My musical journey - as an engineer
My first job after university was in the West Midlands with the GKN group. I had just got married, but there was still time for music. Or at least music of a sort. I joined an amateur symphony orchestra that played in the offices above a drop forge in the Black Country.
There are two things that stand out particularly in my mind. The first was the physical location of the practice room. We would be playing in the evening when the offices were empty, but the drop forges were still working in the factory beneath and to the side of us. As The Hammers Fell, The floor would bounce up and down. I can remember playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, bouncing to the beat of the drop hammers in the factory below which unsurprisingly we were not in time with Beethoven's great music.
The other memory I have is of the leader of the orchestra. A magnificent guy, in his 90s and still playing. But the most significant thing was that he had actually played in the cinema pit orchestras in the days of silent films. His playing technique was something completely different to modern playing. Vibratos were huge and slow. You didn't go from one note to another in a step, but slid slowly both up and down. It was wonderful, though perhaps not so good for Vivaldi.
Life was busy, and I dropped out of the folk scene. But we weren't there for very long. It was my first experience of being made redundant, when GKN started closing some of its UK businesses. I was headhunted to a job in Scotland, to a company who designed and manufactured automated steel works machinery. It seemed a great opportunity. Scotland is a place that people go on holiday, so wouldn't life be a constant holiday if we moved to Scotland. Well in some ways it was. The people were wonderful, once you realised that Scottish attitudes to the English as being arrogant and detached were in many ways quite justified and you learned modified your behaviour accordingly.
This was particularly important as I was the only Englishman in the company I work for. It was noticeable when there was a Scotland England football match. If Scotland had won, when I went into the office I was giving hell. If England won, there would be dead silence as I entered and everyone would be looking so lonely at their desks.
We also bought our first touring caravan. With such amazing countryside within easy reach, caravanning was a must. Not that it's so easy to practice violin in a caravan, though when we go away with our present van, particularly if we are going abroad for several weeks, I do take my violin with me. I have to keep them fingers moving somehow, so when I get back I can drive straight into the gigs again. However, it is still rather cramped in a caravan and I've been known to practice in the caravan site’s shower block or even the toilet block ( some would say that the toilet block is probably the best place for my violin playing!)
I had thought when I move to Scotland that I would be able to get to play lots for lots of Scottish ceilidh. This wasn't to be. It was a period in Scottish history when traditional Scottish music was considered to be naff. Probably as the result of the embarrassment to the Scotts cause by people like wee Jimmy McGregor and the like. It has changed now. Scottish folk music is strong, as is the ceilidh tradition, and there are many excellent Ceilidh bands north of the border, many of which now include pop covers and disco, doing the whole caboodle. This is still rare for an English ceilidh band though.
The compensation was that I got to do a lot of String Quartet playing. The Scottish Academy of Music and Drama based in Glasgow, is a strong organisation producing many excellent musicians. The Classical music scene was good. It was here that I graduated from orchestral playing to chamber music and string quartets. Particularly in the long cold winter nights, playing through a Beethoven or Schubert string quartet was a wonderful relaxation after a day designing and selling steelworks automation.
This was the period when the steel industry began to falter in the UK. I was spending more time travelling the world, selling automation into India, Korea and the USA’s forging industry, which was still strong. It was nice to visit and work with people in so many countries. But people in British Steel were telling me that when I went to India I would be shocked by how bad and backwards their steel works were. The converse was true. Indian steel works were well run and efficient; open-minded to advanced technology. The truth this is evidenced by the fact that most British Steel industry has since been brought up and owned by Tata of India. British arrogance was certainly an element and the Demise of the UK steel industry, and it is something that should be Borne in mind with the Brexit vote and what lies ahead for the UK.
Although the travel did interfere with my music playing back in Scotland, it did introduce me to other forms of music. There was of course the very different and wonderful music of Indian and other forms of music that were poles apart from western music, but most influential was probably the folk music I heard in America.
People tend to think of American barn dance music as things like coming round the mountain and little Liza Jane. The UK concept of American Folk Music can be very stereotyped. But it is a folk music and folk dance tradition of great complexity. Not surprising when you think that it's a blend of Irish, Scottish, English, Jewish klezmer, eastern European, French and African influences. Some American barn dance music is indeed very very close to the original Scottish or Jewish roots, but other is a blend of many influences. For a fiddle player it is fascinating, because much of it is double stopped with interesting bowings and rhythms. I liken some of the music to playing a Bach unaccompanied sonata, but at three times the speed! It is hard, really hard, and I have great respect for the top American fiddlers. It's not hillbilly bad technique music, but advanced technique hi class fiddle play!
Then there is the whole Cajun music scene. Although it is from a French background, I often find it hard to identify its musical roots with French folk music. Some of the harmonies and rhythms are really extreme. Having said that, I remember caravanning in France some years ago, and coming across a local Folk Festival up in a mountain area. The event was characterized by some amazing accordionist, and I was surprised by the music they were playing, it was not what I had in my mind as French dance music, and some of it was in the Cajun flavour or even stranger. So I really don't know if I was hearing the roots of cajun music or whether they were learning from the Cajun evolution in the US.
By this time the world was changing and the chairman of our engineering group decided we should set up a new company in advanced technology. I was tasked with setting up an industrial robot business, of which I was the engineering director. It was wonderful. People were paying large sums of money for me to invent and play with the most wonderful boys toys that I could imagine. Designing and building robots like you see welding cars together on TV, except much bigger, (some were a sizable capable of picking up a whole car). These were machines for the heavy engineering Industries.
We also introduced to a range of telechiric manipulators. These were manually controlled, a bit like the things that you see handling nuclear materials in a nuclear reactor, where an operator moves his hand and arm and the Machine follows suit. But these were big fast machines, design for harsh environments like iron foundries and forges shops. The manipulators could reach from three to eight metres from him, and able to lift anything from a quarter of a tonne to two or three tonnes. Whatever the operator does with their hand and arm, and machine would follow. Even had a sense of false feedback so that you could feel if the machine was lifting something or how hard he was pushing against an object. These machines were truly an extension of the operator's arm, and totally intuitive. High-tech stuff, perhaps a little reminiscent of the Terminator films!
These machines were sold all around the world, so I spent every second week taking 6 or 7 flights. Not good for playing music, but it meant that when I did get to play it was even more important to me and for my wellbeing. And it was great fun. Perhaps robotics seems a million miles from music, but it wasn't. Music is about inventiveness, achieving good things for humanity, enjoyment, perfection. Good engineering the same. Playing with the string quartet or for a barn dance band for someone's wedding is about bringing sunshine and happiness to their lives on a very important day. Building a machine that allows a man to work in a protected environment, yet still do the things he and his team of people used to do manually, is also good for them. In foundries people used to be regularly hospitalized with singed lungs, that was before we invented the manipulators that allowed them to do the same work from inside an air conditioned and protected cabin.