“The piccolo player seemed to be having a rough night. I might even go so far as to call her a terrorist.”
With this remark from a colleague in one of my orchestras to a recording of one of our recent performances, a new term entered my musical lexicon.
I’d never heard a player described as a terrorist before, but in a tragic way, the metaphor can work. In geopolitics, and terrorist is someone who, though individual action, is able to undermine the efforts of whole nations. In music, a terrorist is a musician who can undermine the efforts of entire orchestras.
And lest you think I am being cruel, and accusing others of evil doings, I must remind you that, as in politics, today’ terrorist is tomorrow’s freedom fighter. Few every play badly because they want to ruin a concert- that terrorist piccolo player really did think that long C# needed to be that high- they thought they were doing the right thing. Perhaps she thought the whole orchestra had gone flat, and it was up to her to bring it back up to 440?
The piccolo is a fine weapon with which to practice terrorism because the terrorist can make themselves heard at all times, but even the most inconspicuous player can be a terrorist. It’s all in the timing. A piccolo player can strike at anytime, but a terrorist cell in the back of the 2nd violins must wait for a silence to attack- then they can play a long note when everyone else plays a short one, or simply crash into a rest. There is a special breed of string player who seems always to keep the whole orchestra waiting when it’s time to start- they’re on the wrong page or they have to finish writing in a fingering (!) or they need to switch their glasses or they just don’t know what piece we’re playing. This can be a subtle form of psychological warfare.
The doublebass can be a slow moving and unwieldy thing, so musicians are used to waiting for the basses. A late bass entry causes no surprise, and therefore little damage. A terrorist in the bass section knows that to inflict maximum damage, it is best to play early and rush- the surprise factor is overwhelming.
A good concertmaster can transform an orchestra. A bad concertmaster can also transform an orchestra.
A terrorist concertmaster can all but obliterate one. There are two kinds of terrorists who make their way to the leader’s chair. The first is the “twirly” leader, so named because the keep coming in too early. The second, more lethal type, is the “black hole.” Conventional wisdom has it that a leader’s job is partly to set the tone in terms of energy and commitment. The “black hole” terrorist instead takes it upon themselves to suck all the energy out of the rest of the orchestra. I did a Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet in the UK some time ago with a black hole leading the orchestra- the love music, instead of building to a radiant climax, wilted like month old cabbage. I once conducted a Dvorak Cello Concerto with a black hole. The emotional climax of the entire work is the duet in the Finale between solo cello and the concertmaster. In this instance, the passionate outpourings of the cellist were trapped in the vortex of the black hole, from which nothing could escape.
I’ve rarely seen a first oboist undertake a terrorist act while performing- perhaps their ego precludes it, but they will sometimes do it during tuning. My favorite terror tuning technique is the oboist who intentionally gives different A’s to the woodwinds and strings because the wind keep going sharp. In their mind, the solution is to tune the strings sharper than the wind. This is like treating Grandma’s gout by putting her out of her misery. In many ways, the 2nd oboe chair offers untold opportunities for the committed terrorist- from this position you can undermine the tuning of the entire wind section, and probably disrupt the counting of the first oboist, who is often the busiest solo player in the band. All of this without ever being heard, or at least notice by the audience. If you want your 2nd oboe martyrdom to be celebrated, though, there is always the “duck with emphysema” sound that some 2nd oboists have mastered, a tone that can penetrate any texture and ruin any concert. This sound alone can inspire the most profound despair in audiences, players and conductors alike.
We now come to the elite orchestral terrorists- the brass and percussion. Many British amateur orchestras have seen the danger of the trumpet as a weapon of mass destruction, and now hire pro trumpets while everyone else plays for free. This is probably worth the cash. I once did the Enigma Variations with an amateur band who had hired a tuba hotshot from the Royal Academy. They rose to the occasion, he did not, coming in wrong 7 times in the concert, and miscounting at the climax of Nimrod. However, of all brass instruments, I think readers will agree that the best terrorists are the horns- somehow, they’ve convinced the world that a certain number of terrorist acts are all but unavoidable on their instruments. Audience members can never understand why a trumpet player fraks- they expect perfection having grown up with Bud Herseth and Maurice Murphy. But they tend to think the poor hornist is less a terrorist than a victim of something worse than terrorism- the horn itself. The 2nd most effective terrorist I ever worked with was a horn player.
But the most effective terrorist I ever worked with? A timpanist, of course. I love the timpani, and I absolutely love working with a great timp player- they can transform a performance, creating atmosphere and making the big arrivals happen. Most timpanists are incredible musicians- they’re the ones you can always count on to have a score and to actually know what’s going on harmonically. They’re unique placed and equipped to resolve a rhythmic wobble with a single stroke.
But in the wrong hands, the tools of a timpanist can become terrible weapons. The very instrument that can solve any rhythmic problem can also undermine the most secure groove. A poorly tuned drum can send a whole band’s pitch into chaos. And when they mis-count? Heaven help us.
I think the worst terrorist in my career was a timpanist I worked with once (and only once) earlier this year- he was lost for most of the rehearsal and kept giving me that non-look (a sort of blank, stony stare that says “I may have heard you or I may not have, and you won’t know until the gig which it was”) when I would try to help him. In the first half of the concert he came in a bar late for his main entrance in the slow movement of a major work. I tried to get him in, but he wasn’t looking. Then, I tried to show him his first note change, and rather than make up the bar he’d gotten behind, he added another bar, then at each note change, he’d add another bar. By the end of the passage (which rises to a magnificent fortissimo then drops almost immediately to pianissimo) he was four and a half LONG bars behind the orchestra, wailing away ff in the wrong key while the rest of the orchestra tried to manage a modulation and a lovely pp. Embarrassingly, I got caught in a tiny hallway with him at intermission. I didn’t know what to say, so tried to be conciliatory, saying “sorry I couldn’t get you back on track there.”
“You cued me early,” was his completely unapologetic reply. I’m the last guy to claim infallibility, but I’m quite certain everyone in that building was all too aware he’d come in late. Let’s face it, the reason timpanists command solo fees is because everyone knows when they mess up.
I then tried to explain, delicately what had happened- after all, players who are cued early don’t end up four and a half slow bars behind the band with the conductor frantically, desperately cutting them off, but I could tell some key synapses weren’t firing.
Amazingly, he played worse on the 2nd half of the concert- the incident in the first half seemed like the highlight of Werner Tharichen’s career in Berlin compared to the torrent of chaos he unleashed on that poor symphony. I was distraught for days.
But, rather than dwell longer on the perils of the terrorists, let’s be thankful for the many genius, wonderful, creative and imaginative timpanists, horn players, leaders and 2nd oboists out there. If there’s one thing that working with “all kinds” of musicians teaches us, it is the value of working with not quite all kinds of musicians.
But what of conductors? Are we not the ultimate terrorists? No- no more than various world leaders are. That timpanist last year did feel like a single suicide bomber- determined to walk into the busy market of the orchestra and destroy the performance even as his own reputation was destroyed in the process. A conductor can do far more damage, but our role in global musical catastrophe is more akin to that of our ex president. In geopolitics, all terrorists are villains, but not all villains are terrorists.
But there are soloists……
UPDATES- Sorry for the problems in displaying this post over the last few hours. The problem seems fixed.
Also, lest anyone accuse me of wanton cruelty or arrogance, let me remind readers that the musical use of the word “terrorist,” as well as expressions like “twirly” and “black hole” were all coined by players.