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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH
at the Sidcup Literary Society

? 'Dear Alice,

I'm so sorry to have missed it, but I understand from my friend Josh that you were extremely funny at the Sidcup Literary Society last week.

Did you work from your own script, or make it up as you went along?

Ask Alice

Alice Hi Carol,

Both. I was asked about the connection between playing and writing, so I messed about with some Gershwin before I chatted. But this is what I had scribbled.


People often ask me: why did you choose to write novels about life in London's orchestras?

I guess the short answer is that -- around a decade ago -- that was my career. I was freelancing with lots of London orchestras, some of them famous ones, and I saw how people who played in orchestras behaved and felt and worked and got out of working -- and I felt inspired to write about what I was seeing.

I thought that the connections (or lack of them!) between conductor and orchestra was interesting. I felt that the connection -- or lack of connection -- between principal cello and cello section was interesting. I felt that the connection between love of music and hatred of conductors in orchestras was interesting.

Basically, I felt inspired to write.

Yet, at the same time, I knew that getting published was very tough. I come from a family of writers. Not to have been published, in my family, is roughly the same as failing to reach Grade VI in families where music is more the norm. Therefore, my highest ambition back then was to publish my work as several short stories, based around the same fictional orchestra that I'd started working on.

I think, looking back, that this was not such a bad idea. It prevented me from getting self-important -- or self-conscious -- about 'my novel' and kept me rooted in what I was actually doing: which was, basically playing the cello all over the UK, the EU and the Far East, while gathering material for my first book.

It was only gradually that I learned this truth: strange as it sounds, it is actually harder to get a short story published in a major literary magazine than to sell a novel to a publisher ... Short stories are only saleable from the big players -- like Salmon Rushdie or Margaret Atwood. So instead I strung together around eight of my short stories and attempted to construct a novel out of them. (As a book, to be honest, it is rather bitty and fragmentary, but I did plot the sequel rather better!)

Then, to my amazement, the third literary agent I approached took me on. She then sold the novel to Orion Publishing, which was far beyond my expectations.

So: what really makes an orchestra an ideal subject to write about?

First of all, the part of an orchestra that actually impacts on the orchestra's spirit is a comparatively small and relatively manageable number of characters -- though I recall having a lot of trouble convincing Channel 4 of this, when they bought the film rights to my first book. The producers just couldn't figure out a way to make sufficient profits, given the number of actors required, and in the end decided to give the whole idea a miss.

My consolation was that the same thing apparently happened to Jilly Cooper, whose novel about orchestras came out two years after mine.

I have been asked to explain the terminology of orchestra players. Which is, on the whole, pretty blackly humorous.

To many classical music fans this comes as a surprise, as classical music's image has never married well with its reality.

The truth is that, to the general public, orchestral players seem to be sedate, stiff-backed gents in white tie and tails or severely-disciplined women wearing long, cover-up black dresses or suits, all playing with awesome skill and creativity. Sadly, the truth is that these same players are statistically also likely to be neurotic, single-parent, twice-divorced, and not only seriously overdrawn on their every credit card but requiring regular therapy in order to cope with their performance nerves. The reason for these difficulties is simple. One has to be near-soloist standard to get a top orchestral job but -- follow me closely here -- the player then has to surrender their entire artistic being to whoever is conducting them.

For this reason alone there are lots of terms in common use for conductors, but unluckily most of them are unrepeatable.

The most common term is 'carver', as in: 'Who's carving on Saturday?' and: 'Will he notice if I'm ten minutes late?'

The historical term is, of course, 'Maestro' (meaning master), which was in vogue (at least, to the conductor's face) throughout most of the 20th century, representing as the conductor then did, the hirer and firer of all the players.

However, in these days of self-governed orchestras and business-like orchestral committees, the word 'Maestro' tends to be used ironically -- if at all. (One example: 'Don't tell me, let me guess. We owe these flaky bowings to the Maestro himself, right?')

And yet great conductors can still be held in high esteem, as is evident by the following joke. A viola player in a famous London orchestra comes home one night to find his house razed to the ground. A neighbour rushes out to meet him, saying, 'I'm so sorry to be the one to break it to you, but the conductor came here with a meat cleaver, killed your family and burned your house to the ground.

Whereupon the violist says, in complete disbelief, 'You're kidding. The conductor came to my house?'

The very term 'orchestra' comes from the area of the hall where what was originally known as the 'band' played (with the principal violinist being called the leader), and dates back to the pre-conductor age of the baroque orchestra, when the main violinist literally led the concert from the front of the first violins. (Nowadays the leader's role is much reduced, something frankly that many leaders have yet to come to terms with.)

Section players in the strings who have not attained even the heady rank of sub-principal are simply known as 'rank and bile', which is a corruption of the middle and late 20th-century term 'rank and file', which came originally from the military. They are also occasionally colloquially known as 'pondlife', as in 'Right, we've finished rehearsing the chamber number. Have the pondlife shown up yet?'

A 'wrecker' is somebody, usually in the string sections, who routinely either comes in too early or hangs on to a note too late, as in, 'He's a wrecker, and always has been, but his heart's in the right place.'

Orchestral concerts themselves are usually referred to as 'gigs', as in, 'I've only got one gig a week with the London Philharmonic this month.'

'In the can' means that, in the opinion of the CD producer involved, either this is the best performance he's likely to get, or else that the production backers have run out of money. In either case, for the orchestra involved it is equally good news, as it means you can get paid and buzz off home. (Interestingly, 'in the can' is reputed to date back from the early movies, when the final cut of the film was actually put in a can.)

'Squeaky-door' dates are the derisory/rude title for late 20th-century music concerts. It is deeply unfair on many still-extant composers, whose music isn't even as interesting as the squawk of an unoiled door, but it conveys the general level of musical excitement pretty well, as in, 'It's only a squeaky-door date, so I'm planning on using my duff instrument.'

'Muddy field' dates are pretty self-explanatory.

You take one muddy field in which sheep habitually graze (generally within hailing distance of a 17th-century stately home or castle), a covered stage (which still manages to let some rain in, generally onto the cello and basses), glamorous backstage facilities consisting of one tent and two portable toilets, and several adjoining fields called into service as car parks and places from which to launch the fireworks.

A 'hit and run' gig is an amazingly prestigious one-day trip to Copenhagen or similar, involving waking up at 4am in order to reach the airport at six, checking into the orchestra's hotel before noon, grabbing a sandwich before the three-hour rehearsal, snatching a boiled egg before the two-hour concert, and then resisting the impulse to adorn the hotel bar until daybreak (unless one is a brass player, where bar attendance is obligatory). The final enjoyment consists in a 6am wake-up call in order to get bussed to the flight back. (Happy days!)

'Stone age' is a fondly belittling way of referring to those violinists, oboists, horn players etc who prefer to play 'early music' such as Vivaldi, Bach or even Beethoven and Schubert on 'period' instruments, meaning instruments as played at that particular period, and thus disdaining the added power and improved developments in tone and range which naturally and gradually occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries. The 'stone age' players, who represent a sort of musical subspecies, also often specialize in yoga, herbal medicine, trendy non-religions and facial hair as in, 'He mainly does "stone age" gigs, but he's not a vegan.'

A 'Canon gig' is a small ensemble (most often a string quartet) hired to play background music for a wedding reception or similar. This is named after Pachelbel's famous Canon, which is often requested. If an all-girl group has been chosen, these gigs are sometimes known as 'stilettos gigs'.

Anyone fascinated by musicians' bizarre and even puerile senses of humour have plenty of websites to choose from, with viola jokes and opera jokes being among the most popular. Here we find 'definitions' including:

Bar line: what musicians form after a concert
Metronome: an urban gnome
Conductor: someone talented at following lots of people at the same time
Clef: something one ought to consider jumping off prior to a viola solo

Copyright © 12 December 2008 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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