I take some time for socialising the following day at lunchtime.
When we arrived on the ship, late in the evening, I went straight to my cabin and straight to bed; and I didn’t go to breakfast next morning: I made myself some coffee in my room and ate some fruit that Rachel had given me, and I sat down at my keyboard with its sound enclosed in the space around me and practised. It had been two days since I last played.
Now, at midday, I feel a sense of achievement, of having remedied a deficit, and I walk down the corridor to the dining room with a luxurious feeling of having plenty of time at my disposal. Up the corridor, really: walking here in the rim of the giant rotating wheel, with my feet towards the outer edge and my head towards the hub, it always looks as though the corridor is curving uphill ahead of me, and behind me too, if I turn to look back.
It’s still quite early for lunch, but a few people are here already. Gaetano is here, sitting on his own at a small table: there’s one long table filling the whole length of the room, curved to match the curvature of the floor and with chairs lined up on either side, and there are a few smaller tables.
I approach Gaetano’s table and greet him. He looks up from his lunch and from what he is reading.
“Oh, hi, Hella.” We’re speaking English.
“What can you recommend?”
He grunts sceptically. “Nothing, really. Take your chance!”
“Mind if I join you?”
I go to the buffet and consider today’s selection. I’m feeling quite hungry and I take both a soup and a main course, and I bring it all back on a tray with a tumbler of juice.
“Well, the soup’s not bad, at least,” I find, looking across the table at him with my spoon in my hand.
“Didn’t try it. Apparently a mistake.”
“There’ll be other opportunities.” He gives me a sardonic smile. There’ll be lots of opportunities during the voyage to try this same soup again. And Gaetano must have had it before. I daresay I have too.
The dining room is gradually filling up. I haven’t seen anyone I recognise yet, apart from the crew, but I know that I will: I know several of the musicians from Mars who are travelling to the festival. There are plenty of passengers, though, who have nothing to do with the festival: either they’re going to the Jovian System for normal business reasons, or they’re headed for one of the asteroid bases and are not going to join the other ship at all.
A man walks in who is very familiar to me, and a little after him two more. They’re members of the Ares String Quartet, and I’ve known them for a long time. All men, all of my generation, all native to Mars, and Mars is very proud of them.
They don’t notice me at first, but then one of them does, and he comes across to our table. It’s the cellist.
“Hello, Hella; so we meet again.”
“Hi, Grand. Grand, this is Dr Zurbriggen, the ship’s medical officer. Gaetano, this is Grand Enterprise, an old friend.” Friend is overstating it, but one can be polite.
Grand Enterprise sits down for a moment next to me.
“Oh well,” he says, and he crosses his legs with a languid expression. “Off into the wild.” The ship moved off during the night and is now travelling at its cruising speed directly away from the Sun and the inner planets and towards Jupiter.
“You don’t mean the company at this table?” I say.
He gives me a look. He knows I’m joking.
“We’re bearing the torch of civilisation to the savages,” he says. “A weighty responsibility.”
Gaetano looks at him, amused.
“You’ve been there before, haven’t you, Gaetano?” I say. “Is it as bad as that?”
Gaetano chooses to give a serious answer.
“It’s as you would expect,” he says. “Everything is very functional. No frippery.”
“There, you see, Grand?” I say. “We’re bringing them frippery. Not civilisation.”
“That’s probably how they see it,” he replies. “What a contrast, eh, Hella, to where you’ve just been?”
“Well, it’s not all high culture on Earth,” I say.
“Not all of it,” he agrees.
Gaetano looks from one to the other of us. I think he’s not sure whether we’re joking or serious.
“You must have loved playing on decent instruments for a change,” says Grand.
I see Gaetano’s enquiring look, and I explain.
“The concert halls on Earth tend to have traditionally made instruments. Wooden frames, metal wires, the lot. Whereas with the ones made out here most of the bulk of them is printed with artificial materials.”
“Ah, they provide the instruments? I suppose you don’t have your own with you.”
“A grand piano? No, I don’t carry a grand piano about with me on tour.” We exchange a smile.
“What are you going to find out there, Hella?” asks Grand.
“Well, my agent has made enquiries,” I say, “and she tells me that they have instruments there that are just the same, and just as good, as the ones we have here.”
Grand looks sceptical.
“I can’t see why they wouldn’t be,” I say. I seem to feel the need to defend the Jovians.
“If they’re printed, using the same programme,” says Gaetano, “I imagine they’re exactly the same.” Thank you.
“Grand and his colleagues, of course, have their own instruments with them,” I say.
“All historic instruments made on Earth,” says Grand. “Made by master craftsmen when the art was at its peak.”
There’s a lot of snobbishness about this, about the right materials, the wood, the varnish, and about the method of putting them together. A lot of it seems like nonsense to me. I can’t imagine what difference the varnish makes to the sound. But I shouldn’t judge. I’m not a string player.
“Anyway,” Grand goes on, “I’ll get back to the others. I want my lunch.”
“I’ll see you later, Grand,” I say. “We should talk about the programme.”
“Yes. Bye, Dr Zurbriggen. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Grand stands up and moves away. Gaetano looks across his now nearly empty plate at me.
“Why do you need to talk about the programme?”
“Because we’re due to perform together,” I tell him, “as well as our own concerts.”
“Ah, I see: you’ll be playing quintets, you and the four strings. And you can decide yourselves what to put on?”
“Pretty much, yes. We’ll talk to our agents, I daresay; but in effect it’s our decision, yes.”
It’s curious that I’ve never played with the Ares Quartet before. We know each other socially, because it’s a small world on Mars, especially for people like us; and of course I know their playing and they mine. But we’ve never actually played together.
Gaetano finishes his meal and takes his leave – “See you tomorrow, Hella!”; we have one of our check-up sessions following my excursion on-planet – and I finish mine alone and in silence.
I decide that I’ll go over and say hello to the rest of the quartet, and I decide to pick up a coffee on the way. The dining room is quite crowded now. I stand with my back to the buffet and with my coffee in my hand, and I survey the room. I can see where the quartet is sitting, but I don’t recognise any of the other passengers.
There’s a group of younger people, all seeming to be in their twenties, dressed very differently from everyone else. I wonder whether these are the kimyona musicians. I know there’s a group from Mars taking part in the festival. The girls are in extravagantly patterned dresses with bare arms and sandals; the boys all have little beards and are wearing figure-hugging tops beneath wide shirts. One of them has a headband holding his long hair in place.
I cross the room to where the string players are sitting. They are at the long table, two on either side opposite each other. I stand over them to say hello, because there isn’t a place to sit next to them.
Heads turn, and very kindly the people on this side of the table move up one place to let me sit. I thank them profusely.
“How was your tour, Hella?” one of them asks once I am seated, and I describe it. It was much like any other concert tour except, obviously, for my visit to the Bergklinik, which I leave out.
“And now to the opposite end of the spectrum,” Grand remarks. He exchanges a glance with one of the violinists, Glistening Peak, who titters and says, “From the sublime to the ridiculous.”
They’re beginning to annoy me. We can’t have this attitude to our public.
“We should talk about what we’re going to play,” I say, keeping a lid on that feeling.
“They’re going to want the hits,” says the other violinist, and I admit, he is right. I’ve been thinking about that with regard to my own solo recitals. They’re going to want the Moonlight sonata, and Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, and Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in the same key.
“The fish,” says Grand. He glances at the violinist who tittered just now, and he catches Grand’s eye and says, “That damn’ fish.”
I’m puzzled, and I look from one to the other, but then I realise.
“Oh, you mean the Trout,” I say. Schubert’s Trout quintet, the piece that Jacqueline and her friends were playing in that room.
“Swim as you may,” says Grand, “there’s no escaping it.”
“Well, it’s a lovely piece,” I say, “but I can see how you’d get tired of it.”
“Have you played it, Hella?” asks Swift, the other violinist.
“Not for a long time,” I reply. “I was thinking of playing the Liszt version in one of my own concerts: the piano transcription of the original Lied. Do you know it?”
They shake their heads.
“A lot of fish,” Grand comments.
“It might not be a bad idea, though,” I say. It would create a thematic link between concerts. I file the thought away to think about some more later.
But a thought occurs to me, and I furrow my brow. “I don’t understand. How can we play the Trout?” It’s a different instrumentation: there’s only one violin, and there’s a double-bass alongside the other strings. There’s no double-bass in a string quartet.
“Peak plays the bass,” Grand explains. I look at Peak, who nods.
“I tried out all the strings when I was younger. I ended up on the violin, but I can still manage the bass if I need to.”
“Can you really? I had no idea. And you have your bass with you?”
He smiles. “I suspected we might be having this conversation,” he says, “and I thought it best to take it with me, just in case.”
“Well, good for you,” I say. “Good thinking. I’d very much like to play that with you. And I’d like to play in smaller ensembles with you as well. Not just quintets.”
“Piano trios,” says Swift. That would be me with one of the violinists and the cellist.
“Yes: there are some lovely pieces.” I’ve been looking into it, to remind myself of what there is. “But I’d be guided by you. You know the literature far better than I do.” “Literature” is what we call the body of written music.
“Obviously Rachmaninov,” says Swift.
“Because of me?” I ask. “We can do. But I’m happy to play anything.”
“You know people are going to expect Rachmaninov from you,” he says.
“I suppose so. We could do the short one.” There are two.
“There’s plenty to choose from. Lots of Beethoven. Lots of Mozart. We played Smetana recently, with Jerzy Frenkel. Sibelius. Grieg. Mendelssohn. Schumann.”
“And their sisters,” Peak interjects.
I look at him, struck with that thought. Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, both sisters of more famous brothers.
“I was listening to the Clara Schumann,” I say. “I liked it very much.” It’s tempting. “But people might think we were making some kind of point. Especially if we did both of them.”
“They’d complain, and ask why we weren’t playing the real Schumann,” says Grand.
“Probably,” I agree. “How about other groupings? Sonatas?” Me on the piano and just one of the string instruments.
“Ah, now you’re talking,” says Swift, and he does a satisfied kind of wriggle and catches Peak’s eye.
“We could play a whole festival of sonatas, and only scratch the surface,” says Peak.
“Probably a bad idea,” says Grand. “But we should certainly do some. And there are some hits in there, so we could tick that box.”
“Beethoven and Brahms,” I say. He’s thinking of the violin sonatas by Beethoven and the cello sonatas by Brahms; some of them are indeed very well known. “And there are some lovely pieces for solo viola with piano.” I look at Valiant Ally, the violist, who hasn’t said much yet.
His eyes twinkle with pleasure.
“We could give them Brahms,” he says.
“The viola sonatas?” I say. “Are they the ones that are really for clarinet?”
“Originally for clarinet. He later arranged them for viola instead.”
“Same objection as with Clara Schumann,” Grand says. “They’ll complain that we’re not playing the real ones.”
“Who ever heard of a clarinet in a string quartet,” says Peak.
“You know what I mean. They book a string quartet, they want music for strings. Not music lifted from some other instrument.”
They look at their violist, who shrugs and says,
“Personally I prefer the viola arrangements.”
“Of course you do,” says Grand, and the others exchange a little grin.
“I’d love to play them with you, Val,” I say. “You know, I do think it would be the best way of getting started. Why don’t I play with each of you individually at first, sonatas, and trios too, so I can get to know you better as players, before we move on to quintets?”
They all look at each other approvingly.
“We might have such a good time that we never get to the quintets,” says Swift, and we all smile at that.
“Well – why not,” I say. “Would that be such a bad thing?”
“We can’t stay there for the entire festival and not give them a single quintet.”
“I suppose not.”
“We have to give them one,” Grand agrees. “And if it’s one, it has to be the damn’ fish.”
“Fine,” I say. “I’m happy with that. It’ll be a popular choice. Let it be the fish. But let’s work up to it.” I notice that several people around us are listening with interest to what we are saying. They avert their eyes as I glance at them. “Why don’t I meet up with each of you, one by one, and we’ll just play the stuff we like for a while?”
“And we’ll put a programme together of the stuff we like,” says Peak.
“That’ll be the title of the concert,” says Grand. “’Stuff we like’.” We all smile.
“So is that agreed?” I ask. “Let’s put some regular slots in the diary, and before we meet we’ll all give some thought to what we can be playing. Not necessarily for the festival: just to get used to playing together, to start with.”
“You know, you’re right,” Swift says. He has a reflective expression. “We don’t normally get the time to do this. But with us all stuck together on this trip for months, we can. Good idea.”
They all nod.
“Do you want to coordinate it, Hella?” Swift asks. “Since you’re the common factor.”
“Okay. I’ll find out where we can meet to rehearse.”
“There’s a rehearsal room,” Val volunteers. I look at him.
“Is there really?”
“Yes. There’s a schedule where you can reserve times. We already have regular slots for our own rehearsals.”
“Well,” I say. “That’s good.” Obviously somebody gave some thought to who would be travelling with the ship, and what we might need.
“I’ll email you the details,” he says. “You’ll need to bring your instrument.”
“Well, yes.” It would be a bit much to expect a piano in that rehearsal room. “Okay, that’s settled then.” I push my chair backwards on its rails. “I’ll find out about times, and I’ll be in touch.”
I stand up and pick up my coffee cup to take it to the hatch.
“Bye, Hella. See you later.”
“See you later.”
It’s a longish walk back because my cabin is on the other side of the ship from here. I’ve worked out which way is shorter, though there’s not much in it, and I set off around the wheel. I pass the bar, or rather two bars, opposite each other on this corridor, one facing in our direction of travel, the other facing back where we have come from. Both of their doors are open. I don’t see anyone in there as I pass.
After the bar comes a region that’s for crew only, and then the passenger cabins begin, all identical from the outside apart from the numbers on the doors. I wonder where the rehearsal room is. I imagine it’s just a cabin.
Back in my own cabin I feel like reading about Jacqueline. I sit down on my chair next to the desk and take out my device. I’ve saved a good number of articles on it and some books too, about her, and about her husband, the pianist. I want to read about her youth, before she was famous, but there doesn’t seem to be much about that.
I’m excited that we’re going to be playing the Trout quintet. I can see them in my mind’s eye as I read, and I can hear them too, the five of them in that room, all friends. Jacqueline among them, happy, carefree, beautiful as the music they’re playing.
I don’t want to watch that video again now, or play the piece. I’ll wait. I’m going to work up to it, as I said to the men earlier. First all sorts of other pieces; but with that quintet in front of me, as a goal, and those young people in my mind’s eye.
I have that well-known melody in my mind’s ear later, and those rippling, leaping piano runs, as I work out in the gym. I had rather neglected to exercise properly on the way back from Earth, but now it’s high time to get into the rhythm of it. I understand that, on this leg of the journey, the ship’s gravity will be maintained at the Martian level, but after that we’ll be moving into much lower gravity, we’ll be there for quite some time, and we must all work hard for the sake of our muscles and our bones, to preserve them and keep them intact and healthy for our return.
After the gym I still have a couple of hours to go before dinner. Val has now sent me that email and I log on to the schedule on the ship’s system. There they are, the Ares Quartet, every day for an hour, and other names too that I don’t recognise. Some of them must be the kimyona group.
I find some times that seem convenient to me, sufficiently distant from the quartet’s own rehearsal times, and I reserve them under my own name. Then I compose an email to the four of them, telling them the times and suggesting the order in which they might like to play with me. Sonatas first, I think, and we’ll move on to trios in the next stage.
But when I arrive at the rehearsal room for our first session a couple of days later I am surprised to find almost the whole quartet there before me. Only Grand hasn’t come here this morning.
Swift and Peak have unpacked their violins and are tuning them in different parts of this room. Val approaches me.
“I’ve only come to help you connect your instrument,” he says.
“Oh, that’s very kind of you, Val: thank you very much!”
My keyboard folds away into an oblong case with wheels at one end and a handle at the other, and I have been trailing it behind me like a suitcase; Val lifts it on to a desk for me and I unpack it while he busies himself with his device.
“Do you mind?” he says, and he presses a couple of keys to hear what it sounds like. He makes an adjustment.
“You don’t want to be surrounded by the sound of your own instrument,” he says.
“No, that would be weird,” I agree. Ideally it should sound for me as if I were sitting at a grand piano with the cover open and the sound emanating from inside it.
“Have a play,” he says. I sit down at the desk and play a voluptuous few bars of Rachmaninov. It’s a very good sound, rich and satisfying, and he has the balance just right.
He smiles. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. You won’t have to do this again: your instrument will pick up the settings every time you come here. Unless you want to sit somewhere else; you’ll have to adjust it then.”
“I won’t do that,” I say. “Val, this is great: I really appreciate it. I couldn’t have managed this.”
He smiles again. “Glad to help. I’ll see you later. Have a good rehearsal.”
“Thanks, Val. See you later.” He glances across to the others, who each give him a little nod without pausing what they are doing. They have finished tuning up and are now limbering up on their instruments: Swift sounds as though he is playing Vivaldi; I’m not sure what Peak is playing.
The door closes behind Val and the two violinists leave off their playing and come up to me with their instruments in their hands. I look at them in turn.
“I was expecting Swift Decision on his own,” I say.
“We know,” says Swift. “But since we both play the same instrument, we thought we’d start off together. We can decide later who plays what. Hope you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not: I don’t mind at all. Are we still playing Beethoven?”
“That’s the idea. Did you look at the G major?”
“No. 8? Yes.” It’s classic Beethoven, unmistakably him. It’s a good place to start because, just as people think of Rachmaninov and Scriabin when they hear my name, the Ares Quartet is best known for its interpretations of Beethoven.
“So who’s playing?” I ask.
Peak steps back and finds himself a chair. Swift goes and stands near where he was before, to my right and a little ahead of me as I am sitting at my keyboard, where I can easily see him if I look up. The room is larger than I was expecting. It looks like three cabins whose dividing walls have been dismantled; like the dining room it’s long enough for the curvature of the floor and the ceiling to be noticeable; and it still has all the bathrooms: one of them in a corner of the room, the other two adjoining each other two thirds of the way along the rear wall. An unusual rehearsal room, with three bathrooms. Between that pair of bathrooms and the far corner there are some compartments where some of the bulkier instruments are being stored, in their cases.
“I don’t see your bass, Peak,” I say.
“It’s in my cabin.”
That puzzles me, because on the ship anything loose has to be properly stowed away when not in use, in case the wheel stops rotating and the gravity is turned off. I can’t really imagine where he has found space in his cabin to stow a double-bass.
Still, that’s of no consequence now.
“Shall we start? What tempo do you want?”
This piece begins with both of us playing in unison, the same run of quick notes which will sound terrible if we’re not in time with each other. Swift lifts his bow and plays the first bar or so to give me the idea; then he stops and stands ready to begin again with his bow above the strings; I am ready too, with my hands above the keys; we look into each other’s eyes, Swift makes a little gesture with his head and we start.
“Ugh,” I say, and I stop playing. Swift stops too; he smiles wanly, but doesn’t say anything. We start again, and it’s better this time, so that we carry on playing; but we are going to have to go back to this and practise it until it’s perfect. This is the most exposed moment in the whole piece, right at the beginning, and we have to get it right if we’re going to play this for an audience. Which we may not, of course.
Swift has the sheet music on a music stand in front of him, but he doesn’t really need it: he’s playing by heart, and he is watching me to make sure we’re together. I know the piece less well and do need to read the music as it appears on my display, but I glance across at him a lot, and I think we’re doing all right.
Peak is restless; he gets up and comes over to us, still holding his instrument; he leans on the desk behind my keyboard and watches us as we play. It’s rather off-putting, because he looks as though he is going to interrupt and comment at any moment.
I try to ignore him and concentrate on my own playing and on what Swift is doing, and for a couple of minutes we play, and we’re together and interacting quite satisfactorily, it seems to me; but then Peak speaks:
We’ve reached a passage where we’re supposed to be accentuating the off-beats more than one normally would: maybe more strongly than the notes at the beginnings of the bars, maybe less strongly: that’s the question.
“More syncopation!” says Peak, and he actually plays a bar to show us what he means.
I stop playing, because this is cacophony. Swift stops too.
Peak plays two or three bars of that passage, on his own now, and he is playing a lot more loudly than the piece itself is supposed to be at this moment, so that the full gorgeous sound of the violin fills the room. He is accentuating those off-beats strongly.
“I don’t think we should exaggerate the syncopation,” Swift says, and he plays those bars too, just as loudly as Peak, but with less stress on the off-beats. The sound of his violin, too, is brilliant and rich and gorgeous.
“No, but –” says Peak, and he plays it again.
“No, but listen,” Swift says, and he plays too, his way, before Peak has finished playing his phrase. I gape at them.
They each finish and take their instruments from their shoulders, and turn to face me with their violins in one hand and their bows in the other, and with an expression of hopeful anticipation. The pair of them are so obviously boys showing off for a girl, it’s really quite comical.
“The sforzandi obviously have to be noticeable,” I say. Apparently I am expected to adjudicate. “That’s the whole point of this passage. But I agree with you that we shouldn’t overdo it. That would be crude.”
Peak has a slightly sour expression as he goes back to where he was and leans on my desk again. Swift tells me where he wants to start again; it’s just before that syncopated passage begins; and we launch smoothly into playing together again. It’s interesting that this time round Swift accentuates the sforzandi more than he did the first time. I have them too, in my part, and I take my lead from how he is doing them.
We carry on playing, and there are no more interruptions. If we do decide to work seriously on this piece, there are a few places that we’ll have to go back and have a look at; but by and large I think this is going pretty well for a first play-through. Later on that syncopated passage comes again, and I think the way we are doing it works rather well.
We reach the end of the first movement with a flourish and two quiet, gentle chords. Swift stays motionless for a moment with his bow in the air above his violin as we both look at each other; then he relaxes and brings his arms down.
“Very nice,” he says. I smile.
“Shall we carry on?” There are two more movements in this sonata.
“Sure.” He lifts his arms again, counts me in, and we start the slow movement: first with the melody in the piano and Swift playing an accompanying figure and some chords, and then he takes over the melody and there is some accompaniment from me.
I haven’t played this for many years and I had forgotten how lovely it is. Peak, too, can’t resist its simple beauty. After a while he straightens up and goes back to his chair, and he sits and listens with his legs crossed and his violin on his lap.
Swift’s tempo is slower than I was expecting, and at this speed the movement takes a long time; but I find that I don’t want it to stop. We have no difficulty at all in staying together, though there are places where Swift delays the progress of the beat in order to play certain figures, certain ornaments, calmly and with no rush. There are passages where the violin is very quiet, pianissimo, and he plays them so quietly, so simply, that my heart is in my mouth; then the volume grows again, the vibrato returns, and the sound of the violin is warm and friendly and the sound of the piano embraces it.
At last we reach the end of this movement. There is one final burst of rich, warm sound from Swift’s violin; then it grows quieter again and slowly, calmly, delicately, we bring the movement to an end. Nobody speaks. We are all spellbound. Again Swift is standing still with his bow raised above his violin.
I decide to commence the final movement. This one starts with the piano on its own, playing a fast, energetic passage before the violin joins in. Swift does join in, and the spell is broken: we are back to normality. Peak shifts in his seat, but he doesn’t get up.
I’m glad that I looked at this movement before coming to rehearse it. It would have been a challenge to sight-read it as well as coordinating with Swift. As it is, it motors along nicely: my runs and his runs, all fitting neatly together. It’s a much shorter movement than the other two. There’s a moment half-way in, when the fingers on one of my hands seem to trip over each other and lag behind the other; but Swift is playing at the same time, I catch myself very quickly, and I don’t think either of them gave it any particular thought. We don’t expect it to be perfect yet.
When we come to the end of the sonata we’re about half-way through our allotted rehearsal time today.
“What do you want to do, Swift?” Peak asks. He has stood up and approached us. “Do you want to work on that piece some more?”
Swift exchanges a glance with me, and says:
“No, I think you should have a turn now. This is about getting to know each other first.”
I agree. “Let’s play something else, Peak.” I want to let the G major sonata stand for now, as we have just played it.
“Did you look at the A major?” Peak asks.
“Yes; I looked at all the opus 30. Let’s play that.”
I describe today’s rehearsal later in a video message to Mitsuko. I think it will amuse her. It has to be a recorded message: although we’ve only been underway for a few days, already the time delay is long enough to make a conversation not really practicable. Someone said we’re cruising at thirty kilometres per second; I’m not sure how accurate that is.
“It’s interesting to see the dynamics in the quartet,” I tell her. I have a still of her face on my screen as I look into the camera on my device; it feels almost as though she is listening to me.
“Val is the calm one. I get the impression that he’s the one who holds it all together. Each of the others fancies himself as leader, but I don’t think any of them really are. Too histrionic, and don’t really think things through, in a practical sense.”
Is that unfair? Jumping to conclusions? A first impression, certainly.
“But, Mitsuko: they’re amazing musicians. They really are. At any rate these two.”
It’s not just the technical skill. They really understand the music; and they’re able to subordinate their technical prowess to the music, in the interest of artistic integrity. That slow movement today was a great example. Those quiet passages, where it would have been easy for Swift to indulge himself and produce that gorgeous, room-filling tone; instead he held back and played them simply and unpretentiously, and the effect was spellbinding.
“I can’t wait to play with the others.” It’s Grand tomorrow. He wants to play Brahms.
“And I’m really looking forward to playing with all of them. Quintets.” I consider for a moment whether I want to talk about which quintets we might play, and I decide against it. “There’s plenty of time for that, though. First of all I can look forward to weeks of playing in much smaller groups. But the time will come.” Surely while we’re still on this ship; before we join the other one at the asteroid base.
“Presumably we’ll play the Schubert. Can’t really not play it, now that Peak has brought his double-bass, especially.” I shake my head briefly; I’m still amazed that he has done that. I’m looking forward to the Schubert; mainly because of Jacqueline. I haven’t talked to Mitsuko about Jacqueline.
“I haven’t spoken to any other musicians. Most of them are coming from Earth anyway, so they’re not on board here with us. There’s a wind band coming, and various soloists. I know most of them vaguely.” One of them is a well-known soprano, and years ago I did a series of recitals with her. On Mars: she had come to us. We’re not going to do that this time, though: she’ll have her own accompanist with her.
“The only others coming from Mars that I definitely know about are a kimyona ensemble, and I’m pretty sure I’ve identified who they are.” I saw them today in the gym, their young bodies making them stand out just as much as their dress style does the rest of the time.
“They seem to spend all their time together. I only ever see them in a group. Understandable, I suppose.”
I’ve never really paid any attention to kimyona music. I wonder whether there’ll be an opportunity now.
“I haven’t talked to any other passengers, beyond ‘good morning’ and that sort of thing. I don’t know how many will be going on with us, and how many are only going to the Belt.” The asteroid belt. “Mainly people seem to socialise in the bars, and I haven’t been in there yet. I daresay I will at some point. At mealtimes people seem to stick with the ones they already know. As do I.”
Which at the moment is just the quartet and the crew.
“Still haven’t heard from the UN. Plenty of time for that yet, though. Anyway, Mitsuko, I’m going to sign off. I’ll let you know how it goes with Grand and Val. The cello and the viola. Tell me more about Rose’s young man: I want to know everything about him. I’d love you to send me pics, and clips, if you can. It’s exciting!” I wonder whether they’ll be married by the time I get back. Even if they are, I hope I won’t miss the first baby.
People at different points on their arcs, the arcs of their lives. Mountain Rose near the beginning of hers, and my own daughter too. The twins right at the beginning. And I’m nearly at the end; and yet I have the feeling that the whole arc still exists, somehow, as some kind of shining thing, in timeless space. Like a piece of music. It exists, whether you’re playing it or not.
The final individual rehearsal, the last in this first round of them, is with Val and is a couple of days after the previous one. I’m expecting him to want to play Brahms too. I had exactly the kind of rehearsal with Grand that I was anticipating, playing his two cello sonatas: the real ones, not the one that is originally for violin and is just transcribed for the cello.
His instrument sang in the high passages and was sumptuous as it descended into the depths of its range. I had been listening to Jacqueline playing these pieces, with her husband on the piano, and it did make me feel a connection, though it also felt strange that the instruments were reversed.
“I agree with you,” I tell Val in the rehearsal room. “I prefer the viola version too.” I’m talking about the Brahms clarinet sonatas that were arranged for viola.
It’s simply a question of the sound of the instruments. If you have the clarinet hooting away like an owl, it seems to me, you need something smoother, richer, more sumptuous, to absorb it and bring out its beauty, and the piano doesn’t really do that. The clarinet works best with strings.
That’s my opinion, anyway. What do I know?
But the viola and the piano sound beautiful together, and I’m rather looking forward to playing them with Val. Though it is quite a lot of Brahms, all in all.
Val looks at me when I ask him whether that is what we’re doing.
“If you like,” he says.
I’m surprised. “What would you like?” I ask.
He pauses for a moment.
“Look, I know we’re not going to play any viola music at the festival,” he says. He is almost certainly absolutely right about that. “So we may as well just play what we like now.”
“Sounds good to me,” I say after a moment. “So what do you like?”
“Do you know the Shostakovich viola sonata?” he asks, a little hesitantly, I think.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Shall we have a try?”
“Well – I haven’t looked at it.” Shostakovich might be quite challenging.
“You can sight-read it, Hella. It’s not a problem for you.”
I consider. “All right then. Let’s play it.”
Val takes his device and taps on it a few times; I tap on mine too, to accept what he’s sending, and up it comes on the display of my keyboard: Shostakovich’s sonata for viola and piano, opus 147.
This is a very different kind of music. I have to concentrate, but Val is right: I can play this straight from the written music without having to stop and practise the difficult bits.
There’s less emotion in this; at any rate it’s not the easy, obvious emotion that one can wallow in and enjoy when playing those other pieces. I look for a word to describe it when we pause at one point and Val asks me how I like it.
“I’m not sure,” I reply. “It’s quite – I don’t know – spröde.” I don’t know whether Val will know the German word. It’s the only one that springs to mind just now. Obviously he won’t know the Swedish word.
“Brittle,” he says.
“Yes.” But it also refers to a person who doesn’t show much emotion. “Brittle” is not the word I want.
The music is not without feeling. I feel it as we return to our work and I concentrate on doing my job. I glance at Val from time to time, making sure we’re together, and I see him engrossed in his own part, playing that dry, austere material, in no particular key; and I feel the emotions that it conjures up. Cerebral, that’s the word. It’s strangely haunting.
I can see why he likes it, I think. He’s quite a dry little man. Little for a Martian: he’s as tall as I am. I can see this being a welcome relief from the more overt emotionality of Brahms, if you’re more of a cerebral person.
We move on to the second movement of this sonata, which strikes me as being in much the same vein as the first, though I may amend that opinion when I get to know the piece better: still cerebral and austere, but faster. The piano part is still straightforward enough for me to sight-read, for the most part, but in this movement we do stop a few times and work on passages that didn’t satisfy.
Val has clear ideas about how it should be played.
“That needs to be more staccato,” he says at one point. “Sorry, I know you’re sight-reading.”
“No, you’re right,” I say. I peer at my display. “It says so, anyway.” Should pay more attention to what I’m reading.
We play that passage again, and I’m more satisfied with it myself this time.
This sonata has three movements, and both of the corner movements are slow. We’re already more than half way through our rehearsal time when we reach the end of the middle movement a second time and we decide to pass on to the finale.
This movement begins with the viola on its own, and I sit and listen as Val plays those first few bars. Very slow, very quiet. Contemplative. Val’s face is expressionless; stern; but he is producing some mellifluous sound this time: a melody, still not in any particular key, as far as I can detect. Then he plucks his strings a few times instead of using his bow, and it’s my cue to come in. Octaves in the left hand, slow arpeggios in the right; quiet and contemplative too.
I have to smile after a few moments. This sounds very familiar. Val catches my eye.
“Yes,” he says, and doesn’t stop playing.
“It really is?”
It’s still in Shostakovich’s idiom, still very much of the twentieth century, with the discords that are typical of that time; but he is very obviously quoting the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. It’s more than just quoting it: this whole movement is built up around it.
One result is that, for the first time, this piece is clearly in a particular key; and it’s more harmonious, and melodious too, than the first two movements. I’m not sure whether it’s the music itself doing it, or the memory of the real Moonlight sonata that it kindles, but this is an atmosphere of serenity and peace; maybe resignation. For the first time I can imagine playing this piece at the festival, and people there listening to it and appreciating it.
After an age we reach the end of this movement too: a long, long note on the viola, the note that makes the difference between a major and a minor chord, and the piano playing the other notes in the chord, individually, one after another, repeatedly; slowly, delicately, until it too reaches the end and the chord hangs in the air. A major chord, peaceful, fulfilled; completely tonal, no hint of a discord; resolution.
Val’s bow stops, and I lift my foot from the pedal and the sound from my instrument ceases too. We look at each other.
“What a lovely piece of music,” I say. “I can’t believe I’ve never heard it before.”
Val smiles. “It used to be a standard in the viola literature,” he says, meaning that violists used to play it a lot in their solo recitals.
He shrugs. “It went out of fashion. You know how these things go.”
I do indeed. Scriabin had gone completely out of fashion when I was starting, and it has had a certain amount to do with me that the concert-going public has started to appreciate him again.
I look at the notes in my display, scrolling through this last movement to remind myself of what we have just played.
“You know, I can really imagine playing this,” I say. “At the festival.”
Val doesn’t comment.
“I’d been thinking of playing the Moonlight sonata anyway,” I go on. “Maybe we could have both. That would create a connection between concerts. Or maybe even both at the same concert.” I’ll have to discuss this with my agent. She’s better at selecting programmes than I am.
“Anyway, I’m really glad you introduced me to this piece, Val. Shall we have another look? There were some moments in that last movement that we should perhaps work on.”
“Sure.” We may as well. There isn’t time to do anything else now.
We discuss which passages warrant some attention, and Val counts me in at the place where we have decided to start. This is serious work now: refining and improving the technical details, with the emotion of the piece, for the time being, placed to one side.
We are hard at work when the door to this room slides open and in walks the young man with the headband. He sees us and gestures with his hands.
“Don’t stop,” he says. “Carry on. I’m early.”
I watch as he walks along the side of the room and sits on the floor with his back against the wall, behind me; then I turn to face my instrument and Val again, and we take him at his word and carry on playing. Not long, and I hear the door slide open again; and then again, and this time there are voices that hush suddenly as people evidently realise what is happening.
I don’t pay any attention to it. I’m concentrating on the music; and I can really tell that we have been working on this since the first play-through. It’s more assured, more in proportion; I know what’s coming, and I can regulate my playing accordingly.
I think both of us just want to finish this piece off; we don’t want to stop and work on individual passages any more, in front of all these people. We carry on, and I feel able this time to express the emotion of the composition. Not overdoing it: our playing is adapted, suited, to the idiom of the piece; but I feel that I understand the emotion that it carries, and I let it govern what my fingers are doing.
This is Val’s idiom, I realise. This is what his feelings look like, inside. It’s interesting.
It’s slow, slow; it’s measured, unhurried, it progresses slowly, moves slowly across the expanse of its allotted time, as if that time could stretch out for ever; but it does move, it does progress, and at last it approaches the end of the piece, and the vibrato of Val’s last long note hangs there as the droplets of my part gather around it.
We finish, and after a moment we relax. I stand up, and Val turns to put his viola away in its case. I turn to face the new arrivals, who have been sitting in a line with their backs against the wall, but are now all getting up.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” I say. I’m looking at headband boy. “Thank you for letting us finish.”
“No problem, Ms Lundgren,” he says, and he takes a few steps to approach me as I start to fold my instrument away. In the depth of the room the other young people are starting to take their instruments out of the compartments at the end.
I give him a radiant smile. “It is, isn’t it? You recognised it, of course?”
“I recognised what it was quoting. I don’t know the piece itself.”
“Same here. I’d never even heard of it before today.”
He nods, and turns towards his colleagues to retrieve his own instrument. I finish packing my keyboard away and snap it shut. Val is waiting with his viola case in his hand. I look across at the young people, and they are all busy getting themselves organised; not an appropriate time to be saying goodbyes. I smile at them, generally, and Val and I leave them to it.
Back in my room later I’m thinking about Shostakovich. He lived under a dictatorship, and he had a lot of problems with his dictator. Are there parallels between that situation and the one I’m travelling to?
I know a bit about Shostakovich already, but I’d like to read up on him, and I do a search on the ship’s system. There isn’t much information on board, but the ship is linked to some kind of central computer on Earth, and that somehow does the search for me and sends the results back. With the time it takes for signals to travel back and forth, it’s several hours until the results are all available on my device, and by that time I’m doing other things. I don’t get around to looking at them until the next day, and then there is so much of it that it takes me a few days to sift it all and decide which parts interest me.
He was a composer and a pianist; like Rachmaninov, in fact, but with a very different style. When he was a child there was a revolution in his country, and by the time young Dmitri was grown up, that dictator was already in control. Dmitri’s problems began because he was influenced by certain composers, innovative ones, who were breaking the bounds of traditional musical style and creating a new, more modern musical language. It seems the dictator took an interest in the arts, including Dmitri’s compositions, but his taste was more homely, more traditional, and he had no sympathy with the avant-garde.
The dictator’s organisation, the Party, was in control of all aspects of life, and it was filled with people eager to do what they thought the dictator would approve of; doubtless because they were frightened of being attacked themselves if they were perceived as lukewarm or hostile. So once it became apparent that the dictator didn’t really like Dmitri’s style of composition, a whole machinery was set in motion, and there were denunciations and betrayals and tribunals and public confessions. It must have been terrifying. Dmitri was lucky to survive at all.
The Jovian System is probably nothing like that. I don’t know, though. Maybe there are first signs of that sort of thing. That’s another question that I’d very much like to discuss with someone from the UN.
In the end Dmitri managed to ride out the storm until the dictator was dead and the situation was eased. He found an accommodation, and he wrote pieces to be performed in public that conformed to the dictator’s tastes, more or less, though there were still some dicey moments, again and again; and at the same time he was composing other works, small-scale ones, for the desk drawer, as he put it, to be taken out and performed, perhaps, in future years when things were better.
The viola sonata doesn’t seem to be one of those, though. It’s one of his late works, and the dictator was long gone by the time he wrote it. I notice in passing that there’s a transcription for the cello instead of the viola, and I wonder whether there’s a recording of Jacqueline playing it.
What I do find, by chance, is a recording with her husband on the piano, and on the viola one of the other men who were involved in playing that Schubert quintet. On this recording they’re playing one of the Brahms sonatas, one of those that were originally for the clarinet, and it’s confirmed as I listen to it: I do like this arrangement for viola. I think this recording was made quite some time after the Schubert quintet, when the two of them were more established. Further along their individual arcs.
One evening I encounter the young people again, in the dining room. I arrive just after they do, in a group as usual, and I join the queue for the dinner buffet behind them. They’re chatting and laughing and turning to face each other as the queue moves slowly forward, and after a few moments the young man with the headband notices me.
“Hello, Ms Lundgren,” he says. The others fall silent and turn to face me too.
“Hello, how are you? Have you been rehearsing?”
“Not right now,” he replies, “but yes, we were in there this afternoon.”
“I’m lucky,” I say, and he moves to stand next to me in the queue. The others turn again and face in the direction of the buffet. “I can do most of my practice in my cabin.”
“And presumably you practise most of the day.”
“I do.” The curse of the concert pianist: never-ending, relentless toil.
“That was an interesting piece you were playing the other day.”
“I liked it. I’d like to hear it in full.”
“Would you?” I consider. “You could come to one of our rehearsals, if you like, when we play it again. I’m sure Val won’t mind.”
We’ve reached the buffet, and he takes two plates and hands me one.
“You probably don’t like our music,” he says.
“Honestly, I don’t know enough about it to be able to judge.”
“But you must have heard kimyona music. It’s been around for a long time.”
“So that even an old woman like me ought to have heard it?”
“That’s not quite what I meant,” he says, and we exchange a smile.
I think about it as I lift some cold potatoes on to my plate. “I suppose, as you grow older, you do tend to listen to what you’re used to. I feel that I wouldn’t know where to start, if I wanted to listen to kimyona.”
I hand him the spoon for the potatoes.
“I did look into other things when I was a student, and even played some.” Thirty years ago. “I don’t remember kimyona playing any part, though. Jazz, yes.”
“Jazz!” He looks scornful, and I look curiously at him.
“Aren’t there jazz influences on kimyona?”
“That’s what some people say,” he says, and I consider him in silence for a moment.
“Well, I’m no judge,” I say. “I don’t know enough about it.”
I finish heaping green salad on to my plate and turn my attention to the desserts now.
“Is there much of a following for kimyona in the Jovian System?” I ask, and he gives me a sardonic look. Apparently I’ve said something stupid. “Sorry: I’m very ignorant.”
“Our concerts are all sold out,” he says.
“Really! That’s amazing. Congratulations.” So are mine, but it would be unkind to point that out.
We finish getting our desserts and turn to face each other. His friends have all gone on to look for a table.
“Would you like to join us?” he asks.
“Yes – yes, that would be very nice.” He leads the way to where he has seen the others, and I follow.
They’re occupying two adjacent small tables and are just sitting down and getting themselves settled as we approach. We sit down too; I’m opposite him and next to a young woman wearing their standard garb: colourful, richly patterned dress that goes with the figure and accentuates it, and long, straight hair flowing over her shoulders and on to her back and her chest.
“Hello,” I say to her. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Hella Lundgren,” and I offer her my hand. She takes it with a glance at the young man and tells me her name: “Spring Lilac.”
“We know who you are, Ms Lundgren,” says the young man. “I’m Kit.”
Kit. That must be short for something.
“Ship’s Biscuit,” he adds.
That has to be a joke; but his face is completely straight. I look uncertainly at him and at Spring Lilac.
Then he takes pity on me.
“No, it’s Soaring Rocket,” he says. “Hate that name.”
I smile, and in fact we all do.
“I can see why,” I say.
Now the others all introduce themselves, but I instantly forget all their names, except for Leaping Fawn, a striking young woman with long black hair and dark red lips and with a deep, vibrant voice.
“So have you been to the Jovian System before?” I ask, looking mainly at Kit, but including the others.
“Not as a group,” he replies, and he glances across at one of the other men, who joins in:
“I’ve been there before. I have family there.”
I wonder what view he takes of the current political situation. Better not to raise that.
“But you’ve all travelled outside Mars before?” I ask.
Kit nods. “Most of us studied on Earth; and last year we played some concerts on Earth.”
“Did you really? I’ve just come back from doing that myself. Where did you play?”
And we compare experiences for a while of the places where we have been. There is some overlap of cities with me, but not of venues: they play in a different kind of venue to me.
“So how long have you been together as an ensemble?” I ask after a while. “Was that your first tour together?”
“Off-planet, yes, it was,” Kit says. “We’ve all known each other for a long time, and played together in various combinations; but this group, as a definite unit, has existed for three Earth years.” We always have to make it clear what kind of years we’re talking about.
“And some of us have our solo careers,” Spring Lilac interjects. “Kit, for example.”
“Have you really?” I ask him. “You must forgive me, I really am very ignorant: what do you play?”
“I’m a percussionist.”
‘Vibraphone,” says Spring Lilac.
“You could say that’s my main instrument, yes,” Kit agrees.
“Vibraphone,” I repeat, and consider him, imagining him with those soft mallets in his hands.
“Well, it’s a synthesiser,” he says. “But it’s made to look and sound like a vibraphone, and it plays like a vibraphone.”
“And what do you play, Spring Lilac?”
“I play the trumpet.”
“Lilac used to play jazz,” Kit informs me. Aha! I knew there was a connection.
“Yes, that’s right,” she says. “I got into kimyona at the conservatory.” Conservatoire we called it when I was on Earth.
“And she brings jazz-like colours to our music,” Kit goes on. “So I guess I agree with you: there are influences.”
I smile at them both; and now the others tell me about their instruments. Leaping Fawn plays the violin. Two of them play different kinds of saxophone. I went out with a saxophonist for a while when I was a student. He played in a saxophone quartet with three other students, and listening to them changed the way I thought about the saxophone. It really is the wind equivalent of a string quartet. I don’t know what became of him.
Several of them play more than one instrument. There’s no dedicated keyboard player, but at least two of them can play, including Kit. There’s a bass, and a guitar, and even a harp. My mind boggles at the idea of bringing that on board.
“It’s electronic,” says Loyal Friend, who plays it. I look at him for a moment, wondering what that has to do with it. “So it folds away small,” he explains.
“Oh, I see. It’s a synthesiser too?”
“Not exactly,” he says, and he and Kit exchange a glance as if to say, Where to begin?
Kit explains it for me. “They’re real strings,” he says, “and the sound they make is real. But instead of resonating like a traditional instrument to produce the sound that you hear, the electronics pick up the vibrations and synthesize the appropriate sound. So there is a synthesiser involved, but that’s only part of it.”
“A pure synthesiser would be if you simply pressed a button and out came the sound?”
“And your instrument, Kit: is that the same thing?”
“No, it’s not. My vibraphone really is a synthesiser. It doesn’t use the sounds that I make. But it responds to the way I strike the blocks.”
“The harder the louder?”
Spring Lilac has been watching and listening. “It’s more than that,” she says. “You should see him playing. You wouldn’t believe it.”
I look at him. He looks a little uncomfortable.
“It’s hard to explain,” he says. “Lilac’s right, it’s not just how hard you strike. It’s the way you strike. You can strike kind of directly, like hammering a nail, or more sort of indirectly. I don’t know how to say it, really.”
I listen, thoughtfully, and I nod. “I can imagine the sort of thing you mean.” I can, because it’s similar for me. No synthesiser is involved with a real piano, but there is with the keyboard that I have with me now, for practising, and that behaves just like a piano keyboard: I can influence the sound by the way that I strike the keys. That is, of course, why I have to be able to rely on my fingers.
It would be inconceivable to use an instrument like Kit’s in my kind of music. People are snobbish even about pianos whose soundboard and case are made of artificial materials instead of wood. We touched on it a few weeks ago, when Grand and I were talking to Gaetano, or in front of Gaetano.
In fact all pianos outside Earth are like that: the individual parts printed locally using manmade materials. It would be ridiculous to transport a grand piano from Earth to Mars. Even on Earth most instruments are made that way these days; and I honestly don’t believe you can really tell the difference in sound. In earlier days, yes, I’m sure you could; but the science has come on a long way.
“I play a plastic violin,” Mitsuko points out in response to a video message in which I bring this up. “The Ares Quartet wouldn’t approve. But there’s no way that I could afford an instrument from Earth.” Obviously she means a good instrument.
She reaches next to her, picks up her instrument that was lying there and plays a flourish from a Bach chaconne.
“See?” she says. “Sounds perfectly fine to me.”
That doesn’t really prove anything, because I’m listening to the ship’s sound reproduction system to which my device is linked: not to Mitsuko herself playing her violin. But I’ve heard her play before, and I agree that it sounds pretty good.
“I admit, though,” she goes on, “that I would like to play a historic instrument again.” I know she was able to try some out when we were students. “Just to hold something that old in your hands, and draw the sound out of it. And think about who has played that instrument before you.”
“I know what you mean,” I murmur, conscious that nobody can hear me.
Even Loyal Friend’s instrument is more artificial than that. With Mitsuko’s instrument, and with mine at home, the strings are as authentic as anything on Earth; in fact they probably come from Earth, now that I think about it; and the rest of the instrument functions in the same way as a traditional one, its molecules set in motion by the vibration of the strings, resonating to transport the original sound of the strings into the air and ultimately to the listeners’ ears, and adding its own harmonics while it does that. I think, anyway: I’m a bit hazy on the physics. The only difference is that it’s plastic resonating, not wood.
Loyal Friend’s harp doesn’t seem to have a soundboard at all. That’s what I picked up from Kit’s explanation, at any rate. Loyal Friend plays the strings, and they vibrate in the normal way, but it’s not their sound that we hear: instead the synthesiser takes those vibrations as the signal, the instructions, for the sound that it then produces. What we can hear is entirely an artificial sound.
And Kit’s vibraphone is more artificial still. It doesn’t even make a sound that is then measured and turned into the sound of the instrument. When Kit’s mallet hits one of the blocks, he is pressing a button on a machine, and the machine responds.
It’s curious to contemplate an entire genre of music in which this is normal and nobody gives it a second thought.
In my spare moments in my room I continue to dip into my materials on Jacqueline: both the material that I downloaded on Earth and brought with me, and new material that I obtain in the same way as I searched on Shostakovich. I tell myself that I’m researching for my book. It doesn’t really feel as though a book is taking shape, seriously, and I wonder whether I’m kidding myself. But I haven’t officially abandoned the scheme, and in the meantime I carry on reading and listening.
I realise one day, by chance, why there is no recording of Jacqueline playing that Shostakovich sonata, and it’s a very simple explanation: it was written after she had to terminate her career.
And another thing is becoming clearer to me, as time passes and I continue to think. It’s about myself and my own feelings and reactions; about my approach to my situation.
I’m thinking about the way I’m thinking, and that feels quite complicated and unnatural, like chewing my own teeth.
But I’m managing it, in a way, and I think I’m beginning to understand why I’ve been so calm about my news and my situation. It’s this whole feeling of being on an arc, like a piece of music. It doesn’t feel like something coming to an end and then being gone, like water running out of a bathtub. It feels more like approaching the end of a piece of music. Because, wherever you are in that music, whichever notes you happen to be playing at any one moment, you always have the whole piece in your mind, or in your feeling. Every note, and every moment along that arc, is in the context of that whole piece. And even when you have played the last note and the sound dies away, the piece is still there. You can go back and play it again, or just the parts that need some work; or you can read the sheet music, silently; or you can just remember it, while cycling in the gym, perhaps, or lying in bed, or in the bathtub. The music doesn’t go away.
Is that why Jacqueline appeals to me? I wonder. I read about her, and I listen to her and watch her, and I contemplate her whole life as an arc, as a complete arc, from one end to the other, balanced and finished like a bridge. That’s true of any musician of a bygone age, of course. But with Jacqueline it’s the sounds and pictures of a young woman that I am contemplating, and perhaps that reminds me of myself at that age. I feel that I’m getting in touch, back in touch, with my younger self. Seeing her playing with her friends reminds me of myself at that age, or a bit younger, playing with my own friends, fellow-students.
I had long hair too in those days. I looked quite striking, and I’ve always been aware that this was part of the reason why my career was able to get off the ground, why people wanted to come and see me and impresarios wanted to engage me, this statuesque, blonde Swedish woman with magic in her hands.
I’m still statuesque, though my figure is matronly these days; and I’m still blonde, though not without assistance.
Kit does come and listen to us play the Shostakovich. We run into each other again at dinner, the whole group of them, as ever, and this time we all go for a drink, a coffee in my case, in one of the bars close to the dining room; and Kit brings it up and reminds me that I had suggested it.
He doesn’t speak much in the rehearsal room. He sits on the same chair as Peak did that very first time. There’s not much choice. You can’t draw a chair up; all the furniture is fixed to the floor in case the gravity is turned off, as it is at every port of call so that people can board and disembark.
I can’t see him where he’s sitting, but I turn and glance at him after every movement. We don’t speak.
Val and I simply play the sonata through without stopping to discuss anything or to try something different. At the end, as that last long note on his instrument dies away and I have played my last, slow notes to form that final C major chord, timeless and serene, again we remain still and motionless for a long moment before we turn away and the bustle of the day seems to return.
I look behind me to Kit again, and I can tell that he is moved. He doesn’t feel the need to impress us by making intelligent comments. He just thanks us; and then he stands up and takes his leave, politely and professionally, a fellow-musician.
And a week or two later I return the compliment and visit one of their rehearsals. In the beginning they might have been inhibited by my presence, but they know me now and don’t mind me. It takes them a little while to get themselves set up, longer than it does for me and the strings, and there’s some banter and horseplay while they are doing that; rather like Jacqueline and her friends in one of those videos. It’s a happy, light-hearted atmosphere that I like very much.
Finally they start. I’m sitting at the edge of the room, out of the way, and I listen. It’s the colours of the music that impress me the most that first time. I know very little about kimyona music and don’t feel competent to judge it, at a level of craft and conception. But I appreciate the colours and the texture. At one moment the two saxophones and the keyboard are playing long chords together, while the muted trumpet and the harp interact with each other on that background, and the sound they make together has a texture that I can almost taste. It’s very satisfying.
Kit plays a variety of percussion instruments, not all of which I recognise. One is something that he holds in his lap, shaped like a bowl or a gourd; he strikes it with the base of his hand or with his fingers, and it makes a different note depending on where he strikes it. He has a microphone up close to the instrument as he sits, and apart from that amplification no artificial sound production seems to be involved.
He and Leaping Fawn play a piece together, just the two of them: she on her violin, he on that gourd-like thing. I don’t understand its musical language, but I can see that what they are doing, how they are interacting with each other, is intricate and complex, and I think I can tell that it’s beautiful.
He does also play the vibraphone a lot of the time, and I’m impressed by his virtuosity. He holds four mallets, two in each hand, and stands behind his instrument with one eye on what he is doing and the other on the rest of the ensemble. And he has some kind of synthesiser going at the same time, which he is constantly adjusting with one hand while the other continues to play the vibraphone. Though he is a percussionist, his role is not about giving the beat or the rhythm; like the other musicians in the ensemble, his instruments contribute colour and texture and tonality to the combined sound. Like a string quartet, in which no one instrument is more responsible than any other for the rhythm.
Leaping Fawn has another role, it transpires after a while, and that is to recite poetry. Nobody sings, and that is one thing that I do know about kimyona: that it doesn’t involve singing; but apparently it can involve spoken words. Leaping Fawn puts a headset on and stands facing the others as they play, and she recites a poem above the shifting harmonies and counterpoint of the instruments, holding her violin and her bow by her sides. I find it hard to concentrate on the poem and don’t really pick up its meaning, but again it’s the colour of her voice that creates an impression on me as it mixes with the sound of their playing.
The first hour passes very quickly. Nearly I feel surprised when they don’t stop, but I remember that the schedule shows a two-hour slot today.
I find that the second hour drags a little, but I stick at it, because this is educational. They’re hard at work, but it’s a different kind of work to what we do. Where we just try out the best way of playing the notes that are ordained for us, they are deciding on the notes themselves. There is improvisation, composition, going on here all the time, collective composition, and it’s a collective creation that emerges. But there are limits to the creativity, because once they have decided on something, that’s the way it stays, and they have to remember and play it exactly that way in future and not improvise any more. Except when they do: because sometimes that does happen, someone has an idea, and they change it again. It’s a balance, a tension, between playing what’s written and extemporising, and it’s fascinating.
When they have finished Kit comes up to me carrying his gourd and asks me how I liked it. I stand up. The others are passing us on their way to the end of the room where they have left their instrument cases, and where those with bulkier instruments will stow them away in the compartments there.
“I found it fascinating,” I answer. “It was very interesting to see you all at work. It’s very creative; I’m not sure that I was expecting that.”
He acknowledges that observation with a nod, and gives me a little smile.
“And the way you all work together,” I go on. “The way each one of you picks up on what the others are doing, and the way you make it all hang together and make musical sense. It’s very impressive.”
“Jamming,” he says. “Not something a classical musician does.”
“No,” I agree. I think about it. “I’d like to talk to you about it some time. Maybe you could help me understand how it works. Not now, though: I think we need to get out of here.”
“Yes.” He turns and brings his gourd instrument to the compartment where it belongs. I follow him, and I carry on talking:
“Like for instance how much preparation there is beforehand, before a rehearsal like this. Is it all on the spur of the moment, or have you thought about it, or talked about it, previously?”
He looks up from his instrument case. “It’s both,” he says. “But yeah, I’m happy to talk about it another time.”
He straightens up and goes off to fetch some more of his equipment. One of the others helps him; he has by far the most of all of them. I move out of the way, closer to the door, where Spring Lilac comes and stands next to me. She’s carrying her instrument in its case in her hand.
“What did you think of the vibraphone?” she asks me.
“Very impressive,” I reply. “I completely see what you meant that first time. And I really like your playing, Lilac. It’s very sensitive, and thoughtful. I like it very much.”
She smiles. “Thank you.”
They’re all gathering here near the door as they finish packing away. Kit is the last, and when he arrives we all leave the rehearsal room together. It’s exactly on the stroke of midday.
We walk down the corridor, still in a group, gradually dispersing into our cabins.
“See you at lunch,” says Loyal Friend as he reaches his door; I’m fairly sure he’s not including me.
As I pass a door on my way to my own cabin I hear the sound of a violin behind it. Ha. Now I know where either Peak or Swift lives.
It fades away as I continue down the corridor. I say goodbye to those who are still here and I enter my room. I’m feeling a little hungry, but I’m going to go to the gym first before I go for my own lunch.
What Shall We Play for Them?