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  • Alastair Thompson

New things

Well, I have a temporary job administering a small library. It has so far been a terrific experience, my first time working for a large organization. I'm not sure what to do with two notions in particular:

  1. that it's OK to leave work

  2. that there are other people who can help you

For so long, if there was any buck to pass, it was a question of me passing it to myself, or passing it as diplomatically as possible back to my boss, knowing that it would come back to me. So I have definitely enjoyed some aspects of being absorbed into a larger biological system, trying to flourish cooperatively.


I was telling one of the people I work with most closely how to understand my instincts: I am a continuo player. As an accompanist, I'm used to responding instantly to the cues that are given to me. You cannot respond 'instantly' & still play on time, though: you need to be able to anticipate & synchronize yourself with the breath of whomever you're accompanying. My stock joke, which I only hope is memorable, is "I can read your mind ... if there's anything there."


Easy (or difficult) enough with one person. Ensemble skills with larger groups are a little different & require a bit of distance (to take in the whole picture) & admit of a certain amount of blurring in order to be graceful.

An aside: I'm a little obsessed with the recent recording by Accordes! led by Claire Holden of the Fuchs & Tschaikovsky Serenades for strings. They have gone WHOLE HOG on two documented aspects of 19th century performance practice that went deeply out of fashion. The first is a subtle asynchronicity—the band basically keeps together, but you are aware that it like a flock of birds, independent voices working together to form a shape. The more striking performance practice is a lavish use of portamento (sliding between notes). There is, to be honest, more portamento in this recording that I'm entirely comfortable with, but then again, the very first time I listened to a HIP recording & was aware of its difference, I absolutely hated it. I was at CMU for a pre-college summer program in architecture & got a recording of the Mozart missae breves out of the library. It was Hogwood/AAM & a boychoir & I had the strongest gut reaction to the string sound, just ewwwwww. Thin & weak! How very dare they. I knew the boychoir sound from having grown up listening to all the anglo choral favourites, of course, but I felt at the time that it was inappropriate to Mozart (I've since revised my opinion in the direction of Hogwood in the 80s & then back again, or perhaps striking out in a different direction, but that's another kettle of vibrato). But if that was my first negative perception of HIP, I eventually gave in to HIP's seductive charms. At any rate, The Accordes! string sound was a little too much for me at first but now I'm coming to love it.


So much for asynchronicity: a little looseness is very pleasant. Here is my chance to stand on a soapbox for a moment with an observation about 'accompanying' ensembles on harpsichord or organ. Both instruments, particularly harpsi, of course, have a decisive attack. A harpsichord cannot sneak into the room. Paradoxically, the closest a harpsichord can come to tiptoe is to provide a delicate wash of sound with many notes—rolling a chord, providing a scalar flourish, etc. We work in pixels, as it were. That means that in terms of synchronizing attack instruments with a bunch of sneakers like fiddles or flutes, the keyboardist should absolutely lead the continuo team & thereby the group. Ideally, you're of one mind with your cellist anyway. Nothing makes me sweat like having to play with a sustained string passage featuring suspensions, because unless the string players are absolutely aware of the dynamics, they will inevitably lead me onto the wrong foot. If I see the cellist looking intently at the first violins in a passage like that I want to run for the hills. Their eyes should be locked on me.


What I'm saying, before I get too deep into the weeds, is that having a shared vision makes playing together possible. I cannot support a shared vision that doesn't imagine the effect, even if the means are up to me. If you hesitate or hedge as a leader, you risk leaving your support with no options.


As for leaving on time, please join your local union & stick up for people so that nobody feels pressured to sacrifice their time to the company. It's such a marvelous thing to walk out of the office into daylight.*


*offer does not apply in Cambridge, Mass. in November

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