You can’t escape yourself

PDF pageEmail pagePrint page

moonI made myself laugh while doing Moon Salutations (yoga exercises similar to the Sun Salutations) last night. The thought came to me: if I were to suddenly become an enlightened being, I would frighten myself. The thought really amused me and I got to thinking about the idea of self, escape, and whether there is a separate self from which we can escape. These questions are not within the scope of my flute blog.

But wait, if there is no escape, can’t we at least as artists live in ways which allow growth and re-definition?

Yes, to a degree. I have “escaped” the person I could have been, had I not become a musician. However, there are basic formats I can’t escape, reminders of which never cease. In a post from 2009, I recounted the sexist attitudes of an old-world, now-deceased teacher who, by his own admission, gave more professional attention his male students. Later that same year, I met a teacher of my own generation who, in front of his class of female students, said he would take any male student no matter how he played just to escape drowning in a sea of estrogen. OK, the drowning-in-estrogen part I made up, but he may as well have said it.

This is not going to be a feminist rant, I promise, but allow me one more example, hopefully more universal. A student of mine played brilliantly for a final exam. During the critique and pep-talk, one professor, who I have long known to be a decent person, said to her: you are a great player, but you need to project yourself, your musical presence (not meaning the sound, it was huge) more strongly on stage if you want to get anywhere because you are a small Asian woman. I thought of what might happen if this were an American institution, the hue and cry of sexism and racism it would incite. However, I know this person, he was sincerely trying to be helpful. He was just very direct and personal, which Germans tend to be (although the Russians certainly give them a run for their money).

Two deductions I can make of all this: 1) Flutistic reality can be seen as liberating. When I was younger, I thought ability and accomplishment were the answers to everything, and I was a prisoner to the idea that I was my flute playing. When it comes to being in the profession, though, any flutist in the running is awesome, so it is you, your musicianship, your attitudes, your person, who ends up with the job. Or not. However, if you were in the running, you are still awesome and still you, if you have ever taken time to cultivate a you. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of liberty, but for me works.

2) There is no escape from who you are, neither should there be a need for escape. In a perfect world. The world does need changing, but I am not a fan of revolution, it usually brings back the same mess in a different guise. I believe more in the permanent, although maddeningly slow, changes that evolution brings. What can one do except work towards being a kick-ass flutist and kick-ass person? Many things, I suppose, but those are the things I have chosen.
Photo credit: Maxim Senin


Syrinx – who is playing whom?

PDF pageEmail pagePrint page

Peter Paul Rubens- Pan & Syrinx (Staatliche Museum, Kassel)

A thought occurred to me today while playing and listening to several recordings of Debussy’s Syrinx. Most likely, it was not an original thought. We all learn the story this of piece: its role as incidental music in Gabriel Mourey’s Psyche, and the story of Pan. This half-goat, half-man pursues the nymph Syrinx, who, at the water’s edge, in order to escape her pursuer, is transformed into a water-reed. Pan then transforms a bundle of these reeds into a flute, whereupon he plays his dying lament.

Mostly I hear flutists (and program-note writers) describe this piece in terms of Pan. It’s Pan’s song, Pan’s longing, and Pan’s dying. But is it really? Is Syrinx only a bundle of reeds? Does she have a voice of her own, and if so, what does she sing?

A short digression:
Please understand I am not trying to interpret this piece in terms of sexual politics or present some sort of feminist’s viewpoint. I got to thinking about Syrinx when trying out different spectrums of sound in order to produce color changes. Why did I get hung up on this? Well, I’ll divulge another pet peeve I have: flutists who make “color changes” only by adding air to the sound, thinking that an airy, unfocused sound is sufficient for a difference in color. Sometimes it is. I’ve heard it in Debussy, I’ve heard it in slow movements of Bach, and on many other occasions. It is soo boring if one only uses this trick. Sometimes some air in the sound (or complete air) is musically appropriate. But if that is your only choice of “color change” then please try out something else: work with different harmonic components in the sound. One way this can be done is by changing the vowel sound inside the mouth.

Anyway, back on topic – experimenting with color changes led to thoughts of transformation. Then I thought “hey!, that’s not Pan, that’s Syrinx!” She’s the one who morphs.

That led to other aspects of Syrinx’ role: flight, and, like Pan, longing. Not the sexual longing which is associated with Pan, but perhaps a longing for freedom of corporal constraints, or longing for unity with the elements. You can add on your own interpretation here. Please note I am not denying the element of sexual longing in this work – it is certainly there.

There are probably other elements of Syrinx’ role I’ve not thought of yet.

When I thought about the subject of flight, that led me to think about the rhythm. Peter Lloyd tells of his lessons with Caratge in Paris on this piece. After Lloyd’s first run-through of Syrinx, Caratge sent him home with his tail between his legs, admonishing him to “play with a metronome!” When Lloyd came back having done so, only then was Caratge ready to begin working on the piece musically. Peter-Lukas Graf also lays emphasis on attention to the rhythm. He points out that this is not “free music” it is “freely-composed music” (having neither conventional form nor tonality). Because the rhythms for that time-period were rather complex, it is all the more necessary to make clear contrasts of duplets (16th or 8th notes) and triplets.

And what about rubato? Absolutely! It’s part of the fright and flight that I imagine the nymph Syrinx experienced. Fleeing, then slowing down to peek from behind a tree to see if Pan has lost her trail, then fleeing again. Much of this yearning forward and holding back is already composed into the piece, so if one adds to it, one must understand the framework wherein it occurs.


Bottom of the Food Chain

PDF pageEmail pagePrint page

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.