FLUTE Member Of The Week
November 29 to December 5, 1999
I would like to thank Larry Krantz for the stimulating forum he has created through FLUTE. I have made so many friends over the years, thanks to Larry and have always been amazed at the wide scope of topics one is able to delve into within the remit of "flute-related"! May you all continue to bring forth, beautiful sounds from your flutes, for all to enjoy

Vivaldi: Concerto #6 - excerpt from Largo
"Vivaldi's Children", Dal Segno
Introduction

I have always been fascinated with the processes that creative people go through in order to realise their talents. I have come to the conclusion that "creativity" and "talent" are less a product of the genes, then is commonly thought. Creative people are often very motivated and driven, and this has its root in their life-experiences and up bringing, as well as the underlying reasons for their deeds, whatever they may be.

Over the years there have been recurring questions posed to me by friends/colleagues.
The most common:
How do you get such a big sound?
How do you manage to remember so many notes?
Where do you get all your energy?

People tend to expect a quick answer that they can copy and paste into their lives. The truth however (simple as it is) is illusive, personal and a struggle - it is not technical or physical in nature. For those of you who are interested, let me try to shed some light on what has motivated me over the years.

The Beginning

I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1960. The first years of my life were pretty normal, I suppose, except that I was terrible at school and tended to get into trouble for doing silly things! The first milestone in my life was when my father suddenly died of a heart attack (I was eleven); I was obviously very upset and shocked, but my mother soon befriended her violin teacher, who eventually became my stepfather and the guiding-force of my musical development during my teens.

I started playing the flute when I was twelve and by the time I was fourteen, it became very obvious to me that this was going to be my future. Knowing that I was finally able to excel in something was a very important source of confidence for me. I stopped making so much trouble at school and my teachers even laid off me (although, I must have been a handful) because they understood that I was very clear in my mind, where I was going in my life. By the time I was fifteen I already used to practice six hours a day during weekends and holidays - during schooldays it was more like three to four. I already knew EXACTLY what I wanted.

The Big Shock

Another shock was waiting to pounce on me…

In 1975 my life (and millions of others') was to change drastically. Lebanon began its seemingly endless fall into anarchy. 1975 marked the beginning of the civil war in my country. Within the space of weeks we saw the country collapse under ever-increasing tit-for-tat violence, perpetrated by many political, religious and criminal factions within Lebanon (and exploited by many other countries). We saw the value of human life reduced to the cost of a bullet - a few cents. "Normality" for us, was seeing decapitated bodies lying near garbage cans in the streets, as we drove by during precious cease-fire hours to stock up on food ahead of the next battle.

Two years of bombs and machineguns were spent mostly at home (or with friends/relatives when the bombing got too intense). School was very sporadic but I was frankly rather thankful for that, because this meant that my sisters and I could practice uninterrupted! We used to practice our scales and pieces to the accompaniment of the shelling and ground battles - we lived a truly surrealistic existence, along with a whole nation gripped in hate, fear and violence.

This left a strong imprint on the way I view the world and my role in it as a musician, although many years passed before I was to realise this and harness the lesson that was waiting to be learned…

Moving on from War

In 1977 my parents decided that I had to get away from all this and I eventually found myself living as a boarder at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, England. This was such a big leap for me - from bombs to a specialist music school, where young kids were being groomed for a musical career, in a very protected environment. Of course, I revelled in the opportunity of living with so many musicians, but never really recovered from the sense of alienation I felt, because my school-friends could never understand the world I had considered as "normal" until then. My friends simply were not able to imagine the things that we had experienced in Lebanon, no matter how much I tried to explain.

But I was an ambitious and very confident young man by then (seventeen) - I think some people felt that I was on the arrogant side. But I was absolutely determined to become the best flute player in the world - I never wanted to emulate my heroes; I wanted to be better than them, sorry, but that is just how I was!

I met William Bennett during this period, whose playing transfixed me and extended my understanding of what was possible on the flute. Eventually I wound up studying with Trevor Wye for four formative years, during my time at the Royal Northern College of Music. I came to Trevor with burning ambition and unquenchable thirst for developing my flute playing - he was able to give my passion a solid foundation from the technical and practical point of view. Trevor was very good for me, even though I always felt we had very different temperaments - in spite of my inherent stubbornness I quickly realised that we complemented each other.

During this whole period, I was utterly in-love with the flute. Certain players were even capable of reducing me to tears (particularly WIBB and Trevor). I felt deeply and helplessly under the spell of a beautiful instrument that moved me to the core.

Leaving College and Facing Reality

During my college years I had been gently persuaded that my dream of becoming a soloist was on the unrealistic side - flute players had to become orchestral players first and foremost, before even entertaining any immodest ideas of becoming soloists. I listened to this advice and was lucky enough to get into the European Community Youth Orchestra, which was just about the best training ground for any orchestral player. I was playing with Jacques Zoon and Karen Jones at the time and was able to work with important conductors like Claudio Abbado and George Solti, among others. This led to my becoming co-principle of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for a couple of years. Claudio Abbado "took me under his wing" and I started to freelance with the London Symphony Orchestra for a brief time. This, coupled with good results in competitions and a well received debut recital in Wigmore Hall was sending all the right signals: I was young and everything I touched seemed to turn into a "success story".

Until my deeper nature got the better of me…

In 1985 I became very disillusioned with the quality of work in many orchestras - usually down to inadequate rehearsals, poor conductors and widespread cynicism within the profession. I felt stifled and frustrated, so I resigned from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (I still think they are one of the world's finest) against the advice and deep concern of Claudio Abbado; he said that I did not realise what a "blunder" I was doing. I told him that even if I was making a blunder, I felt that being a real soloist was not compatible with the life of an orchestral musician and that I had no choice but to follow my dream. With hindsight, I must confess that I did not realise quite what I was doing in terms of pure career development! Also, many of my colleagues (mostly orchestral players) took my actions as a bit of a personal snub, although I was only trying to be genuine and faithful towards my talents and dreams. It never occurred to me that any decisions I made concerning my music would be taken personally by others! This was a difficult period in my life, a time when I was trying to find out what my true musical personality was, as opposed to what I had been taught by my teachers and heroes - I needed to find my own voice.

I achieved considerable success setting up regular recital/concerto tours in South/North America, Europe and the Middle East. I got gradually busier and I developed a reputation as a soloist who played all his music from memory (very unusual in the mid-1980s).

Things continued to grow for me until the next big inner realisation hit me:

The Flute was not Enough

In the early 1990s events in the world began to have a deep effect on me, and what I wanted to achieve with my music. I became very disturbed by a close succession of tragedies that were unfolding in the form of wars in the Iraq, Bosnia and Chechnya, not to mention the on-going frictions in my own country, Lebanon. These events sparked off a very strong internal crisis related to my feeling about my early experiences of Lebanon, which had been submerged over the years as I pursued my ambitious musical journey. I felt that the whole of humanity was insane and unable to break away from making the same mistakes over and over again. Suddenly, I felt a revulsion against the very idea of making music "simply for the sake of it" - it all seemed so empty. I needed more from my music and I wanted to give more to life through it. I needed to redefine my love for music and find a deeper musicality.

It became very clear to me that this involved redefining my whole concept of "Love". I needed to look beyond the flute and allow myself to be exposed to real feelings and experiences of life in all its richness and joy, violence and brutality. I needed to care more about the state of the world. I needed my music to play an active role in making the world a better place. I needed all that, if I was to be genuine about my belief in music as a true healing force for this world. This important juncture eventually crystallised into Towards Humanity, the charity I founded in 1995 to use my music as a catalyst to bring hope and funds to communities suffering from war, and to fund humanitarian projects around the world. I began to realise that the sounds coming out of my flute where achieving real, beautiful and lasting things, often changing people's lives for the better in the process. I found this tremendously empowering and my audiences found they could connect with my music in a much more powerful way.

Back to the Flute

So when people ask me about my sound, it is very difficult for me limit my answer to what muscles I move in my lips, how deeply I breathe or how my fingers move on the keys - important as all that is. Many people can play the flute; it is easy to master compared to other instruments, and this is probably what ultimately limits its potential as a profound instrument - it is too easy.

The truthful and inspired answer is that "why" we do things will always be more important than knowing "how" we do things. In the "why" lies our ability to care, to love and, ultimately, to overcome difficulties in life (whatever they may be). If we understand the real value of "love" (of humanity, of music, of our instrument, of the sound we produce) we are tapping into the very source, the unshakeable foundation of what living music is built on, whether we are composers or performers.

Conclusion

The naked truth is that I remain simply a flute player. But what I seek to achieve with it is vast - at times it is beyond the human, but it is always rooted in one of the most common and potent human traits of all - the ability to love. I know that if the flame of love thrives so does my music, and I can't help but feel that my six-month old baby girl is going to make damn sure that my heart sings until my last gasping breath…quick, give me a flute…

Wissam Boustany


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