London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

Working from home

With a few remote collaboration projects under my belt, a couple released and more in the pipeline, I thought it was about time I set out my stall properly for recording my part(s) here and sending them over to put on your project. So take a look at this here, bookmark it and if you or anyone you know is putting any budget into a recording that could do with some viola / fiddle / mandolin / cajon / any other sounds I can make at home, please drop me a line or throw the page in front of the producer / musical director! Looking forward to expanding my portfolio of these.

Notes on a Survival

I was only halfway through an unexpectedly busy circa-St Patrick’s season when it was interrupted by a certain global pandemic reaching national crisis level. But I had barely planned out what I was going to do with all the unexpected available time and energy before I caught what was almost certainly the coronavirus in question myself. As I’ve seen some questionable responses to this and similar news, we interrupt your usual service of music-focussed blogs for some notes from first-hand experience as a Covid-19 early adopter.

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC!

Statistics from China and estimates elsewhere suggest somewhere between half and three-quarters of the population will contract Covid-19 in the course of this epidemic. I don’t want to undermine the importance of obeying the lockdown (in spirit as well as letter) and practising social distancing (which Londoners are proving remarkably bad at). However, those commenting ‘it might only be flu!’ had almost missed the point: for most people who get it, it won’t be any worse than flu (real flu, not a heavy cold). In fact, as many as 60% of people who contract the coronavirus apparently show no symptoms at all; and as many as 80 or 85% have only mild symptoms. Like me; in fact mine were milder than an ordinary flu. I went to bed about 10:30 on Monday the 16th feeling normal. At 1am on the Tuesday, I woke up with muscle aches, tingly-prickly hypersensitivity all over, a headache and clearly some degree of fever. Clearly a virus had kicked in, and I spent almost all of the following few days in bed (I tried cooking on day 1, because I didn’t have any ready-to-eat food to hand, and couldn’t stay on my feet for 10 minutes straight). However, I was down to a few muscle aches and a slightly sore throat within a week, and have spent the last 3 days or so really only having a runny nose that kicked in as I was getting over the other symptoms. (It seems those cases who get bad respiratory trouble generally get it about a week after the main viral symptoms start; but then again I may have just caught a cold.)

Of course, I was fairly well-placed to tackle Covid-19: I’m under 35 and while I have various underlying health conditions none of them is respiratory and only one affects my immune system (and that, type 1 diabetes, somewhat indirectly – though the NHS classes my immune system as compromised). The point of isolation is for those worse off on one of those fronts, from whom the vast majority of the few per cent of cases require intensive care beds will come; and to avoid symptomless virus spreading. It seems that of the total time the Covid-19 virus spends in your body (3 or 4 weeks), something like half is before symptoms show or there’s any way of knowing you’re carrying it around. But you can still pass it on to others for all that time. And don’t forget that half or so of those infected who never show symptoms at all. They’re potentially breathing out viruses, leaving them on surfaces, and spreading them onto other people too.

So stay at home dammit! Even when too ill to effectively do anything, I didn’t get anywhere near catching up with the films on iPlayer I hadn’t got round to watching, or listening to music on CDs I own and in some cases had only listened to once. Since being back on my feet, chronic fatigue self-treatment, phone calls with my family, house shared dinners and serious viola practice have occupied my time to the extent that I haven’t managed to listen to / watch all the music my musician friends have been posting online. I appreciate it’s more frustrating if you have children or dogs that need walking, but seriously, you can do staying inside. And staying 2 metres away from everyone you don’t live with. Just speak up a little.

Current guidance says we were all (both my housemates have had some degree of it too) allowed out as much as anyone else by the middle of this week, so two of us braved the nearest big supermarket the other day. We had survived 12 days of self-isolation by that point (from when housemate #1 went down), without being able to pre-stock to any significant extent.

Major point: Don’t panic-buy.

We got through that isolation period (and would have made it to the 14 days of earlier guidance (you now only have to isolate that long if you never develop symptoms but someone you live with does)) on what was in cupboards and freezers. All right, plus my veg boxes and milk deliveries, but they’re only supposed to be enough for me! and a bundle from a local butcher that started doing phone order, cash-on-arrival payment local deliveries. My point is, you don’t need to advance buy tons of stuff in case you get shut in. Just google recipes and plan out your meals a bit to cover how long you’re stuck.

However, having cleared out most of the freezer space and some of the cupboards, we did need to do quite a lot of restocking. And so I can say, in London at least: don’t panic-buy in case the shelves empty out either. The vast majority of food could be got in Lee Green Sainsbury’s. The tinned vegetables and dried pasta sections were thin and patchy, flour really was not to be had and dried pulses were nearly gone. I also couldn’t find cotton buds (but I don’t think I’ve bought them from that shop before, so, you know … ) and we didn’t need to look for toilet roll.

But you really don’t need to panic-buy bog roll because neither diarrhoea nor catarrh is a standard Covid-19 symptom! And under normal circumstances, you use the stuff more slowly than some people clearly imagine …

It’s a shame that most of the subscription and delivery grocery / essentials services are currently so busy they aren’t taking on new customers. But my Oddbox fruit and veg box (going bigger and communal from next week) and Milk & More milk deliveries (ditto) are certainly making life easier; and one of the reasons I’m so relaxed about bog roll is having ordered the 24-roll minimum (yes, really) from Who Gives a Crap in January; I’ve still got at least three-quarters of it. Should pretty much see me through 2020 then.

Right, enough writing about being well enough to do things now; I need to decide which to do next out of chronic fatigue self-treatment, ringing my parents, viola practice (video audition relatively imminent, hoping to take a diploma in coming months) or testing my new home-recording equipment …

Dev’lish ‘mazin’, ladies ‘n’ gen’l’m’n

On 16 August, having been booked 2 days previously, I rolled up to a recording studio near King’s Cross (and a 10am arrival counts as an early start for a musician, OK?). After fairly minimal preparation, I (booked on violin, but I brought the viola ‘just in case’), Fraser Parry (cello) and Sam Becker (double bass) were spending the day recording string section overdubs for The Amazing Devil – or, as far as we were concerned, vocalist-writers Joey Batey and Madeleine Hyland, the other active members not being physically present to instruct through the talkback mike or provide much-needed serial coffees.

Yes, that is a cuddly toy dachschund with its tail in the air next to the banana. No, I have no idea either.

I’m going to admit that I have little memory of exactly what I played that day. In fact, on looking through the track listing of the finished album, I was sure of some tracks we had played on and not of which of the others I had or hadn’t. There was a lot of dissecting written arrangements, using bits of them, shuffling bits around, using them as little more than guides to harmony and structure in order to semi-improvise new parts, doing repeated takes with different steers as to approach and the decisions on which bits of which takes would be used deferred till later.

However, while I have rarely expended so much mental energy in one day, I remember it being a satisfying and at its best enjoyable day too. Partly because I would have struggled to believe that that degree of collective improvisation of accompaniment (this is nothing near to ensemble jazz) by total strangers could have produced results even as coherent as they sounded in the live room. Partly because it genuinely is amazing music. Perhaps the fact both Batey and Hyland are primarily career actors has something to do with it (though Hyland in particular is a professional (jazz) singer too, and has recorded and toured with a recent incarnation of Dexy’s), but while there is a consistent thread of darkness through Amazing Devil’s music, it has emotional and musical range, from hammering riffs that verge on folk metal through to whispered vulnerability and out the other side to demonic-waltz gypsy-cabaret.

And I mention all this now not just because I wasn’t managing any blogging in the state chronic fatigue was leaving me in back in August, but also because however much of my contribution ended up on it, the finished album The Horror and the Wild is out now on Bandcamp, and will be coming soon to iTunes and Spotify. So go and listen (preferably buy, free music isn’t a sustainable resource) for yourselves!

New Endeavours

This is a still from Endeavour, season 7, episode 3; broadcast Sunday evening (23 Feb) and currently still available on-demand from ITV’s website:

Now you might have to just take my word for it, but the head behind the stand light just to your right of the conductor is mine.

So I’m taking this (and all the unused or not-including-me footage from the same day’s shooting) as my TV acting début, as well as my first paid job on baroque viola. Follow-ups to both would be welcomed!

Certain employees of London Metropolitan Orchestra spent a day back in 2019 at a theatre in Wimbledon pretending to be pit musicians for a baroque opera in 1970 Venice. Fun backstage fact – the series had commissioned a (compressed but still substantial) mock-baroque opera from soundtrack composer Matthew Crowe; not only did he conduct a different lineup of the same orchestra in a period-instrument, A415 recording of the ‘entire’ work, but also conducted the onstage cast and pit mimers in the filmed scenes (with real sheet music used in the recording, as well as excellent white gloves on his part, black tie on ours and baroque instruments including my viola … ).

In many ways, a lot of this was a day of waiting around being treated well – I mean, not star well, but free tea and coffee, fruit and biscuits, hair and makeup (quite some time spent making my hair even more Seventies with definition and regularity), and the breaks laid down by Equity rules.

Things you might not think of:

Even for those actually in focus and acting, TV and film acting is an incredibly repetitive business. Most desirable camera angles put the camera in shot in most other angles. So you don’t have to just get the stretch from one cut to another right once. You have to get it right, and the same right, as many times as the director thinks they might possibly want camera angles, while those successive angles are taken. And the shots will largely be ordered by what is in the same setting and involves minimal work to transition between. Much less sense of progression and situation than stage acting, where at least you get to go through everything in order without repetitions in performances.

Money is an obvious factor even to those with no involvement in the production-business side. They had one day’s occupation of the theatre: get everything done, no matter how late we finish, and don’t take chances, because we can’t come back and do more if there’s a hole at editing stage. Within that, someone had had the task of estimating how long shooting with the extras (including musicians) might take at a minimum; which was the number of hours stated on the contract and paid full rate. But no one really expected it to be quite that quick; in the end the musicians did an extra 2 hours paid at the higher overtime rate in half-hourly increments. (I should point out that once you are working at this sort of level, the rates and contractual terms have been tightly negotiated by industry bodies and unions so the only flexibility the producers would have that they stand any chance of getting away is to pay over the odds for some inscrutable reason … ) It cost more than if they had contracted us for that long to start with; but if they had finished in less than contracted time, they would still have had to pay us for all of it, and there’s an unsurprising reluctance to pay people literally to do nothing, not even to hang around waiting to work (I was tickled to find a separate rate and item for costume/hair/makeup/general prep before being ready to be called for camera-roll!).

Everyone knows a lot is shot that isn’t used in the final edit, but I don’t think most of us (me at least) realised quite how much doesn’t make it from the set to the public. Someone told me when I was a teenager that there’s 24 hours of unused footage (not even used in director’s cuts, alternate releases etc.) from The Wicker Man used as construction landfill under a bypass somewhere in northern England; I’m now only surprised there isn’t more, although a lot of it is probably one or other of the cast coming out with a perfectly reasonable line, just one phrased differently to the take on camera D … and so on.

In the meantime, I got my day earning decent money for hanging around and playing some viola on a TV set; and my attention needs to switch as ever to the next gig. Well, I know what the next gig is, but the next on-screen gig or the next baroque viola gig would be nice. So let me know what’s going …

Turning over a new page

(which is what a ‘leaf’ is in the proverbial phrase – as in ‘interleaved’)

It’s the common lot of musicians (indeed, probably all performers) to end up with their personal and professional lives bleeding into each other, and particularly so on social media. However, I’ve been starting to feel that maybe there should be a places where my music work can be discovered as a single body that are kept fairly well insulated from rants about public transport, noisy children and ecological short-sightedness, or indeed photos of cats I’ve visited lately. Which is rather the point of having a personal profile and a page as a performer, even if I wouldn’t want one that only covered ‘solo projects’ (it would be very quiet and exclude the vast majority of my work as a musician!).

So roll up, roll up for the new musical communications channel: Facebook Page ‘Martin Ash Music‘ (told you I was going for inclusive).

Please do pop over and have a look, give it a like, even share it with people you know – at present something like 97% of the people who have liked it are in fact my ‘friends’ (all these innocent nouns that have become technical terms!) on Facebook as well, and it will be more useful as a means of finding work and a way of convincing prospective clients I have reputation and appeal if it garners more widespread attention. Which is not to say I would look dimly on friend requests from anyone I know or who is even moderately likely to be involved in continuing my music career in future …

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!