: war, religion, romantic poetry, cathedrals, choral singing. Those were the true concerns of a working-class man in the 1920's, and they add up to something just as valid as the avant-garde theories and jazz being explored by more sophisticated composers.  

So...record breaking oddity, or massive masterpiece? Next Sunday's broadcast is a great opportunity to examine our ideas of what gives music its worth.








“…I must buck the tide of discouragement. I must see my fifty-eight years as years of valuable experience, not merely “age”. This perspective can be tricky to maintain. Ours is a youth-oriented culture. We are trained by television and the media to focus on those who are young. Our pop stars are youngsters. Their fortunes are immense and their futures bright. We do not read much or hear much about life in the arts for older people. We do not have many role models for doing what we must do – and that is persevere.” Julia Cameron


Those words, from Julia Cameron’s book Finding Water , have sparked off conflicting reactions in me. Firstly, I thought: “but there are plenty of older people in classical music.” True, but are they useful role models for perseverance? For pressing on with your work when it falls out of fashion, out of favour, or when you hit a mental or physical illness or a problem in your family? Or is all that stuff all hidden and generally glossed over, so we’re left with an unhelpful veneer of perfection: people finding their way to a pedestal or ivory tower and staying there for the duration?

I think it’s easier to find role models for creative perseverance in the pop music industry, glossy as it is.  Take the latest edition of Mojo magazine: there’s huge inspiration to be gained from candid interviews with many iconic artists of a certain age.  In Rock’n’Roll Confidential, by Lois Wilson, Debbie Harry openly discusses the working methods of Blondie and the skills she gained over the years: collaborating with Andy Warhol taught her the importance of listening and openness, to people, music, art and technology. And how a personal quality of stubbornness helped her to do things on her own terms so she would not “be seen through the male gaze, at a romantic disadvantage.”

In the same issue, you can read how Emmylou Harris continued in music despite an early, traumatic bereavement when her musical partner Gram Parsons died. Her words are incredibly touching: “In my mind, we would have kept making records together. I think there would most surely have been a …(pause) …true romance…And…you know…I almost didn’t want to take a chance of destroying this beautiful thing that was happening with our friendship and our working relationship. But I always thought there was time, so much time. And then he was gone.”

Then there’s Kate Bush, whispered and gossiped about for disappearing from the gig circuit, lampooned for her extraordinary voice, but still happy to share the details of the creative process behind her wonderful, poetic song writing, and the way this has evolved since childhood. She even laughs at the way her work “endures enough to keep taking the piss out of.”

And that’s just the women. In the same, June edition of Mojo, I found many other creative grown-ups whose stories provide inspiration: Bryan Ferry, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan…and if you’re looking for a late starter, how about actor Hugh Laurie, who’s just brought out his first piano blues album? These artists are every inch as cool as the younger ones, yet miles away from pedestal-status: Laurie admits that a recent performance in New Orleans had him quaking: “Anxious? I was terrified. That was the first time I’d ever played live, with a band, in front of an audience.”

Maybe classical artists undergo the same challenges when it comes to perseverance.  It’s just that those challenges are more hidden, less acceptable to the public. Virtuosi such as Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich have both been the subject of bewilderment due to their creative decisions – decisions which strike me as a matter of personal survival: Gould opting to do studio recordings instead of concerts, Argerich shunning solo recitals and gravitating instead towards chamber music with friends.  We should view these decisions with respect and a healthy dose of curiosity – they show just how many different ways there are to sustain an artistic career.  (Wasn’t it great to see Martha on the front of the latest BBC Music Magazine, the long steely-grey hair still speaking of rebellion, individuality, female strength…not unlike Mojo’s portraits of Debbie and Emmylou, par coincidence!) Here’s to the older ones – may the inspiration continue.


Art, music, audience








Maria's artwork comes to life, behind the silhouette of Geoff Spencer's bass

Over the past year, I've been promoting, hosting and playing in a series of gigs in Egham with my husband Martin Pyne: Tallguy Live Music Nights. We've invited musicians associated with our label, Tallguy Records, to come and play, with the aim of creating some intimate and entertaining evenings - unusual stylistic mixtures that you wouldn't easily find outside of a big city. Last Saturday's gig was a combination of music and visual art: the trio Busnoys played two sets, and were joined by artist Maria Hayes who created new digital paintings in direct response to the music. In between the Busnoys sets, Canadian singer and guitarist Jimmy Goodrich treated us to a sequence of new songs, sparking off more beautiful pictures from Maria. Watching art being created from scratch is fascinating and immensely satisfying - sometimes you can sense how the picture will develop, and it's possible to imagine that the audience is guiding Maria's hand as she works: viewers, art and music seem to merge. At other times, each step Maria takes is a surprise. It's engrossing! At the end of the gig, audience members were invited to purchase whatever pictures they liked, in jpg format - just £10, with permission to print! Quite a few folk took Maria up on this generous offer - imagine what a great talking point the picture would make! Maria let me loose with her digital art set up, so she could monitor the quality of the projection on the big screen. I had a great time! I'm very tempted to buy myself a graphics tablet and art software - I usually work with pastels or watercolours and love the idea of a mess-free medium.

Maria Hayes has collaborated with many artists in other disciplines - dancers as well as musicians, and she's recently worked with June Tabor, singing and storytelling, on a project about the selkies. Click here to find out more.








Relaxing with Maria after the gig

Birthday Celebrations for Erber and Emsley!











This Friday, the two chaps above will be celebrating their 60th birthdays in a concert at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead. They're composers James Erber and Richard Emsley, and this photo was taken in the Kaufhof, Darmstadt, in 1984. Ah, they look like happy, festive days! But this Friday will also be happy and festive! It's a three part concert starting at six o'clock, and we're going to be treated to performances by violinist Darragh Morgan, pianist Jonathan Powell, and flautist Matteo Cesari. Lovely chamber music in a great venue for new music: Rosslyn Hill Chapel is at 3 Pilgrim's Place, Hampstead High Street, London NW3 1NG.

So, how are the guys feeling about their looming birthdays? What things have they learned about musical creativity that they can share with my blog readers? James very kindly gave this interview.

SW: What are you most looking forward to about your 60th birthday concert this Friday?

JE: Hearing Richard's and my music being played by three phenomenal musicians: Matteo Cesari, Jonathan Powell and Darragh Morgan.  A particular highlight will be the first complete performance of my threeTraces pieces by Matteo, who is one of the finest young musicians I have ever come across.  Not only can he handle all the extended techniques a composer can throw at him, but he has the most seductive flute sound imaginable - pure molten honey.  The Rosslyn Hill Chapel is also near where I grew up, so it has many happy memories for me.

SW: You've teamed up with Richard Emsley who's also celebrating his birthday. How did you two get to know each other?

JE: I first got to know Richard and his music in the late 1970's, when he and James Clarke were running the ensemble Suoraan.

SW: Do you & Richard encourage/support each other regarding your music? If so, how?

JE: In about 1986 we began to meet fairly regularly to discuss our work and other related topics over a pint or two.  25 years later we are still doing this.  Our most recent local is the pub you introduced me and Morgan to!

SW:  That'll be the Dover Castle, then! If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

JE: I would advise my younger self to cultivate a more honed set of networking skills and to be more proactive in picking up on the opportunities that presented themselves (and those that didn't).

SW: Are there any particular people who've provided inspiration to you throughout your career?

JE: Brian Ferneyhough, with whom I studied between 1981 and 82, was the most stimulating teacher I could have wished for.  He remains a good friend and helpful critic of my work. 

SW: What personal qualities have served you well in your composing career? And are there any qualities you're planning on cultivating over the next decade?

JE: Staying power and belief in the validity of what I am doing as a composer.  Staying power and belief in the validity of what I am doing as a composer.  

SW: What are your musical plans for the year to come?

JE: I am hoping to start a concertante work for piano, harpsichord and ensemble.  It's a tribute to C.P.E. Bach, whose music I find more intriguing the more I hear and study it.

SW: Which actor would play you in a movie of your life?

JE:  That's the hardest question of the lot!  In a dark restaurant in North Wales I was once mistaken for Art Malik, so it would have to be him.

Thanks, James Erber, and Happy Birthday to you and Richard Emsley!


Thinking outside the box

Firstly, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who came to my recital at the Dame Cicely Saunders recital room at St Christopher's. It was great to see composer Hugh Shrapnel and some good friends of his: Carole Chant of Resonance FM, ex-Scratch Orchestra composer Michael Chant and pianist John Lewis, another Scratch graduate. John deserves extra credit for being the first of us to try eating the pansy petals decorating the divine puddings on offer at the interval. He reported that they were very nice. Actually, the entire hospitality at St Christopher's was amazing - many thanks to the staff for their warm welcome, especially music therapist Tamsin Dives.

Something has been bugging me for the last few days. I am unable to think Outside The Box. You know that little exercise where you have to join up nine dots using just four lines? I just can't do it! Making the classic mistake of the uncreative person, I always see a square box around those nine dots, and fail to envisage a diagonally-placed umbrella. (You can try the exercise here if you fancy a go). Feeling quite grumpy about this "party trick", I hesitated to buy a book by the man who invented this exercise, John Adair. But I'm so glad I bought it! It's called The Art of Creative Thinking, and it's one of the most down-to-earth books on creativity I've ever found, written by a man whose career is fascinating - he's best known as a business leader at the very highest levels, but earlier on served as a platoon commander in the Scots Guards. His chapters are short and to-the-point, and while everything he says has a practical relevance to creativity in the world of work, he demonstrates how it all ties in with the actions of inspirational artists, scientists and inventors throughout the ages. For instance, he tells the story of how Soichiro Honda was struggling to find a more elegant design for his four-cylinder motorcycle. His response to this was to take a break in Kyoto, where he found himself fascinated by the face of a Buddha statue. He could see a resemblance between the look of Buddha's face, and how he imagined the front of the motorbike would be. After enchanting us with this story, John Adair sums up the lesson: Thinking by analogy, or analogizing, plays a key part in imaginative thinking. And he rounds off with a quote from Goethe: Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again. That's just a tiny sample from a book overflowing with riches. I sense not only a virtuoso of creativity in John Adair, but a Renaissance Man! 

Using pansy petals as food could also be an example of analogizing!

Recital tomorrow

It's been a busy month of preparing for my recital tomorrow (5th May, 7.30 pm in the Dame Cicely Saunders Room, St Christopher's Hospice, Sydenham), but a great pleasure to relive some fond broadcasting  memories of the last couple of years. Much of my programme is inspired by places I've visited as a radio presenter: the Mendelssohn Museum in Leipzig, the Schumann House in Zwickau (where curator Dr Thomas Synofzic played Clara Schumann's piano so beautifully...I hope my performance of Traumerei is even a fraction as touching as his!), and of course, the streets of Paris, where I followed the footsteps of Erik Satie, enjoying the final privilege of a nice sit-down at the Lapin Agile in Montmartre. With trembling arms (I was quite tired after the 10km walk) I played Satie's waltz Je te veux on the cabaret's current piano, which rather alarmingly, was able to record my every note and play it back with ruthless precision. I'm playing Je te veux tomorrow as my finale, and before it, Hugh Shrapnel's enchanting Cat Pieces. Might even fit in Hugh's postlude to the suite, Dusty Dreams. Many people ask me about the charismatic fluffy grey cat in my Radio 3 presenter video. That's Dusty, sadly no longer with us, though his spirit seems to live on through Basil, a veritable lion!


Dusty     Basil

Having fun











My niece, Xanthe: a connoisseur of fun!

Still on the subject of The Inner Game, I've been pondering one section of Barry Green's book that I confess I'd skipped before. It's the part where he advises you to make your practice fun. I can't quite explain why this passage never resonated with me. Maybe I felt that fun was all in the mind, and that the music itself should be fun enough. How can you make your practice more fun? Well during the past week, I've been on holiday in Wales, and feeling anxious about not being able to practise, I decided to take my old Roland XP10 synthesiser with me. It's a basic workstation with unweighted keys, and I doubted that it would be much use; but it was duly loaded into the car, and on the first evening away, I took it out.  Going through my warm-ups, scales and Dohnanyi exercises, I realised that it was in fact great fun to do them in different synthesiser voices. CLAVI and DIST GTR were particularly crazy, along with 60s ORGAN. And while the light keys didn't demand finger strength, they demanded new levels of precision: lightly brush the neighbouring key and you have depressed it, and it loudly shouts out your mistake. This was good for me, as well as fun! I then took out my copy of Cat Pieces, by Hugh Shrapnel  (which I'll be playing in a recital that's part of the Dame Cicely Saunders Concert Series at St Christopher's Hospice in South London, on the 5th of May). The faster, toccata-like pieces - And Mouse and Curtain - took on a new, space-age quality; disturbing and menacing. The slower ones were mellow and beautiful using bell-like electric keyboard voices. I saw the pieces in a very different light, and again, had to be very disciplined in striking the keys only in their very centre. In addition, being obliged to wear headphones, I felt very uninhibited and tried a bit of experimental improvising! When I got back home and to my piano, I felt progress had been made. Let me know if you have any experience of making practice fun. Happy Easter!

The Inner Game

Would Self 2 be put off by this instrument?

I pulled out my old copy of The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey the other day. I haven't consulted it for over twenty years, and wondered if I might gain something new from the book, now I am in a very different place, musically speaking. It was useful to be reminded of concepts such as Self 1 and Self 2 - the parts of us that are rational and judgemental on the one hand, and instinctive on the other. The book argues that our musical performance depends on how much we allow the inner commentary of Self 1 to interfere with the high-level functioning of Self 2. When I was a student, and every performance was subject to judgement and competition, a relaxed unselfconsciousness seemed impossible, because any mistakes would be pounced upon by others. In fact, anything regarding the performance could be pounced upon, mistake or not! Twenty years on from such experiences, I certainly find I am more able to let Self 2 do the work, so I'm more open to the concepts in The Inner Game. But I do have a problem - that is, that my Self 2, in its state of pure mental relaxation, is not entirely trustworthy. If only it were! It's the instinctive, free-wheeling Self 2 who sometimes gets stuck in a sonata, repeating the Exposition section again and again, and unable to remember the way to the next bit. Or Self 2 might arrive at a structural junction in a Beethoven Sonata, and continue with a work of Schubert, having failed to clock the similarity until that point (Peter Donohoe warned me against the dangers of that mistake. But I'm sure he's never actually done it!!!). For me, the state of mind when performing is more a balance between the relaxation and imagination of Self 2, and the hard, on-the-surface knowledge of Self 1. The Selfs need each other - Self 1 would be hopeless without the finger-memory and imagination of Self 2, and Self 2 needs the intellectual understanding of Self 1. Or, maybe it's possible to put in so much conscious Self 1 work at the practising stage that you can completely switch it off in performance? That would appear to be the ideal, but it's a counsel of perfection that makes me suspicious, even though I bought into it as a student. Practising in a Self 1 mode is a joyless thing, and does not teach one to recognise and exploit Self 2. For me, at this stage anyway, the ideal is not to eliminate the interference of Self 1, but to be relaxed enough so that I can alternate between the two mental states at will, the protecting voice of Self 1 being there when I need it. I'd be interested to hear about your experiences.

What's important

I came away from a concert last night feeling very uplifted. The performer was Peter Donohoe, launching a complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas at The Red Hedgehog in Highgate, London. I had the privilege of hosting the pre-concert talk with Peter, who shared many fascinating insights into Beethoven's music. Our discussion ranged from the significance of keys, to Beethoven's rapid progress towards greater maturity within the three opus 2 sonatas, and whether Beethoven could possibly have won a modern piano competition. The audience at the Red Hedgehog were keen to ask questions, and one I found particularly interesting concerned the issue of performance nerves: "How do you manage to look so laid back when you come on to perform?" Peter Donohoe's answer to this reflected his vast musical experience. After playing with orchestras so much (as soloist, orchestral pianist, percussionist and conductor), he has learned that things do go wrong, but orchestral musicians learn to just carry on without becoming - as Peter put it - "suicidal". And often, to one's amazement, the audience didn't even notice anything amiss. These experiences teach the performer what's really important. What kind of experience are you giving the audience? Are you projecting how you feel about the music? That emotional connection is what the audience wants. 

Certainly, that's what they got from the performance last night. Stunning piano playing, full of bouncy virtuosity and good humour. And The Red Hedgehog is the perfect venue for Beethoven's music - atmospheric, informal and intimate. Well worth checking out. The second concert in this eight-part series has just finished as I type: I'm definitely going to try and be at some of the others, and Peter Donohoe is giving pre-concert talks before each one of them. Click here to find out more. In the meantime, let me know if you've heard any words of wisdom which have helped you deal with performance nerves.

Warming up

I'm currently practising for a piano recital which is going to be part of the Dame Cicely Saunders Concert Series at St Christopher's Hospice in London. It's been a while since I did a solo recital, and I've been exploring some new approaches to practising: including the gentle art of finger exercises. For many years I held the view that exercises were slightly pointless, because the music itself held within it the key to technical mastery. And I didn't think much of them as warm-ups: you can warm up by playing the music itself, at a slightly slower speed if necessary. In addition, the tendency to look at the fingers (lowering the eyelids) while exercising brought on a sense of hypnotic drowsiness. I preferred to lift my eyes to the music and thus stay awake, aided by the stimulation of musical interest. But in this recent spate of practice, my views have changed. I've started to suspect that finger exercises can build brute strength, which tricky passage work demands but can never create in itself, no matter how repetitions you put in. Not only that, using vigorous finger exercises really gets the blood flowing to the muscles, after which you feel joyously primed and ready to dive into the music, which you can then play with far greater technical ease. And it wastes very little time - just ten or twenty minutes can make a difference, and the whole practice session feels much more effective. I was interested to read, in Dakota Mitchell's inspiring book Finding your Visual Voice,  that the American artist Robert Burridge does warm-ups. "Every morning I paint small images that I call my "little gems" as a warm-up exercise. These are usually still-life subjects - things such as fruits, coffee cups, vegetables, wine bottles and florals." He's then ready to get on with his proper work - starting by making a giant mess on the canvas, then pulling images out. It's a great metaphor for piano practice!

Click here to check out Robert Burridge's art. It's exciting, colourful and highly individual.









I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening at King's Place last night. Laurence Crane's birthday gig was packed (with brilliant performances all round, from ensemble Plus Minus), and I also had chance to attend the opening event of Fiona Talkington's Eesti Fest, where Roland Taylor interviewed the Estonian Skype genius Sten Tamkivi. Far from being a dry discussion of technology in isolation, I found that much of what Sten had to say was directly relevant to the issue of creativity. When quizzed about the reasons Skype had been developed in the small nation of Estonia, basically by four guys in a room, Sten explained that working from small beginnings has many advantages. Ideas must be developed in the quickest, most efficient way possible - usually, in the only way you know how. There's no time to consult specialists, form committees to make decisions, put managerial structures into place. You just have to get things done, the best way you can. This had me thinking about the issue of perfectionism. There's a passage in Art & Fear which describes a ceramics class where the teacher divided his students into two groups; one would be graded solely on the quantity of work produced, and the other on quality. The first group were told that a quantity of fifty pots would gain an A grade; for the second group, producing a single but perfect pot would gain an A. When grading time came round, the "quantity" group had actually produced works of the highest quality, while the "quality" group had produced great theories and a pile of dead clay. I've read similar parables before, but somehow the story of the pottery experiment really hits home: it's tangible, believable. Like Sten Tamkivi's description of the way his small team just got to work, not fretting about their limitations, I'm reminded to just sit at the piano and play, let time pass, forget the idea of trying to enter some special zone of perfect concentration. Play with the distractions there. In a way, it's a humble way of working, where you lose interest in how good or special you are, how hard you are trying, how conscientious and worthy of an imaginary teacher's praise. Perhaps non-perfectionism is similar to that ideal state of mind Copland described as "the opposite of self-consciousness"...well thinking about the pottery challenge (or about Skype!) seems a good way of getting there.

Happy Birthday Laurence Crane!

Laurence Crane

On Monday February 21st, the ensemble Plus Minus will be celebrating the 50th birthday of composer Laurence Crane at King's Place in London. I'm very much looking forward to the gig - Laurence has a unique composing voice with a fantastic ear for harmony, a fine instinct for structure and a great sense of humour - irreverent but affectionate, too. His music is often calmly therapeutic and the perfect way to escape from the hustle and hassle of everyday life! Seeking insights into his creative world, I sent Laurence a questionnaire which he has kindly filled in, specially for my blog readers! 

How significant does your 50th birthday feel to you?

I think my young self didn’t give me much of a chance of still being involved in composition at age 50; the fact that I am seems very significant to me.

If the 50-year old you could give advice to the 21-year old you, what advice would that be?

Keep working hard. Or, if possible, harder.

Have your feelings towards composing changed over the years? Do you feel you're still evolving as a composer? (and if so, how?)

My attitude to composing remains much the same as it was in my twenties; I want to write music that is entirely my own and that could only have been written by me. And to write music that is in no respect dictated by another person’s idea of what music should be.  

I hope I’m evolving. It’s difficult sometimes to assess that from the inside, as it were. I’ve never had an overall plan, I’ve just gone from piece to piece. Sometimes one explores something new in a piece, it seems like a new direction but then you realise it isn’t, it’s just an interesting diversion. For me the most important overall thing that has happened to my work over the past decade is that I have explored larger structures and have written several works of a more extended duration; my focus before I was aged forty or so was on writing miniatures.

Who or what helped you the most in your path to becoming a composer?

What: a stubborn and dogged personality. 

Who: many people but I would like to mention two; Michael Finnissy, not only for the inspiration and example provided by his own magnificent output but also for his consistent support of my work over nearly three decades and for some crucial pieces of advice that he gave me very early on. I never studied formally with him but I have learnt so much from him. And Anton Lukoszevieze, cellist and director of the ensemble Apartment House, because he started programming and performing my music at a time when hardly anyone else was interested in playing it.

Which people on the current music scene inspire you the most? 

Composer and musician colleagues who devote a huge amount of largely unpaid or underpaid time to run ensembles and put on concerts simply because they believe in the music that they programme and play.

I see that your song cycle Weirdi is going to be performed at your concert. Could you remind me what...or whom...the title represents? (Do they still exist? Do you like them? Are you one? Am I?)

Sounds like you’re trying to catch me out here! I refer you to the official ‘blurb’ for Weirdi which is that it “deals with people, places and incidents in an anecdotal style” Almost everything in it is true.

Kylie or Dannii?

Definitely Kylie, but only for her stellar late 80s work with Stock Aitken and Waterman.

What are your goals and dreams for the next 50 years?

I would like to win a mountain stage of the Tour de France, riding solo to the finish for at least the last 30 kilometres. But I accept that this now seems unlikely so I’ll settle with continuing to write music; I’ve got this far so I think I’d better carry on. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some wonderful and dedicated musicians and ensembles; the experience of collaboration in rehearsal and performance is a very rewarding one and I’d like to go on doing that. And I want to listen to a lot more music, there’s always tons of music to discover, more than is possible in a lifetime but I want to listen to as much as I possibly can. Not sure I want to live to 100 though. 

Thanks, Laurence, and Happy 50th Birthday! 

For more information on Laurence Crane's 50th Birthday concert, click here.

Urban art

Sunbury Cross by Nette Robinson

I'm often attracted to music which describes the urban jungle...An American in Paris, Ballet Mechanique, Quiet City, and many types of jazz (Joni Mitchell sums up the allure in her lyrics to the Charles Mingus standard, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat: "We came up from the subway on the music midnight makes; to Charlie's bass and Lester's saxophone, in taxi horns and brakes"). It's no surprise to me that the creator of the painting above, Nette Robinson, is also a jazz musician. Nette's paintings have rhythm and atmosphere, a boldness combined with emotional warmth. The series of abstracts currently being exhibited at the Sunbury Millenium Embroidery Gallery & Cafe are all inspired by the landscape of Sunbury Cross, where Nette lives. It's an area I know well. These are incredibly expressive paintings, describing this busy junction with an eye that's open to the magic of twinkling street lights, sharp angles, high-rise towers, the cosiness of being inside looking out at the dark night. Jazzy paintings! And, incidentally, Nette creates jazz portraits here to check them out on her art website, or visit her exhibition (on until the 28th of Feb 2011) at the Sunbury Millenium Embroidery Gallery & Cafe. And you'll find the same expressive qualities I've described here in Nette's music and dance work. Click on the links for more inspiration!

Nette Robinson

Photography with a paintbrush







 Mr Plum

Having read Hockney on Art, by David Hockney and Paul Joyce, I'm starting to find photography more and more fascinating. Hockney has wrestled with the issue of what differentiates photography from painting; finding that instant snapshots seemed to lack a quality of time, he began creating "joiners", where photos taken over a period of time would be joined together to form a sort of cubist collage. And he's argued that photography isn't necessarily the prime vehicle for Realism; photography can be illusory, it can distort the truth. Insights such as this could be a source of inspiration for many artists in applying themselves to realist painting with a new confidence.

But while painting can have the truthfulness of photography, photography can also have the imaginative fantasy of painting. One young artist who is exploring the nature and boundaries of photography is Rebecca Tibbutt. I came across Rebecca's work when one of my relatives in Worcester sent me a notelet with an intriguing and whimsical image which appeared to be an apple having a piano lesson. I contacted Rebecca, who's based in Worcester, and learned that the "apple" was in fact Mr Plum - he was created for the Pershore Plum Festival in August 2008 and won 1st Prize in their photography competition. Rebecca told me: "I look back to childhood for inspiration, try to think like a child, get rid of preconceptions and prejudices, open my eyes, be excited, notice even the smallest things and play, experiment, invent and have fun. The study of Surrealism is also a great source of inspiration for me...dream interpretation and the great powers of the mind and the subconscious." 

Mr Plum has had solo exhibitions, with the next coming up in April this year, at St John's Library in Worcester. But Rebecca Tibbutt's work goes much further than this: she's experimented with chemigrams, images created in the darkroom where real materials - eg. doll's clothes - are soaked in photographic chemicals then pressed onto photographic paper. This is a camera-less technique which often uses a paintbrush. The results are ghostly and beautiful:


And here's a sample of a photogram, part of a series exploring women's relationships with their handbags. Each picture offers an enigmatic portrait of an individual: hints of her profession, her private life, her sense of style:


Click here  to learn more about Rebecca Tibbutt's thought-provoking work. Or if you're in the area, pop into the Malvern Hills Gallery to buy a selection of produce related to Mr jam, but lovely greetings cards, coasters and mini books!

Rebecca Tibbutt

Joyful Art

I've been reading a thought-provoking book, Hockney on Art: conversations with Paul Joyce . It's full of inspiration for anyone who makes art, in fact I'd say that Hockney not only tackles some of the big issues but actually provides answers. Here's just a sample of his insight: it's part of a spontaneous conversation, taken from page 69 of the book:

"Art by its nature must be optimistic in wanting to communicate. The fact that it can happen is in itself a joy. The message might be that we're terrible, but it's a start to make us better, isn't it? That's the paradox of art, in a sense. It's why, in the end, angst works only for a while. But an art that's saying everything's terrible, everything's awful, can't really exist. It's a contradiction of the fact that some communication is taking place."

I suspect that every composer or artist has at some point wondered if his/her work should reflect the awful truth about the world, and that if it doesn't, then maybe it isn't valid. Hockney's viewpoint suggests that art is more complex and flexible. And looking at his own work, I can sense a joy in the act of making art, even when the image may not always make me comfortable. But then, if I am looking for comfort, (which I often do in art or music), he validates my need, with a painting of a beloved dog, for example, or a North Yorkshire landscape. I was thrilled to discover his landscapes of the road to York from Sledmere (I chanced upon some colourful prints in the gift shop of Sledmere House ). When going to the Yorkshire coast as a child, my parents would drive along that road, and they always commented on the mysterious landscape. "It's a ghost town!" they'd declare, to the delight (and terror) of the three children in the back of the car. "You never see anyone walking around!" I've visited Sledmere many times since then, and it's still true. And now I have a nice big Hockney print of that view above my piano, to bring back those happy memories. 

PS. David Hockney also has some interesting views about prints! More on that another time...

Sledmere village. Look, no people!
Click here  to see Hockney's painting

First Steps

Welcome to my first Guest Blogger, composer James Erber. James describes his path towards becoming a composer, and some of the people and things which have inspired him along the way.

First Steps

When I discovered music at the age of 11, I was lucky to be able to explore my new found passion in a sympathetic environment, both at home and at school. My parents (a painter and an architect) had always encouraged my voracious reading and interest in literature and the arts. The secondary school I went to shortly after my discovery had a solid musical tradition and (to my great delight) offered instrumental lessons, which, for most of my school career, were subsidised by the London County Council. I chose to learn the flute and, after an interruption caused by several months in hospital, eventually joined the school's fine orchestra, and enjoyed the many opportunities to take part in chamber music.

Learning an instrument led seamlessly to writing music. My first attempts were obviously derivative, but after a while I felt confident enough to show my work to some of the excellent instrumentalists among my fellow pupils, and performances in school concerts followed. My teachers offered me valuable support and advice, in particular my flute teacher, who visited my home to persuade my parents of my musical abilities, and the Deputy Head of Music (an incredibly far-sighted and gifted musician), who gave me my first composition lessons and helped broaden my already-expanding musical horizons.

Increasing knowledge of the musical repertoire both furthered my knowledge of literature and the visual arts, and introduced me to other disciplines. So, when I discovered Varese in my mid teens I was not only amazed and moved by the music, but also intrigued by the quotation from Paracelsus at the end of the score of Arcana, which sparked off a lifelong fascination with Hermetic Philosophy. The school library and, especially, the local Central Library were invaluable for my research. The latter had a large collection of records and scores, which I spent hours listening to and poring over. Radio 3, the Proms and concerts at the South Bank also enabled me to get to know a great variety of music. Some of my most significant discoveries were made at concerts in small venues, such as Mahatma Gandhi Hall where in July 1967 I heard the first performance of the wind sextet Prometheus by the then unknown Brian Ferneyhough, with whom I was to study 14 years later. 

JAMES ERBER was born in 1951 in London. Having gained Music degrees at the Universities of Sussex and Nottingham he studied composition from 1981 to 1982 with Brian Ferneyhough at the Musikhochschule, Freiburg-im-Breisgau. He has worked in music publishing and education.

His music has been widely performed and broadcast throughout Europe and in the USA, Australia and New Zealand by many eminent soloists and ensembles. It includes Epitomaria-Glosaria-Commentaria for 25 solo strings (1981-84), the Traces cycle for solo flute (1991-2006), two string quartets - An Allegory of Exile (1992-94) and Etudes-Tableaux (2010-11), Das Buch Bahir for 9 instruments (2004-2005), The Death of the Kings for 11 instruments (2007) and An Allegorical Landscape for clarinet, trumpet and percussion (2010).

Ian Pace's recording of You done torn your playhouse down for piano and Kate Romano's recording of Strange Moments of Intimacy for solo clarinet are available on the NMC and Metier labels respectively. A recording by Franklin Cox of Le colonne d'Ercole for solo cello will be released imminently on Centaur Records (USA).

The Genius of Mozart

Click here for highlights from Radio 3's 12-day festival, The Genius of Mozart

Mozart's name crops up in many creativity handbooks, usually as a symbol of unattainable genius - natural talent, the likes of which only crops up once a century. Forget Mozart, the struggling creative is advised - what he achieved was based on a God-given gift, and we mortals must forge our artistic produce in a different, more tortuous way. Well, having been immersed in the music and life story of Mozart for the last few days, as part of  Radio 3's Genius of Mozart festival, I now think differently about the composer, and his ability to teach us some useful lessons about creativity. In fact, Mozart is my new Creativity Hero!

I'm not arguing with the fact that Mozart had natural prodigious talent. One of my contributors on Classical Collection last week, Professor Paul Robertson, gave some interesting insights into this. It's been demonstrated, said Paul, that if you work for 5,000 hours, you will achieve competence, and after 10,000 hours, excellence. But what gives you the ability to put in those long hours? Talent itself:  talent is synonymous with that engagement with your subject (and of course, Wolfgang had his stickler-father Leopold there to make up for any failings of enthusiasm, unlikely as such failings may seem). The interesting thing, that other artists can learn from, is what Mozart did once he was thus equipped with excellence. Here are just three things I've picked up from this week:
- Mozart had the wisdom to sense where his gifts were best applied, even when the most powerful people in his immediate circle violently disagreed.
- Unsupported by any official establishment, Mozart cultivated "creative buddies" - writing pieces for friends such as the Weber sisters to help their careers, knowing that by helping them, his own career might be advanced. He was generous, and others saw this as a failing, but his ability to build a community of mutually supportive musicians prepared him well for the teamwork of opera.
- Mozart was prolific, churning out major masterpieces and inconsequential trifles alike, so his musical mind was like a well-oiled machine. Had he stopped the machine to censor his less brilliant efforts, believing them to be unworthy of him, would this have increased his output of the top-notch stuff? I doubt it. Yet I've met people in creative writing classes who've spent their lives perfecting one chapter of a novel. They'd rather write nothing than risk writing something unworthy. It makes me feel sad!

Being given 12 whole days in which to contemplate Mozart and his achievements (with the help of some fantastic contributors - Jane Glover, Roy Goodman, Leon McCawley, Andrew Manze and Paul Robertson) has definitely changed my approach to him: the idea of the "natural talent" now seems dismissive. It's how Mozart managed and directed his talent - often in incredibly difficult circumstances - that makes him so special. 

Creativity and self-consciousness

Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or subconsciousness, I wouldn't know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.               Aaron Copland

That has to be one of my favourite creativity quotes! Copland deserves Creativity Hero status, for his honesty and his obvious desire to de-mystify the creative process. Self-consciousness comes when we care too much about how our work appears to others, or whether it meets with other, internally-imposed standards. Copland is encouraging us to forget that, and just to do what comes naturally. Easy for him, you might think! Most of us go through our higher education learning how to be more self-conscious, so we become aware of our faults and can correct them, and ultimately do whatever is required of us to pass exams. It seems reasonable enough.  What teachers sometimes forget to tell us, though, is that when formal education is over, we then have the task of rediscovering the old innocence. Letting ourselves write, paint, compose, with the same freedom and joy we felt pre-education... but hopefully with a greater arsenal of technical skills. Clearly, Copland had that knack. I do believe that it's possible to work self-consciously, but I doubt whether the creative work of the "inner editor" is as authentic as work which emerges from that other mysterious part that Copland couldn't name. 

Habit and Style

Happy New Year! This year, I will mostly be thinking about...Habit and Style! That's because I've been reading a brilliant book called Art and Fear,  by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It's written from a Fine Art perspective, but it's relevant to musicians and writers, too, and explores the question of why there are so many ex-artists. One chapter which I found particularly fascinating was about Habit and Style. From the point of higher education onwards, we're taught to be suspicious of our habits - lazy and corrupt working methods! For instance, if you're a composer and you use bass clarinet a lot, finding that it seems to pull the whole thing together and lend credibility every time...or if you're an artist and you put white daisies in every landscape, finding that they never fail to bring vitality to your work...well, that looks like a habit, and at some stage you may wonder if you should perhaps stop doing it. Bayles and Orland invite you to think again: your habit may in fact be your style. I've spent many years resisting my own habits in my painting. I have a tendency to use outlines a lot: it's a hangover from childhood when I used to draw cartoons, starting with a pencil sketch, adding colour, then going round everything with a nice, black line. It hid a multitude of sins, such as untidy colouring, which is why I'm perhaps suspicious of my habit; outlines also lend strength, they draw attention to attractive, flat shapes, and they don't exist in the real world. So, I must be cheating my way to success, yes? Well trying to block my persistent urge to add an outline has led to nothing but self-consciousness... second-guessing myself all the time. This sort of speculative self-editing is not the same as knowing something isn't working. So this year I intend to continue working with outlines until the day comes that I can see for myself that they are wrong! Here's one of my outliney watercolours. It's from a series called Shell Family, where I positioned shells (found on Filey beach and the Isle of Wight) in such a way that they took on human characters and seemed to be relating to each other.


This one is called Shell Family 5. 




A quote for Christmas





If you hear a voice within you saying "You are not a painter," then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.

Van Gogh

It sounds perfectly logical, doesn't it? And yet, many people are told (and not just by their Inner Voice) that they are not a painter, not a writer, not a composer. It's a very powerful strategy to stop someone working, and though it may be meant kindly (hmm...), it should be approached with the utmost suspicion. John Cage was described as "not a composer" by his teacher, Schoenberg, and yet Cage produced many conventional, fully-written out scores which are beautiful and entertaining to listen to and couldn't possibly be described as not composition. Imagine if he'd taken Schoenberg's words to heart! If you've ever been at the receiving end of this golden nugget of "advice", I hope today's quote will give you the encouragement to get back to your creative work. Happy Christmas!

Creative Heroes: Erik Satie






STOP PRESS! Erik Satie Walks to Work is due to be repeated on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 27th August 2011 at 12.15pm. Please check out the Radio 3 website for more details.


Erik Satie Walks to Work will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Day at 12.15. Click here  for more details.

It was a fascinating experience to re-trace Satie's footsteps from the Parisian suburb of Arceuil to the central district of Montmartre, where he worked as a cabaret pianist. Why did I do it? I wanted to know how it felt in real life: to get beneath the myth, to get a sense of the significance (or otherwise) of Erik Satie's walk to work. Satie sometimes walked alone: sometimes with a friend. I took a friend, BBC producer David Gallagher. He recorded my reflections as I tramped, strolled and sometimes trudged through the streets; he fixed up interviews with two insightful contributors (Ornella Volta of the Erik Satie Foundation and Gilbert Delor, composer and educator). He also carried my bag, pushed me up hills and made sure I had sufficient coffee breaks, and has edited our adventure to create a 45' feature, to be broadcast on Christmas Day. How significant Satie's walk was (i.m.h.o.), you'll gather from the feature. But in the meantime, here's why I believe Erik Satie is a great hero and role model for all creative folk.

Satie clearly understood the secrets of walking - the way that keeping the body moving can help lubricate the imagination. (Creativity expert Julia Cameron has written a whole book devoted to this: Walking in this World . She recommends a daily walk for all creative people.) Walking provided Satie with a constant inflow of images: some of them mundane, but seeing them repeatedly led Satie to notice their innate magic. More importantly than walking, though, is the way in which Satie was sensitive to the rejection of others, but never wavered from his inner vision. His work was often criticised as primitive and clumsy - and it was true that he hadn't enjoyed a sophisticated musical education, so the criticism hit home. Still, he persisted. That's heroic.

Satie wrote rude letters to the wrong people and he drank too much, but his healthy walking habits and his immense creative courage prevailed. The result: a unique body of music that continues to enchant, entertain and mystify. I do hope you'll tune in to Radio 3 at 12.15 on Xmas day and raise a glass of sherry to Erik Satie.


Creative Buddies












Sarah and Caroline in the Woolies photo machine, Barnsley, 1977

In my last post, I gave five "childhood rules of creativity". One of them was "share your work with family and friends." As adults, this can transmute into "have your work properly published or keep it a secret." I believe this is a very damaging and de-motivating attitude. Every creative project requires a receiver - someone into whose hands the work may be passed. Established artists may have a ready-made audience, but many other creatives do not. That's where it's invaluable to have a creative soul-mate, or community of like-minded friends, who are curious about your work. They are curious simply because they are your friend; you pass them your piece, they pass you theirs. This is nothing to do with criticism or feedback. The "creative buddy", as I like to call them, simply receives your work and enjoys it, in exactly the same way as they enjoy your conversation. It wouldn't occur to them to comment on how you speak to them, so in the same spirit, it wouldn't occur to them to criticise your work - that's not the point of the exercise. As a child I was fortunate enough to grow up next door to a creative buddy (see photo above) - she wrote stories to give to me, I wrote them to give to her We still operate like this, and there's never any criticism. That's not because we are trying to be kind - it's because we both understand that criticism is irrelevant. I am her reader, not someone who is helping her to write. She doesn't need my help!

By the way, the creative buddy system can build up into a formidable "alternative establishment" of creative minds. The composers I studied in my PhD thesis - most of them connected to Cardew's Scratch Orchestra - have operated in this way for decades. Now, their music is being taken up by bodies such as the BBC, major publishers and record labels, who have access to established audiences. That's great, but those composers don't need this sort of success. They have what they need already - listeners, readers, and audience - amongst themselves. It's a healthy way of being, for an artist, because at no time are they tempted to alter what they do in order to foster approval.

Regardless of whether your work is destined for the public domain, a creativity buddy can gie you the feeling that everything you do is justified...important, even. So if you have one, treat them well! And share your experiences here if you get a moment.

The childhood rules of creativity

When you look back at your childhood, when you were probably doing creative things without a second thought, it's interesting to pause for a moment and consider your old attitudes. They seem so different from grown-up attitudes. Here are five of mine:

1. If you can't come up with an interesting idea, copy somebody else's.

2. If you get bored with a project, leave it and start another.

3. Share your work with your friends and family.

4. Make your projects fantastically ambitious.

5. Never tidy your work away.

Compare those to the grown-up rules of creativity!

1. If you can't come up with an interesting idea, despair.

2. If you get bored with a project, try harder to overcome this personal defect.

3. Friends and family are not a legitimate audience; either publish your work properly or hide it away in shame.

4. Only begin a project if it has a realistic chance of success.

5. Be driven mad by loose ends and mess.

No wonder children are so creative. But we grow up. Are the childhood rules of creativity any use to us, or have the goalposts simply moved too far? I can't really imagine operating like a child any more, leaving painty water and brushes out on the table, wasting loads of paper without a second thought, forcing all my acquaintances to read my stuff! Cringe! But I think there are still golden nuggets of wisdom embedded in those crazy attitudes. I'm going to explore each one in more detail in future blog entries. In the meantime, share your own childhood/grown-up rules of creativity with me if you get a moment. Stop half way through if you get bored...

In the mood

If you're not in the mood to get on with your creative project, is it best to wait until you feel like it? Or should you press ahead anyway, maybe in short, disciplined bursts? This can be a big issue for creative folk, especially if the work is entirely personal, self-driven and deadline-free. There are certainly strong arguments for the disciplined approach: some projects are so fraught with anxiety and the apparent certainty of failure that the right mood never comes...but once you start, the project can draw you in and lead you gently away from that bad feeling. I studied for Grade 8 Flute a couple of years ago, nearly 30 years after taking Grade 7, and I tackled the rather overwhelming task by initially doing just a few minutes a day, then gradually building up to more. The promise to do just a little made the task less threatening, and gradually enjoyment and immersion in the challenge took over. Also, finding the strength to just do something without hesitation every day can bypass the inner critic, the part of you that "helpfully" tries to edit while you work. It's the approach they recommend in NaNoWriMo - the National Novel Writing Month (this year's has just ended). They give some excellent reasons to "crack on": such as "Novel writing is mostly a "one day" event. As in "One day, I'd like to write a novel." Here's the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It's just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will come." Check out their website for more encouragement - whether your creative work involves writing or not:

But let's look at the other side of the argument (I confess I didn't realise there was one, until I read Hugh McLeod's brilliant creativity handbook, Ignore Everybody). Hugh says you should enjoy the quiet times when inspiration isn't there, nagging at you. He suggests that pressing ahead anyway can be like forcing a conversation when you've got nothing to say. I find this intriguing. After all, if I look back to the most creatively productive time in my life - childhood - I would never do creative work if I didn't feel like it. I'd just play out in the garden or watch telly, without guilt. Also, if one tries to impose a daily creative practice, does one ever get to feel the lovely urge to do something creative? Or does the work emerge from a feeling of resistance and duty which then becomes habitual? Maybe it doesn't matter, as long as some work comes out in the end. But for me, having used both approaches, the key is to find a balance: to know when discipline is needed, and to know when it should be booted out of the door.

The best creativity quote?

Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

I thought this seemed like a decent way to start my blog. It's one of the most inspiring quotes on creativity that I've ever come across. The author is Howard Thurman, the American philosopher and civil rights leader, and  I found it on Christine Kane's website (she's a folksinger and creativity mentor:, and the quote was referred to by her regular guest blogger, Sue Ludwig). I can't think of a better way to deal with the eternal dilemma (in art, business, radio, whatever!) - whether to pander to the market or create art for art's sake.  It inspires a sense of faith that if you love what you do, then it will reach someone: you don't have to "sell out", nor do you have to retreat into the loneliness of an ivory tower. There's a third way. That thought certainly helps me get on with my work. Does it help you? Let me know!

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