London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

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!

Bright lights, big cities

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

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

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

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

It’s glamorous, life on the road …

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

New new news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some old things in review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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