I’m no longer a serious flutist. In fact, I’m not sure I ever was… Even during my 15 years of formal training, I hardly ever practiced. I used to drive my teachers crazy. But I did manage to learn to read music, develop an embouchure, and at my peak, I can remember those times when my fingers moved faster than I could think.
So when I learned that there was this flute thing happening for the yearly Make Music New York celebration, where I’d be among a whole group of flutists – as many as 40 – I thought, yeah, this could be for me. And then I heard the piece of music. Henry Brant’s Mass in Gregorian Chant for Multiple Flutes, aka Mass for June 16. It’s slow and dreamy and contains the echoes of medieval corridors and stone ruins. It made me cry to think I could be living inside that sound. I contacted the organizer, flutist Martha Cargo to see if there was still space, and I was in.
Attending my first rehearsal, I had forgotten how much I love the math of music. I had forgotten how cramped my fingers can get as I grip the keys. I had to remind myself to relax. Fortunately the piece was nice and slow, and didn’t require any fancy finger work, as I was way too out of shape for that. My 11-year-old son sat in the front of the rehearsal studio, watching. Part of the time he wore his headphones and played a video game on his iPod. Other times, he listened while reading his book for school.
I had been playing again at home, once in a while improvising to some indie rock or singer songwriter stuff. One day I jammed to Nirvana unplugged, and afterwards my son looked up at me and said, Mom, you’re a rock star. He should have seen me playing King Crimson and Jethro Tull at CBGB’s in the 70’s. Back then I played flute with this neo-Goth group from Long Island called Heretic. We played originals with titles like Vampyre, and covered Brian Eno’s Baby’s On Fire. And yeah, it was a Monday night, but we did perform at CBGB’s…
Our second rehearsal was at The Americas Society, on Park Avenue and 68th Street, where Martha works as the assistant to the music director. It’s a classic, elegant mansion with a big marble foyer and sweeping staircase, once the residence of a wealthy NYC financier, formerly housing the US Mission to the Soviet Union, and registered as a NYC landmark since 1970. We practiced in the Salon Simón Bolivar, surrounded by crystal chandeliers and wall sconces. It’s the kind of room you rent for a cocktail reception for international diplomats.
As our conductor, Sebastian Zubieta took us through the eight movements of the piece once again, I remembered what it was like to play in tune, to carefully differentiate my slurred and articulated notes, to go from pianissimo to forte. There is a joy in the order of accurately translating the language of music from the printed page to live sound. It’s like making magic out of a secret code. Another rediscovered treasure.
The beauty of this particular piece is in its structure. We started out each section in unison. Then, at a certain point, Sebastian would put down his hands, giving each of us permission to go off on our own. We still had to follow the notes, but the timing could be anything we wanted. The result was a kind of gentle, rippling chaos that inevitably landed us back together. Once everyone had finished the last phrase, we paused, and then Sebastian took us all into the next movement.
Although I’m not familiar with Brant’s work as a whole, I enjoyed the way this piece played with rhythm and form. Moving effortlessly from 4/2 to 6/4 and 3/4, we had to shift back and forth from counting by half notes to the occasional measure of counting by quarter notes. As players, the form demanded our constant attention. We transitioned from movements with F sharp to those with an F natural. There were three sections where piccolos were added, so those players had to also contend with the swapping out of their instruments.
I think my favorite aspect of playing this piece was the way it went from unison to free rhythm and back again. The restless spirit in me felt liberated to be able to take my time for a spell during each and every movement. But there was also the satisfaction of having only the conductor’s baton to guide our kinesthetic awareness of one another, as we shared a commitment to color inside the lines together, if for only a few brief moments.
I learned something interesting about Henry Brant during the time between our two performances on Saturday evening. A Brooklyn couple, Pat and Kathy, had come by to see the first show, which had been publicized as taking place inside the Dalehead Arch near 64th St. and Park Drive. They didn’t know that we had moved to the open field just north of there, and had missed the 5:00 show. As they were deciding whether or not they had time to stay until 6:00, we chatted.
I learned that Pat had worked at Carl Fisher, the same music company that published much of Brant’s work. He knew Brant’s music well, and had transposed some of it. Pat described Brant as a “sly elf of a man.” He told me how Brant had developed severe eye problems toward the end of his life, undergoing cataract surgery. He said that Brant, already in his 80’s, used to wear a jogging suit and visor wherever he went, including when he performed. It didn’t matter the venue – that had become his uniform.
I wish I had known Henry Brant. He played with space and time and was fond of creating works for masses of the same instrument. In addition to flutes, he wrote pieces for multiple trumpets, trombones and guitars. A multi-instrumentalist, he often included solo parts for himself to play. Pat told me about work Brant had presented on barges in Amsterdam that I later learned was part of a 1984 event entailing a three hour procession that made its way through the city’s canals. I also learned that Brant was a member of Aaron Copeland’s celebrated Young Composer’s Group of the 1930’s. Brant eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for composition in 2002 before dying in 2008 at the age of 94.
Our piece was performed with all of us in a big circle. At our dress rehearsal in Harlem’s Riverbank State Park, we experimented with the size of the circle, knowing that according to Brant’s intention, the audience would be seated in the center, with us surrounding them in our sound.
Performance day, summer solstice, June 21, 2014, was just five days after the 30th anniversary of the first performance of Mass for June 16th. This time, Brant’s composition brought together nearly 40 flutists ranging from professional players and teachers to relative amateurs like myself. Some knew each other from being part of the regular circle of New York City flutists. Others, newcomers, would forge connections to the flute community, exchange numbers, make plans to give or take lessons from one another.
Next to me stood a flute teacher named Nadia. We decided to take our shoes off and play with our bare feet in the grass. By 6PM, the sun was already going down over the buildings on Central Park West, the breeze was no longer threatening to blow away errant pages of music or knock over our stands. Audience members were lying down with eyes closed, preparing to let the experience wash over them. A photographer came by and asked if he could snap a picture of the sheet music clipped to a music stand with clothes pins. He said, “It’s such a cool little New York scene.”