improvisation practice


Some musings on current and future collaborations:

Yesterday I discovered a new sound on my bass flute. It is high-pitched and horrible and usually something that I try to avoid. But like some things, under magnification or extreme pressure, it can yield a diamond-like beauty.

I discovered this sound during my first session with composer Javier Vázquez, who is composing a duo for flute and percussion to be premiered with Dirk Rothbrust (probably via video) in June. In our session, I attempted to imaginatively sonify different urban environments – the area around Cologne Cathedral, train station and the Rhine. To be honest, the Rhine kinda scares the crap out of me. Its volume is way too much for the narrow channel it flows through. It flows so fast that in the past, after barge crashes, some containers never get found. They are driven into the river bottom by the current, I guess. Imagine not being able to find something the size of an 18-wheeler. Anyway, this is what I was thinking about during the improvisation and made that horrible but potentially useful sound.

Another collaboration that has evoked new sounds has been with the composer Tomasz Prasqual, who is writing a duo for flute and Moog synthesizer to be performed with Uli Löffler in May 2022. We have had many Zoom sessions in which while improvising I get so lost in the sound that afterwards, I have no recollection of what I just played. This probably happens to many of us who do this :). Tomasz and I have both have Moogs (mine is a VST) and it has been great getting to know a new instrument. Really, really looking forward to this piece.

I opened a can or worms with Georges Aperghis, when I told him I wanted a piccolo piece and liked the works of Edward Lear. Now I have to figure out how to sing higher than anyone wants to hear me, and recite the most bizarre text with a kind of straight face (well, straight enough to keep playing the piccolo). I am wondering about “The Dong“, its phallic implications and allusions to interracial love (after all, what else are the Jumbly Girls with their blue skin and green hair?). Hopefully, the premiere will go ahead as planned in Darmstadt this summer.

Title still from Guy Maddin’s “Stump the Guesser”

Many years ago, I approached filmmaker Guy Maddin and asked him if he would make a silent film for us at Musikfabrik, loosely or closely based on themes from Daniil Kharms‘ life and works. He agreed and with the support of the Acht Brücken Festival in May, we will perform (again, online) two commissioned works by Nina Šenk and Anthony Cheung to the film “Stump the Guesser”. Although I haven’t collaborated with the composers, I am chuffed (as the English would say) that a spark of one of my ideas lead to a working relationship with this awesome filmmaker!

I have been trying my own hand at putting music to film, and am pleased to announce that last Fall I won a social media challenge for my film trailer to the (then) new Star Wars film. (Made with many flute sounds!) While researching film music for this challenge, I was appalled by the musical lack of experimentation in mainstream sci-fi. To those already in the field, I am sure this is a “known bug”. But seriously, people are projecting orchestral sounds from the 18th and 19th centuries on to scenes which should be taking place in future centuries! Where is the imagination in that? Of course there are many cool exceptions, but it’s time to move on, people.

Last but not least, next week I am doing a remake of Ole Hübner’s “This place” for solo flute and layered video. Normally I don’t like pieces that deconstruct or make use of direct citation, but Ole has really rocked Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, and I am majorly challenged with gnarly bass flute harmonics, multiphonics and circular breathing. What more could a flutist want?

improvisation pet peeves practice


“Music is Love” – Anthony Braxton

Lately I have been more interested in creating and producing sounds than words. It has been difficult to distill my experiences of the last season in to words, so I have not been blogging. Over this blastedly hot summer “vacation”, I decided to take only Anthony Braxton’s Composition no. 133 with me to practice. Having re-visited Stockhausen’s PARADIES in May, I was eager to work on a piece that has a similar concept, that of given material in strophes where the performer has a certain amount of freedom to shape the material. Braxton’s piece allows for much more freedom than Stockhausen’s, but does not include an electronic track. But then I thought, why should it not include an electronic backing? And the thought snowballed.

There are not enough really excellent pieces for flute and fixed media, in my opinion, and even fewer that include improvisation or some sort of freedom for the performer. It seems that a lot of really experiment-oriented composers are writing for live electronics and processing. Which is really cool! But for those of us performers who want an easy set-up of solo work, some speakers and a microphone that we can play in simple venues such as clubs or art galleries where there are no technicians and only a small budget, I for one would welcome some really good new works for fixed media that include some sort of side-stepping from the fixed-composed tradition.

I’ll tell you why I think this departure from fixed composition is important at this point in time. Almost every piece that I hear for flute and fixed media is using the same flute sounds (and in some cases, electronic sounds) that have been around since the 1980s! It is time to find some different sounds. No wonder composers seem more interested in live processing flute sounds. But I don’t want the world to give up on fixed media yet because of the practicalities mentioned above, and its potential awesomeness!

I have several unhatched plans to remedy this situation which include collaboration with several artists willing to include improvisation or elements thereof in their pieces. I have been working on creating compositions of my own (not for Braxton’s piece though, I have decided to leave that alone). The learning curve has been quite steep but I am loving delving in to the world of sampling, granulation, processing, etc. So back to creating sounds instead of words 🙂

Photo credit: Hans Peter Schaefer

improvisation masterclass notes practice teaching

Looking Inward

Samir_ChatterjeeHere are some notes from a tabla workshop I attended, given by Samir Chatterjee. Like my former teacher, Chatterjee is one of the few Indian musicians who has a clear understanding of the Western education system and is able to teach non-Indians by verbal communication, i.e., someone who can explain his music in a way that makes sense to us.

I won’t get into the technical things we learned, you can find explanations for basic tabla bols here, for example. Or better, from Chatterjee’s Book A Study of Tabla. I’ll only share the personal stuff.

One thing that gave me hope: he said you don’t really become a musician until you are over fifty. Before that you are too busy with yourself. And if you have had a near-death experience, even better!

The Hindustani practice of chilla-khana intrigues me. You are shut in seclusion for 40 days with your instrument for intense study. Breaks are only for bathroom, naps and snacking. The room is darkened and there is no contact with the outside world; however, the process must be monitored by a guru. He talked about the emotions experienced, you might cry for a whole day, then find yourself laughing for no reason. Certainly, the person coming out is very different from the person who went in!

Our senses were created to perceive and make sense of the outside world. Chatterjee mentioned that one aspect of the philosophy of the Vedas is to turn these attentions inward. What happens when we direct these senses inside?

He also spoke of his relationship to his instruments, and the relationship we all develop with our instruments. He maintains that his tablas can speak to him. If I start thinking this is strange, I have to remind myself that it is exactly this I am striving for when improvising or interpreting. How can I speak through my instrument if it is completely stumm? 

And speaking of aging, he told how after a concert he encountered a renowned musician weeping inconsolably. Perhaps someone died? No, this musician, at the age of ninety-five, was finally able to play something he’d been working on his whole life. So if you see me crying after a concert someday, don’t worry!