Notes vs Music

We were beginning a recording of works by a lesser-known English Baroque composer, with little time and a lot of concerti grossi ahead of us. There was (as is too often the case, especially in the UK) not enough time to actually rehearse and record the music so we had to look only at a few representative parts and then just play the stuff. The engineer would tell us which bits he probably couldn’t fix in the editing suite and we would get a second pass at those. With a familiar composer, you can guess what is coming up to a certain degree, knowing their language. This music however was full of charming but unexpected eccentricities. Our inspired director advised us to

“play the music and get the notes right by accident!”

An incredibly useful and succinct point, and one that I have beneficially borne in mind ever since. The music is the important bit, not to be confused with the notes which are mere detail. The more technically demanding the notes, the less attention a player can find themselves devoting to the bigger picture unless they are vigilant. As an esteemed colleague is fond of saying, in a phrase which appears comicly self-effacing but is actually  quite profound:

“the notes are just a guide”

Thorium Power

According to an article in the Telegraph today, the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics have 140 PhD scientists working full-time on an alternative to uranium for nuclear reactors (and that number will be increased to 750 in 2 years). Thorium was thoroughly investigated for this purpose in the US in the 1960s but uranium was favoured partly because it offered weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product.

The thorium reactor requires constant neutron bombardment: unlike uranium, there is no chain reaction. If you switch it off, it stops instantly, and it can’t melt down. Furthermore, the toxic residue is minimal and it can even “burn” old uranium residue, thereby cleaning up the mess left by the current nuclear power technology.

China’s motives are of course selfish (like any nation): they do not have enough power for their vast upwardly-mobile population, nor nearly enough uranium to fuel the nuclear plants that might deliver that power. But they have plenty of thorium (enough, they say, for 20,000 years). The technology that they are developing could benefit all of us in terms of fossil-fuel dependence, global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


One of my teachers played with a big London orchestra, and was familiar with many very famous conductors. He found them tiresome on the whole. Ideally he liked minimal rehearsal, since the orchestra knew how to operate and certainly knew how to play all the core repertoire that it was fond of; excess rehearsal time was just an opportunity for the maestro to indulge himself. But the real showboating carry-on was of course reserved for the concert, and he suggested an ingenious solution to this: they should build a screen around the back of the conductor so that he can’t be seen by the audience. Then his gestures would be likely to be of some use to the players, rather than crowd-pleasing shapes.

I often find when attending concerts that I close my eyes to escape distracting physicality, of players as well as conductors. Music is by definition an aural experience, but is it odd to travel to a live event and not to take in the visuals? I guess it depends what you’re after. The attention that you can give to a performance is certainly increased by being in a concert hall, eyes open or shut. It’s interesting to see musicians, but how they appear is not relevant to the sound. A performer can look as beautiful as they sound, but most likely there is a discrepancy between the two aspects and the better they sound the less likely they are to match that visually. And often it is not deliberate maestro-style theatricality but just superfluous physical gestures and incidental face-pulling that one could do without.

When the music is really really good, the best setup might be for the band to be in a pit, with the audience facing an empty stage !?