The Mary Celeste

A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:

Mary Celeste

Göttingen, mid-1980s, concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).

We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *

But no, bold as brass my desk partner decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.

Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:

“It was just like the Mary Celeste…”

Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.

tailgut

And here’s a related incident from the second half of a concert in Lübeck cathedral during the wonderful Bach pilgrimage in 2000, again being recorded:

I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.

I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.

Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.

My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half as I was, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness. Silver lining, then.

See also Muso speak: excuses and bravado.

 

* If you like this kind of detail, then try my comments on the Daoist mouth-organ, and Carson’s on Irish music. If you don’t, then tough.

** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.

Mountweazels

guira
Further to the mondegreen, the mountweazel is also a fine creation—a bogus entry deliberately inserted in a reference work.

While I was editing the “China” entries for the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, I tried in vain to persuade the powers-that-be that a vast civilization with a continuous history of thousands of years might just deserve as much coverage as a composer who lived for thirty-five years (Mozart). Anyway, what with all the labrynthine complexities of the Grove style “Bible”, one needs the occasional light relief (cf. the popular “composer or pasta?” quiz); and Grove now has a competition for spoof entries.

The 2016 winner was Caroline Potter:

Musical Cheesegrater
(Fr. râpe à fromage musicale; It. grattugia musicale)
A percussion instrument that enjoyed a brief vogue in Rome and Paris in the 1910s and early 1920s. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification the instrument is reckoned as a friction idiophone. Of metal construction, it typically has four sides, each with raised perforations of a particular size. The player strokes one or more of the sides with a metal implement, producing a distinctive rasping sound. A rare rotating variant, where a perforated barrel is turned using a crankhandle to create friction against metal tangents, survives in the Musée de la Musique in Paris. The musical cheesegrater is cited in a posthumously published appendix to Luigi Russolo’s celebrated manifesto L’Arte dei rumori in the fourth category of his sound classification (screeches, creaks, rumbles, buzzes, crackles, scrapes). Its best-known use is in Maurice Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (1924), where it is rubbed with a triangle beater.

The musical cheesegrater was employed by Italian Futurist composers and associates of the Dada movement in Paris, and its popularity and decline mirrors the fortunes of these artistic groupings. The manuscript of Erik Satie’s Rabelais-themed Trois petites pièces montées (1919) features the instrument rubbed with a hard cheese, though scholars disagree whether Satie intended this to be a percussion instrument or part of a projected staging. Edgard Varèse showed enthusiasm for the musical cheesegrater during a dinner with Russolo; it appears in sketches for Amériques (1918-21), but not in the final version. Recent academic research in gastromusicology has revived interest in the instrument.

I’m gratified by the reference to the numinous Sachs–Hornbostel organological taxonomy, even if a whole host of stranger instruments appear there. So it’s of little consequence that just such an instrument is indeed used in several world traditions, such as the guiro/güira of merengue. Indeed, it brings to mind “our” very own washboard.

If it’s pithy organology you need, there’s also the vuvuzela.

 

Deviating from behavioural norms

Deviation

In Paris with the Li family Daoists, 2017.

Under my fetish for taxonomy, the new subhead for humour under the WAM category contains many orchestral stories.

As Stephen Cottrell observes, they may often be subsumed under what Merriam calls the musician’s “licence to depart from behavioural norms”.

Many, indeed, relate to maestro-baiting (see also conducting tag), like John Wilbraham‘s celebrated comments.

Several stories go in pairs, like

And there’s an indecent wealth of Matthew Passion stories, such as Mein Gott.

Spreading the net wider, for instances of deviant behaviour in Iberian folk traditions, see here and here; and for jazz, e.g. Chet Baker (here and here).

Of course, it’s not only musicians who may have license to depart from behavioural norms, as is clear from the career of Bumbling Boris.

More musical criticism

Does anyone know who the composer in this story was?

Someone took a composer to hear an early British performance of Parsifal.* Asked what he thought of it, he replied,

“Well, it’s like the Brahms Requiem, only without the jokes.”

I have it down for some dour, ideally northern, English composer.

 

* The first staged performance was at Covent Garden on 2nd Februrary 1914.

 

180!!!

More local cultural knowledge:

One morning in Maida Vale studios, as the great Pierre Boulez was rehearsing the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he stopped and said suavely,

“Please, we play again from measure* 180.”

Brilliant cockney percussionist Gary Kettel, from the back of the orchestra, punched the air gleefully and screamed out,

“ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTYYY!!!”

Since Boulez’s broad erudition didn’t stretch to the world of UK darts, he was somewhat nonplussed [‘Ow you say in French?] by Gary’s recondite allusion to the fabled score of three triple 20s. Still, he and Gary always had the utmost respect for each other’s musicianship.

 

*Boulez always used the French word for “bar”. Endearingly, he called the cor anglais “ze English ‘orn”.

Barbed comments

My dubious encomium for Rowan’s CV (The Feuchtwang variations, n.3) reminds me:

The brilliant Roy Mowatt (see under comments here), a real bedrock of the early music orchestral scene, has long tolerated my violin playing in the section he led. I treasure a remark he made to me over a beer or three in a piazza in Parma after a Mozart opera (evoking Hugh Maguire’s comment to Pete Hanson—“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”):

Thing about you, Steve, is that it doesn’t make any difference if your strings are in tune!

You can take that either way, and I think he meant it both ways. I was quite adaptable; yet my intonation wasn’t necessarily helped by tuning up… Cf. “It was in tune when I bought it”.

While I’m in confessional mood, here’s another comment I might add to my CV. Just around that time, a certain maestro took me aside and observed suavely,

Steve, I can’t help noticing that you have a somewhat low threshold of boredom…

JEG

Photo © Jim Four.

Like the review of the Berlin Phil’s response to Simon Rattle, it lacks a certain nuance.

Nicknames

As Kate Fox observes, the creativity of the English language reveals itself at multiple levels.

The fragrant Gary Lineker recalls how the the team-mates of the footballer Kiki Musampa called him Chris (think about it). There are more where that came from, like Fitz Hall—known as One Size.

Brian Smith, a “straight” symphony-orchestra violinist who became a semi-detached admission to the rarefied early music scene in the 1980s, had a whole series of drôle nicknames for his new colleagues, making his conversation surreal: “I think Identikit’s gone off with Ironing Board”. Once word got round that I was making regular trips to China, I became The Missionary. He only used the real names of musos who had a life outside early music and thus qualified as Real People.

Conductors’ nicknames are another rich vein under the rubric of maestro-baiting. The great Charles Mackerras was known as Slasher—not an allusion to his conducting technique, but an abbreviation of his anagram: Slasher M. Earcrack.