Playing by Ear: Reflections on Sound and Music

Peter Brook
Nick Hern Books

Playing by Ear
“For me, every form of music was an inseparable part of the whole to which every production aspires.”

Any reader wondering whether a book of reflections on sound and music would be of interest to theatregoers should be immediately persuaded by this quote from Playing by Ear that theatre and performance are never far from Peter Brook’s mind in this series of short essays, which range in length from half a page to around five pages.

Although he is now well into his 90s, the legendary director is still consistently incisive and perceptive in his views.

As Brook explains, he has always been in love with music and stretches this passion to some more discordant sounds when the need arises, as he did so effectively in his RSC production of Titus Andronicus which starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

The heart of this book, though, lies in the observation that, although we cannot explain it, feeling and empathy are an important part of the way in which all others regard every aspect of life, including nights out at the theatre. This can then often be expressed or enhanced by the introduction of appropriate musical or sonic accompaniment or, in modern parlance, soundscape.

The interaction between attention and boredom also come through strongly. As Brook says, “our greatest guide we carry within ourselves: our sense of boredom… In music, in theatre, indulging the temptation to seize the latest tricks is not enough to renew a life that has been lost”.

If only so many other directors who have bored their audiences silly with supposedly 'radical' productions had read these words of wisdom, all of our lives would have been considerably enriched.

This book also includes a group of essays on a variety of subjects, which amongst other things demonstrate that Peter Brook has an unexpected love of Broadway musicals, classical music and the mystical within Eastern flavour as well as a charming enthusiasm for his late wife, Natasha Parry, and her professional work.

Playing by Ear may not be the biggest book but it gives readers a unique opportunity to enter the mind of one of the most imaginative and enduring theatre directors of the last three-quarters of a century. It functions as a meditation on music and sound but also provides pleasant reminders of the life and career of an indisputably great man.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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