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The Joy of Making Music – David Bellugi

Known for his enthusiasm for different ethnic flute cultures, the recorder player David Bellugi has created a personal approach to different aspects of the recorder repertoire. In 2005, Nik Tarasov met with him in Italy, David’s home base, and reports their discussion on inspiring aspects of being a musician.

Windkanal: You are living in Italy. Are you Italian?
David Bellugi: My father is Italian. But my mother was born in Germany but her family fled to the United States in 1934.

Was this connected to the German political situation at that time?
Yes, perhaps a family anecdote will explain the situation: my grandfather was a scientist and worked for Zeiss in Jena, where my mother was born. When his job was taken away due to the racial laws, the family fled Germany, initially to Holland, and was split up among relatives. My grandfather traveled extensively looking for jobs and corresponding with physics departments from all over the world. When it became necessary to make a decision as to where to emigrate, my grandfather called his wife long distance and said: “I have two concrete offers. Where would you like to go: to the U.S. of A. or to the USSR?” My grandmother said “USSR”, but due to the bad connection, he understood “U.S. of A.”  So we went to America where, through a recommendation of his teacher and colleague Albert Einstein, my grandfather was given a job at Kodak in Rochester NY, where he worked until he retired, and that’s also the place where I was born.
My father, on the other hand, was born in Florence, Italy and met my mother in the United States where he had studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein and Raphael Kubelik. He subsequently became the director of the Oakland Symphony. My parents separated when I was very young, but I came to Europe almost every summer and because of this I have always had a strong connection to Europe.

When did you decide to become a musician?

I have always played music. The first instrument I played when I was very young was a violin. But the violin always meant “work” for me whereas the recorder always meant “play” [as in “fun”]. So I thought why should I work when I can play?! Age 18 was the turning point in my life: I knew then that if I did not choose to be a musician, that I would regret it all of my life. Added to this was my longing to establish my life in Europe.

Music and Europe.  Are these two aspects inseparably interconnected?
Certainly a strong reason for coming to Europe was to be nearer to my father who, as you know, is also a musician. The other aspect was that Europe’s deep cultural traditions and magnificent performance spaces offered me many gratifying opportunities.
That said one of my main musical interests has been a fascination with Eastern European music. A very inspiring moment for me was when I discovered in the early ‘70s a recording called “Les Flûtes Roumaines” (Arion: ARN 64004) with some extraordinary players of recorder-like instruments on it. It's a magnificent collection of some of the most lively and expressive playing I've ever heard.  Zamfir and Stanciu, the two greatest pan flute players alive are on it, but so are some lesser-known geniuses (outside of Rumania, that is) like Dumitru Zamfira, Jon Vaduva, Ion Laceanu, Ion Ionescu, Marin Chisar and Dumitru Farcas, who all play their instruments in a way that in terms of sheer technique, tonguing and ornamentation make ALL of us in the EM world pale in comparison. The joy of making music, the joy of rhythm, the rhythmic “flavours”, contained therein, continue to fill me with Inspiration, and I find myself often returning to listen to this recording.

Over the years, I listened to as many different recordings as I could find of great masters from various countries and cultures (from Roumania to Afghanistan, to Iran, to India etc.) listening to them over and over again, transcribing and trying to imitate them.
In the late 70’s I went to France. Although I never actually lived there, I performed for 15 years with a medieval group directed by recorder player Berry Hayward (who was shortly after to become my brother-in-law!) and who also deeply influenced my way of thinking about music. Amongst the many things that Berry brought me into contact with, was the privilege of meeting and playing with some extraordinary Persian, Arab, Armenian and French musicians. It was also through Berry that I met and studied with the harpsichordist Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume, himself a student of Early Music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch.

When transcribing folk music primarily intended for folk flutes, do you find it necessary to transpose it because of the differences of fingerings etc ?
Sometimes, but usually, it’s more a matter of choosing the right instrument to play it on. The recorder has always been my main means of expression. It is true that the instrument that I prefer to play transcribed ethnic music on is a very unprepossessing modern “Renaissance” alto that does have an ethnic “sound” to it.

Why do you think – looking at it through a cultural aspect – it is a must for everybody today to have a Baroque recorder? The recorder is even still defined through its Baroque model and the repertoire behind that.
There is always a fear on the part of any artist of boring his audience. In any musical situation that permits it, I always try to vary my repertoire, so that there’s also space for contemporary and ethnic music as well as early music. And then you have an automatic change through all the various models of the recorder family which its colourful voices.

Another aspect is that traditions in ethnic music are still alive.

Ethnic music is a difficult term. It can be also a form of classical music: in India you can have native folk music and native classical music. There are not always clear distinctions as to where one starts and where the other ends whereas in other cultures the distinction is very precise. Most of these forms of music however, come from an oral tradition. It is my feeling that much of Early Music also derives from an oral tradition. Let me give you an example of my teacher Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume: when I brought him François Couperin’s piece “le rossignol en amour”, he asked me if I had ever heard a rossignol (the singing of a nightingale). “You must listen to one!”, he said. So, at the next lesson we listened together to a recording of a nightingale he had found. He then encouraged me to imitate and incorporate the nightingale’s unique “ornamentation” so as to sound more natural. Another example is that, while studying Couperin's “Les Concerts Royaux”, he played for to me a recording of a Canadian folk singer who used very fluid and subtle ornaments in his voice. In other words, he wanted me to find solutions to musical and interpretive problems that had a direct reference to an oral tradition, meaning something that was alive and natural and not fabricated! He would toss one musical idea after another at me and it was up to me to translate and represent these ideas technically on my instrument.
Geoffroy-Dechaume also encouraged me to find naturalness in my approach to the Inégalité, which, he believed (and I entirely agree), has its basis in the spoken language and in poetics. For example the pronunciation of the words of the French folk tune “J’ai du bon tabac” gives a clear example of how inégalité can be likened and interpreted following verbal inflection.

In other words would you say that ethnic music gave you the “key” to early music?
To a certain extent, yes! Even today, I give my students compilations of recordings of my favourite ethnic performers. I encourage them to choose their favourite pieces, to transcribe them and play them. These compilations include musical samples of the aforementioned Romanian flutists, of clarinetists Giora Feidman, and of musicians from Afghanistan, Armenia, India, Iran, Ireland, Japan, Turkmenistan and other countries.

Isn’t this a very oriental way of teaching?

No I don’t really think so, not from what I understand of Oriental music. However it is a very frequent way of learning music in the Jazz world. A frequent comment among Jazz musicians is “who are you listening to in this period?”
These compilations allow my students to hear natural solutions to different aspects of ornamentation and rhythm.  Ornamentation is an integral part of all ethnic music, in Jazz, and in all of Early Music. It is certainly less and less present in the mainstream of what has become Western classical music. One would never add ornaments to a Brahms concerto – but it would be wrong to play a Handel sonata without adding ornamentation!

What about contemporary music in this respect?

Well, this reminds me of a funny story with a student. She came to me with Berio’s Gesti and said: “I even added ornaments to it but it still doesn’t sound good to me!” But joking aside, we should make a distinction between ornamentation and improvisation. From the mid-18th century onwards I see an increasing dominance of the science of musical notation to the point where ornamentation and improvisation took second place to the composer’s will.

But today, this is also changing.

Very true. Today we also have on the one hand, an enormous homogenisation of popular music and on the other hand we have the possibility of finding and communicating with unique and interesting people all over the world. We are experiencing an extraordinary moment in the world’s history. I think there has never been a larger production of anything, especially in music. But not everything is positive. Recently I was in Siberia for concerts. I was impressed by many things, and met some remarkable musicians but it was very difficult to find something which was actually musically “genuine”. In all of the music stores I went to, for example, they had large selections of Popular and Classical music, but I could find no Siberian music.

If there is diminishing of these areas of genuine ethnic music: where is the next point of orientation?
 I’m not so sure that there is a diminishing of ethnic music but given the mass production of music it may certainly  represent a smaller and smaller minority.
I would say that the next point of orientation lies a concept of authenticity that comes more from the soul than from the book. In the end an artist must be constant to himself and his internal artistic world. Indeed one could say that Art is the action of attempting to express externally as closely as possible our internal artistic ideals. It is an uphill job where the search for perfection defines the Art rather then perfection itself. Think of a computer playing music. It is perfectly … boring!
The concept of authenticity has to do with an emotional state of being. Anything we are doing today is of course a translation of something of many years ago. Authenticity comes from a feeling what you play.

David Bellugi
David Bellugi has a B.A. in Applied Musicology which he received Summa cum Laude from the University of California at San Diego, where he studied with flautist Bernhardt-Ambros Batschelet, the composers Robert Erickson and Bernard Rands, harpsichordist Anthony Newman, conductor Thomas Nee and Bertram Turetzky (advisor for Musicology). In the late '70's he went to Paris where he studied interpretation with harpsichordist Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume, a student of Early Music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch.
As soloist David has performed with many orchestras including: the RAI-Torino, Radio France-Paris, Radio France-Lille, Radio della Svizzera Italiana, as well as with the orchestras of Bari, Cagliari, Cordoba (Spain), Emilia-Romagna, Florence, Harvard University, Milan, Padua, Palermo, Sanremo and Turin. He has performed in recitals and concert/lectures in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland and in the U.S.A. His future engagements include appearances in Australia, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Switzerland and the U.S.A.
He has premiered various works – composers Luciano Berio, Nuccio D'Angelo, Ugalberto de Angelis, Kamran Khacheh, Dan Locklair, Riccardo Luciani, Carlo Prosperi, and Giulio Viozzi have all dedicated musical compositions to Bellugi. He also has recorded soundtracks for film music written by Italian composer Ennio Morricone and by American composer Michael Galasso.
Bellugi lives in Florence, Italy where he has been professor of Recorder at the "Luigi Cherubini" Conservatory of Music since 1979.

Email: davidbellugi[at]


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