My love of music was fostered from a young age. I do not come from a musical family; I was, and remain today the only musician in my immediate, and extended family circle. However, this did not stop me being inspired by the giants that helped shape music.
When people talk about the past, there is a detachment. We forget that we are talking about events that happened on this planet; albeit a long time ago, but on our planet nevertheless. While studying, a mentor once said to me “There are some pieces of music that you feel as though you can reach your hand out and touch, and some you cannot”. The music we cannot reach out and touch, so to speak, is where this detachment lies, past or present.
A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Handel Museum in Mayfair; Jimmy Hendrix lived next door. There is something amusing about picturing Jimmy Hendrix living next door to George Frideric Handel, as though it was pulled from a BBC primetime sitcom.
Obviously, Handel was an early eighteenth-century composer, and Hendrix was a twentieth-century popular musician, so they did not live next door to one another at the same time, but this image conjures up all sorts of tomfoolery and shenanigans.
Just being in the rooms where they stood, looking out of the windows they looked out of, and seeing the view they might have seen, brought them to life; for me at least. Speaking with my performer’s hat on, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to understand the mind of the composer whose music we are performing. Why did they write it like this? What do they mean us to play? Is this what they wanted it to sound like?
Both Handel and Hendrix are no longer alive, so these questions are labours one might have when playing their music. Not forgetting that the world we live in has moved on certainly since the time of Handel, and somewhat since the time of Hendrix in the late seventies.
Today everything we do is, to a point, sanitised and detached; behind a speaker, or a screen. We see musicians and the sounds they make, but for the most part, we forget that these are events, that are unfolding or have unfolded, before our eyes, on this planet. In some instances, they are so finely polished that the suspension of disbelief would not for a moment permit the thought that they are part of our world.
The first time I met a real composer was an enlightening experience. They were not a superstar who lived in the parallel star-studded universe of show-business. They were also not the larger-than-life- itself icon asking for worship and sycophantism. They were a human being, living, feeling and thinking like you or I; most importantly, living in the same space and planet.
Of most importance to this person was the music they had written and the connections and insight it would inspire in others. They said, their role was to write it, and mine was to sing it; which I tried my hardest to. I was so worried about ‘getting it right’ I almost forgot why we were singing it; as the composer reminded me, it was for our audience to enjoy and be moved by.
The piece was written for a choral competition, in which I sang tenor, and incidentally, we would later win. I am by no means a vocalist, but I could contribute, which the composer saw and was enough to convince him to let me join the cause. At the time, I felt like I was part of something larger, which I was. Forever my name will be on the programme, as performer – tenor – for the first performance of something new; never heard before that moment.
It would be almost ten years later while talking with a colleague, Alex Blustin, on this very issue of performing contemporary music, on which he would say:
“If you give the first performance of a new piece, it’s ‘yours’ forever in a way that ‘Für Elise’ will never be.”
This so beautifully and eloquently puts into words the very meaning of reaching out and touching music. By playing it, we make it our own, which is why after so many years of making music, we still play, practice, perform, record, then re-record music. Being the first to make that connection makes it special, for you, the composer, and the audience.