Monday, October 17, 2011

It's 'Play Bach' Time

When I was aged 47 I set myself the unusual challenge of being able to play Bach’s famous ‘48’ in one day before I became 49. I’m no concert pianist so the challenge meant ‘to be familiar enough or fluent enough’ to be able to play through them all in one day, not necessarily to be able to perform them to any concert standard. This month I’m 56, but since I achieved that eight years ago, I have played very little else. I still try to play every day but sometimes the demands of editing, financing, organizing, distributing and heart-aching over Talk of the Town interferes with that. Producing the magazine is a very great burden for one person to carry and it takes its toll not just on my physical and mental health but on my finances. Playing the piano helps to keep me sane but doesn’t pay the bills.

On Thursday, 5th November, Saturday afternoon from 1.00 to 6.00pm in Saltburn’s Community Theatre I shall be performing Bach’s ‘48’ in public. To play through the whole collection would take me eight hours so I intend to play the whole of Book 1 followed by highlights of Book 2. I’d better explain what Bach’s ‘48’ is. It is a collection of 48 preludes and fugues (96 pieces overall) and is also known as ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’. This refers not to it being in a good mood, but the fact that it is written for a keyboard which has been tuned in the modern way as opposed to the traditional or natural way. If you look at the black and white keys of a piano you can see that the black keys are in between the white keys. The ‘white’ notes C and D for example have a ‘black’ note in between them and this is either C sharp or D flat, but they are of the same pitch in the modern or ’well tempered’ tuning. C sharp and D flat are equal. They are the same note, and exactly half way between C and D, but traditionally C sharp was higher than D flat. When the new tuning was first used around four centuries ago it was revolutionary and initially sounded a little out of tune but the human ear soon got used to it for it had one enormous advantage over the original tunings: it meant the music could freely change to any key without the need to retune the entire instrument! It allowed composers to create truly expressive, rich harmonies that changed the history of music forever.

In 1722 Bach composed a book of 24 preludes and fugues in every single major and minor key and twenty years later he composed another. Together these form the two books of his famous ‘48’, a landmark in the development of Western music which I would describe as the most important collection of keyboard pieces of all time. A prelude, as its name implies, is a piece which is followed by something else and a fugue is a complex piece of many voices which begin one at a time and then ‘fly away’ from each other, though not always at high speed, and certainly not the way I play them. As I say, I am no concert pianist and I lack the skill and the brain to play at breakneck speed so I play slowly and try to be accurate and expressive, but I certainly make mistakes. In any case, Bach’s exquisite melodies are too indulgent to be shortened by playing quickly!

So why am I doing this? Well, inspired by Philip Thomson’s recent heroic sponsored assent of Ben Nevis on behalf of financing the new town mosaics I wondered what I could do to help the magazine. Yes, Talk of the Town has financial difficulties. It always has! I’ve made no secret of the fact that these last nine years have been a constant struggle to make ends meet. I talk to anybody who will listen about this and it becomes obvious what they are thinking: ‘Oh Ian’s just having a whinge but he always gets the job done so why should we care?’ Well, I might not be able to get the job done much longer and it’s time to alert the people of Saltburn to the unpleasant reality that they might lose their unique magazine unless something is done to help. Unfortunately, the only help I need is financial and that’s the only help that’s in short supply at the moment.

Every good idea to help save the magazine seems to have some real or imaginary negative aspect to it. A fundamental problem is that the magazine is a private business and not a registered charity. It’s not even one of those ‘community enterprises’ but it should be. People offer to help me convert the magazine into one, but nothing then happens. It’s an intolerable burden for one person to carry on behalf of the whole of Saltburn, but that’s the way it is. In many ways, the magazine only exists because I have kept it alive and nurtured it when a committee would probably have folded it and walked away years ago. Another good idea was to set up a group called ‘Friends of Talk of the Town’ where members would pay me £1 a month, basically to buy their copy which they had been getting for free. That could make a difference but nothing ever happens. It was suggested last year that I could put an envelope in the magazine asking for donations. This was an excellent idea but it was killed off by one negative voice saying I would be criticized for asking for donations when I’m not a registered charity. This is nonsense! There is no law in this country that forbids the raising of funds for a worthwhile project that isn’t a charity. It is an excuse for mean-spiritedness and a refusal to help. In any case the criticism I might get would not have been as bad as the blame I’d receive if ever the magazine ceased to exist.

So it’s down to me to make it work or fail. Nobody is going to save the magazine except me, no matter how much the people of Saltburn love it. So what can I do? I can play the piano. On November 5th I shall be busking, begging if you like (there’s no dignity in being the editor of Talk of the Town!), for funds to save the magazine. If you like trendy language you can call it a ‘sponsored pianothon’ and sponsorship forms will be available in participating shops this month. All money raised will be paid into the magazine’s bank account and become part of the general, accountable finances of the magazine. Please support me and drop in to the theatre to listen to some Bach, have a cup of coffee and make a donation to help this much loved magazine continue to serve the Saltburn community, in its current style and format.

 Ian Tyas is supporting 'Talk of the Town'

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