Program notes (for today’s recital)


the Other flautist
Recital #1 // Sun 27 Nov, 2011
Nickson Room, UQ School of Music


Tōru Takemitsu // Voice // 1971 — flute solo

Tristan Murail // Unanswered Questions // 1995 — flute solo

Beat Furrer // Presto con fuoco // 1997 — flute & piano

Andrew Ford // Female Nude // 1993 — alto flute solo

Kaija Saariaho // Laconisme de L’aile // 1982 — flute & electronics

George Crumb // Vox Balaenae // 1971 — amplified flute, cello & piano

– – – – –

Tōru Takemitsu // Voice // 1971

Qui va la? Qui que tu sois, parle, transparence!
Who goes there? Speak, transparence, whoever you are!

– from Shuzo Takiguchi // Handmade Proverbs // 1970

You’ll notice the two earliest works in this program were both written in 1971 – together they are the first instances of composed Western art music for the flute that feature use of the instrumentalist’s voice, a technique known as “vocalisation”. For Tōru Takemitsu, this technique is the result of his revolutionary fusion of Eastern and Western musical cultures. In Voice he draws upon the ancient Japanese art of Noh Theatre as well as the sounds and techniques of the shakuhachi, inventing new symbols of notation for the silver Boehm flute that nevertheless leave much room for interpretation. Shouts and whispers, multiphonics, air and percussive sounds meld the flautist into something of a one-man theatre of the absurd, performing at once as voice, flute, and drum – the traditional instrumental make-up of the Noh onstage ensemble.


Qui va la? These opening words echo the first line of Hamlet, with similarly intense psychological repercussions. The flautist demands a disembodied presence (or perhaps the audience) reveal themselves and make known their identity. The “voice” of the title seems to refer both to the exposed voice of the performer and to this invisible apparition, silent as it is.

– – – – –

Tristan Murail // Unanswered Questions // 1995

Murail is one of the first generation “spectralists” – composers who used analysis of the fundamental properties of sound to determine pitch material, as well as duration and formal structures. Such a process is made possible by the advanced technologies developed at IRCAM in Paris (the European institute for science about music and sound that has also become a cultural centre for musical modernism and electro-acoustic art music), where Murail later taught composition and computer music. As with many terms used to classify styles of composition, “spectralism” has not been especially well received by the composers most central to it. Murail has said of spectral music that is an aesthetic rather than a style, not so much a set of techniques as an attitude – that “music is ultimately sound evolving in time”. Fellow spectral composer Gérard Grisey was similarly lukewarm, preferring his own term “liminal” composer (a composer of the margins or the limits).


The title Unanswered Questions is an obvious reference to Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a work for a solo trumpet, a flute or woodwind quartet, and offstage strings. Each layer has its own tempo and key, and Ives himself described the work as a “cosmic landscape” in which the strings represent “the Silence of the Druids – who Know, See and Hear Nothing”, the trumpet begs “The Perennial Question of Existence” and the woodwinds vainly seek “The Invisible Answer” eventually giving up, so that ultimately the question is answered only by the “Silences”. Murail’s work for solo flute echoes Ives’ ascending, open-ended trumpet lines, as well perhaps as the desperation of the woodwinds to find an impossible answer, now set in the beautiful yet alien quartertone musical language characteristic of spectral music.

– – – – –

Beat Furrer // Presto con fuoco // 1997

For a recording of me and Alex playing this, click here!

In Furrer’s Presto the flute player teeters on the edge of a kind of hyper-anxious speech. From percussive blips and half-swallowed consonants, through Aeolian sound (breath tone), the “normal” flute sound eventually emerges in frenetic ascending chromatic lines. Meanwhile, a detailed hocketing between the two instruments creates a thoroughly contemporary take on two-part counterpoint. The piano seems to imitate Morse code at first, gradually increasing in complexity until the pianist is diving from one end of the keyboard to the other. The flute bursts into all out screams – perhaps a kind of non-human within the human. The subsequent disintegration culminates in tiny glimpses of sound that are eventually lost to silence.

Beat Furrer was born in Switzerland in 1954, but later relocated to Vienna for study. In 1985 he founded Klangforum Wien, now one of Europe’s leading contemporary music ensembles, which he continues to conduct today. His music features idiomatic ascending (yet interrupted) chromatic lines, giving an atmosphere of intense anxiety. His is a style not reducible to any current category of composition, but draws upon the work of Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann and Salvatore Sciarrino as well as Boulez.

– – – – –

Andrew Ford // Female Nude // 1993

The very suggestive title of this work does not in fact indicate that the performer need shed their clothing to perform it, but it nevertheless demands an uncomfortable level of intimacy. The rich and sultry tones of the alto flute are matched by voiced phonemes that increasingly take the form of moans and gasps. The title in fact refers to a painting by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (of red-yellow-blue neo-plasticism fame), a portion of which will be projected as the piece is performed. Mondrian’s block shapes and square angles are mimicked by the sharply altered material of Ford’s piece, with its abrupt changes from sparse tones and songful melodies to rhythmic, percussive figurations. Ford wrote a series of works in honour of Mondrian, and this piece itself exists in several forms – this solo version, and a duo with wooden percussion (the third movement of the Mondrian Suite, which also may be performed separately).


Born in Liverpool, England, Andrew Ford immigrated to Australia in 1983 where he now lives and works as a composer, writer, and broadcaster (he presents The Music Show each Saturday morning on ABC Radio National). Female Nude was written for Australian flautist, vocalist and performance artist Kathleen Gallagher, who also happens to be one of my teachers.

– – – – –

Kaija Saariaho // Laconisme de L’aile // 1982

Ignorants de leur ombre, et ne sachant de mort que ce qui s’en consume d’immortel au bruit lointain des grandes eaux, ils passent, nous laissant, et nous ne sommes plus les mêmes. Ils sont l’espace traversé d’une seule pensée.


(“Ignorant of their shadow, knowing of death only that immortal part which is consumed in the distant clamor of great waters, they pass and leave us, and we are no longer the same. They are the space traversed by a single thought.”)


– from Saint-John Perse // Oiseaux (“Birds”) // 1962 (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)

Saariaho is another composer influenced by spectralism and the technologies at IRCAM, although this work greatly differs from Murail’s solo flute piece in its treatment of spectral material. The title is difficult to translate, but means something along the lines of “brevity/fleetingness of the wing”, which when combined with the above text (spoken by the flautist) seems to indicate the dual thematic content of birds and death, connected by the concept of flight.


The piece, for flute with subtle electronics, features a rich palette of extended flute techniques, in particular the scale of tonal colours from pure flute tone to harsh breath sounds. Opening with the spoken text, the flautist slowly lifts their instrument to their mouth. Whispers become flute tone, and a poignant melody emerges, ‘accompanied’ by insect-like clicks and resonances. The melody develops, and a sense of anger becomes clear, only to dissipate in a held multiphonic and a return to whispered text. The final section is a series of ascending runs – the futile escape attempts of a bird trapped.


– – – – –

George Crumb // Vox Balaenae // 1971

Their music is immense
Each note hundreds of years long
Each complete tune a moon-age

So they sing to each other unending songs
As unmoving they move their immovable masses


Their eyes closed ecstatic


– from Ted Hughes // Moon-Whales // 1976

When you hear the songs of the whales, they are so spaced out that what sounds like a gigantic, drawn-out and endless moan is perhaps only one consonant to them. This means that it is impossible to perceive their speech with our constant of time.


– composer Gérard Grisey, who contrasts “human time, normal time, the time of language” with “dilated time, cosmic time, the time of whales”.

– –

Vox Balaenae (“Voice of the Whale”) for amplified flute, cello and piano tells the story of time from beginning to end, through the song of this most majestic of earth’s creatures. It is at once a celebration of and a lament for the planet we live on – its natural wonders, its inherent beauty, and its many rich cultures.


The work opens with a wild flute cadenza entitled “Vocalise”, in which the flautist simultaneously sings and plays an exotic melody, as well as singing into the instrument while altering the tone using the keys to evoke sounds made by the humpback whale. A parodic quotation of Also Sprach Zarathustra heralds the dawn of time, along with dramatic brushes along the piano strings and cascading flute triplets.


The middle section takes the form of a set of variations on the haunting “Sea-Theme”, with each variation named after a geologic period (“Archeozoic-Proterozoic-Paleozoic-Mesozoic-Cenozoic”). The intensity builds with each one, climaxing with the arrival of man in the Cenozoic period, which is announced by a partial restatement of the Zarathustra theme. Many interesting instrumental techniques are employed to unparalleled dramatic effect – from harmonics in cello and flute, to various methods of preparation in the piano.


Of the concluding “Sea-Nocturne” (an elaboration on the “Sea-Theme”) George Crumb says: “I wanted to suggest ‘a larger rhythm of nature’ and a sense of suspension in time”. The shimmering quality that he captures along with the beauty of this simple melody certainly give an air of great majesty but also fragility, and a creeping sense of teetering on the edge.

// All notes by Hannah Reardon-Smith, 2011


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