Timing, they say, is everything. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not always as simple as being synchronous with something else. A few months back, I had the (to me rather frustrating) experience of playing in Mendelssohn’s Elijah under the baton of Adrian Partington, with members of the Philharmonia leading the string sections. My frustration derived from the fact that, for no obvious reason, the inner circle (metaphorically and literally) of conductor and principals played the recitative sections on a system where the strings would start or hit chords, particularly on the downbeat, not in time with the bounce of Partington’s conducting, but in reaction a half-breath after it, as if it had been a shouted order for the chord not an indication of where it should be.
I haven’t actually paid enough attention to their playing to vouch for the truth of this other example, but I’m assured that the distinctive bluesy lope of the Rolling Stones is produced in part by Charlie Watts not just taking the speed of songs from Keith Richard’s guitar introductions rather than the other way round – which he certainly does – but also by him playing slightly behind Richard’s beat, in a sort of reversal of the common jazz technique of playing ‘back on the beat’, where a soloist plays deliberately slightly (and generally consistently) behind the rhythm section’s pulse for lazy-sounding effect.
And then of course speed is another whole musical area. Classical music can experience bewildering variations in tempo, for various reasons: the metronome was only invented c. 1800, so anything written before that and a very great deal after has only descriptive indications of speed, no objective measures. Composers have often produced metronome markings that demonstrably do not confirm to their own conducting or performance of the same work, or have perhaps been suffering from a malfunctioning metronome. There is also a wide penumbra from essentially speed markings (Lento, literally ‘slowly’), through combined speed and mood descriptions (Lento doloroso), to some composers who mark their scores with moods alone (Agitato means agitated, unsurprisingly, but how fast does something have to be to sound agitated? discuss … ). Terms have changed meaning over the roughly 300 years of repertoire that most performers deal with (I’m not aware of most Renaissance composers giving any indication of speed whatever, though I’d be interested to be contradicted), sometimes passing across the grey speed-style area in the process. And then there is the question of which note value composers intend the speed indication to apply to (again, when no metronome marking is given): an Allegro moderato may sound very different to how I expected if I was wrong in assuming that the sheets of semiquavers meant it was Allegro moderato in crotchets not minims!
Even if you think you know what speed something should go, there may be a negotiation between that and what is practically possible. I suspect most cover bands play ‘Rock Around the Clock’ as fast as their lead guitarist can reliably get round the original solo, since it’s far too well-known to omit or significantly change with any face but also requires a demanding combination of speed and precision – you can’t just fluff most of it as it’s too strictly rhythmic. Conversely, the speed of at least three of the Richard Strauss Four Last Songs (in the orchestral version) is usually determined by how long the soprano soloist can make the phrases while maintaining tone and the sometimes massive volume required to rise over the orchestral scoring.
At this point, time for a twist: this post isn’t a theory lesson (or deconstruction) as such, but a sort of half-developed metaphor for musical endeavours.
The Filthy Spectacula have made a fairly striking success of being always ahead of ourselves – recording a pro demo within two months of forming, doing our first gig with only enough repertoire ready to fill the slot, having to learn four new songs in a few weeks in order to play our first headline slot (itself our second gig, which is pretty absurd), now shooting a music video after six months together. It’s worked well for us.
On the other hand, the String Project spent a lot of the first three years of their existence trying to run before they, then we, could walk. Which meant a lot of underprepared gigs where we didn’t have the repertoire mastered enough to play it right, never mind convey the inherent life of some often partly experimental writing to a non-specialist audience; recordings that were out of tune or took days to come out with one or two useable tracks (once they had been edited together out of many takes) and a lot of waste. Only I think within the last year or so has the group really managed to find the sweet spot that balances the creativity and vision of Ben Mowat, always its main driving force, with parts that fit and suit its players, events and audiences that correspond to its style, and repertoire that is accessible, coherent and yet distinctive to its listeners. It is this more than anything else that has finally driven a lift in how satisfying and successful our gig appearances have been, and has let a more collaborative group push upwards in ambition rather than getting stuck at a level of unrealisable aspiration.
Which doesn’t supply any easy answers to how to pace my new project, and by some way the one that is most ‘mine’ in terms of ownership but also responsibility – the Finezza String Quartet. I suspect there is some impatience on the part of some members, and friends of mine, and a part of me shares it: You’re ‘in the process of forming’ a string quartet? What are you doing? How long can it take for Pete’s sake? Why are you not gig-hunting and marketing like crazy?
The answer is to a large extent that I’m trying to get it right and avoid setbacks which can all too easily turn into rifts. I think we have a set of people that will work, and a good name, and we’re making progress on getting music together. Having looked at the market a fair bit though, I don’t want to start madly chasing gigs with just a name and the potential of learning enough music for a job. Getting decent work or establishing ongoing relationships will take the standard press pack – audio, live video, pro photos, blurb text, reasonably slick website, bespoke email address. Those will take a little longer, though I do want to put timetables on when we plan to do them. In the meantime, there seems to be a basically steady flow of agencies and clients, new, expanding and established, looking for acts, and I’m going to trust that it will be worth diving into that stream later but properly prepared rather than as soon as possible. Keep watching this space – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.