November 22 to 28, 1999
My mother was a piano teacher; my father a salesman of industrial plastics. It was my mother's love of music which led us to concert after concert. The first live concert I can remember was the Little Orchestra Society doing "Gerald McBoing Boing". As the years went by, we went to Carnegie Hall and New York's other great concert venues to hear famous pianists like Richter, Rubenstein, Van Cliburn, big time violinists, cellists, lieder singers and lots of orchestras. Even as a kid, the differences could be clearly heard. Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic was my favorite.
Besides classical music, the only other music that got into our apartment was Top 40 Radio, and this was only when we kids were home sick from school. It was on one of these days, when I had Measles or Scarlet Fever or some other childhood illness, that a song called "Rockin' Robin" came on the radio and changed my life forever. It must be said that "Rockin' Robin", by Bobby Vee, was and is a perfect song -- there is no way to improve it. If you have never heard it, or only the Michael Jackson re-make, get an Oldies collection and check it out; it will make you happy, I promise. What made the song so special to me was that the instrumental solo in the middle of the tune was played on the piccolo, not a guitar or sax. This is where I first made contact with the sound of the flute. It called to me, and I began a campaign to get one of THOSE instruments that made THAT sound. My mother checked with a flute teacher and was told that I was too little, best to call back in a couple of years. I had actually forgotton the "I want a flute" episode when, on November 4, 1958, I came home from 4th grade to find a flute teacher and a flute waiting for me. It was a blast! I loved it from the start and gave my first concert that very day. When my father came home, I set up chairs and insisted that he and my mother sit and listen while I played page 1 of the Rubank beginner's book for them.
I have always had a rich fantasy life. As a kid, I was the worst athlete imaginable and avoided going out to do the normal kid stuff after school. Who likes being made fun of all the time? And my last name didn't help. (For those of you who are not familiar with English slang, ask an American friend -- not a stranger -- what "dick" means.) So I read very, very many more books than the other kids, lived in a vivid imaginary landscape, and practiced my flute. When I was a teenager, I discovered that a lot of the kids in our housing project had gotten into drugs, heavy drugs like heroin. I was too busy with music and hadn't ever noticed. The life-saving power of music: its fantastic!
But I have jumped ahead of another defining moment. When I started the flute, I had already heard my mother start a lot of piano students and I had heard my older brother begin the 'cello. In every case, they began with one note at a time, then did two notes, and then went on to chords. I assumed the flute was also that way. So when, after a few months of lessons, I had reached high C, my teacher Nat Kappel, a woodwind doubler, skipped the "new note" moment in a lesson. I asked him if we had a new note, even higher than C. "Nope" he replied,"C is as high as the flute goes." (We know better now.) "Oh" said I," are we going to do two notes now?"
And that's when I learned the awful truth. One note at a time. Only one note at a time! Unbelievable. Unacceptable. I was only nine but had already experienced a stiff dose of life's unfairness when my older brother had been killed by an incompetent anesthesiologist in April of 1958. I had put up with a lot, but this was way too much! This was the flute! I was outraged. Smoke was pouring from my ears and I made up my mind then and there that I was going to do something about this ridiculous situation. Guitar players, violin players, piano players -- they all had one note when they wanted it AND they had chords. Well, I have changed that situation, and it feels a LOT BETTER. Several thousand chords later and still going strong, my inner nine year old is still hard at work.
My flute teachers were a major influence. I worked with Henry Zlotnik for eight years and got a lot of classical chops together, intonation and sight reading, and a first and second learning of the standard repertoire. Importantly, Henry was an adult that I could talk to.
In the High School of Music and Art, we had four orchestras and five bands. It took a lot to claw one's way to the top of that competitive heap. It is my true, deepest belief that this competitive system is a terrible way to get kids to learn. I was a master of it, and when I was the solo flutist of the Senior Orchestra at school and of the All-City High School orchestra, an orchestra made up of the best players from all over New York City, I was arrogant and closed minded. Egoistic, I knew a lot about the flute and almost nothing of the meaning of music or of humanity. I feel sorry when I ocassionaly meet musicians who think they are gods because they are ace instrumentalists. They don't know what they are missing. Sadly, they often don't want to know.
James Pappoutsakis was my teacher for three summers. What a gentle, humble man. He revealed the beauty of sound that the flute could have. Many of what I hope are the best aspects of my own teaching were learned from him. Things like listening to the student as a person and being considerate of the student's humanity regardless of talent level, and commenting on what is good before getting to work on what needs changing.
In 1967, I realized that it was time to move on from Henry Zlotnik. After all, it had been eight years and we were turning circles. So I gathered my courage one day and called a Manhattan number from a coin phone. "Hello" said a voice. "Mr. Buh Buh Baker?" stammered I. And so a great year of lessons began. I have already written about the war between myself and my parents when I declared that I wanted to be a musician, so I was paying for flute lessons myself and digging it. Also critically important at that time was Mr. Pappoutsakis' great advice that I not go to a conservatory but to college at Yale as a way of preparing for success in music, not as something to "fall back" on.
My ambition as a teenager was to become the solo flutist of the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra seemed the place for a flutist. One frequently heard comments like "there can be only one Rampal", only one major flute soloist, and I was naive enough to believe them.
After a freshman year in New York, I transferred to Yale. There I encountered the most influential of all the teacher's I ever had, Robert Morris, with whom I studied composition. Bob introduced me to world music (especially Indian music) and electronic music. And Yale in those days was alive with the vibrancy of the Sixties. Openess and a feeling of possibility were the order of the day. Revolution, social, political (the civil rights movement and protests against the idiotic Vietnam war), and spiritual was in the air. I got into the Beatles, Cream and, somewhat later, Jimi Hendrix. And I found myself starting to experiment with the flute sound.
My thoughts in those days were along these lines: The difference between Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix is much greater than the difference between Julius Baker and Jean Pierre Rampal. The guitar players are endlessly inventing new sounds and new tone qualities. Why can't the flute have this much range?
And, at 19, my dreams of an orchestral career ended forever after a summer at Tanglewood in its Fellowship Orchestra. This was what orchestral playing at the highest level was going to be like as a career, and I knew it wasn't for me. So many wonderful things were just starting in my life, yet in the orchestra I was already playing the same music for the second, third or fourth time. In this lifetime, I was not put on the Earth to follow -- conductors or anyone else. I came to realize that this wasn't just a teenage behavioral problem, it was my inner truth.
So I asked myself just what music meant the most to me, and the answer was new music. It was the most interesting and most rewarding. Not all new pieces are great, of course. But that comes with the creative territory. I had heard a Gazzelloni record a few years earlier and had seen John Heiss' early articles on double stops for the flute. My nine year old awoke and I decided that I was going to try to find EVERY sound the flute could make.
Starting as a double course credit project in my senior year at Yale, I began to write my first book "THE OTHER FLUTE: A Performance Manual of Contemporary Techniques". To my delight, Gunther Schuller recommended it to Oxford University Press. After a long gestation, it was published in 1975.
I went to the Yale School of Music as a composition student. I have no degree in flute playing. We flute minors can get it done, too! As a graduate student, I wrote my first good piece "Afterlight", which received a BMI Prize in composition. I premiered it at a Yale student composers' concert in 1973. After the concert, a bunch of us went out to celebrate. There was speculation about how long it would take before someone else played "Afterlight". Some thought it would be 15 years, some thought 10. I was sure it would be 5, maybe less. It happened about a year later. Although I'm very gratified by the wonderful reception that my piece "Lookout" has had, I wish more people would get back to playing "Afterlight". Its a deeper piece than "Lookout". Its harder, but it has more musical levels to it. And while on this thought, I really wish more flutists would play "OR", which I wrote in 1978. This is a special, delicate piece that needs the same approach to time as Japanese flower arranging or archery. While it is definitely for the multiphonic advanced class, I know you folks are out there!
My thoughts about being a composition student were that it would be better preparation for a performing career as a flutist. I didn't think of myself as a "composer" at the time (1971 - 1973) even though my output, while small, was of recognized quality.
Over the years, I evolved from a flute player into a musician, and then continued evolving into a creative musician. I went through a phase where I considered myself to be a resource for composers, creating a wealth of wonderful sounds for them to use, and many very good pieces were written for me. These include "Conspiracies" by Martin Bresnick, "Plum/Dream Sequence II" by Daniel Asia, "Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December" by William Hellermann, "Chord" by Cindy McTee, "Frondescence" and "Streams and Willows" by Robert Morris, "Found Objects" by Bruce MacCombie, and quite a few others.
Gradually, I found that my contributions to many of the pieces I played, especially as a member of the Creative Associates (a new music group in Buffalo that I played in from 1977 - 80) were verging into re-composition. I began to be frustrated in the "flutist as resource" role, and in my early thirties decided that I would quit playing other people's music in order to establish my own creative identity. I wanted to concentrate on writing and improvising, and it was the best decision I have ever made.
Parallel to my work on the sound of the flute and in developing my own music, I have been working on bringing the flute itself up to date. In the 19th century, music had changed, and the 8-key flute was no longer adequate. Many perceived the need for a new flute. Boehm was one among many who sought to change the flute; he was the genius who suceeded.
Music has changed again, and the Boehm flute is no longer adequate. Its mechanism is an obstacle course for the multiphonic and microtonal player. Starting in the 70's, I began to think about new flute designs. Alex Murray was among the first to encourage me, and I'm very grateful for his advice and help. I spent half a year in Paris in 1978 working at I.R.C.A.M. ( the institute for research and co-ordination of acoustics and music) where I met Arthur Benade, the famous acoustician. I also got to travel to London to meet and to work with Albert Cooper. Unforgettable. It was great to be in Europe and to see that the rest of the world was not simply USA-continued. And I got to play with one of my musical heroes, the jazz artist Steve Lacy, master of the soprano saxophone and unique jazz composer. Otherwise, my time in Paris showed me why we use the French words for "bureaucracy" and "chauvinism".
After a long, long delay,caused by financial limitiations, my flute project got back on track when Bickford Brannen offered his help about five years ago. What a maker! What a guy! After lots of discussion, he made a flute for me that dramatically extends his Kingma System by including some of my design ideas. Bickford is the only maker I have ever met who can transform new musical ideas into new mechanisms and have those new mechanisms make sense for the hand. Next up will be his version of my invention, the "glissando headjoint". This is a telescoping head that does for the flute what the "whammy bar" does for the electric guitar. And then, slowly but surely, we are going to make a flute with my fingering system. Fasten seatbelts, change will only increase in pace. Its exciting!
Over many years, I've also delved into the low flutes as a composer, improvisor and as a designer. I'm very proud of the Robert Dick Model bass flute made by Emerson. Check it out. Its wonderful to be part of the long tradition of players who design or build instruments. (I played on a Tulou flute once. Can't stand his music, but the fellow sure understood the embouchure hole.)
There is far more to tell you than I can write in this space. Please visit my website: Robert Dick Web Site. I haven't mentioned my other books, compositions, recordings, touring -- all sorts of stuff.
And I haven't mentioned much about my personal life. I do have one. I'm an excellent cook, wish I was thinner, work out to maintain a good energy level. Since I get to read a lot, especially on airplanes, my lifelong love of Science Fiction gets its due. Who is that guy sitting in row 10 reading the December 1953 issue of Galaxy Magazine? One guess. I love to scour used book shops when touring in the USA to search for vintage Science Fiction. You can hear its effect in my music most clearly on my solo CD "Worlds of IF". I'm also a devoted sports fan; its the Walter Mitty thing. I'm into all the New York teams for baseball, American football and basketball. If the Mets and Yankees ever play against each other in the World Series, I just don't know what I'll do, having rooted for both since I was kid.
Perhaps I'll just skip over my first two marriages. I hope practice makes perfect, because in 1991 I met Regula Mueller while teaching a masterclass in Switzerland. We fell in love and married in 1992, which is why I moved to Switzerland. European life is very different from American, especially life in New York. I really miss New York, PARTICULARLY for how people relate. And I'm glad to be here in Switzerland for many reasons, too.
When we can, Regula and I go hiking in the mountains. Wherever we are, we laugh a lot. We live in an old building that was originally a water powered factory. Its still got a working water wheel, now named "Proud Mary". Just outside my studio is the small river that provides the water. Its full of life. Fish, ducks, birds that catch the fish, bugs and the bugs that catch other bugs. Its just as much fun as watching tugboats.
I hope to meet you in person when I'm on tour, either to perform or to teach. I love teaching, especially teaching improvisation to classically trained musicians. If you're in Europe and want some lessons on music old or new, feel free to call. And please bring your inner nine year old along.