Frog Ponds & Flutes

Our family lives in Vermont-me, my husband and our son, as well as at least one furry family member at any given time. There is a lovely frog pond on our property that has its own vibrant, year round life cycle. Frogs, peepers, newts, giant beetles, duck families, leeches, dragonflies and sometimes even a turtle are all present, coexisting. Other times the pond is covered in golden leaves and still others in ice thick enough for skating and pond hockey.

Much like the life of a frog pond, this page may change and cycle through stages. Sometimes it may be about flutes and other times not at all.

Last weekend, my little grand-daughter, who is totally at home with nature, with the help of my husband, collected 25 newts as new “pets,” housing them in a somewhat too small fish tank. Not too sure about the humane aspects of that or the ecological soundness, but the enthusiasm and curiosity were to be applauded. They were all ultimately returned to their more natural habitat, but not before being given the love that only a five-year old can shower upon newt families. I guess I wish that I liked slimy newts better than I do-I was chastised for not wanting to hold the new pets after asserting that perhaps some things are better appreciated from a distance.

The frog pond, which I love for its teeming life and the artistry that only nature can provide, like so many things, is perhaps best left to live without too much human interference-only the occasional dipping of nets by science-minded grandchildren. I don’t have any larger connections to make-only that we pass our frog pond several times a day all year long and like a life in music, our pond is often surprising in not only what comes out of it, but by the depth of its variation, and what amazingly different responses we all have when engaged by its vitality.
June 20, 2017

*Time Travel*

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…was a time when my son responded to my suggestions of super fun activities-great tv shows to watch together, cool museum trips, fun LEGO sets, and the like-with something other than a polite, monosyllabic grunt. A superficial noise acknowledging that words, by me, had been spoken and warranted some, but not much, response.

Back in those glorious olden days, one of our favorite tv shows was the new “Dr. Who” series. We were pretty devoted. We struggled through missing the old doctor and adapting to the new doctor. It was especially hard to say good-bye to David Tennant, but eventually we came to appreciate Matt Smith. Well, it took me awhile anyways. We both struggled with the dark affect of Christopher Eccleston.

That is the way of life I guess-some adapt to change super quickly, adopting the new with aplomb and adventure, and others hang on to what they know, struggling to understand why what they know is no longer enough. The great thing about all the “Doctors” was, that as they grappled with the understanding that however much they knew, or however desperate they were to defeat their arch enemy, the Daleks, their existence as Time Lords was weirdly human. Affected profoundly by time while being simultaneously oblivious to its effect.

My flute studio, and flute practice, these days, resembles a jumbled up, less blue, definitely less Dalek-infested, but equally time-confused Tardis. I have been for some years now trying to understand the ancestors of the “modern” flute, and by extension the people who played them. The time travel we all make, as musicians, in a single practice session can be mind-boggling. Of course one reads treatises, old method books, obtains facsimile editions and crazy fingering charts. But nothing is really like trying to grapple with an instrument that was someone else’s reality. Whether an extremely accurate reproduction or the real McCoy.

When you read that Mr. Nickleson, of 1850, had a really big sound, or that M. Drouet had a very sweet sound, one cannot but have the immediate point of reference be what we know-our powerful, reliable modern flutes. When you play a simple system classical or romantic era flute (six finger holes and a handful of oddly located spatula-like keys)-you immediately realize you are on a wooden Tardis. A Time and Relative Dimensions in Space vehicle. The best part being the sudden awareness of a world that we understand existed, and now suddenly can walk out into, through the door of our metaphorical blue phone booth. These flutes are full of color-in part created by their beautifully imperfect scales, full of subtle gradations made possible by multiple fingerings for the same notes, demanding to the player technically and intellectually.

One of the most satisfying things about these journeys backwards in time, is that they bring into focus the context of all we do, and the air we literally breathe in and out. The worlds may no longer literally co-exist, but they inform each other profoundly. Having developed some capacity with the baroque flute, I now try to bring something of that instrument and its sensibility to the modern flute. And oddly, by applying the purist approach of the Historically Informed Performance practice world, I have become more broad-minded in my approach to Bach or Telemann. Or by playing Mozart on the classical flute (just as poorly as he would expect) I better understand his G Major Concerto to be filled with wit, and fun, rather than the seriousness of the time-and-time-again BIG audition concerto; music with room for laughter and a wink, as well as perfection and clarity. And to better understand the ethereal beauty of the slow movements. The sound of my Grenser can be as ephemeral as clouds.

My two flutes that are actually from their time periods-well, they know things. There is no question in my mind that the music other flutists have given them lingers. With my Meyer of Hannover 11-keyed Romantic Era flute, I have discovered the dark, lamenting soul that Schubert heard. And Chopin’s youthful Variations on Cinderella-a piece I learned way back when, then promptly forgot about-has sprung to life again, sprite-like and charming. My 1871 Louis Lot-it’s eerie how well he knows Afternoon of a Faun. I am just along for the ride. And Roussel’s Joueurs de Flûte-he knows that one pretty much by heart.

These wonderful flutes ask one to listen. They are intrepid travelers, wanting us to see with open eyes, ears and heart; to find deeper nuance in all the worlds that interconnect with one another. They are much like the Doctor, with a new Companion, exploring the previously hidden to any soul willing to make a journey.

February 14, 2018

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*Donatoni, the Big Suit, and Birdsong*

Recently my colleague Matthew Odell-the amazing pianist with whom I am so lucky to be able to work regularly-and I performed an incredible piece of music: Franco Donatoni’s “Fili.”

People that know us know that we have a perfectly terrible addiction to, and perverse desire to play,  music that not only keeps us awake at night with worry but tortures our families and friends with cacophonous fragments for months on end, all the while we wonder why in the world we do this to ourselves, asking each other whose good idea was this, and, at the same time, plotting the next excursion into what only vaguely resembles tonality and rarely exploits that Holy Grail of resolutions, the almighty V – I.

Donatoni’s “Fili” was our most recent adventure along these lines, and aside from the worry and travail, and without apparent concern as to whether the audience would actually enjoy this music or not, we had the most fun ever! We promised ourselves all summer long that we would rehearse this music together “a lot” and would not leave it to just a few lengthy, brain damaging rehearsals. Well, that didn’t happen, and we probably did cause permanent injury to ourselves. But we did, as we always do, start slowly, worked with a metronome, had great moments of hilarity along with great moments of discovery, and in the end, the audience whooped triumphantly at the blazing finish.

If you want to know more about Franco Donatoni, there is great information online about him and his music, and several excellent performances of his work on YouTube. That’s not really what I am writing about now, but rather, about the journey made in discovering this piece, deciding to obtain it (it took three months to cross the Atlantic to make residence in my library), and ultimately scratching the surface with our tired fingers.

We are generally in agreement about our repertoire goals, a.k.a. bucket list of crazy pieces. Every so often, my colleague, whose knowledge of 20th and 21st century music is encyclopedic, and has experience to match, will make a suggestion pointing me in the direction of something I would have never thought about at all.  In this case, “Fili” was on a recording we both own that includes the Boulez Sonatine (one of our past adventures).  I had been solely focused on the Boulez, trying to figure out how to count twenty totally confusing measures of rest while the pianist plays a lot of extremely mind-boggling music, and I freely admit I had not listened to the whole CD, so focused was I on being able to count beyond ten. Matthew, of course, had listened to the whole CD, and commented, intriguingly, that the Donatoni was an interesting piece, too. When, after finally deciding with regard to those twenty measures that no one could count them, and that a flare gun was needed to alert the woebegone flutist that it was time to play again, I moved forward in listening and onto Donatoni, and indeed, WHAT a fabulous piece. So the question then boiled down to programming, time and place.  Not if, but when?

One of the great things about this kind of challenge is the way it peels away the layers of habit, and asks questions of one that shake up what you think you know already-about your music making, about how you learn and hear, and about yourself in interaction with others. When I started in on learning this piece, it was a mystifying tangle of fragments and threads, just as the title promises-fili. Fili, in Italian, means threads, or filaments. And the music, to me, explores that ephemeral quality of dialogue that is the best of all conversations-the things that are seen, and heard, but never have to be literal or explained with didactic precision because the dialogue is that wonderful sputtering discovery of like minds.

If you are of a certain generation, or have a not-so-secret love of alt rock or even, dare I say it, some punk music from the 80’s and 90’s, then you know the Big Suit. David Byrne’s genius costuming idea for the 1984 Talking Heads live concert film, Stop Making Sense. The idea is that Byrne’s business suit, as the music continues, becomes bigger and bigger until it is absurdly large-and his head accordingly appears smaller and smaller. His own explanation of this idea is that music is very physical and our bodies understand it before our heads do. The costuming idea was drawn from, Byrne has said, traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater. That expression is indeed what I experienced with Fili. My body began to understand the music before my head did. My physical self became so immersed, so big, with the rhythms and ideas, that when I let go, I could play it. During our first real rehearsal I said “this is just like the Talking Heads!!!!!” My colleague, who pretends to know nothing about pop music, looked at me blankly. I went on to exclaim, “you know…the Big Suit? Stop Making Sense? This is not my beautiful house?” However, whether or not he is deeply familiar with that amazing song “Once in a Lifetime,” it doesn’t really matter, I know he knows the sentiment. And after our second rehearsal when it appeared that we could play it together without getting completely bamboozled, we entered that realm where one can stop making sense of it all, and just live it.

The other thing I realized while working on Fili, and this is brief…is that, once again I had found myself as but one voice in an aviary of sound. The tweets, the chirps, the flutterings, the multitude of flapping wings, and the plaintive cries of one lone bird looking for its  flock are all embedded in the fragments and filaments of time, and played out, as so often falls to fluters, in all the little black dots and notations on the page and staff, written out in an approximation of a language beyond our scope of understanding, and in existence before that of our own. As Messiaen wrote, in his preface to the Abyss of the Birds in the monumental Quartet for the End of Time, “…the birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

“Fili” was performed at Dartmouth College on October 8, 2017

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*Afternoon tête à tête*

Like Thing 1 and Thing 2, some pairings are so happily organic as to be immediately and unquestionably perfect. A recent meeting between certain Mssrs. Erard and Lot in Ashburnham, Massachusetts at the Frederick Historic Piano Collection proved to be one of those exquisitely “right” occasions. Like two old friends meeting again to retell old stories and share new ones over a croissant and chocolate, or a glass of Bordeaux and some good stinky cheese, my Louis Lot flute and a gorgeous Erard piano had a lively time together for a few hours of music making.

The old stories were the Reinecke “Undine” Sonata for, as noteworthily (pun somewhat intended) listed by the composer, “Pianoforte and Flute,” and the Widor Suite for, as more usually listed, Flute and Piano. The new stories were the two players-whose more modern hands put the sound waves into the air, and enjoyed every minute of the experience.

I have been the happy current steward of an 1871 Louis Lot flute for about a year now, and I must say, that while the mechanism can certainly behave like a cranky old man, the sound that comes out and the way the flute guides me is always worth the effort and care. I call him “Mr. Fussy.” He doesn’t like cold. He doesn’t like too much heat. He doesn’t like humidity. He doesn’t like car travel. But he does like Debussy, Poulenc, and Reinecke. He seems to love performing. And he loved being with his friend Erard again.

What I know about the Erard piano company could be fit inside a thimble, but I do know that like the Lot flute company, the Erard company survived many changes over the years-its pianos favored by the likes of Mendelssohn and Ravel, and many of the surviving instruments, like Lot flutes, are not just quixotic period pieces, but fine instruments to be learned from, played and savored. These amazing instruments give insight and meaning not only to the music of the time, but to our present day interpretive practice. They ask us to be not so loud, or so bright, or in such a hurry. They ask us to listen for more color, for the often intriguing imperfection of scale in harmony, for voices that are full rather than brash, atmospheric rather than soft, and not always so “easy” to sound the “same” on every day. Consistency, while obviously good in many respects, maybe, I wonder, leads us to a sort of ephemeral satisfaction? Ultimately less satisfying by its sameness.

In any case, we had fun-my excellent pianist colleague, Matthew Odell, and myself, and I like to think that these two fine gentlemen, having maybe met before, were joyous at being reunited for an afternoon tête à tête, in a small New England town, June 29, 2017.