This article was published in the December 2017 SEMFA Newsletter.
As I approach my graduation date this coming spring at Bowling Green State University, I have found myself searching for unique musical opportunities that push boundaries of many classical traditions of flute playing. Having been surrounded by so much contemporary music during my time at BGSU, I developed a great appreciation for this genre and a great passion for performing it. This exposure to many different types of contemporary instrumental performances that utilize unique instrumentations, extended techniques, and cross genres with various different art forms has taught me that truly anything is possible within the music industry. I am interested in learning more about the journeys of professional flutists who have built careers outside of the orchestral industry, and I have taken a particular interest to the field of interdisciplinary performance.
This past summer, I served an internship with the National Flute Association at their annual convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Some of the perks of my internship included being able to watch dress rehearsals of the gala concerts, featuring performances by some of my idols. I first encountered Zara Lawler as I was monitoring the door for her dress rehearsal before the Sunday afternoon Gala Concert, the closing concert of the 2017 NFA Convention. She was running through her choreographed performance of Berio's Sequenza, which included acrobatic movements throughout a rolling metal frame, traveling across the stage while playing her flute.
I was completely in awe of how powerful and unique this performance was, and it was something I did not even realize was a possibility for flutists. Since the convention, I have thought about that performance frequently and wanted to find out more about Ms. Lawler's career and how she got her start in the field of interdisciplinary performance. Zara Lawler was gracious to answer a few interview questions from myself for this article, and her answers greatly impacted me in a very positive way as a performer. I will definitely be trying out her suggestions to incorporate movement in my playing in my next practice session! If you are interested in learning more about Zara Lawler and her upcoming performances, please visit her website at zaralawler.com.
1. What first inspired you to begin incorporating choreography and acting into your flute playing, and what are some of your favorite interdisciplinary performances you have given so far?
ZL: I have always loved spectacle. In music school, I LOVED when we would do operas and ballets, because it was so great to feel like we were part of something bigger. I never had the idea that I would actually move while playing until I asked my cousin, who was studying dance, if she would like to do a project with me sometime. She said yes, but she would expect me to move too. At first I balked! "What? Dance and play at the same time?" Then the next day in my practice room, I danced a bit while doing my scales and I was immediately hooked, and convinced it was a viable way to perform. Ironically, the collaboration with my cousin never happened, but that was the seed of the idea!
It's hard to nail down a few favorite performances. Directing the US premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino's Il Cerchio Tagliato Dei Suoni at the Guggenheim, was pretty amazing! It was so fun because it involved the whole NYC flute community--kids as young as six, college students, top freelancers, and a few stars like Carol Wincenc, not to mention our stellar soloists Claire Chase, Eric Lamb, Jayn Rosenfeld and Kelli Kathman...and it was a group effort of all involved to realize the composer's vision in a way that worked in the beautiful rotunda of the Guggenheim.
I also am really in love with TimeFrame, the choreography for Berio's Sequenza created in collaboration with Neil Parsons, my long-time choreographer/collaborator. It is SO fun and challenging, and compelling for the audience. And I get to stand on my head while playing the flute!
2. Did you always have a vision of incorporating interdisciplinary performance into your musical career, or has it been a passion that you have developed over time?
ZL: It's funny, my first performance on the flute was in fifth grade, for an event at my elementary school that was about the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge (over the Hudson River), and the various buildings that were torn down or moved to make that happen. I played London Bridge Is Falling Down while people paraded by with hand painted representations of Victorian houses...so my interest in multidisciplinary community-based performances comes from the very first days of my flute playing!!!
That said, it has developed over time...and it took me a long time to really get deeply into it. Even though I did little projects here and there over a number of years after I graduated from Juilliard, it wasn't until I joined Tales & Scales, a group that specialized in combining music performance with dance and theater for young audiences, that I realized this was my real calling, my life's work. It was also in Tales & Scales where I met Neil who has choreographed so many pieces for me, and Paul Fadoul, my percussion partner.
3. How did the incorporation of movement and choreography benefit your flute playing and what are some exercises that interested flutists could try at home as beginners to introduce acting and movement into their own performances?
ZL: Playing while moving requires that your airstream be very strong...I feel like it is a great demonstration of the primacy of the airstream. It has also made me be very creative about where and when I breathe--I often have to take two or three times as many breaths as I would if I were just standing and playing. Another great benefit is that I don't worry much about tiny things, like my fingers. I find that many of the technical hang-ups and difficulties that I have when I am playing without moving evaporate when I start thinking about my big muscles (ie my legs, back, etc) instead of my small ones (ie my fingers and lips!)!
To get started, try dancing around while you play your scales. I like to just do something repetitive, like a grapevine step, or a fake Charleston, while I do my chromatic scales. Then, when I'm doing Taffanel Gaubert No. 4, I alternate standing still for one key (and its minor) and then standing in a yoga pose for the next key. It's kind of fun, and a little challenging, but not super hard. If you know some standing yoga poses (tree, warrior, goddess...), try it. If you don't know yoga poses, you can just make some up by putting your body into an interesting shape and staying there while you play your scales.
Then, think about a project you'd like to try...if you have an idea you have for a piece or performance, go for it! Make the moves up yourself, for find your friendly neighborhood choreographer and enlist him or her! Don't let lack of experience stop you...just give it a try. It doesn't have to be super fancy to be a good place to start. It also doesn't have to be long, or be the whole show. It's lovely to include an interdisciplinary piece on a more "standard" recital.
4. What is some advice you have for flutists looking to pursue a career in interdisciplinary performance, or a similar concept involving unique performance art?
ZL: How to cover that topic in a few sentences?! I think that interdisciplinary performance is definitely becoming a thing, though I think it still needs an official name. "Interdisciplinary performance" seems too broad, and too academic...but I don't have a better suggestion at the moment.
Nonetheless, I think it's important to work to realize one's artistic vision. It's always a good idea to enlist an outside eye--a theater director, a choreographer, another artist. You can't see what you are doing, and you can't really know if your vision is coming to life unless someone reflects back to you what they are experiencing.
I also thing funding is hugely important. Learn to raise money, either by grants or just asking your network to support the art. Pay your collaborators. Pay yourself. The challenge with such a new approach to work is that you can't just get a gig doing it...so you need to raise funds to make it sustainable.
And know that doing work that includes other disciplines takes WAY MORE TIME than doing a regular concert. Memorization takes time, creating movement or theater takes time, setting up in the performance space takes time, etc. But it's worth it!!
By: Francesca Leo