“I want the content on Elbow Music to be timeless and I’d rather spend my time building that” Ariane Todes – Former Editor of The Strad
Tell us about your beginnings in the world of strings? Do you hail from a musical family?
I was lucky enough to start the violin with Sheila Nelson, one of the most important violin teachers of the era, who had studied with Suzuki and Paul Rolland, and based on that, devised her own system of teaching children. Initially it was about playing games with music, and as well as having a private lesson each week, at the weekend we’d have group lessons and her whole house in Highgate would fill up with youngsters playing chamber music. She also used to encourage us to improvise, and I’m very grateful for that, as it’s something I do regularly with my band. I think many classical players feel insecure about doing it because it hasn’t been introduced early enough. Sheila produced generations of people who play just for the sheer love of it – I still play with members of a quartet I was in when I was eight – and I feel really privileged to have had the experience.
I left Sheila when I was 11 and had various teachers after that. I decided on an academic education and studied Philosophy at Edinburgh University. I went on to do post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music but eventually realised that I didn’t have the dogged determination to be a full-time musician and eventually fell quite randomly into music journalism.
As for my family background, my uncle played in an amateur way, and my brother Raphael is second violinist of the Allegri Quartet, so there was always violin playing in the house, and violins hanging up on the wall!
As a writer and former editor of The Strad magazine, you must have had a rather special lifestyle meeting the greats of the music world. Was it all as glamorous as it sounds to the outsider?
Being editor of The Strad really was a dream job. Most of the time I was behind a desk in an office, but when it was good it was really special, and amazing to be part of such a long tradition. Meeting my favourite players was always thrilling, with the intense conversations about music, so inspiring. Having Ida Haendel play Wieniawski down the phone to me from Florida; sitting next to Ivry Gitlis as we watched Nikolaj Znaider rehearse with the London Symphony Orchestra in the Salle Pleyel; getting to play a collection of Strads and Guarneris; or sitting in a café with Hilary Hahn all day planning her guest editor issue: life doesn’t get better than that for a string geek like me – so yes, I suppose you could say there was a lot of glamour.
But of course there is the less glamorous side of the business, which is not so easy to cover in print without being sued. There were also people who exerted pressure for coverage in the magazine when not deserved! That was the hardest part of the job and I had to learn to be very diplomatic, but quite firm, especially if they were advertisers!
You’ve also written for a number of other editions such as Sinfini Music, ClassicFm and Gramophone – what inspires you to investigate so many differing and diverse subjects?
Writing for The Strad for 12 years, I got in the habit of writing with a certain voice, about subjects that were specific to The Strad’s readership. One can get in quite a rut that way – it was certainly a challenge to write an interesting editorial comment piece every month for my 8 years as editor! So learning to talk to different sorts of readers has been a refreshing learning curve, and has made me a more flexible writer, I think. I’ve also had commissions that I wouldn’t have done for The Strad – for example a top 20 list of violinists for Sinfini. Spending a few days listening to recordings of the world’s top violinists to discover what you like about them? Nice work if you can get it!
Tell us about Elbow Music – why did you create it and how has it developed in the last year?
I’d had the idea of setting up Elbow Music when I was still at The Strad, as a supplement to the main magazine, so when I left, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I believe the music world is changing radically and that while there are still borders around specific musical styles, musicians are increasingly curious about the other styles around them. It’s not that classically trained violinists only listen to classical music these days – they are much more free-range. I want to represent this diversity with Elbow Music. You’re as likely to read an article about Gary Hoffman talking about Bach as you are one about Regina Carter finding her jazz voice: completely different styles and life stories, but both fantastic players in their respective styles and fascinating views on music. The only criterion is that they have to be special players. As either Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong said (both have had it attributed to them) there are only two kinds of music – good and bad.
Also, after 12 years on a print magazine, I’m really enjoying the freedom of having a website, and of being able to put up whatever I want whenever I want. I still love print magazines, but there are certain conventions and limitations to them, and there is so much planning ahead for the whole year, with regular features, that you’re quite hemmed in. Each one is like its own creative entity, and has to be perfectly balanced – there are certain rules. You have to achieve a certain artistic balance across each year, too. Each month you go through this intense creative process and then you’re back to the beginning again. Having a website is much more fluid – you can respond very quickly to something you see or hear, or a person you meet, and you can include YouTube. After all, music is there to be listened to, not just read about. It’s a very exciting freedom: so is not having word restrictions, and being able to talk about whatever I want.
Also, with print magazines, the convention (and often the commercial necessity) is to interview players who have something new to talk about (or sell). Because of the website format, and because I don’t take advertising, I don’t have to think about that with Elbow Music – if I see a fabulous player who doesn’t necessarily play the publicity game and doesn’t have the profile they deserve, I can feature them. It feels a little bit subversive, which I like! And even if it means I don’t cover the most popular players who might get me more clicks, I believe that discerning listeners are glad to hear about such performers. I’ve also decided not to compete with the many music websites who put up news stories. While these stories might get lots of clicks, it’s hard to say anything original and it just becomes a race against time to get a good story that is going to be very short lived. I want the content on Elbow Music to be timeless and I’d rather spend my time building that – as I make my living as a writer beyond Elbow Music, I have to be quite efficient about what I focus on with the content.
What are your plans for its future?
Originally I started Elbow Music as a blog, but I am now turning it into its own brand, and have started running long-read interviews with players, while continuing to post blogs. I want to build up an important archive of interviews, and include people with really important stories who aren’t necessarily even players, but who have something interesting to say.
I do still love print magazines, though, and the good news is that while some print music magazines are struggling to maintain readership with the amount of competition they have online, there’s also a vibrant market for independent magazines that have something unique to say. So when I have enough content, with the right balance and some interesting visuals, I hope to create a high-quality print magazine, maybe just as a one-off. But there’s a lot to do before that point!
How and why was Los Desterrados formed? Who are the other musicians in the ensemble?
Los Desterrados was formed in 2000 by the oud player, Daniel Jonas, when he realised that there was a whole canon of ancient Ladino music in danger of disappearing. The music comes from the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. At first we were one of the few bands playing the music in the UK, and we’re still the only ones who play solely Sephardic music, but the genre is becoming better known, which is wonderful. The band is made up of six with instruments which include oud, flamenco guitar, flute, violin (me), bass, and vocals. I’m the only one who doesn’t sing, as they sing in Ladino, a UNESCO-protected language, and I was never very good at languages or at singing!
What is your particular interest in the music of the Sephardic Jews and how is it different from that of Klezmer which is what Jewish music is usually associated with?
Because the music represents the journey that the Sephardic Jews took as they found new homes as they fled Spain in 1492, whether in the Balkans, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, or farther afield, the songs are full of musical variety as different influences creep in, so there’s much more variety to them than in klezmer music. Most people associate Jewish music with the Ashkenazi klezmer tradition, and few people know the Sephardic story. In a way, the Sephardic folklore is a richer one than Ashkenazi. The lyrics are full of such passion – they’re about love, death, war, and sometimes just the banal details of life all those centuries ago. Some are religious and dancey, others poetic and quiet and there a wide range of rhythms. It’s amazing to think that our ancestors sang these songs so many years ago, and that the important themes of life don’t really change – I find that very moving. There is a family legend that an ancestor of mine was the doctor of Queen Isabella of Spain, so I like to believe that! Added to all the historic musical influences, the fact that each of us has a different musical background – whether classical, folk, jazz, flamenco or rock – and you come up with our sound. It’s not what purists call authentic, other than in the sense that we have evolved our sound influenced by the local music with which we were surrounded, just as our ancestors did.
Where do you perform?
We’ve played in some wonderful festivals and venues – Womad, Shambala, Trafalgar Square, Abbey Road Studios, The Roundhouse, Wilton’s Music Hall, the Clore Ballroom, Rich Mix, IndigO2. We’re currently working on our next CD – our fifth – so we’re rehearsing every week but don’t have any gigs lined up just yet this year.
There is evidence around the world of orchestras closing, funding for the arts being constantly reduced, and yet colleges and universities are still full of young, aspiring musicians. Do you believe that it is still a feasible profession?
It’s a tricky question. I think there is a level at which music education is a business, and conservatoires and music schools have to make money, which involves hitting certain student targets. In some places, teachers too have to meet targets for bringing in students who can pay their fees. So the number of people colleges admit doesn’t necessarily reflect the number of opportunities on the other side, or the quality that players need to attain to have a career. On the other hand, as someone who went through postgraduate studies, I’m deeply grateful for having had the experience, and to be able to say that I pursued my dream, even if it evolved subsequently. So there may well be a drop off of numbers going into the profession from college, but there are many other opportunities for players to pursue around the music industry, whether it’s in press or PR or management, even if they don’t make money from playing. As for the profession itself, it’s tough, but if people are prepared to be flexible, creative and driven, they can succeed. And actually, that applies to most professions, these days, not just music!
Do you believe that musicians have sufficient knowledge and understanding of marketing principles – of themselves and their art and if not, what can be done about it.
I think there are many wise, imaginative, clever young musicians out there who are doing a great job of marketing themselves with the many tools that are available these days. There may also be very great players who are uncomfortable about being seen to sell themselves, and I can understand this reluctance. The players who get the most publicity aren’t necessarily the best players musically, but I have every respect for the fact that they can build a career through their use of marketing, by telling great stories about themselves and their music, and by building good relationships. It’s up to the others to find a way of promoting themselves that they feel happy with. Audiences don’t want to be oversold artists either, they want to feel that they have a direct relationship with them, and there are so many ways of achieving that these days. Maybe a good starting point for someone is to look at a player they like who markets themselves well, and model them. These days, having a blog and social media feeds are all vital to building relationships and being seen by the right people, and these can be done very simply and well (or very badly).
What about the private Ariane?
In true string geek fashion, I must admit that my hobbies mainly centre around music. I play in various London amateur orchestras, such as Corinthian Chamber Orchestra, Haydn Chamber Orchestra and Kensington Symphony Orchestra, and still really love the buzz of being in the middle of a big orchestra. I also play quartets regularly. Both are ways of keeping me in some playing shape. Apart from that, I’m a bit of an old movie fiend, with a particular thing for silent movies and Charlie Chaplin. I’ve also recently joined the council of the European String Teachers Association British branch, and it’s really interesting to get involved in their important work. I’m ashamed to say I spend too much time on the internet, looking at news and magazine sites to keep on top of developments in the media. That’s my excuse, anyway!