London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

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 …

First fruits

Think back to the start of June this year.

The very beginnings of easing were coming to lockdown. A few musicians were cautiously glad it was legal – with other conditions in place – to go and do recordings if they were solo tracking, with no other musicians playing and the engineer in a separate control room. Face coverings hadn’t even been made mandatory on public transport yet (though the takeup by Londoners hardly seems to have increased when it did become the law), let alone in shops.

Multimedia artist Zahed Sultan and I consulted and examined the then-current guidance in some detail. I ventured beyond cycling distance of my house for the first time since before the start of lockdown, and travelled to his home studio across London (scarf tied across my face as I would only invest in some bespoke masks a little while later). There, we spent most of a day layering violin and viola drones, trills and answering phrases for two tracks he was working on, with a lot of ideas being tried out for the next take and recording everything to pick out what worked later. It was intense and exhausting (and the combination of sound insulation and infection prevention meant I was in an airless sauna of a room), but creative, fulfilling and unique. My first paid work in nearly 3 months; my first work outside the house in the same amount of time. It was to be another substantial wait for the next working journey!

It was striking news at the time! And seemingly excitement and/or pandemic stress were giving me camera-shake …

The first of those tracks is now out!

I’ve never heard anything quite like ‘Layl’. It shows absorbing electronic and urban influences doesn’t have to mean accepting predictable lowest-common-denominator-Western rhythmic patterns; dynamism and range over a track doesn’t have to mean moving harmony; and there are many ways to square the Arabic-Western musical fusion circle. Take a listen for the string parts that stayed off the cutting room floor! and watch this space for the other track I worked on with Zahed. Thankfully studio recording is no longer quite so epoch-making; but I’m looking forward to equally productive future sessions in this collaboration.

For one night only …

… I’m returning to live streaming. Not off my own bat, simulcast and genre-spanning this time, but a fairly straightforward ‘classical’ solo viola recital for Facebook project Front Room Concerts:

Though I’m still managing to break with usual art music convention to the extent of including some of my own compositions! To unpack that slightly cryptic repertoire list, I’m planning to play:

  • The first and last movements of Reger’s first suite for solo viola (in G minor)
  • The three I’ve so far written of my open-ended series of ‘preludes’ for solo viola
  • Four of Hoffmeister’s set of viola ‘études’

These are usually well-attended virtual events with a lively chat-box conversation. Donations will be split between myself and the charity Help Musicians UK, who have supported many of my friends who found themselves in dire financial circumstances as soon as we were locked down, so please tune in, comment, give and make me feel good about going back to playing to a webcam and a pair of mikes for this once!

In Flux

I’ve been involved in two projects (one my own, one not) to form function/wedding string ensembles that didn’t get off the ground. Ironic, then, that I realised in the course of August I had effectively come to be running one without having planned it as such.

What do you do if you find you have a band? Give it a brand, of course. So please say hello to Flux Ensemble, of which you will be hearing much more in future. While the name is new, I think it’s accurate as well as commercially convenient to consider the same group as having already performed in a variety of contexts, including December’s ‘Christmas Classics’ concert, last month’s garden party string duo, and the string quartet concert of film music last Saturday at which we used the name for the first time.

We have more gigs coming up, even as most musicians are only barely starting to find work again: Fever London have a string quartet lineup booked for two more evenings of film music outside in Camden Stables Market, and for Chopin on a Thames cruise later in September.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t available for more work! Any and all projects considered, so if you have an event that needs music, or an idea in mind to explore, email fluxensemble@martinashmusic.com or contact me by any other means! And watch this space for more gig announcements …

Doomsday(s)

Oddly enough, my last ‘lockdown project’ before HGO’s Sāvitri was also an opera of chamber-ish musical dimensions (though rather greater duration, and brand new): (composer) John Sturt’s and (librettist) Sophia Chapadjiev’s Minutes to Midnight.

Drawing partly on the Doomsday Clock concept (which has inspired a string of artistic reactions; see for instance the BBC mini-series Summer of Rockets), Minutes to Midnight is set in a US military nuclear control bunker during vote-counting in the 2016 presidential election. This interview with the composer and librettist talks through some of its genesis. The juxtaposition with my black-comic habit of referring to the Covid-19 pandemic as things along the lines of ‘the end of the world as we knew it’ is … ironic.

I got involved at the point when composition was concluded and my good friend and frequent musical colleague Flick Cliffe had been brought on board as conductor and musical director. At that point in midsummer it was very uncertain whether any kind of live performance would be possible, even with the work’s having been adopted by Tête à Tête Opera Festival, and the approach being taken exemplified the difficulties and uncertainties of music-making as lockdown started to lift.

The first stage was to create a recording – without being able to bring about 20 performers (counting both chamber orchestra and cast) together in a studio. John laboriously created click tracks, with guide recitative sections, for the whole opera. Flick added conducting videos to these, which were sent out together with the parts to the instrumentalists, including myself (on viola as for most classical projects).

Suffice to say that for a string player, being asked to record to releasable quality with only clicks and conducting for guidance reveals how much one generally relies on harmonic context for intonation! John’s writing is chiefly concordant though not necessarily tonal in any strict sense, but it was a challenge (which required quite some work and concentration, and a couple of shortcuts, to overcome) to pitch a generally inner harmony part of it against my linear playing / the strings of the instrument without another pitched part to blend with. I’m going to hope it was good discipline and/or training for something, or for playing in general!

Those instrumental recordings will have the vocal parts dubbed over them for an audio release. However, they will also be used with live cast (Flick has the unenviable task of mediating between pre-recorded accompaniment and live singing) for both a broadcast and an actual live performance (with distanced audience of course) of selections from the opera later this month. I highly encourage you to consider attending either – not just because I only get paid if some money is made from ticket sales, but because it is a fascinating work (judging by what I have heard of it, chiefly the recitatives!) and the additional broadcast material around both nuclear weapons and pandemic collaboration seem in their own way top-class.

However, I can’t say I’m entirely sorry to have been able to move largely to the rather more direct experience of fully live performance for a live audience only … watch this space for more on my activities on that front …

Enter Opera, upstage centre

Before playing my first post-lockdown live performance, I had already attended all the rehearsals for my first post-lockdown public performance (are you following these distinctions carefully?).

However, the importance of this project as a personal milestone is rather eclipsed by its significance as a historical one. Those who ought to know appear very confident that Hampstead Garden Opera‘s outdoor production of Holst’s Sāvitri at Lauderdale House is the first live opera staging in London after the phase of lockdown in which any such performance was impossible, and the only one in London this month (August 2020).

Sāvitri is a compact work in all directions. Composed for outdoor performance, it plays for little over half an hour, continuously. The cast in the normal sense is just three (the titular heroine, if that is the right word, her husband and Death). The ‘orchestra’ consists of twelve solo instrumentalists (two string quartets, mostly treated as distinct subgroups; two flutes, oboe doubling cor anglais, double bass), though it makes more sense to associate the four-part (in this production, eight-strong) wordless offstage female chorus to them than the dramatic cast. It would be perfectly dramatically possible to perform the work with no set at all and perhaps even no props, though a certain amount of minimal production design seems to be preferred by most performances, including this one.

Inherently, playing a work of this nature is most like performing Modernist (Sāvitri was composed around 1908) chamber music – arguably combining the difficulties of that with those of accompanying staged opera, though at least we have a conductor to maintain connectivity beyond how much it is possible to hear what is going on ‘onstage’ (or conversely for the cast to clearly hear the orchestra). Certainly neither aspect is known for giving the viola players (it makes little difference, though not none, that I’m in ‘quartet A’) an easy time or the opportunity to be thoroughly inaubdile as much as stereotypes of earlier and more conventionally orchestral music!

In practice though, the hardest thing about the rehearsals was certainly playing / singing / acting in temperatures up to the mid-30s (Celsius!), with little shade, high humidity and, for me and several others, having arrived by way of a train, the Northern line (wearing a mask on both of course) and a steep walk up Highgate Hill carrying an instrument case. Though for the performances (there are two each night) last Saturday, the production team did have to carry out some hasty (and, I should stress, efficient and effective) alterations to safely perform in temporary-monsoon downpours. As I write, on the afternoon of Thursday 20th, it looks likely we will be spared rain and only have lesser heat to contend with tonight – but I have very limited faith in the English weather or forecasts of it, in any season, and consider the final night the day after tomorrow to be anyone’s guess …

I would normally at this point, or between rehearsals and opening night, be trying to plug for more ticket sales. However, all the performances were in principle sold out before we opened (a surprising number of those spaces-on-a-lawn going to reviewers, jumping at the chance to see and write about something live in person after only having on-screen experiences for five months, even if something this modest would normally be below their editors’ notice). Some extra tickets are being released on a night-by-night basis as locations are allocated to groups and spacing better tied down, but perhaps for once (especially as ticket sales and donations have already actually brought the takings over budget) I should warn you to be prepared for disappointment rather than plead with you to fill up a few more seats! Long may that aspect at least continue …

Out of hibernation

By a whisker and a bit of a technicality, my first performance to a live audience since lockdown was a week ago today, Wednesday 12th August.

I say ‘to a live audience’ because it wasn’t public; in fact it was the locus classicus of a ‘private function’, a literal garden party. Goldsmith’s Community Centre had been approached for a classical performance at the 87th (I think) birthday party of the wonderfully named Belita Childs, by her daughter Sophie, as part of their ‘Give a Song’ project. They didn’t have any classical musicians on their books, but managed to find me through Lindsay Ryan (thank you again Linz!), conductor of Harmony Sinfonia, who I played with pre-pandemic to keep my social life going and remind myself I didn’t initially take up playing music to make money from it …

Sophie’s budget was sufficient to make an appreciative and appreciated donation to Give a Song and pay me to supply a duo at a rate that certainly made us happy after so long of no live playing! So I tapped serial collaborator Alleya Weibel to play violin, played viola myself, and we did a collective endeavour of digging through archives, basic arranging, downloading suitable or near-enough suitable arrangements and busking off lead sheets.

(Incidentally, I’m been doing so many of these scratch function chamber groups lately that I’m seriously considering giving them a brand, page of this website and email address for potential extra bookings. What do you think?)

I had been sent a very extensive list of possibilities / suggestions, and almost everything we played came from it. The resulting set list (we were only asked for up to 40 minutes of music) is interesting enough to be worth reading I think (I’ll forebear to share the original ‘inspiration list’, so called!):
La Cumparsita
Myers Cavatina
Autumn Leaves
Fauré Pavane
The Girl from Ipanema
Vivaldi concerto for lute, 2 vlns & continuo, slow mvt
Bach Air from Orchestral Suite in D
Dvorak Humoresque
Summertime
You are my Sunshine
Because you still can’t quite take the classical musician out of me on function jobs, I’d said ‘take these violin-viola duos to sight-read a movement of if we need an encore’. ‘You are my Sunshine’ evidently had personal significance to the family as most of the small audience were in tears by the end of it; we really couldn’t leave it there and played a minuet from Carl Stamitz’s op 18 no 1, which wasn’t quite as straightforward as I remembered that set being!

The audience and clients were certainly appreciative (and full of nuggets of information; I am definitely saving the guest of honour’s insight that there was a musicians’ campaign (sadly unsuccessful) to make (classic tango number) ‘La Cumparsita’ the national anthem of Uruguay, for future quizzing and/or between-number chat.

And so were we! It is a rarely considerate gig, function or otherwise, that supplies a gazebo for shade, finger food, prosecco and two dogs willing to pretend to love me as long as I didn’t make it too obvious they weren’t getting any of my sandwiches.

So thank you Sophie, Belita, Give a Song and Alleya for a great restart to live performing. Read my next post to find out about my first public performance post-lockdown, and numerous other firsts!

A think piece

( … doubtless highly subjective and trying to be open to civil / reasoned correction.

This shouldn’t be about laying blame; I’m not even that interested in the reasons for the things I describe right now, just trying to perceive truth that has perhaps been missed.)

I think there are two trends to how performance, especially though not only music, has been seen and/or presented that may be very dangerous to maintaining high-level professional performances.

Firstly, from buying to tipping. In the UK at present, public indoor performances are illegal (even if a few organisations are circumventing the rules, as always happens). Performances can be broadcast or recorded for an audience not physically present, or take place outdoors. The problem is that, for different reasons, both of those contexts are hard to put behind a paywall, certainly compared to where the performance is conveniently surrounded by physical walls. Outdoor performances can be ticketed, of course, but the infrastructure to do so requires upfront investment beyond the budget of most arts organisations; so most outdoor performances currently are free to access with a hope of collecting tips/donations – they are essentially pretty much busking, unless underwritten by (usually fairly invisible) sponsorship of some kind. Arts online have been extremely difficult to sell, as opposed to ask for donations or possibly have subscription-model access, for years – and perhaps paradoxically, ‘live’ video, whether in real time or not, is more difficult to monetise even than downloadable recordings.

The problem with this shift is that it makes audiences in general used to not having to pay for the arts. (Even more used, I should say; it is only accelerating pre-pandemic trends.) Even if they do pay, it feels more like a charitable donation or even a personal favour. Therefore, the arts are de-essentialised and potentially downgraded to somewhere between a hobby and begging leverage.

The other misrepresentation is that the arts ‘just happen’. The slightly tongue in cheek but overwhelmingly common media presence of musicians, dancers and actors playing from their balconies, filming ensemble pieces from their bedrooms and generally continuing to do art while artistic institutions are closed and empty gives the impression that performers perform as it were innately, through some (fictional) combination of unschooled talent and personal categorical imperative.

This is not only untrue but highly dangerous. If musicians will still perform and record Mozart and Wagner without concert halls, audiences or even being able to meet to rehearse (runs the subconscious line of thought), then why should the price paid for the music reflect the time they spend rehearsing, practising, being taught, studying? If they will carry on producing art while locked down, and if they need to act / dance / sing so much they practically can’t stop themselves, couldn’t they just all get day jobs to pay the bills and play the bassoon on the side?

Let me be clear for anyone who doesn’t know this already. Professional-standard music does not just happen. It requires years of training and thousands of hours of study to achieve. But it also requires hours every week of intense concentration and hard work offstage to maintain – even besides rehearsal to learn new material and polish coherent performances. Unless you possess exceptional levels of energy, resilience and self-discipline (and remarkably few responsibilities), it is just not possible to do a job that will cover living costs (especially in 21st century London) and continue to play at the level that has been expected of a professional ‘art’ musician for the last couple of generations or more.

That is why, at some stage in the process, someone has to ‘buy’ performed art. That is why, for there to be the sort of music, drama, dance etc. we are used to, performers have to be able to earn a living wage from performing alone.

New things, new-ish ones, changes, and changes back

I thought I’d try a bit of a format shift in last Thursday’s stream. So I dropped the singing and reshuffled the instrument segments: mandolin (instrumentals) segment into the middle, viola to the start and fiddle to the end.

I also played one absolutely brand new piece of music and one technically new transcription. The transcription was J Scott Skinner’s violin solo ‘Le Messe’ [sic; unless there’s something I don’t know about, his French grammar was a bit ropey, ‘messe’ as in Catholic Mass is feminine not masculine]; I’ve played several of its siblings in their violin originals in recent streams but I was sure I could make a better job of this on viola, and to make life easier on my brain wrote it out a fifth lower, in alto clef and with a couple of decisions about technical intention ‘clarified’ in the new copy.

The new piece was what I’m naming as my third ‘prelude’ for solo viola; though whereas the first two had (I think) quite clearly identifiable roots in the quasi-improvisatory prelude movements of baroque solo instrument suites, this is essentially a (fairly unambitious) viola version of the solo piano nocturne.

Response to both was certainly positive, though probably more oriented to my playing than the writing; I certainly don’t expect to garner very many more compliments on my left-hand pizzicato in my playing career, though it is slightly easier to make it a slightly more effective device on viola than violin (in my opinion; I don’t think it’s just that my viola technique in general is better).

However, the vox populi is that I should take the mandolin back to accompanying songs. So, while you can expect one instrumental number on that (barring any late-arriving requests), I will be doing a couple of (hopefully!) entertaining vocal numbers. What the audience wants, the audience (if I can deliver it) gets …

One thing I won’t sadly be able to deliver is livestreams on the two Thursdays following 6 August. Shockingly, I actually have gigs with other musicians to live audiences on those dates – and they aren’t in breach of the Covid-19 safety guidelines. Watch this space for more information on that.

Busking, on and off (line)

Last Sunday’s livestream was rendered distinctive by my having had not one, not two, but three requests during and shortly after the previous show, making this by some way the programme I controlled the least. One of them (I won’t reveal which) is something I probably wouldn’t have chosen myself, so a certain amount of being ‘stretched’ by my audience which is good!

The set list went:
House of the Rising Sun
Fire on the Mountain
The Reel o’ Tulloch (variations by J Scott Skinner)
Strip the Willow (requested by my mum) (she had the ceilidh dance in mind, but I found two tunes in the right rhythm called Strip the Willow and The Willow Tree)
Bach: Allemande from the suite in C major, originally for cello
Telemann: Fantasia no. 5, originally for violin
Hoffmeister: Etude for solo viola no. 11
Scarborough Fair (requested by Bob Prigmore)
Dark Streets of London (requested by Karen Jones)

I never know quite what challenges these solo performances are going to throw up, besides requests that may or may not be tricky to accommodate. (Some, indeed, are likely to be downright impossible: someone who I think hadn’t heard me before came in on Twitch part way through the Skinner, which contains lots of fast notes, double stops, ricochet bowing and so on, and asked for Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole or the Sibelius violin concerto, having apparently been fooled into believing I’m a virtuoso violinist! I should be flattered, but I’m certainly not going to support the deception … ) The Hoffmeister I played this time would be an almost entirely straightforward piece (unlike any of the Bach and Telemann I’ve been exploring on viola), were it not in F sharp major (6 sharps, and none of the open strings of the instrument are in the tonic scale) – I suspect this may have been a deliberate choice to up the ‘technical étude’ credentials of the collection, not least because the preceding number in the collection is in a little less threatening B flat minor (5 flats). Conversely, I ended up with a purely self-inflicted problem in Dark Streets of London, dropping my mandolin plectrum near the beginning of the closing instrumental section. I was well aware playing mandolin with the thumb / fingertips is not a conventional technique and decided by the time I’d finished the phrase that I wasn’t going to be able to deliver a convincing ending to the set in that matter – the strings are too tight and the instrument not resonant enough, you just can’t get a decent melodic sound that way. Which meant I had to leave my percussionist, er, left foot, keeping time for a few bars while I bent down and found the pick on the floor. Things no lessons would have taught me even if I had had any on mandolin …

Meanwhile, wondering how the return on investment would compare to the online busking sessions, I went properly busking for the first time certainly since lockdown and probably rather longer than that (chronic fatigue ruled it out for most of the winter) on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, there’s no sign of the London train station scheme restarting. Greenwich is the nearest area to home I’ve actually seen anyone busking, so I headed there to experiment, cycling with this lot:

Yes it’s a very uncool bike, but how much can you carry on the back of a sexier one?

Unfortunately, Greenwich is still about three and a half miles away, with a certain amount of uphill and down in both directions you can’t plausibly go round. The combined bike out – play for 2 hours – bike back sequence seemed a good idea when I left the house, a perfectly valid one when I left Greenwich, and a terrible one when I reached home. I’m going to hope the blame lies more with my fitness having melted away over chronic fatigue pacing and lockdown inactivity than with the ongoing state of CFS as such, but it was certainly deeply unpleasant.

Having been given grim reports by former locals about there being only a handful of viable busking pitches (there are no legal restrictions, other than the usual one that landowner’s permission is needed if you aren’t on public land) and those having the same people on them every week, I was very happy to be able to set up at the main entrance to Greenwich market early in the afternoon – the food stalls were evidently back in full swing and a pub with a back entrance into the market had an outside bar going too, so footfall was pretty good, and I was actually under an arched / columned entranceway so if the forecast rain had eventuated before I left I at least would have been dry and relatively unconcerned about my violin (and indeed amp). More to my surprise, no stallholders or market staff asked me to move on – it can’t possibly be public land, but the market policy must be to allow buskers that aren’t in the way, don’t clash with another busker (there were none thankfully) and aren’t offensive. Which is a nice liberal change from most private landowners, eg shopping centres, which will send security guards out to chase you as far away as possible.

I had some appreciative actual listeners (mostly people sitting down to eat food-stall lunches) and made some money, but the cash problem is unsurprisingly more acute even than it was in London last year – few people carry it, most shops are trying to avoid taking it, and the alternatives for buskers are never quite as convenient for punters. I must create a revised sign with a QR code for my PayPal link.

All of which leads me to a tension, hopefully to be eased by gradual improvement of the fatigue situation – I would like to give busking in Greenwich another shot, not least as I was a little rusty on my busking set, but it certainly didn’t make me enough money to really justify ditching the livestreams and focusing on in-person busking instead. So on Thursday I will be back online, and please do listen in and tip generously. But next weekend I hope to get back to Greenwich and do some more playing to people I can see and hear, so if that’s your neck of the woods and you might want to listen for a bit let me know and I’ll drop you a message when I’m heading over there!