Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Delicately Dodecaphonic Jessica Duchen

Contrary to popular belief, I am a person imbued with culture.  I positively ooze refinement and taste, and can often be seen hob-nobbing with the upper echelons of society at the theatre or the opera.

On one particular night this week I became inspired after seeing a performance at the ballet.  I can't quite remember what it was called but it involved some dancing and... there was also some music.  Anyway it was great and I was filled with such inspiration that I decided to arrange for some people to come and play music at the castle for me.  In return I promised to show them my amazing dancing skills.

No one came.

I'm not quite sure why, perhaps it was my reputation for misery and murder, perhaps it was because most who came to visit me at Holbrook Towers often did not leave with their lives (or at least all of their limbs).

I was in a funk, and it was not the funky kind.  It was a morose, grey misery which left me alone in the tallest tower with only my butler, Manson, for company.  I had discovered that Manson was not a great musician.  The only instrument with which he could make any type of musical note were the bagpipes (and they only added to my misery).

I had just begun to contemplate how I was going to end my butler's miserable life, when there was a knocking at the doors of the Castle.  I leapt to my feet, snatching the bagpipes from the butler and striking him around the head hard with the first thing that came to hand (a table lamp made from the skull of my dance teacher).

I ran down the stone steps to the doors, flinging them open, ready to kill...

Who’s that knocking on the castle door? Didn’t you see all the signs warning you against coming here?

Hello! Yes…but that’s what I do. The more people toe party lines – “don’t you dare crowdfund a book/take up jogging at your age/say you don’t like some overplayed composer” – the more likely I am to sign up, fasten the running shoes or write a perverse article saying X is a pompous windbag. So please can I come in and have a cup of tea? I’ll do a lot for a really good cuppa.

You’re a writer are you? Have you written a book that I can read? I like reading, it makes me feel relaxed. Will your book make me happy?

Depends what makes you happy. If you like thinking about stuff, then maybe give it a whirl. If you want fluffy-bunny romance, try elsewhere. My latest book is Ghost Variations and it’s about the rediscovery in the 1930s of the Violin Concerto by Robert Schumann. It languished in a Berlin library until the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi [YELL-i, in case you wondered] received a spirit message on a Ouija board asking her to find it…only to have the Nazis hear about it too and decide to use it for propaganda. This is a true story – honest, guv. A nice lady at a party once asked me “How did you manage to make a romantic story out of that?” No, ma’am, it’s about the rise of fascism. See also: present-day relevance; place of women in the music field; and worlds, people and pieces of music poised on the edge of madness. Still, the ending might make you happier than you expect.

My new book might make you happier. It’s a 21st-century fairy-tale based loosely on Swan Lake. Odette, the Swan Princess, is blown off course in a storm and crashes through someone’s window in 2016 eastern England. She is still trying to break her spell, which makes her a woman by night and a swan by day. People in traditional publishing thought this was a bit whimsical, and apparently that was tricky for them. But friends who read it long ago (I first drafted it in 1992) sometimes say it’s their favourite of all my books and ask me what happened to it. It’s provisionally entitled Meeting Odette. I hope the crowdfunding will reach its target so I can finally get the story out of my system.


My hobbies are writing, reading and casual torture, what could I find you doing when you are not working?

Oh, I’m into casual torture as well. I went hiking this summer and came back with tendinitis in both achilles heels. Someone said yoga would be the best remedy, so I tried it. It worked! It made everything else hurt so much that I stopped noticing the ankle pain.

Apart from that, I love ballet, opera, theatre, music (classical, and jazz too) and poking about in antique shops and second-hand book stores. After writing Ghost Variations I’m hooked on 1920s-30s memorabilia. The other day an antique store in Aldeburgh declared “We’re closed now” at 5pm on the dot, but if they’d bothered to say “can we help?” or “do you need five minutes to choose?” they could have sold me vintage moonstone earrings, four engraved champagne bowls and a 1937 George VI coronation mug that was only a fiver. Instead, they kicked me out. Not that I blame them.

Are you afraid of the Zombie apocalypse? I went to the supermarket today and I could swear that it’s already happened. How would you react when it happens? Would you be a runner, a fighter, or would you give in to the inevitable and join the undead horde? If you were to run away, where would you go to be safe and what would be in your rucksack that you couldn’t be without.

I agree, it’s going on right now. Have you ever seen a load of bigger zombies than our current political leaders, striding towards the cliff edge saying “WILL OF THE PEOPLE” while everything collapses around them? Brexit is the biggest disaster of my lifetime. The referendum was chronically mismanaged, it was supposed to be “advisory”, not binding, and the Leave campaign was based on lies, lies and more lies, so I don’t see how the vote could be accorded legitimacy. Leaving the EU is totally against the national interest, it will wreck our economy just when the country desperately needs integration and healing, and no politician in his/her right mind should allow it to continue – simply because to admit it’s a mistake will make them lose face. How do I react? Disbelief. Often lost for words, which is bad because I’m meant to be a writer.

I like to think I’d stand and fight, but the reality is that I’d probably retreat under the desk for a bit and hope the danger would pass. Then, once it’s all over, I’d sit down and write the true account of what really happened… The words “internal exile” come to mind. I’d be tempted to run away to Germany, as my husband has dual nationality – but I don’t know if we could take the cats, and we cannot be parted from them. Still, if you spot a novelist and partner scurrying towards Leipzig with a violin and two very fluffy kitties, you’ll know what happened.

I used to teach short story and novel writing, and used to use a graph to demonstrate emotion, tension, crisis, resolution etc. A bit like this. Can you draw and photograph a similar graph, for your perfect piece of music? Just a scribble on a piece of paper would do.

See attached…I don’t know if it makes any sense, but it is sort of meant to be the shape of the Chopin Polonaise-Fantaisie, one of my favourite pieces. Apologies.

What’s your favourite sound in music? Mine is strings in E minor, it’s a bit sad, a bit soppy, and has the power to bring a tear to my eye. If your latest book was a note or a chord, what would it be and with what instrument?

Hmm. That’s difficult, because I’m a musician by training and spend most of my working life writing about it in one form or another, and I like a lot of different sounds. At one point most of my favourite pieces were in G major. There’s something about that key that’s gentle, warm, refulgent, slightly other-worldly, redemptive. Pieces like Schubert’s G major Piano Sonata, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4, Brahms’s Violin Sonata No.1. More recently, though, when I’ve sat down to practise the piano (which I don’t do enough) I’ve been picking works in F major or B flat. Bach’s Italian Concerto, Mozart’s Sonata K332, Schumann’s Waldszenen, Brahms’s Handel Variations.

The piano is my instrument and I still love it to pieces. The violin, which my OH plays professionally, is a close second. Given the choice of any concert to attend, though, I’d probably pick chamber music or a song recital. Collaboration between people is the most inspiring thing.

Ghost Variations is a chord of D minor, on full orchestra with solo violin. OK, that’s cheating… that’s the Schumann Violin Concerto. But Meeting Odette is different. I think it is probably in G, with some harmonic ambiguity, swinging between major and minor. And I think it would involve an oboe and a cello: oboe for Odette, the Swan Princess (because of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake) who is plaintive but characterful and bubbly, and cello for Mary, the expressive, angry, screwed-up journalist through whose window she crashes.

Describe to me the perfect room or environment for writing? What furniture lives there? Do you listen to music other sounds? Are there pictures on the wall, are there windows and what can you see out of them or do you need zero distraction?

We moved into our house nearly 20 years ago and I’ve written almost everything in my study here ever since. It’s lined with bookshelves, and on the non-book-covered spaces I have a Chagall reproduction, a poster from a Korngold exhibition in Vienna, the covers of old music magazines, a framed Ghost Variations poster and a little painting of my late ginger cat, Solti, kindly done by the friend of a friend. We do, however, have aircraft noise from the Heathrow flight path, screaming kids in the nursery school over the fence and mechanical grind from the garage round the corner, and usually my husband is practising the violin downstairs. I don’t like writing with music on most of the time, because I listen instead of concentrating. I’m more likely to put in earplugs. And I love writing on holiday (over 5 years I worked on Ghost Variations in seven different countries). Therefore my ideal is this:

Transplant my study to a quiet chalet in the Swiss mountains, complete with my substantial collection of books, my computer and the South African pigeon-wood desk that was my late dad’s. Give me a big window with a glorious view and fresh, cool mountain air. Bring the cats. And leave all the mess behind! While we’re about it, please, I’d like a green leather chaise longue to recline on in moments of leisure, a tea urn that magically refills itself from 9am to 5.59pm and the 6pm equivalent of a Teasmade that does Aperol Spritz instead.

What are your greatest fears? Are you very phobic, and are they normal ones, or have you got a very irrational fear? My new favourite is Nomophobia which is a fear of not having your mobile phones.

Oh gawd…I am totally phobic about transport, in most forms. I can’t get into a train or tube without expecting to be trapped motionless between stations for the rest of my life, without a loo. I can’t get into a bus without expecting someone to pull a knife on me. I can’t drive a car, or be a passenger, without thinking it’s going to crash. I don’t completely flip on aeroplanes, because they’re usually a relief after the airport, but I always ask for an aisle seat so I have an illusion of freedom. I daren’t get on a bike, either, or a horse, or an elephant. As I’m alive and well after half a century (touchwood), that probably means all this is irrational.

If you had the choice to become a superhero, or gain some kind of super powers of some kind, what would you want? Would it be the normal kind (strength, flying, invisibility) or would you choose something obscure and seemingly useless? Also would you don a latex outfit and use your new found powers for good or mischief?

I’d like the superpower to play the piano like Martha Argerich, but without having to practise, please. And I’d have a mega-career, but without getting nervous and without having to get into a mode of transport – so with music-superpower, kindly include the magical ability to dematerialise upon the command “Beam me up, Scotty”.

Latex? Concert pianists wear all sorts of crazy stuff these days, so I’d probably go for purple silk. If people think my playing is a power for good, that’s great. But I’d play Bach on a modern Steinway concert grand, and I’d use dynamics and I’d use the pedals and I’d make it expressive, and in the classical world that is definitely mischief.

Where can I find you on the World Wide Web thingie? Are you on Facebook? Insta? Snapchat? Twitter? Let me know where I can find out more about you, don’t be too afraid…

Ghost Variations page here:
(includes info about the concerts I give with my delectable music partners, violinist David Le Page and pianist Viv McLean, based on the book. Nice dates for this new season include Live at Zédel (Piccadilly Circus), 23 October; Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove, 3 November; Burgh House, Hampstead, 19 November; Lampeter House, Pembrokeshire, 2 January; Leicester Lunchtime Classical Concerts, 22 February.)

Twitter: @jessicaduchen

Instagram: jessica.duchen

And my music blog, JDCMB:

Thank you ever so much. And thanks for the tea. It was just the ticket.

I had decided to let my visitor live.  Both of her books sounded intriguing and I had promised myself to invest in both.  

I let her finish her tea, and walked her to the door, telling her to mind the crocs in the moat on her way out.

I would encourage you to get yourself a copy of Ghost Variations too, and please pledge your support for Meeting Odette.  

If you have enjoyed this interview, and the others which I publish every week, then please support my own project at 

If you would like to enter the torture chamber yourself, then email me at

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