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The Artist as Technician

Michel Debost | November 2010

    The notion that science and art cannot coexist and that they might be mutually destructive was one of the saddest traits of the nineteenth century, otherwise known as the Industrial Age. The order of the day was the almighty reign of science and industry, at the expense of clear water, clean air, natural beauty and art. Thankfully, our twenty-first century has become conscious of our reckless contempt for the Earth and is trying, not always with success, to remedy that with the help of imagination and technology.
    A long time ago, Greek philosophers considered medicine as an art, and music and prosody as the prime science. To a certain extent, I am reminded of common misunderstandings in flute playing in which sound, articulation, rhythm, vibrato, finger technique, and interpretation are considered distinct entities, to be practiced separately.
    However, the farther we advance in the art of the flute, the more each aspect of playing affects every other. When does interpretation start and where does instrumental playing stop? It is the eternal conflict between letter and spirit, form and content, style and meaning. All the arts have the same dilemma. “Art is but feeling,” wrote the sculptor Auguste Rodin. “But without the science of volumes, of proportions, of colors, the liveliest feeling is paralyzed. How would the greatest poet fare in a foreign land whose language he wouldn’t know?”
    Our instrumental playing is, modestly, like Rodin’s science. It is there to serve our love of music and the feelings it conveys, but it cannot come to life by itself as a self-contained entity independent of emotion. There can be no interpretation without healthy and humanistic playing; and a satisfactory technique cannot be created without a musical project. In other words, a technical problem will not be solved by a purely mechanical approach alone, but also with the help of musical imagination. We should put technique into our music, and put music into our technique.
    My dream would be to become a sort of Renaissance man of the flute. The more we know in one area, the more access we have to a better perception of the whole. Speed is not at the expense of tone, articulation is not independent of interpretation; Baroque music belongs to all, and you don’t have to be a specialist to play contemporary explorations.
    Within instrumental playing itself, it helps to think of fast passages in terms of tone and support; conversely, phrasing and poetic interpretation are destroyed by slamming fingers, noisy breathing, broken slurs, and “outtonation,” as Tom Nyfenger used to call tuning problems.
    At times, when we listen to another flutist, we feel that the vibrato is not coherent with the sound or with the feeling he is trying to convey. Or, his fine sound vanishes as soon as fingers move faster or when the music calls for rapid articulation.
    Let us consider a problematic finger passage in the Finale of the Ibert Concerto:

    It really pays off to sing all the notes, especially the first six, as if they were slow, because the difficulty comes from the connection of the tone between notes, even if they are fingered perfectly. With concentration, not force, this run flows naturally, like a “river runs through it.” Other passages, here and elsewhere, (I am thinking of the opening page of the same Ibert Concerto) should have a somewhat biting staccato, even if the general character of this movement is of a lighter vein than most flutists think.
    As an artist, even before tackling a demanding piece, the first thoughts should be: “Where is this music going? Is it aggressive? Is it tender? Or joyous, or serene, (see below), or open (Allegro aperto of Mozart D Concerto)?

     Consider this idea in Bach’s Partita. This page is often considered easy. Yet its simplicity and serene feeling are better served by phrasing with loving fingers and good intonation than by tone effects and excessive vibrato. And that truly is its real difficulty. The three notes C, E, G# repeated many times, along with its parallel B, D, F#,  are an example of smoothness that should be thought out and played with love and sensuality. There are, of course, countless other examples such as these, both fast and slow.
    Even scales and daily exercises, so often perfunctorily tossed off, provide the means of perfecting one’s playing. They are music, first and foremost. Thanks to them, an ambitious flutist can develop articulation and speed without jeopardizing tone quality, have a living perception of intonation, perform fast passages with a sense of tone and play slow phrases with a feeling for perfection and smoothness of fingers.
    Develop speed with a consciousness of sound; play slow phrases with a beauty of gestures. Playing an instrument involves the whole player. John Ruskin wrote: “Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.”