SoundSCAPE Concert 1: A Liturgy of Hours

9pm, Friday July 5th, Church of San Materno, Maccagno, Italy

An intriguing start to the SoundSCAPE festival concert series, flautist Lisa Cella presented a single, hour-long solo work, A Liturgy of Hours by American composer Stuart Saunders Smith. It was both curious to hear this work and dubious that it could hold my attention for an entire hour, and found myself surprised. Not only was my attention firmly held, the piece is stunning both on form and content, reducing the hour of performance into what felt like twenty minutes at the most.

Though the transparent opening is not the most promising moment, the piece unfolds into a meditative arc, juxtaposing occasional flurries with generally spacious writing. Towards the half-hour mark, the flautist begins also to sing, an effect that carried beautifully in the resonant church space. Cella’s mastery of this was absolute, allowing the audience to relax into the wash of sound created.

The work concludes with a short recitation:

My life, a mere breath
The first, is breath.
The last is breath.
In between we continue, breath in our moments, in this our moment
While darkness is my companion, I woke the earth of the heart.

This final utterance asked more questions than it answered, forcing us to examine the interplay of simplicity and complexity in the work, as well as our own understanding of exactly what it was all supposed to mean. A stunning piece, and a genuinely sparkling performance!

Tomorrow in Australia

My most challenging set piece for the festival was Tomorrow in Australia, a solo flute piece by American composer Paul Richards, to be played in a concert of his music on the first Friday. I was able to work with both the flute teacher Lisa Cella and Paul Richards himself on the piece, and really enjoyed both the learning process and music itself.

Being an Australian, I was really surprised by the title of the piece. After a little Internet searching, I turned up a program note and was able to form some ideas of how to approach it in terms of the post-apocalyptical inspiration. It turned out that Nat (the festival director) and Lisa has been looking through Paul’s catalogue to work out the concert program and decided that it would be funny to give me the piece purely based on the title. Program aside, though, I came to realise that everything I needed to know about the piece and its interpretation was written in the music – as it always should be!

I had been practicing Tomorrow in Australia for about two weeks before arriving at SoundSCAPE, and felt that it was in pretty good shape considering that. I had worked my way around the slides, tongue rams and tongue pizzicato, and felt that I was doing all the various extended techniques quite well.

Lisa, however, opened my eyes to the fact that I was being rather too polite with everything. For a start, I needed to make slides more pronounced and be confident to slide with my embouchure even if I couldn’t do it with fingerings. I had been erring on the side of caution and dropping out any effects that didn’t seem convincing, where as what I actually needed to do was work on the unique sounds that extended techniques create. The same was true for breathy tone – the reason I didn’t like it much as an effect was that it sounded too close to my normal tone with too much pitch. I needed to (and still need to) work on creating something that is less beautiful and more airy. This technique was particularly important at the piece’s climax, and made for a much more dramatic gesture when it was clear that I was giving everything.

My tongue pizzicato, which I had been quite happy with before SoundSCAPE, was also up for review. The sound I was producing was more of a clipped airy sound than true pizzicato, and we worked on using the tongue between the teeth to create the necessary pop rather than putting air through the instrument as I had been. Tongue rams, while not quite such a disaster, were improve by making sure that the seal of the lips and the flute was tighter. Finally, we talked about exploring the realms of vibrato a little more. The slower sections of the piece called for a varied, highly pronounced vibrato that I had thus far been trying to achieve with a little too much delicacy. I need to be confident enough to take a step away from the ‘bel canto’ style of flute playing and accept that sometimes vibrato can take over the sound entirely rather than being within it.

Considering how long I had had the piece for, I was really happy with the way I played it at the concert on the first Friday. I had learned a lot about creating the intensity the music demanded, and felt that I gave a convincing performance even if a few notes were a little different from those on the page. Paul Richards also seemed pleased. However, I feel that I can still go a lot further with the piece in terms of both attention to detail and dramatic intensity. I will certainly play it back in Australia (despite this seeming to contradict the title) and would very much like to fit it into my Masters recital later this year. The thing that strikes me most about this piece is its rhythmic intensity – there is so much energy and drama!