Percussionists do it standing up

Ian Pillow was chief musical adviser to Jilly Cooper in the writing of her latest novel 'Appassionata'. After all, it's vital to know if you can bonk on a glockenspiel
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Thumbing through the book sections of the national newspapers at the turn of the year, I was hardly surprised to find that Appassionata - Jilly Cooper's bonk-busting romp about the lives, loves and rampant debauchery of the members of the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra and its glamorous female conductor - had become the best-selling hardback of 1996, for I had quite unwittingly become involved not only in the writing of the book, but also in the crazy media circus surrounding its launch last April. Soon the paperback version is going to hit the bookshop shelves and the publicity machine will once again roar into turbo-charged overdrive. I know I shall be asked to do my bit. Word is already reaching my ears of my participating in a special Appassionata concert at Bristol's Colston Hall on 5 April.

Although it was clear that, as far as her observations on human behaviour were concerned, Jilly was going to stick to the well-tried formula of her previous novels - a sort of Polo with semiquavers - she was going to make sure that the background details of life in a provincial orchestra were drawn with spot-on accuracy. The depths of her research was mind- boggling - the acknowledgments section at the front of the book is nearly as long as one of the chapters.

Moreover, she accompanied the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on two foreign tours, and spent a week with us in the Bournemouth Symphony, travelling on our coaches around the south and west.

Because I present the pre-concert talks in Poole, she decided that I must therefore be a fount of musical knowledge (not at all a safe assumption) and that I should act as her musical adviser. I started getting phone calls at all times of day and night. Her knowledge of music is actually quite extensive (I was not going to be asked if Bach wrote the "1812" Overture), but she was on less familiar ground with day-to-day orchestral matters.

For example, she asked what a conductor does to stop an orchestra. (He calls out "Lunch!"). Does a principal player wear special clothes when he plays a prominent orchestral solo? Actually, she could be on to something. The idea of our principal cello swanking down a specially constructed staircase, wearing a pink sequinned suit and waving to the audience - London Palladium style - before launching into the opening of the William Tell overture, I find rather attractive. Our business needs a bit of pizzazz. I shall suggest it to our management.

Some questions strained my musical knowledge to the limits - and beyond. What is the most frequently presented audition piece for flautists? Can you name a solo piano piece by Schoenberg? There was one question, however, which floored me completely. The phone rang just after midnight. "Can you bonk on a glockenspiel?" As I thought she was referring to the sound made by hitting the said instrument, I suggested that a marimba would be more appropriate. No, she meant the other sort of bonk. After some thought my answer was the same. A marimba would be more comfortable. There could be a problem though. It is on wheels. ("Did the earth move for you?") She still preferred the glockenspiel, assuring me that the lucky recipient of such unconventional attention would have her feet firmly planted on the ground, and would not be entirely recumbent on it.

Lacking first-hand practical experience in such matters I told her I would have to go away and research the subject. Some days later I was able to give her a more decisive answer. My method of research remains a secret. If you look carefully at the BSO glockenspiel though, you will see a little plaque commemorating the instrument's all-important contribution to the book.

When she finished the first draft, Jilly sent it to me for proof-reading, asking me to pay special attention to musical matters. It arrived, 70- odd chapters of it, in a huge cardboard box, courtesy of a perspiring postman. Although I sent back 14 pages of corrections - routine typing errors, musical inaccuracies and areas of debate - I was nevertheless impressed by the sheer range of musical references. I had to do much research myself and several rehearsals were spent passing pieces of paper round the orchestra with questions I couldn't answer.

I was taken aback though, by the outlandish behaviour of her orchestra, especially on tour, and I wondered how on earth they managed it. After I've driven all the way to Carlisle, smashed through the whole of Mahler's Sixth Symphony in rehearsal, and then again in the concert, do you think I want to find somebody in my bed when I eventually stagger into my hotel room at midnight? Perhaps it's envy. Maybe these things do happen and I've missed out.

It has certainly never occurred to me to join in a sweepstake hoping to win a pounds 2,000 prize for being the first to bed the conductor on a tour of Spain. (Then I suppose it wouldn't. On our Spanish trip the conductor was Andrew Litton.) Nor would I ever be found in an uncompromising situation in our instrument store - it's much too cold.

I spent a weekend with her going through the corrections ("What does 'horrified Helen, dripping around like a wet him' mean? Is 'brasso profundo' a brand of ornament polish? And I still don't understand the bit about Land of Hope and Glory and the pantomime cow in Spain") at the end of which I was supposed to interview her for a magazine. I didn't do terribly well. Frequent trips to the wine cellar were taking their toll, and I couldn't remember a thing she said.

I do have a vague recollection of her saying that her mother met Elgar. She was a school friend of the daughter of Herbert Brewer, a great friend of Elgar's, and that either Elgar stroked Jilly's mum's knee, or Mr Brewer stroked Jilly's knee, or Mr Brewer stroked Elgar's knee. I think Jilly's mum stroked Elgar's pug, but I'm still not sure.

As launch day approached, media interest was hotting up. I started getting besieged by newspapers, radio and television. Despite many esoteric artistic references in the book, the media were only interested in one thing. One TV reporter was particularly tenacious. "Presumably, these sorts of things go on all the time in a symphony orchestra." "No." "Well, surely these sorts of things go on sometimes in a symphony orchestra?" "No." "Have you ever done this sort or thing?" "No." "Do you know someone who has done this sort of thing?" "No."

Funnily enough I did hear one (unconfirmed) rumour concerning a wind player and a string player on our trip to America, and as it happened this wind player was next to be interviewed. "Have you ever done this sort of thing?" "No." Well, who in their right mind would spill the beans on a TV show anyway?

Apparently, Jilly had reservations about the title, chosen by her publisher. The publisher was certainly unimpressed with my alternative suggestion! Bonk and Circumstancen

'Appassionata' is published in hardback by Bantam Press, pounds 16.99. The paperback edition will be published in April

Ian Pillow is a viola-player with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Comments