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Unclassified Writing

Interpreting Nigel Kennedy in chapters and verse

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Way back in 2006, I settled into my seat on a train from York to London with the BBC Music magazine, which featured the violinist Nigel Kennedy on the cover. ‘That awful man!’ said the passenger next to me. As a Kennedy fan, I couldn’t let that go without brief reply, but the fact that such opinion was at large made me want to get to the heart of the furore around the Kennedy phenomenon. Many find his playing exhilarating, sublime, while others, such as pianist András Schiff, consider it in ‘very bad taste’. Why should people be so divided in their response?

Two years later, Kennedy released an album featuring Beethoven and Mozart violin concertos. It raised eyebrows, especially on account of Kennedy using an electric violin for his self-written, bluesy Mozart cadenzas. ‘Very bold, I’ll certainly give Kennedy that’, wrote Rob Cowan in his review, before recommending the album only for ‘Kennedy fans, and the curious’. I found that dismissive attitude much more shocking than the cadenzas. Should we not all be curious, all the time?

I suspect those two moments were enough to make me decide I would one day write a book about Kennedy, with curiosity at its heart, but it wasn’t at all obvious to me how to do it. I had only ever published collections of poetry, and even though, over the next decade, I undertook a PhD and started writing academic articles on a variety of subjects (including Kennedy), the leap into a book-length study seemed formidable. Furthermore, I knew Kennedy wouldn’t sanction a traditional biography, and that he deplores most writing about music. Why was I even bothering?

As if those obstacles weren’t enough, I was trying to grapple with some notoriously slippery ideas, such as ‘genius’, for which there is still no accepted definition. And when, having made a hundred or so pages of notes, an iPad crash wiped the whole lot, I might well have given up. Then chance sent me a review copy of Andrew Robinson’s book, Sudden Genius?: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs. Amusingly, the cover design was in claret and blue, the colours of Kennedy’s beloved football team, Aston Villa. That was a quirky prompt for me to stick to my task with renewed impetus, and the quirkiness seemed to matter: it was a clue as to how I might let my mind roam in my research; and how, too, the writing itself might be informed by the same principle.

Once again, I started making notes, and attending as many Kennedy concerts as I could, yet somehow a further ten years passed before I finally found the time (thanks in no small part to a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship) to make real headway. Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Kennedy wrote a book of his own. Perhaps I had left it too late. But when the largely dismissive reviews appeared, I was freshly galvanised: critics were still not getting Nigel Kennedy, and I was determined to do something about it.

Despite some headlines about his raucous lifestyle, Kennedy is immensely disciplined in his approach to music, practising Bach for hours every morning. I decided to mimic that, practising some (rather easier) Vivaldi as a way of limbering up for each day of writing. I’m not, it must be said, a very good violinist. I am though, I hope, a rather better poet, and I wanted to bring my best skill to the writing — even of a 300-page critical study. How often we hear music, at its best – either as composition or performance – described as poetic, just as poetry is described as musical. I wanted my prose to be poetic, but I also found another, direct way to bring poetry to bear on my project — inspired by Vivaldi, the very composer whose popular work, The Four Seasons, was the source of Kennedy’s fame. The score incorporates verbal descriptions – of Spring birds, Summer lightning etc – that assemble into sonnets, generally thought to be written by Vivaldi himself. I decided to try my hand at translations, working out how to make them new in a way that might parallel – and possibly complement – Kennedy’s performances of the music. I hoped the process might provide some useful insight into Kennedy’s own interpretative world, but this was more than limbering up; the new poems surely deserved a place in my book, at the end of the Vivaldi chapter. I suddenly had a structure for my ‘unclassified’, hybrid work: all the chapters would be followed by poems. I was once again taking my cue from Kennedy, who writes and performs what he calls transitoires between the movements of Vivaldi’s concertos.

The roaming of my research was considerable. This was partly dictated by Kennedy’s engagement with almost every type of music and so many seemingly disparate passions, including football and boxing, but I went further, following the advice offered by poet Philip Gross, who writes about the importance of poetry’s seemingly random references, ‘the unexpectedness of what gets connected with what’:

[T]he knight’s move of a startling simile […] is the thing that makes us see it new. It’s hard to imagine how to advise a writer to prepare for this activity except by recommending the worst sort of academic practice — to read widely, by chance and whim and serendipity, picking up snippets of this and that.

Gross goes on to coin the term ‘free-search’, ‘reading way beyond your field, with no method or purpose in mind […] This isn’t sloppy or lazy, but a particular tool — the discipline of deliberate indiscipline, you might say.’ That was precisely the encouragement I needed in exploring the startling connections made within Kennedy’s music — and his eccentric behaviour. It occurs to me, now that I have finished, that my approach to writing the book has had something in common with a musician’s approach to playing free jazz — or indeed Kennedy’s bold improvisation on electric violin in a Mozart concerto.

My most startling move has been a foray into the world of the eighteenth-century writer Laurence Sterne, whose great book, the utterly unclassifiable Tristram Shandy, revels in eccentricity. And as my book became increasingly eccentric, I thought Yes, that’s as it should be. How else to do justice to a maverick musician described by his one-time girlfriend Brix Smith as ‘a cross between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Keith Moon’? Above all, I wanted to explore why it matters that everyone should, as Laurence Sterne puts it, ‘tell their stories their own way’: tell stories, or write poems, play music, and indeed live life with truly individual purpose.

Have I perhaps simply yoked together two disparate obsessions — Kennedy and Sterne? Possibly. The knight’s move is risky. The young Kennedy once finished a meandering Mozart cadenza in the wrong key and left the composer’s work well alone for many years as a result, but he eventually returned to the challenge with aplomb — even if not to Rob Cowan’s liking. In choosing to improvise cadenzas of his own, rather than follow established models, Kennedy is honouring the original concept. And there it is, in Tristram Shandy, the famous blank page at the point where conventional writing would describe a character’s particular beauty, while Sterne instead throws down the creative gauntlet, inviting the reader to ‘paint her to your own mind’, the result entirely unpredictable, unique to each reading. That, for me, is the exact equivalent of the fermata heralding the pause in the written score ahead of a concerto’s cadenza; the perfect invitation to the interpreter – whether listener or performer – to be both curious and bold.

Paul Munden is a screenwriter, editor, and author of six poetry collections, the latest of which is Amplitude (Recent Work Press). He was for many years Director of the National Association of Writers in Education and is currently an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canberra, Australia.

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