April 2006

An Interview with Robert Aitken
by Stanley Fefferman
Canadian flutist, conductor and composer, Robert Aitken was principal flutist of the Vancouver SO (1958–9) and of the Toronto SO (1965–70). In 1971 he was a prizewinner of the Concours International de Flûte de Paris. In 1964 he formed the Lyric Arts Trio with his wife, the pianist Marion Ross, and the soprano Mary Morrison.

He is musical director of New Music Concerts (Toronto) and Music Today (Shaw Festival, Ontario), as well as a soloist whose engagements take him to Europe, North America, Japan and Iceland. Some 50 works have been written for him by composers including Carter, Crumb, R. Murray Schafer and Takemitsu.

From 1985 to 1989 he was director of the advanced studies in music programme at Banff School of Fine Arts, Alberta, and in 1988 became a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany. Aitken has been artistic director of New Music Concerts (NMC), Toronto, since the organization’s inception in 1971.

This interview took place in Toronto on April 10, 2006

The Live Music Report The curator you chose for the upcoming NMC concert — Baltic Currents — the Lithuanian composer Raminte Sneksnyte, is quoted as saying: “A composition is a certain uplifted state of mind materialized by means of sound. Its impressiveness depends on the composer’s technical mastery.” How did you connect with her, and could you comment on the substance of the quote?

Robert Aitken Raminte is a very thinking composer. She has no patience for unthinking composers. She has a very different ear.

I met a group of Lithuanian composers called The Vilnius Music Ensemble that came to a summer course for composers, mostly from Eastern Europe, when the Berlin Wall was still up. Their pieces were different from anybody else’s. They just had a different ear — charming, surprising, uplifting. It’s not a heavy music. It’s a virtuosic approach to contemporary music. I connected with them. That led to Raminte being recommended as composer for a show on Lithuanian music that NMC did in Toronto three years ago.

When she came, she wrote a new string quartet. I looked at it and I said, “Oh no, not that stuff again”, because it was mostly graphic. But when she started to work with the Accord String Quartet, it was another story. She knew exactly what she wanted from every single item. The piece came off terrifically and has been very successful since then. She rewrote it some time later, with actual rhythms and notations, and it has become a frequently performed piece. So, after getting to know her, we entrusted her with the curating of this Baltic Concert program.

Robert Aitken
LMR Serksnyte’s work is said to be dominated by ‘sonorism’ and by the ‘neo-romantic’ idiom that goes back to Liszt, Wagner, and Strauss. Could you comment?

RA I guess that’s what you’d call it because there is still plenty of harmony there, but she stretches each instrument to the maximum.

LMR The piece that she chose for this concert by Andres Dzenitis (1978-), Seven Madrigals by e e cummings, has been described as “music of almost medieval purity and passion”. When I read that, I was reminded of what I’d read about you at 19: principal flute with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and studying Palestrina counterpoint with Barbara Pentland. Then the next year you go to study electronic music with John Myron Schaeffer. You’d taken hold of both ends of the stick. How do ancient and current musical inspirations mix in you today?

RA That’s very interesting. I think there’s a similarity, because both are based very much on sound almost for its own sake.

Recently there was a concert of music by Spahlinger [Mathias Spahlinger (1944-) who became head of the composition department at Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg in 1990]. Freiburg has always been a very strong, hard-edged contemporary music scene. It was a concert where they did mix medieval and his piece. And of course, it worked very well, because there is in both a certain going for the effect of sound — sonorities. The beauty of the music is in how the sound affects you. The effect on us is one of sonorous landscape.

LMR The music critic Ken Winters wrote that your “interest in timbre often leads to the use of extra musical effects and extended techniques.” Could you elaborate?

RA In most cases, it’s just using instruments for their idiomatic possibilities, looking for the sonic possibilities of each instrument. We call it extended techniques, but they are quite different if you’re doing them on a clarinet or a violin, a piano or a cello.

LMR You wouldn’t want to hit a clarinet with a chopstick or a pen!

RA Right. Flutter tongues, special kinds of tongues or wind sounds are the kind of sounds you can only get on a particular wind instrument. The problem is not all players can do these things easily. Sometimes they have to be learned, same as you have to learn to play the instrument in the first place. As a teacher, I don’t take flutists there right away. When I was teaching in Freiburg, another flute player wrote to the Director and asked to do a course on the contemporary flute because she heard that Robert Aitken wasn’t really teaching it [Laughter].

It’s funny. All of my students, by the time they graduate, can play contemporary music very well. But if in the first year I had put them on those techniques, they wouldn’t have been able to play the flute as well. I think certain extended techniques come after you’ve learned how to control the instrument. If you extend somebody too soon, they don’t really learn to play the instrument.

My composition in the Ken Winters article you refer to is called Spiral. I wrote it in 1975 for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The four principal winds were amplified, and the amplification was under their seats so the public couldn’t see that there were loudspeakers around. The piece began tonally, and then the wind players started to break up the orchestra with all these complicated extended techniques. Because they were amplified, they were able to overtake the orchestra eventually. They overtook the orchestra, the orchestra began to crumble: it went into all sorts of extended techniques — the string players, brass players, and everybody else. At which point the four amplified wind players slipped back into tonality, and because they were amplified, they were able to sing tonally over a completely destroyed orchestra.

I went back stage afterward, and the conductor, Mario Bernardi, well, he was not so happy with the piece [Laughs]. The second night of rehearsal, I went backstage and Mario said: “Last night there was a lady in the audience, a big supporter who gives us lots of money, and she hated your piece. She hated it so much she went home and listened to the radio rebroadcast that was going an hour later on CBC. She phoned me today and said, ‘You know, I didn’t find it so bad’ [Laughs].

But you know, Mario Bernardi went on to play that piece several times on tour and then conducted it with the BBC Symphony. I went to the BBC rehearsal. Well!!! When I write extended techniques, I make sure I can do them. I get a trumpet and I do it. I get an oboe and I do it. And I make sure it’s all at the same tempo.

The name of the first trumpet player at the BBC was a man named Wilberforce. He had just won a Grand Prix de Disque for his trumpet record and he was on top of the world. Mario Bernardi starts to conduct this piece and this Wilberforce puts up his hand and says, “Mr. Bernardi, Mr. Bernardi, this is impossible. No one can play this.” So Mario turns to me sitting in the audience and says, “Bob, Mr. Wilberforce says there’s an impossible part there.” So I went up on the stage and asked him, “Which part?” And he showed me. I said, “Can I borrow your trumpet?” He said, “YES!” and !boom! He thrust the trumpet out at me. I took it, and I did it. The orchestra was laughing like crazy.

A little bit later with the first oboe player — same problem. I went up and said ‘Do you mind if I take your oboe.’ I took it, and I did it. After that, the whole tune changed. People said to me, “Mr. Aitken could you come over here and show me how to do this?” In the end, there was cooperation everywhere and it was working very nicely. Nowadays I don’t do that very much or take it that far. Extended techniques are very interesting if they’re done properly. Most of the time, though, people just muck around and make a noise.

LMR Can we talk about composition techniques and contemporary methods of notation?

RA The first spatial notation I saw was when I was 19, and Udo Kasemets [Composer, 1919-] had a series called “Men, Minds, and Music” at the Brodie School in Toronto. He knew I was composing, and had a genuine interest in playing contemporary music, so he gave me a photocopy of Sequenza by Luciano Berio (1925-2003). It was written in ’58. This was ’59, and I was being asked to give it the first North American performance. I thought, “Wow, how am I going to play this?”

Luciano also was using a kind of spatial notation, just putting the notes on the page at a certain distance. That is a very genuine notation in fact, and more accurate than if you write quarter notes and eighth notes or seven in the time of thirteen. In fact, if you take an inch and put six notes in there in a certain way, it’s more accurate than if you put it in sixteenth notes or if you divide the whole measure into 50 and you make it 5 parts of 50 and 11 parts of 50. It’s much better with the eye, if the player is reasonable about the whole thing. That was a very serious notation, but not everybody used it that way, and a lot of players used it as an excuse to improvise.

LMR Is there something more you can say about improvisation?

RA If you talk about improvisation, there are many different ways. It can be very flabby if your improvisation is just imitating the other person. It gets boring. And it also gets boring if a guy is up there improvising whatever he feels like, whatever he chooses. But there are some composers who write improvised pieces that bring an incredible tension to the performance and a lot of concentration to the performer as well as the audience.

One of those is Vinko Globokar [1934- French composer and trombone player of Yugoslav Slovenian origin]. When we brought Vinko to Toronto in ‘84, we did a piece for four players. It’s all written at the start and then it breaks down. As it breaks down it tells you “Copy instrument #1”. Eventually it gets to the point where it says “Copy the pitch level of instrument #1 with the dynamic level of instrument #2 and the rhythm of instrument #3. This is improvising with a lot of concentration. You see what’s happening to the improvising now?

LMR Yes, it’s like three-dimensional chess they play on Star Trek.

RA That’s right. Then it will say, “Play the opposite pitch level of instrument #1 with the opposite dynamic level of instrument #2 with the rhythm of instrument #3.” So then it starts to go like that. And it gets to a point towards the end of the piece where it says, “Do something that has not been done in this piece before [Laughs]. That is the end of the piece of course, when you get there. Because that could mean ‘stand on your chair’ or ‘throw your chair on the floor’ or ‘break your reed’, because at this point so much has been done that you would have to go pretty far to do something that hasn’t been done. So, improvisation can be fabulous if it’s used in an intelligent way.

Globokar has a lot of good ideas. I don’t always like his music, but I like his ideas. When the whale songs were so important — when Crumb wrote his Vox Ballaenae Balaenae [1971 a suite based on the songs of the humpbacked whale] — Globokar did a choir for whales. The choir all had earphones and they had to imitate the whale sounds that they heard in their earphones. Well you can imagine what kind of choir piece you’d get there. It was quite amazing.

LMR Would you like to say something about the concert tour of Taiwan you are undertaking in a few days time?

RA It’s a tough one. I play the Reinecke Concerto [Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), Concerto in D major for flute & orchestra, Op. 283] twice with their National Orchestra. I play a recital with many of my favourites pieces, which are very difficult — none of them, by the way is contemporary music. During a lecture I give before the flute recital, on my favourite topic “Music as a Language”, I play a lot of contemporary music. Also, I give a few master classes and see some old friends. It’s a busy schedule, and the day I arrive back here, we begin rehearsals for the Baltic Concert.

LMR I’ve enjoyed this so much, Bob. Best wishes for a fascinating musical journey. I’m looking forward to the Baltic Concert.

RA I expect it will be a very good concert. Thank you for your interest.

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Stanley Fefferman
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The Live Music Report
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