By Carolyn Fraser
Rachel Smith is my cousin, and, as you well know, a highly accomplished musician who happens at present to live very far away. So, if in order to see Rachel I’d have to leave cold, grey Melbourne and travel first to balmy Brisbane and then across a sparkling expanse of sea to Stradbroke Island, well, I would manage. For the most part, my acquaintance is with writers and visual artists, so a week spent with classical musicians would be something different for a change. Also, I was promised whales. Here are my observations.
- Classical musicians practise a lot.
Writers could do well to observe the work practices of classical musicians. Even gearing up to write this blog post, I’ve rearranged my desk, sharpened pencils, checked my email (twice) and researched online a newfangled ergonomic desk chair. I didn’t actually sit in on their rehearsals, but I’m pretty certain that when three of them were playing the Janácek, the fourth wasn’t shifting about, noodling the opening bars to Stairway to Heaven on his or her instrument, wondering if it is too late to re-train as an osteopath. From my observations, classical musicians get up in the morning and rehearse. Eat lunch then rehearse. Perform a concert then rehearse. All with less complaint than you’d imagine. And, you are right, it’s not as if they are actually composing the music themselves (obviously writing is more difficult, what with the blank page and all) but there appears to be enormous difficulty in interpretation, and hell, they have to play all those different parts simultaneously in perfect time, without losing their places or improvising over messed-up bits. Writers, imagine your book group trying to read Anna Karenina out loud in unison in Russian. Now imagine you are doing this on waterskis in human pyramid formation. I think this is an adequate analogy.
- Being in a quartet is like being married to three people.
A quartet, from my observation, is not just four people in a work team with an absent supervisor named Vivaldi. There is talking. There is listening. There is “expressing”. There are criticisms couched in helpful questions. There are long trips in rental cars pretzeled around the cello case. There are little things, completely innocuous things, which the others do (not you) that soon drive you to distraction. And at the end of the day, you can’t clock off, go home and watch So You Think You Can Dance? Because, on the island, you are sharing a house. You have to navigate each other’s sleeping patterns and kitchen habits and caffeine intake. There’s humming, and someone who steals the rehearsal schedule off the fridge. There’s no getting away from these people, your quartet colleagues. Sometimes, your record-breaking human pyramid on skis is more like a three-legged race combined with the egg and spoon, except in your case, it’s a five-legged race, because there are four of you. Also, more often than you might imagine, pairs of quartet members are actually married to each other, in the legal sense, and god knows how they manage this. I suspect some of the usual self-preservation mechanisms triggered by marriage kick in extra-early among newly-wed chamber musicians: selective hearing, long solo walks, secret online poker addictions.
- As a musician, black clothes are ruined for you.
As a former waitress in a number of pretentious sub-par establishments, I understand this. There’s nothing like dressing up in a classy pair of black slacks and black top with an understated yet interesting neckline to make your back ache with the memory of overladen trays of overpriced food, or, if you are a classical musician, to trigger the heart-stopping anxiety that accompanies performing on stage. You can, however, find yourself in dress shops admiring something in a lovely shade of black, and in all clear conscience announce “This is perfect for work,” or, if you are feeling the need for more robust justification, “This is an excellent tax deduction.” And, as a classical musician, you have the advantage of knowing that, most likely, this lovely black something isn’t going to get splattered with spaghetti marinara in an unfortunate but depressingly frequent kitchen incident.
An exception to all this is if you are a soprano. When it comes to the acquisition of “work clothes”, the only thing better than being a soprano is being the teenaged daughter of a soprano. Neither you nor any of your friends will want for a sensationally glamorous evening gown for the school formal – your mother’s closet will contain something for all, in any colour, for any mood.
- There is a disappointing lack of dancing at chamber music events.
I expect this will be a fairly contentious assertion. But when a little girl in a hot pink tulle fairy dress couldn’t hold back during Mozart’s oboe quartet, I was with her in spirit. The music, the sun-dappled ti trees, the beach beyond – the deck beckoned. Sadly, to my mind, everyone but the girl remained in his or her seat, respectful and silent.
On Sunday, after the Respighi, the same little girl approached Sara, starstruck. “I want to show you my dog Mingus,” she said. She wants to be a singer, her mum told Sara. The girl sang her own impromptu aria, various intonations and stresses on the line “I love my Mummy.”
- Whales are surprisingly difficult to see.
Just FYI, there are quite a few whale-shaped rocks off Stradbroke Island.
My week on the island wasn’t just wall-to-wall anthropological observation. I began my days before dawn on the deck, wrapped in a polarfleece blanket, watching the sky brighten while scrolling through my Twitter feed. I ran along the beaches and clifftops and into the sea half-dressed when I was done. I rushed home from a concert to conduct a phone interview with a robotics expert in Turkey. And I made food. Here are some of the things we ate during the week:
Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Mushrooms with Gremolata and Quinoa: http://www.nytimes.com/recipes/1016100/roasted-brussels-sprouts-and-mushrooms-with-gremolata-and-quinoa.html
If you think you don’t like Brussels sprouts (and I definitely did not) this dish will change your mind.
Miso-Curry Squash, Potato, Tofu and Kale
This recipe is from Heidi Swanson’s terrific book Super Natural Every Day. I highly recommend her blog, 101cookbooks.com.
Carrot & Coriander Soup with Salsa
This is a wonderful recipe from Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ restaurant in Berkeley, California. Missing online is the recipe for the salsa. Chop a red onion and a chilli finely. Mix in a handful of coriander leaves and the juice of a lime or two. Add a spoonful to each bowl of soup.
Cranks’ Butternut Squash Curry with Udon Noodles
I love the internet. I knew I had this recipe at home, torn out of a magazine in the late 1990s. All I remembered was that it came from London’s Cranks restaurant. I Googled cranks+butternet+udon and there it was.
Josey Baker’s Adventure Bread
This isn’t bread so much as a delicious nut and seed loaf. Add some hummus, an apple or an avocado and you have a perfect lunch.
Sweet pea and almond soup
This is a wonderful soup from Once Upon a Tart in New York City. I couldn’t find the recipe online, so here it is:
1.5 cups blanched almonds
2 big yellow onions, chopped
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
4 tbsps unsalted butter
500g frozen baby peas
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 tsp salt
Toast almonds in a 220C oven until slightly brown (about 8-10 minutes.)
Coarsely grind the nuts (once cool) in a blender or food processor.
Sauté the onions and ginger over medium heat until the onions are translucent.
Add the peas and stock, and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and simmer partially covered for 20-30 minutes, until the peas are a dull avocado-green colour.
Add the ground nuts, salt, and pepper and simmer for 5 minutes to allow the flavours of the nuts to cook into the soup.
Puree the soup.
Rhubarb, Apple and Blueberry Crumble
This is from Gwyneth Paltrow’s book It’s All Good. I used a bunch of rhubarb chopped into 1cm slices, 3 or 4 chopped apples and a punnet of blueberries. The recipe posted on the Self site lists half a cup of sage leaves. This is a mistake, and should read half a cup of almond meal. I used rolled oats instead of quinoa flakes. I also doubled the quantity of the crumble mix.
Enjoy!Congratulations, Rachel and Eric!