Saturday, May 24, 2014

Let's Talk about (Recorder) Love, part 1

I peaked last Sunday morning, 18 May, 2014. My whole life, in one respect, led up to that day’s hour between 11 a.m. and noon.

It wasn’t peaking at the same level that getting married is, or having children is, or having children get married is. Those are the Himalayas of life geography, to me anyway.

No, this was a lesser peak, but still a significant one. Let’s just call it my Ararat, for an obvious reason: Last Sunday I peaked as a recorder player by performing the solo treble (alto) part in my church’s production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde.

Britten composed his setting of the Noah story designedly to accommodate the varied abilities of amateur and professional musicians. Thus, the treble recorder part calls for a solo player and ripieno players. Ripieno recorders? I knew the term from its association with violin family members in the Baroque concerto grosso, which alternates between sections of the whole orchestra playing together—the ripieno passages—and sections when just the soloists play. As one who’s been in a roomful of people learning to play recorder at the same time, I had to question the wisdom of this particular aspect of Britten’s orchestration.

Happily for the musical quality of the production (I like to think), there were no ripieno treble recorders. It was just myself along with two descant (soprano) recorders, both played tastefully and in tune by my wife and one of my daughters. Three is a good number of recorders. More than that, and the warbling starts to move along the timbrometer in the direction of shrieking.

Three is an even better number of recorders if it’s two parents and an offspring. It was the second time for me—so that I now realize with no small bemusement that maybe the peaking was indeed of an Himalayan scale.

I’ve been a recorder player since I was a child. My parents played recorder. My mother taught me to play; my father set a rigorous performance standard. Occasionally we performed as a trio—The Barry Consort—in churches or at the occasional downtown arts festival in Chattanooga.

I still have the books we played from. Most of the music consists of keyboard or string pieces transcribed—in a peculiar mid-20th century variation of Tin Pan Alley—by arrangers who seem to have lived off the ravenous hunger for something, anything for recorder demanded by participants in the great recorder revival (the recorder having gone extinct in the 19th century).

The picture above show the cover of an exceptional case: a recorder trio actually composed for recorders in the early 1700's. My mother's handwriting shows that its 5 movements--minus the Overture, which her handwriting says to "skip"--took 10 minutes to perform. (Notice the stamps: House of Music on 732 Cherry St., Chattanooga--back then music stores had music, meaning sheet music; and my father's handmade recorder name stamp.)

At less than 2 minutes per, our selections were generally very short—often, in the case of the up-tempo ones, less than a minute. These tunes were originally written to be danced to, and as such, originally, would have been repeated 3 or 4 times, then followed by other tunes, similarly repeated, to form a long enough set to make the dancers require a break to refresh themselves with perry, flip, or shrub.

Here's the first page from a two-page piece from the Faber book shown above. I just timed a "performance" of the whole thing in my head, with repeats as marked. It took 44 seconds.

These pieces The Barry Consort played one time through. There was no dancing to recorder music at downtown arts festivals in Chattanooga. This meant my father did a lot of talking to pad the program, which was fine, really, because nobody knew what continent recorders came from or what they ate or why anybody would want to consort with them. With that level of not knowing, everyone seemed okay with letting my father be the ranger in a musical Jurassic Park.

Among the first things you learn about these creatures is that there are two sets of fingerings, which go by the names of the pitches that sound when you cover all the holes: C and F. At first I played the C-fingered instruments, the soprano and tenor. In the trios played by The Barry Consort the soprano generally had the prominent part—the “lead” or the “melody” or whatever label best says “here be flash.” Naturally that was the part I wanted to play, but I would’ve had to assassinate my father to have it, so I settled for the backup quarterback role: I could scrimmage by myself with the soprano part, but in performance I played tenor. Functioning musically as the bass voice of the ensemble, it was the largest of the three instruments, and it was being played by the smallest person in the trio. Thus, quite early on, I became aware of the many ways that size does and does not matter.

In The Barry Consort my mother played the F-fingered alto recorder, which, sounding the inner voice, is analogous to the viola in a string ensemble. I think it was the Bohemian composer Dvorak who said the viola is the most important instrument in the orchestra. The viola is also the butt of most instrument jokes. It must’ve been these I was channeling in my musically preconscious recorder trio days: alto equals viola does not equal flash.

Except, as I was soon to learn, alto does not necessarily equal viola. In Baroque music, it turns out, alto equals rock star. When J. S. Bach writes a part for “flauto,” he doesn’t mean flute like we think of flute. He’s using the term as shorthand for “flauto dolce,” which was Baroque music’s term for the alto recorder, one of its pre-eminent solo voices. I hadn’t ever been a real lover of Baroque music until I went to college and began playing Bach on the oboe. I was hooked. So badly did I want to learn F fingering and play Bach’s Brandenburg flauto parts that I dreamed myself into it: I had a dream that mapped out the alto’s F-fingering for me. I’d gone to bed unable to read alto recorder music; when I woke up the ability was there.

I learned those Brandenburg parts; I learned a whole book of alto recorder parts from the Bach cantatas; I never performed them, but I scrimmaged them. I coulda been a contenda.

(The music above is one of my favorites: the recorder part to the aria Bestelle dein Haus from Cantata 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.)

I did go on to work out a folk-rock improvisational style on the recorder that my friend Lawson Garrett let me use in some of his songs.

But at the age of 60, while I didn’t think about it much, I would’ve told anyone that my recorder glory days had happened back when I was playing tenor with The Barry Consort in a big tent out in front of the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga and questioning the appeal of 50-second one-off tunes.

When the church music director asked me a couple of months ago if I knew any recorder players who’d help with a performance of Noye’s Fludde, I told him I’d try to find some (I know a few musicians). I wasn’t eager to play—I had the idea that Britten’s use of recorders would be infantile, along the lines of Carl Orff. Nothing against Carl Orff at all. I just didn’t want to tootle rudiments. While I was procrastinating on finding any other recorder players, the music director got the music to me.

Holy spit.

This wasn’t Orff. This was a real alto recorder part. It ran the gamut from the lowest notes to the highest ones. It had difficult keys. It had some demanding passage-work. It had … flutter tonguing. Flutter tonguing! That’s when you roll your r’s while blowing. I could do it, but I’d never ever performed a flutter tongue. More than a part, the alto recorder had a role: as the voice of the dove in the Noah story, it’s the recorder that delivers the musical news of dry land to the passengers of the ark.

Even so, I can’t say I jumped at the opportunity. Could a church choir pull this off? There would be one rehearsal of the entire production. Just one?  Just one rehearsal for a Britten opera? Those are long odds. Even if the story has the ark making it through the flood unscathed, there was no guarantee that we would. I practiced my part and hoped for the best.

As it happened, the choir’s core soloists—vocal majors at ETSU, along with a couple of others in their cohort—carried the main parts with aplomb, and, with them leading the way, Britten’s crafted involvement of choir, children,  instruments, and a hymn-singing congregation worked its magic.

While somewhere in the orchestra, helping the ark to Ararat, a recorder player wound up high and dry on a peak of his own.


  1. I wish I could have heard the performance!

  2. It was a pleasure for me to join you and my then wife Rhonda and the then St Pauls' Episcopal (Chattanooga) organist Bill Knaus in a performance of Esurientes from the Bach Magnificat. I have no sense of time (in any sense) so can only say this must have been before 1989. We had our own short-lived consort, which I will always remember.

    Clinton Slayton

  3. I guess my peak was in the short-lived consort we had with my then wife Rhonda, your present wife, and our forays into live performance. Of course the sound was ephemeral, cannot say how we did, but I will always remember the Esurientes from Bach Magnificat with St Paul's Episcopal organist (Chattanooga) Bill Knaus. My only sense of time exists while playing, I have no other, so all I can say is that this was before 1989.

    Good Times!
    Clinton Slayton (never yet mistaken for Michala Petri)

    1. I vaguely remember this little group doing a Christmas-season event at UTC's Guerry Hall that might have involved wearing, on a cold winter night, "period costume," which for recorderists means a floppy hat, burlap tunic, and tights.