Tuesday, January 31, 2006

playing ball

When I was a child I used to stand in the back yard throwing two rubber balls up against a wall whilst reciting a song about a sailor with one arm. It was a lonesome sport called ‘Twoballs’ and, as in solo tennis practice, there are no ball-boys to run after the errant rubber sphere making it’s way swiftly over the fence and into the heart-jitteringly cool Matthew’s garden. It was me or no-one.

In groups, however, from offices and orchestras to families and therapy groups, when someone drops the ball, there is always another ready to pick it up.

I remember, whilst doing the course in Voice Movement Therapy, being amazed at how, when the person who had been holding all the negative energy in the group would throw it down and walk out of the group for good, and how, at that point, there was an almost instant psychic scramble to pick it up. Often, bizarrely, it was the person who had been holding all the positive energy (and who was therefore equally exhausted) who was the first to reach for the negative ball and she would hold on tight until some other force drove her to let go.

This happened in our little ensemble yesterday. The problem with our colleague has been miraculously solved by our chef over the weekend and apparently involved many tears. It must be such a relief for him to have let go of that load! It must have taken a lot of courage. On Monday he was a changed man, smiling and communicating and, above all, playing beautifully….

….oh, but what’s that left on the floor? Better pick it up!

We are at the stage of rehearsal where we are playing things for the hundredth time and where we are being pushed beyond our limits so that we can relax back into the performances, which start on Friday. Our chef, rightly, believes everything good is generated from the bass and so she is working it (and in this case that’s me) hard.

I returned from a tricky weekend, looking forward to immersing myself once more in this glorious music. The atmosphere was good for the first time and off we went. After a few bars my name was called (and as ever SO unappealingly mispronounced!). “Root! This note like that”; “that note like this”; “not too much this there or that wherever”. And thus it was for the two hours to come. As I struggled doing it this way and that, I could feel my listening closing down, my head tightening around the music like a vice of judgement (oh look, I have it too!), my normally open doors locking tight.…

How did he get out of the cage? And how the hell did I get in here? Ouch. Tears are starting to spurt cartoon-like from my eyes. Oh God I know this feeling. Please stop. My hand holds the bow tighter. My sound shrinks and tightens whilst I am being asked to play MORE MORE…..Oh fuck, how did this happen?

Help! Bring in the ballboys!

This morning I have been running in the snowy park once more: Charcoal coots dancing on white velvet, a bough leaning over the lake like a phrase mark, curly willows branches lined with white like acid ready to be sniffed up by the next breeze…This time I try to gather these things for my music stand.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


For one afternoon our iron colleague melted. It probably had nothing to do with the imagined red squirrel bottom I placed on his music stand, but for a moment he did. In time with the sudden freezing of the main arteries across France, however, all channels of communication between he and the rest of us are now officially down. When I am not desperately trying to translate a torrent of insults into French in my head, I feel the heartbreaking isolation of him shivering with judgement in his cage, and that is almost more painful to observe than my own anger.

(I am finding that the language problem creates a useful moment between feeling and action. In the process of translation my verbal arsenal loses its power and I lay my weapons down over and over again, taking yet another breath…. Anyway, what IS French for “Do you really think you’re so much *******better than the rest of us? And if you do, you’re ****** **** ******bonkers. If you’re so **** riddled with judgement you just end up playing like a ******* on a ********in******and it’s********, so get the****of your high horse and let’s make some******music together, or **** ***”?)

Given the very sombre subject, joy (or lack thereof) seems to be a problem. Pockets of it are exploding all over the place like rebellious pustules: Stage left, the musos are holding secret rehearsals without HIM to reconnect with their pleasure at playing together, and have surreptitiously joggled positions so that the positive vibe can reach the bass without having to pole-vault over the Berlin Wall. Stage left-of-centre, meanwhile, a trio of thespians – an angular Raybanned Californian and his two muses - have taken to spontaneously choreographing the arias -Cain’s Vendetta song becoming an upbeat reggae grind, and Eve’s lament a florid dance of the Three Graces. In the costume department, a piece of cloth was ordered to hide a luscious cleavage and has been ripped up, and in the kitchen the wine cubis are getting lighter much faster.

My own personal survival kit varies little, but is always different – a long run in the park, a rose scented bath (for the piles), meditation (and yes, despite the above, I still try to include a few minutes of loving kindness) and soup.

The snow has come in huge silly flakes and the sound of Lyon has been transformed into an almost imperceptible air of padding and sliding. In the park all the luny runners are out – the waltzing runner, the singing runner, the muttering runner, the one-armed runner and the bare chested runner….

….and I am finally on my way home to see two grey and two tabby cat ears peep up out of the white carpet.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Snow and Lavender

wild provence

"An escapist portrait of the unexpected wild side of one of our most beloved French regions, seen through the eyes of the people who live there. Drift away into the purple haze of the lavender fields and spend a tranquil afternoon with a mountain shepherd in wild herb meadows. From French cowboys to an English Cellist, we meet the people who live among some of the most exotic wildlife and rugged scenery in Europe. There are chamois, griffon vultures, wild black bulls and tens of thousands of pink flamingos. Lifestyles and viewing which are a feast for all the senses, all best accompanied with a chilled glass of white wine.."

It looks like Julian might have ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as the publicity would have been great for him. Hey ho. Perhaps you can't be a wonderful painter and consumer of oysters and wine and then do ace interviews.

Meanwhile, back in the real wild Provence, it is snowing up to the cat's bottom and I'm not sure J will be able to get out of the door let alone into the replacement banger and out of the drive to pick me up for the weekend. Looks like I might have to go to a Lyon Bouchon all on my own.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Where does my fist go when I open my hand,
Where does my lap go when I stand up?
- Alan Watts

One of our colleagues has decided that we are all crap, and that he is a far finer musician. He is indeed a fine musician when he is present. However, he has completely withdrawn. He sits between the treble and the bass and up against the radiator (to nurse the grating cough he has had for the four months I have known him) with a corduroy cap drooping over his eyes and an indigo scarf drawn Berber style across his nose and mouth, fearful that our imperfection is contagious and that he will catch it on the fierce desert wind of Lyon. As he gets angrier his strokes get more aggressive; as he recoils from us his ability to enter into another’s gesture disappears; as the élan and soft lines of his spirit abandon him he is left with harsh square noises in the place of music.

It is quite a challenge to maintain one’s own lyricism next to a pneumatic drill in chamber music. It is even more of a challenge to maintain one’s confidence. We are all struggling to stretch our limits, facing the roots of habits that have been fed like weeds during months of orchestral playing. My personal weed has grown mighty strong and having it pulled at by someone who cares both about the music and about me is quite enough to leave me feeling about seven, raw and blushing with shame, hiding behind my cello and not wanting to come out…. I don’t need this.

We all have weeds in our garden. Even him.

We are angry now. Our lines also grow ragged with tension. We feel ourselves weaken and tempted by his devilish negativity. After all, sometimes it’s a hell of a lot easier. It is not going well. We all played better on the first day.

I return to my lodging and sleep an arduous sleep. In the morning I sit to meditate. It just happens that his face appears and it won’t go away so I do a ‘tonglen’ meditation for him. With each inhalation I breathe in his pain (and ouch, there is so much of it in his twisted expression) and with each exhalation I breathe out healing. Gradually the barriers merge, the scarf falls from his face and my armour melts as his agony becomes no different from mine or anyone else’s. The air we breathe becomes a safe place again rather than a carrier of plague. Afterwards I run in the park listening to Alison Krauss. Her voice is pure clean joy and my lungs fill with love for the dappled plane trees, the lines of frost on the reeds, the fragile ice of the lake just supporting the weight of a coot, the wide red bottom of a squirrel shimmying up a cedar. Other runners smile at my barefaced grin.

I want to swoop it all up in a magic carpet and place it in a row on our colleague’s music stand. I vow, this-afternoon, when I feel attacked and want to withdraw, to imagine instead reaching in to find one of these things and giving it to him.

Be a spot on the ground where nothing is growing,
where something might be planted,
a seed, from the Absolute.
- Rumi

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Apparently (thank you Clare for telling me) I was in the 'long list' for the 'bloggie' awards for Best European Blog. Whatever all of that means! So thank you all you mysterious people who apparently voted for me!

And so I went to the 'bloggies' site out of curiosity, and found that they have replaced the word 'music' with 'entertainment'. Shame on them.

(Of course if there were still a Best Music Blog I would surely have won, no?)

Monday, January 23, 2006


music yoga

The Arts are, I believe, superbly funded in France compared to the UK. Julian, as an ‘artiste-peintre’, is treated royally, sharing his status with that of a lawyer. As a new artistic business in our village he is not liable for tax for five years, which means, as a married couple taxed together, we split my meagre income so neither will I be liable. Julian will receive back all 20% of VAT paid on work materials from the government and I, if I get to work my 500 ‘hours’ in a year, will be paid for all the time I do not work.

The system is amazing for us, and untenable of course for a government. For now however, for once in our lives, we benefit from not being the underdogs, and from having what we do valued. It will doubtless soon change and so we are not feeling guilty; we are revelling in it.

The project I am involved with in the artists’ residency - ‘Subsistences’ in Lyon - is the sort of project that would simply not be funded in the UK, and I have very mixed feelings about it.

Firstly, let me say that I believe passionately that time for musicians, actors, and directors to chew upon, taste and digest a subject as big as this – the story of Cain and Abel – together is of great value. I am the first person who will say yea to all the musicians being given the possibility (time and therefore money) to get inside the characters, feel their feelings and their moral dilemmas just as the actors do, so that the sound and gestures we create are truly connected to the whole from the root up.

There is nothing like being given that chance. In how many Bach Passions have I yearned for 5 minutes with the Evangelist to discuss the gesture behind the renting of the veil or his feeling behind the crucifixion, as I wing my continuo on a three hour read-through and a prayer in Canterbury Cathedral or St John’s, Smith Square…?

‘Il Primo Omicidio’ deals with a lot of important issues. They are also current. Amongst other things there is jealousy, shame, homicide, fratricide and the seeds of war. The story also addresses the feelings of a mother who has lost two sons – one at the hand of the other and the other disappeared.

In Saturday’s rehearsal we sang together in a circle - musicians, singers and actors - a heart-stopping aria soaring above a chorale. We sang it over and over again, looping it and knitting our creative bond from the harmonic threads and colours, and each of us took it in turn to stand in the middle absorbing the warmth of the whole, a fleece of sound wrapping around us like a sacrificial lambs-wool comforter. The group was entirely changed as a result. We had a heart.

Then came the aria of the mother lamenting the loss of her sons and, throughout the searing arc of her cry, the varnish on my cello was moistened with the memory of the loss of our own child. As I ploughed through the heavy- hearted bass line, my arm ‘lourd’ with Eve’s suffering, I felt increasingly lighter; washed clean.

These were moving moments. How extraordinary to be given this chance….and yet it is largely wasted. In six dozen hours of rehearsal so far we have sat, just as we would in a pit, unnoticed and uninvolved, whilst the director gathers his clan around him and whispers. Despite our well funded chance, and regardless of our willingness to meet in the middle, the division between imaginary stage and pit was made on the first day.

There are tea-towels laid down for Abel (to signify him being led into the field) and coats impaled on tall planks, a harpsichord is measured and a knife thrown, Cain’s hand is shoved violently in Abel’s mouth (which, I hear, is something to do with the first born scratching at the second’s foetus…). Abel baas a lot and throws cotton wool on a table….We scrub away in the background.

I actually think that, when we finally perform it, it is going to be very beautiful. The music - by Alessandro Scarlatti, a contemporary of Haendel - is certainly sublime. However, there is an English cynic lurking in me still. We have another month of this antisocial schedule still to go and, as far as I can see, nothing much is going to change. Having performed the entire St John Passion and created extraordinary improvised theatre pieces, both on three hours’ rehearsal, I want (particularly at about ten to eleven at night), to cry:

“For heaven’s sake, let’s get this show on the road!”

Sunday, January 22, 2006

wild provence

Check out 'Wild Provence' on BBC2 at 5.40 on Sunday 29th January. You will see me playing Bach in the ochre cliffs accompanied by cicadas, and Julian painting lavender fields plein-air.....

You can read about the experience here.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

birthday blessings

Today is my birthday. Since our car has broken down and, it seems, will cost €2000 to repair, and since J’s well earned euphoria at finally coming up for air has consequently plummeted into the dark night, and since the plans we had have been abandoned (no car, no money)….I am going to gather three things in my Lyon hotel room which, though they are not happening today and are not directly related to my birthday, are nonetheless a private thanksgiving for my life and therefore, obviously, my birth-day.

1. Lunch in Lyon.

As I sat in the pretty primrose Maison Villemanzy in the crook of blue louvred shutters eating a tender steak tartare (sans ses sautéd pommes de terre mais avec son mesclun) I looked around me at the contented murmer of a French bistro at the midday hour, which was just as it should be: A couple of arty blokes, scruffy grey portfolios resting against their chair legs, pony tails waggling as they giggled; two ladies lunching on fish, with the obligatory layered hair (about as obligatory here as the ‘Jambes Lourdes’ and yes, even I’ve succumbed!), lime green clutch bags and foxy boots; Three businessmen on the Montignac diet (big meat, no starch and many pichets of wine), their contracts spread over place number four and waiting patiently till after lunch for signatures; A retired husband and wife in blue cap, fur rimmed hat and good shoes; a single woman scribbling in a notebook, Zadie Smith’s novel ‘On Beauty’ on her side-plate, and her ski slope nose lone amongst the romans…..Everyone drinking.

I caught the dream as it floated past.

2. Working with M on Recitative.

“First there is the thought, then the word, then the action….maybe one day there is the song….”

It is stuffy in the ‘Subsistences de Lyon’ and the acoustic is furry. The story is that of the very first murder; of Cain and Abel, and the heavenly (and indeed often hellish) music is by Alessandro Scarlatti. I am underlining the word ‘vendetta’ with a raw punch of the forearm in preparation for Cain’s aria, then sighing horsehair across gut to support the word ‘sospiro’.

“No, this is a semi colon, not a comma, nor a full stop. Take it through, lead us to the next thing, don’t let us down yet, we want to know….yes, draw the text out of Abel…..”

Text, sound, and movement. These are three of my favourite things.

3. Last weekend…..

….and I’m sure, once I arrive home tonight for my mini B-weekend, all will be well. It will at least, if I let go of my attachment to what it was going to be, be what it will be and that, in this wonderful life of mine, is enough.

Monday, January 16, 2006

isle sur la sorgue

isle sur la sorgue

When I first met Julian, life was one long weekend of walks and wine-tasting. This past year it has felt like one long working week. Finally, however, it seems we are starting to behave like grown-ups, and find a balance between both.

It was an almost balmy Saturday and the cap of the Mont Ventoux was beckoning us out with the promise of snowsparkle. J started painting early and by three o’clock we were on our way, past the white letters lodged into the hillside, proclaiming ‘Vaqueyras et ses Vins’ in a shameless imitation of Hollywood, and turning right to Montmirail.

For three sunlit hours we padded on crackling acorn paths through rosemary bush and minty olive groves, and past tight rows of vines combing the scalp of the hillside like an immaculate tribal hairdo. The Ventoux was showing an almost shocking amount of snowy shoulder from this angle and, like a woman seeing her beloved’s nakedness for the first time, I could hardly restrain my camera from clicking at every bend in the road: It was a proud peak flanked by umbrella pines curled in gallantry, a milk-rose breast in the setting sun and later, with a lobe of moon appearing along it’s fleshy forearm, a soul-sister.

We slept long, late and well-earned into Sunday

Sunday is the Antiques market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, where the arteries of the Sorgue river are banked with vendors of everything from silverware and French linens to rare books. The market spills onto the streets from the luminous courtyards in which, in ‘Coté Bastide’ aromatic shops playing viol music, rich Parisiens furnish their châteaux à la campagne: Giant faënce pots and house-sized flaking blue wardrobes, louvred shutters as big as their million dollar views and ornate doors fit for infinite hallways.

At twelve thirty sharp the stall-holders shake monogrammed white linen onto their antique tables and, as they get out their mussels, cheese, bread and wine, a convivial buzz of “Bon Appetit” and antique gossip fills the establishment. If you want a price at this hour, you have to search the surrounding stalls to find where the person you are looking for is popping a cork with his colleagues. He probably won’t seem very interested in your enquiry.

We lunch ‘Chez Nane’, a simple but popular joint by the side of the river and at the end of the covered market. There we read the signiatures of guests past (Venus Williams, Pierre Arditi, Ridley Scott) and dream about our own fortune – the Cork Street exhibition, the Californian dealer, the book deal… We plan the purchase, rescue and organic renovation of the ruined hamlet in which our house is situated - the pool, the louvred shutters giving out from the ‘Galérie des Demoiselles Coiffées’ onto our very own million dollar view of the Mont Ventoux.

On the next table a well-heeled couple sketch plans in a vellum notebook with an expensive fountain pen. Dreams of all sizes are bubbling everywhere and Julian, in a moment of daring, suddenly pulls the plug from the cheap radio, which happens to be next to his left ear. Is it my imagination or does the conversation and laughter seem to rise up a notch….? One thing’s for sure - no-one notices, not even the jolly Nane who is too busy seducing us with a description of her profiteroles.

We return home and notice that the arch in the ruin has crumbled some more. There may soon be serious stress on our house. Is that crack a bit longer, wider? We think so.

To polish off the weekend we watch ‘La Gloire de mon Père’ and ‘Le Chateau de ma Mère’, the story of Marcel Pagnol’s childhood – a journey from humble shack to chateau on the back of a fountain pen and inspired by his beloved ‘collines de Provence’.

Monday rolls in and we go back to work. It is just possible that the dream of the hamlet may come true. Meanwhile, not unlike Pagnol, our life is in complete harmony – what we both love doing and where we both love to be are how we make our living.

If weekends are for remembering this, then let us enjoy many more of them.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Spiral

The frou-frou music is finally in the can labelled Deutsche Grammophon (can-can classics) - not without a few frayed nerves, a litter of empty coffee cups and some emergency injections into what looks like a frozen Chef’s shoulder - not surprising after the nine hour day of recordings and concert in which there was hardly time to grab a lentil.

In the break a colleague and I talk about ‘The Spiral’: We have been playing with an astonishing cello soloist – Jérome Pernoo – who, whilst displaying Olympian technical prowess, is also gooey with joy at making music with us. We watch him from the back, noticing how his shoulders – despite performing what would feel like life-threatening rock climbing to me – are soft and flowing, his (lovely) bottom spread à L’Africaine on the seat, and his feet expansive on what could be a ploughed field but is actually a soloist’s podium. As we watch we can almost see the spiral of energy move up and around his spine, feel how each movement is set in motion way before it is seen or heard.

Who needs Elvis?

Our chef is on good form – keeping up the morale despite his ailing limbs. I watch him needle his fingers into the shoulder pain in a gesture I know so well I can still feel the itch, and I realise his energetic ‘Spiral’ is yet to come to life.

As we herd onto the tram, ramming cello heads and windie gaskets into unsuspecting locals in a rush for our homes, the Spanish horn player says:

“I like to play Bach often, but I do not so much like to play Offenbach.”….

Our laughs seem disproportionate and hysterical, but some of the tension is released onto the tramlines.

And so, after a delectable pause of vintage champagne, oysters and duck to celebrate the completion of Julian’s recent large still life commission, I find myself lurching, before I have digested, faster than sound itself, towards the next venue.


I have jogged along the river Saône and around the parc de la Tête d’Or, walked up the steep steps to the Croix Rousse and cerebrally eaten all the rich menus of the Lyon’s ‘Bouchon’ coin. Now I am lunching on a ‘Salade Manon’ in the anti-bouchon lime green salad an’ soup bar named Momo or Moju or something.

I could be in California…..

...except for the couple of long-nosed fur-wrapped ladies on my right who sprinkle salt and pepper in their fromage frais as they discuss their ‘potage’, whilst to my left, the three shiny-shoed cashmere-clad gentlemen finish off the pichet of organic red that accompanies their leaves and debate, complete with gun-firing actions, the ‘chasse’. In between them I plan how I am to remove the dogshit which is spiralling – yeah, it seems even shit can spiral - up, over and around my winter Birkies before the rehearsal.

As of next week, I will be spending a month working on a theatre project here in the gastronomic capital of France. Luckily there are a few birthdays around including mine, his and my blog’s, plus valentine’s day….mmmm…

courtyard lyon

Friday, January 06, 2006

Earth, Wind, Fire and Offenbach

We have apartments on this tour. I have a sitting room, kitchen, a cd player, the kind of washing machine I would die for and, above all, a BATH!

On day one I wake at eleven. I Check in with 100 days, meditate on a reversing lorry and it’s repertoire of stratospheric beeps (including a piercing variation on Fur Elise), sweat for 30 minutes in the fitness room to Salif Keita and prepare brown rice and lentils for my lunch.

Then I go off to work.

We are playing Offenbach on gut strings but with modern bows and vibrato AND, critically for us cellists, an endpin. It has been over a year since I have played with this device and, upon sitting, I immediately know why it was invented. The cello is supported on the ground now and my knees, used to doing that job, wish themselves away happily to the Maldives for a well earned break. I am reunited with my ‘modern’ cello, which is older and much more beautiful than my baroque, but set up for modern playing. It feels like going home to my soul mate; so good it almost brings tears to my eyes.

The chef gives his welcome speech, introduces the new people, inhales his upbeat and we’re off.

I am having problems. Firstly, because of the endpin, the cello is higher against my body now, which means that the notes are higher in space, which means that I am playing horribly flat. Secondly, we are playing all the way up ‘dans la neige’ (as one colleague puts it) – in 7th and 8th positions - and my fingers are sliding around on the black piste of the fingerboard, trying to remember the unfamiliar terrain. Thirdly, it’s a whole different dance. It feels like the first day back in step class after years of ballet. The gestures are awkward under my skin, unconnected to either my breath or belly…. The tears have turned to those of frustration and it feels like hell.

On day two I go through the same morning routine. The meditation is quieter both inside and out and I step out this time to Earth, Wind and Fire. As I am cooling down to ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ I let my hands fall by my sides. My legs do the work and, as the weight bounces from one leg to another, my arms start to swing round my torso, following their lead. Suddenly my body remembers the dance: It remembers that the torso leads the bow, that the subtle transfer of weight from side to side leads the torso, that the rhythm of the music leads the feet and that the breath accompanies it all….

Offenbach is no different, naturally - though I prefer both Salif Keita and Earth, Wind and Fire.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Finding Home

winter walk

Waking up to a New Year slowly, skidding somewhat on ice-pixels, our gortex jackets being attacked by rosehip claws as sweet pear-flesh drips down our freezing chins and in to our scarves. All the while a feast of all good things is being digested in our stomach and heart – foie gras, oysters, truffles and delightful friends from the night before. Slowly also we chew over the year. We acknowledge that their has been less magic shared – no hares leading us down moonlit paths, no honeymoon starlit snorkelling, no finding ‘home’ at the bottom of a mountain.

This year our energy has been directed outwards into the world…

Necessary. Financial. Professional. Stable. Successful even….

And so I turn again towards my beloved, and vow quietly to bring more of the magic home to him. Maybe even one day not to have to go away quite so much.

A book of Julian’s postcards with my text may be in the wings and maybe some of the outward-bound magic will boomerang back into our home in 2006.


I have a new post on the subject of 'Finding Home' up on qarrtsiluni.