London Violinist, Viola Player & Arranger For Hire

New babies

Some new additions to the musical household lately:

Sadly I don’t get to keep this one.

Well, sadly in terms of it’s a beautiful instrument that I’m enjoying playing. Less so in terms of paying for it would cut well into the savings I’m supposed to be keeping for a future flat deposit, so maybe not sadly really.

Reproduction Baroque violin by Marc Soubé and Baroque bow, on loan from Bridgewood and Neitzert – so that I can play them on the début album by La Folie, which we’re recording Sunday and Monday. Very exciting!

This one I am keeping:

No, not a new instrument, hence why it’s closed, just a new case. But after something like 2 years of lugging around my old viola case by bungee cords since it parted company with its handle and strap attachments, one that I can carry on my shoulders (and is light enough to do so for long periods comfortably) is almost as exciting as a new instrument frankly. It’s the little things in life. Big thanks to Jo Cocklin of Allegro Music in Chelmsford for getting me a good deal on this – highly recommended for all your musical needs.

Spooks with strings attached

Friday the 13th seems a good day to announce a Halloween performance (cue diminished seventh chords) …

No, surprisingly enough, this is not a Filthy Spectacula gig (though we are playing a private party this Saturday). Tuesday 31 October (in case you forgot when Halloween is) sees my début with the Winter Quartet on viola, injecting an extra chill into the beautiful but morbid setting of Abney Park Cemetery (home to the mouldering bones of pretty much everyone from Keats to Yeats to Amy Winehouse, one gathers). Think less songs about Victorian serial killers, more Danse Macabre, Night on a Bare Mountain and In the Hall of the Mountain King. Mmm, and some less obvious string quartet repertoire choices which I won’t give away.

Tickets have just gone on sale here and include free hot drinks against the physical chills (the Victorians weren’t big on heating in cemetery chapels – make sure your preferred Gothic / Dia de Muertos regalia is better suited to English winter than Mexican one); but we make no guarantees against the ectoplasmic ones.

Muwahaha.

Muwahahahaha.

Thinking laterally

When is a music career move not a musical decision?

When it concerns expenses and practicalities rather than actual playing, of course.

It’s become increasingly apparent over the last few months that being a professional musician without driving, always an uphill struggle, is in fact downright impractical and already holding me back. As well as tending to increase my expenses and therefore the amount of non-music work I need to keep doing to make the books balance overall. Too much public transport doesn’t run late enough at night to get back from evening performances; too many recordings (churches are popular, for reasons of acoustics and expense) and gigs (all the village pubs, and the country house weddings) are in out-of-the-way locations with no public transport whatsoever; too much of my work is still, and will probably still be, well outside London. Train tickets are expensive, coaches slow, infrequent and with very patchy geographical coverage.

So then, bite the bullet, renew my provisional licence, do an intensive course so I can’t be disadvantaged by lack of local drivers I can ask to practise with, and pass the test. This time.

Which I’m in the process of doing. But it isn’t as straightforward as that unfortunately. When I got my provisional (and, er, failed the test a couple of times), I didn’t have type 1 diabetes. The DVLA are, understandably, rather concerned about the possibility of diabetics having hypos behind the wheel (chiefly; one can argue there are other aspects they should be concerned about, but the paperwork doesn’t align with the belief), and so the current stage is that I’ve just sent a six-page medical / consent / declaration form back to them, in hopes they will shortly approve my provisional licence renewal and I can get on with actually getting legal to drive by myself. The fact that the DVLA’s freepost address has been cancelled (presumably a budget cut) and I have to stamp everything I send them, including my old licence to prove I’m not keeping it, is a minor inconvenience compared to the worry I may be prevented from ever driving out of hand. Here’s hoping …

In preparation

Lots of music learning going on round here at the moment. Besides spending Sunday workshopping the Rite of Spring (because, you know, now I can say I’ve played it. If I’d been able to say that a month earlier I might have got that nicely-paid job playing it for an orchestra outreach event … ) and the Mahler performed the day before. To give you a flavour, this is what’s currently haunting the music stand:

  • Bach cello suite number 3 (C major) – on viola, of course; it’s a complicated narrative but this is tied up with classical career progression.
  • Viola pad for a themed string quartet gig (more function- than recital-style) on Halloween at Abney Park Cemetery with The Winter Quartet

Waiting to be printed:

  • Violin parts for October’s Baroque consort album recording with La Folie (real work on these is also waiting on me picking up my hire Baroque violin from Bridgewood & Neitzert!)

In the post (at least I hope it is by now):

  • One of the violin parts to West Side Story, for a week’s run in the middle of this month with Mayhem Theatre Company

Meanwhile looking beyond written parts, The Filthy Spectacula refresh our memories after an end-of-summer breather, to play a private party next week, followed by public London gigs in November, January and February and looking more closely at the long-hypothetical second album. Elaine is Down Under all this month, but Kindred Spirit have not one, not two, but three November gig dates to make up for it.

And I’m booked for a funding pitch in November (mostly my own transcriptions so I’d better learn the parts thoroughly!), a chamber orchestra new music recording session in early December, and so it goes on. No one ever stopped learning and remained active as a musician, right?

Off the beaten track

If it seems like I’ve been a little quiet lately, it hasn’t felt that way for me! Just been engaged in some musical activity that’s a little more out of the ordinary and not always involving public gigs (or not straight away).

On Saturday, Kindred Spirit did play a straight-up gig at the Music Mill in Plumstead – our last booking before Elaine goes off Down Under for a month. As usual with either of my bands there, we threw everything at the local punters, including getting half the room air-punching along to feel-good number ‘Best Days’:

Apparently we also brought a Prog magazine reviewer in to see us, although (perhaps deliberately on his part) I didn’t succeed in identifying him at the time.

The following day, I (and Stevie – who had also been exercising her ‘first dep’ duties in the Kindred Spirit flute/sax/BVs chair as you can see above) were rehearsing Mahler 2 with Philharmonia Britannica – a rare instance of me playing for the fun of it rather than to pay the bills, though there are professional connections involved as well. The concert is on Saturday (30th September) at St John’s Waterloo and is shaping up very nicely. Personally, I will note that a Mahler symphony is (with in-ear monitors and without earplugs respectively) rather louder than a rock gig, and excluding an interval only slightly shorter. Also that I seem to be gradually entering the Mahlerian sound-world (one I find very difficult): when I first played Mahler 1 (the only other of his symphonies I have performed) back in about 2012, it took me a full term of weekly rehearsals to feel I was making any sense of it, whereas this time I felt I was getting somewhere after listening to the whole thing once, some private practice and 5 hours’ rehearsal. Maybe Mahler just makes more sense from the viola section than the first violins…

Monday saw another first: a recording session for a feature film soundtrack. The Flood (currently in post-production) fictionally synthesises typical experiences of the UK refugee system (from both sides of the fence) and is slated for release in 2018. Credit to composer Billy Jupp for running an admirably well-planned session that gave time for as much retaking and resting as we needed without finishing behind schedule; less so to Southeastern Railways, or rather I suppose to Network Rail for overrunning engineering works that made getting to and from the session considerably more stressful and hard work than the actual recording!

Finally, last night saw me bringing together my busking history with classical training and the viola (and perhaps tinges of folk too!). A headed by Hungarian expat Attila Kiraly put together a filmed ‘flashmob’ (treat the term a bit loosely) performance of Hungarian folk fiddle and dance running into one of the chamber orchestra versions of Bartok’s Hungarian Folk Dances, adjacent to the Bartok memorial in Kensington. Footage will be combined with submissions from other performances around the world as a memorial – in contrast to the whole 10 people that showed up to the composer’s actual funeral. The following on reception at the Hungarian cultural centre in Covent Garden featured lots of Hungarian food whose character I shall carefully conceal from my diabetic specialist nurse and a short theatre piece about Bartok’s last days, bookended by uncomposed (as it were) folk music – including that characteristic device of a three-stringed viola played sideways for chords and rhythm as if a sort of bowed guitar, which I would love to learn. In my second lifetime when I get to pick up all the projects for which I have no spare time or energy…

Looking forwards, the next few weeks hold the Mahler performance, of course; the Filthy Spectacula at a private party; a Halloween-themed string quartet concert in a graveyard; and continuing arranging work for the funding pitch of an opera company with emphasis on digital visual technology and contemporary theatre performance techniques. Like I say, maybe not everything is advertised to a public audience but it’s still all go!

Setting out my stall

It can’t be much of a secret that my demo recordings fail to even vaguely keep pace with my actual musical activities. Besides the difficulties of providing demo material for ensemble playing (the backbone of my musical work) or of linking to albums which can only be streamed on Spotify or Apple Music, live is where all the money is in music these days; recording, let alone filming, is expensive, time-consuming and generally requires a lot of other people’s time and effort.

But, to prove that I do occasionally manage to update my demo recording presence, I have just added some new material to my Soundcloud showreel; namely, a live version of the Hummel sonata for viola and piano (or, arguably, piano and viola; never mind the long post that could have been written in connection with how strange it is that that is enough information to identify the work unambiguously). While the pianist was different, this is the same work that formed the backbone of the programme given a very strong pass at ATCL just a fortnight after this recording was made (though I hope a couple of things improved over the interim).

Meanwhile, if you haven’t seen what I’ve got to show for myself in the way of recorded material, to head over to the Playing page, full of solo and band audio and video for your delectation (and, more importantly, that of prospective clients). Perfect for exploring music you probably don’t know over the weekend now that work’s (just about) over for those on office schedules …

My biggest hit

This photo has clocked up 59 reactions and 7 comments (that aren’t by me) on Facebook in under 4 days:

I haven’t gone and done the research, but that must be pretty close to a record for a personal Facebook post of mine.

I suppose it’s almost always true that I have more Facebook friends than I’ve ever had before, but then again algorithms tend to make getting content seen without paying for it ever trickier. So what do I draw from its popularity?

Well, mainly people love funny, silly stuff, especially online. No news there.

Also perhaps that my image is getting more and more shaped by onstage antics with rock bands (and online photos and video of them – classical performances don’t generate as much media, or as many friend requests). Which, if it keeps my profile, and that of my bands, up, is great. Just so long as no one I’ve sent an application to play straight-up orchestral viola googles me and goes ‘really? this guy? Doesn’t look like he knows Stamitz from the Rolling Stones’. I’ll worry about that if and when I have any evidence it’s happening.

New stuff

Both my bands are in writing phases at the moment (maybe it’s an inevitable reaction to the summer gig string, when there’s usually no time to create or learn new material between performances).

The Filthy Spectacula‘s new material is now, probably, mostly directed towards the infamous difficult second album, so you might have to watch this space.

However, Kindred Spirit have not one but two new songs ready to go live, so catch us on Saturday for their first public airing:

Our headline slot starts about 9pm.

If you can’t make that, see you at the Mill, Plumstead on Saturday 23rd!

New favourite quote

From an elderly lady after today’s recital, indicating my viola:

‘That thing can talk, can’t it?’

Not meant literally, of course. But it’s an interesting metaphor and one I’m not used to using of music, particularly classical music (even if we had slung in jazz standard as closing number).

And I’ll take it (this time in the way it was meant, I think) as a substantial compliment to my being able to make this still (in the grand, or perhaps particularly the grassroots, scheme of things) less-often spotlighted instrument expressive and communicative – which is a particularly meaningful compliment. Partly because the viola’s great strength is richness of sound and expressiveness – so if it’s that people comment on then I think I’m playing it as the viola in its own right, not as a plus-size violin, and that has always been my goal. Also because I think there is a genuine danger, at less than world class level, of losing sight of musical communication, of involving the audience in something, in the sheer stretch to play the music, or to play it right, or to play it perfectly, or the way the teacher / audition panel / etc. wanted it. But I think we do so at our peril as musicians for an audience rather than for each other, so every time someone finds my performing communicative – ‘talking’ in this turn of phrase – I think in some sense I’ve won, or at least stayed on top of the game.

Here’s to the talking viola. Or at least the talking violist.

All in two days’ work

At least they colour-coordinated.

Here’s how Friday and Saturday of the bank holiday weekend ran for me this year:

Friday: leave the house soon after 3pm, get a train out a few suburbs in order to meet up with The Filthy Spectacula‘s drummer and his wife. Who because they are lovely people are giving me several lifts over the weekend (and when Andrea isn’t driving I’m buying them drinks … ). We drive from Twickenham to Theberton in Suffolk, something like 150 miles, to Maui Waui Festival.

Everything on Friday has moved back about two hours because we were told to expect a stage time of about 8pm when we were first booked, but have actually moved up the bill to penultimate act of the day (on that, second, stage) with our set running 10:30-11:30. This is a definite compliment and gives us a larger, drunker, more enthusiastic audience but less sleep. We play a high-energy hour, and our bassist (who’s at the festival most of the weekend, and decidedly merry) persuades the can-can dancers who do a short set between the previous band and us to come back on and improv something to our second number. As you do. I may be the most sober person on festival site who isn’t driving. Photographers are very keen on our set though, as are the act following us. Dancing is predictably in a style to endanger public health and safety.

Back in the car with Andrea and Jeff and to Cambridge (which is most nearly geographically convenient for all concerned, for reasons that may eventually be apparent if you compare this to a map), a mere 75 miles. It’s technically Saturday by the time they drop me at the youth hostel – 1:45am or so – and head slightly further north to stay overnight somewhere else.

Four and a half hours’ sleep later and having changed some of my clothes, I check out again (it’s still the same bloke on night reception today) and wander to Cambridge station. Luckily most of the cafés and food shops open at 7, a quarter of an hour before I need to be on a train. Cambridge to King’s Cross, St Pancras (over the road, once I’ve disentangled myself from St Pancras International which will only put me on the Eurostar) to Faversham, Kent and meeting Elaine Samuels of Kindred Spirit. Just a few miles up the road this time to A New Day festival. We’re opening the main stage for the day, but the day’s headliners – Uriah Heep – are soundchecking first, and we were given a very early arrival time (probably allowing vast contingency for disorganised rockers), so I have time for my second coffee of the day (this one’s free), some rehydration and as much enjoyment as I’m likely to get out of being in a ‘dressing room’ between Soft Machine and Martin Turner of Wishbone Ash when it’s actually a curtained off area of marquee which resembles an opaque greenhouse in the unexpected bank holiday weekend sun.

This is the biggest stage I’ve ever played on I’m pretty sure, big enough even to dwarf the massive kit of Les Binks, drumming for us today. No leaping into the crowd either with crush barriers eight foot in front of it. the crowd are very engaged though, being mostly awake by 12 (there’s already been a band on the second stage before us) and having no other acts to watch at the same time. Disconcertingly, there are two girls in Uriah Heep T-shirts right down the front and I wonder if they’re going to stay there all day. I discover that wandering forward onto the bass speakers in front of the stage isn’t as simple as it looks because the one in front of me is both very shiny and somewhat unsteady (the ground is anything but flat or level). It’s like standing on a polished table with one short leg. I put off the obvious – moving forward again to the step on the back of the barrier – until the end of the set because I realise there’s going to be no graceful way of getting back again. We get a great response though, and the merch stall sell through the first box of our albums so quickly several people think they’re all gone and buy them online afterwards. I see an email later from someone who’d never heard of us before but wondered in the end why we weren’t further up the bill!

This set was originally scheduled for 15 minutes earlier, and that small difference gives me a very tight transport turnaround. I pack up as quickly as possible and jump in a car with Kindred Spirit’s bassist, Mike Hislop, who gets me back to Faversham in record time so I make it onto the platform with 4 minutes to spare before my train.

Back to St Pancras and King’s Cross, there meeting my partner Stevie, who’s coming to the last gig of the saga. We take two trains to get to Lincoln, where we look for a taxi. Finding no black cabs in the station car park, we ring the number on the side of the first minicab we see and get allocated – that car. The driver turns out to be an arrogant, voluble paranoid conspiracy theorist, but he does get me to the Georgian County Assembly Rooms in time to play my part in soundcheck with The Filthy Spectacula (and stand-in bassist due to other commitments on Ian’s part). By this point I’ve gone beyond tired to that sort of hyper stage where you kind of cope. We’re headlining, so soundchecking first, and Stevie and I have up to 4 hours to kill (depending on how much of the earlier two acts we want to see) before our set. Stevie makes it back from checking in at our hotel (no public transport out of Lincoln after about 8pm tonight, and by the time I realised that all the AirBnB beds were gone) about 15 minutes after I finish one of the shortest sound checks of my life, and we go in search of food. This is interesting as for Lincoln it’s not just bank holiday weekend but also Weekend at the Asylum – Europe’s (apparently) largest steampunk convention. Lincoln’s old centre (up the hill, as opposed to the modern city centre almost vertically below by the river) is heaving with people affecting posh accents and strutting around in various degrees of faux-Victorian costume, more or less adulterated with Jules Verne-era sci-fi touches. You’ve never seen so many corsets in your life, unless you’ve been in the Ann Summers stock warehouse. Pubs are heaving, with a mix of steampunks and locals just out enjoying a sunny long weekend and wearing looks somewhere between bemusement and admiration at all the visitors.

It seems the Filthy Spectacula have become more or less Asylum-specific celebrities since playing effectively the same slot last year. This is supposed to be the down and dirty rock-n-roll evening’s entertainment of the weekend (there are various much more refined musical spectacles, generally with more affinity to Noel Coward or the very clean end of music hall), but even so steampunks are generally a somewhat reserved lot, with honourable exceptions (it’s very hot work dancing in all those layers, and with the money and effort that went into fitting into a subculture that’s almost entirely about the clothes, you wouldn’t want to dishevel yourself. I’d have thought). Not only do we sell merch before playing (which is unheard of) and encounter so many people who already have our album that I become converted to the idea that we should record another one, but there are more people dancing through most of our set here than there were at straight up (albeit self-consciously freaky) music festival Maui Waui yesterday. And a lot of them seem to know the words to many of our songs (arguably more than can be said for our frontman, not that it impairs the vigorous confidence of his delivery). That kind of reception plus, in fairness, excellent sound work and a merciful and all too rare absence of technical hitches means it would really be hard not to deliver a good set, but I think that would be an understatement of the outcome (though I mostly just remember darkness and lots and lots of sweating). I’ll take Lord Harold’s (Jeff’s onstage Filthy persona) word for it instead: ‘I think we should deprive this man of sleep more often.’

Last taxi of the weekend just about got us to the hotel before Saturday technically blurred into Sunday. Returning home may have only been a matter of a mile walk, three trains and a bus, but I think recovery is still in progress!

Regardless of which, of course, the show must go on – the next show being tomorrow’s viola recital in Chelmsford. If there is rest for the wicked I evidently haven’t reached it yet!