Solo

Perfect
In every note,
Bow arm strong and supple;
Eyes closed, lost in concentration,
You own this space, command our attention;
The music and moment are yours.
Wild applause. My heart swells.
Everything is
Perfect.

 
 

This is my first crack at rictameter, which I’d never heard of until today. Nine lines; start with two syllables, then four, then six, eight and finally 10, before counting down again to the same two syllables you first thought of. My subject, once again, is my wonderful daughter, who played a magical violin solo at her school concert last night. N.

Shadorma: Solo

She’s so small
Up on stage, alone:
Just her bow
Her fiddle
And three hundred eyes on her.
Nothing we can do

Or say now:
It’s all down to her.
She holds us,
This whole room,
In her little hands and gaze.
A cough. Then silence.

The first notes
From the piano.
Shakes her head –
No: too fast.
The grown-up nods, starts again.
Yes, good. Attagirl.

Long F sharp.
All around the hall
Eyes widen
Mouths open.
She’s got them. Won’t let go till
She’s good and ready.

No idea
How she’s doing this:
So poised, cool,
In control;
And all the while there’s this sound
Sent straight from heaven

So it seems.
I can barely breathe.
No more my
Baby girl:
She owns this place, this moment.
And so it begins.

 
 

My daughter performed Massenet’s ‘Meditation from Thais‘ at her school concert on Thursday evening. We’d heard her practising it at home, of course, but like all great performers, she saved her best for the big night. She played it on my father’s old fiddle, and it was great that he was there to hear it, too. Have to say that from my childhood recollections, it never sounded like that when he played it…N.

Sestina: The Fiddler’s Dream

He sits in silence, rosining his bow.
Another night, another town to play.
His whole world held together by those strings –
Four lifelines, or four hangman’s ropes. The time
Ticks on. Not long now. In his mind, the tunes
Wait patiently in line, as actors stand

Behind the curtain for their cue. He’ll stand
On stage, exposed, with nothing but his bow
His father’s fiddle and his store of tunes
To offer them. They’ve come to hear him play
Tonight; paid money, given up their time
To witness wonders woven out of strings

Old wood and horsehair. Hardened by the strings
His fingers flex and fidget. Who can stand
This waiting to go on? He feels the time
Run slow as syrup from a spoon. The bow
Lies on a table, tightened up to play.
He shuts his eyes, leans back, and lets the tunes

Run loose around his head. He’s known these tunes
Forever. Since his fingers felt the strings
That first time, age of six, he’s learned to play
Them in his sleep. No metronome, no stand,
No printed sheet: they handed him the bow
And fiddle, then stepped back. A little time

Was all it took. He breathes, drifts out of time
And that green room, and dreams. He’s playing tunes
Unheard, unwritten. Now the ragged bow
Become a lightning bolt, and from the strings
It strikes sparks and blue fire – and there they stand:
A thousand bright musicians, set to play

Along with him. They nod. He does not play
Alone: with every note he’s keeping time
With everyone who every dared to stand
And entertain the rest. He exhales, tunes
The fiddle one last time, and in the strings
Feels magic stir. He smiles. Picks up the bow.

Each one must play his part, give out his tunes
Till comes the time when we must cut all strings
And, silent, stand to take our final bow.

 
 

Decided it was high time to have another crack at the sestina – and what fun it was (no, really). This was inspired by the beautiful tune of the same name by the American genius Mark O’Connor: you’ll find it on his album ‘America On Strings’. I was also thinking about my daughter, who’s playing the ‘Meditation’ from Thais by Massanet as a solo at her school concert tomorrow night. She’s completely relaxed about the whole thing, but I’m nervous as all hell! N.

Shadorma: Blue Fire

Look back on
That first rehearsal:
Slow, halting,
Hesitant;
Bows like boats’ masts in a storm,
Brows and lips drawn tight.

A long term’s
Project, building up
Note by note
Bar by bar,
Finding their way in, feeling it
In fingers, feet, heart.

One week left
And decision time:
Fast or slow?
Yes or no?
Play the notes, or the music?
Be safe or sorry?

Concert night.
Packed to the rafters.
They walk in,
Take their seats.
Silence. Bows rise as one. Hold.
One two three breathe in

A shiver
Down my back. Throat tight.
Fiddles soar
Cellos growl
Breathless semiquaver runs.
A blue fire blazes.

Three and off.
Stand, bows held aloft.
The room roars
And my heart
Sings like Appalachia
On a bright spring day.

 
 

On Saturday evening, my daughter played violin in a concert with the String Orchestra run by our magnificent County Music Service. The highlight was the Appalachian-style Blue Fire Fiddler by the American composer and conductor Soon Hee Newbold. They’ve been working on it since Christmas, but even just a week ago, the teachers weren’t sure it would be ready. It was. Two days later, it still makes me hot and cold all over just thinking about it. Magical, glorious, wonderful stuff. N.

Villanelle: Rehearsal

Conducting experiments

It’s better than it was before.
But it must be exactly right.
Please can we try it just once more?

That’s just what I was hoping for,
You strings; you kept your bowing tight.
Far better than it was before.

Flutes: sorry to be such a bore:
Those quavers must be quick and light.
Please can we try it just once more?

Remember, trumpets: really soar
In bar sixteen – be bold and bright.
Still, better than it was before.

You’ll notice if you check the score
A rallentando – very slight.
Please can we try it just once more?

You’ve worked so long and hard, I’m sure
You’ll sound amazing on the night –
Much better than you did before.
Now: can we try it just once more?

A small tribute to our wonderful Community Orchestra conductor; a gracious lady with infinite patience and nerves of steel who gives her professional experience freely to amateurs possessed of far more enthusiasm than skill. She works us hard, sets high standards and encourages us to play music, not simply the right notes in the right order. For two hours a week, there’s no room in my brain for anything except music. And for that, perhaps above all else, I’m incredibly grateful to her.

Ensemble

Playing for time

Thrown together for a weary Sunday
We dug out flute and fiddle,
Coaxed the stand from its collapsed-umbrella tangle
And played dance music
Nine times older than her ten
And my forty-something years combined.
Splitting first and second parts unselfishly,
Spinning the simple, timeless tunes
From breath and horsehair,
Varnished wood and tarnished silver,
Our thoughts as closely mingled
As our blood.

All too soon
To be in the same room
As me may be
More than she can bear.
But in all the discord
Of our crescendos, fortissimos
And silences where no one’s sure
If they should clap
Or dare to cough
The neutral notes and impartial time
Will be our arbiters;
A shared and secret language for us, free
Of should and shan’t and
Not-while-you’re-under-this-roof-my-girl.
A separate space outside of life
Where all is sweet,
And we can stay in tune.

Soul music

Hardy Perennials

Left pop-eyed by an hour’s hauling
Through worthy, densely-noted classics
We put the hallowed names aside,
Relaxed our reverential frowns
And turned to those prolific geniuses
Trad. Arr. and Anon.
‘The Soldier’s Joy’ and ‘Six-Hand Reel’
Sparked new quickness in my fingers;
Reinvigorated lungs
To send the trills and grace-notes swirling
Round the room like silver swifts;
Warmed me through like strong mulled cider.
Not holy writ with Koechel numbers,
Catechism in compound time,
But tunes that sprang from workfolk; fiddlers
Hardy and his fathers knew. The music
Of the Christmas party, country wedding, village dance
Dick Dewy and the Mellstock choir
Played beneath that greenwood tree.
A heritage all-but forgotten
In this downbeat, download age,
But mine to claim, preserve and play,
With or without the printed page.

Inspired by this week’s Community Orchestra rehearsal. Like most people who play orchestral instruments, I revere Beethoven, Bach and the other Great Masters; however, I generally prefer to listen to their better-known music, and certainly don’t have the technical skill or theoretical knowledge to play it properly myself. So it was a huge relief at the end of the rehearsal to be handed a set of fiddle tunes collected by Thomas Hardy. Like his father, grandfather and various uncles, Hardy was an excellent musician and played the violin in his local church band, or choir – the inspiration for  the Mellstock players in Under The Greenwood Tree.

Having spent most of my childhood in Dorset, I have a great love of the old folk tunes, which are our true musical heritage. If the classical canon is music’s great literature, folk tunes are its oral tradition; the tales handed down through generations that tell us something of ourselves. And while a Colossus like Beethoven can wring my heart, these humbler melodies speak to my soul in a language I truly understand.

Noteworthy

MAESTRO

You stand out front,
A firm grip on your bow
And their attention.

Rapt, upstanding, desperate to please,
Two dozen Heifetz aspirants fall in and follow –
Up-bow, down-bow –
Through dense quaver thickets
Up and down arpeggio hills
Along broad, smooth andante trails
Over jagged heaps of broken thirds,
Filling the room with smiles, swarms of sound

And me with longing and regret
That you were not around
When I was young;
And the wistful, certain knowledge
I’ll never be in your class.

Inspired by and dedicated to the wonderful staff of the East Sussex Music Service, and in particular my daughter’s violin teachers. There is no praise high enough for their dedication, enthusiasm and musicianship.