Michael Jones – Retired Physicist with European Space Agency

Publish Date: 8 October 2012

European Space Agency


“I’ve been playing the piano almost all my life; I started the grades late so only got up to Grade 7 before I left school. After I got my Physics degrees I worked at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt for 36 years where I was responsible for a division that develops software for control systems and stimulators for satellites and ground systems. I hadn’t played much piano while I was at getting my Physics degrees, but at Darmstadt I played more or less the whole time.

During the last ten years there I focussed on honing my skills on the organ, and then when I came back to England I started to focus more on the piano again. I started to have lessons from time to time with Mikael Pettersson. I performed in a concert of music by Scriabin Mikael has organised for his students to take part in – we all learnt different works so we could have a concert that examines the breadth of the composer’s output for piano. A long time ago I learnt the famous C# Minor Prelude that everyone plays. At the concert I played three early pieces. One is a very early, C# Minor Op 2. No 1, a prelude for the left hand. It’s really a study. I also played two preludes from Op 12 and then right at the end of the concert, I played four late pieces from Op 74. That was extremely interesting; these are difficult to understand harmonically, that’s the problem, and sometimes they are a bit counter-intuitive, even the way you play them.

The last one I play doesn’t really lie comfortably under the fingers at all and it’s not really logical. Some piano music is pianistic and it falls under the fingers well. Bach, for example, is generally pianistic, there are some exceptions – some of the early music is difficult on the piano, but usually it’s very pianistic because it has all these wonderful contrapuntal lines that combine together in these gorgeous harmonies, I find it most gratifying to play on the piano or on the organ. But that’s not the case with late Scriabin. My wife Jean is a singer and we discussed the interpretation of it, trying to find out what it was, trying to understand it. In the end I took the attitude of trusting what Scriabin has written, and playing it and trying to makes something of it. It seems to me in this late Scriabin is that he was going crazy and that seems to be what is coming out of it. It’s inconsistent, sometimes it’s very bold and then it suddenly has sections in it that is quite the opposite. It’s crazy music, it’s expressing a crazy state of mind, but at the same time the more you play it, it becomes quite attractive.

Another of my interests is in accompanying. Jean and I have a project going. Some years ago I made some re-arrangements of Negro Spirituals. Jean is American so she understands the idiom. We’re working towards a recital in a month’s time. Half of the programme is the Spirituals, and the other half is American music that’s influenced by Spirituals.

I was triggered in the first place by a recording made in the 1970’s by Barbara Hendricks with the Russian pianist Dimitry Aleksee. She got to know him by chance because he accompanied her on a tour at very short notice, someone had dropped out. So one day she came in for a rehearsal with him and he was improvising some Spirituals on the piano and she started to sing along with him and they produced a very impressive record from it. Aleksee’s playing is jazzy, idiomatic, suitable for these Spirituals and so that really inspired us and then we based our eventual arrangements on the collection put together by HG Burley. And then, a friend gave me a copy of twenty-four piano pieces based on African melodies and negro Spirituals by Samuel Taylor –Coleridge – a completely forgotten composer. So, I decided to put one of these in to the concert because Taylor-Coleridge played a role in making Negro Spirituals known in this country. It’s a curious work; a Salon piece but beautifully set with rich harmonies, very Victorian.” (Michael Jones)