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Rarescale Interview

Posted on 12 March 2006. © Copyright 2004-2020 Composition:Today

CT talks to Rarescale, a UK group dedicated to promoting new music for the alto flute.

Tell us all about Rarescale- how it started, what it is, why, who?

Rarescale was set up in 2004 to promote the alto flute and its repertoire. As a specialist alto flute player (and second study composer) I had worked frequently with composers advising about how to write for the instrument, and done various solo recitals in the UK and Europe. The new repertoire was getting a great response, so I decided it was time to formally name the project and set up the ensemble. Our work is in three main areas - performance (recitals using usually up to 3 players at a time), education of composers (we have a CD ROM available outlining my instrument, the quarter tone alto flute, and give workshops, lectures and work individually with composers) and education of flute players (usually in the form of masterclasses and also through an advisory service to recommend repertoire etc.)

We have a flexible line-up of players, based around Carla Rees (quarter tone alto flute, also doubling on bass flute and concert flute), Michael Oliva (electronics), Kerry Yong (piano), and David Black (guitar). We also have access to other instruments, including cor anglais, bass clarinet, cello, organ and voice.

What excites you about a piece of music - what keeps you interested?

Primarily, something well written for the instruments which stands out from the crowd in one way or another. I always look for good pieces in a whole range of styles, so I am open to everything from tonality to pieces comprised only of contemporary techniques and everything in between. I like pieces to be well thought out and to make structural sense, and ideally an imaginative approach to the alto flute.

And what turns you off ?

Usually practical things - pieces which are too long (the alto flute is heavy and tiring to play, and anything longer than about 10 minutes without breaks is excruciatingly painful to perform!!). I also get annoyed if scores are badly presented - in the amount of time I have available to learn each piece, I need to be able to get on with playing the music straight away, without having to decipher various symbols which aren't explained anywhere or read scrawly handwriting!! The other big turn off for me is music which is badly written for the instrument. I'm happy to advise on practical matters but I get very frustrated with composers who write for the alto flute as if it is just a bigger version of the flute. It responds very differently and composers need to take that on board if they are going to write a successful piece.

How do you go about programming your concerts?

The initial choice for us is instrumentation, and we usually put on a concert with a particular combination when we have accumulated enough repertoire to make a programme work. The aim for each concert is to demonstrate the instrumental combination in a range of different style, hopefully to show what the instruments can do, while at the same time promoting different composers and trying to show that contemporary music doesn't require a specialist knowledge to be enjoyed! I also try to include at least one premiere in each of our main concerts. The aim is that every programme will include a mixture of things, so that the audience can experience a whole range of new music.

How do you respond to unsolicited work- do you give feedback? Do you ever commission new work yourself?

I am more than happy to receive any unsolicited work. All the pieces I receive are put onto our waiting lists for performances, and we have an open call for scores for any chamber works using the alto or bass flute. I am happy to give feedback if composers ask for it - though I am very careful not to say too much until I have lived with the piece for a while. I often develop new instrumental techniques through new ideas by composers, and I am very wary of saying something should be changed in case I can find a new way of playing to create the desired sound or effect. We try to send composers recordings of any performances we give of their pieces, for demo and archive purposes.

I work closely with a number of composers, and often collaborate with them
to create music for specific projects.

What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?

Music has a relevance in the world in which it is created. There is undoubtedly huge competition for contemporary music, in terms of other leisure activities, but it will always have a value, even if it is not fully appreciated by a mainstream audience. I think it is up to those of us who are passionate about this music to try to present it in ways which are as inclusive as possible, without patronising or dumbing down. There is a place for all kinds of music, and I think quality is very important. New music should not be performed just because it is new - it should be performed because it is good and has something to say. Audiences should be allowed to feel that it is OK to have preferences without feeling that it is 'right' to like a certain composer or dislike another.

New music to me is there to give an emotional and intellectual challenge to
audiences and musicians. It is not always easy to understand a piece in just
one hearing, and it often requires that people listen and concentrate during
a performance. That is a skill in itself, particularly at a time when there
are so many distractions in daily life, and things that can make us lazy. If
composers and performers are doing things right, we should be creating
exciting things for future generations to enjoy.

Your ensemble mixes acoustic instruments with electronics, do you see electronics as being key to the future of contemporary music?

It is very exciting working with electronics when playing an instrument that is capable of producing reliable quarter tones. The sound-worlds that can be created when mixing electronics with acoustic instruments have so much range and possibility, especially when the harmonic language can make use of unusual microtonal scales without anything sounding 'out of tune'. Technology is a big part of the world we live in, and I see no reason not to embrace the computer as an instrument, on an equal basis to any other instrument in the group.

What's the best thing about running a contemporary music ensemble?

Meeting and working with so many interesting, creative and talented people. Seeing the expressions on people's faces when they hear a piece of music they really love. Having artistic freedom. Being my own boss!

And the worst?

The constant struggle for funding.

Any typical/common mistakes that new composers tend to make?

Three bits of advice for new composers -
1. don't be afraid to ask questions, take risks or make mistakes.
2. work with performers.
3. include a glossary at the beginning of each piece

What are your plans for the future?

Our next concert will be on 22nd April at St Leonard's Shoreditch - music for wind trio and electronics. It will include premieres by Michael Oliva (including the European premiere of Moss Garden for bass flute and electronics, which he composed for our recent tour in Los Angeles), Michael Csanyi-Wills, David Bennett Thomas and Marc Yeats. I'm currently also working on a new piece for alto flute, piano and electronics by Scot Wilson, which we'll perform later in the year. Other performances coming up include an appearance at the British Flute Society Convention in Manchester in august, and various recitals in and around London and the Midlands. There are also a couple of possibilities for more touring which I'm looking into for 2007 and 2008.

How can people find out more about you?

We have a website at

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2020

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