FLUTE Member Of The Week
May 24 to 30, 1999
I’ve spent the last 20 years learning about the history of the flute and flute-playing, first as a player, then also as a maker, and now, on top of the other two activities, as a writer. I didn’t plan things this way, but have been fortunate enough to be able to follow my interest in the flute and its music wherever it has led me. I find that each of my three activities—making historical flutes, playing them, and reading and writing about them—helps me with the other two. For instance, knowing about the different types of flute used over the ages, as well as what composers and players wrote at the time about how to play, helps me as a performer to make more effective decisions about interpreting earlier music. On the other hand I don’t think people who wrote instructions for playing long ago ever meant them to be followed blindly, but rather to be used to create genuine and appropriate interpretations of music—something we still have to do today, but in altered circumstances.

I started out on a musical path at the age of eight as a singer. My parents, a violinist and a harpist in the Bournemouth (England) Symphony Orchestra, sent me to Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London, where I learned to sing Gregorian chant and renaissance polyphony. I suppose most people now think of this ancient repertoire as ‘Early Music’, but it seemed quite normal at the time: it was the choir’s modern repertoire that seemed strange. The flute’s sound was what first attracted me: I began as an eleven-year-old after hearing the BSO’s Laurie Beers play the Fauré Sicilienne on his wooden instrument. I used to spend as much time as I was allowed practicing the flute at school, literally to keep myself out of trouble.

After years of continuing to pursue music in bands, ensembles, and choirs, I won a choral scholarship to the University of Cambridge (Magdalene College), to study English literature. Fortunately I was allowed to specialize to some extent in its musical aspects, and earned my degree partly by writing extended papers on theater music and poetry for songs, subjects that were not covered in course work. I would get lost in the stacks of the Cambridge libraries, looking up original prints and manuscripts of music I wanted to play or sing—I have never done so much sight-reading in my life.

Studying poetry and drama made me realize that these written and spoken forms affect us very largely by means of their tone and language—the ‘musical’ aspects of the words—and that many of those aspects of classical literature (such as Chaucer and Shakespeare) don’t translate into modern speech without losing much of their power. By my second year at Cambridge I started to feel the same way about playing the Boehm flute: that its modern accent made it unable to pronounce a lot of older music. Around this time I heard a performance of a Rameau opera, my first inkling of French baroque music, and it soon became clear to me that while Debussy’s music was perfectly suited to the modern flute, music in the style of his earlier compatriots was not. At Cambridge I moved on from the recorder, which I’d taught myself to play in my late teens, to a mid-19th-century one-keyed flute borrowed from the music department. Stephen Preston gave me my first baroque flute lessons, and put me in touch with a teacher, Nicholas McGegan, who was often in Cambridge. And Nic pointed me in the direction of Robert Bigio, who made me a better flute.

After graduating I spent three years in Barthold Kuijken’s baroque flute class at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. I practiced a lot: long tones (a lot longer than I had ever thought necessary on Boehm flute), as well as fast fingers and tonguing (ditto). After a year’s course in recorder making in the conservatory’s workshop, I began to put in extra hours to make a flute for myself, a copy of my teacher’s. In the week in which I finished it, nine of my friends asked me to make them one like it—people were desperate for instruments in the early 80s, and not as discriminating as the buyers of today! In another year I had bought my own lathe and set up a workshop in The Hague.

At an instrument exhibition in London I met the Boston historical flute maker Cathy Folkers, and found we had a similar approach to many things, including flute making (this is the short version of this story…). So in 1984 I moved from Holland to the US and we were married, just as Cathy was appointed Curator of the Dayton C. Miller Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. After a year of acute culture shock, seeing each other only evenings and weekends, we decided cities were not for us, and moved to the countryside in western Massachusetts, near Tanglewood. We were not sure whether two historical flute makers working together could make a go of it, but we thought it worth giving our best shot. We still do. Our idea now is that we can’t improve on the work of the best makers of 250 years ago, but, for musical reasons, it is worth trying to do as well as they did—and the more I learn about their work and ideas, the more impressed I am with how good that really was.

While spending my past couple of decades principally as a flute maker, I have worked on several long-term writing projects as well. I began a translation of Tromlitz’s flute tutor of 1791 while still a student in The Hague—though this is the most important 18th-century book on flute-playing next to Quantz, there was no published English version at that time, and I found the German too difficult to translate in my head as I went along. After about ten years of evenings and weekends, the text was finished: Cambridge University Press thought it worth publishing, and so The Virtuoso Flute-player began my career as a writer. At about the same time I started the quarterly newsletter TRAVERSO as an attempt to overcome some of the isolation far-flung historical flutists felt in those pre-internet days. It’s now in its 11th year of publication.

The best reward for doing work like my Tromlitz translation was that I got to do more, and in 1992-93 the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded me a Fellowship for a translation and study of Tromlitz’s other book, on the keyed flute. In preparation for my edition, which Oxford University Press published in 1996, I traveled for 8 months to study and measure about 400 flutes. On my travels, quite by accident, I discovered that two of the three famous ‘Hotteterre’ flutes, formerly supposed to have been the earliest baroque flutes, were nineteenth-century fakes, and my article about how these examples had for so long been accepted as real was published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Also around that time I wrote a new entry on the flute for the forthcoming new edition of the New Grove, as a co-author with Jeremy Montagu and Jaap Frank.

Just now I am writing a book on the history of the flute and flute-playing for a new series on musical instruments, commissioned by Yale University Press. This book has to take account of the simply colossal amount of new information that has come to light in the last 30 years, so–I’m happy to say—I am learning new things about the relationships among instruments, repertoire, and performance style every day as I plow through the stacks. I like being a FLUTE member because I get to find out the names and ideas of the many experts in all sorts of areas about which I know very little. The list also helps keep my feet on the ground by making me focus on the questions and concerns of people who don’t think of themselves as experts. I mostly only pipe up when I think I can contribute something substantial—but I lurk away and pay attention.

Folkers & Powell, now in our 15th year, continue to make two dozen baroque and classical flutes after different historical models. I’m also working for a new outfit, the Full Circle Flute Company, which will soon be producing wooden headjoints for modern flutes. Though I don’t play the Boehm flute any more, I do hear the increased refinement of tone and articulation players can gain by fitting a headjoint based on the originals by Louis Lot or Boehm & Mendler to their reliable and familiar modern instrument. The best of both worlds, we call it!

If you still don’t know enough about me, there’s more at my personal web site.

Ardal Powell

Return to Featured Member Archive