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We appreciate the ongoing discussion about today’s recorder culture with its ups and downs. Having published Walter van Hauwe’s open letter in German translation in our printed issue of the Windkanal Recorder Magazine no. 2018-4, we herewith present the English original text online for our international readers.

60 years of recorder developments

But what about the next 60 years?

Like no other, Frans Brüggen’s master pupil Walter van Hauwe influenced modern recorder history. As musician and professor in Amsterdam, he is seeing half a century with a clear view, marks past and present developments and places comments about it all.

The in the title mentioned figure 60 is of course a bit arbitrary. It is around the end of the 50th that the first steps of professionalism in the recorder practise could be seen. Names as Ferdinand Conrad, Hans-Martin Linde, David Munrow, the Dolmetsch family, and, in my opinion, in particular Michael Vetter and Frans Brüggen, shifted their focuses from once mainly folk music and education to a wider one. From early to earlier music and from post-modern to experimental composing, the ink always wet. Careful new techniques and sound outings made their appearance, such as fluttertongue, glissando, slaptongue and extended trills. Till, in 1966, an ‘earthquake’ provided on one go the world of the recorder with a completely new and unforeseen horizon. The so precarious and shaky balance between tongue, air flow, fingers was suddenly molested by the dictate to tear these so fragile 'ingredients' as far as possible apart. Never heard sounds, too loud, too soft, multiphonics, extreme articulations, non-coordinations, it really was too much for the ‘dolce’ ears of the time. In short: flauto dolce became overnight a flauto forte.

We talk here about ‘Gesti’ from Luciano Berio, composed for Frans Brüggen in 1966. In only 5’40” this outstanding piece changed the recorder and its future for ever. Till that time (semi-)professional recorder players played, or were taught by flute, clarinet, oboe players, and of course were only familiar with the technics of these instruments. And all of a sudden this…?!?
It was not a surprise that Berio wrote this Sequenza for Frans Brüggen. From the big names of the 60th, Vetter moved to Japan, and into harmonic singing, Linde not really left the ‘classical’ domain, Munrow committed suicide and Brüggen had started the very first mature recorder-solo-career, with large poppy posters and all. His musical infra-structure soon entered, next to the still logical early music scene, the world of pop and contemporary music. More composers started to compose for him. These new, fresh compositions, written by composers who didn’t know anything about the possibilities (and limitations) of the recorder, forced Brüggen, and soon his students as well, to work out an unique, very own specific recorder language; technical, mental, musical. In 1971 he started with two of his former students, Kees Boeke and Walter van Hauwe, the experimental recorder trio Sour Cream; Van Hauwe collected, structured and notated all findings and published it, for further development.

Till so far a short view about the past. Let’s jump to the present time.

These are interesting times for (professional) recorder practice. The previously huge army of relatively competent professionals is gradually making way for a more modest number of very serious and highly skilled performers and teachers. They are forming ensembles in a great variety of combinations, styles, and musical disciplines, and are organising master classes, festivals and symposia.

Nevertheless, among them we could also see the rise of a small but rather outspoken group of individuals, whose primary focus seems to be the glorification of their own ‘unique and incredible virtuosity’. Too few of them take the trouble to dive into the catacombs of the recorder’s most essential and inspiring fundaments: sound colouring and subtleties of articulation. Instead, their performances are often stuffed with theatrical effects, completely unnecessary mimicry, and shockingly messy playing; no nuances in sound colour, articulation or interpretation, thereby shamelessly abusing their composers. They mostly prefer specially designed flutes that value a sound as loud and clean as possible. A great pity that their audiences think that this is the recorder on its best and thus the only way of blowing it.
No, these ‘ADHD’ performances, floating on a meagre level of skill and affinity with the origin of the recorder’s spectrum cannot comfort me, to put it mildly. I really question here: If you don’t accept or even like the ‘dolce’ part of the flauto, why do you play the recorder then?!? And if one of their recorder makers’ statement is that “…he rather likes the sound of a violin better then that of a recorder, so I try to let the recorder sound as a violin”, why not just making violins?!? Hands of from the recorder then! I should say.

In other parts of the scene, we happily see very positive developments, where the recorder is doing very well. Here, virtuosity begins with the utmost control over all physical and technical aspects needed to master the incomparably broad collection of instrument types and sizes the recorder family can offer us. And when these fundamental skills can be enriched with an equally subtle variety of speech, articulation, fingerings, timing, imagination and artistry: only then can we speak of real recorder virtuosity.

In actual fact, the recorder is flourishing as never before. In a span of only 60 years, the infrastructure of the recorder has undergone unparalleled development. When I, in 1969, had to program my final exam I could choose from literature of approximately 40 years of baroque and 8 years of contemporary styles. 90% of repertoire was played on the ‘solo’ recorder ‘per excellence’: the alto. Nowadays we have about 6 solid centuries of fine (often original) compositions which we, as soloists or ensemble players, can play on at least 30 different types and sizes of recorders in quiet a number of different pitches. Interesting to see that most of these ‘virtuosi’ I mentioned before (mostly soloists) are mainly focused on one period only, playing around 90% on the alto- or soprano recorder in 415Hz which sounds as 440Hz. Back to the 1950’s again…?
There are numerous skilled and eager mixed-discipline ensembles touring around the globe, invited by well-established festivals and concert series, to whom they can offer six centuries of literature including i.a. medieval, renaissance, baroque, romanticism, early- and late-20th Cent., world music, improvisation, transcriptions in any style, electronics, jazz, pop; and in collaboration with theatre, dance, film…. Plus master classes, lectures, researches upon a wide range of related subjects. An increasing number of these broadly oriented blockflutists manage to make a quiet comfortable, inspiring living with their profession, often in combination with an equally inspiring (and essential) teaching practice.

Anyway, not withstanding my serious concerns regarding certain developments, I am, I repeat it again, above all very positive, enthusiastic and even proud of the unique development that the recorder has been able to go through over the last 60 years. A one-sided, overcooked, temporarily hype cannot and will not take that away from us. Let them have their stuff, we just continue to work on our own recorder future, just like the past 60 years.

Walter van Hauwe


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