I am so excited to announce the launch of a project that I've been thinking about for a long time called Coming Up For Air. The project's aim is to explore the creative possibilities that emerge when a piece of music is restricted to a single breath. The inspiration for the project was a collision of two things: firstly, learning Brian Ferneyhough's monolithic solo flute piece Unity Capsule during a nine-month period in 2013-2014. The piece requires an enormous control of body and breath (see above photograph; the last instruction of the piece 'last possible place at which to take a breath'). If the performer runs out of breath during the passage, they are to NOT inhale again and to mime the rest of the passage. This is an incredibly intense moment in the piece! The other thing was an ongoing and steadily worsening sinus/allergy issue which made it impossible to breath through my nose, smell, or taste for several years. This affected my playing in many ways. I would often have the feeling of not having enough air, yet not be able to exhale it quickly enough when playing. As a result, I would have a build-up of pressure around my ribcage. To summarise, playing was a pain! To manage playing during my Master's and International Artist Diploma at the Royal Northern College of Music, I developed the ability to control smaller amounts of air than usually needed on the flute. This self-imposed control borne out of my own physical restrictions, combined with the highly manipulated breath (and many other techniques) used in Unity Capsule, has made me want to creatively respond to breath restriction.
I was fortunate to receive support from the charity Help Musicians UK to have the operation privately and much quicker than I would have otherwise. They also assisted me during my recovery time and helped me attend Ensemble Linea Academy in Strasbourg last Summer so that I had time and space to navigate my flute with my new nose. The operation was a success and it has transformed my playing.
To start things off, I've asked a group of composers for one-breath pieces for solo flute. I will perform these pieces bookended by Alvin Lucier's Self Portrait for flute and wind anemometer and Unity Capsule on Wednesday 7 June at Islington Mill, Salford. I will use this first concert as an opportunity to raise funds to donate to Help Musicians UK. Going forward, I plan to expand the project further and will instigate an open-call for one-breath pieces soon.
I will be updating this area of the site more regularly with updates of pieces for Coming Up For Air.
Inferior turbinates: their job is to warm, filter, and shape the air you breathe. They're also what swell up and obstruct your nose when you catch a cold or have an environmental allergic reaction. They're what make your voice sound pinched and funky, stop you being able to smell and taste, force you to breathe through your mouth all of the time (which is very tiring and can mean poor sleep quality), and if you're a flute player, it is DOOM. Here's an example of varying turbinate obstruction. WARNING: look away now if you're squeamish....!
Due to environmental allergies slowly damaging my nose over the years, this condition continually worsened until I had constantly obstructive inferior turbinates. This somersaulted into chronic sinus infections and a lowered immune system, The timing couldn't have been worse as I was just emerging from the prestigious International Artist Diploma course at the Royal Northern College of Music and beginning to forge a career as a freelance flutist. Some of the ways it affected me as a flutist include decreased breath capacity, inability to breathe through my nose, loss of resonance in the sinus cavity resulting in smaller & less projected sound, pain around the ribcage when supporting, blocked ears, pressure headaches when playing, and tiring quickly.
It was established that I needed an operation to reduce the inferior turbinates, but I had been on a waiting list for over a year. It seemed that continuing a career as a flutist would be impossible without this intervention. I am very fortunate to have received support from Help Musicians UK to have the operation quicker than I would have had otherwise.
I'm delighted to report that the operation was a success and I am now back to playing professionally. Already, the difference is staggering and I'm enjoying experimenting with what I can do now on the flute (to be able to taste and smell is still a novelty, as well)!
Thanks for reading this blog post. Any questions about the operation, do get in touch.
photo credit: www.ohniww.org206
Figure 3: Examples of differences in turbinate size and the stages of turbinate hypertrophy.
UPDATE: Videos are ready! Check out the 'Gallery' section for links.
I recently performed a solo recital at the Whitworth Art Gallery. This was my programme:
15 November 2015
Whitworth Art Gallery - Grand Hall
Self Portrait for flute & wind anemometer Alvin Lucier
Les Folies d'Espagne Marin Marais
(Arr. Hans-Peter Schmitz) (1656 – 1728)
Tango Etude No. 3 Astor Piazzolla
(1921 - 1992)
Partita in A minor, BWV 1031 J.S. Bach
(1685 – 1750)
The Dance Along the Artery Larry Goves
Susani’s Echo for Alto Flute Karlheinz Stockhausen
(1928 – 2007)
Self Portrait Alvin Lucier
I chose my programme as an exploration into solo flute music intended for or created by movement.
Alvin Lucier’s Self-Portrait is one of a set of three works which explore the directivity of sound waves from musical instruments. The performer is to place a wind anemometer (a device used to measure wind speed) several feet away from their face, with a light shining through it on the opposite side to the performer. The light is used to cast shadows across the performer's face - and the performer can choose how much or how little to show of themselves based on their wind speed. The auditory decisions are left up to the performer and the resulting physical actions create a unique combination of sights and sounds.
I made the naive assumption that finding a wind anemometer would be a fairly easy task - I thought Amazon Prime could sort it for me. However, apparently modern wind anemometers are digital and I needed one that had large, sensitive blades and could stand up on its own, meaning I'd need a vintage one. I scoured eBay and found most of them were located in Germany or The Netherlands. Panic stations! I obsessively checked for new vintage wind anemometer listings, and with great luck I found one in North Wales! By this time, it was the day before my recital so I set off immediately to fetch it from a lovely gentleman who, apart from being a semi-pro rugby player and primary school teacher, sells antiques from his garage. I felt like a huntress bringing her prey back to the den (or in this case, the practice room). A photo from rehearsal:
I chose Marin Marais Les Folies d’Espagne, Piazolla Tango Etude No. 3, and JS Bach Partita in A minor to provide a basis for the exploration into music composed for/created by movement, since they were all composed for specific practices.
Larry Goves’ The Dance Along the Artery is part of an ongoing collaborative project exploring how observing and learning about the Dalcroze Eurhythmics method might inform an approach to composition. The piece has, at its core, a very simple physical limitation; it only features fingerings that either use all the fingers, all the fingers of the left hand, all the fingers of right hand or no fingers at all. In addition, the performer has to alter separately the embouchure, dynamic of key clicks, articulation, and sound dynamic. The variations on these elements of playing the flute and finger patterns produce an strong visual element to the performance. Larry wrote the piece for me this past summer and I premiered it at the Second International Conference of Dalcroze Studies, Vienna, in July. I had my Whitworth recital professionally filmed and when watching it back, I was struck by how different it was to watch it than to play it. That might sound obvious but the finger patterns came across much more than I realised. I'll have a video up here soon!
Susani’s Echo is the solo version of a duet between the alto flute and basset-horn from Montag aus Licht, from Stockhausen’s opera cycle Licht: The Seven Days of the Week. The performance includes physical staging, melodies filled with swirling tendrils and micro-tones, articulated by rushing noise-glissandi, tongue-clicks, wind tremolo, key-clatter, flutter-tongue, and whispered numbers up to 13. The instructions state that the performer is to play in darkness, facing away from the audience, wearing a nude-coloured bodysuit of lustrous material, and to have a spotlight of a pallid moon above the performer, as if she was playing this on the reedy shore of a lake. Now, that's a fairly tall order in this venue! I did manage to do all of these things in my International Artist Diploma recital at the RNCM last February. I had an artist create for me a reedy lake shore and had it projected above me and I managed to stop eating puddings and do sit ups every evening for two weeks in preparation for the bodysuit debut. For Whitworth, I did a simpler version of asking a friend to switch off the lights, donning a shimmery cardigan, sitting atop a table, and using a desklamp to create a moon effect. Luckily I kept my balance, the table didn't break, and the light cast some pretty gnarly shadows!
The Whitworth is such a wonderful venue and it was great to try this combination of pieces to help explore what a solo flute recital can offer (not to mention, test my stamina and balance!).
I've been fortunate enough to have been working for a project between Live Music Now and Alder Hey Children's Hospital called Musical Mentoring. I, along with three other LMN musicians, have been involved in this pilot programme for nearly a year, and it will be wrapping up in the next couple of months.
We were take under the wing of amazing cellist and musician Georgina Aasgaard to help guide our journeys of bringing music into the paediatric hospital setting. Each of us were assigned different wards in the hospital, and each setting is quite different to the others. My ward is a mixed medical ward, where there is typically a regular turn over of patients, but with a few being long-term. In my setting, I have to be mobile and highly flexible and spontaneous. I load up a polka-dotted trolley with various instruments (usually rainbow chimes, a ukelele, various shakers and bells, a drum of some sort) along with my flutes. When I arrive on the ward, I'm met by a play specialist who will give me a list of patients who may enjoy a music session. And then the rest is up to me!
We were all trained in infection control and relevant health and safety, which is an extremely important element of the work.
From the very first session I gave, I was truly humbled by the impact that music had on the patients and their families, as well as the change in atmosphere on the ward. Initially I was a bit nervous to deliver the 'right' kind of music and select the 'best' activities. However, through these sessions, I have had to a develop a deep trust in my instincts, musical and emotional, and give the session patience to unfold as it is appropriate. Having more confidence to NOT plan a session still takes getting used to, but the best sessions seem to be the ones where I go in and just stick in the moment. It's a privilege to be allowed into the space of a child and their family and to get the chance to brighten their day, help them have a laugh together, make up a silly tune, play them music I love, and perhaps help them forget where they are for a bit.
I recently attended a training day ahead of the launch of the Young DaDa Ensemble, a brand new two-year partnership between DaDa Fest, Drake Music, Resonate Music Hub, and Live Music Now! (LMN). My involvement is as a representative of LMN and I will be co-leading the weekly workshops with another musician.
It was so interesting to be part of the planning meeting - so often the musicians who are delivering concerts or workshops are only brought in at the end and we don't realise how much planning and cooperation goes into a project. It's inspired me to become (a bit) more organised, anyway! I'm thrilled to be part of the project and am keen to get started! Watch here for updates on workshops.