January 21, 2003
On the flight back from Paris to New York.
We've had a great tour, first in London for a week, then to France where we had two days in the Normandy city of Caen and then a week in Paris. Such beautiful places, and a lot of interest in the music. We did very well throughout, and were sold out in Paris before we even arrived; not a single ticket available for any of the concerts. After the performances, they went nuts, the first night calling us back six times for bows.
Even though I got sick for a day (the whole band had this strange illness, one after another, which came on very strongly and passed within two days), it was great fun being in Paris. Although politically there are some issues there, the people have this wonderful sense of daily aesthetics-- the way they treasure music and painting is reflected also in the way they appreciate a properly made baguette, inspecting it, squeezing it here and there, overall appreciating it, with all kinds of facial expressions, hand gestures and words.
Of course, my flutes were made in Paris, over a hundred years ago, when there was a group of master flutemakers centered around the shops of Godfroy and Lot, in central Paris, near the Opera and the old Conservatoire. Our concerts were held further out, in the (relatively) new Cite de la Musique, which is a complex housing a major concert hall, recital halls, an important museum of musical instruments, cafes, and the new building of the Paris Conservatoire. Pierre Boulez is still the head of the Cite de la Musique, and his Ensemble InterContemporain is housed there, indeed they were rehearsing all around our dressing rooms and stage entrance area this week, smoking cigarettes by the hundreds and working out their post-Modern French compositions, which are as difficult to play as they are to hear.
Upon arriving in Paris, I first walked across the street to the instrument museum, a place I've wanted to visit for years, even having taken the metro from central Paris once only to find it closed for the day, several years ago. It would be wrong to call it a 'conversation', since my language skills are so poor, but after spending a few minutes showing the museum ticket people my backstage ID and all that, Mick (the newest Glass Ensemble member) and I were invited into the museum as guests with a bit of a flourish. Inside there are amazing things, the whole evolution of European instruments mapped out with superb specimens; all kinds of instrument designs which disappeared or were swallowed into our modern conventions. Of course I was particularly interested in the evolution of the woodwinds, and they have recorders there of the most beautiful construction, as well as recorders standing over seven feet high, larger than today's contrabassoon by far.
Today nearly all clarinetists play on instruments made by the French company Buffet; there they had clarinets made by Buffet himself in the mid Nineteenth century. In Paris at the same time, there was a famous competition held between the proponents of the new silver flutes with full key systems and the previous system, narrow bore wood flutes with six keys. The judges were the director of the Paris Conservatoire and the Paris Opera's main conductors. Of course, the young students at the Conservatoire were desperate to be allowed to adopt the new silver flute, which they felt had a larger and more flexible sound as well as better facilitating playing in all keys; the competition was supposed to end the dispute between the old and new garde. The most difficult music was selected, and each group was to send forward its best representative. Naturally, it is easier to play such virtuoso fare on the modern system, which had just been developed at that time (still in use today), but the wooden flute old guard put forward their great master, Tulou, who was such a phenomenal player that he defeated the new system proponents and for another twenty years the modern flute was off limits within the main venues of the Parisian music world. One of Tulou's flutes, hand made by Tulou himself, is on display in the museum, and although I play flutes made by the original generation of master makers of the silver flute, the direct competitors who took his position by about 1865, it was wonderful to see Tulou's famous flute. The museum also has a set of saxophones built by Adolphe Sax, and eight Stradivarius violins, including the one played by Sarasate, but thankfully all but one were out on loan.
After my brief illness, it was back to the touring schedule: out in the city to museums and instrument shops early in the day, a stop for lunch with friends or a book, back to the hotel for some practicing, over to the concert hall, out for a long dinner afterward. I have never experienced the rude French waiter; to the contrary, my impression always is that eating in France is like a kind of first amendment thing... it is a right and a duty. It may be difficult for the waiter if you don't speak French, but they're professionals with a lot of pride in their work, and they are deeply committed to providing what in their view is unquestionably the finest food in the history of mankind. This right to fine eating is far more important to the French than where you are from, which, as important as it is to the Europeans, is nowhere near the same level as every human's right to a four hour dinner.
If you happen to be a little bit sick, however, you've got a lot of trouble in France, at least without your own kitchen and access to the wonderful markets that dot the neighborhoods. On another trip to Paris with Phil and the Ensemble, we stayed in an apartment hotel, in suites with kitchens, and for two weeks I would cook a lunch of greens and rice and then have post concert dinners in the French manner; but this time we were in a luxury hotel which didn't have such low-end comforts. So as each member of the band recovered from the 24 hour bug, they'd be seen going to the closest Chinese restaurant for steamed rice and soup. Some in the group weren't really eating for days, but I solved that by some advanced food practice. After a morning on Rue de Rome scouring the stacks of the music shops, my stomach began complaining, half hungry and half queasy. Eating hours are strict in France, and if you miss lunch nothing is open until dinner, but we're at work in the evening until 10pm, and that can be a long day... so at 2pm I fell into a brasserie which looked much too good to waste on a stomach which was unsure of itself. Inside I couldn't find anything on the menu which would be remotely like what I would make for someone feeling as I was, but I implemented the round-about technique, ordering a huge bowl of mussels, pomme frite and an Alsatian beer. After the first taste of the mussels, a fried potato and the beer, I felt fabulous and have felt great since.
In the music shops one aim was to compare editions of flute etudes associated with the old Paris flute school (of which Rampal was just about the last example.) In America we also study those etudes, Andersen and such, but using American editions. Although the great flute tradition of France is only a memory there, and the local players now sound just like anyone from Japan, England or wherever, I was curious what editions they played from. The big flute music shop in Paris is La Flute de Pan, which is set up with a counter between the stock and the customers. I asked so many questions that the sales staff just waived me back into the stacks where I spent a couple of hours making comparisons. The French flute tradition is from another age, an elegant age which used words sparingly, and although there are classic pedagogical books from the core of the tradition, most of the teaching was extremely general and by inspiration of example. We have Taffanel and Gaubert's book, but nothing in it really explains the mastery of Gaubert's playing, caught in the early days of audio recording. Of particular interest to me, then, were a few books attempting to write a bit more, written toward the end of the era of great French flutists. It was a race to articulate in words what was disappearing in practice.
Returning to the Cité de la Musique after lunch, I was reading Robert Heriché's wonderful little book of daily exercises (Heriché, flutist at the Paris Opera, was a student of Gaubert's, graduating from the Conservatoire in 1921, and a friend of Rampal's). He says so much with so few words, almost imploring new flutists to be less shallow in their approach. "Respect the character of the instrument.... exclude any idea of force, obtain the most natural emission possible, with ease and suppleness... play with a maximum of relaxation, without useless gestures. Use only indispensable muscles, seeking a perfect equilibrium between the necessary effort and general relaxation. As regards the flute, the sound projection depends much more on the richness of timbre than the intensity of volume...."
Meanwhile, across the aisle in the metro car two elderly men had entered and sat down, both red-faced from the cold and probably considerably more wine with lunch than the small glass of healing beer I had had with mine. Clearly very old friends, one held a baguette in one hand, only two-thirds covered in the typical skinny bread bag. They were having a highly animated discussion over the baguette, clearly admiring its perfection.
Squeezing carefully up and down the loaf, the man holding it was showing the other how it was soft at the center and firm at the edges, and look here, at this part, also just right, and this part, also perfect. I didn't understand much of their French, but their highly dramatic running commentary of facial expressions, hand gestures and non-language vocal soundtrack was easy to understand. I loved imagining how many baguettes these guys must have appraised over the last seventy or eighty years. And I realized that Heriché, while writing his advice to us future musicians, must have desired to pass on the real meaning of his tradition by those means, by facial language and hand gestures, as well as, of course, demonstration. His simple statements, such as use only indispensable muscles must have been delivered with a physical demonstration of his own way of
relaxing the dispensable, and within that demonstration would be something even a great writer would fail to put into words. In France, at least, the transcription of a baguette discussion is only a fraction of the whole.
That evening at the hall, I played my Louis Lot (built on Rue de Madeleine, Paris, 1875) with only indispensable muscles. Normally mixing influences from many teachers and many styles, that night I played as close to the sound of Dufrene, early Rampal and Gaubert as I could pull from my sound memory and put through my breath. It was a tremendous experience, even though I know that the French flutists teaching and studying next door in the Conservatoire have long ago given up playing Louis Lots and the style that goes with them. Even Philip was unusually animated, especially pleased to be bringing his own tribute to French music finally to Paris, his score for Cocteau's La Belle et La Bette. As I said, the audience went wild at the end, and although I missed it myself, the Ensemble members told me that I apparently had two groupies; from the students given seats on the floor between the front row and the stage, two apparently gestured clearly to me while applauding, enough to make my colleagues laugh and tease me about it afterward. But really, they were just applauding their own tradition, something which they may not have heard in that way: an old French flute impeccably restored to best playing life, played in at least a tribute to what must have been going on all over Paris not so very long ago.