London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

4 bazillion weddings (and)

Later today, I’m off to my first wedding of 2020. In 2018, I was at four. In 2019, my Google calendar makes it to have been 26.

I think I was only a guest at one of those; all the rest I was working. And while honourable mentions should go to Giardino Strings and The Mechanics for some of the bookings (and, in both cases, some non-wedding gigs too), the vast majority of last year’s jobs, and today’s, are with Miracle Cure.

The USP of this band is doing both standard pop/rock/covers material as a two-guitar four-piece, and also (when the extra cash is forthcoming) Irish songs (trad and well-known covers) and a few jigs and reels with a fiddle player added (me, or quite often my once and future colleagues Alleya or Maria).

One of the best things about that is that the crowd is usually at least a quarter Irish. And my observation is that culturally the Irish at a party – any party – don’t take themselves too seriously, are very difficult to embarrass, and are always up for a drink, a dance and a laugh. Which makes them a great crowd to play to for a function band. (You have a captive and usually tipsy audience at a wedding, but they may still sit in the shadowy corners of the tasteful lighting, chat and ignore you. Plus there are times when I watch a group of 30-something English punters on a dancefloor and just think of Jessie J: ‘Why’s everybody so serious? / Got their heels so high they can’t even have fun’. At my favourite wedding gigs, the couple have actually laid on baskets of cheap flip-flops to leave by the band and pre-empt excuses for not dancing!)

The double-edged sword of a Miracle Cure gig is they usually put all the Irish stuff in the second set, and so I turn up halfway through and set up in the break. On the plus side, I’m on site for less than half the time the rest of the band are and I do less sitting around (though I think all of us who play fiddle with Miracle Cure are gradually sliding into the non-Irish material just for the hell of it, though in principle it’s optional and I haven’t yet tried, let alone succeeded in, working out a part to ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’). On the minus, I have to try and hit the ground running, because there isn’t really time in one set to warm up gradually, at gone 9pm, after a lengthy journey (pretty much anyone paying up for a live 5-piece at their reception is also having their wedding at a country house / hotel-type venue in the middle of nowhere), when the other musicians and punters have been at it for at least an hour. It can be intense. And the ratio of travelling to playing time can be unusual!

But, take it all in all, I get wedding pay for fairly straightforward work. And the sheer density of bookings (there were often two lineups out on the same night last year) speaks to the success of the project and the happiness of clients. Density of bookings also meant Miracle Cure paid a lot of my rent in the second half of last year. So you can expect there to be a lot more times in 2020 where I’m flailing away at my best fake trad Irish fiddle, and then posing in the obligatory pre-encore band-and-crowd selfie:

Alone again, un/naturally

When is busking a gig, and when is a gig busking? Is the critical feature location, or means of payment?

On Thursday, I was at International Quarter London in Stratford for an hour at lunchtime. More specifically, I was standing in the location called Endeavour Square (surrounded on one side by a building site and on most of the others by chain restaurants), playing classical solo viola (a Bach cello suite, some melodic items from the viola version of Mazas’ violin studies, a Hoffmeister étude, and two movements of a Reger suite, if you’re fanatically interested).

I wasn’t dependent upon tips for making money from freezing my fingers thus; in fact, I was both promised a contractual payment and forbidden to collect money, which meant I had to rebuff a few would-be donors!

However, not only was I providing background music (at least in theory) in a public outdoor space, but IQL had recruited their classical (by request) mood music players through Busk in London – who administer the National Rail station busking scheme I participate in during warmer weather and/or better health. In effect then, someone decided to hire some buskers to, arguably, not busk.

However, the semantics are of little importance to me compared to actually getting a paid gig this early in the year (and one where I could make use of the classical viola practice, and learning of non-orchestral repertoire, that all too often seems only indirectly useful). So long as the money appears in my account soon!

(PS my first wedding gig of the year is this Saturday, and there’s more of a regular stream of jobs picking up from then. Hopefully thereafter I will maunder about lack of work and/or money less!)

A right guid-willie waught

Last night, Elaine and I (Kindred Spirit Duo) headed off to the Hampshire village of Headley, to their annual Burns Supper.

We arrived just as the haggis was being piped in, but around setting up still managed to be well fed (soup, haggis, neeps, tatties and pudding – a veritable feast!) before playing. Now I’ve been to a few Burns nights before (credit particularly to St Columba’s URC, Oxford, which I went to as a student and had a contingent of diehard Scottish nationalists years before the SNP was cool … ) and danced at many a ceilidh (they’re particularly popular with slightly geeky weddings, though I’ve been to others too, and will always get my vote over a DJ attempting to incite dancing round handbags!). But if memory serves me right, this was the first time I’d been hired as a musician to play for either.

So the weeks between new year and the day of the bard, when not occupied with a recital, an orchestra concert, starting to revive my classical viola technique and booking in other work, saw me on one hand learning Elaine’s selection of Scottish songs (several with Robbie Burns texts and several with decidedly anti-English lyrics!) to sing while the dancers got their breath back. On the other, going through caller Liz’s list of suggested dances, allocating suitable tunes at least one of us has played before to each, making sure Elaine had the relevant chords (I have a bit of a fixation on doing my own harmonisation of British folk tunes, which are generally not written with chords in mind, not relying on published versions), and getting my fingers around the tunes that I didn’t know taken from the ceilidh pad of a previous violinist of hers!

All of which said, despite not rehearsing any of the dancing material together or with Liz, things went off with barely a hitch for the dancers (I think even the points where we had to swap tunes in from a different dance because the dance list got added to and subtracted from were fitted into the time taken walking the dancers through). And I managed to contain my desire to be down on the dancefloor, though it did feel a little like being left out!

Anyway it must have gone to the locals’ satisfaction, as the committee hope to ask us back for another ceilidh later in the year. And having done one, I’m confident within reason of being able to put together tunes and effectively be ‘musical director’ for other ceilidhs and barn dances, given a caller who knows what they’re doing and a bit of advance notice of the dance list. Add that to your list of my available skills and contexts, and I await the flood of bookings for wedding receptions and ramblers’ association annual socials (I didn’t make that up) (other kinds of events will be considered) (in fact I don’t care what the pretext is, have a barn dance at your nan’s wake if she would have liked the idea).

Coming up: function string ensembles, session Americana recording, and returns to orchestral and wedding band gigging …

[PS I don’t know much better than you do what the title means; I copied and pasted it from an Aberdonian so it’s either right good Scots or a prank on the English]

Rarely the boss

No, this is not a post about how infrequently I play Bruce Springsteen songs, but if you thought that you’re clearly getting the hang of my style in punning post titles …

It’s a common contradiction of working as a freelance musician, or certainly a freelance instrumentalist with no taste for backing tracks, that most of my work is on other people’s projects or at least in more or less collaborative groups. Indeed, it would be more appropriate for most of my prospective clients to see demos of me working as a ‘sideman’ to someone else, yet most of my demo material is of necessity solo or at least myself in the role of name artist / performer with ‘accompaniment’.

That said, it’s a trend I can try and buck (not only by organising viola and piano recitals for myself!), and I thought it was time my YouTube playlist of me playing with and generally for others got a refresh. Here it is in current form:

But do check back with it on my YouTube channel or the Playing page of this website, as I’m hoping there will be some exciting additions to this list in the next couple of months. (I know, I’m such a tease … )

Reporting back

You can’t make as much marketing-type advance noise about an event as I did about my recital at Fidelio without quite a lot of people who couldn’t be there asking ‘how did it go?’. So here is an approximate report back.

Less than a week beforehand, it was still looking like we might be playing to less than half a dozen people. I can now thankfully reveal that this was down to audiences leaving commitment to the last minute, rather than rejecting the idea altogether. While on paper we sold only just over 50% of capacity, in practice for the size room without cramming people in (and I’d much rather they were able to relax!) we had plenty of audience even after an inevitable proportion of no-shows.

Some of them were close friends, some were several degrees distant connections of connections (arguably more of a win – I hadn’t been able to guilt-trip them directly! Thanks to Charlie and Frances (who will know who they are if they read this) for selling the event on my behalf). One couple, rather gratifyingly, had simply noticed the venue opening up on their walk from work route and popped in the first time it was open after Christmas!

My genuine impression is the vast majority, at least, of the audience actively enjoyed the concert – which I don’t think was inevitable with a relatively ‘difficult’ (in many senses) programme and an entry price austerity-hit Brits don’t part with on too much of a whim, even if Londoners pay it for two pints and a tiny bag of nuts without batting an eyelid on the occasions they’re actually in a pub.

That can serve as counterweight to my realising, going through the audio of the concert, that I talked for at least twice as long as I’d planned to over the course of the performance and it therefore overran by something like a quarter of an hour (for what was supposed to be an hour-long event). At least my barely-prepared jabbering probably did give people a way into some of the less accessible music …

Besides talking less, my other resolution (already starting to be enacted) from the recordings is to spend more time on scales, position changing exercises and generally accuracy and reliability of tuning in so far as receding chronic fatigue syndrome allows me to actually practise beyond the demands of playing the notes of imminently upcoming jobs at all. Call it a belated new year’s resolution for 2020 (but hopefully a durable one).

So you’re not going to get extended opportunities to examine my playing at leisure through the medium of recording. But, in celebration of my public début as an art music composer (!) going off without disaster and even with some people saying it was their favourite piece of the programme (this may say more about the other choices, especially for non classical music buffs … ), here are undeniably committed versions of the bookending movements of my sonata. Sheet music available on request!

Bright lights, big cities

Another example of being in the right place at the right time was my getting booked for the UK dates of Showtime Australia‘s Whitney Houston tribute tour The Greatest Love of All (with, for the UK leg only, 8 strings and 4 brass as well as the 6-piece core band, backing dancers, touring sound and light crew and, because it’s better in many ways than picking up everyone’s restaurant receipts, the gear to fully equip a kitchen packed into flight crates).

No, I’m not the one in all the sequins.

The right place at the right time for my career anyway. Maybe less so for managing and recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Here’s an approximate timeline:

  • 10 October, early morning: one of the two booked violists pulls out
  • 10 October, c. 9:30: I see an ad while idly scrolling through Facebook over breakfast
  • 10 October, still about 10am and in my pyjamas: two phone calls later, I’m confirmed for the first three shows of the tour. I look at train times and find I have 15 minutes to catch the last train that will get me to rehearsal on time. Luckily the station is 4 minutes’ walk or 2 minutes’ not-dressed-or-trained-for-this sprint from my house. In the end I actually arrive slightly early.
  • 10 October, afternoon: the only rehearsal for the tour as such, at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. It’s charted, to click, on clip mikes, on in-ear monitors all round.
  • 10 October, evening: first show of the tour, at the same venue.
  • 10-11 October, middle of the night: by the time I get out, I’m getting the last train back to London by default. Then some night buses.
  • 11 October: while the tour stay overnight in Birmingham and then have a day off, I have a morning diabetes management appointment at the hospital clinic and then play a bar gig in Chatham. Some very chatty (see what I did there?) punters as I’m leaving mean it’s last train to London, night bus and go to bed in the small hours again.
  • 12 October, far too early in the morning: catch a bus at 6:30am to start a journey that gets me to Northampton for a 9am chamber orchestra rehearsal of Malcolm Arnold. Concert at lunchtime.
  • 12 October, afternoon: I have a train route mapped out, and it’s just about worth it for the fee for several shows touring, though due to short notice I’m putting a lot of spend on my credit card getting a walk-up ticket from Northampton to Newcastle (the real one, not under Lyme). Don’t try that at home kids. One train change out, my next connection is cancelled and there’s disruption all over the shop. Some urgent re-searching of the National Rail Enquiries planner and live departures sees me retrace my steps, follow a different route, run for at least one connection, and eventually arrive at Newcastle only about 45 minutes after I’d initially anticipated.
  • 12 October, evening: the Northampton gig and travel always meant I was going to miss soundcheck for this show; the extra delay means I have about 40 minutes to set up and for my desk partner (or the other viola player, however you want to look at it) to talk me through a couple of changes and notes. Most of them seem to involve when we clap our hands over our heads on beats 2 and 4. Show at Newcastle City Hall.
  • 12-13 October: stay overnight with the tour at a Holiday Inn Express (?) on the outskirts of Newcastle.
  • 13 October, morning: tour bus drive from Newcastle to Glasgow.
  • 13 October: setup, soundcheck and show at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
  • 13-14 October: overnight at another Holiday Inn.
  • 14 October: coach trip from Glasgow down to London. For some reason the pickup and dropoff point is Park Royal tube station (look at a map of London – it’s pretty much diametrically opposite where I live). At least we get there by mid-afternoon so getting home by tube and train is no problem.
  • 15 October: lunchtime pickup to go to Bournemouth for show at the Pavilion Theatre.
  • 15-16 October: coach drops us back at Park Royal at about public transport stopping time. My introduction to the wonders of Uber Pool (basically taxi-sharing with strangers by app).
  • 16 October, morning: chronic fatigue treatment session. Just in case you thought I had a lie-in at this point.
  • 16 October, evening: Buswell & Nyberg’s Pop-up Orchestra are supplying some live music for a swanky corporate p!ss-up, at the sort of highly-polished venue (happens to be a private members’ club in Soho) that always makes me feel I must be in the wrong place, even when I’m working there. However, it pays decent money plus very classy finger food, and drinks (except cocktails and prosecco) are on the house, or rather on the client (it’s open bar for all their employees too. I don’t think many of them care whether the music is any good).
  • 17 October: apparently this was a day off.
  • 18 October, afternoon: take the train to Brighton (no tour bus for the orchestra this time, though expenses will be reimbursed). Well and good. I’m walking from the station, which should take about 15 minutes, mostly downhill. Unfortunately, despite how often I’ve played in Brighton, I have a peculiar mental block that means I almost always come out of the station and start walking at 90 degrees to the correct direction. On this occasion, I don’t realise this till I’ve walked about 2/3 of a mile. When I make it to the seafront to walk along to the Brighton Centre, there’s a sea gale. It takes most of my remaining contingency time to work out that the stage entrance is at the back of the building and walk round several other businesses to get there; and then the interior gets all my wooden spoon prizes for signage and clarity of layout, so I run sweatily on stage pretty much as they start soundcheck. I started the trip with at least half an hour to spare!
  • 19 October, morning: catch a train at 9:30 to meet the rest of the quartet for a Giardino Strings wedding gig in Dorking. Having played, get the train back as it’s on the right side of London (rather than get a lift to a dropoff location and then have to cross town anyway).
  • 19 October, afternoon: home for a rather quick turnaround, change and swap one set of equipment for another.
  • 19 October, evening: Kindred Spirit Duo pub gig in Brentford. Brentford FC had apparently come from 2 goals down to unexpectedly win that afternoon; the first half of the gig is rather dominated by very lairy but happy fans who loudly bawl along to whatever they know, whether or not we’re playing it.
  • 20 October, morning: catch bus before 8:30 en route to 10am pickup in Park Royal. Tour bus to Liverpool for setup, soundcheck and show at the Philharmonic Hall, which has had a complete backstage revamp since I last played there as a second violin in the then Merseyside Youth Orchestra (now rebranded as the mouthful Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra) in 2003. I manage a snooze in the dressing room between soundcheck and show.
  • 20-21 October: this time the Holiday Inn is at Chester racecourse. Not that close to Liverpool, but I guess it is on the way to Cardiff. Everyone else goes off to get drunk in a bar that’s open till late. I go straight to bed; not that I can get to sleep.
  • 21 October, morning: tour bus to Cardiff for setup, soundcheck and show at St David’s Hall.
  • 21-22 October: tour bus back to Park Royal. Disadvantages of Uber revealed: if you don’t get to the stated pick-up point within 2 minutes (which can be difficult with luggage, unclear mapping and two very tired and somewhat tipsy people), it automatically cancels the booking and charges you £4.
  • 22 October, small hours of the morning: while putting my luggage into a taxi, realise my viola is still on the tour bus, which drove off to park up about 15 minutes ago.
  • 22 October, late morning: by phone calls to office and texts to drivers, establish the bus is untouched in Feltham (outer south-west London; I live in inner-ish south-east). Train journey there and back to successfully collect none the worse instrument.

It’s glamorous, life on the road …

Nobody ask why I look kind of glazed-eyed and unsmiling in this photo …

New new news

Welcome to 2020! But that isn’t really what this post is about.

One of the things I do very rarely, by the standards of freelance musicians and especially classical ones, is perform under my own name not as part of a group name or somebody else’s backing ensemble.

In fact, when planning for Thursday’s concert finally started getting to concrete details, I realised this will be my first public recital (it’s a duo with pianist Jo Giovani, but still kind of as a soloist) in London. I have played a couple of lunchtime recitals since moving to London, but for reasons to do with opportunity, timescales and contacts they were actually in Chelmsford.

Which makes this an exciting event for me of itself. All the more so as this is a rather particularly appropriate context for me to be doing a concert; one in which more of the terms are the ones I would like to set, rather than the conventions of ‘classical’ performance I sometimes chafe against (most often by pointing out that they didn’t coalesce until Mahler after 1880, later than most core ‘classical’ music was written … ). So there will be a small enough room to play even viola below maximum volume most of the time, and to talk to the audience without a microphone – and talk to the audience I most definitely will, and if I do so instead of providing written programme notes, it’s partly because I think that’s better, partly so people watch us rather than staring at their laps and rustling bits of paper, and partly because it’s less work (for me) to talk off the cuff than typeset and print programmes … No serried ranks of numbered and lettered seats differentiated by price and sightlines, rather a sort of shabby-chic living-room-cum-Parisian-pavement-café assortment of sofas, coffee tables and chairs, in a basement room (of an actual café) that only 40 tickets are sold for, and that would be quite a squeeze.

A certain well-known London recital venue, which I’ve been to several times because it has a discount scheme for under 35s which is almost the only one I’m eligible for, projects (among other more conventional messages) a request for audiences to avoid coughing during the music. If there are song words and translations sheets, they never run one piece / movement over a page turn, and the bottom of each page has an entreaty not to turn the page until the item and its accompaniment have finished. That may give a very pure experience of the music – acoustically it certainly does. But personally I find it psychologically distracting (vastly so if I have a sore throat!). And it seems to me that all our (‘art’ musicians’) claims about the value of our music are heavily enfeebled if it can’t still be vibrant and compelling in an environment where people might turn pages, clear their throats or even applaud between movements. Or, for that matter, if the music itself can’t reduce an attentive audience to silence (I appreciate it’s almost impossible playing background music, but why would you want or expect people to shut up for background music?).

So I’m glad that Fidelio’s usual practice with concerts is not only for audiences to be free to bring food and drinks from the café upstairs into the performance room, but also to encourage orders to be placed upstairs to be brought to the audience in the basement. I’m positively looking forward to playing some relatively uncompromisingly ‘art’ music for an audience with wine glasses, coffee cups and knives and forks in their hands – hopefully experiencing some kind of culinary-musical Gesamtkunstwerk happening …

But back to firsts. This isn’t just my first London recital outing. It also features a number of new, or in some sense new, pieces of music. I believe it is the first London performance of my friend Heidi Cottrell’s ‘Wilderness’ (though I know it has been used as a church service closing voluntary, probably 20 years ago!), and probably the UK premiere of Paweł Łukaszewski’s ‘Aria’, either in its cello and piano original or the composer’s viola and piano revision – certainly I got it from a Polish source close to the composer. Colin Touchin’s ‘Movement’ is a parallel but even odder case; it was written for cello and piano back in spring of 1970, when he was a late teenager. Colin has dug it out and adapted the cello part for viola in discussion with myself (and I think Jo may have done some streamlining of the confessedly clunky piano part), and at nearly 50 years old this will be the piece’s world premiere in any form (the cello version remains unperformed, if any cellists want to call dibs!).

Finally, this is my début as a London recitalist, but also as a ‘classical’ composer full stop. We will be closing the concert with the broadly neoclassical sonata for viola and piano I wrote (and revised, always a big part of my creative process) in fits and starts from late 2018 to early last year – the first time, as far as I am aware, a public has had the chance to hear (and enjoy, or not), any ‘art’ music written by me (my occasional forays into songwriting hardly seem connected, even when gigged and indeed recorded for paying audiences).

So all in all quite a ‘big deal’, and I’m very happy that a substantial body of friends and music colleagues will be there to share in, or indeed constitute, it. But there is still definitely space for some more before you have to start sitting on the floor or each other’s knees (unless you want to of course!) – so if you’re free Thursday evening, consider spending an hour with good food (optional), company and music. No tickets on the door I’m afraid but any last-minute deciders should be able to buy them online right up to the start time from https://fideliorchestra.art/whats-on/modernism-and-more-recently-music-for-viola-and-piano (and if you’re a student, under 18 or over 65 do take advantage of the concession tickets!).

Hope to see many familiar faces (and perhaps a few personally unknown ones) there!

Some old things in review

Everyone is doing this, it seems. Which must be my pretext for doing it controversially …

2019 was, objectively, a good year. It included being part of my best friend’s wedding (and a truly lovely wedding it was too). It was also a year of many steps forward in terms of my music career:

  • A working relationship with Miracle Cure meaning I worked most weekends of the summer (often more than once, and beyond the usual bounds of ‘summer’) at wedding rates
  • Touring the UK with a high-production-values tribute act
  • Arranging, fixing and MDing (as well as playing) for a certain well-known London events company, with good reason to believe that will be the first of many jobs with them
  • Playing mandolin seriously, thanks to dep opportunities with Pogue Traders, adding it to my arsenal with Kindred Spirit Duo and most critically Zoe Wren‘s trio (both live and on record)
  • Adding another ongoing working relationship to my portfolio with the 145s

But I don’t believe in sugarcoating. This was also the year in which I felt, the vast majority of the time, that I was treading water due to chronic fatigue syndrome, and waiting for a credible degree of recovery from that to do anything significant voluntarily rather than because it fell under my nose. It was also the year in which many really good things were felt as burdens not advances because of the intensely toxic combination of fatigue, depression and diabetes, and in which I continued to feel lonely and isolated in London, while far too stretched and drained to do anything about making or strengthening friendships, let alone venturing into the dating maelstrom.

The 2010s could have several posts to themselves. But maybe I can try to outline a complex and incoherent narrative – if you get the impression of complexity without pattern, that is probably more important than grasping the details.

In early 2010, I had quit a terrible job (my first ‘real job’) for a badly-run publishing company in Newcastle, and mistaken my disappointment with that experience for disgust with the private sector as a whole. I was moving to Oxford (back to Oxford, where I had studied, rather) to do an internship [Ed.: unpaid job] with Oxfam in search of a third-sector [Ed.: charity] career.

The voluntary work would land me part-time, fixed-term jobs; many repeated failures to get full-time, permanent work; the hellish experience of doing two part-time jobs for the same organisation; and the realisation that my third-sector ‘career’ was both going nowhere and failing to make me happy.

I ended up getting a full-time, permanent job with a certain well-known chiefly educational publisher in autumn 2012. Within a month, I had developed the symptoms which, after eliminating other possibilities, would lead to me being diagnosed with clinical depression; but it wasn’t until 2014 that an occupational health doctor put it to me, after 15 minutes of our first appointment, that the job was keeping me mentally ill.

Cue the single biggest change in my life certainly since going to university: the experiment with making music pay, a prospect I had not engaged with since my mid-teens (when my family, chiefly, talked me out of A-level Music, let alone any further academic study of the subject). Initially in favour of part-time desk work, progressing as my music earnings have continued to rise, this is both the most exciting and the most stressful story of my work life by far – and continues to be just as unpredictable, over 5 years in. What no one could have predicted, in the absence of a clinically established cause or it running in my family, was the additional complication of developing type 1 diabetes. Furthermore, I was to find counselling (abruptly terminated by the centre going bust), two courses of guided computer-based cognitive behavioural therapy and a long and expensive period of private psychotherapy ineffective in treating my depression, and medication only effective in keeping it in the background after several worsening crises climaxing in a self-harm episode (admittedly one which did more psychological than physical harm).

That said, and while I cannot envisage going back to a non-music desk job, I loved Oxford as a professional, and my life since owes a tremendous amount to the churches I was a member of, the open mic nights that allowed me (begrudgingly or not) to experiment with blues, folk, improv and vocals, and the very brave bandleaders that recruited me to the gigging scene for the first time (Mark Atherton, Lewis Newcombe-Jones and Rachel Ruscombe-King, yes I am looking at you).

I would have liked to stay in Oxford; but practicalities had other plans. As a musician, I was travelling to, or through, London almost every weekend for work, and discovering that Oxon, with its plethora of gifted amateurs doing something else for a living, was not a good hunting ground for paying gigs. And then there came (through a gig with the most enduring, high-profile and high-energy of several not-really-money-making originals-oriented bands in this period) the lass I met on Twickenham station platform (after the most fortuitous get-drunk-and-crash-at-the-drummer’s ever).

It became abundantly clear, after some months of long-distance mostly-at-the-weekends relationship with Stevie, that my future lay in London. Which was the kick I needed to quit my desk job altogether and (with very little reluctance) go full-time self-employed. Unfortunately, a comedy of errors and displacements was to follow: a flatshare with another couple utterly unsuited to share their home, a move out on my part which she was unable or unwilling to accompany (even if that did mean I shared my home with four adorable cats, a rather sweet puppy, some other lodgers and an utterly wonderful crazy artsy cat lady fashion design lecturer for a few months), a successive move on her part, a disastrous move into a flat together and our temporarily acrimonious breakup.

It won’t be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the behaviour of young males in relationships to hear that I had adopted Stevie’s friendship group (she is a Londoner born and bred, albeit migratory between south-east, south-west and most recently far north) and neglected to form one of my own. The breakup, at my initiation I admit, left me effectively trying to start again from scratch in this particularly overwhelming, oversized and unfriendly city – and having moved for the fourth time in 18 months to yet another quadrant of the city.

Six months in to the progress of recovering from the breakup and trying to find my social and psychological feet, I instead developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Of which the only good things that can be said are that my brother having gone through treatment with him already, I was well-positioned to seek help from Raymond Perrin (who, unlike the official line of the NHS at present, has an evidenced medical theory of the causes of the condition, and a corresponding treatment plan for chronic fatigue itself rather than its psychological side-effects); and that it pushed me to ditch the continuing freelance editorial / publishing work with which I was increasingly unenamoured. At which point, more or less, we can return to the first section of this post to look at 2019.

Meaning that I enter 2020 hoping to actually pay my way through music alone, with exciting if not necessarily intentional professional opportunities in that field taken or opening up; and with the prospect of returning to approximate normality as far as fatigue is concerned, albeit the diabetes will never go away and it is likely the depression will not either; and still in search of a better social-communal-relationship ‘settlement’ in the face of intransigent social isolation, loneliness and disproportionate craving for physical affection.

Doubtless, just as 2010 seems invisibly distant now, so too will this situation seem almost beyond the reach of empathy, never mind memory, come 2030. Such is life, and we should watch our step not our ten years’ or even one year’s past.

Never Enough, but still rather satisfying

It has been a very busy month. Here’s another project I was working on alongside the subject of my last post (sleeping was something I didn’t work on much at all for 2 or 3 weeks).

Firstly, let me introduce Myriam Cavalli – singer, actress, model, from southern Italy but studying musical theatre at the London College of Music – possessed of near-perfect pitch, seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm and (fun fact!) degrees in fashion design, chemistry and environmental microbiology (you didn’t see that coming, did you?). This is primarily her project and absolutely her initiative.

It starts with a message – would I be interested in doing a voice and violin collaboration for YouTube? It rapidly turned out Myriam had the song picked – a number from The Greatest Showman called ‘Never Enough’. I’m not going to get side-tracked into a discussion of the film or the musical, not least to avoid annoying the many people with a significantly higher opinion of it than my own! However, one of the strengths of the song as a performance number is that it is a song within the show – I believe the opening number of Jenny Lind’s tour promoted by Barnum – and therefore does not require mangling to disentangle it from dialogue or other characters’ singing on the one hand, nor knowledge of the plot to be made sense of on the other.

Workshopping the arrangement and rehearsing the song revealed rapidly that Myriam had quite a clear vision of the nature of the performance (as well as that she was already working within the framework of a video brief while we finalised the music), and one I’ll admit that wasn’t my knee-jerk reaction or my usual default. I admit this because I think it came out very well once I gave up my scepticism! The concept was essentially to treat the track as a cappella, rather than voice accompanied by violin, with the instrument duetting and mostly playing in the gaps in the vocal line instead of harmonising.

Also involved were reworking the lyrics, partly to introduce a substantial amount of Myriam’s native Italian, and partly to shift the emotional focus of the verses from a rather dependent romantic love to an unashamedly childlike rediscovery of enchantment with Christmas. This was definitely going to be our ‘Christmas single’!

Unsurprisingly, in the course of refining the arrangement, several details were bounced back and forth between us, but one major aspect of the ‘concept’ did shift rather late in the day – which was moving the instrumental part from violin to viola, and so moving quite a lot of material to a lower octave (not least because on that instrument, I could often avoid echoing the vocal notes directly by playing an octave below, whereas violin could only do so by playing an octave higher), but also changing the timbre and resonance of the sound quite significantly. I won’t comment on how much of the latter is intrinsic to the instruments’ natures, specific to the viola and violin I have and how I have them set up, or due to my playing of the respective instruments …

Listening to some crucial playback: which take sounds better in the second chorus? Photo courtesy Myriam Cavalli

Audio recording was done, without guide track, click, overdubs or ‘grid’ (of beats and bars over time, for editing facilitation – only feasible if recording to click track of course), by Dani Ricci at his converted warehouse home studio. We were miked separately but within the same audibly resonant live room, allowing for chamber music-style ensemble playing but meaning that while splices were fine, isolating one part from the other was certainly not.

All credit then to Dani for doing such a good job of editing, mixing and mastering a track without almost all of the usual reference points or shortcuts. A lot of this had to be ‘freehand’, and a lot more like a classical recording than a rock or pop one. And yet not only does it all come together fluently, it also has much more warmth, atmosphere and fullness than would generally be expected from a two-part arrangement with the parts mostly alternating rather than combining.

As soon as the audio was edited (for timing – before mixing, EQ or mastering were final), it was on to video shooting. This took most of three days in different settings, of which I was needed at two. Events took an interesting turn at the university filming studios (Myriam’s day two, my day one), where I turned up expecting to mime footage to the recorded audio. It turned out the large crew of students, and a few staff techs, who were doing the video side as an assessed part of their degrees were intending to record audio and video in live takes, Jools Holland style. Not a problem of itself, but had I anticipated that setup I would have memorised the arrangement rather more thoroughly (as not relying on hearing my part blasting at me), and brought my clip mike to facilitate getting some separated audio while allowing me to move without wildly swinging levels. Instead of which there was some hasty improvisation with a tieclip vocal mike, electrical tape cushioning and resting in the soundhole (no, tape cannot be stuck to the viola, I remain surprised by how much varnish is involved in the sound so it’s certainly not being partly pulled off!). Moral: communicate clearly in advance; students may have everything within ten minutes’ run and not care about overrunning, but I had come 90 minutes’ journey by train and two tubes from south-east to south-west London to be there and couldn’t go home for alternative gear! However, you can (in my unhumble opinion) always tell the real quality of musicians by what they can do live, rather than in the studio, and in the end we did a lot more rehearsals and restarts for set dressing, lighting rig and the four fixed-tripod and one moving-dolly (on a mini train track and everything! ‘Big boys’ toys’ … ) cameras than for musical glitches.

Looking pleased because we’ve just wrapped and can put extra layers back on. There isn’t sun-glare like that in the video I promise! Photo courtesy of Myriam Cavalli.

The final day’s shooting was outside and fairly high-concept – Myriam having loaned a bespoke dress from a designer to feature, and me in all white (sidenote: my white jeans now fit so badly, being formerly tight and now worse due to insulin, chronic fatigue (think about it: less exercise, less cooking from scratch … ) and perhaps the beginnings of middle-aged spread, that it took me 10 minutes to do up the fly and I have since despaired and charity shopped them). But bare shoulders or not and December in England or July in Rome, cinematographers will insist on trying to shoot outdoor footage in the ‘golden hour’ – a bit longer than an hour thankfully, but the particularly warm light at the ends of the day. Before-dusk was unavailable as we were shooting the same day of the Secret London performance (told you it’s been busy). So post-dawn in Gunnersbury Park it was – and dawn may be about as late as it gets a week before the solstice, but 90 minutes’ journey before dawn was still a very early start in professional performer time (I mean, I’m working at 11pm much more often than 9 or even 11am). Caffeine may be one of my demons, but it was a necessary friend that day!

So if you’re a Christmas pop person, vary up your Wham and Mariah Carey by getting this in your playlists while it’s not quite Christmas Day, and give us two the present of some serious play-count acceleration.

The right place at the right time

I’m not over chronic fatigue by any means, though I am a lot better than I was. But some things are too big not to blog about.

This big. Photo: Haydon Perrior

The best and worst music career advice I could give, if ever asked, would be ‘be lucky’. Or failing that, ‘keep trying everything that won’t actively hurt you until you are lucky’. About a month ago, I saw a Facebook ad for half a dozen orchestral musicians for an event – it was in a group I don’t check or get notifications from, in fact I think I only saw it because two of my friends had replied (it turns out knowing half the freelance musicians in the home counties has its benefits). I attempted to work strategically by posting asking if they had arrangements, as you can’t just feed classical players a set list the way you can a covers band (not unless it’s a pre-existing function string quartet or similar anyway).

What I got was a fairly open-ended email inviting me to say more about ‘what I might be able to provide’ for an event on 15 December (it rapidly turned out an arranger the client worked with regularly had pulled out due to a clash). I rapidly responded plugging myself as a fixer (again – knowing half the freelance musicians … ) and arranger (besides player), with a sense of nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The scope of the ‘ventured’ and ‘gained’ were to grow very rapidly over a couple of days. Essentially to:

  • Event in 3 weeks or so
  • Already advertised and selling tickets under the (very widely recognised round here) brand Secret London
  • 80 minutes of stage time, and you’ll play all of that twice on the same day – classic Christmas pop songs basically, exact set list open to discussion
  • If we let you have a budget of £x,xxx [better not give that away I think], can you find a lead singer and 9 instrumentalists, arrange the songs, rehearse and coordinate the performers and make all payments out of that lump budget?

I said yes. Because as a musician or as an entrepreneur (and all artists have to be entrepreneurs today), you take the opportunity and then worry about being able to meet it.

I thought the first problem would be finding musicians – I’ve been through long cycles of slow responses, eventual declines and late dropouts in the past. It turns out that if you can offer £xxx [nope, you’re not getting that information either], ask people you already know and who you think like you, and the performance happens to be on a Sunday, you might well get your first pick and they might just prioritise you over anything else that comes up!

Arranging was a bit of a different matter.

This took longer than it looks. Photo: Haydon Perrior

By the time we were starting to get bits of a set list together, and a vocalist had been found (I’ll come back to that), I remember calculating that at my usual rate of five minutes’ stage time per song (this assumes applause and chit-chat – obviously it’s less for background music), I would need to average a little over an arrangement per day.

Which didn’t seem too bad. But. The musical style steer from the events company was ‘orchestral’ – the musical forces and handling to be kept differentiated from their jazz, soul etc. events. So I suggested a kind of minimised chamber orchestra – if you’re an instrumentation nerd, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn. I had access to doublers, so on some numbers asked for alto flute instead of flute and/or cor anglais instead of oboe. Very orchestral – but notably lacking in a rhythm section to rescore Slade, Wham or any of the various Christmas crooner / jazz standards like ‘Winter Wonderland’.

And then it wasn’t like I had a convenient three-week hole in my life to wall myself up and arrange music all day. In fact, over those few weeks, I:

  • Devised, rehearsed, recorded and filmed a YouTube collaboration (coming out very soon! It’ll have to have another post to itself!)
  • Played a wedding gig in Ely (I should really blog about my wedding band too)
  • Rehearsed and performed a stage school Christmas show near Southend
  • Depped on a symphony orchestra rehearsal of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, on violin (argh!)
  • Spent three days in Beverley, meeting up with friends and playing background music in the Minster, followed by two in York more solely as time with one of my closest friends
  • Played a choral society concert the day before the Secret London gig

I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but a significant fraction of that arranging got done on my laptop on trains, in spare bedrooms, on sofas … I’m getting quite good at rendering a piano score onto a Sibelius one without needing to check much on an instrument or even change a great deal after listening to playback. In time-honoured deadline-chancing fashion, I came to the evening before the rehearsal (about 4 days before the shows) with one-and-a-half arrangements still to write, and didn’t start the last one till after 10pm.

Perhaps remarkably, after only a couple of questions to players which largely confirmed what I’d thought already, the arrangements attracted very positive noises and no one complained about ranges and registers to my face!

My sense of the scale of the undertaking underwent a substantial bump upwards again going on a site visit to Banking Hall (not actually part of the Bank of England, but you can see it from the door) with my contact at Secret London. Imagine walking into this space empty, and yourself unprepared for the sight but heavily committed to particular music for it:

Tut tut, spoiler – I haven’t got to it being that full yet (I don’t have any pictures of it empty). Photo: Haydon Perrior

Followed a few minutes later by the revelation that they were selling 300 tickets for each of the two shows, and expecting the earlier one to sell out, the later probably a little short of that.

It was a swish affair. I mean, that’s the drink the punters got free, never mind what they paid for … Photo: Haydon Perrior

I won’t deny that we entered into show 1 less well rehearsed than I would have liked, having been predictably victim to teaching schedules, delayed public transport, late-running medical appointments, illness and the travel-time-inducing size of London. I was, partly for that reason and partly because of quite how much of this was ‘my baby’, frankly more stressed than I have been about any performance in years. And I did have to direct significantly as well as play:

A viola bow is a bit long for conducting, but at least they know what beat you’re on; marking time by wiggling around while playing was much trickier on both ends. Photo: Haydon Perrior

However, even if I could perhaps have done with even more copious notes on cues to give pencilled in my parts, this was a moment where being able to fix as well as arrange / MD, and working with effectively a large chamber group, came into its own: even when the structures of the songs varied slightly from the written arrangements (and they did a couple of times!), everyone stayed both well enough together aurally and confident enough in appearances that the audience could pass it by. Big thanks to the band! – but even bigger thanks to the singer.

Stef draws a smile from the crowd – and from Emily on horn, bottom centre. Can you see? Photo: Haydon Perrior

Stefania Morosini is an arranger, MD, fixer and musical businesswoman in her own right, but also proved an absolute gem to front this gig. I wanted her mix of gospel, covers and ‘legitimate’ singing skills and experience, but got into the bargain a funny, engaging, confident frontwoman who kept the punters attentive, amused and upbeat, had no trouble filling the set times and managed to get both audiences on their feet almost unanimously. And also singing ‘White Christmas’ a cappella. Stef played a huge part in me getting a lot less stressed as the day went on, so forgive me for gushing (regular readers know I don’t do it often).

The fabulous lady in green (whose rights I am completely infringing by posting this photo) loved that we included modern gospel carol ‘Mary Did You Know’ so much I assumed she must have been a guest or at least friend of Stef’s. But apparently not. Photo: Haydon Perrior

All positive feedback is always, of course, welcome to the perpetually fragile egos of performers, and musicians are no exception. But the more money the person giving the feedback may be able to choose to throw your way, the more you take it to heart (or is that just unromantic me?). So I’m particularly pleased to be able to say that as well as many audience members stopping to tell us how much they enjoyed the music, and rapturous applause (even when Stef gave me an individual credit, which I might not have let her do if she’d given me the chance to refuse), Secret London have already broached the subject of doing more events on a similar theme. Watch this space …

Thank you, good night … and see you next time! Photo: Haydon Perrior