Trying a bow the Zen way


I am trying a new baroque bow by Craig Ryder the Zen way. As I draw this lovely snakewood instrument across the gut of the string like a limb, I find I am also following it's trajectory, observing it, responding. Every cell of my body is alive to its life, its needs. The nerve endings in my fingers are receptors for its information. Can I coast now? Do I need to change the contact point, angle, adjust the weight? Is it time for a new impulse? I am trying to listen in a way that is not attached. This is not MY sound. MY interpretation. MY instrument (well it certainly isn't my instrument till I fork out the 1400 euros I need to buy it!). This is what is, now, in this moment.

It's strange what a different intensity this kind of listening brings. As in meditation, of course, the ability to be in a state of micro-awareness comes and goes. Thoughts come and go. Physical sensations and a desire to react to them come and go. When I am in it, however, I notice that I have an overview - a sense of where I am coming from both melodically and harmonically, and where I am going - that I lose when I get involved. Nuances come as a spontaneous response to what I hear and are not Blue - Peter- style 'Here's one I made earlier', or like too much extra whipped cream. And of course they slip into the past before I can label or fix them. I am the pure slow descant line above all the business in a Bach cantata. I am the silent observer, the one bearing witness….

I am, that is, until a note is out of tune or doesn't speak and I fall into self judgement. Or I think 'Oh, that was nice! I must remember to give that phrase the same stress next time.'

A beautiful instrument is so alive, such a presence in itself, that playing with it reminds us to take these steps back, to give up control and observe in wonder what happens when bow hair meets string and flesh and blood over a good bit of Bach!

A Yogic Approach to Performance?

There are six of us in the Ubud yoga studio and we have arrived roughly fifteen minutes early in order to soften and quieten. On the teak floor are laid mauve and turquoise yoga mats, one of which we each claim. Some of us gather props around us: lilac blocks for stiff knees, blue bolsters for hovering sitting bones, sea-green straps for tight ham strings. We pass around a bottle of natural mosquito repellent. All this is done in silence.

We sit.

The studio seems to float in the palm trees. Through the sliding window-walls my gaze flows, out over a lake of rice paddy green and towards the sacred blue volcano, Gunung Agung, where I find my focus. The breeze whips up an olefactory cocktail from the scent of frangipani, incense and citronella. I close my eyes.

I listen.

A bird sounds like a firework. A baby cries. Water trickles from one rice terrace down to the next. Someone says ‘dude’ in the café below. A wood planer screams.
Eka’s voice pours in to the atmosphere like the cane syrup I just had in my latte.

‘Listen to the furthest sound you can hear. …Listen without labeling or judging: Bad sound. Good sound….. Take two step back and just be silent observer.’

Ducks quack and there, all the way out there in the distance, I hear a bee buzzing in an orchid. I listen deeper.

‘Now bring your attention in to the room and to your breath…. Just observe…. With kindness…Let go control…Surrender…. Let your breath breathe you.’

It is at this point that I bring in my spirit guide, the one who cracks open and brings compassion flooding in to my heart like no other …(Is it me? asks Julian later) It is at this point that I summon our cat, Oscar. I see him sleeping on the sofa at home (which he is probably doing), his grey coat rising and falling. I see his simple aliveness through his breathing. I see his fur stretch over his expanding body and release back to density as his body contracts. Then, very gently so as not to trip and break it, so as not to spill the compassion along the way, I transfer the image like a tray of drinks over to myself. I take two steps back and observe my breath causing my chest to rise and fall, my belly to expand and contract. I see my breath breathing my body into another moment of existence, and another, and I am overcome with gratitude.

We bring our hands together, thumbs touching the planes of our chest and chant ‘om’ three times. Our voices mingle, touch, brush against one another, vibrate together. My throat is open, connected to my heart, allowing sound to flow from it into the space with no blockages.

‘Now’ says Eka ‘bring your hands up to your forehead and say to yourself’ you are ready to continue this practice of moving meditation, synchronizing your body, your breath and your mind, and above all sending nothing but love and kindness to your body and to your brothers and sisters in this room’

Later, having examined the state of my cellulite whilst finding my drishte in downward dog, having sweated through what Eka calls the Viagra pose, having twisted and balanced, fallen once and recovered myself in mountain pose, having come to a point of energized stillness and inner calm, and sipping a ‘tangy tamarind cooler’ in the café that drips with bee-filled orchids, I think about performance preparation. I think about us musicians back stage running up and down our instruments in panic, competing with the person to our left who is playing the Tchaikowsky concerto at double speed, or to our right who is doing the Guinness book of Records amount of staccatos in one up-bow staccato. Of the energy coursing through the hands of the girl opposite in anticipation of giving, and the gleeful mockery we make of her in our minds for having stage fright. Of the fact that our mind is already on stage, or, even better, in the bar afterwards. Of the pride or the shame or the fear we have in anticipation of OUR performance (the one we made ourselves with our talent and fingers and brains.). And I think that we musicians have a great deal yet to learn.


Do, re, mi...


I have been in France for eight years now, working largely in Paris and living at the foot of the Mont Ventoux in Provence. I am surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and orchards, and am reminded daily of the beauty of nature and its relationship to man. In all seasons I see backs bending, fingers picking and trees being shaken or pruned, and from these actions come our daily bread (and, of course, wine). It is a natural and an organic life, full of respect for the life and the shape of things, and I feel absolutely at home in it. That is, until it comes to music. Musically I feel like an alien trying to talk a language in a one-syllabled universe, and in the last year I have been trying to figure out why.

For thirty-five years I was immersed in the Austro-Hungarian tradition of music. Music was taught to me as a language, one to be sung and spoken through the medium of horsehair, wood, gut and ivory. It was to be whispered or heralded. It was a serenade, a country dance or a political protest, and was constructed of questions and answers, secrets, sub-plots, yearning, surprise, fulfillment and revelation. Above all it was universal, a language that that not only cut across continents, through culture, race, and class, and touched something common to us all, but also something that had the power to heal divides between us. Indeed, until I moved to France I could not imagine music any other way.
Here, for example, is my teacher in Germany, Johannes Goritzki, approaching the Haydn D major concerto (I am seventeen):
“This is the Count singing his love song: ‘Ach, mich shlip ding traut war, becher stingt das pfiffer zartmust’.” Goritzki gets down on one knee and opens wide his arms whilst singing the second subject in a resonant tenor. Then he gets up and is himself again. “You must listen to Fischer Diskau if you listen to nothing else to understand how to speak music…. But perhaps the opera is in Italian?” Now he makes a twirl as if spinning himself in to the new sound world. “Did you know Haydn was a prolific composer of opera? Eight in German and fourteen in Italian? It’s up to you to decide. Anyway, so here comes the lovesick Italian girl! But of course, as opera will have it, she is love-sick not for the Count but for another….Aha!” He shuffles daintily to the corner of the room, twisting imaginary locks of hair, pouting, and singing the phrase transposed up an octave now and ornamented. “Lingere pronto tanto, devore straggazzate …’”…
And here I am in the Wigmore Hall watching the extraordinary ‘winged bowing’ of Steven Isserlis. I observe his arm at the tip of the bow at the top of a phrase as if it were at the top of a hill. I feel the ecstatic tension. Then I watch it fall back towards his torso as the music exhales and relaxes…. and I realize that for a string player the bow is the equivalent of the singer’s breath.
And, at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove, listening to a class with the Hungarian violinist Sandor Végh and realizing that the fingers on the bow are equivalent to the lips, teeth and tongue. ‘Parlando!’ the Maestro practically screams whilst spit forms at the corners of the jelly lips that rest atop his several chins. (Thinking about it now, I’m not sure this guy would get a job at the Paris conservatoire..) ‘Make it SPEAK!’. Rather unkindly Végh likens the student’s sound to maccheroni’. ‘NAAAAAAAAAAA……. CUTTED!’ he says, implying that the student has no shape to their note, no beginning or end; that they just make a sound, which they cut when it is over, and then make another one. ‘NAAAAAAAAAAA……. CUTTED!’
Learning how to sing and, above all, to speak formed the basis of my musical education.

The French system of musical education uses the Sol Fege method. Unlike the Kodaly concept where (as Cyrilla Rowsell stresses in the summer edition of Arco magazine) you begin with the joy of music, learning about harmony, melody and modulation through sol fege with a moveable doh, paying attention to gesture and listening with your inner ear, the French system insists on something called ‘formation musicale’. This, as far as I can understand it, consists of the parrot-fashion learning of sol fge using, critically, a fixed doh. In other words, with sol being sol, whether it is the tonic or the dominant or the flattened sixth, nothing is learned about melody, harmony, modulation or intervals. The French system also insists that every child has twice the amount time dedicated to this ‘formation musicale’ than to his instrumental lessons. Agnes, for example, a keen cellist of nine in the ‘first cycle’ (the first four to five years of music training) has an hour of sol fege and half an hour of her cello lesson. James, a talented eleven year old clarinet player now in the ‘second cycle’, has 90 minutes of sol fege a week compared to 45 minutes of his clarinet lesson. This would all be very well if the child was being immersed in and learning to love music, but he is not. When you ask him to sing a melody, though he may sing the right notes, he is merely stringing numbers together. I will try and give an example:
Emilie was playing the Beethoven A major sonata. The opening of three questioning phrases, with its intervals reaching and falling, asking, trying to answer but instead asking again, and reiterating the question a third time but with more emphasis, was flat. It was what Vegh would have called ‘maccheroni sound’. I asked Emilie to sing the phrase.
‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ she sang, moving the pitch around. She breathed in random places and not once did she use her lips, teeth or tongue. I asked her to sing the phrase with free articulation, using any vowels or consonants that came naturally, as if she were scatting. This was what she sung:
‘La Re Fa Doh Mi Re Doh Re Si La Sol  Mi La Fa Re Mi Fa’ She may as well have sung A E F C E D C D B A G E A F D E F.  Or 6 3 4 1 3 2 1 2 7 6 5 6 2 7 4 5 6
In terms of articulation, in terms of language, Emilie was stuck between using the system she had learned at school and being dumb. Nothing else was imaginable or possible. No fantasy. No feeling. No connection to her inner hearing. I sang the three phrases to her, ending each instinctively on an ‘m’ to allow for the release before the next. It wasn’t exactly Ella Fitzgerald (though I do use the syllables rugga dung dung a lot, they didn’t seem appropriate here.) but I was using sounds that I felt corresponded to Beethoven’s music. Or at least Beethoven’s music as I heard it in my inner ear. Here’s what I sang:
‘La da dihm, lo de da do lada de dumm, la di la lo di dohmmmmmmmmmm’
(I guess you had to be there…)
Emilie looked at me as if I was a crazy woman with Tourettes syndrome who had just walked in off the street.
In Wikipedia Sol fege is defined as a ‘technique used for the teaching of sight singing’ and, with a fixed doh, it is exactly that.  An exercise. When taught with a moveable doh and as a cog in the wheel of a broader musical training such as in the Kodaly concept, it has a valuable place in any musical education, but this is sadly not the case in the French system. It is not the fault of sol fége that these children do not develop an inner hearing that is at the centre of music making, or a connection to the real language of music. It is my opinion that it is the fault of a system that thinks musical training begins and ends with the perfection of a sight-singing exercise.

 In his brave book, ‘On acheve bien les ecoliers?’ (They shoot children, don’t they’), Peter Gumbel talks about an evaluation system in France that actively discourages creativity and individuality. He says:
.”The”… “studies, conducted by the OECD and other respected institutions”..”show conclusively that French children overall are more anxious and intimidated in school than their peers in Europe or other developed countries. They're so terrified by the idea of making mistakes and being lambasted for them, that they'd rather keep their mouths shut than put their hands up”
When I read this sentence, my first thought is, how can anyone sing with his mouth shut? If a child is so worried about getting something wrong (and wrong means not what the teacher has decided is right) he will never risk making sound. If he is only listening for that which his teacher is dictating to him rather than what his inner ear dictates, he will never be able to make music. He will, most probably, grow up to be a young instrumentalist so in need of approval from the system that he will, rather than taking a year out and spreading his wings, stay in the very same system until he gets it ‘right’. (I know hardly any French musicians who have chosen to study abroad. Paris, not New York, Budapest, Salzburg or Vienna, is the be-all and end all.) And if that young musician does get it ‘right’ and becomes an adult musician, he will probably go on to teach in and therefore fortify the system that taught him.

    Today, having lived eight years in a country where, even with a Masters in music from New York (and, I admit, half a Doctorate. I was missing Europe so much I decided to come home!), I still have no right to teach in my local music school. This is because I do not have the French teaching diploma (the C.A) that shows I can teach the French system. Despite International and European initiatives to establish diploma equivalents and recognitions (the European Qualifications Framework give an equivalent if the degree is European, and the Centre International d’Etudes Pedagogiques, who say there is no legal equivalent to an American degree, can provide an ‘attestation de comparabilité’), schools and institutions here will not consider an application from someone without the French teaching diploma. Though frustrating, I can cope. With a bit of imagination I am finding ways to communicate what I have to offer (looking in to starting up a private chamber academy locally, for example, and teaching throughout the rest of Europe.) However, I would love to share with the young musicians around me some of the extraordinary experiences I have been so privileged to have over the last thirty years, and I have to admit that not being able to do so sometimes breaks my heart.
    I spoke to Peter Gumbel on the telephone, and things are, he says, looking up. Since his book came out, he has been contacted for advice from all political parties and those involved in education on all levels. He says more and more people in French universities are going abroad to study. I can only hope they come back and are encouraged, in amongst these beautiful vineyards, olive groves and orchards, to share the International language of music, and that Steven Isserlis, even though he is not French, gets some concerts nearby so I can get another glimpse of that to-die-for breathing bow arm.

A Prelude and 5 Rhythms

’So, I’ll pick Phillie up in an hour and a half then?’ said Philippa’s mum.

‘An hour will be fine’ I said.

Philippa slid into my living room and noiselessly unlatched her cello case.

‘I’ll do my best' her mum continued, 'but they are so slow at Waitrose. And next week I will have to rearrange as I have to pick up Max from tennis at the same time and Peter will be in New York.’

‘Perhaps Philippa could take the bus?’ I said.’The number seven stops right outside the house.’

‘No, I don’t think so. You know, she hasn’t been very confident since her sister…well, you know about that. No, it’s best if I drive her.’

Before I closed the door on her mother, Philippa started to play the Gigue of Bach’s first Suite. When I got settled in my chair by about the sixth bar, I asked myself the usual questions: What did I see. What did I hear? And, above all, what did I feel? I saw a girl playing as if with borrowed arms and, rather than a sweaty, heavy peasant dance, I heard the sound of someone skating over ice. I felt somewhat anxious. While I watched and listened I wondered two things: Whose desire was driving Philippa, as it it didn’t seem to be her own, and what was beneath the ice?
I don’t know what it is about nail varnish on bitten nails, but it was when I was looking at Philippa’s bow hand that I remembered what my teacher, Timothy Eddy, said to me a decade previously: ‘Something inside you has to move before you can move to play’, and it was then that I knew how I was going to approach the lesson.
When Philippa finished and we had talked through a few technical details, I asked her if she would be willing to sit with me and her cello in silence.
‘I don’t want you to play a note’ I said, ‘until, or indeed unless, you feel moved to do so. Until you genuinely feel the desire to express something. This might mean spending our hour together in silence, but that that is fine with me if it is fine with you…?’
Philippa nodded her assent. She laid her bow across the grey cotton of her school skirt. Her bare arms, slightly pimpled at the top, hung by her sides, and on the ends of them her hands seemed empty without a cello or a bow to clutch. At first her gaze flitted back and forth from me and the floor, then up and down her fingerboard, and then came to rest, I believe, on a bowl of apples on the table behind me. The silence began to feel comfortable, and the strange thing was that in it I began to have more of a sense of Philippa that when she was playing the cello. In it I thought I could sense things. Anger. Grief possibly. But at least I could sense something. We continued to sit in stillness. I heard Edith in the flat above shuffling across her living room floor, probably, though it was only four o’clock, to the drinks cabinet. A bird sang and a motorbike started up. If we listened hard enough to the quiet, I thought, we might be able to hear the sea rolling in the distance. I looked over at Philippa and saw a tear pooling in the corner of her eye. It spilled over and ran down her cheek.

‘There is no desire’ she said as more tears came, and in that moment I think we both felt the beginning of something move inside her that might, one day, move her to play.

Philippa did not come for a cello lesson the next week, but the week after that she took the number seven bus and rang my bell. She was ready, she said, to play the whole Bach suite through. She climbed the stairs, walked in to my living room, unpacked her cello and started to play, and as she did a curious thing occurred. Wherever she was in the Suite, whether it was in the Courante, the Minuets or the Sarabande, Philippa kept slipping back in to the Allemande. As I witnessed this ‘memory lapse’ time and time again, I thought that perhaps the Allemande represented Philippa’s personality. The person she presented to the world. The good Philippa, the pretty Philippa, the graceful Philippa, the Philippa that did not cry when her sister died but kept on dancing with borrowed arms. And I realized how powerful it could be for her to embody the other four dance characters: The joker, the peasant, the innocent child, the old wise man…..

It was around that time that it occurred to me that the Bach Suite, with its introduction and five dance movements, was a perfect vehicle for what Gabrielle Roth calls the 5 Rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Lyrical, Chaos and Stillness, and it was then that I started working with the dancer, Sophia Ferman.

Sophia and I worked on two Suites, the first in G major in a programme based on lullabies, and the second in D minor in a programme based on grief and healing. As I played and she improvised, we explored the fundamental human rhythms expressed through Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuets and Gigue. How close were these baroque movements to a contemporary dancer’s ‘Flowing, Staccato, Stillness, Lyrical and Chaos’ we asked ourselves? How did one ‘rhythm’ transform naturally into the next, Flowing into Staccato, Chaos into Stillness? Like grief arising out of anger, peace out of confusion.  It was an exhilarating and moving experience ‘being danced’ by Sophia, as if she were making visible the part of me that was moved to move to play.

As I write now, I remember a particular performance of the second Suite. It was shortly after the September 11th attacks. We were aware that a large part of the world was in a state of shock and grief, and we wanted, however small our offering, to offer up something healing. However, in the sublime Sarabande, the still climax of the work, the most potentially healing moment, Sophie’s improvised dance went ballistic. While I played the simple broken chords with which Pablo Casals started every day as a form of meditation, Sophia was making fast, jagged movements, covering the dance space with ripping and racing. Her honest response to what she heard (for that is what it always is when Sophia dances) was confusing to me at the time and I was even a little resentful. Now I think of it, however, nine years later, I wonder whether, in the stillness of the Sarabande, just as I heard Philippa’s feelings in her silence, Sophia heard the noise of the anger and grief I was feeling at the loss of our child. A personal loss dwarfed at the time by a loss that was almost global, but nevertheless a profound one.

Homage to Sandor Vegh


Thirty or so young musicians are curled up on velvet love-seats and scabby leather armchairs. Some clutch at tea and scones with gobs of cornish cream, and others at an early-bird half of ‘scrumpy’, the local cider. The remains of the log fire from last night's quartet-reading session relax in the oversized grate. Out of the lead paneled triple window, beyond trestle tables covered with remains of pasties and salad, beyond the abandoned croquet game on the tufty grass rolls the sea, its rhythmic crash against the cliffs constantly reinforcing what the maestro is saying.

We are in the Great Room at Porth-en-Alls at the International Musician’s Seminar, and in front of us is Sandor Vegh, the larger than life Hungarian musician. He has lain down his violin. With one hand and he is making as if to pull something very long out of his mouth and with the other he is making scissor movements, as if he is cutting the long thing that is coming out of his mouth. From his gut we hear a semi disgusted sound ‘Naaaaaaaa’ punctuated, each time he makes the scissor movement, by the word ‘Cutted!’ . Suddenly he stops, swings round on his chair (his belly and several chins seemingly a split second behind the rest of him) and cries:

‘Why you make macaroni sound?Naaaaaaaa… Cutted! Naaaaaaaaa…. Cutted!’

The student lets her violin hang from its scroll hooked in her sweating fingers and looks at Vegh. For those of us who have been here fifteen years on the trot, of course, the little piece of theatre is a welcome reminder of the curved nature of things, whether they be notes, waves, phrases, pasties, forearms, chins or purfling. However, for those for whom this is the first encounter with the great man who played with Casals and was friends with Bartok, there is a little more explaining to do.

Mr Vegh juts a fat first finger at the window and says: ‘Look ze waves! Avery sing in nature is caaaaarved!’

On that day, and on many days before it and still to come, from that grand oak chair in the Great Room looking out to sea, Mr Vegh taught me possibly the greatest lesson I ever learned. That nothing - no note, no phrase, no symphony, no movement, no preparation, no vibration - is made from straight lines. Meanwhile I have often wondered if, in his lifetime, not that it is very important, he gleaned any more information about pasta shapes. I still wonder, when he said macaroni (the curviest type of pasta available) did the Maestro in fact mean spaghetti, which is long and straight? Or, even better, flat sheets of hard edged lasagne that could well describe some sounds I have heard? Or perhaps Mr Vegh was simply incapable of contemplating anything straight in the universe. I shall never know.

(Sandor Vegh 1912-1997)

Aggie speaking


It is the usual Wedensday kerfuffle at Mourchon: Twenty-five Americans arriving for lunch on a Rick Steve's 'Villages and Vineyards of Eastern France' tour, Mum, Grandmum, and little sister serving goats' cheese quiche, the excitement of a new kitten who loves the chestnut cake a little bit too much, grandpa trying to ration the rosé, Dad trying to snatch some leftover fromage in between the tour and the afternoon's picking, and a ballet outfit waiting to be worn for only the second time. Aggie, meanwhile, is curled up as if nothing were going on but the wind whistling in the vineyard. On the sofa with a book. Oblivious.

'I've written a story....' she says when I enter. Aggie is nine and plays the cello very well. She has been both well taught (not by me, I might add) and studious. However, the connection between her love of the arc of a story and that of a piece of music is about as tenuous as the connection between my love, at her age, of dancing to the Bee Gees and playing a baroque Gigue. She continues. '...about the traditional French folk song I am going to play you.'

It is unlike me, but I actually try, for a minute, to temper my excitement. 'Do tell me your story, Aggie. Do you have it written down?'

'No. Yes, well it's at the other house, but it's in my head. It's about a little girl, well, it's in the second world war and she's in her room and she wakes up and well she feels something is different.....'

It is a beautiful story. A perfect fairy tale with all the elements we need to construct a piece of music: A young heroine, an exotic location, a premonition, a village chorus, the handsome horseman with some big news, an unraveling scroll (not quite from the right century but who cares) and lastly confirmation of the premonition.

Aggie concludes '.... And that is when the little girl thinks, I knew something was different about today, and she feels happy.'

First, by playing the piece (fortunately in three parts, two of which I can just about play simultaneously) we establish how many phrases we have in which to tell her story. Then by stopping at the end of each phrase, listening to the silence and identifying the feeling in the room before we continue, we decide what kind of mood each phrase has and whether it is, for example, a statement, question, answer or exclamation. There are five phrases, we decide. 1. Questioning. 2. Confirming. 3. With a sense of unraveling. 4. With a sense of excitement. 5. A joyous statement with a feeling of peaceful resolution.

Both Aggie and I are excited by the story, and after we work on it for a while I ask her if she would like for us to play it for the family. Back in the kitchen twenty-five chestnut puddings and cream are scurrying out the door, the tiniest barrista I have ever seen (little sister Lilla) is working the Nespresso machine, there is a pile of washing up to be done and coffee to be served to the punters on the lawn, but everyone, including the six week old kitten, decides they can spare a few minutes to listen to Aggie's story.

Aggie's story goes like this:

A little girl is in lying in her bed in her French village house. Through the open windows, on this particular summer's day in 1945, she can hear not just the breeze and the usual birdsong, but something different. A new sound. She thinks, something special is going to happen today....

The little girl walks towards the window, looks out on the street, and sees that people are milling about everywhere. In doorways, on the pavements and the road. It is not just the normal milling either, the going-to-the-boulangerie or catching-up-with-a-neighbour milling. This is special milling. It is then the little girl catches sight of the handsome man in uniform on horseback whom everyone seems to be watching.

The man on horseback starts unraveling a very long scroll. The tension amongst the villagers is mounting...

He starts to read the script which has an endless preamble 'Ladies and Gentlemen, His Royal Highness....' Blah blah. The villagers are becoming impatient to know the news.

The man on horseback finally delivers the news. 'Ladies and Gentlemen! The war is over!'. The little girl is overjoyed and thinks to herself quietly, yes, I knew something special was going to happen today.

Aggie starts playing quietly, sleepily. The sleepiness makes her arm move slowly and heavily producing a perfect 'Once-upon-a-time' sound, with core and yet not too definite. She allows a questioning silence between phrases one and two, and yet she is eager to go on with the story so her upbeat has energy. During the second phrase, the fresh breeze at the window and the sense of confirmation make her bow move more briskly and with more attack, causing the sound to be airier with more defined edges. The bow slows down again in the first unravelling passage to keep us on tenterhooks, but speeds up naturally, almost despite itself, as the impatience to tell the news mounts. The breath before the last phrase is almost swallowed in anticipation and with the affirmative joy of the news in the last phrase, Aggie almost throws the bow in exuberation. This causes a brilliant energetic sound that, I think at the time, could sing for Europe at the end of a long war. In the closing bars, with the sense of relief and relaxation, Aggie executes a delicious diminuendo and rallentando. How she does it, I don't know. I think perhaps it does her. She takes her bow off the string gently and sits in silence. We sit in silence with her. With Aggie the story teller and the little girl in the story Aggie told.

Aggie the cellist is nowhere to be seen.

Cello and Chateauneuf de Pape

The drive to Gigondas is green and bronze, the hard summer having relaxed in to Autumn. As I enter Rhone wine country, white letters on the slopes spell out 'VACQUEYRAS ET SES VINS', in an unapologetic mockery of the Hollywood sign. A smaller announcement on the road et the start of the village asks us to please take care at harvest time. 'Prudence s'il vous plaît. Vendange.' Presumably it means of the slow moving trucks piled high with grapes, but then I realize there is an emptiness to the request and I can't tell what is missing.

When I coast up the stony drive of the chateau and park amidst the harvest paraphenalia I am thinking L has been in a good mood of late. Though he says he will not really be able to tell until spring, he is ecstatic about this year's harvest. In fact, last week he said to me 'This is my year'. I am touched that, even at the busiest time in a wine maker's calender, L still makes room for our hour together.
We are working on a Beethoven clarinet trio he is playing with his son and a friend. Like a painter having worked on cast drawing alone, after almost two years working on form, we agree it is exciting to be contemplating the palette at last. One of L's weaknesses, and he knows it, is that he does not listen well. He takes in information, agrees with it passionately and is so convinced that he is applying it that he does not hear that the idea has perhaps not gone further than his brain. I am talking about clay. (As usual we are mixing metaphors like children baking a cake with salt instead of flour and rice instead of sugar.) He plays the opening phrase of the Adagio with the upbeat on a down bow. I suggest otherwise and he starts again. When I have something to respond to I add in the accompaniment the cello gives later to the clarinet. I watch the crescents of Chateauneuf du Pape that are his fingernails lifting, pulling, pushing, spelling out the notes. Our lines touch. The vibrations meld, and then the unison disintegrates as my line falls away.  When we stop playing something has changed in his face. The whole of him is listening to Beethoven ringing in the air, and he is loving it.

'Now I see' he says after the pause. 'How music is not like painting, but it IS like wine making. Unlike the painter, we, you and I, are given this great raw material. For the musician it is the score. For me...Well, anyone can chuck me a parcel of great old chateuneuf vines....It's about what you do with it. How you learn about it and listen to it...'

'How, with your hands, you mold it into something people can understand...?' I say.

'And possibly even something great.' he says.

Later, when I am lunching with friends at Domaine de Mourchon, we are talking about the grape picking machines. Ninety percent of wine makers in the area, says H, are using it.
'With its huge rubbery lips.' I say

'And its ability to tickle and tease the fruit from the vine...' says H. 'But seriously, it is simply much much more cost efficient and noone can prove there is a difference in quality'.

'And if you had just, as I have' says his wife, K , 'spent three hours at five in the morning filling in five pages of forms for each one of the twenty pickers who have just worked for you for three hours....'

What was missing in the landscape, I realize, was hands. Also, hats bobbing in and out of the vines. Pickers' picnics at midday at the side of the road.... But is that all just silly romance? Is being sentimental about the season of people crouched down for hours doing back breaking work like saying I will not play off a score that has been printed out by a computer programmer and not written by a musician's hand? I guess the new vintage will tell. Meanwhile, I am glad that cellists have not quite yet been replaced by rubbery lipped machines.

Chiaroscuro. A Cello Lesson



A is a nine year old book worm who wants to be a writer when she grows up. Even though she lives in a paradise vineyard in Provence, every time I see her she is curled up on a couch or crouched in a corner, her knees drawn up to her chest, escaping to somewhere else. Usually, I fear, platform nine and three quarters. Once a week I wrench her away from her stories. She drags her cello out of its case and starts to play for me, her eyes still lingering on the book abandoned mid-chapter. It takes a while for A to emerge from the world contained within her beloved pages to the world of bouncing bows and clapping, but we usually get there in the end.
Last week A pulled out a little piece of Lully arranged for cello duet and placed it on the stand for us. The music sauntered along nicely as we played, with pretty thirds and sixths shifting between parts like layers of silky pinks and purples. At about the mid point there was a long and painful chord with a flattened sixth that had the potential to tug briefly at the corseted gut before being resolved. However, when we played it there was no tension. It was time, I thought, to see if we could make the connection between Harry Potter and the intrigue that might have been occurring in Versailles on the day Lully wrote his air.
First of all we dressed up. Although neither of our knowledge of Louis X1V's designers was intimate, we donned, in our imagination, powdery wigs, corsets, hooped skirts and shoes with bows and, as the music unfolded, we tried to imagine what was happening. Was someone opening a door here, or crossing the floor there? What were they feeling? In love? Hesitant? Proud? Haughty even? Who was the mystery guest and what was their relationship? How was she ushered in? Bar by bar we tried to get inside the gestures of the baroque story. Then came the bar with the flattened sixth.
'What is happening now?' I asked.
There was a pause.
'I don't know' said A.
'Is there anything different about this bar?' I asked
'I don't know' said A.
Whether or not it was a result of the (recently discussed in the Guardian) fear children have apparently developed in French schools of giving the 'wrong' answer or not, it took a very long time for us to establish that something had changed, that the feelings here were different, that we actually felt differently in our bodies. Uncomfortable, unresolved. We played the chord again.
'There is a memory...' said A at last.
'Is it a painful memory?' I asked.' If so, of what?'
I asked A what it was that she liked about the story she was reading, or indeed any story. Was there not some kind of painful, or challenging moment, I asked, in every story that made the development and the resolution so satisfying? Would she really want to read a story that went 'One sunny day the happy girl walked along the beautiful sunlit road and met a very nice boy and they lived blissfully ever after' or, likewise, 'The nasty ugly man sniffed the hideous air in the run down city, drew his sword and killed the cat. The end.'
'She's been here before...' said A.
We were getting somewhere, I thought.
'...When she was a little girl...'
Time was up and lunch was on the table in the sunlit vines. Glasses of the house' own rosé glistened, salad was dressed with home made olive oil.
'It's a beginning, A.' I said. 'Can you see, though, how important that bar is? that there is no relaxation in this piece without the tension in that bar? no light without shadow? And that there is no right answer, just how you feel?'
'Yes' said A. 'Can I go back to my book now?'


A Blackbird Sings at Garsington


I am walking through the formal gardens, on my way to pit for the first night of Figaro at Garsington manor. Giant poppies bob their welcome. Rose petals shimmer in the first summer light. Penguin suits and sequinned ball-gowns mill around picnic hampers on the distant lawn. The breathy sound of a flute emerges from the pit. In the big tree above my head a blackbird is warming up for her debut.

Although it is a Mozart night, everyone in the pit is practicing Britten for the rehearsal tomorrow. A violist and I are playing the same hysterical sequence, our hands flying up to the Gods of the fingerboard at high speed. We are three semiquavers apart and creating excruciating dissonances. Another violist is doing long calm bows, centering herself. I take her lead, it being far more suitable preparation for one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written.

The pit and the stalls are full. The conductor arrives. The continuo cello and fortepiano players take their places. Jane is wearing outrageous lime green earrings and Gareth shoves his jeans underneath the piano for a fast getaway. 'We're off to Alton Towers with the kids at the crack of dawn' he explains. The continuo team and the conductor have a mini rehearsal amidst the screaming Britten fragments. 'You lead that bit' says Dougie. 'I don't know what Gareth will think of that' says Jane. Gareth is doing something on his iphone. 'Could Jane lead that bit, Gareth?' says Dougie. 'Sure' says Gareth,...

The lights go down. A robin has joined the blackbird. An elaborately dressed character bangs a stave on the stage as a way to get the punters to shut up, so we can play really pianissimo. And we're off. Not to Alton towers but to somewhere as close as you can get, I imagine, to heaven.

And we are dancing. The speed, arc, bounce and swing of our bows are one. We are one with the bending of the conductor's knees and the dancing of his feet. The night is drawing in and the magic is encircling us. Susanna sings her aria into the indigo sky. She executes a delicious diminuendo and as her voice trails off, the blackbird seizes her moment. She flourishes, pauses and flourishes again, pitches a high dominant perfectly in tune with the aria and shimmies down back to the tonic, diminuendoing all the while.

Then there is silence. Then there is clapping and a glass of champagne. And then there is sleep filled with birdsong.