Failure is not an option. It could be the tag line from any Hollywood movie about a sports star/secret military raid/politician from the last 40 years. Maybe if you’re behind enemy lines failure really isn't an option but in musical performance, it’s more of a state of mind.
There have been many times when I’ve been deeply unhappy with my performance as I trudge offstage and yet colleagues and audience members have congratulated me. Conversely I also remember coming off stage delighted with the way the flute section had played a very difficult piece in a high profile concert; we all felt that it couldn't have gone any better, and yet a reviewer simply said that it ‘was not a great evening for the flute section’…
So which one was the failure?
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail Better.
When I was studying at the Guildhall School of music last century, someone gave me a postcard with these words on after I had managed to get lost in a performance and recapitulated in the wrong key…Nowadays they’d probably just tag me in a meme involving a miniature dog du jour stuck up to its neck in horse manure, or an emoji. The thing is, I didn't understand the postcard, why would I want to fail? I didn’t want to fail and I certainly didn't want fail again, better or worse, richer or poorer…sickness and health is another story. It didn't make any sense and rather than ask someone what it meant I recycled it. I wanted to be a winner, I didn't want to speak loser. It’s a shame that I didn't ask someone like…my flute teacher for instance, the person I saw most regularly and probably failed in front of more than anyone else. It’s more that a shame, it’s ironic as my teacher at that time was Edward Beckett who is the grandson of Samuel Beckett, the author of the quote. Having said that, if I had asked him about it, I’d have probably discovered that although this little chunk of prose is ‘inspiring,’ in context it is much darker. Beckett wasn’t especially well known for his side splitting banana slipping gags or indeed his cheerful outlook. The full piece is more about the inevitable journey to the grave rather than a cute soundbite to camera explaining away your third unsuccessful appearance on Dragon’s Den.
Mortals must age, plans go awry, dreams end too soon.
Love too deep, a shallow grave may hold, 'neath westering sun
The Peony Pavilion - Chapter33: Secret Plans
By Tang Xianzu
The poem carved on my flute spoke of the inevitability of growing old; the passing of time. For a brief moment, the winter sun caught a pear missed at harvest on the tree. Sitting in my kitchen in Surrey looking out over the skeleton of Spring, the once plump fruit, glistening with dew looked like the first bud before the blossom. But as the sunlight passed it revealed itself as the forgotten fruit of summer, shrivelled on the branch. I was practicing in my kitchen because of the view and because it's cold in the music room. I don't mind the cold, but the instrument I'm playing does. Playing my normal silver flute, extremes of temperature or humidity don't really concern me, however the flute I was practicing on was made of wood. Bamboo to be precise. I didn't want the wood to split.
There is something about the simplicity of a bamboo flute that connects with the past. A simple wooden cylinder with a few holes (8 in this case) is one of the oldest instruments known to man. When I think of the past of the modern Boehm flute, my performing predecessors come to mind instantly, as the concert flute that you would recognise was invented in the middle of the 19th century. The simple wooden flute however goes back to the earliest records of man; the players, the millions of flute players creating melodies from a few notes over thousands of years is something we can only imagine. Every culture I can think of has their version of a flute. Irish whistles to Japanese shakuhachi, Indian bansuri to Peruvian pipes. If music is the universal language, then the flute is it's voice.
The instrument I'm playing is from Shanghai and is probably the most famous of all the Chinese flutes, the Dizi (Roughly pronounced Dee-it-zuh). The eight holes consist of 6 finger holes, 1 embouchure hole (The one you blow over) and one between them all which is covered with a thin membrane of the soft internal part of bamboo. It looks a little like a cigarette paper but is even thinner and is called the Dimo. This vibrates when you play creating the distinctive buzzing timbre. I often grow tired of oboe and bassoon players moaning about reeds all of the time, but quite frankly, cutting the dimo to size and getting it in the right place is an art in itself, so I am slightly more sympathetic.
I've had various instruments over the years for use in the LSOs film work. If you really have nothing better to do, you can hear me playing dizi on the film Around the World in 80 days with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But seriously, only if you have nothing to do...it's a terrible film. The flute I was practicing on and in fact, all of flutes I own have Chinese characters painted or carved on them...and I don't mean Jackie Chan. They are often fragments of Chinese poetry, so on a film session years ago I asked Chi what the script on my (very cheap from Camden Market) flute said. I hoped that it would be something to do with the summer breeze, or flower blossom, the passing of time or perhaps a wise proverb echoing through the ages.
"Can you read it?" I asked. It was quite roughly stamped on the headjoint.
"Yes, of course." Chi replied.
"Great! What does it say?" I asked, at last about to discover the true destiny of my flute.
"Made in Hong Kong."
In Beijing, jet lag renders all night as day. The smoke alarm on the ceiling pulses a red ring of light every few seconds and in my dreamlike state, it becomes the ring around a planet in my mind. The air conditioning unit thrums in the background and every now and then the dull ping of the lift drifts under the door as another traveller, lacking heavy sleep goes back to the bar. A late night call to my daughter briefly merges into sleep, but dreams end too soon. I hear a dizi in the distance playing a melody. As I open my eyes, the sound remains. I draw the curtains and look down from the 11th floor to see a man busking outside the tube station below. I'm not dreaming, he really is there. I decide to take this as a good omen. The rest of the orchestra has already left for Shanghai for a day off and it's just a group of five of us left in the hotel. As I descend to breakfast, I suddenly realise that hotels around the world are usually peaceful, half empty places, except when an orchestra arrives and takes over. I sit in relative peace but unfortunately the silence created by the orchestral void means I can hear the music being played through the speakers. It's the same as it's been since we arrived; a continuous loop of the first 40 bars of the 2nd Movt of the Mozart Flute and Harp concerto. It's been driving me mad. On an average leisurely breakfast, you can easily hear the same bit 25 times and I find myself humming it involuntarily for days. Today, the busker outside is winding an uneasy counterpoint, creating a musical landscape that Charles Ives would be proud of; however it's not the East/West fusion I was aiming for and so I quickly go back upstairs to get ready.
Poetry is the reason I was learning how to play the dizi and the reason I'm now sitting in my hotel room in Beijing about to give the world premiere performance of a new piece written for me by Raymond Yiu. We've been away from home for the best part of two weeks and there is a chance that my pear tree now has buds forming, but the view from my room is less than poetic. What I can see through the smog is a five lane roundabout suspended above a motorway that goes through the centre. The dream and reality are often far from each other. In Britain and around the world, William Shakespeare is being celebrated for his 400th anniversary but over here in China, their great poet from the same era, Tang Xianzu is being celebrated in much the same way. In a private concert for our sponsor Reignwood, we have put together a programme celebrating the two writers where East meets West. Tang Xianzu was well known for poetry about dreams, and one of Shakespeare's most famous plays deals with the dreams of midsummer.
The piece that Ray has written is titled, And Nights Bright Days, a line from Shakespeare's sonnet 43. It's a beautiful work inspired partly by the poetry of dreams and longing, (an excerpt at the start of this piece) but it also has a haunting and deeply sad quality - the work is written in memory of Ray's friend Andrew Lindup, who was tragically killed during its composition. It really is an honour to play it.
As I walk out onto the stage of the Reignwood theatre, I stand alone. It's a lonely place for a lonely piece. The pressure of a world premiere as a solo instrumentalist with the composer in the stalls is hard enough. The fact that I'm playing a Chinese flute to an almost exclusively Chinese audience makes me pause, the warmth of the bamboo at my lips. It's like taking coals to Newcastle or more suitably, importing tea to China. Out of the corner of my eye I can see my colleagues standing in the wings, waiting to see what's going to happen, intrigued. Up until now I've been quite coy and kept the dizi out of the LSO gaze, but now here I am, no turning back. I play and as the final note dies away, three hundred camera phones point in my direction approvingly. The sound that I make on the dizi is quite different to the sound of the professional player who entertains us at dinner. He plays with the Peking opera and the intense, distilled sound of his performance fits perfectly with the timbre of the singers and instruments that form their distinctive sound. I had taken their instrument and played it in a different style in a brand new piece - I'm not sure I'd have had the correct sound if I had been trying to play along with my Chinese colleague though! But my intention was never to imitate but using Ray's brilliant new piece, to create a fusion of styles. East meets West. One of the guests at the banquet afterwards came to speak to me.
"Did you enjoy the piece?" I asked
"Yes very much. It was interesting to hear a foreigner playing dizi. I've never heard that before."
"Oh, right. Well, how was it for you?"
"It sounded different, but at it's centre there were dreams and echoes of China."
I expect he writes the poems for the flute manufacturers.
Finally back in my room at the end of the day, I spoke to my family again. Jet lag is still allowing early morning phone calls.
"How did the Chinese flute piece go?" asks my daughter.
"Great! Like a dream darling."
"Good...are you coming home soon dad?"
"Yes, soon. Very soon..."
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day.
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me
Fragment from Sonnet 43 by William Shakespeare
Last term at the Royal College of Music, a few of my pupils were learning the Jouers de flûte by Albert Roussel. For those of you who don’t know the piece, it is a suite containing four movements, each named after a flute player from literature with each one being dedicated to a flute player of the time. These are the movements.
1. Pan - A god from Greek Mythology. Half man, half goat, not a hit with the ladies. He plays the pan pipes (from where they get their name). The piece is dedicated to Marcel Moyse - a flute player to whom entire generations have given god like status, although I can neither confirm nor deny the goatiness of his legs.
2. Tityre - Always a nightmare to introduce at dinner parties. Tityre, or for short to his friends...er...Tityre, was a shepherd from Virgil’s Eclogues. This one is dedicated to flute professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Gaston Blanquart. Flute Fact - He won 1st prize in Paris in 1898 playing the premiere of Faure Fantasie when it hadn’t been played to death. He also played in the premiere of The Rite of Spring and Pierrot Lunaire.
3. Krishna - The Hindu god. When he was young he played the flute and mesmerised people and animals. My dog leaves the room when I play. Roussel uses an Indian scale in this movement with flattened 2 and 6, augmented 4th, perfect 5th, major 3rd and 7th. This piece is dedicated to Louis Fleury, famous as the dedicatee of Syrinx. I expect you’ve heard of it as flute players always play it when there’s no piano.
4. Monsieur de la Péjaudie - Mr P is the main character in the novel, La Pécheresse by Henri de Régnier. It won’t surprise you to know that he is an awesome flute player but also a womaniser. In all honesty, he was more interested in the latter. It is dedicated to Philippe Gaubert. He was a well known flautist, conductor and teacher and composer of flute music that mainly only flute players have heard.
I really like the concept of pieces which form little portraits of famous fictional flute players and are dedicated to famous, real flute players. I would love to know just how much Roussel had a cheeky wink at dedicating a piece about a womanising flautist to one of the most respected musicians of the day! I can’t think of another piece that does this for the flute - maybe you know better than I. Programmatic music, musical portraits etc aren’t new, but I think that we could do with an updated version of jouers for the 21st century. Not only are there now thousands of really talented and influential flautists according to twitter who could be worthy dedicatees, but there are also a whole new generation of literary flute players. But why stop there? Let’s really update the concept.
I recently found myself in an unusual position. I had the bank holiday weekend off. Even more unusual was that the weather was good. For those of you not familiar with the traditional British Bank holiday, it usually means enduring hours of traffic jams to get to the seaside whereupon the heavens open. I think it’s possibly no longer just a tradition, but the law. So I was delighted to find myself with a well earned weekend with my family. My eldest son is currently obsessed with buying a classic car. Specifically a Classic Mini. I was alarmed to discover that it was called a Classic Mini. All it is is...well, it’s a mini. An old mini. A nice piece of rebranding that does several things at once. It makes me feel old. It differentiates between the BMW MINI and the… er...Classic Mini. It also gives a boost to the market value of rust. Adding ‘classic’ onto the front of a car marque is a bit like calling a jumble sale, a vintage clothing fair. Some are classics, but there are an awful lot of polyester cardigans with holes in the sleeves going for a lot of money. Anyway, I digress. We went to Mercedes Benz World to a classic car show, where owners observed our approach to their vehicles with the twitchiness of a trigger happy border guard.
And so it seems that classical music provokes strong feelings. I should be pleased really, for when it shuffles out and nobody notices, that’s when it ends. Not with a bang, not with a choral climax, not with a final joyous chord, but with a descent into a silence once filled with sound. Opinions, no matter how polarised will never be the enemy here, the enemy is indifference.
The audience matters and plays as much a part as the performers in a way. I see you. Every night, I see you, and you make a difference. To see the orchestra in rehearsal is to see a work in progress, a lump of rock being chiseled by the sculptor, the build up of colours in a portrait; but come the performance, the final work is revealed, the rough rock now smooth and defined, the numerous colours merge together to reveal a previously hinted at depth. Move a sculpture from the artists studio to a plinth in a square and it becomes a spectacle, a picture from easel to gallery can become a masterpiece despite the fact that they are unchanged from completion to viewing. A symphony though, is different. Nobody in the hall knows what will happen at the first downbeat. An audience may come with expectations, previous heights which they hope can be relived, bettered even; they may come for the first time with no preconceptions - or many. The performers hope to create a culmination of a week of rehearsals...but none of us know for sure where the evening will take us.
...and on the final note of the bass clarinet line, someone coughed and then said, ‘Sorry!’ - it ruined the moment…"
Mark Elder describing an atmosphere breaking interruption in a recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. You know the bit? After that beautiful clarinet solo in the first movement where the bass clarinet takes over on four unbearably quiet descending notes then a brief pause before hell is unleashed? A misplaced cough can ruin a hushed moment for the audience and in this case, as they are the only four notes the bass clarinet plays in the whole symphony, it can ruin their night too. If you go to or perform in a concert at this time of year, the chorus of coughing that marks the end of a movement ranges from the sleeve stifled hack to the full on attention seeking consumptive death rattle.(Conspiracy theorists and hacks, note the non capitalization).
I think we can probably all agree that not managing or bothering to stop coughing, or at least trying to make it quieter is annoying and at worst disruptive. But what about concert etiquette in general? Are there a whole set of unwritten rules for classical music concert going? Do we all know and agree what they are? A friend of mine told me last week that she finds the atmosphere intimidating at orchestra concerts, she feels like she might do something wrong without even realising. That’s not good, and I as a player I don’t want anyone to feel like that.
I watched Tom Service’s documentary, The Joy of Mozart the night before I flew to Vienna. In it he explored the making of the Mozart myth and the fetishization of the composer; from the little statuettes in the shops in Salzburg which bear no resemblance to contemporary descriptions of the man, to the Mozart Chocolate balls, a weird concoction of marzipan and chocolate. No doubt the Austrian Ambassador spoils his guests with them instead of Ferrero Rocher…
The Mozart ®© that is peddled in the streets of Salzburg and Vienna seems so far removed from the reality of the man (as far as we know) that the actual music and the personality cult industry have become detached. You want to listen to Mozart in Vienna? You’ll be wanting to buy tickets from a man in a cloak, arrive by horse drawn carriage and enjoy it only in the light of flickering candles then…
Sure enough, the second I board my Austrian Airline flight from Heathrow, the loudspeakers are blasting the most unsubtle version of Eine Kleine nachmusik I’ve ever heard. Just as I think it can’t get any worse, The Blue Danube rears its saccharine head and I can’t wait for the roar of the engines to drown out the aural destruction of the music heritage business. I, unlike many, cannot claim to know what Mozart would have made of it all, but a man who could write such extraordinary music encompassing the depth of human emotion would most probably be surprised to see the way his legacy has been airbrushed and sweetened for public consumption in the 21st century.
I’ve lost count of the the number of times I’ve heard a pop song on the radio followed by listeners saying, “Is that it? I could have written that!” The simplicity of the form (that’s why it’s so catchy!) can sometimes make it sound obvious, almost like you’ve heard it before. I heard a story once about Sir Paul McCartney who when he first wrote the famous song, Yesterday, thought the melody so familiar that someone must have already written it. It’s not just music either. Without a doubt, every time I visit the Rothko paintings at the Tate Modern in London, the audience is split. One group will be standing in quite contemplation, staring deep beyond the picture, awaiting the vibrant red canvas to give up its secrets. The other half will walk past and say something along the lines of, “Well...it’s just a red square isn’t it? I mean...I could have done that!”
But they didn’t. Lets be honest, thinking of a great idea immediately after you’ve seen the same idea which had been previously thought up by someone else...well, it’s not a hard won skill is it? The wheel? Well, I coulda thought of that...
This week has been one of those times where a complex idea was deemed to be easy, and something which looked so simple on paper was probably the most challenging moment of my week. If we don’t include concentrating on the music whilst the extraordinary Barbara Hannigan sang and danced a few feet away from me…
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