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Painting words in sound

Joseph Middleton is a world-renowned accompanist and the College Musician at Pembroke. He talks to our College Recorder about the wonder of music.

‘When I was at school I played the violin, oboe and flute as well as the piano. I did some conducting, some singing and I played the organ. I definitely did a lot of music overall, but I never thought I would end up doing it as a job.

‘With the piano, I studied solo repertoire until I was about 18, but I always preferred making music with other people. Then, by some fluke, my teacher fell ill and her dep was an amazing man who completely rebuilt the way I played the piano. For six months I literally just played one note, over and over again. It drove me insane, but he just built a technique from scratch in about two years.

5060192780451 Photo 2‘As university I focused more on the academic side of music, although I was still doing a lot of playing. My decision to pursue the ideal of performing music as a career came quite late. After an MPhil at the University of Birmingham I thought about doing a PhD, but I finally decided that I’d like to try for the Royal Academy of Music. I had to choose who I wanted to be taught by and it was pot luck that I ticked the box next to Malcolm Martineau’s name.

‘I had done no song work before. I arrived at the Academy with my technique sorted by no clue about repertoire, languages or anything. I was light years behind everyone else. Malcolm was absolutely brilliant; drip-feeding me advice to help me catch me up. The penny really dropped when I started to think about what the texts meant.

‘I felt like with song all of my interests came together. You have to love words and imagery and pictures and sound. I’ve always enjoyed literature and art; even now I spend a huge amount of time reading and visiting art galleries. When I am travelling for performances I use my spare time to go and see some art or maybe some ballet or opera.

‘Once I finished at the Academy I took on the role of College Musician at Pembroke. My job description was to look after non-chapel-based music-making, but after a few years it evolved into something slightly different. Now I organise the Sir Arthur Bliss Song Series and the Pembroke Lieder Scheme.

‘Pembroke is a very special place. I love it here. In a way I think it’s more special because I’m not here every day. You just can’t fail to be wowed every time you walk in. I feel a huge pride bringing people here, which I often do with singers for the Bliss Series.

‘The nice thing about what I do is that I only ever work with one other person. It is such a wonderful breed of singer who chooses to do song work. It is much harder work than learning a part for an opera in terms of the amount of music to learn and perform, and you have no direction, no lighting and no costume to help you. It is also less well paid – you definitely do it as a labour of love.

‘It also takes a certain type of pianist. You have to be totally obsessed with the texts, because your role is to paint words in sound. If you don’t have an interest in voices and how they work that’s not going to do much good. It is all about listening and finding a way to work with somebody else. You need to be the best possible pianist you can be, but also have an extra antenna out all the time for what the singer is up to. You have to know when they take a breath in how they’ll sing the next phrase, and either going with them or react against it and throw in an idea that they can react to.

‘I work with a lot of different people and through music you get to see how someone’s brain works. Some people are more instinctive and holistic; others have a very ordered way of doing things. This might not be correct scientifically, but to me it feels like balancing the two sides of your brain. When I’m learning a piece I do a lot of cold practicing, which is about problem solving and getting things right in front of the piano. Then there is the thinking which you can do when you are doodling, shaving, walking for the bus. I might connect the piece I’m learning with a film, a picture, a conversation. I try to keep this part of my mind as a space that is kind of sacred.

‘I am always wowed by the singers I work with. I find it amazing that people can make those kinds of sounds using two flaps in their throat the size of five pence pieces. We all have a voice, we can all sing, but these people are so highly trained and athletic. I do find it hard to go to the opera or to a concert without analysing everything, but if they’re really good you don’t see the technique – it just seems effortless. You don’t know they are thinking about resonating spaces, lifting their palette, breathing into their back or anything like that. In the end that’s why you go to concerts – to be taken out of yourself.

‘I love performing too. I am still full of wonder that somebody like Goethe or Shakespeare could put some words down in a certain order and they can make me feel a certain way. In the same a little man wrote a piece of music in Vienna in 1820 and in 2015 I can play it in an enormous concert hall and people will start crying. I just find that completely amazing.’

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