Flute Reflections with Kate Walter

We had a fantastic response to our first concert of the 2013 season, and it was great to hear an extended concert that focused on the many personalities and guises of the contemporary flute player.  Kate Walter (above, warming up for the concert) performed on bass, alto, and c-flute for the concert.

Watching her perform, I thought of a number of questions I wanted to ask about preparing such contemporary repertoire, about playing for and working with living composers, and about her advice for young composers.  Her answers reveal an eminently practical and engaged performer of contemporary music.

Hi Kate, and thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us.  I wanted to begin by asking you if there’s a big difference for you between preparing a work by a living composer as opposed to a work by a composer who has died?

Thanks so much for having me.  It was such a fun concert to prepare and present.  But no, my approach to learning and interpreting the music doesn’t change at all. I always try to research background information on the composer or the piece to get a context.  For example, learning the meaning of the title or understanding what inspired the composer to write the work. Even with existing repertoire, I try to do this first – rather than immediately looking for a recording or previous performance.

The obvious advantage of a piece by a living composer is that there is the option to ask questions about the piece or about specific directions which may not be immediately clear. In some cases, like with this concert, you can work with the composer, workshopping the composition and learning exactly how they intend the piece to be played, which is always very interesting and enjoyable (though sometimes you still disagree!)

I think I’m right in saying that the preparation for The Magic Bass Flute was the first time you played (or even heard) any music by Amy Beth Kirsten.  How do you go about interpreting a piece by a composer who doesn’t have a long performance history and whom you don’t know personally?

I hadn’t previously heard any of Amy’s music, but I’m very glad I have now! Playing a new piece to me is always an exciting challenge regardless of the composer’s experience. You begin playing all pieces the same way, really, just trying to learn the notes and putting your own thoughts and ideas across whilst exploring the music. Most composers write very clear instructions and scores so that usually there is enough information to play the piece without having to seek answers. In this case, Amy’s score was very clear with plenty of information for me to learn the piece successfully on my own.

So what was it like to work with Amy on the piece after you’d learned it?  Did you change anything after meeting her?

The most interesting thing I found from working with Amy was learning the background to the work, what inspired her and how she came to write it. She was keen to hear how I personally interpreted her score.  Her emphasis was on the drama of the music and delivery rather than telling me to change a particular note or play something in ‘exactly this way’. She commented that this is one of the best things about being a composer, hearing how her music is interpreted by different musicians and how different they often are.  I think my performance of the piece just became more like my performance after that.  She sort of gave me permission to take control of the work (for a while) and make it my own.

That’s a lovely way of putting it.  The performance was great too.  I wonder if you would like to play the piece again?

Yes, definitely.  You learn so much the first time you perform a work. I want to carry on working on it and to perform it again soon, really.

What changes for you as you perform a piece more than once?

There are things you learn about a piece which you can only discover as you share it with an audience.  This happens particularly the first time you play it in concert, but it really happens every time.  I think pieces evolve over time. Ideas change about how to perform the music after you have lived with it for longer and for me, once I have performed the piece for the first time, I relax and push myself to find something new for the next performance.

Well we can’t wait to hear it.  As we wrap up, I’d like to ask what advice would you have for young composers writing for flute?  And what advice do you have for them as they work on their own pieces with performers?

I think that my advice would be don’t restrict yourself to C flute!  There aren’t as many pieces for Piccolo, Alto or Bass flutes and they each have unique and different qualities. I would also say that, more and more, extended techniques are becoming familiar to players.  Composers can feel free to use the full range in compositions if they so wish.  Don’t be afraid to ask the flute player to try out different sounds & techniques, but you’ve also got to be really careful that these strange sounds are really integrated into the piece in an honest way, and not just there as effects or to cover up a lack of ideas.

As they work on the piece with performers, the most important thing is that composers really hear what the player is doing first.  Some composers launch into suggestions or a string of comments straight-away. If it is completely wrong, I guess you have to say so, but I’d urge composers to learn from the performers too. Ask them to demonstrate different ideas if you want to change something or hear something different. Ask as many questions as you need to and be as specific as you can be about what you want. I always like it when a composer talks about their inspiration and influences behind the piece rather then just a technical discussion, because it gives me new ideas about how to perform the music and can add a new dimension to the performance.

Thanks so much Kate.  We’ll be looking forward to hearing you play again soon!


The Magic Bass Flute in Pictures

Thank you for all who came along to our concert this past Saturday (26.01.13).  It was great to have you with us, and we hope you enjoyed hearing the music as much as we enjoyed playing it for you!  One of the highlights of the concert this past weekend was having composer Amy Beth Kirsten around to work with Adam and Kate on her engaging and dramatic piece,Two Monologues.

We’ll be back next week with audio and video from the concert, along with a blog post from flautist Kate Walter on what it’s like to work on a piece with a composer.  In the meantime, we hope you’ll check out our next concert – The Shapes of a Square – at LSO St. Luke’s, 7:30pm on Friday 8th March!



Thoughts from Behind the Piano

Posted by Riot Ensemble pianist, Adam Swayne
I have a confession to make: I’ve never been very keen on works for flute and piano. I usually think of the combination as like a lemon curd sandwich where the flute is the curd (always delicious in a symphonic cake) and the piano is the ever-dependable bread. But in spite of all the promise the results tend to be bland, sickly and overly moist.

But working on this concert has proved me wrong for three big reasons.

First of all, there’s the calibre of the flautist Kate Walter. She approaches everything with incredible determination not only to despatch everything asked of her (and that’s a lot!), but also to give some rather special energy to the audience. Her kind of lemon curd would have to be infused with something pretty spicy and intoxicating!

Second of all there’s the range of flutes and the dramatic way in which they’re used. Alongside the familiar concert flute expect to hear alto flute and bass flute, with all three being blown, slapped and howled at – as with any organ of pleasure/displeasure (innuendo intended).

And why stop at the flutes? Our composers want the pianist to join in the magic as with the sheer theatre of Amy Beth Kirtsten’s piece, during which I shall be demonstrating some newfound vocal techniques (they are so new I’ve only just discovered them myself). In this context the Feldman-esque textures of Julian Anderson and the finely crafted lines of Terence Allbright reveal some hidden secrets that don’t come out in your average concert rectial.

Ric Graebner’s solo work gives the concert its title: ‘The Magic Bass Flute’. Ric, Terence and myself are all members of New Music Brighton, the largest composers’ collective in the UK.  We host regular concerts at Brighton’s Friends Meeting House (where the Riot Ensemble will also feature in July and October later this year). As it’s a Quaker establishment the intervals are booze-free (obviously the same cannot be said of the post-concert celebrations) so we ply our audiences with cake instead. I am not sure that lemon curd has ever featured on the menu, but if it did then it would taste fresh, zingy and leave you wanting more. And we’ll be bringing some of that culinary magic to North London for this concert!


A few moments with Amy Beth Kirsten

I’m very excited about our upcoming season which reflects The Riot Ensemble’s dedication to introducing British audiences to contemporary music by composers from around the world.  In our first concert of 2013, ‘The Magic Bass Flute,’ we have programmed a piece entitled Two Monologues by American composer Amy Beth Kirsten.

Amy was previously a singer-songwriter based in Chicago and, as with all of her music, Two Monologues reflects her deep connection with ideas such as memory, voice, theatre and breath. Each movement is a monologue for a solo instrument (Pirouette on a Moon Silver for solo flute and (speak to me) for solo piano).  Both are highly virtuosic, with the soloist vocalising alongside colourful, detailed and intricate music performed on their instrument.  I’ve been inspired by Amy’s music from the moment I first heard it. I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to ask her a few further questions about her music:

Hi Amy, and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for us! Your music is very unique in its drama and use of the human voice.  I wanted to begin by asking if you have had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s 2nd Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period, the first result of which was his Jeux vénitiens (1960-61)?[1]

Thanks for having me.  And yes, something like that did happen to me. I came to composing somewhat late, having had my first composition lesson at the age of thirty. Prior to this, I was trained as a pianist and vocalist with a specialty in vocal jazz improvisation, but spent much of my time writing and performing songs that had nothing to do with my training. When I returned to school to study composition, it was with the goal of learning to orchestrate those pop songs. As fate would have it, I had the opportunity, within the first weeks of school, to hear the International Contemporary Ensemble play a concert that included Vox Balaenae by George Crumb[2] 
 and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. I had never heard music like this before![3]

The performances were arresting and the sound worlds these two composers created…well, let’s just say it was a real awakening for me. I’ve always loved music that feels free and inevitable, that makes use of theatrical elements, and that have had a long-time fascination with timbre. All of these things were represented that night. It was music that I really identified with. So I guess you could say that this concert was the beginning for me, not to learn how to emulate those sounds, but to discover a musical path for myself that had the ring of truth.

That’s wonderful. I don’t doubt your music will have a similar effect on young musicians who hear it.  With your vocal background in mind, could you tell us a bit about how you compose? 

I sing, improvise, record myself, videotape myself playing improvisations at the piano and transcribe small pieces of those improvisations to discover the characteristics and possibilities of the material. Then I take what I’ve transcribed and improvise with that material and record myself. Then I transcribe some more. This process goes on for a while. Once I have an arsenal of material and its possibilities, I begin to put the pieces together into a larger framework that makes sense to me.

One thing I come back to again and again when listening to your work is how theatrical it is. Do you conceive your pieces this way?  And do you think about specific dramatic (large scale structures) when writing?

I’ve had the experience recently of being asked to compose a piece that is music first and theatre second. It really seemed like a strange request because, to me, there is no difference. I can’t listen to a live performance without thinking about how the musicians bodies are moving, or without taking in their facial expressions or unintended vocalizations like breaths and grunts. As soon as you put music, movement, and attainment together, you have a kind of dance – a kind of drama.

Each piece I write has its own starting point, sometimes it’s a word or an image, sometimes it’s a musical sound that requires a very specific physical gesture (or vice versa), and sometimes it’s simply a musical motive. I have never intended to write a “theatrical” piece – I just let come out whatever wants to come out and try not to get in the way.

To answer the second part of your question, I’m not sure you can have drama without structure – and so I am very conscious of pacing and tension while I’m composing.

That’s really interesting to me because, as both a composer and conductor, I’m someone who demands a lot of control of the music.  I love this idea, then, of trying ‘not to get in the way’ of the composition.  You obviously, though, work very closely with specific performers when composing your work. What is it like to have pieces scheduled by performers you’ve never met?

It’s about the coolest thing ever. I feel incredibly fortunate when someone I don’t know programs a piece. Often I’ll get to hear a recording of the performance and its endlessly fascinating to hear how different performers interpret music. One of the things I most love about music is that it can be felt so incredibly differently from person to person. Two Monologues, being performed on The Magic Bass Flute concert, is a piece that has a freer quality about it, even though the entire work is carefully notated. It’s made up of two movements that are driven most especially by the individual’s connection to the theatricality of the characters the musicians are playing.  The flute player is a diabolical Harlequin flutist and the pianist plays two different characters at once – Echo and Juno of the Narcissus myth. I’m really excited to hear how these extraordinary players bring these characters to life.

Thank you so much for your time and for your music, Amy.  We’re pleased we’ve been able to programme this work, and really delighted to share it with a London audience!  


Two Monologues will be performed by Kate Walter (Flute) and Adam Swayne (Piano) on our first concert of the 2013 season. Saturday 26th January, 6:30pm at The Red Hedgehog in North London (100 yards from Highgate tube).  Details about the concert can be found here.

[1] This question mirrors the first of Bálint András Varga’s three questions asked to 65 composers in Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers.  I’m planning to centre each of our interviews this year around these questions which often draw out unusual and insightful thoughts from the composers throughout the book.

[2] Those interested/nearby can hear the ICE Ensemble perform this work again this season on 19 February (2013) in Denver Colorado.

[3] This is a programme we’re thinking of mirroring in 2014.  It looks like the ICE Ensemble performed this same concert again in 2008 alongside John Cage’s Credo in US.