A Musician's Alphabet, by Susan Tomes

Hearing secret harmonies
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The Independent Culture

Susan Tomes's book Beyond the Notes offered a unique backstage glimpse at the world of classical chamber music. No other musician has pinned down its fugitive essence with such perceptive candour. A Musician's Alphabet mines the seam in more ruminative mode. Addressed to aficionados and fellow-musicians, it will be seized on by fans of her celebrated Florestan Trio.

Tomes is known for her crusades on behalf of women performers and pianists whose "accompanying" role leads to their being downgraded in money and respect. Here she ploughs different furrows. "B is for Background Music" looks at the music people carry stuck like a burr in their brains. So bothered was she, when recording Billy Mayerl's syncopated tunes and finding they kept her awake at night, that she had recourse to a hypnotist."Difficulty" leads her to muse on the deceptive simplicities of Mozart, and on the good musicians she knows who are, technically, bad players.

It all reads a bit like free association, and much of this book might be dismissed as truisms, but somehow it works. Though without an ostensible theme, it does have a connecting thread, which first surfaces in "Chamber Music". Why, Tomes asks, should the idea of the group be the key to pop stardom, yet in chamber music such a publicity turn-off? Chamber music is traditionally the distillation of all that is best in the classical sphere, as is the mixture of heroism and self-abnegation required to create it. Lamenting that golden age when its audiences would attend concerts to listen to things they played at home, she points up what society has lost.

"Old" leads her to consider not just the grey heads peopling the Wigmore Hall, but also a crucial difference between music and what these days passes for art. While painters and sculptors bust a gut to get free of the past, Tomes and her ilk seldom entertain so crass an objective. "I don't regard newness as a particularly important aspect of my work," she observes; but her biggest satisfaction lies in making a 19th-century work's "oldness" disappear.

"Modulation" is a lovely encapsulation of that process whereby we leave the home key, voyage to remote territories, then return. And "Zen", with its digression into archery, makes the perfect conclusion to a literary journey whose goal is a state of being at once concentrated and relaxed.