Our Mythical Past

Time to vent another pet peeve: “there are no great ____________ today”. Another take on the adage “kids these days….!”

“The standard of flutists has declined. There are so many good flutists today, but none can compare to the giants of the past” is a statement I have actually heard in several contexts by flutists of the older generation.

Stephen Jay Gould

I am truly convinced what we are witnessing is a statistical phenomenon of human systems, not the implied degeneration of our collective abilites. Scientist Stephen Jay Gould referred to this type of degeneration as entropic homogeneity 1. He argued heavily against its being the agent of seeming decline. To paraphrase him, over time (1) human performance (here, flute playing) approaches its outer limits of human capacity, and (2) systems tend to an equilibrium as they improve. What has actually declined is the standard deviation in average ability, which is a natural result of flutists having gotten better over the years.

” Paradoxically, this decline [of the standard deviation] produces a decrease in the difference between average and stellar performance. Therefore, modern leaders don’t stand so far above their contemporaries. The myth of ancient heroes – the greater distance between average and best in the past – actually records the improvement of play through time.”

Stephen Jay Gould, quoted in The Free Library

You could get into a lot of arguments here. Were the past heroes of flute playing relatively better, but absolutely worse (or equal)?

1 Gould, S. J. (1986, August). Entropic homogeneity isn’t why no one hits .400 anymore. Discover, pp. 60-66. Republished in Gould, S. J. Full House, Three Rivers Press, 1997. Gould applies his argument to the subject of sports, namely, baseball. I admit to directly stealing some of his wording and translating it into flute-speak.

Read about my other pet peeve “Too Many Flutists

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New Work for Piccolo (or any instrument) with Video Score

Last April I had a chance play at the Flute Festival of Krakow’s Academy of Music, organized by the wonderful Wiesiek Suruło. There for the first time I dared to perform a piece of my own, and had the added bonus of sharing the stage with stellar flutists like Wiesiek, Anna Garzuly-Wahlgren and Sarah Louvion.

I want to tell a little about this new piece, Thunder and Lightning, because it was an experiment in graphic notation for improvisors that actually worked. Plug a laptop or tablet into a sound system and the score and visual information of the soundtrack scroll by as the soundtrack plays. You can play along with a video format such as mp4 or run it from the free, cross-platform software I will tell you about. It’s mega-simple and you can get great coordination with the soundtrack. If you are interested in performing this work (it doesn’t have to be on piccolo), let me know and I can send you a video score with which you can perform. And if you are interested in collaborating with me on a new piece with this notational format, I would welcome the opportunity!

Since the summer of 2018 I have been experimenting with electronics in order to create an extension of my own improvisation practice. As I am not adept (yet) at live processing, I have been focusing on fixed media (soundtracks). It is also a goal of mine to generate easily-accessible works with electronics for players who want an easy set-up and have little or no technical support.

How to coordinate music with soundtracks has been a topic that our ensemble has struggled with since day one. (You can read some of my insights on that topic here.) Even if you are improvising, it really helps to know what is ahead of you on the soundtrack. I considered playing with the scrolling spectrograph available through Audacity, but that program doesn’t have the capability to add graphics. So when I came across the acousmographe, I knew I had found something with potential for performers. Since it was created for analyzing the specta of electronic sounds, there are extended graphic possibilities.

However, the graphics I used in Thunder and Lightning are bare-bones. I could have gone to town with musical staves and added fingerings to create a very elegant looking score, but decided to keep it simple for the first trial. Besides, the piece is improvised, so I wanted to keep it as free as possible. But you can find suggested melodic material and the multiphonic fingerings I used as well as the links and instructions for the software here (if you need it):

Performance information, scale, fingerings, links to the software and instructions.

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Too Many Flutists

The phrases “there are too many flutists today”, and “conservatories are producing too many flutists for too few jobs” may be true in a certain respect, but they really sadden me. And piss me off, if I really admit. It has been hard to put my finger on exactly why, but when a friend posted Seth Godin‘s “Toward abundant systems“, it helped me to put my thoughts in order.

Industrialism is based on scarcity. So is traditional college admissions. In fact, much of the world as we know it is based on hierarchies, limited shelf space, and resources that are difficult to share.

These are his opening words. He goes on to describe which systems thrive on abundance rather than scarcity (language, for example). Then he makes a convincing argument that we need to realize education as an abundant system too, rather than the scarce one that it is today.

He sees this realization as a cultural turning point. I would also like to see a turning point in our musical culture, and its education, as we realize that music, and in my personal argument, flute playing (and by implication earning a living as a flutist) as an abundant system. That means a turning away from the narrow training on offer at most music schools. I believe this narrowness is at the root of “too many flutists”, not the lack of orchestral jobs. Yes, there are too many flutists for too few orchestral jobs.

What lies behind this “too many flutists” statement is the arrogant implication that “in order to be a good flutist, you must win an orchestral audition”. This may be unconsciously arrogant, but nevertheless it is unsupportable. Even more perfidious are those individuals and institutions that attempt to capitalize on the scarcity of orchestral jobs by setting themselves as the elite arbiters of what is the right way or wrong way to play.

Being an orchestral player has a status in its own right. We should refuse to let scarcity define this status.

Yes, aspiring orchestral players need top trainers. But as I have written elsewhere, young players need more.

In closing, I paraphrase Godin’s words: if we can break [musical] education out of the scarcity mindset and instead focus on learning that happens despite status not because of it, then we can begin to shift many of the other power structures in our society.

A shift of power structures means a shift of resources, and that is definitely what the Arts need now!

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