FLUTE Member Of The Week
May 1 to 7, 2000


While I would describe myself now as a lapsed flutist, though one still with many interests in the instrument, the flute was the central focus of my development as a young musician. My experience with the flute in solo, chamber and orchestral playing has had a lasting influence on me. Now I make my way in the world of music as a composer and teacher, but the foundation of everything I do is in my early training and experiences as a flutist.

I was lucky to have wonderful teaching from an early age in music. I sang in both church and school choirs and took up the flute at age eight in public school. I made rapid progress and soon found myself studying with Burnett Atkinson, a marvelous person and a student and colleague of the great William Kincaid. Burnie, like me, was a flutist from Ventura, California who went on to other exotic places (the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chicago Symphony in his case)

but eventually returned to California. Burnie returned to California first to play in the LA Philharmonic and then in the more lucrative Hollywood studios, while maintaining a demanding and interesting on-the-road studio up the coast from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. He was my second father.

Ventura was a quiet place but we had energetic music makers there. The Symphony and the Wind Ensemble were directed by very capable musicians and I played a great deal of literature. In the wind ensemble everything we did were classics, from the Holst Suites, Percy Grainger, William Schuman, etc. to the energetic R.R. Bennett arrangements of Porgy and Bess and the Sousa marches. In the orchestra, I played the standard repertory, including several of the glorious Mozart piano concerti, plus works of Charles Ives and Latin American composers as well as premieres of composers from the area. When I was a senior in high school I was principal flutist in this orchestra. I made it a habit to buy or borrow the scores of all the pieces we played and studied them quite closely.

At the same time I was developing as a composer. I had written music on my own from the time I learned to read music. I was lucky again to discover that the principal bassoon player in the orchestra (recently retired from the Los Angeles Philharmonic) was in fact quite a distinguished composer, Adolph Weiss, the first American student of Shoenberg in Vienna. I studied harmony and composition with him in high school. At my high school graduation the orchestra performed my first original orchestral piece.

I went to the University of Southern California as a composition major. While I was already an adept flutist, my encounters with other players at regional honor orchestras and bands gave me an idea of who was out there. It was an impressive bunch. At one such occasion, Bonita Boyd (from Long Beach) played the Ibert Concerto. I was amazed at her virtuosity and was struck that her playing of that challenging work, at the tender age of 18, was at least the equal of Rampal's.

As an undergraduate my experience with orchestral, chamber and operatic literature as a performer on the flute gave me experiences that fed directly into my development as a composer. I continued my habit of buying any score I played and studying it quite intently. This backfired once during a rehearsal of Pelleas et Melisande of Debussy, where I was assigned the third flute and piccolo part, an important but rare component in the opera. Since much of the part read "Tacet a ...." I was perfectly content to study this delicious score and have the second flute nudge me at the appropriate moment. At one point she forgot, I missed my entance and received a tongue-lashing from the conductor (who was my conducting teacher) who mistakenly thought I was reading a comic book. Just the same, I think studying scores "live" is a the best way to learn orchestration, though perhaps not in the pit during a rehearsal!

I received a great foundation in both flute playing and composition at USC, but after I graduated it was time to move on. My newly wedded wife Peggy and I set out for the East Coast, where I went to study at Harvard as a graduate student in composition. Boston is a great place for a flutist and composer to continue learning his craft, but the weather is another matter altogether for a California native to adapt to.

I was lucky to have stints in Italy in which to defrost and to enjoy the astonishing culture, people and cuisine of that wonderful country, whose language and history go back to the beginning of European culture. A Fulbright grant brought me there initially to study with Luciano Berio, who was a great friend and mentor. I returned to Italy to study with him again on a Harvard Travelling Fellowship and then to live at the American Academy in Rome as a Rome Prize Fellow in Composition.

My years in Italy were full of travel, adventure and encounters with amazing people and musicians. When I was in Rome my days would be carefully divided between composing or business (always best done in the morning) and explorations of the city, so rich in history and art from 753 B.C. to the present. "Rome: a lifetime is not enough" as the Italians put it. We also lived for six months in rural Tuscany, in a remote village outside Siena. This was another remarkable experience and one quite different from the sensory overload of Rome. And then there was Greece, and Spain....

Though living in Italy was fabulous, I did have the rather pressing matter of making a living to attend to. As I explained to Berio, you can't live in a museum forever and he agreed. My wife and I returned to Boston to teach, she at Harvard and Tufts and me at Boston University. By this time I had stopped playing the flute, but I was still investigating its possibilities in composition through the extended techniques I had picked up on my own and through the more methodical work of Thomas Howell and Robert Dick. But I was not a flutist-composer at this point. I was a composer who had played the flute.

After two more years of Boston the "greenhouse effect" took hold and we moved back to California, at first to Los Angeles, where my wife had a job teaching writing at UCLA. We then moved to Berkeley, where I joined the faculty in composition. Nothing against Boston or LA, but this was home: northern California was where my wife was raised and where my father's family had lived for over a hundred years (a very long time for California). Two beautiful daughters and a long list of new works of mine with performances all over the US and Europe made our return a fruitful and happy one.

At Berkeley I teach composition and related topics to both undergraduates and graduate students. But my main focus is, as it has been in the past 30 years, my own composing. Increasingly in the past ten years I have returned to writing music for flutes of many kinds. This began with a quartet for three flutes and alto flute to commemorate Burnie Atkinson, "Breath of the Sun" (1993). It has been a popular work and has been recorded twice.

Around this time I became interested again in the baroque flute, an instrument I had played very briefly in high school. In learning the instrument more comprehensively, I discovered things about its fingering and intonation that intrigued me and that I had not seen dealt with in the small contemporary literature for baroque flute. I came across a Hopi melody that set me to writing a piece for solo traverso (later recast in a duet version) "To Invoke the Clouds." The duet version was given the National Flute Club's Newly Published Music Award in 1997. I redid the pieces for Boehm flute, a process as much recomposing as arranging. An article about these pieces and the process of recomposition is published in the March, 2000 issue of Pan, The Journal of the British Flute Society.

Then I became interested in the 8-key flute. This is sometimes erroneously called the simple system flute, though there is nothing at all simple about learning this instrument! I had briefly played oboe in high school and so was prepared for some of the instrument's eccentricities, but it was a tough learning curve. In the process I came across theflute methods of the English virtuoso Charles Nicholson, whose playing so impressed Boehm with its full sound that he said he was inspired to make his own transformation of the flute. In one of his methods, Nicholson includes a haunting ornamented version of a Scots melody "Roslin Castle." Partly as a means of paying tribute to this player who was so influential and partly just to do it, I composed a piece for 8-key flute and guitar "A Return to Roslin Castle." It will be premiered by Jan Boland and John Dowdall at this summer's NFA convention in Columbus. Also at the convention Carol Shansky (alto flute) and Seth Himmelhoch (guitar) will perform a very recent work, "River Bend," commissioned by Red Cedar Chamber Music.

The life of a composer is something else. We do it because we love it and can't think of any other way to live. In that it is a lot like flute playing. But sometimes things get a little overboard. Last year I wrote an opera commissioned for a July performance and began work on it in March the year before. Not much lead time. I was up nights for months, particularly during the orchestration. My neighbor, an elderly man, was concerned and suggested I get a "day job." Though he has no interest in music, he was so intrigued to find out what it was I was doing to keep me up so late at night that he came to the show and loved it. (He also forgot his hearing aid.) The opera was a fine event and a success.

When I play these days it is on a Rudall Carte cocuswood Boehm flute from 1914 with a Robert Bigio cocus head. My baroque flute of choice is by Rod Cameron, a Bressan copy in ebony. My favorite keyed flute is in boxwood by Ubaldo Luvoni of Milano, c. 1840.

Thanks to Larry and the flute list for giving me this opportunity. I've enjoyed the list and have made new friends and found old friends on it as well. Good work, list masters, and a job much appreciated!

John Thow


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