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Composer and Flutist Ian Clarke

Jessica Dunnavant | March 2009

     Ian Clarke, together with longtime friend Simon Painter, composes, produces, and performs music for film, television, and concerts under the name of Diva Music. His published flute works are quickly becoming entrenched in our flute repertoire, as they are embraced by flutists around the globe. Zoom Tube and The Great Train Race are excellent examples of his popular compositions that explore the flute’s capabilities in a fun way. He is also professor of flute at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
    Clarke was in Memphis, Tennessee as the guest artist at the March 2008 Flute Festival Mid-South, when an unseasonable cold snap and an unexpected six inches of snow dropped on the city. This created some free time for him to talk about his music, training, and teaching.
    Born in Broadstairs, England in 1964, he grew up in a house full of music. His mother was a music teacher, and he started to play the recorder when he was five or six. “I just loved the recorder. It created a great foundation for me. I started piano at eight or nine and the flute at 10. I had been asking for a flute for some time and was quite possessed by the idea. Unbeknownst to me, my parents came up with a secondhand flute that cost 20 pounds for my 10th birthday. It was probably a pile of junk, but I was just in heaven and couldn’t put the thing down.”
    Clarke started flute lessons with clarinet teachers and acknowledges this beginning “laid the foundation for lots of bad habits. I didn’t really have any good flute teaching until I was about 16 or 17, when I began studying at Guildhall, briefly with Simon Hunt and then with Averil Williams, who was my main teacher.” Later Clarke also took a few lessons with Kate Lukas.
    “I also had a great piano teacher, Joyce Clarke (no relation), although I didn’t really realize how good she was at the time. She had studied at Juilliard, and she was quite a character who had some very talented students. She seemed to have this misplaced idea that I might become a classical pianist. I think she soon realized that I wouldn’t, but she was a brilliant teacher. It was through piano lessons with her that I learned quite a lot of theory. She encouraged me as I began composing a few very basic things – she didn’t squash me.
    “When I was about 16, several of my friends took up the guitar. That’s when I started listening to groups like Pink Floyd. Until then I had listened predominantly to classical music. My friends and I did some jamming, and they assumed that I would be able to improvise because I could play the piano and flute. Of course, our classical training doesn’t necessarily teach us to improvise.”
    Clarke began composing in his late teens. He was playing in a rock band with friends and decided to write for the group. “Some of the songs were probably pretty bad. I had written compositions for school – you know, bits of serial compositions – but I wasn’t desperately writing down music from age 7½, saying, ‘I want to be a composer.’
    “I was, however, fascinated by musicians: my piano teacher, my father, who had been in the National Youth Orchestra, my mother and her sister, who was a child prodigy pianist but didn’t play anymore, and my grandfather, who was an organist, pianist, and professional musician.
    “Being creative with my mates started to push me outside the normal classical track; it was through them that I discovered what a blues scale was. Looking at their guitar books got me interested in jazz and rock harmony, and I began to seek out and read any jazz books I could find. All the while I played keyboards and flute in the band and wrote more and more songs. We began dreaming of stardom.”
    Despite his interest in rock-and-roll, Clarke continued to study classical flute and attended a school that included musicians who were also studying at London junior music colleges. He  auditioned and won a place in the county youth orchestra at the age of 13. “That is where I met my future wife, Carrie, who went on to study flute at the Royal Academy of Music. Emily Beynon also came through that orchestra.”
    When it was time for college, Clarke went to the London School of Economics to get a math degree. “After my first year there, I decided to take a year off from school, during which I stayed in London and practiced the flute and piano, taught flute, worked in a bar, and continued to play in the band.” Throughout that time and the rest of his college years, Clarke continued to study classically, part-time at Guildhall.
    “After the year off I transferred to Imperial College, London. It is one of the top math colleges in the U.K., and I hoped I would have a better experience there. While completing the math degree, I played in the London University and Imperial College Orchestras and became more serious about my rock band. By the time I graduated, the band was offered the opportunity to record.
    “We had been doing lots of gigs in and around London, and one of the pieces we played was Hypnosis, which at that time was a quasi-structured improvisation. The interest generated by that piece and the gigs we were playing led us to recording an instrumental album for a music library company. It was sort of new-age with lots of flute.
    “Ultravox was a very famous band at the time, and we made the record in their keyboard player’s studio. We thought we had arrived. We soon learned how hard it is to succeed in the music industry. We had had a breakthrough, but we hadn’t made it yet. To make a long story short, the band eventually evolved into Diva Music. Simon Painter, with whom I still work, was in the band, and over time he has produced a #1 pop album in the U.K. and a number of Top-30 singles with a band called Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine or Carter U.S.M..
    “Diva Music came to be because we were having success writing instrumental music for other people; we obviously had some ability in that area. As we wrote more and more, we built up a portfolio of music that began earning royalties.” Their music has been used on television and in other media. To hear the various types of music that they produce go to the Diva Music website at Click on Audio ShowReel and then on More Tracks.

The Birth of a Flute Style
    “A recording studio is a natural place to be creative with sound. In addition to using synthesizers and various bits of gear, I would experiment with my flute. The producers would request a flute track, but when I played something, would respond, ‘Well, that just sounds like flute. Can’t you do anything cooler than that?’ Because I was playing with guitars or synthesizers that are capable of pitch bending, I began looking for something more interesting to do. Our breakthrough came with Hypnosis.”
“We had played Hypnosis on gigs–when I just felt free to play whatever I wanted. I’m sure some times were more successful than others. When improvising you just do it, and then you begin to connect to your inner self. I feel very powerfully about it, but it is difficult to explain. When improvisation works, it just feels good.
    “On the other hand, I’m sometimes slightly suspicious of improvisation as performance art. I wouldn’t want that to be taken out of context, but the very best bits of music for me aren’t necessarily improvised. In the case of Hypnosis, I am pretty sure that the early improvisations were not as good as the later ones, by which time the term improvisation becomes increasingly tenuous.
    “Nowadays when I play Hypnosis it isn’t improvised, although it should sound improvisatory and spontaneous. I often use improvisation as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. On the other hand, great improvisers are exciting to watch. I wish musical training today included elements of improvisation and creativity and exposed students to more musical styles. In all fairness, this is beginning to happen.”
    When asked how he notates his compositions and discovers the necessary fingerings and techniques, Clarke responded, “I figure out the techniques through experimenting and by exploring the music of others. There is a lot of music on the periphery that is outside the traditional flute repertoire.
“I love music – traditional music – Bach, the French music, and Taffanel and Gaubert – but to an extent, it takes the limelight away from newer music. In The Great Train Race I explored basic multiphonics for the first time. The fingerings are from Robert Dick’s, Tone Development Through Interpretation & The Other Flute. They are also included in other treatises that go back to 1825.
    “I assimilated the fingerings for Zoom Tube, a work that was heavily influenced by Stockhausen. When I wrote Orange Dawn, Robert Dick’s book provided some fingering ideas, and I fiddled around with them a bit more. Did I invent it, did I modify it, does it matter in the end? It is a challenge to notate these pieces. I often don’t think music sounds as it looks and find it quite constraining to write it down at times. My latest challenge has been Touching the Ether for flute and piano, which was published in 2008. The piece explores “man’s relationship with the natural world.”

Advice on Improvising
   “The skills of improvising and extended techniques are changing rapidly. There are an increasing number of good books on creative skills, such as improvisation, as well as other media tools that include C.D. tracks for pieces with either accompaniment or special effects. Working with other improvisors is great whenever possible. There are also some great pieces available for children now that use extended techniques. When players have good pieces, they figure out how to play them. It has to do with confidence. Many teachers are not confident with extended techniques, but students are coming out of college able to sing and play at the same time. I think these skills will continue to evolve and more literature will be written for their use.”
    Clarke’s compositions often require various extended techniques, and he has advice on how to acquire the skills. “You can practice blues scales and octatonic scales – the scales that jazz guys use. I find traditional exercises are often narrow in scope; they can easily switch off creativity if we are not careful. I believe that flutists’ harmonic awareness is not what it could be. I think that it is important to practice technique holistically and efficiently, as well as learn to enjoy the music. Musicians have a lot to learn in order to become really good, and all too often we teachers kill freedom and imagination during lessons by forgetting to be positive and experimental. I try to create technical exercises for my students that encourage creativity, development, change, and modulation. For me, it is not that they practice scales so much as it is that they practice something with scales.

The Compositions

    “I’m curious about the flute’s extended language, and am always asking ‘What else can we do with it?’ In the end, however, I want to make a decent piece of music. I’ve got a toolbox of things I may or may not use because not every piece I write has extended techniques. They are tools to make a piece of music more expressive; the music has to sound good on some level.
    “People often ask how I write pieces. The process begins with improvising, recording, and thenpulling out the good bits onto a manuscript. I don’t usually compose at the computer. I think it’s very important for flutists to go beyond just playing the notes; we need to be more fluent in the variety of things we do.
    “Flute playing is changing, and it is a great time to be a flutist. We have flute icons, such as Jimmy Galway and William Bennett along with Robert Dick and a new generation of players. Perhaps diversity is more celebrated now than it used to be. The orchestral path isn’t the only way.
     “When I was invited to teach at Guildhall, I almost fell over because everyone who’s invited to teach there plays in a top orchestra. The invitation was like an acknowledgement of what I do on the instrument. While I teach orchestral and the traditional repertoire there and love doing it, I also believe that musicians can make music without feeling that they have to be an orchestral performer. Classical music is small compared to the rest of the music industry, and I don’t think that traditionally-trained musicians have fully come to grips with that fact yet.”
    Clarke’s compositions seem to be seriously silly at times. For instance, you can hear the train passing the carnival in The Great Train Race. To this Clarke responded, “Well you know, in that piece the audience isn’t supposed to sit there passively and listen. They are supposed to smile and giggle. The Great Train Race is, in some ways, about how not to play the flute. Let’s split the thing, let’s sing, let’s bend a note, let’s just do it all wrong.
    “Zoom Tube is in a rhythm-and-blues style with attitude, and it’s surprising to some that the flute can do that. Orange Dawn is about trying to conjure up another world. Touching the Ether is a personal piece. Hypnosis is a pure connection between the instrument and the music. Mad Hatter is supposed to be fun, humorous, zany. They’re all about something or have something to say.
    “Unless music has a character, or imagery, or has some angle on the human condition, what’s the point? If you go to see a film, it’s trying to say something; I think that music should do that as well. If something I write doesn’t, it won’t see the light of day.
    “Our flute shops and music stores are full of music, but trying to write a piece that stands out and makes people gasp because it was fun or  touched them is difficult. To really engage us now in this fast-moving, over-stimulated world, music has to connect on a human level. It’s very basic to us and therapeutic, and I love trying to share that.”