Opening the doors
Disagreeing with Kapka Kassabova (and thanks to Ian Rankin)

All that jazz

These days, when I go to a writerly-authorly sort of do it's rare that I don't see someone I know, or meet someone who turns out to have friends in common. The book trade is a very small village, and book launches, parties and gatherings of The Society of Authors, NAWE, RNA and the like are our shop, pub, and cottage hospital. (Our school bus stop is Twitter, of course). By comparison, official networking events seem depressingly cold-blooded: the speed-dating of the human world.

But even that kind of event can bear fruit, though if you went looking for a bag of basic apples, you may find only a single, beautiful kumkwat. The Alumni Arts Network Event wasn't the most exciting evening of my life, but did I met Mary O'Neill, who directs the Centre for Early Music Performance and Research at Birmingham University. Along with specialist academics and performers, she runs workshops in early music for non-specialist musicians. We're talking about music that was written before the concert hall, the composer as fons et origo of art, the worshipful silence, the conductor in white-tie-and-tales. We're talking about music that might be danced or sung or both, that might be played one night by a pipe and tabor, the next by a choir of boys. It involves quite a lot of improvising, of making do and making-up-as-you-go-along, and that's not just necessity, it's part of the experience of both performer and audience: this music will never the same two days running.

And what Mary said was that although their idiom and instruments couldn't be more different from the originals, and although some of them can't read music so the first run-through is very rough indeed, the jazz musicians take to it like ducks to water. Whereas some players from the big London orchestras find it extraordinarily difficult. Not in the technical sense: these musicians are famous round the world for how they can sight-read a vast score and record it in the twinkling of a baton. And what they're playing is not that distant in idiom from their more usual fare: Monteverdi, say, and the staple Baroque composers. But these musicians find semi-improvising not just alien, but actively scary: they don't know what they're "supposed" to be doing; there isn't a "'right", to aim for and practise for; no "best possible" result. If you're brought up to succeed at exams and auditions, and live by melting your personality into a hundred others, this is extraordinarily stressful.

You know where I'm going with this, don't you. I've blogged before about the kind of writer (and writing teacher) who clings to the liferaft of "the rules", and gets worried  (though it may manifest as defensiveness or even aggression) when you start explaining why it's not as simple as that. It's the kind of writer who has got past the non-writer's "get it right first time" mentality that Barbara Baig pinpoints - has learnt to flip the mental switch which allows first drafts to emerge un-censored - but who still has a huge amount invested in "getting it right" in the end, on the assumption that there's a "right" to be reached.

But have you noticed how in learned jazz programmes they quote the date and place of the actual recording? And have you noticed how reading old work of your own, however un-autobiographical it is, is like reading old diaries? It was produced by you, then, in that room, in that week/month/year. If you had started or finished it at another time, in another life, it would be a different book, It might even have been a song or a dance or all that jazz.


7th January 2011

I've just been digging in my notebooks, to collect together all the bits and pieces for the new novel, and I came across a note which I know I was looking for, for this post, and didn't find. It quotes a cellist, talking on Radio 3 (and, guilt, I haven't made a note of her name), who after working in both classical and contemporary music, learnt to improvise. And she found that not only was it fun, but when she went back to the great classics she found that she worked on them thinking "What might be there?", and in doing so, found what was there, afresh. I'm still not sure how this fits into the main part of this post, but I wanted to join them up. All suggestions welcome...