ImagE/flute: Collaboration, Extrapolation
For over a decade, I have been collaborating with composers in the western classical tradition in creating new works. Having lived outside of academia for a handful of years, and also currently surviving the covid-19 pandemic, I have some more clarity on why collaboration is an essential part of the creative life, while it can also test your sonic heritage and beliefs. This essay will take us through my collaboration with Roger Reynolds in creating the recordings of his solo flute works in the imagE/imAge set. The set contains pairs of solos, each title containing either a capital A or E. Reynolds says, “The pairs are complementary: imagE/ stands for “‘evocative,’ lyrical, symmetrical, continuous, and even tender, while imAge/ is “articulate,” sectional, tending towards assertion and variety.”1 Prof. Reynolds was my mentor and collaborator from 2011-2017 while I was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. In 2012, Prof. Reynolds asked me to work on imagE/flute for a premiere performance in Mexico. Two years later, he asked me to work with him on its complement, imAge/flute. I’m now writing in 2021, mostly from memory with the help of my notes. Through the lens of our interactions over the years, and in the context of my broader collaborative experiences, I will share my hindsight and reflections on collaboration between composers and performers, and will ask an extrapolated series of questions to guide your next interdisciplinary project.
Sonic Heritage: ImagE/flute
Each individual’s sonic heritage is an aspect that frequently and subconsciously enters into composer and performer collaborations. Where were they trained? Who are their idols? What music do they actively listen to? All of these influences play into collaboration in subversive ways. Consciously understanding your own sonic heritage and values can greatly increase the understanding of your interactions. Sonic heritage definitely influenced our rehearsals for imagE/flute. Prof. Reynolds’ question for me was – is the extreme quiet dynamic marking obtainable and how might he explain this technique?
Even I played it too loudly for him at the first rehearsal. With my own bel canto upbringing and values (at that time), playing ‘too quietly’ where the tone loses its body and resonance was deemed a ‘bad,’ ‘unusable’ sound.2 Other than the works of Salvatore Sciarrino that employ specific techniques to create those extremely quiet dynamics, I had not considered the same dynamic space in other works. Having previously played Reynolds’ works Ambages and Transfigured Wind, I thought I had a sense for his lush melodic writing that would live more in the full, bel canto sound world. This indicated to me that his ppp marking was “as quiet as you can without sounding ‘bad.’” In that first rehearsal, when Prof. Reynolds pressed me for something even quieter, I thought, “You mean that quiet dynamic my teachers told me is unacceptable?” Yes, many times in my classical study, I was told I played too quietly in pianissimo passages, and it didn’t sound ‘good’ or ‘carry in the room.’ Part of why I ended up at UC San Diego was because I was always pushing my sound to the edge; I was looking for more extremes and found them through my flute mentor at UCSD, John Fonville. My new task was to explore this extreme quiet place, and to build the musculature to sustain it.
When it came time to publish the score, Prof. Reynolds asked me to write a preface explaining how to create and sustain the extremely quiet dynamic. I didn’t have the guts as an unknown flutist to write on an award-winning composer’s published score: “Rotate in the headjoint so it is easier to cover the aperture with your bottom lip. Then, blow slowly and gently with a small volume of air. The tone should be very quiet and not fully resonant.” I was afraid to write this because the ‘special’ technique I developed was ‘poor’ technique in the standard sense of ‘acceptable’ flute playing. (In fact, many extended techniques are ‘poor’ techniques.3 My beginner students make some of the greatest multiphonics because they have yet to develop a focused stream of air into the instrument; we have to retrain ourselves to play with the openness of a beginner.) I was purposefully vague and metaphorical in my preface; Prof. Reynolds was disappointed, and we left it at that.
Perhaps this is a good moment to note that most classical performers spend a lot of time proving their skills. Much of our training is spent preparing for auditions and juries. This can create a mindset obsessed with scarcity, self-affirmation, and constant questioning of abilities and self-worth. I was stuck in this trap until very recently. This came into play during my collaboration with Prof. Reynolds. To me, I had not yet proved myself as a flutist and therefore did not have the confidence or authority to take a stand on what I perceived as codifying a ‘bad sound’ as a legitimate technique. I should note here that I especially enjoy playing this piece and its exploration inspired subsequent pieces. The fact that I finally get to revel and flourish in a tone that was out of bounds not only brings me great joy but opens up an exciting sound world to explore as an artist. The physical skill I developed in learning this piece seeped into my other collaborations with composers, many of them fascinated with my control in that space. Each of the solos written for me on my Script – Rescript album by Nicholas Deyoe, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, Edward Hamel, Kurt Isaacson, Yiheng Yvonne Wu, and another by Scott Worthington, employ a similar physicality in their own worlds, further exploiting this territory.
Impossibility Agreement: imAge/flute
Another concept that continues to come up in composer and performer collaborations concerns the possibility of making a particular sound. As each performer has a different body physically, alternate possibilities and qualities of sound emerge. What is written for one body will potentially sound very different from another. My own view is that anything is possible, and certain things are more possible with my own body. As I have trained my body to perform more extreme feats, my understanding of what is possible (and acceptable!) continues to change. As I continue to grow, I often learn new techniques in pieces as they were performed by other bodies. It is possible to write so specifically for a particular artist that the work becomes embedded in that performer’s physicality, making it difficult to replicate in a subsequent artist’s body. Some composers relish in this kind of relationship with their performers, preferring to stick to bodies and particular human artists rather than notation, instruments, and techniques. One approach isn’t necessarily better than another – all of them have value and function at particular moments and create valuable work. The key point is that all parties understand and agree on the possibility factor in their interaction. In my work with Prof. Reynolds, he made it clear that the piece was to be repeatable; another could also learn to create the same effect given time and practice.
Throughout our rehearsals for imAge/flute, it was important to him that, after practicing, I would be able to perform the techniques and their transitions with certainty, and that the transitions were reasonably repeatable in another body. The piece requires quick changes between register and dynamics. There are also some multiphonics which are usually specific to a player and their instrument. Prof. Reynolds wanted me to be honest with myself and him when a particular connection was mostly unsuccessful. In rehearsal, after hearing me flub a particular transition multiple times, he would ask, “Now, is this practical here?” Instead of answering on the spot, I would often ask for more practice time to evaluate the particular moment in question. I was not only meant to evaluate this for my own body, but to also consider the practicality for others as well. How successful would another flutist be at this same section? How much of this technique is particular to me alone? My own priority was not to sell the flute short, knowing that with another person at the instrument, it would be capable of creating more or something different than what my body alone can produce. It was a difficult question for me to answer. I would often want to keep more risk than Reynolds preferred.
This is all to say that we were not working in the place of impossibility for impossibility’s sake. There are many pieces, especially solos, that have multiple staves for a monophonic instrument or purposefully juxtapose physically oppositional techniques. I have played many of these pieces. This wasn’t the world we were in. Because we knew this wasn’t the point, we were able to come to an agreement and have productive conversations about possibility on the instrument and in the notation that took into account both of our values and priorities.
As I write about this collaboration years later, what strikes me is how much of our interaction was based on our relationship to other art and to our individual identities as humans and artists. This makes me realize the importance of early conversations with my peers and how much those shared values subconsciously seep into our work. It leads me to a very Roger Reynolds style conclusion: an extrapolation. In the fall of 2012, I took Prof. Reynolds analysis course. Throughout the semester, Reynolds emphasized that we were not analyzing, but extrapolating. The idea is to work out the overarching structure (the skeleton, blueprint, infrastructure, outline, etc.) of a work, to create a system or resource that could be used in the creation of a subsequent work. In reflecting on my collaboration with Prof. Reynolds in the context of my experience working with composers, I’d like to propose a series of discussion prompts for your next collaboration, or any project in general. Many of these questions reflect my more recent considerations of labor in the arts and are meant to be provocative. Hopefully, answering these will bring you deeper self-awareness so that you may communicate more effectively during your next project…
- What values in qualities of sound have you inherited from your mentors? From your idols?
- What are your beliefs surrounding impossibility? Where does this project land on the spectrum of im/possibility?
- What does this collaboration say about the time and place of its creation?
- Who is this work for? Who will experience it?
- What labor needs to be given from each artist to bring this creation to life?
- How long will the collaboration last? How frequently will you meet? What work needs to be done between meetings?
- Who will be compensated, when, and for how much?
- Who owns the final work? How and where should credit be given and to whom?
- Will this work be recreated after the collaboration? Who will recreate it? How? What labor needs to be given in order for others to appreciate or recreate this work?
- Where will this work live in 10 years? 50 years? 100 years?
As Prof. Reynolds and I worked together, we were not in a vacuum; we communicated through our connections to other artists and compositions. We could understand our own situation more clearly by comparing it to other work and experiences. There were certain agreements we made on impossibility, sonic values, expectations, and even our own communication that helped us. Even still, no collaboration is perfect! There were still moments of disconnect and disagreement. The most important aspect of our, and in fact any, collaboration is a sense of trust between all parties. I do not mean trust in the altruistic sense, but in a way that is specific to each party involved, in a way that cares for each person’s fears and hopes. This kind of trust requires a certain amount of self-awareness and honest boundary setting. As the world opens back up and we reconnect with others, we will begin to re-experience creative vulnerability. My hope is that by the end of this essay, you will have a better understanding of how to care for yours and others’ fears within the realm of creative collaboration.
- “Bel canto” playing is something John Fonville uses to describe the style and tone of traditional Western classical flute playing. This style approach can be applied to contemporary music outside of the obvious genre the term represents. One can play Luciano Berio’s Sequenza or any number of 20th century works in bel canto style.
- Personally, I do not agree with calling the flute sounds that started to become more common in the 20th century “extended techniques.” But the term makes it clear the kinds of sounds I mean beyond “bel canto” playing. I have yet to come up with or hear a term that communicates the meaning with the same clarity and effectiveness.