Where are you?
A lot of the time, I’m in the car. Radio listening is very important to me. This morning I drove from North Hertfordshire to Wembley. It may only have been a distance of 45 miles, but my mind and ears went on an emotional and creative journey spanning three centuries and much of Europe, thanks to a nicely eclectic selection of music on BBC Radio 3.
I’m often singing along with the windows open, conducting with gusto at the traffic lights or sobbing profusely in a layby.
What are you doing?
I’m driving. I drive a lot, usually on my own. In the car, I’m liberated. My default, DNA-wired way of listening to music is very physical, emotional, hands-on. I get properly stuck in. I’m often singing along with the windows open, conducting with gusto at the traffic lights or sobbing profusely in a layby (not safe to cry and drive). I truly don’t hold back in the car. No quiet contemplation or passive reflection for me – I like to join in!
What are you looking at?
I’m looking at the ever-changing landscape around me. I think this may be what makes car radio listening so unique. Take this morning as an example, where Sarah Walker chose Jean Baptiste Lully’s Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for Essential Classics. As the traffic slowed to a soporific pace on the southbound A1, I could think of no better soundscape to match the theatre of daily London life than the airy, busy optimism of the dotted rhythms in the bourrée and canarie. I saw a man carrying a cheerful yellow toy plane. I saw a lady in a wheelchair and a tiny dog in a pink coat trotting beside her. With Lully, things generally felt good in the world.
After Lully, there was an abrupt 200-year shift to the very famous organ toccata by Widor. Under the oppressive concrete road structure of the Barnet Bypass, Widor’s Toccata felt titanic, monstrous, a thunderous, dense wall of mighty power in this bleak grey underworld. Half a mile further on was a fairground, crammed into what could have been a former scrap yard. In my mind, the Toccata became a hysterical, deranged fairground organ, wildly embracing this bizarre incongruity. I really enjoy the playfulness of this kind of listening, where the most time-worn pieces can become refreshed and re-energised. It opens up the forgotten, child-like ways in which we first discovered music and it breaks up habits that have evolved from our grown-up mastery of things. Perhaps without such playfulness, we may stop listening …
For me, car radio listening and that inescapable, ever-changing scenery prevents my listening stagnating and becoming too fixed on single ideas.
What’s cued up?
This week I’ve listened to Sadie Harrison’s glorious The RoseGarden of Light (Toccata), traditional music from Afghanistan which Sadie’s own music then explores in a toe tapping and emotive celebration of sound and culture. With the radio, I’m happy to run with the come-what-may surprise selection. For me, car radio listening and that inescapable, ever-changing scenery prevents my listening stagnating and becoming too fixed on single ideas.
Which recording do you always return to?
Recordings of my childhood and student days, because during those influential years they somehow implanted themselves as ‘definitive’. Boulez’s Stravinsky, Karajan’s Beethoven, Rattle’s Sibelius, Mackerras’s Janacek … most of my CD collection in fact. If I didn’t love them, I wouldn’t have kept them. My guilty pleasure is wallowing in historical recordings from the early and mid-twentieth century: Kreisler, Furtwangler, Jussi Björling, Robert Merrill …
What’s on the to-listen pile?
I sometimes sense a bit of panic when I see a list of the next wave of twenty or so ‘emerging composers’. I never feel I’ve quite done justice to the last wave. The current to-listen to pile includes Emily Howard’s Magnetite, Kate Whitely’s I say I am, but the truth is that there is far too much I want and need to listen to.
Working at Guildhall for 13 years (2003–16) certainly helped; the composition department is outstanding and I felt very familiar with the music of the staff (Julian Anderson, Julian Phillips, James Weeks, Paul Newland, Richard Baker) and the remarkable cohort of composers and alumni who developed their voices while studying there. It was an absolute privilege to hear their music mature over the duration of their time at the School: Ed Finnis, Ray Yiu, Franciso Coll, Gonçalo Gato, Daniel Kidane, Jack Sheen, Phil Venables, Na’ama Zisser, Mica Levi, Matt Kaner … it’s a pretty impressive list!
Name a fantasy recording (real or imagined) that you haven’t heard yet?
I would love to hear a recording of the première of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time on 15th January, 1941 in Stalag VIII-A. Even discounting some of the myth and legend that has built up around this piece, two things remain indisputable: the piano was of the ‘pub’ variety and not tuned and the temperature was sub-zero. There is no possible way that these four fine musicians could have played in tune. Not even remotely in tune; the clarinet would never have got up to pitch. I have a hunch that there is something very clever about the way Messiaen wrote for these four instruments that takes into account what must (or could) have been a painful listening experience for the performers who rehearsed day in and day out. The spacing, the harmonics, the plentiful octaves; its almost as if they were designed to embrace the out-of-tuneness, perhaps playing with the resultant harmonic spectra … and maybe sounding very different to the way that we perform it today.
Noted as ‘one of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 13 years, she now creates ‘adventures in sound’ with her own production company and chamber music ensemble. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at Kateromano.co.uk.