Classical: Don't give up the evening job

With 26 gerbils to support, viola-player Ian Pillow tries his hand at journalism
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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE the television programme The Phil, people have commiserated with me about the tough life of an orchestral player.

Not one to miss the opportunity of milking any shred of sympathy, I cannot deny that, with a mortgage to pay, family and 26 gerbils to support, extra income does come in handy. Many orchestral players teach, but quite frankly, after six hours of Mahler and Stravinsky, the last thing I want is a further two hours of screeching and caterwauling - after all, I do have to demonstrate. So it is in the hallowed halls of journalism that I unwittingly find myself wandering.

I have just been asked to interview a composer who has recently written a symphony, and, honoured as I am, I quail at the thought. Previous attempts at this genre have not proved successful. My very first assignment was a breakfast appointment with a venerable composer at his London hotel.

A colleague had lent me the latest in mini-cassette recorders for the purpose and had given me a crash course in operating it. "It's quite straightforward. You just plug this into that, that into this, the what's-its-name into the thingumajig, and Bob's your uncle."

On the great day, I burst in on the old man's breakfast, forced him to down spoon, so as to cripple him with my hearty handshake, and fished the recorder out of my pocket, trailing yards of black spaghetti into his prunes. I plugged this into that, that into this, the what's-its-name into the thingumajig, but was totally unable to release the little plastic lid and insert the cassette. I fumbled about, pushing and twiddling every button and knob - to no avail.

After a while, the great man took hold of the machine and with a "Try this, dear boy," lifted the lid with his thumb and forefinger. The fact that he was already in an advanced stage of inebriation was mortifying.

I had been told in advance that he could be a difficult subject, so came well prepared. Determined to adopt a pushy style, I pressed the "play" button and plunged straight in. "It is... er... so good of you to give up your valuable time. I'm so honoured... I'm a great admirer." With that sharp volley of journalistic aggression, I felt I had the upper hand. "Your two symphonies seem to represent a time of inner turmoil. For example, the sparse textures of the second, where a single compound-time theme is followed by nine repetitions, seems to be a musical encapsulation of that time. Was this, indeed, the motivating force behind the uncomfortable message of this work?"

"No."

"Oh... er... the first symphony, in one movement, is..."

"The symphony is in two parts."

"Oh, um... the symphony is indeed in two parts; but the first part, which is... er... the first part of the... urm... first... er... part... is..." I was struggling. When I played back the recording, the what's-its-jig must have been plugged into the thingumathat and Bob was certainly not my uncle. My subject sounded as if he was gargling while standing next to a steam train.

For my next assignment - an interview with a conductor - I decided to ditch the hi-tec and rely on good old Biro and notepad. This was not without its problems either.

"What, in your view, is the main function of a conductor?"

"The essential function of a conductor is to convey the inner meaning of the work to orchestra and audience alike, imparting the composer's notation with the emotional force inherent in the manuscript that implies a transmogrification of his literal..."

"Sorry, how do you spell..."

In order to keep up with the Niagara of speech gushing from the mouth of my subject, I was frantically scribbling down his words of wisdom on any spare space in the notebook, completely irrelevant to the question I had written. The result reminded me of a comedian of my childhood days called Robert Moreton, whose trademark was to supply the wrong punch lines to the wrong jokes.

Working out which answer was to which question was tricky. "What was the first orchestra you conducted?" "My grandmother." "Which soloists have you enjoyed working with the most?" "Bach and Mozart."

Maybe the forthcoming interview would be third time lucky. I am taking no chances and have sought invaluable advice from a distinguished journalist. "The interviewee, no matter how famous, is usually very nervous," she told me. "He will be just as afraid of you as you are of him. Make him feel at ease by finding a topic of joint interest. Don't plunge into the serious interrogation straight away. Also, give your readers a vivid description of your subject - what he's wearing, how he looks."

In order to rehearse her maxims, I thought it would be a good idea just to sketch out some ideas for an imaginary scenario. "He sat there looking gaunt and haunted, his grey suit sitting stiffly on his tense frame, his face betraying the years of inner turmoil and the restless seeking of an artistic ideal always tantalisingly just beyond the reach of his quivering fingertips. `Herr Furtwangler,' I said. `Are you into macrami?'"

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