Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Susan Tomes, Out of Silence - A Pianist's Yearbook

While on holiday I read a number of books, including A Night Train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier; One Day by David Nicholls; and Nick Hornby's Juliet Naked, which I haven't finished. The outstanding read was Susan Tomes, Out of Silence, which is a diary of a year in the life of a pianist. The inspiration for the book comes from Schumann's remark that 'I am affected by everything that goes on in the world, and I think it all over in my own way'. I've been following Susan Tomes' blog Susan Tomes: Pianist & Writer and find her posts engaging, as she reflects on life and music, often touching on something quite profound but with lightness and grace.

As a pianist, her work consists of solo performances, chamber music - most notably with the Florestan Trio with whom she has made numerous recordings on the Harmoni Mundi label - and concertos with orchestras.

The book isn't a day-by-day diary, but various short chapters compiled into each month. This isn't a page-turner but a contemplative read, more andantino than allegro. It has particular interest for the musician but isn't exclusive, and reflections are wide-ranging and include tennis, diving, football, and gardening.

A few highlights. On the relation of music to time, 'Music replaces clock time with musical time, a completely other way of guiding our thoughts and feelings through an experience with its own shape, its own build-up of tension and its own resolution. Our favourite songs seem timeless in more ways than one.'

She compares players 'who thrive on the physical sensation of playing, and on the feeling of being plugged into an enjoyable community effort which links everyone through music' with musicians 'who instinctively feel that music is not only a lovely noise but also a portal to something else, something that lies behind the right notes played in the right order. They understand music as symbolic of thoughts and feelings, a vehicle for expressing how the world strikes you.'

Early on in the book she has a fascinating section on 'Music for the right time of the day'. In the context of a holiday in Southern Italy, this felt particularly pertinent. Some music just didn't seem right to listen to in the morning, and strangely I couldn't bring myself to listen to Mahler for the whole two weeks. And then some music seemed particularly appropriate, while some felt universal.

In short, this is a lovely, graceful, enriching book, and one to return to.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Holiday in Sicily

I've recently returned from a holiday in Sicily. This is our fourth holiday in Southern Italy, working our way further south each year, and next year the only way is back up! All the regions we've been to have been unmistakably Italy, and Southern Italy, but each has had that which is obviously distinctive. Sicily is no exception.

We were situated just north of Catonia, near Acireale, with the sea two kilometres on one side and Mount Etna on the other, surrounded by lemon trees. The place, a lemon farm, is aptly called Il Limoneto. It was pretty idyllic, constantly sun-drenched and extremely hot - by the end we were looking forward to the air conditioning at the airport - and the only down-side was the mosquitos which were a bit fierce.

For us, Italy provides a wonderful context to slow down, read, listen to music, eat and drink, visit leisurely places of interest, and of course passegiata. And all these are possible because of the nature of a holiday which opens up space by limiting the options normally available to us.

Sicily is featured in many films, notably, The Godfather trilogy, and Cinema Paridiso which for me is one of the all-time favourites. We have yet to see Il Postino, which again is set in Sicily, but the DVD is waiting at the top of a pile by the tv. Even for Southern Italy, Sicily feels like going into a bit of a time warp. Like the rest of Italy it might be becoming increasingly secularised, but the centrality of the church in local culture still seems fairly dominant, especially in August when every small town seems to be celebrating their local saint.

Italian ice-cream is something we always look forward to, at least once a day. But in Sicily the big thing is granita, which is a sorbet coming in an assortment of flavours, sometimes with cream on and eaten with an accompanying brioche. I thought they were a bit over-rated and kept faith with the ice cream.

Etna was awesome and although we drove some distance, we got less than half way up Europe's biggest active volcano. We met some French guests at Il Limoneto who were vulcanologists combining work and holiday and had some fascinating conversation.

Other places had particular historical interest, or were just beautiful. In Enna, a town built high upon a hill, there wasn't a great deal to see other than extensive views of the surrounding countryside. However, I loved the humour in the Rough Guide to Sicily about the Museo Musical Art 3M, 'a mishmash of an exhibition that features projections of the work of artists who have a (sometimes remote) connection with Sicily - for example Caravaggio, Lo Zoppo di Gangi and Antonello di Messina - all to the rather hammy accompaniment of originally composed orchestral music. A few photographs and costumes are also on show, as well as a reconstruction of a sulphur mine, a reminder of an industry that once dominated this part of Sicily. If you're in a tolerant mood, it'll do to pass twenty minutes or less.' Sadly it was just closing so we didn't have the pleasure.

Driving in Italy is usually something of an experience but in Sicily it's taken to another dimension. Again, the Rough Guide comes up trumps likening the Sicilian driver to 'a dog on drugs'. I thought that veered on the side of generosity. A lovely touch which we were reminded of once again as we touched-down in Sicily, the Italians clap the pilot - nice!