Paradox & Grooviness

It’s said that everybody has one great book in them. If so, mine will be based on a suspicion that, at the heart of every truth, lies a paradox. I know, for example, that in both music and tai chi chuan, those wonderful (and usually short-lived) moments when things come naturally, only occur when you’re not looking for them. This is not an invitation to abandon pracitce or training, or to carry it out in a distracted manner, but rather a realisation that, only when you’ve put in the hours, can you relax sufficiently in performance to open the doors to these moments.

Teaching has its similar magic moments when, unbidden, the best analogy or phraseology for the the moment pops out. It can happen too in moments of accidental in service when you find yourself explaining aspects of your job to interested parties – particularly if they are strangers both to the subject and to teaching itself.

Such a conversation unfolded the other day – a day in what has been something of a sentimental week. You see, my favourite swimming pool, Glenogle Baths, is going into hospital on Monday for an operation. The recovery period is expected to be around 18 months, but may be more like 2 years. Either way, I’ll be in my 50s by the time I return. At least it has been saved – unlike another Edinburgh sports facility I have used for a similar length of time. I’ve been swimming at Glenogle every day for around 15 years and have come to know many of the regulars quite well. There is increasingly an end of era feel to many of the conversations which take place in the sauna. For some reason (perhaps the neighbourhood) many artists go there. Most of the users are also readers, theatre/cinema-goers, thinkers, seekers – and it’s rarely dull.

I was talking to Gerry – an illustrator/decorator/gardener/life-guard/tai chi player – about the 60s. I was born early in 1960 and so, like many who claim to have enjoyed the decade, wasn’t really conscious of much that was going on. He, being slightly older (although you’d never guess it) has more memories. We agreed on the puzzling paradox of people’s enduring grief for the passing of the 60s. It seemed odd to us that some, who’d advised you to stay loose and live in the moment, then spent the following four decades resisting and lamenting change. I mentioned that some of the language has persisted and that “cool” remains a favourite term of endorsement with young people. I confessed to using “groovy” and “grooviness” on a regular basis. Surprised, he asked me why. I explained how in an ensemble rehearsal, for example, there comes a moment when the focus shifts from technical proficiency to expression. Audiences need more than accuracy. The performance needs to be something more than, say, high-speed touch typing – impressive but not affective. We need to bring out the shape of the music; to give it flexibility, variety of articulation; to let it breathe. He asked how the pupils would go about this transformation. I heard myself say, “they need verbs.” Of course, I already knew this, but it had never seemed so clear. Pupils first concern is not what the music needs but what they are going to do and how; when they are going to do it and why. And that’s why it’s essential that every elemental technique has a name – so that a prompt from me, during continued playing, is not a the name of a mood which the pupils then have to translate into an matching action, but the name of the action itself.

I’d like to stress here that the core of the idea is not entirely my own work but grew out of the teaching of Ron Newton – the only openly Marxist lecturer of Music I ever met, a great pianist and a true maverick. He was also one of the architects of the Music degree I did at Huddersfield University* (née Polytechnic). In the Performance Analysis Class, where we took it in turns to play to the class before a no-holds-barred dissection, he often referred to An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski. Tempting as it might be to consider what they should be feeling, it is more useful for them to decide what they will be doing. As method acting coach Stella Adler would say, “we are what we do, not what we say.”

* nearly 30 years later, this would still be my first choice of course – see how I move with the times?


After writing this, I popped in to visit a friend who is finishing his PhD (on speech synthesis) at Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics. He showed me round this lovely working environment, during which time I bumped into a former pupil of Knox also doing a PhD – he seemed to be one of the few Scots in the place.

I continued on to Glenogle Baths where, in the sauna/debating society I bumped into an acquaintance who is a social worker. He asked what I’d been up to and mentioned this visit. By coincidence he’d recently heard an item on Radio 4’s Today about the Turing Test (formulated by Alan Turing) where you have to ascertain whether you are talking to an unseen person or a computer. We joked about how you could probably bring such a machine quickly to its digital knees with simple sarcasm. Just then another pal popped in and said, “that sounds interesting – how did get on to that?” I mentioned my friend’s PhD work and he said, “Really? I built a speech synthesiser once, at college!” This was back in the day and, rather than use digital recordings of phonemes, his was built from first principles using the acoustical equivalent of phonemes – formants. The conversation was so interesting, I barely had time to open my book!

Between venues, Heriberto and I popped into the Nile Café where, for the first time, I tried Sudanese tea. Lovely. If you’re ever in that neighbourood, I’d recommend it – although parking can be tricky since they built a School of Informatics on the car park…