(pages 39-41 in Jan/Feb 2005 issue: volume 28, number 3)
Piping over the oceans: Alexa Still Revives the Flute|
BY PAUL INGRAM
"My whole life I have been doing things that I never really thought might be possible, and I always had the feeling that no one really expected me to do them either. In a way that is really liberating." New Zealand flutist and University of Colorado at Boulder professor, Alexa Still, is on a mission of her own, right now, to liberate little known or forgotten classics of the modern flute repertoire from the kind of obscurity she herself sprang from, down under. Her partnership with Koch seems born of mutual respect, and the latest fruit has real musical substance: the Pied Piper Fantasy, written by John Corigliano for James Galway in 1981.
" I really, really wanted to record the Pied Piper Fantasy. The Galway recording seems to be deleted: it's such a major piece, and we really need to have it out there."
How did she rate Corigliano's stature? "I think I would actually have to credit him with making 'tuneful' music more desirable in the USA, if you know what I mean. I went through the piece with him a couple of times. A lot of the stuff is borderline impossible to play. A lot of the time when there are repeated notes, I was concerned I wouldn't play the right number. But it was more of a gesture in the notation, and he doesn't really care! And that was a great relief. I learned the tin whistle especially, by the way." The work also liberates the player from a strictly musical role, requiring Still to dress up in Piper costume for live performances and act! "The first couple of times, I wasn't very good at the acting. But I think the piece is so dramatic, the drama is kind of written in there."
This all suggests a real urge to communicate. "When I do a recital, I always make sure I have something that really goes to the heart of things. The end of the Corigliano is very, very moving, perhaps more so in a live situation because the audience is stuck between the sound of what is happening on the stage and this very faint sound in the distance. Reading people's accounts of the work on internet chat-lists, I find it interesting that when they can't remember the name of the piece or the composer, they always recall the experience. If someone comes to a concert and can forget about problems for a little while, that that's great."
Still's problems seem to have related more to being spoiled for choice, thanks to her talent. "I came here to study in the New York when I was a graduate student. I made that decision because I thought Americans made a pretty good job of playing what was on the page, and that might translate into good teaching; I may have been naive, then. I was here for four years doing my masters and doctorate; then I went back to New Zealand to play in the Symphony for 11 years." This was a post she landed at the tender age of 23. I wondered why she had changed course, given the apparently settled equanimity of her personality, but the questioning, sensible, self-aware, and determined side of Still is not far below the surface. "I got to the point where I really just wanted to get a life back. I looked for a teaching job and really liked the people here in Colorado. It has been a great move for me. I wanted to do solo work, and there were conflicts with the orchestral work. I don't think I was indispensable, but they thought I was! I don't regret a second of it, but actually I was quite anxious about leaving it. I've been able to do a lot more chamber music and exciting things like that than I ever managed to do when I was in the orchestra. My playing has developed too, quite a bit."
This seems uncommonly levelheaded, to a point not so common in the world of endless, solitary hours in the practice room. Having learned them all, though, Still teaches a whole range of techniques, yet feels the turn toward more melodic compositional styles to be generally a good thing, especially in terms of the flute. "I think some very great opportunities arise, perhaps as a consequence of the current challenge of finding an audience and the bottom line of making a living. I suspect that many of today's composers might approach what they write quite differently if they were hearing what goes on in the middle of an orchestra and were part of the rehearsal work! The flute is always challenged by balance issues; we have a very hard time competing with loud brass, or even full strings if we are scored in the lower register for instance, and while composers rightly assume that a flute is a facile instrument, fast moving lines can become blurred, especially so if the writing is generally too dense." Still has praise here for Shostakovish and Mahler, as well as Zwilich and Rouse among moderns. "I haven't played Corigliano's symphonic works, but I am a complete fan. His writing proves that he has obviously gone to great lengths to understand all of the instruments."
Which flutists were responsible for this instrumental renaissance? "It is actually very difficult to leave Sir James Galway out of this, simply because he has a great presence, and his commissioning has paid such wonderful dividends for us all. It annoys me when people are scathing about what he has achieved out of jealousy. A good deal of what he does is just sensible commercial presentation. And Jean Pierre Rampal was a very frequent soloist in the country, so he too contributed a great deal. To name just a few Americans, I think Paula Robison has a wonderful presence about her. Her vitality inspires any audience person to return to a concert. Carol Wincenc is also a very distinctive player, and has put together some wonderful commission projects."
Why is the notion of a woman flutist still more acceptable than a female composer or conductor, at least in some parts of the world? "The sadly realistic answer to this is that the common perception of a flute is a 'cute' and 'pretty' instrument, befitting what remains the common perception of a woman. Of course, I refuse to accept that as a definition of the flute! And I hope this continues to change, that women will become the norm in every arena, that gender will cease to be any issue at all. I have absolute faith that it will eventually." The other two composers on the new Koch disc are women: Chen Yi and Catherine Hoover. Would they see their femininity as having any bearing on their work at all? "Yi would probably think the fact she was a woman was irrelevant. Catherine would say it's a very important thing. Yi lived through the Cultural Revolution. She does it because she has a strong sense of calling in her life. Catherine became a composer the hard way, and she's someone who hasn't had a whole lot of breaks: well-known in the New York area, but not very well known compared to the other two. She started out just being a flutist."
It was still a mystery how the girl from rural New Zealand had turned into such a matchless instrumentalist, and top-of-the tree academic, as well as notably sane-sounding human being. Most of us do not have the determination. "I grew up on a farm, and I used to climb out of my window in the morning, and do stuff around the place, while other people were still sleeping, and to some extenst I still do that, do my own thing. I've never been one to follow in other people's footsteps, in a traditional way. My brother was intellectually handicapped, and my parents evidently decided to compensate, and that I needed to learn recorder at four, so I was ahead of the game by the time they other kids got recorders. They're great, cheap and indestructible. So there were all these recorders playing and God help the person who was standing at the front. But I was an ace recorder player, and though I would like to think that I am not motivate by that, I think the fact I was good at that felt nice. That's a basic part of me I'm sure, having something I can celebrate about myself."
But why the flute? "I think I probably wanted a saxophone, really. I didn't know what I was doing when I was a kid. Dad played sax in a jazz setting, but I got a flute pretty early on. I was sick a lot of the time when I was a kid, rather a pathetic weakling. I spent a lot of time in bed. A flute was something I could fiddle around on. My parents didn't have a piano."
And how has this upbringing translated into maturity? "Now, more than ever, I am personally influenced and inspired by a much more diverse world, and I think the pressure on creative people to make art essential has mostly produced better art. I think the bottom line of what I try to do is transport someone, even if only for a just a moment."
So what can we expect, in the near future? " I am currently working towards a recording a disc of what I refer to as New-Agey new music, but I am quite sure that is not going to be the title of the disc! I'll be recording it with Stephen Gosling in January. I really appreciate Koch's classical producer and head of A&R Susan Napodano Del Giorno's enthusiasm for this project. Flute players will readily recognize the Carl Vine sonata. Other repertoire we are looking at includes works by Joseph Schwantner, Paul Schoenfield, John Corigliano (again) and British flutist/composer Ian Clarke"
To try and keep balance in her busy life, as well as working out, Still tries to stay involved with people who aren't necessarily musicians. "Sometimes in biking clubs. I drive motorcycles. The academic life here helps, but I may be in an exceptional situation: there is very little professional jealousy. The environment's great, so are the students, and colleagues are very supportive of what I want to do. No one gives me grief about anything." Does it help, being a Kiwi? "I think it does, in that it means I never have anything to lose! I have always been lucky in not putting too much pressure on myself. I feel I am along for a ride, and this is really, really fun. If it all crashes, I'll take up painting!"
No chance of a crash anytime soon, for this remarkable instrumentalist, and sane, warm, and witty human being, for whom most things, now seem possible.