Couch to Sequenza XII: An interview with Ruth Rosales

The great Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925–2003) wrote thirteen Sequenzas for solo instruments, from voice to accordion (fourteen if you count his arrangement of the clarinet’s Sequenza IX for alto saxophone). They are among the pinnacles of the repertory for solo musicians – contemporary equivalents to Bach’s cello suites, or Liszt’s piano études. They also happen to match pretty closely the make-up of our artistic board (although no Sequenza for solo writer, alas). What better project for Riot, then, to record new versions of as many of them as we can?

Well, of course, we’re going one further than that. Over a few days in August we will be working with Four/Ten Media to film nearly all fourteen Sequenzas, as well as a few other pieces for members of our artistic board for whom Berio didn’t plan.

One of the newest members of our board, bassoonist Ruth Rosales, is in at the deep end with the legendarily difficult Sequenza XII, twenty minutes of non-stop circular breathing, flutter-tonguing, ‘Berio trills’, glissandi and other distinctly unusual bassoon techniques. I spoke to her at the end of April 2019 about how her preparations – by this stage she had been working on the piece for around nine months …

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: This is supposed to be the hardest of the Sequenzas

Ruth Rosales: This is what people say, which fills me with absolute fear! It’s definitely the longest and you’re meant to circular breathe for twenty minutes. I think I’ve got to five minutes of the total so far but usually I go wrong at that point so … Circular breathing [a way of breathing out continuously, by blowing out from your cheeks while you breathe in through your nose] is something I’d never tried before, and I am finding it really tricky.

TR-J: Is it a stamina thing?

RR: Initially it was just keeping the airflow going. There would always be this break in the sound – at first there was a huge break, and then it was getting smaller as I was used to blowing the air out of my cheeks and then going back to blowing air out of my lungs. Then that got smaller and smaller – which I was delighted with because I wasn’t sure if that was ever going to happen – and now I’ve got a consistent sound, which I’m just relieved has happened. My current problem is that forcing the air out of your cheeks makes the pitch go up a little bit, I suppose because the airflow gets faster, and I feel like I don’t have as much control over that.

The thing I found really interesting when I was learning to circular breathe was that you have to breathe all the excess air out as well. You have to blow the air out of your cheeks and get rid of all the air that you have in your lungs so that you get fresh breaths, otherwise you start to hyperventilate and you just get the top of your lungs filling up.

Something I’m finding really tricky is the flutter-tonguing. I have to make sure I’ve cleared my lungs and taken a few fresh breaths so I’ve got enough power to get through five crotchets-worth of flutter-tonguing.

TR-J: When you were learning did you go straight onto the instrument? People do all these exercises with straws in drinks and so on…

RR: Yeah, I went round to Philip [Haworth]’s house and spent a couple of hours in hysterics trying to learn. We started with just a reed, and then a crook as well. It was a bit ridiculous because you’re having to maintain this sound that is hilariously awful, like a ship coming in, honking away!

After that I just did it against my hand, breathing out and feeling the air continuously on my hand. That was a useful way to feel how that was working. But putting a reed in your mouth – obviously then you’ve got an embouchure that you need to maintain, and the airflow is so different. It took me absolutely ages, and hopefully by August I’m going to be fabulous!

The Sequenza is incredibly far from finished, and it’s insane how much work has gone into it for it to sound as unfinished as it does. But what is cool is … something like circular breathing you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, and then all of a sudden you can do it. And it’s an incredible sense of achievement, even if it’s not great – I can do something that I couldn’t do before. That’s been really amazing.

My sister ran the London Marathon yesterday, and it involved a lot of training and she got to the end and she’s a dream woman. This is my marathon! I’ve got so much more training to do, and I need a running coach and I need lessons, but then it’s going to be my marathon day on 26 August. That’s how I feel about it.

TR-J: Is this the hardest thing you’ve ever done, physically?

RR: With regards to bassoon playing, yes. Maintaining the embouchure through flutter-tonguing, circular breathing and everything like that – I didn’t realise that every breath you take gives you a little break on your embouchure, but in this piece you’re having to keep it, keep it, keep it whilst you’re changing air pressure and your tongue and all these things, and you’re having to maintain this strength. That’s definitely a challenge for my lips.

I also used to be asthmatic, and I have this thing where I panic and I stop breathing. Like if I’m doing a sporting event that I think I’m not going to be able to complete I start breathing at the top of my breath – and I started having that feeling with the circular breathing. Which again is why I needed to learn to breathe out as well. It’s going to be a bit of a mental game.

TR-J: As well as the breathing, the rest of the music is not exactly straightforward. How are you putting it together – the stamina, the circular breathing, the fingering?

RR: The really cool thing, which is something that a friend said to me, is that once you’ve got the first page down, the rest of it links on. You’ve learnt that first bit and it links to the other bits. So that’s a relief!

TR-J: In the face of all that, are you enjoying it?

RR: If I’m honest, while I was learning to circular breathe, no. Because I was panicked. I was really aware that I could not even do the breathing, let alone play the notes. But about 10 days ago I started to really enjoy it, and I felt there was a strong possibility that I will be able to do this. I feel like I’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do, but I feel like this is something I can do. And it’s so cool to be learning something so different and so difficult. To be learning so many new techniques at the age of 33 – that’s amazing. I wonder how I’ll sound in August when it’s the month, whether I’ll sound as positive!

Also I’ve decided that in order to circular breathe you need to be fit, so I need to get on it with my running and my swimming and all of my exercise. And I’m not allowed to get ill because you need to have a clear nasal passage! This is going to be an ordeal if I’ve got a cold – I have to be well.

TR-J: Stock up on the Sudafed.

RR: Or have someone come in with a conductor’s baton with a tissue on the end to wipe my nose.

TR-J: At least your marathon is over in 20 minutes, there is that …

RR: Hopefully – unless I have to do it over and over to get it right! I’ve got a three-hour slot, so it could be a three-hour marathon!