Friday, 2 December 2016

#54 Christopher Barnett: Film Composer

... he filmed the very first moving images  ...  Before he was due to unveil his film camera he mysteriously disappeared. He’d got on a train at  Dijon and was never seen again ...

“30 years ago I was working as a mechanical engineering technician. I’d done a four-year apprenticeship straight out of school. Our company built power stations and also raised the Tudor ship Mary Rose. I’d go to recording studios in the evenings to work as a ‘tape op’; I really wanted to become a recording engineer. I decided to learn the piano, I hadn’t had any real music training and had no idea about scales, chords, and so on. I enrolled at Morley 
College and did every course you could imagine … big band, classical piano, harmony and counterpoint, jazz theory, jazz composition … and learnt how to read and write music notation and started playing gigs. It was hard work and tough financially, by then I was married with a young family, but I just dived in and really loved it; I was fulfilling my dream, my ambition. Eventually I did an MMus in Composing for Film and TV. It seemed like a very long journey!

I’ve been writing music for films for the last seventeen years. Recently I finished a TV documentary; The Modern British Slave Trade.  There are many more people in slavery now than back in the 17th and 18th centuries - and in everyday walks of life; people who do your nails, tarmac your drives, wash your cars …. this documentary shines a light on something we know little about and it’s very sad. 

When I compose, I’ll watch the film a couple of times just to see how it makes me feel as a viewer, to see what moves me, and then I’ll go away, think about it and let ideas fester gradually – depending on the deadline. I will then return to the film, place my hands on the piano, and see what different ideas come to me. 

Sometimes I’ll score the film chronologically, or maybe the hardest section first, other times I’ll write a theme which I think fits the character and then work the theme in various ways, changing keys, formats, time signatures, to build the picture. 

Directors usually employ a ‘temp’ (temporary) track pasted to the film in order to specify a ‘musical direction’. I also encourage them to speak to me in terms of emotion rather than by quoting musical terms, because that really helps us to get straight to a solution that works for us both quickly. They may want me to bring out an emotion that’s not quite coming through in the film, perhaps something that’s not quite working with one of the actors or with a scene, or they might need to highlight some darkness or some happiness … and I solve these issues in different ways, via the tonalities I use, or the orchestration. I work intuitively, laying out the music in my software program against the picture. When there’s the budget to hire musicians, I score their parts. But when a piano is needed, I record myself. 

In 2014 I wrote the soundtrack for The First Film, a documentary about Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman who, in 1888 filmed the very first moving images, not in glamorous New York or Paris but in Leeds! Before he was due to unveil his film camera invention and ’screen’ the moving image, he mysteriously disappeared. He’d got on a train at  Dijon and was never seen again, and then was forgotten by history. The producer director David Nicholas Wilkinson had wanted to tell this story for the last thirty-odd years. He asked me to do something along the lines of Philip Glass, so I went to my Bechstein upright and hashed out several ideas, settled on a few and took it from there. We worked on the project for around nine months; it was gratifying to have so much time and freedom. The footage was continuously added as new information was discovered, so I did several re-writes. Usually on a ‘locked picture’, I’m asked: ”make this part more dramatic, make that part more subtle” and so on. But there was no real locked picture on The First Film, re-writes were made to accommodate shifting scenes and added material. Nevertheless, it was great to have artistic liberty and to work on such a fascinating story. To top it off, this year it was recognised with a Media award for my work on it.” (Christopher Barnett was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Connect with Christopher Barnett 

The First Film is currently available on iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and will be screened on Film Four/Channel 4. The DVD will be released in February 2017

The Modern British Slave Trade will be screened on Channel 4 during December 2016.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

#53 Ed Balls: Former Chancellor, amateur pianist & dancer and Katya Jones: Showdance Champion & dancer on Strictly Come Dancing

Ed Balls and Mrs Katya Jones on a Strictly rehearsal break

You think of the piano as an intellectual exercise, the dancing you think of as much more physical. But with both, I find I get much more mentally, rather than physically, tired ...

Katya I started piano when I was four years old and learnt for eight years,
getting up to a high level and taking part in competitions. I didn’t continue because the dancing took over.  But I had the piano at home and kept it up because I love playing. I still play now, picking out by ear the music I like to listen to. 

Ed I started piano in my forties. I’d always wanted to play and when my kids started learning I decided to start too. We were in Opposition and I had more flexibility over my time than I’d had when we were in Government. I realised that to improve, I had to make the time to practice, and also by doing Grades I would be forced to learn in a way that I’d progress. 

Katya I’m a competitive dancer and practice is the number one thing, so it’s very similar to piano performance. Every day we do the same basic steps over and over, we do self-practice, we know what to work on.  We go to the dance studio and in front of the mirror keep going over and over the same steps to perfect them. We say it’s quality rather than quantity. It’s very physical and you get injuries. I also have private lessons and travel around the world to particular teachers as well as to dance in competitions. 

Ed The learning of the piano really helped to give me the confidence that I could do Strictly. When you start, either on the piano or in the dance, you feel it’s impossible, nothing is intuitive. So you can’t rely on instinct because you’re a learner. But I’ve realised through the piano work that if you take the time, you can do it so that’s helped me in the dance. Also, I realised that both my dance and piano teachers were using the same technique which was rather than trying to do the whole thing at once, it was to stop when things go wrong and work out what was going through my head, start again and try to get to the next step. It’s that method of building repetition, of finding the bits and doing them again and again, that works in both piano and dance. 

When I began piano I had to learn to read the left hand music - the bass clef – I’d only done treble clef in violin before. So that mental to physical, having to read in a new stave and play with my left hand …. similarly in dance when I started off I used to move everything at one time. But Katya said no, when I say move your knees, I don’t mean move your chin or your shoulders! And concentrating on isolating an element and then flowing from that, there’s a connection with the piano too. You think of the piano as an intellectual exercise, the dancing you think of as much more physical. But with both, I find I get much more mentally, rather than physically, tired, the taking-in of information and trying to remember everything at the same time, be it feet, posture, or be it notes, expressions and dynamics, thinking of those things at the same time – it’s very mentally tiring. 

Katya When I dance I sing a lot, I connect to the song, I express the dynamics with my body. You don’t want to approach it carelessly; that expression of the notes with fingers in piano translates in dance to the expression of the music with your body. There's a total connection to the sound and it's  an amazing feeling when you become as one with the music. 

Ed When we did the Quickstep, it was the first time that the music carried us along and we just rolled with it. I’ve also had that same experience at the piano. I have a 1966, Japanese, one female owner, upright Yamaha which I bought from Markson Pianos; affordable and it sounds fantastic. My only regret is I never make it sound as good as the piano tuner makes it sound! But at least I get glimpses of what that piano is really capable of. 

Katya In dance, the equivalent to an excellent piano is the co-ordination of your body, it has to be natural yet rehearsed. That’s what so hard about dancing, you have to make something look natural when it’s actually unnatural. 

Ed It’s also the discipline. I’m a complete amateur and we have to go from scratch up to performing on TV all within five days. If you’re a perfectionist like Katya - 

Katya - I trained in Russia so I’m used to extreme discipline! You just do it again and again and again until it’s right,

Ed There’s a particular heel turn; when we were in Norwich early on and Katya said we’re not going to move on until you’ve done this five times. It took me thirty-eight goes before I’d achieved five of them!

Katya And after that we did three in a row! 

Ed Amateur adult pianists learn differently to children and can do more of what they enjoy at the piano. But what I’ve learnt through the dance is the importance of discipline and practice at the piano, so it’s not just about what you actually enjoy doing or learning. And I’ve definitely learnt the discipline of repetition. 

Katya It really helped that you’d been learning the piano because when we started Strictly it wasn’t necessary for me to teach you musicality or rhythm – it’s been a massive benefit.

(Ed Balls and Katya Jones were speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Ed Balls and Mrs Katya Jones perform in Strictly Come Dancing in Blackpool on Saturday November 19th - wishing them all the best!

Monday, 24 October 2016

#52 Lola Perrin: Composer Pianist and Markson Pianos Composer in Residence

Lola Perrin in the Markson Pianos Showroom
" ... the right hand is chasing the left and there’s a recklessness .... the audience seemed to erupt which was perfect as it was designed to provoke conversation ... "

"I composed my first “climate piece” in 2005 in which I imagined

the changing shapes of spaces inside melting icebergs.  I was influenced by artist Rachel Whiteread who finds ways to capture different spaces in her works.  She was on a trip to the Arctic to highlight global warming and while she was there, I was at my piano in London working very consciously in her footprints, allowing the peaks and troughs of the imagined shapes inside the ice to dictate the shapes of my musical lines.

A few years later I saw an image that was so powerful I instantly decided I’d have to focus my life and work on climate issues. It was one of Isaac Cordal’s miniature sculptures; little business men standing up having a meeting, but with water up to their necks and foreheads. You immediately saw that these were bureaucrats discussing climate change - but too late; they were already flooded.

I first found myself going down the path so many of us artists go down and engaged with the apocalypse.  Imagery of floods, droughts, fires, melting ice … the drama of extremes is a magnet to the artist.

Trying to stop my handwringing about not knowing what to do about climate change ... I followed trails to different scientists and environmental groups and found two really compelling concepts. Zero Carbon Britain which has developed an intensively researched twenty-year plan to switch over to clean energy using existing technology, and and also Citizens Climate Lobby which is a lobbying movement to get politicians to impose a new fee to fossil companies - which will basically force them out of business. And I really loved the sound of joining a lobbying force to compete with the way fossil companies lobby politicians – empowering! These two movements influenced my present composition, Significantus, currently on tour and also being performed at Markson Pianos Concert Series.

It frustrates me that there’s not enough conversation in real life places about the most urgent issue we face, ie climate change. It’s much more in the media now but it’s still not often enough, in or out of the media – it’s like a taboo. I wanted to make a piece of music that has a space within it for a positive conversation with the audience, about the better type of world we want to create in response to climate change. Because if the conversation needs to be everywhere, that includes concert spaces.

I sourced three quotations. The first is by Mark Maslin and tells of how significant we actually are, contrary to the last 500 years in which scientific thought taught us that we were insignificant – through our modern lifestyle we'e leaving our footprints where we’ve never even been! The second quote, from Paul Allen, tells us that if we don't imagine a positive future we won't create it. The third quote, from Chris Rapley, likens the earth to a spacecraft and tells of how we're recklessly tampering with all the vital systems keeping us alive – something we wouldn’t dream of doing if we were on a man-made space ship. 

Just before the conversation with the audience the music is very fast, the right hand is chasing the left and there’s a breathlessness, a recklessness. At the premier the audience seemed to erupt after I played it, which was perfect as it was designed to provoke conversation. I’m looking forward to playing this to more audiences to see if I get the same reaction.

I’m inviting different guest speakers to join the different performances. Climatologist and writer Rachel McCarthy will be at the Marksons Piano Concert Series concert. Other speakers I’m collaborating with are Paul Allen of Zero Carbon Britain/Centre for Alternative Technology, political economist Andrew Simms, complexity theory activist Jean Boulton, environmental psychologist Stuart Capstick, filmmaker/writer James Murray-White and writer/performer Jennifer Leach. I’ve also had interest from Chinese concert pianist Ella Xunhuan Zhou who has started to learn the suite with the idea of touring it next year in China. It’s exciting to think that on the other side of the world is someone just as serious as I am in using the concert space to help drive forward the vital environmental conversation." (Lola Perrin is Composer in Residence at Markson Pianos)


Hear Significantus (Piano Suite IX Lola Perrin 2016) 
With Guest Speaker Rachel McCarthy

Wednesday Oct 26th at 7pm
Markson Pianos Concert Series
St Mary Magdalene Parish Church
Munster Square
London NW1 3PT

Oct 31 Clare College Cambridge with James Murray-White
Nov 9 Schumacher College's Feeding the insatiable symposium
Nov 12 Cambridge Circular Festival with Prof Jane Heal
Jan 29 SOAS University of London with Andrew Simms 

Monday, 17 October 2016

#51: The Reverend Mark Nash-Williams: Vicar of Alston Moor and lifelong pianist

  " ...Alston town has about a thousand people – and we’re really quite isolated ... we’re going to have to learn to do things for ourselves, possibly as people did a hundred years ago ... "

“I started having lessons when I was five or six; playing piano has always been an important part of my life. It’s one of the ways in which I communicate with God. That stilling process of playing opens up channels, so it’s an important part of my spiritual life. Occasionally I accompany services, but if I’m dashing from my stall to the piano and back again, from my point of view it makes for a less satisfactory worship experience. Fortunately we do have very good musicians who can play most of the time, so mainly I play just for my own personal pleasure and satisfaction. 

A while ago circumstances meant that I got out of the habit of playing. The Church kindly thought that playing the piano was part of my personal development so they paid for half a dozen lessons to help me start up again. I began by learning some Beethoven sonatas. I’m now also trying to get my fingers around Oscar Peterson - trying to play some of his transcriptions is fun!

If I had to pick one composer it would be JS Bach - we tend to refer to him as God in this house. There’s a serenity about his music, and a rightness which is immensely good. It’s not easy to put into words; Bach himself was close to God, there’s something about his music which seems to bridge that gap somehow. A friend of mine has a good phrase; “music is God’s language here on Earth”, and I think there’s something in that, because it touches us at a level where words often don’t. Music often opens things up that perhaps other things don’t. Bach is the composer who most resonates with who I am, he’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. 

Playing the piano is a process of praying, I think. Prayer is wide-ranging, it’s not just saying words in church or consciously focussing on God, it can be about the whole of life - and music is part of that communication with God and with the wider world. 

I have a project that is focussed on the town of Alston and also on the wider community, scattered across an area of a couple of hundred square kilometres. Alston town has about a thousand people – and we’re really quite isolated; we’re up in the North Pennines in an area that gets snowed in regularly. It’s around 40 minutes’ drive to the next place of any size so we have to be self-sufficient. We’re inconvenient to the authorities and providing services is never going to be profitable. So we’re beginning to lose our services; the banks have closed, the hospital is under threat, the buses are minimal, the school is under threat … Like a lot of people, I’ve realised that if we are to flourish in the long term, we’re going to have to learn to do things for ourselves, possibly as people did fifty, sixty or a hundred years ago. 

The Church has generously given me a three month sabbatical so that I can explore how we might make that happen. It’s not exactly a Church ‘thing’, but my view is that God is interested in the whole of our lives and community and how we flourish as a whole, and so the Church ought to be a part of that anyway. If we’re looking at the future of the community in general, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that there’s no point in doing this unless we’re looking at sustainability and also at carbon neutral, and then moving ahead quite quickly in that direction. And perhaps we can be an exemplar of how this can be done. 

So I’m researching what people are already doing in different parts of the country and beyond, attending courses, reading, interviewing, visiting colleagues and learning ways of getting the community involved in local development. Hopefully by the end I’ll have the beginning of a paper suggesting a way forward which the wider community can pick up and work with as they develop a community and neighbourhood plan, and then we will start to have conversations much more widely with the community about as to where we want to go. It’s daunting but exciting!” (The Revd Mark Nash-Williams was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Monday, 26 September 2016

#50 Nafis Umerkulova: Concert Pianist

When you have an injury you get all sorts of thoughts about how you may never get back to how you were before .... I learned that even if it’s a Carnegie Hall recital, it’s better to stop than risk injury. To really listen to your body is important ...

"I was born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, in 1988. At that time it was still part of the Soviet Union which then collapsed when I was one, and went on to become an independent republic in 1991. It took quite a few years to change and it’s been an interesting transition. During the Soviet years, speaking Russian was compulsory, so my grandparents and parents were educated in Russian. But Uzbekistan managed to preserve its traditions during the Soviet Union. As a result some Uzbek families were bilingual and would speak both languages equally well, like my family. I was brought up speaking pretty much Uzbek only until the age of 5, but gradually Russian was introduced until it became my mother tongue at school.

I became interested in piano at the age of five, after hearing my mother play. At the age of six I passed an audition to the Specialist Music School named after Uspensky. Everything was in Russian and at that time they still used a lot of Soviet books. Musical education at that time was based on solfège, modelled on the way it was taught in Moscow or St Petersburg. But Uzbekistan was a new country with new ideas so change was happening and there was a combination of what they had before with new, fresh ways of doing things. So, the country I grew up in was very diverse and special. My friends were from all over the world; there were Ossetians, Tatars, Koreans, Jewish, Russian and Uzbek kids. It was similar with my teachers. One influential piano teacher was the Georgian pianist Natalia Tzinzadze, who studied with the legendary Heinrich and Stanislav Neuhaus. Looking back I feel appreciative of how interesting and exciting my formative years were and grateful for having been surrounded by so many inspiring people.

I left Uzbekistan when I was 16 to study at the Purcell School and later continued to the Royal Academy of Music, followed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Last year I found out I was accepted for a competition and had only a few months to prepare. It was a very intensive time as I had a huge programme to learn. On top of the competition preparation I was also teaching and taking care of other engagements. It was stressful,l but exciting, to have to do so much in such a short time, so I decided to push myself hard. I was also preparing different programmes for several concerts that were close together. It turned out that it was all too much pressure for my hand and I started feeling something was wrong. However, I couldn't bring myself to stop when I should have, as I was excited about the competition and wanted to be ready for it on time. So eventually it got to the point when I realised that I’d injured my hand. Fortunately it didn’t seem to be too serious but I had to completely stop playing for a month. Then I started playing 5 minutes a day, then gradually that turned into 15 minutes, then 30, then 45. I didn’t know how long the injury would last, I had to turn down some performance engagements. Once I began to recover, even though I still had to take it easy, it did help to have a goal of a concert to work towards. The first concert was only half an hour, so I played three Schubert impromptus. Gradually I started playing longer concerts and then finally full length recitals again.

It was a challenging period. Playing piano is what I want to do all my life, it’s what I live for. So at that time I felt very scared. When you have an injury you get all sorts of thoughts about how you may never get back to how you were before. But I was very lucky to have a lot of support from friends and people who are close to me. I believe that our emotional and mental well being is just as important in the recovery process as the physical well being. In some ways I was happy this happened because it made me realise quite a few things, like having my priorities defined clearly and also being aware of whether or not something is worth pushing for. I learned that even if it’s a Carnegie Hall recital, it’s better to stop than risk injury. To really listen to your body is important. No matter how much pressure you’re under, the musician’s health is the main priority. As other musicians have told me, injuries happen when you ignore the signals the body is sending you. When you prepare for a performance there’s a lot of adrenaline and pressure; it all just adds up, and can perhaps make you delusional where you think you can carry on even though the body is telling you to stop!" (Nafis Umerkulova was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)

Nafis Umerkulova performs at Markson Pianos Concert Series
September 28th at 7pm

Schumann Sonata in F sharp minor Op 11
Ravel Sonatine
Debussy Estampes

St Mary Magdalene Parish Church
Munster Square, London NW1
Tickets £6/£4 on the door


Thursday, 21 July 2016

#49 Daniel Grimwood: Concert Pianist

Daniel Grimwood

A lot of pianists talk about projection but there’s another way of doing it which is less about projection and more about drawing people in 

“The thought of performing my favourite composer on the modern piano that most suits him gave me the idea of playing an all Schubert concert, because he works so beautifully on Bösendorfer pianos. These pianos have a tonal aesthetic that harks back to the nineteenth century. The original Mr Bösendorfer was taught by Brodmann, one of the great builders of the Viennese hammerflugels.  Bösendorfers have been built in an unbroken line since the early 19th Century, (I believe Czerny owned one), and there’s something of the refinement of tone of the old Viennese instruments that’s being carried through.

I recently recorded on a Bösendorfer Imperial model; it’s a great big beast of a piano and you can create this huge wall of sound, but nonetheless it’s still always very transparent and very refined. Which pretty much are the same words I would use to describe Schubert’s keyboard music; transparent and refined.

But this time I was recording piano works by the German composer Adolph von Henselt; a hobbyhorse of mine. He was the teacher of Rachmaninoff’s teacher, born in Bavaria but he moved to Russia. I think you can’t overestimate the importance of the influence that his output had on Russian composers.

As long as I like the music it matters to me little who wrote it. I try to have as encyclopaedic a knowledge of repertoire as possible; I think it’s not sufficient to know that Chopin was a great composer, for example. I think I need to know everything about the world in which he was writing, and that means the music that he performed and taught, the music that was being performed at the same time. Sometimes you come across music that’s not as great as the Greats that we’ve received, and that shows us what really is great about those composers. But sometimes you come across a composer who really should be better known. And then we have composers like Schubert, who is one of the most famous, but there’s a lot of his music that is never performed. For example, I think to date, there are only two or three complete recorded cycles of his string quartets. How often do you hear the first three symphonies performed in concert? Almost never! If he’d been two composers and if one had written the early works and the other the late works, I think the early works would be heard more.

Schubert scholarship is going through a period of change at the moment. For example, Schubert’s Beethoven Project by Gingerich which talks in depth about how Schubert was trying to build on Beethoven’s achievements. After his year of crisis he starting writing fantastic masterpieces in the Beethovenian genres - the piano sonata being one of them. It’s also interesting to understand what position the piano sonata had in European society at that time; it was predominantly a domestic form. As we know, none of Beethoven’s piano sonatas were performed in public during his lifetime and likewise, Schubert sonatas wouldn’t have been considered to be public music. The sonata was a feminised and domestic art form. There were of course virtuoso male performers who were starting to emerge at that time in the wake of Beethoven, but that wasn’t what Schubert was expecting to be published for (what little of it that was published in his lifetime).

There was a tradition of keyboard sonatas being published in threes, and for some time now it’s been considered that Schubert’s three last sonatas belong together, they are cut from the same cloth. I’ve played these three before and I don’t like separating them because they work so beautifully together. Having become accustomed to that, I always feel they seem a little out of place when they’re not in the company of their brothers and sisters, so to speak. The sonatas that I’m currently preparing to perform are the three that proceed the final three.

As I’m preparing this programme I’m starting to feel quite strongly that I’m not practising three sonatas, I’m practising three gigantic movements of a huge structure. It’s definite that Schubert intended them to be published as one set and they are also cut from the same cloth. There are thematic similarities; there’s this curious knocking rhythm that begins in the first movement of the first sonata and finishes at a structural point in the final movement of the last sonata. It’s a strong rhythm, like someone knocking on the door. I’ve spent time in the south of Germany and Austria in landscapes that Schubert would have felt at home in, very similar to the landscape surrounding Vienna … and there are qualities in Schubert’s orchestral writing such as the way he treats the woodwind … the horn calls … all of the things we associate with German Romanticism that were largely inherited from Weber … all of these things that come from the land, and I picture these when I’m playing Schubert. I had a moment once when I was walking through Vienna and I was on one of the bridges over the Danube and I could just hear in my mind’s ear the trio section from the Scherzo of the Great Symphony …

My attitude to venues and audiences is quite simplistic; give me a piano that works and people who want to listen and I’ll do it anywhere. I don’t have a favourite venue because the venue gives me less than the people listening to me. I have given salon style concerts, most recently in the Gregynog Festival in Wales. I took up my 1801 Broadwood square piano, which is an elegant toned instrument and invites a more intimate form of music making. Concert giving should be intimate. A lot of pianists talk about projection but there’s another way of doing it which is less about projection and more about drawing people in. I went to hear Richard Goode perform the last three Schubert sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall. Even though I’d bought my ticket at the last minute and had to sit far back, Mr Goode’s unique skills drew in the entire audience and the room shrank. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few pianists of my generation to have heard Richter perform in concert and again, it was this sensation of the room actually shrinking to fit the performance; it was quite beautiful.” (Daniel Grimwood was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)


July 27th at 7pm
Daniel Grimwood performs at Markson Pianos Concert Series

3 Schubert Sonatas
Sonata in A minor, Op. 42
Sonata in D Major, Op. 53
Sonata in G Major, Op. 78 

St Mary Magdalene Parish Church, Munster Place, London NW1 3PL
Tickets £6/£4 on the door


Daniel Grimwood first discovered the piano at a neighbour's house aged 3 starting a musical journey that has led him to share his music with audiences across the world amassing a repertoire ranging from Elizabethan Virginal music to works of living composers.  He enjoys a solo and chamber career that has taken him across the globe, performing in many of the world’s most prestigious venues and festivals, including the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room in London, the Rachmaninoff and Gnessin Halls in Moscow, the Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in New York, as many others throughout the world.  Winning a scholarship to the Purcell School of Music where he became head boy, and later completed his studies with Vladimir Ovchinnikov and Peter Feuchtwanger. Please visit his website for discography. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

#48 John Dawson: Professional piano accompanist

Programme Note from John Dawson's Bedford Festival Vexations performance
... what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time ...

“Although there’s a certain constituency of people interested in Satie’s Vexations, most people you talk to about this piece think it’s mad! I’ve been lecturing on 20th Century music to residents of Bedford Retirement Education Centre and when I told them about the Satie work I was met with very puzzled faces. They asked me why on earth anyone would want to play the same short piece of music 840 times in one sitting lasting 19 hours …

In fact I’ve performed Vexations twice. I had been interested for a while but it’s almost impossible to find a concert venue interested in staying open all night. The opportunity arose when I was a lecturer at London College of Dance and Drama and I discovered that the students were going to have a 24 hour sit-in, meaning the building would have to stay open round the clock. This was exactly at the same time as reports coming in about the Ethiopian famine that prompted Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid. So I played Vexations through the night and raised a few hundred pounds for Live Aid. But I played so fast it only lasted 12 hours instead of 19, and even worse, I found out several years later by examining the five bar charts recording the number of repeats that my support team had made a mistake and I probably only played the piece 836 times instead of 840 …. but as I ended up marrying one of the people who had been counting I forgave her! We’re still married after 30 years so something must have gone right.

That was a fairly informal performance in a small music room with people wandering in and out, including a very confused caretaker. There were people there who were so culturally divorced from what we were doing that there was no point in trying to explain ..! 

That was almost a dry run for the real thing because ten years later I was invited to perform for the Bedford Music Festival. I couldn’t find a suitable piano on which to perform a traditional classical recital. When I found out that the venue was prepared to stay open all night I decided to do Vexations again. This was in 1997 and being before the days of the Internet, we couldn’t find any evidence that the piece had been performed anywhere in the world by one person. We invited the Guinness Book of Records but they weren’t interested, they missed the point because the actual piece to be repeated is very short. Of course nowadays, ten minutes on the Internet will show you that Richard Toop performed it in 1967, but in the late 1990s it was much harder to research things like this. There were one or two accounts of people who’d tried and failed.  For example there was an Australian pianist who abandoned the performance after 593 repetitions saying the music was “evil” - I suspect that had more to do with his own demons rather than anything intrinsic in the music. But so few people were attempting the work, it really was an underground activity. 

I thought it would be good to put on a straightforward concert of it, so that’s what we did. Everything this time was designed so I could concentrate solely on the music. I had a manager and counters were in place to keep count in relays. I was as military as I could be to make sure that everything would go right so that once I sat down I would concentrate solely on the music. I didn’t make any serious mistakes (and my planning was good so I didn’t have to stop for a toilet break at any time). 

I’ve always been patient and I was very curious to see if I could actually do it.  There is an egotistical element in every performer, but I was also really interested in seeing what effect a performance of this type would have on me. And what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time. For the first dozen repetitions I just bedding in; it’s such an awkward, difficult piece to play that I was scared of making mistakes. So I was making sure I was playing the right notes, that my body posture was comfortable, I was concentrating as if I was in a Grade exam. After around an hour I started to move into another state. I supposed it’s similar to being carried away by a Mozart slow movement for example; you do go ‘somewhere else’ but it’s a strange paradox: you think you’re being carried away but in reality you cannot let go because if you did, your technique would vanish. For much of the time I felt a sense of timelessness. I had an awareness that I was producing a monotonous hum, but even though I wasn’t thinking of other things, my mind was somewhere else. This took place in a big old church in Bedford called St Pauls, with its cavernous space and big stained glass windows, a magical atmosphere, especially in the middle of the night. The audience numbers fluctuated during the performance but I did notice that a handful people sat there for several hours. 

Now, I’m sure Satie meant this as a joke, he couldn’t possibly have intended anyone to play this 840 times. If you look at the score there are inconsistencies that don’t make sense. He tells you to 'present' the bass theme at the sign, but the sign occurs twice, at the beginning and at the end, so what does that mean? I think it’s supposed to be a paradox, un-performable, and he’d probably be laughing at people who try to perform it. But, like any joke, you can call his bluff and see what happens. It’s had an effect far beyond the quixotic joke that he possibly had in mind. 

And as a piece, there’s something about the sheer pointlessness and aimlessness of the chords. They are all diminished triads, or augmented triads; all very carefully calculated to give a sense of senselessness. There isn’t really a beginning or an end. Ironically, it is peculiarly suited to a piece that you play 840 times. You may think any piece would do, but this is just about the best piece that you could choose to play 840 times - so in that sense it is a successful composition, it’s the change that the repetition brings about in the listener’s mind that’s interesting.

The audience experiences were vastly different. Some people were puzzled. One of my friends - a Hindu - sat entranced for well over an hour in the middle of the night and later told me that he had found the whole experience incredibly powerful and relaxing almost like religious meditation.

I do feel that this music has the power to transform the listener. The closest music I know to Vexations is Plainsong that you find in a monastery; monotonous but not boring – and capable of producing a truly transformative experience in the listener who engages with it on their own terms.” (John Dawson was talking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)