David Roche explains the processes (including learning to play the flute) involved in his new music commissioned for this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, Leading By Example, and how this fed into his belief in the importance of a solid musical education.
Last Wednesday was the first time I’d driven a car in 10 years. I literally couldn’t even remember the names or functions of the pedals. In defence of myself, this was one of the first questions I asked my driving instructor during my reminder lessons – essential stuff. So why did I need to drive? Well, I was determined to get to Wales to visit a few places and a do a bit of work. I was also excited as I had the fantastic opportunity to attend the opening reception of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. The 2018 festival program is phenomenal, international, and reflective of a modern, inclusive, forward-looking Welsh culture – amazing! On top of this, I have been commissioned to write a piece for flute and piano: it’s titled Leading by Example, it’s in 3 movements, and it’s going to be performed by Jose Zalba-Smith and Jan Willem Nelleke on May 12th. I’m pretty gobsmacked and overjoyed about the whole affair. In 2017 I had the incredible pleasure and privilege of participating in the inaugural Peter Reynolds Composer Studio, working with Grand Band, and it’s absolutely wild to be working on a piece for this incredible festival this year.
As soon as I’d found out that I’d be writing a piece for flute and piano I set to work. As part of my usual process, the first thing I did was research the repertoire and make sure I hadn’t missed anything. There’re absolute classics like Unity Capsule and the Poulenc Sonata for Flute and Piano, both of which everybody should know (if you look at the score to the former you’ll see it’s hard to miss!), but I was most drawn to David Lang’s Thorn and Ian Clarke’s extremely idiomatic flute writing. Clarke caters to more popular tastes but learning bits of flute music reminded me of learning Van Halen songs on guitar – the patterns and processes of performance and composition are guided by the shapes and particulars of the instrument. His [Clarke’s] music boils over with amazing part-writing and it’s easy to isolate and perform little sections from them… but it is hard to pull it together as a whole piece. Both Lang and Clarke are programmed in the festival this year too, so this all clicked together nicely in my mind.
For this commission I thought I’d go one step further and actually try to learn the flute… or at least a little bit of flute. In my home I have my sister’s first flute, it’s been sitting there for a while, and this seemed like an ample opportunity to pick it up and learn it. About 4 hours of Youtube videos later I could just about rustle through some entry-level grade pieces. I could also fire off a few multiphonics (if you don’t know what they are then check here– they’re crazy) and, from that point, I began to see the piece a little more clearly. I spent a few weeks messing around on my ‘new’ instrument and eventually came in to contact with a peculiar type of multiphonic with a steady upper pitch and a shifting lower one – it sounds a lot like the ethereal, moving Let Me Die Before I Wake by Salvatore Sciarrino. This was such a peculiar sound and I made sure I found a substantial solo section to showcase it in the second movement. There’re also a few multiphonic toots dotted around the first movement – so listen out for those too.
The process of learning how to play the flute got me thinking about my educational experiences more generally, this became a central theme of Leading by Example. I think one often underestimates the value of a good, solid education given by responsible, dedicated adults. For me, my most important musical education was afforded to me by people who selflessly gave up their time to help me learn; for years I learned to play cornet for free, I was taught how to play guitar by an extremely enthusiastic teacher, and I was given access to recording materials and people who would help me use them. Without those educational models and experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to attempt to pursue the path I am pursuing today. This idea of emulating a positive role model is particularly present in the first and final movements of Leading by Example. In both movements we hear a single voice at the opening. This is copied by a second voice and both continue in tandem, developing and strengthening each other over the course of time. Both voices are working together to reach something better, richer, and more complete. A reminder of the importance that other people have in shaping our lives, a complete celebration of education and the impactful and positive influence it can have on everyone who has access to it.
Finally, here’s an incredible piece of flute music that didn’t really influence Leading by Example but is definitely worth listening to over and over: