Wall Street Journal: Breathing Matters

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
Published: January 28, 2012
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There’s a 1976 recording of James Galway playing Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” on his golden flute, in which you never once hear him draw breath.

At the time, it was lauded as an almost superhuman feat; a virtuosic example of circular breathing, a technique that allows wind players to simultaneously inhale air through the nose while breathing it out through the mouth. (Galway later confessed the recording had been spliced together.) In 1997, saxophonist Kenny G used circular breathing to play a continuous, unbroken note for a total of 45 minutes and 47 seconds, earning him a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.

Last week’s concert by flutist Claire Chase at (Le) Poisson Rouge, celebrating the release of her new CD “Terrestre,” offered no shortage of athletic challenges and technical sorcery of its own. But what struck me the most about the recent compositions for flute was the return of the breath. By turns expressive, mysterious, and dramatic, it was always unapologetically human. As Chase later told me over the phone, “Breath is the one thing we can’t live without. As flute players, it’s something we should honor.”

Of all the wind instruments, the flute is the least efficient in transforming breath into musical sound, because so much of the air is lost when the player blows across the opening in the mouthpiece. (At the other spectrum is the oboe with its tightly pressed double reed, which wastes so little air that oboists have to empty out their lungs at the end of a phrase before quickly tanking up again.) Normally, classical flutists are taught to make the breath as self-effacing as possible – to banish that persistent ffff-sound that is usually the mark of a beginner.

But in Chase’s performance of “Glacier” (2010), a solo for bass flute by Dai Fujikura, her breath floated audibly above much of the music, giving it a ghostly quality. With subtle changes in the angle of the mouthpiece, she was able to invoke the sound of more ancient types of flutes made out of wood, bamboo and stone.

Her inhalations, too, became part of the music. Contemporary composers like Fujikura, says Chase, “have started to think of breath as an ornament and as an expressive device in its own right, whether it’s a subtle, moody breath or the dramatic gesture of an inhalation. Some breaths are even notated in the music: it increases the drama.”

Breath also became a character in Kaija Saariaho’s “Terrestre” (2003), a spirited, fanciful work for flute, strings, harp and percussion in which Chase was joined by her colleagues from the International Contemporary Ensemble. “Terrestre” is inspired by an Aboriginal tale of a bird teaching an entire village to dance. In it, the composer calls on the flutist to sing, too, sometimes while simultaneously playing another note, other times alternating, so that a conversation ensues between voice and instrument.

It’s a magical effect, but startling, too, because we have come to think of classical performers as transparent conduits for pure music. Bringing their breath and voice back into the performance is a way of asserting their physicality and individual sound. To do it well and remain within the confines of art takes the kind of combination of grace and guts that make Chase one of the more formidable forces on the classical scene – but the result is a full-throated affirmation of chamber music as human drama.