It’s the oldest instrument ever. (40,000 years plus) It’s been written about by the Sumerians and Confucius, in The Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s played by ancient Greek myths (Pan), Indian gods (Krishna) and British rockstars (Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson). And it may well be the cognitive link between Neandertals and modern humans.
It is the flute, dig? And this Thursday, at FIU’s Steven and Dorothea Green Library Music Lecture Series, the exquisite instrument will be explored and storied as if it were a deity.
The pied pontiff? A sonic saint of sorts named Michael Lynn, here to make good on Listening Closely, another edifying entry in the long-running Green Lecture Series. A player of fabulist proportion, Lynn’s piped all over the world, with everyone from the Smithsonian Chamber Players and the American Baroque Ensemble to the Handel & Haydn Society.
Lynn’s also a teacher (Full Professor, baby), ensconced annually at the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute (home of the nation’s oldest, continually-operating conservatory), as well as a collector (who’s amassed what’s possibly the largest and most diverse assortment of flutes in private hands). This Thursday the virtuous virtuoso will bring all those many wondrous facets to bear for what promises to be the singlemost unorthodox sounding in this year’s Miami Music Week.
How (and when) did you come to realize you were meant to be a flutist?
This, of course, is a multi-layered answer. The first layer is that my mother is a flutist and both my parents played recorder. When I was about 5 I started playing recorder and was rather serious about that as a kid. When I was 10 started studying modern flute with my mother but kept playing recorder. By the time I finished high-school I had lost interest in the modern flute but was serious about the recorder.
Beginning in 10th grade I joined the Early Music group at Indiana University. I learned many of the other Renaissance winds as well. By the time I finished college as I picked up the baroque flute and found it easy and natural. I never actually studied it. So, I think that by the time I started college I knew I was going to be some type of player of historical flutes.
Were you initially more driven by the orchestral aspect of the instrument or the ease in which the flute can accommodate those looking to go it alone?
I really loved/love playing with other people although I did also play some solo recorder music. I started a Medieval and Renaissance Ensemble during my 3rd year of college. One of my very important and lucky moments was that as soon as I graduated I got the position of solo flutist and recorder player with the Ars Musica Baroque Orchestra in Ann Arbor.
There were only a few baroque orchestras in the US so this was a tremendous opportunity and allowed me to play, at a very young age, many flute and recorder concertos as well as other orchestral music. These days I play a lot of solo flute music because I am interested in playing on my original/old flutes which are at an assortment of pitches – usually not the ones everyone else wants to play at.
Was there a particular piece / musician / period / professor which/who was integral to your committing to this oldest of all instruments?
I was very influenced by Dutch flutist and recorder player Frans Bruggen. I was never his student but got to know him fairly well and performed a couple of concertos with him. From my point of view he was the one who turned the recorder into a real musical instrument. For him it was about the music, not the recorder or flute, even though he loved and collected the instruments.
Speaking of which, how much impact did the flute’s long and storied history have on your initial commitment?
I don’t think it had much to do with my initial interest as I was so young. On the other hand, my current interest in the history and development of the flute is all historically based.
Was history largely the reason you chose to commit to Oberlin?
My commitment to Oberlin was very much because they had a strong commitment to the study of historical performance. Next year will be my 40th year teaching there and as fair as I know I am the only tenured faculty member in the country teaching recorder and historical flutes at the level of Full Professor. I was very lucky that my position happened to open just when I was ready.
How much does being situated in America’s oldest Conservatory fuel your penchant for the historical?
I love teaching at Oberlin. It is really perfectly setup to teach historical performance. There have been professors interested in early instruments going back into the 19th century, which is quite unusual. There was not a continuous line to us from those people but it is an interesting connection.
We have a great faculty, fine instrument collection and amazing music library. I did a wonderful project during Oberlin’s 200th Anniversary which was a concert, lectures, and exhibition called The French Flute Extravaganza – this featured Oberlin faculty and students performing French flute music that would have been played at the time of Oberlin Conservatory’s first 30 years. This repertoire is virtually unknown to flutists of today and this project was a wonderful introduction to some of that music. It fit nicely with the history of the school.
How much does your penchant for the historical drive what you do?
It is certainly an important aspect for me. I enjoy trying to look at flute music through the lens of the “proper” flute, playing from an original edition – not something doctored up by an editor, and knowing what I can about the original context of the music and instruments. On the other hand, the reason I do all this is that I think the music is better communicated to the listener by doing so. Playing this music, or any older repertoire, in a “modern” generic style, on modern instruments makes all the music sound the same and less interesting.
Isn’t there also a significant amount of sleuthing and anthropology involved in these historical pursuits of yours?
The sleuthing is actually one of my favorite parts. Much of my work involves trying to find exciting original instruments and learn about them. Because of my collection and website I hear from lots of people who have an old flute sitting around “it has been in their family at least 200 years.” I get them to send me info and photos and I try to provide them with information on what the flute really is. This can be quite easy or very challenging but involves a chase for information and a good understanding of the details that define the characteristics of different flutes.
What kind of gems will be on the agenda at the Green Library this Thursday?
I have brought a number of great and interesting flutes. These include an ivory flute by the English maker Monzani, two examples of the conical Boehm flutes – one the earliest model by Godfroy and a later one by the top French maker Louis Lot, a rare early 4 key flute by Buffet, a couple of nice baroque flute copies, a very early Belgian silver flute, and lots more. There are lots of old flutes running around but these are fine examples, all in playable condition, by important makers. I will also show photos of various other flutes from my collection.
What else might the Listening Closely crowd expect to encounter?
I will play short examples on quite a few of the flutes and a very nice, unknown piece, by an unknown (today) composer, Cottignies. It is a set of variation on a popular song Ma Normandie which is still known today. Hearing the differences between all these flutes is somewhat subtle but I think it will be easy to hear the difference between these flutes and the modern flutes. I think virtually everyone enjoys the sound of these flutes. If flute players come I always invite them to try out the instruments which is a fabulous opportunity for them.
While the program may be pure flute, is it fair to say that one neither has to be a flutist or even a musician to be struck by your take on the subject?
While I designed this originally for flutists/flautists I always try to adjust it for whoever the audience is. From what I can tell, people of all interests have enjoyed hearing these flutes and getting some explanation about how we got from the 1-key flute of Bach’s time to the modern flute we hear in an orchestra today. I have given lots of versions of this talk including ones where there were no flutists in the audience. One of my favorites was for a Freshman Seminar at Oberlin about Innovation. My talk was basically on how innovation is demonstrated in the developments that took place in getting to the modern flute.
What do you recommend folks be for the occasion?
I recommend that people come to listen and look. The sounds are beautiful and the instruments are works of art in themselves. Being open-minded, curious (I love questions) – I hope everyone will enjoy this rare flutistic adventure!
Michael Lynn “Rediscovering the French Flute of the True Golden Age” Listening Closely: Green Library Music Lecture Series. March 23, 2017 FIU Main Campus. For more information log on here.