Pellegrina's Notebook

"In art, as in love, instinct is enough."

Month: April, 2009

The story of me and ‘The Conductor’s Wife’


I thought I would re-arrange things a bit and introduce myself properly.  It might help explain what this blog is about, and people do ask!  I am not just a blogger, I am not just a writer,  I am a puzzle like us all, and I found my way here.   This will all be mainly about music, and some of the ideas that spin out of trying to understand it and the world it illuminates (light again – favourite metaphor!), and how it got me here and why…  I’ll save telling you about Pellegrina for another day!

I am a classical musician (soprano and pianist) and  writer. I have synaesthesia, a quirk of sensory perception where two or more senses overlap.  In my case I experience spatial awareness of units of time, and see letters and numbers both in three dimensional space and in colour.  I also cognitively associate musical keys with different colours and ‘see’ colour on hearing music as well as experiencing physical sensations such a pins and needles and changes in temperature.  It is something we are all born with but the development of the neural pathways in childhood eradicate it in most.  It is like a mnemonic – the way an infant might order a strange new world, where light, sound and scent are indistinguishable – an animal cry might be deep claret red, a mother’s sigh the colour and texture of  ripe nectarine flesh.

I write, I have always written.  I have always lived somewhat inside the music that surrounds me and that is why I write and why it feels so natural to write about it, when I really do see the world through the music that kisses my limbs in the darkness.  Music enchants and animates this inner world so that the words fly around me like coloured mosaic pieces and I am bidden to capture them.  My novel,  ‘The Conductor’s Wife’,  is the result of a long journey that was not always as facile as it should have been.  Yet, it wouldn’t be half the story it is without the pricks of fate that near toppled me over at several junctures.  It was also fun and full of those synchronicities,  at times poignant, at times delicious, that shunt us onward towards a blistering horizon of hope, where there is some small meaning in all this we call living.  Therefore, my book  is a fictional adventure into my own past life, a roman à clef, and hopefully a truthful depiction of the inner life of a synaesthete and musician.  I hope it will change my life, well, it already has…


‘This’ and the meaning of light


This is what I most want
unpursued, alone
to reach beyond the light
that I am furthest from.

And for you to shine there-
no other happiness-
and learn, from starlight,
what its fire might suggest.

A star burns as a star,
light becomes light,
because our murmuring
strengthens us, and warms the night.

And I want to say to you
my little one, whispering,
I can only lift you towards the light
by means of this babbling.

Osip Emilevich Mandelstam

‘This’ is my favourite poem because it is one that seems to express the significance of light as a representation of free human creativity. We are long used to the symbolism of light and dark – the great Zoroastrian forces pulling against each other, which would not exist independently – ying and yang.  We yearn for light, and as in much of nature are governed by it.  We live out dark winters and long nights in the promise that in light all will again be revealed and have meaning and purpose –  all that is lost to us restored.  Darkness can steal our thoughts, bleed them of hope, colour, form, and it is little wonder that light deprivation results in depression and that idiomatic nocturnal waking and night terror that is symptomatic of serotonin downtime.  Some of us are up against the darkness more than others.

I could wax lyrical about light for a long time –  scholars and sages for centuries have mused on its meaning for it has high spiritual significance.  Then again, light in its other definition is to be without weight or ballast, a neutrality.  Sometimes it has an even more esoteric meaning.   ‘Light’ can come to us in the form of people who touch us, music that raises a deadened spirit and the alertness and beauty of a work of art.  As Mandelstam says, the only way we can lift each other towards that light, however we see it, is through the creative expression of ourselves.   This is really just my own bit of babbling.

The future is bright and it sings from the barrio


I don’t usually cry for joy at concerts. It has been known for me to be in a state of near collapse listening to Mahler 6 or 10, but those are different tears. Last week when I heard two hundred or so young Venezuelans on the stage of The Royal Festival Hall commanded by their staggeringly gifted conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, I wept. I wept at the passion and pride that emanated from the stage like a mesmerising fragrance over the audience. It was almost supernatural, tribal, like the sounds of the South American forests some of the music they were hearing evoked.

The Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar are the product of the vision of El Sistema, a unique educational and vocational programme that lifts children without means and in difficult circumstances, specifically in Venezuela out of the rundown barrios and rural hinterlands where poverty and crime are inevitably the sunset they face, into the world of music making. It is not at all like the Suzuki method, pioneered in the Far East, it is almost unmistakably Latin, for it does what Suzuki cannot do, it instils not only great rhythmic flair and command of the instrument but evangelical JOY in music. It is contagious. In the audience last week were people who would never usually listen to Tchaikovsky, Bartók or Ginastera and yet they were on their feet in ecstatic appreciation.

Take a child and give her an instrument to play and the innate curiosity of childhood takes over, but El Sistema is more.  The children of El Sistema see a gift before them, they feel pride in being able to accomplish the giving of listening pleasure, and take such pleasure themselves from the sounds they make. It is lacking a sense of pride and  identity that so often evolves as the dangerous tenets of teenage gangs, leaning toward a  propensity for tribalism and crime.  It sounds simplistic, but this is its inverse.

El Sistema will change the world. Why? Because, it restores the love and passion for great music and great music making that is very often lacking in our conservatoires and the orchestras they feed. Classical music in Europe is still contained in a mist of privilege and snobbery which alienates many and yet it is clear that the music itself is no barrier if the conduits engage their audience.  It will prove that great classical music IS inclusive and can be exciting.  Great music digs deep into the humanity of all of us and can be used to break down the economic and social structures that divide us. If we can bring El Sistema to Britain and it is already becoming very successful in Scotland, all is well with classical music. This is not hyberbole, it is fact. The future is bright and its herald comes in the colours of the Venezuelan flag.

Synchronicity and SNCF


View from the train, Nice.

It has been a pleasure and sometimes a deep pain to experience synchronicity – things that seem random and coincidental suddenly appear to have a profounder significance, forming a distinctive pattern that seems like no accident but design.  Numbers appear to be related, initials of names, colours, timelines, shapes all recognisible, assemble in a pattern.  If Jung is right, we are designed as humans to seek comfort from patterns and symbols, it is how we order our world, give is deeper meaning and significance – we are the idol makers and icon designers of the universe.  If there is a God,  it would be ‘it’ who is the grand architect of our thoughts and the great orchestrator of the world we see and think we know…but as we cannot prove there is either a God or not, it is just us spinning our thoughts into harmonic order.

In its way, love is a part of this design.  Love is destiny – those we come to love, and I am talking those unconditional loves that come and go, are markers on our way to whoever we seek to be.  When a well of passion springs up in us in sensual response to someone we barely know, it asks us to listen to who we are, and whatever pleasure or indeed inevitable pain there is in such love as we find, it is just another beat of the better selves we seek.  Love to me has always been a surprise and even now I cannot believe it, but for good and ill, and I have certainly seen both in recent times, I will enjoy it.

I love trains, particularly in France.  The current SNCF jingle is a constant joy! Listen –

Musique SNCF

A beginning…

Well, it has taken a while but I have a found my little corner of the web to write in and ‘A Room of One’s Own’, but I am here now.

I am in the process of starting to write some sort of ‘mission statement’ about my life and have realised just how extraordinary the times are that envelop us now. We live these days in a universe of mutables, where fixity is rare. Not only the economic climate has side shifted so much that the phrase ‘never never’ takes on a renewed resonance, but the very existential centres we must cling to feel tensile at the very least. We can no longer identify to that definite ‘one thing’, but to many things or none. We may make our livings through more than one means and the days of a firm vocation are now elusive to most rather than just the few we used to refer to as drifters and nomads who would never get a ‘proper job’. I would have been one of the latter in any case, but now I am with multitudinous company. It has increasing poetic licence.

So I am an opera-singing, piano playing nomad-pilrgim, writer, wearer of high heels and zen-hippy child out of time,  and I love Italy and my soul’s home, Paris. Just for now, I am here, in my own room, which looks like Mimi’s ‘bianca camaretta’, pondering where to go now and trying not to drop my candle in the dark.angel-with-butterflies1