Tongue Trippin’ in Munich 3 – a Quetzalcoatlus Dances


Rehearsal photo of Zungenspitzentanz from Luzifers Tanz. Photo A. Ackermann

When you perform a theatrical piece like Stockhausen’s Zungenspitzentanz for the first time, you may have that need of, just, please, one more rehearsal, one more run-through, just so I don’t mess this up!  Immediately after that first performance you may still want to ask: Could I just try that again? Now?

At least that was how it was with me. I have performed this piece before, but this was the first time with orchestra and conductor – an entirely different animal, I can assure you. The afternoon before the first performance I lay in my hotel room in complete disbelief and denial that tonight was the night. Perhaps because it took so much force to pull myself together, I managed to keep myself together.

I want to mention a few things that helped me to manage and keep my nerve during this project.

One was filming myself daily. This may sound strange, but watching myself helped me get used to the idea that this is what people see when they look at me. It doesn’t mean that I liked what I saw, I am super critical when it comes to myself. However, watching seemed to de-mystify things. I know my brow-ridge looks too harsh and Neanderthal-like from a certain angle, I know that this move shows the tendons in my neck like a turkey, and so on. For me it was less about accepting and loving yourself, as the self-help books say, and more about getting used to yourself and getting over yourself. I seem to remember a Zen saying that goes something like: “To know yourself is to forget yourself”.

Something else that helped was balance exercises. Several years ago I discovered this while taking a yoga class. If I can do balance poses, in a class or at home, and really focus on them, I find I am less distracted by nerves. Good balance gives you physical confidence. There is probably some scientific literature out there on the subject, someday I will research it. This leads me to my next item:

The Quetzalcoatlus effect. My musical preparations have been accompanied by intensive research into Mesozoic reptiles and dinosaurs. My son demands a story about them daily, and the more he learns, the more he wants to hear about them. So after watching this 10 minute video about Pterosaurs and their incredible brains wired for flight, quick maneuvering and, again, balance, I faced my relatively meager human abilities. But we have better instincts that we realize, if we can get out of their way. When I started to feel uptight during this project, I would think of the Quetzalcoatlus, ungainly on the ground, huge as a giraffe, weighing hundreds of pounds. Yet that sucker could fly!

With flutist Natalie Schwaabe after the concert.

So to recap the two performances in Munich: During the first one, it took me about three minutes to settle in, but I think considering my mental state it went very well. For the second one, I was much more relaxed and focused, but the conductor went much faster! Nontuplets at a quarter-note = 80 are challenging enough, but it felt like he was approaching 90 that evening, so there was less accuracy to be sure.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was great! To top that off, they were all so nice! Nor was I the only soloist that evening: Michael Leibundgut sang Luzifer and Marco Blaauw rocked on the trumpet. Both were an inspiration and a pleasure to hear.

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Tongue Trippen’ in Munich 2


If I were to write my memoirs,  I would refer to this summer as the Siberian Summer. It is astonishingly cold here in Munich; however, our tiny hotel room accommodates us well, and we keep each other warm. On stage, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,  the spotlights blaze and the astonishing playing,  especially from the brass section, generates its own heat.

My first rehearsal was a sectional with groups 9 and 10 from Stockhausen’s Luzifers Tanz – piccolo, euphoniums, tubas, synthesizer and percussion. I had expected it to be a disaster as far as playing together goes, and so it was. We had no staging rehearsals, nor purely musical ones, so everything had to be put together on the spot. How was I to turn around in circles and stay with the conductor, especially in the sections with ritardandi and fermati? Monitors were also not realistic. I made some comprimises by not going full circle for at least one of the sections. We also spent a bit of time puzzling over a tempo discrepency in bar 933 between the full score and the solo and chamber music versions. Along with Kathinka, we decided that the solo version of the tempo was correct.

The next rehearsal was with full brass and percussion. When I say full, I do mean full! I never thought I would need amplification while playing piccolo,  but I am now very grateful.

The first tutti rehearsal went better than I expected.  I have come to terms with the fact that we will not achieve 100 % ensemble togetherness (that would require an additional rehearsal phase), so I focus on sounding as good as possible and making the movements as well as possible.

Will write more,  probably when I have my laptop again.  This thumb typing drives me nuts!

Brass and percussion for Zungenzpspitzentanz

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Stockhausen in Adorjan’s Lexicon


When I came across the entry for Karlheinz Stockhausen in Andras Adorjan’s Lexicon der Flöte (Page 754), the elements of this blog entry started brewing. Let’s see if I can form a coherent thought or two. First of all, here is the German text:

Gegen Ende der 1970er Jahre wurden die Aufführungen mehr und mehr von seinem [Stockhausens] engsten Familien-und Freundeskreis gestaltet, die Flötenmusik vor allem von Kathinka Pasveer (*1959); eine weite Verbreitung seiner Musik wurde dadurch eher behindert. Es bleibt aber zu hoffen, dass solch wichtige Werke wie Amour, In Freundschaft oder Kathinkas Gesang noch die ihnen gebührende Würdigung und öffentliche Zuhörerschaft gewinnen werden.

This entry was probably written in English and translated to German. It may be that the author of this entry was misunderstood; perhaps an infelicity of translation into German rendered the words not exactly as he intended. If my observations are based on such a misunderstanding, I offer my apologies.

Since I have not come across the English original, I offer a crude translation of my own:

Towards the end of the 1970s his [Stockhausen's] music was performed more and more by his family and close friends, the flute music primarily by Kathinka Pasveer (*1959), which rather hindered the propagation, (or circulation, or diffusion) of his music. One hopes however, that such important works as [...] will receive their due appreciation and listeners.

 For decades, many of Stockhausen’s close family and friends have done their utmost to make Stockhausen’s music accessible to the public and to performers. To blandly blame the music’s lack of widespread circulation on the fact that it was performed by (and written for) them does them a huge disservice. The fact that it is accessible at all is thanks to the family and friends of Stockhausen. Since 1998, the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten have been run by Kathinka Pasveer and Susanne Stevens, in order to bring more musicians and public to Stockhausen’s music. Furthermore, since his death, they run the Stockhausen Foundation, which puts its money where its mouth is, offering board and lodging for musicians and musicologists who are studying Stockhausen’s works.

Who am I to comment on this? I am not a member of Stockhausen’s circle, and although I have great respect for him as a composer, and have enjoyed working with him and Kathinka Pasveer, his late works are not exactly my cup of tea. However, as a member of a soloist ensemble which counts Stockhausen as one of its local composers, I am in a position to view this matter with, I hope, some objectivity.

Speaking of objectivity, I am surprised that this entry on Stockhausen was allowed to be printed in a lexicon. A lexicon, or dictionary, lists facts and lets the readers draw their own conclusions.

The author does make a true point about our repertoire. For flutists, none of Stockhausen’s works are as prominent in the 20th century repertoire as the Berio Sequenza, Density 21.5 by Varese, Debussy’s Syrinx, Takemitsu’s Voice or Carter’s Scrivo in Vento. (This is my personal top 5 list of Contemporary works that every advanced student should know.) What is it about Stockhausen’s music that keeps it from being at the top of repertoire lists?

The most obvious elements are the requirement of memorization and the theatrical elements that some works require.  Amour, In Freundschaft, and Zungenspitzentanz are probably the least effort in this respect. Kathinka’s Gesang on the other hand requires a huge commitment of time and energy.

Is the fact Stockhausen wrote these works for a member of his close circle that which hinders their circulation among the general public? Not as I see it. Here is not the place for a lengthy discourse on Stockhausen’s aesthetics. But I can say this: his aesthetics are his very own, derived from his work with electronic music, ideas from the Urantia Book, and  the concept of all music as “opera” (having an inescapable visual aspect). His aesthetic has been called Fremde Schönheit or Strange Beauty. These are the highest hurdles to Stockhausen’s popularity among performers. His music is not for the faint of heart.

The family members and close friends with whom he worked saw to it that his music could be executed on their instruments, and did not make compositional or aesthetic decisions. They have done their jobs well; everything in a work by Stockhausen is playable and clearly notated. In contrast, how many of us contemporary flutists have scratched our heads nearly bald trying to work out a piece written for a famous flutist of our day who didn’t sweat the details of clarity of notation? I certainly have had my share of them, that is why I take the trouble to write this blog in the first place.

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Paradies Remembered


It’s been over a month since the marathon premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klang cycle. I have been wanting to share the experience here, but I survived the project with too many mixed feelings. However if I don’t get it out, my blogging energy may get permanently clogged. Also, Robert Bigio, the editor of Flute (the journal of the British Flute Society) has entrusted me with another project: a feature on Kathinka Pasveer. So it’s time to get my thoughts in order.

Paradies is an 18-minute work for solo flute with electronics (8-channel tape). It must be played eyes closed, from memory, while wearing a specific shade of pink (HKS31, it’s called in the German textile industry). A shirt in this color, worn with white pants and shoes, is also acceptable. The piece does not require movement on stage or any sort of choreography.

I have performed this piece 12 times between April 24 and May 29, 2010, and will perform it again in November in England.

Most of the questions that come my way have to do with how I managed to memorize the work. It is nowhere near as daunting as one might think because:
1) The piece uses the same series of 24 pitches over and over, mostly in sequence and only occasionally in easily recognizable variations. Analysis of this work is a no-brainer.
2) The player is involved in the compositional process.

To begin, I must explain that the work has 24 strophes. Each of these strophes has two parts:
1) a ritornello in which a melody is given but the dynamics, speed and articulation are decided by the player (this is the “involved in the compositional process” part)
2) a composed insert. The composed parts are called inserts because they may be inserted at any point during the ritornello. (Theoretically. This piece is fraught with unwritten rules, and the insertion of the composed insert must follow certain guidelines not given in the score.)

I began work on the piece after New Year’s 2010, so had just over 4 months preparation time. There was no way for me to memorize the piece from the outset, since the ritornelli needed to be worked out and played for Kathinka. I didn’t want to write anything onto hard disk only to have to erase it later. What I did memorize from the beginning was the structure of the piece. That in retrospect was a good idea. By the way, the ritornelli’s dynamics, speed and articulation should be worked out rather than improvized. Whether you write them out or not is up to you. If your memory is at all visual or photographic, as mine partially is, I recommend writing.

I also realized the sooner I had a good version of the ritornelli, the sooner I could begin memorizing them. So my first order of business was writing the ritornelli. During the first rehearsal with Kathinka (January 25th), I ended up having to erase about two-thirds of what I had written, having trespassed many of the unwritten rules. By the time of the next rehearsal with Kathinka, on April 1st, we had a version that we could both be happy with and I could start the memory work in ernest. At that point it was not difficult. The ritornelli had been worked on for so long that memorizing them came easily, and the structure and the composed inserts had already been memorized.

I hope readers were not expecting a full discorse on how one memorizes music. For most of us it is an individual combination of visual, analytical and kinesthetic elements. For me, it is perhaps
Visual = 10%
Analytical = 10%
Kinesthetic (muscle memory)= 80%

Some of my tricks included
1) Setting a time schedule by working backwards from the date of the performance. Divide and conquer. Don’t try to memorize all at once but set a certain amount for a certain time period.
2) Going through the piece without the flute in hand or the music in front of me. This I often did in the dark before going to sleep.
3) Procrastinating as much as legally possible in order to have the peace of mind required for clear intellectual work. This means taxes didn’t get filed, Spring cleaning waited until Summer. Sort of the buy now, pay later strategy. If you can afford it, it does work.

Photos: Melvyn Poore and Liz Hirst

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Low Register: Descending to Paradise


Countdown: just about one month before my performances (8 in two days!) of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s PARADIES for flute and electronic music. Am I panicking? No. But I have been soundly kicked in the butt. This piece allows for absolutely no technical weaknesses. In addition, I’ve been challenged to really expand my stability, dynamics, and coloristic range of the low register.

PARADIES is composed of 24 stanzas. Each stanza has a group of notes (ritornelli) that may be played freely and repeated, and a composed insert which can be played at any time within the stanza. Each ritornello has a fermata on a low note – that makes a lot of long low notes that need to be varied in terms of length, dynamic, vibrato, or even air sounds, fluttertongue or singing and playing.

Soft, quiet dynamics are not acoustically viable in PARADIES (even though the flute is miked). They appear at strategic moments when the electronics are not sounding full blip, but these are rare moments. I think this is too bad, but hey, Mr. S didn’t ask my opinion. A quiet dynamic may be played within the ritornelli, but there needs to be a crescendo after it. Therefore, my expansion has been in the direction of forte.

So I’m finally getting to the point about what I’ve learned about the low register. [By the way, the following can also help with bass flute playing.]
The number one killer of the low register (for me at this time) is pressing of the flute into the chin. This makes the distance from the exit of the air stream to the edge of the embouchure hole too short. The “air reed” needs space for that register, especially if you want to use a heavy vibrato!

The whole challenge in playing loud and low is to be able to give more air but to make sure the air is not too fast. Aim it down, move the flute away. These are not original ideas, but just something we all need to be reminded about from time to time. Also, there are two pieces of advice from Michel Debost (The Simple Flute) that I find really work for me:
1) Play on the middle breath. That sounds strange because if you have a long low note marked ff, the instinct is to take a huge breath and blast away. But if you have a very full tank in your lungs your airstream will me more difficult to manage, it just may come out too fast and crack that low note. I’ve found that with practice, I can play a long, loud, low note without having to take a HUGE breath.
2) Release a bit of air through the nose a fraction of a second before you play. That also sounds strange, but makes sense if you think of your airstream as a violin bow that is being set in motion before the attack.

Now to see if this all works even if I’m wearing pink! That’s right, the score specifies what color you have to wear for this piece, regardless of your chromosonal situation. The color for the 21st hour of the KLANG cycle that PARADIES represents falls in the pink spectrum. (If you play Harmonien, you wear blue, Balance, you wear green.) Dynamic expansion and wardrobe expansion, all-in-one!
Photo: Disney clip-art

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Bottom of the Food Chain



Wondering why I haven’t posted recently? This is where I have been all week! At the bottom of the food chain! OK, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe more like a pawn on the chessboard of pieces where composers, conductors, organizers, managers are the big players. We play what sells, and ideas sell, beautiful packaging sells, regardless of the quality that is inside.

I’ve worked with more living composers than you can shake a stick at. In today’s European Contemporary Music Scene, a handful of lucky composers are the stars, not the ensemble or orchestral musicians who play their music. These chosen few (composers) are promoted by organizers of festivals and the big publishing companies (who act as their agents as well). If you have a performance scheduled and receive a dud or embarrassing piece from one of them, or a piece that comes too late and is impossible to play: tough luck. It is your job to get it done and make it sound good. Cancelling a piece is politically incorrect, or would cause a scandal. The programs have been printed. The VIPs have been invited. The deals have been made. Money has changed hands. You are the sissy if you complain or can’t pull it off. Besides, you have a family to feed, and can’t afford to forgo your share of the money (minuscule as it may be).

A question was posed recently on the Flute List: does one have a moral obligation to fulfill a composer’s intentions? I’d like to turn it around. Does a composer have similar moral obligations? Heck, does he even have a professional obligation when it comes to fulfilling a commission? It would seem not. More often than not, we find ourselves in a situation where a quality rendering of the premiere piece is severely compromised: too late, not for the instrumentation specified, unreadable manuscript, or unexplained, unclear notation. [I'm not talking about student workshops, I'm talking about well known composers who (even sadder) have teaching positions and are influencing the young generation.] Do we still pay the commission fee under such circumstances? Yes. We’re nice, we’re professionals, we’re capable. We’re pioneers, we can take anything anyone throws at us. Ahem.

Still, I’m a big fan of composers, even tardy ones. I support contemporary music and all its endeavours: big, small, loud, quiet, beautiful, ugly, complex, minimalistic. For all my b–ing I am happy to be doing what I am. So now I will speak of me/us/performers and our obligations, moral or otherwise to the composer’s intentions.

I’ll confine myself to 20th century and later composers – earlier music is another whole can of worms. I’ll be honest. There are a few composers whom I dread to play. I see them coming up on a program and think: “well, I’ll just go get my strait-jacket.” These are the ones that require slavish following of their notation, no deviations allowed. Dang. I got into contemporary music because I consider myself a bit of a deviant. If I wanted to slavishly follow someone I could make a heck of a lot more money in an orchestra somewhere. [OK, I know it's not that bad in most orchestras! But you have to be darned lucky.]

Here’s an example, though, of where this somewhat adolescent attitude of mine proved to be misplaced. I used to consider Karlheinz Stockhausen one of these dreaded composers. Working with him closely on the premiere of his Rotary Quintet gave me another perspective.

For the premiere of this work he wanted to underscore the difference between male and female (This quintet is part of his Licht cycle). So he asked us to reflect this gender difference in our concert-wear. With some trepidation, and gentle respect, I objected on the grounds that as a musician, I don’t consider my gender, and my native English also reflects no differences of gender. To my utter astonishment, he readily conceded, in a very gentlemanly fashion.

Rehearsal, 1997. Left to right: A. Wesly, K. Stockhausen, me,
J. Babinec, P. Veale, N. Janssen (sitting)

Now I am starting preparations for the flute solo Paradies from Klang, which we plan to premiere in its (all 21 hours) entirety. This has me looking back on those days 12 years ago. Stockhausen is no longer around to gently concede to my cultural baggage, so I will not have the chance to thwart his intentions in person, but would I want to? It would just seem disrespectful at this point. Besides, I look back on my objections of 12 years ago and find them a bit silly. Americans are so gung-ho gender blind, but I don’t think females do any better there than in Europe. In Europe it feels more realistic: nobody tries to pretend that men and women are alike.

My point is: I’d think twice now before trying to turn a composer’s intention around. My objections may be parochial and egocentric, and have nothing to do with the real quality of the music. The composer’s intentions might also be parochial and egocentric, but, well, it’s their piece. If I want to express something else, I’ll write my own piece.

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