London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire


Yes, I know, a year and a half since my last post – apparently I don’t have the energy to run an Instagram account (@martinashmusic) and a blog.

However, this is fairly big news within my small musical world. Yesterday I received the feedback on my LTCL (Licentiate of Trinity College London) viola diploma recital. No idea what that is? Nor do many people, even within professional classical music, but it’s essentially an exam equivalent in standard to the final recital of a conservatoire undergraduate degree. So possibly an adequate response to my lack of an actual music / performance degree, if not to the chip on my shoulder about it. Assessed entirely on a 45-minute performance and a few marks on the planning of the programme however, and studying independently (while it’s awarded by ultimately the same body as Trinity Laban conservatoire, it exists more in the same space as their grade exams than their degrees).

Most importantly, I’m relieved (after three and a half weeks of nervy waiting) to say I passed – and with a solid mark, more than half way to the distinction bound. The feedback also contains much that is gratifying, certainly for someone like myself with generally little opportunity to get input on my playing in a solo context at a pro level (lessons even leading up to this were when I could justify and afford them, and had fitted in enough practice around paying gigs and health constraints for it to make sense to have another one).

The examiner and moderator summarised my performance as ‘a committed and fluent recital’, with ‘keen sense of performance detail’ and in which ‘musical intentions were always clear’. Those who know me will know I appreciate the last comment, as someone who believes performers almost always have to make decisions about interpretation rather than finding (or receiving, or reading off the page) the one right way to play a piece. Even more in tune with my personal preferences and simply what I enjoy is the praise for ‘pleasing interplay with the piano’ and ‘effective engagement in duo playing’ – arguably the musical situation in which I’m least at home is with no other live musicians to engage with, though I included an unaccompanied piece in this programme.

Similarly, my insistence on understanding and thinking about what I play makes me value being told I showed ‘a keen structural sense’ and ‘stylistic sensitivity’. As a viola player specifically however, it would be against all the grain of the qualities of the instrument and good writing for it if I didn’t rate ‘rich projection’ (and another passage being described as ‘richly announced’) highly. However, I must credit my teacher Jim Sleigh for bringing me to a point where my vibrato was commented on favourably as both ‘used effectively throughout’ and ‘suitably modulated’, given I would have rated it (especially variation within using vibrato) as a weaker area of my playing until very recently.

In fact I should finish by thanking both Jim, a teacher who adapted superbly to the idiosyncracies of this advanced yet non-conservatoire and elsewhere committed student; and my pianist Laurie O’Brien, who learned some very technically demanding parts and was a responsive duo partner, rightly treating it as an ensemble performance.

If you’re interested, my programme was:
Arnold Bax: Legend for viola and piano (he wrote other, unrelated, pieces with similar titles for different instruments)
Max Reger: Suite 1 for solo viola in G minor, first and last movements
Henri Vieuxtemps: Sonata for viola and piano in B flat major

Picture this

Promotional photos of musicians are strange things when you think about it. They capture by definition precisely not the point. We wouldn’t expect to hear an audio recording of a massage service, or get a sample of the smell of a portrait painter’s studio.

But nonetheless musicians need photographs. And good ones can make the difference between being hired or not. In certain sectors (as I’ve been finding out lately – probably material for another post), a lack of a dozen promotional pictures can even be a bar to getting listed on a directory service.

Lessons from this shoot: when it feels like I’m smiling, half the time it’s not visible. And, when I am smiling, I need to not lift my eyebrows or I look like some kind of quizzical startled clown … Photo by Olivia da Costa.

So Flux Ensemble are very glad we managed to do a substantial shoot with Olivia da Costa last month. And that it didn’t really rain that day, and after being moved on from two locations (!) we were able to shoot uninterrupted in another couple.

Olivia seems to be very much flavour of the month with young classical musicians (of which she is herself one) presently – I’ve lost track of how many friends and colleagues she’s photographed, and her schedule is impressively crowded! Not only was she professional, organised and unflappable (I’m certainly far more stressed about being photographed than performing!), but her pictures capture precisely the impressions we need to project. I mean, whatever your sentiments about bushy ginger beards or men with ponytails, isn’t that friendly yet highly presentable chap above exactly someone you’d want to hire to play Pachelbel’s #%&~ Canon as you walk down the aisle? (assuming you don’t have the peculiar preference for all-female string quartets, which is, again, material for a different post) And don’t these four look like the sort of high-energy happies that would release great string quartet covers of contemporary pop?

There really wasn’t a belly-free shot in the proofs. I looked very hard. Photo by Olivia da Costa.

To see more of her excellent work, take a look around our website. And look out for photos from this shoot featuring on more and more directory listings over the next few weeks …

They’re leaving home

It’s become clear that Flux Ensemble have outgrown the page on this site that was their initial online home. I’m delighted to say the group have now moved out to a much more spacious and stylish location of their own:

Incidentally, I wish it was this easy for me to move out to an offline place of my own …

On there, you can find our services, sample repertoire, video and audio demos, some photos (more are coming soon) and contact details. So why not take a look at what we could do for you / your event / recording / project? Or just send us some feedback on the design and construction of the website!

Hoping to be playing live for you in a matter of months now …

When is a music video not a music video?

I’ve always found the mimed music video a profoundly weird form. (I think basically I’m that rare person someone whose sensory preference is for hearing over sight, and therefore watching a song, especially watching a song not actually being played, doesn’t have much appeal to me.) And while I acknowledge there are angles (including by multiple takes) and visual performativeness you can get miming that you can’t achieve while recording release-quality audio, and indeed studio audio is very rarely done all parts at the same time or in a single end-to-end take, some of the miming footage created for music videos is a lot weirder than is inevitable.

So it’s profoundly satisfying to me that for Flux Ensemble‘s first release we’ve been able (with the help of producer / engineer / impresario Alan D Boyd) to cater to the demand for glossily presented video versions of music while basing the whole thing on the actual studio takes used in the recording:

So there’s a very real sense in which this is both a music video and a performance video (and while music videos may be important to recording artists, I know only too well that bookers, especially event / function ones, want to see performance footage!).

As I said at the beginning though, I’m not that interested in watching a song. So while we would all love you to check out the video and subscribe to our channel (we’re just 84 subscribers away from being able to change the address to something memorable!), I’d personally even more like you to head over to where you can buy the track and its companion cover ‘Break My Heart’ (video coming soon – another reason to subscribe on YouTube!) or stream them. Because the music is what it’s really all about.

Kindred Spirit Calling

I’ve long been a fan of ceilidhs. They’re almost the only form of public dancing I’ll engage in these days (unless being paid to play in a rock band, and I’m not sure that really counts as dancing). I’d also suggest that if you have a big event with a lot of people who only know a few of each other and you want them to relax, mingle, have fun and perhaps even get to know some people they didn’t know beforehand, a ceilidh is one of the best options – with the greatest of respect, better than a DJ or a covers band. Embarrassment is limited when you’re all doing the same steps, and not knowing what to do is limited (even though experience does help somewhat) by having someone tell you what to do and walk you through it before really kicking off. What sort of gathering might fit that description? A wedding reception, perhaps? Maybe even the more informal kind of corporate event? Of course called dancing is pretty much impossible to make Covid-secure, with all that exercise leading to breathing heavily and all that touching strangers (especially in the dances where you spend your time changing partners!) but we live in hopes that will only be a serious issue for the next couple of months or so. There’s less I can say about it’s unsuitability for stilettos. Put a warning on the invitation. Or follow the example of one wedding reception and put a huge washing-basket of cheap plastic flip-flops in front of the stage.

Elaine and I are no strangers to playing for ceilidhs, either as individual musicians or as Kindred Spirit Duo. But, much to my personal satisfaction, this seems to be a growth market as the country unlocks and event planning builds up again – certainly one we’re seeing more enquiries about lately.

So it makes a lot of sense for us to join forces on an ongoing basis with an experienced pro caller (well in fact we have two, a reserve is always a good plan) to offer package deals. A completely self-contained (own PA and lights, we just need space and electricity) three-person act comes at a competitive budget, but we can cover all the bases musically (especially if I start using the stompbox and foot tambourine again … ) and play / sing appropriate ‘performance’ material between dances as a trio to let your guests have a sit down and a drink.

Enquiries welcome for any future events and to establish more details – you can find us on our own main page, Elaine’s website, or our Last Minute Musicians listing. You can even watch some excerpts of ceilidh-suitable music in this showreel. Look forward to playing you through some gallops, promenades and right-hand stars this summer!

How [do] You Like That?

Back in late March, Flux Ensemble gathered for the first time this year. Even that far back, performances to in-person audiences may have been absolutely off the menu but professional recording work was (and is) fine.

We were collaborating with producer / sound engineer Alan Boyd at his Kentish Town studio on our first release as a group: a double A-side of string quartet covers of K-pop band Blackpink’s ‘How You Like That’ (arranged mostly by Alan) and Dua Lipa’s ‘Break My Heart’ (arranged mostly by me).

I’m delighted to say that, after a lot of production work by Alan (and special shoutout to design work by our violinist Alleya Weibel), that release is now out in the world, available for you to stream free or buy from our Bandcamp page. Why not go and check it out now? And watch this space, or Flux Instagram and Facebook, for music videos and more news!

Fever-ish activity

For the last few months, Flux Ensemble‘s performances for Fever London have effectively constituted my music career (ignoring my efforts to prepare for a degree-level viola diploma anyway). They’ve also been intensely busy compared to the general state of the entertainment industries, and provided a sort of narrative barometer of the regulations applying to live performance in London.

Back when I last posted about the group, indoor performances were still a novelty (and a welcome one as our initial outdoor run had stretched well into September!). Soon after that post, we appeared on a Thames cruise boat, playing Chopin transcribed for string quartet (our last amplified gig to date, boosting us over engine noise through a rather constrained acoustic). That gig came on the first weekend after a 10pm curfew was introduced on alcohol sales, and all musicians whose gigs are in effect subsidised by the bar take discovered how civilised it is to leave the venue by 10:30 and be able to get the train home rather than a night bus …

That was followed by finding what seems to be a more settled home, at Grand Junction (the function-space brand and business of what is also the parish church of St Mary Magdalene in Little Venice). Arguably it’s even more spectacular in daylight than candlelit mood lighting, but either way atmospheric and with an excellent acoustic for chamber music to boot (not mentioning big enough to fit in a profit-making audience with two-metre gaps between each household group, which in practice usually means a couple … ):

Interior of Grand Junction; photo taken from their website (see main text)

Our first offering there was a repeat of the seemingly indestructably film music, but we moved on to a Halloween event that was popular enough to eventually be performed five times over two days.

Halloween (or Halloween-een, I can’t remember which night we took the photo now)

Wondering what a string quartet plays for Halloween? Well, you can get one sample on our Soundcloud account, but we also included versions of Danse Macabre, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, In the Hall of the Mountain King … and The Murder from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho soundtrack … and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, complete with me declaiming Vincent Price’s closing monologue. From the pulpit.

The first week of November was overshadowed by the announcement of an impending England-wide lockdown, but as fluke would have it, our next gig (another film music set) was the night before it came into effect.

The night before lockdown. Leah Leong ably covering for an ailing Ruby Moore (who tested negative for Covid-19 the following day) on cello.

There, of course, the situation has rested – as I write, the lockdown still has four more days to run.

But, now that the next steps of pandemic restrictions have been committed to, it seems just about safe to write about what we’re doing next without fear of jinxing it (even while parallel performances in Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester I was helping organise are all on hold due to tier 3).

London will go back into tier 2, and the next review of tier position isn’t due until the 16th of December. That means we will be able (with the same precautions as before) to do three early December dates at Grand Junction: another evening of film music, and two nights of classical Christmas favourites, the latter built around the Nutcracker Suite (entire, arranged for string quartet), with some more Tchaikovsky ballet numbers, Prokofiev and carols to round out the programme.

We’ll also be making a return to the even grander and more reverberant (but much older and arguably more architecturally tasteful!) surroundings of Southwark Cathedral for two nights of Christmas pop and jazz songs, in collaboration with fabulous singer (and one of my best friends) Lauren Lucille.

That should see us through to the end of the year. Beyond then, we’re keeping all digits and anything else crossable crossed for live music being still ‘on’ in January and February, as we prepare a new set entirely of John Williams film cues; an evening of Mozart ‘greatest hits’; a ballet selections performance with live dancers; and brush up our serious classical chops for an evening of Beethoven string quartet movements.

Not my best camerawork, but these are Henle urtext edition parts to Beethoven’s string quartets opp. 18, 59, 74 and 95.

Keep up to date with scheduled performances in the gig list on our webpage, and I hope we see you at something soon!

The Wren River record

Back in September, when the world was a more innocent place, I played my first gig in a trio led by singer-guitarist-songwriter Zoë Wren (on mandolin and, rather more on my own initiative, viola; the trio rounded out by Jonny Wickham, double bass).

Sadly, the end of the world as we knew it has conspired to defer, repeatedly and at present indefinitely, a second live performance. However, I was able to record viola parts to several of Zoë’s original songs late last year (professional studio recording of solo overdubs is still possible and was only not permitted in the UK for about 3 months, but it was a lot easier then, especially in small studios without separate control rooms!), and I’m very pleased to say that the fruits of those sessions will be released later this month.

Two advance singles are already available: ‘What If’, on which I played mandolin (you might have to listen quite carefully or take my word for it on that, it isn’t the most prominent line in some expansive production!), came out first and raises funds for (and was inspired by Zoë’s work as a student for) charity Sing Inside, which runs singing workshops in prisons. [edit on listening to the album: I was pretty sure I could hear some bits of my mandolin playing on the single version of this track released earlier than the album, but I don’t think it’s on the album track] You can see Zoë’s lyrical territory is hardly restricted to that typical of ‘folk music’ (if that term still has any real meaning) or singer-songwriters (a phrase which tends to imply more restriction than it states); and with stated influences including Joni Mitchell’s alternate tunings, a musicology degree and classical piano training, and a penchant for the two-handed tapping technique more often associated with the late Eddie van Halen than acoustic guitarists grounded in the folk club circuit, the same can be said of her musical span!

Second single ‘Welcome Here’ is also a socially conscious and questioning song – this time born of the hard graft of London busking, which (primarily on the much-coveted Underground station circuit) paid Zoë’s rent pre-pandemic – as a sometime London busker myself, this is a substantial testimony to work ethic and strength of character. The song jumps off, not from the strain of being either ignored or seen as public property (both of which are the busker’s common lot), but from the comparison between the comparatively secure right to work of (for lack of a better word) ‘respectable’ street performers and those often assumed to be using a front of performance as cover for begging.

Confusingly, there is mandolin on this track, but played by David Delarre, not me (who I think played all the mandolin on the album mixes) – but my viola gets a gratifyingly prominent spotlight, especially in the opening instrumental melody of the number. Again, not part of your typical folk instrumentation!

The album as a whole is entitled Reckless River and numbers some 10 tracks, 9 originals plus an atmospheric reworking of the British traditional song ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’. The release date is Friday 20 November and I’ve only heard the two advance singles, but the album can be pre-ordered (as download, physical CD with booklet, artwork etc. or both) now from independent music releasers’ darling Bandcamp. I look forward to hearing the whole body of work, and hopefully getting to play live with Zoë again in a more congenial climate for live music!

The group that came in from the cold

At the moment in the UK, any opportunity to play live music for a live audience is, in the collective scheme of things, special; to do so for pay, doubly so*.

However, Wednesday night’s Flux Ensemble concert was nonetheless individually special, and might even have been so without a pandemic and lockdown.

For one thing, it was my first indoor performance in over six months, since St Patrick’s Day (er, weekend) celebrations in mid-March just pre-lockdown. As if to mark the point, it was an autumnal, intermittently rainy September day in London after most of the month feeling like high summer!

For another, we were in the stunning (and grandiose) surroundings of Southwark Cathedral. And all right, we were again playing transcriptions of film scores – but there’s still a privileged feeling more like real classical musicians when you’re playing acoustically (in years of acoustic strings being easily drowned out, I have never been so glad for the client not to want to amplify me!) in a medieval building with such an awesome acoustic.

Admittedly, we did have to get used to the audience, especially the back of the audience, being a lot further away than in our outdoor gigs at Camden Market. (Socially distanced audience means they cover a lot of square feet of floor space by the time you have enough in to make the event profitable!) And the size and acoustic perversely meant we had to get used to not being able to hear each other as clearly. On the other hand, there is something egotistically satisfying about the knowledge (checked by ‘sound check’ before we let the audience in!) that I can talk to, or at least address, an audience to be heard the length of a nave this size:

So I hope we get the chance – through our current run of Fever gigs or otherwise – to come back here. And maybe even to do a few indoor gigs somewhere else! The season for bandstands and deckchairs is definitely tailing out …

*Though there are actually fewer hoops to jump through for professionals than amateurs. I don’t want to sound harsh, but it makes a change from the years of people managing to make it sound like ‘giving musicians an opportunity to perform’ without rewarding them for their work was philanthropic.

Getting burnt by love in a field in lockdown

All right, I admit it, the post title may have seen me get carried away by my taste for puns and verbal misdirection …

Relocation in progress. Photo by Sabina Virtosu

I spent most of Sunday 12 July in a field in Essex, playing music back when we weren’t allowed audiences at all. I was playing viola in, and attempting to help coordinate, a small orchestra forming the third side of a triangular video shoot / live session, along with singer-songwriter WILDES and Hackney Colliery Band. (I had also previously remote recorded the violin and viola parts for the mix being used as a guide track and to stiffen the live audio – something I’m still very much available to do more of, as well as location recordings and indeed video shoots!)

Spot the ‘solving a musical problem’ face … I think this is when one of the trumpeters found a wrong note in his part and it fell to me to work out one that would be in the chord. Photo by Sabina Virtosu

It was a total privilege to be able to work (and hang out a bit) with such high-level musicians. The track for the session was a new orchestral version of WILDES’ ‘True Love’ (are you following the post title connections here?), and I’m delighted to say that track and video are out now, and even if you can’t aurally separate my playing from the rest of the string section I’m definitely visible:

And the getting burnt? That was literal (well, sunburnt – not chemically oxidised!). I hadn’t been outside for anywhere near that long since last summer, didn’t so much as own any sun cream, and by the time we wrapped my arms and face pretty much matched my shirt …