A Conversation with
Some instruments are really quite popular, but still have very few touring virtuosos who perform them as soloist on a full time basis. The Recorder is one which is very special and immediately lovable.
We've all heard it at one time or another, usually when we (or our children) play little tunes on inexpensive models. But in the hands of a trained musician, it can become uniquely wonderful and leave audiences with a new-found sense of what can come out of these little tubes of wood.
Michala Petri was born in Denmark in 1958, and has been playing this family of instruments all her life. Perhaps not the very first one to travel the world as a soloist, but certainly she is the one we think of when the sound returns to our ears. For more information about Michala Petri, including her current performance schedules and a list of recordings, visit her website.
Extremely pleasant and enthusiastic, we arranged to get together in 1990 while she was on tour. When she landed in Chicago, we met at her hotel for the conversation. Ever the perfectionist, she even repeated her reading of the WNIB Station Break quite a number of times before being somewhat satisfied.
Since our chat was being recorded for future radio broadcasts,
to be sure that it sounded like a quiet studio.....
Michala Petri: [Pointing to the cassette machine on the table] Don't you think this should be a little more away from the microphone?
Bruce Duffie: It makes no noise, but I'll put it a little farther away.
MP: It does make a little noise.
BD: But you will make more noise!
MP: [With a twinkle in her eye] That's right, yes.
BD: Tell me the joys and sorrows of playing an 18th century instrument as we head into the 21st century.
MP: Well, that's difficult to do briefly. As with any instrument there are both joys and sorrows, but to me the recorder is the best instrument because that's the instrument I started playing on, the instrument I'm most used to. Therefore I can express myself best on this instrument. I wouldn't say that the recorder is a more beautiful instrument than any other, but it's certainly the one I like the most.
BD: Is it fun playing the recorder?
MP: I think so. The recorder has a very original sound, a sort of nature-like sound, which I think appeals to many people. In fact, I notice that people who come to my concerts may not often hear a piano or a violin recital. It's a slightly different audience from the normal concert audience.
BD: Is it an audience that would go to hear someone playing the transverse flute?
MP: Maybe, yes. I think so. But then it may also be an audience who will not go to a concert at all, and maybe who have children who play recorder, and for that reason they go and hear the concert.
BD: Is it at all difficult to get over the fact that this is a wonderful musical instrument and not a toy?
MP: Yes and no. That is something I fight against all the time. When I practice, suddenly I can hear the toy instrument in what I'm doing, and then I get scared and I just have to practice a little harder. Then suddenly I can hear a resemblance to a violin or to clarinet or an oboe, and then I know it's all right again. But it is something I have to fight against, even in my own imagination, not only in other people's imagination, but also in my own. We have to admit that it is, in its nature, a very simple instrument. It's just a piece of wood and it has eight holes. There are no elaborate keys or anything else in it.
BD: Is there not a whole family of recorders, though?
MP: Oh, yes! That's right, and there is a big difference in sound between them. The smallest recorder has a much more different sound from the biggest one than you would imagine. [She retrieves three different instruments from her suitcase to demonstrate.] The three different sizes I have here are the ones most commonly used in concert performances. Starting with the biggest one that's got the most repertoire written for it, especially in the Baroque period, is the treble or the alto recorder. [Demonstrates the alto recorder across its two-octave range, ascending with a G major scale and descending with a G major arpeggio.] And then there is the one which most children start playing, the soprano recorder which is smaller. [Demonstrates the soprano recorder across its two-octave range, ascending with a D major scale and descending with a D major arpeggio.] And then there's the smallest, the sopranino. [Demonstrates the sopranino recorder across its two-octave range, ascending with a G major scale and descending with a G major arpeggio, this time twice as fast and in staccato fashion, sounding rather like a piccolo.] Those are the three most commonly used sizes. There are bigger recorders, too. There's a tenor and a bass, and a double bass, or great bass, and a sub-great bass which is six feet in length. You need a pipe which goes from your mouth up to the top of the instrument.
BD: Do you ever get together and play in a consort of recorders, with large and small playing as a group?
MP: Unfortunately, I don't myself, but it is often done in recorder ensembles, especially for Renaissance and some Baroque music. You would have a whole family of recorders playing together, from the bass to the sopranino. It makes a beautiful sound, but since I go around playing concerts on my own, I don't often meet other recorder players. But when I do I enjoy it very much.
* * * * *
BD: You have quite a bit of repertoire, but then you're also commissioning new pieces and transcribing others.
MP: That is true, and that is two different things. The recorder repertoire is not as limited as many people think, but it is still very limited if you want to develop yourself and your playing. So I've done a few things to try to overcome that limitation. One is that I have transcribed pieces written for other instruments. That is something you can do perfectly well with Baroque music, because in that time it was quite common to play music on different instruments. Many pieces would even be written to be played either on recorder or on flute or on oboe or on a violin; any of these instruments together with basso continuo, which is a bass instrument with any chord-instrument such as an organ or a harpsichord, or it might a lute.
BD: So they would write the music and hope that anyone who could play those notes would play it on whatever instrument they had available.
MP: That's right, yes, exactly. It was much more practical in those days. It wasn't so specific. It was perfectly legal to take other Baroque pieces and use them yourself. I've made a transcription of The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. Then I also have to try to expand the repertoire. I've commissioned many pieces from composers of today, and that is something I enjoy doing very much because I find it very challenging. But Baroque music will always be more abundant. I talk about Baroque music all the time because, for the recorder, there is music from the Baroque time, and then there's a big gap in the repertoire until the beginning of the 20th Century. The recorder was simply forgotten, or almost forgotten, by all composers, so therefore there is this big gap, and it has to be either Baroque or contemporary.
BD: So you've really revived an ancient instrument.
MP: I haven't, but it has been revived. Many people have done it together. I'm certainly not the first. Frans Brüggen, I think, is the one who did the main job of bringing it back to the concert halls.
BD: Are there enough recorder players around?
MP: There are more and more. As the instrument gets more and more well known there'll be more and more recorder players. In Europe the number of recorder players has grown. It now exists as instrument in all the conservatories on a level with the guitar and any other instrument.
BD: If you're studying recorder, are you also studying flute, or just the recorder?
MP: You can do both. I started playing the recorder when I was three years old, and then I started to play the flute as well when I was twelve. I played both instruments until I was sixteen, and then suddenly I felt that if I wanted to play an instrument well, I could only play one instrument. Then there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to stay with the recorder, because it was more familiar to me. I was simply better able to express myself on that instrument. Furthermore, it also seemed that I would be able to make a living out of playing that instrument, which nobody else thought was possible. That is the reason why my parents gave me a flute - so that I could get a better job and a better chance of having a job later on. But it seemed to be possible, and it still is possible for me to live by giving concerts on the recorder. And it is also nice playing an instrument which not so many people play. I get to play with very good orchestras because there is not so much competition. [Chuckles] I also enjoy very much exploring the possibilities of an instrument, and maybe be the first one to improve the ways of playing, to find new techniques.
BD: Have you found some new techniques which aid in getting around some notes?
MP: [Takes a deep breath] I have found a few techniques which are used in the modern music. Maybe it's wrong to say I found them, but I have asked the composers who write for the instrument to put them in the pieces. For example, you can play multiphonics.
BD: Is that produced by a modification of the fingerings?
MP: Multiphonics means that you play more notes at the same time, and you do that by fingering a note which is low if you blow softly on it and which may be high if you blow loud on it. Then you find the level just in between, where you have both notes at the same time. [Again, she demonstrates] For example, when I finger like this [plays a low note on the alto recorder], if I blow hard, it will sound like this [uses the same fingering as for the low note, but blows hard, producing only a high harmonic]. And then I can find the level in between. I start to blow softly, and then I get gradually harder and harder: [plays the low note again, at first softly, then harder; as she blows harder the pitch at first rises a small amount, then the tone "splits" into a complex multiphonic]. Or this, [does the same thing, but on a tone one whole step higher; then does it again on a tone a whole step higher again; while holding this multiphonic she executes a finger tremolo which varies the fundamental of the multiphonic up and down by the interval of a fourth]. And you can make some very high noises if you cover the cover the windway with a flat hand, and blow very hard, [demonstrates this technique, producing a high, chirping pitch]. Those high noises you can mix in between some normal notes, and if you do that, you get an effect almost as if there are two instruments playing at the same time. That effect comes because your ear can't adjust quickly enough from the high to the low. So if you play quickly enough, the ear will hear all the high notes as one tune, and all the low notes as another tune, like this, [demonstrates, playing a rapid, staccato repetitive chromatic passage in the middle register, with a high "chirp" tone interpolated at irregular intervals every three or four notes]. And then you can make what we call a glissando, which means that you slide from one note to another instead of lifting the fingers.
BD: As is done on strings and trombones?
MP: Yeah, but you have it on the clarinet, too. For example, the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue has a long glissando. You can only do it on instruments with holes in the keys.
BD: So that you take your fingers off the holes gradually?
MP: Yeah, very gradually. Instead of playing like this [plays a rapid legato major scale over the span of nearly two octaves], you will do like this [demonstrates a glissando across the same register] and produce a glissando that way.
BD: Did the Baroque composers ever call for this?
MP: No, they didn't.
BD: So it's only in the new music.
MP: It's only in the new music, yes. That's right. And you can make fluttertonguing, which is that you let the tip of the tongue f-f-flutter in the mouth.
BD: [Flutters tongue]
MP: Yes, exactly. You're better at doing it without an instrument than I am. I can't do it without my recorder. [Both chuckle] I can do it in the recorder, like this [demonstrates fluttertonguing on a high note, continuing to fluttertongue up the chromatic scale and down a major arpeggio]. And sometimes you may even be asked to sing and play at the same time. When you do that, the sound gets slightly altered. It's a bit like when you put a piece of paper across a comb, and then you have a ... [hesitates, not knowing the word]
BD: Sure, it's a simple kazoo!
MP: [Demonstrates, playing one (higher) tune and humming another entirely different (lower) bass line-like melody, in Classical style.]
BD: You should get a "doubling fee" when you're your own back-up group!
MP: Yes, that's true. I can also play on two recorders at the same time. This is really just a joke, but for an encore it might be fun. In my dream, I play two recorders at the same time and sing along as well. That would demand a lot of air, though... [Laughter all around]
BD: And a lot of concentration!
MP: That's right, yes. You have to sing exactly in tune, in fact, because if you sing slightly out of tune you get a third note, and it sounds quite terrible. The ear creates a third note if you sing just slightly out of tune.
BD: Some experimental composer is going to say, "I want you to play in D major and sing in E-flat."
MP: Yeah. That's very likely!
BD: And the resulting key is Q-sharp. [Both chuckle] Seriously, do you need the balance of the new sounds to offset all of the playing you do in the very-exact Baroque style?
MP: It's very much the same all the time. I agree.
BD: So the new sounds of the 20th Century help bring a balance to your life?
MP: Absolutely, yes. Most certainly. I wouldn't have stayed with the recorder as an instrument, no matter how familiar I feel to it and how well I feel I can express myself on it, if I had only had the possibility to play Baroque music. Having the modern music is a relief. I even regret that there's not more Romantic music written for the instrument than is the case. I said earlier that the recorder was forgotten between the Baroque time and the beginning of our century, but there are, in fact, a couple of composers who remembered of the recorder and wrote pieces for it, but they haven't been known of until a few years ago. Anton Heberle and Ernest Krähmer. [Petri pronounces the first name "Ernest" but it is also given in various sources as "Ernst."] I personally have found a lot of pieces by those two composers in different libraries - old prints and old manuscripts. They both lived in either Austria or Hungary. Not much is known about them, but I have found around twenty works by each composer, and that's a very nice addition to the repertoire. Heberle lived around Mozart's time and Krähmer lived a little later. They wrote some lovely music. It's not very deep music, but really very nice and very appealing. I've recorded some pieces by each composer. They're very virtuosic and a little show-off, like Carnival in Venice. Often things like that may sound very difficult, but they are, in fact, very easy, like double tonguing and so on. [Plays a virtuosic passage, full of repeated notes over a wide range] It's much easier than it sounds, but it sounds very brilliant, and they are fun.
BD: They create an excitement in the audience.
MP: Yes, that's right.
BD: Is that your point of playing, to create an excitement in the audience and a feeling in the audience, with your music?
MP: Absolutely. Yes. Not an excitement, maybe, but certainly a feeling. I'm very much a communicative player. I think there are two different kinds of players. There are the ones who just sit down and play for themselves and let the audience listen. They draw in the audience. And then there are the more outgoing kind, like myself, who play directly to the audience. I don't play for myself; I play directly to the audience. I like communicate with them. That's my style of playing. I very much try to create an atmosphere of some kind.
BD: Is it the same kind of atmosphere in all the pieces, or different kinds of atmospheres?
MP: [Thinks for a moment] It is different kinds of atmospheres from movement to movement and even within each movement. We are creating atmospheres all the time. Before I go onstage I know more or less what kind of atmosphere I want to create. This is part of the preparation. But sometimes, if I'm very familiar with a piece, suddenly I realize that I can create a completely different atmosphere from what I thought, which is very nice. As long as something happens, that's the main thing, I think.
BD: Something good.
MP: Something good, yes.
* * * * *
BD: With the recorder, you don't have the problems of broken strings or damaged reeds...
MP: Oh, I have other problems. But, then, each instrument has its own problems. With the recorder, there is the problem that you can't very well change the color of the tone. Also, you're not supposed to be able to change the pitch at all. If you try to play a diminuendo where the tone gets gradually softer and softer, the pitch will drop, like this [plays a long tone in the high register of the alto recorder, then reduces the speed of her airstream, flattening the tone approximately a minor third].
BD: Like you're running out of gas. [Chuckles]
MP: Yeah, exactly. The pitch just drops if I try to blow less in the instrument. In order to compensate for that I have to actually make the note higher; and that I do by using this glissando technique I was demonstrating earlier. I pull off one of the fingers gradually. So, if I try to do that and blow at a steady level, it will sound like this [plays the same high pitch, but this time the pitch rises a minor third as she pulls her finger off the next finger hole]. If I combine those two things, then I get a tone which gets gradually softer, and which stays at the same pitch. [Demonstrates this technique, playing the same high pitch, which begins loud, then grows very quiet, then grows again in volume, without dropping or rising in pitch.] That is something which it is not very natural to do. On a clarinet, for example, you can adjust the pitch by changing your embouchure. You can just blow less and then press a little harder with your lips.
BD: And continue to support more with the breath.
MP: Exactly, yes. Or on a bassoon, you also squeeze the reeds more, with your lips. That way you can compensate, but that's not something you can do with a recorder at all. And you can't very well change the color of the tone.
BD: Staying with pitch just a moment, on a transverse flute you can roll it in or out slightly to help compensate.
MP: Yes, you change what you call the embouchure. You change the direction of the airstream That way you can compensate on a flute. And on a piano it's very, very easy. You just hit the key a little softer, and you get a softer note. [Chuckles] But that's one of the disadvantages. There are, of course, also advantages, and one of those is that it's very easy to play fast on the recorder because your fingers are in the same position all the time. You don't have to move them very much. But then again there are disadvantages about that because you don't have any helping keys. You have some very difficult finger combinations. You will have to move a lot of fingers all the time. But once you come to a certain level at each instrument, then they are all the same in difficulty, I think.
BD: Have you ever thought of building a special recorder which would have small keys in between each of the holes, perhaps for quarter tones or something like that?
MP: You can do quarter tones on a recorder all right without keys.
BD: Oh, with the glissando technique!
MP: Yes, exactly. You just open one of the holes half instead of completely. Or you find a different fingering.
BD: So there's no point in adding a different hole in a different place just for a different pitch?
MP: No. No. Not at all. And then, also, a little of the fun would go out of it, you know? It's nice about the recorder that it has so few helping remedies, so the challenge becomes bigger.
BD: I see. [Chuckles] Is there any time that the challenge becomes too much?
MP: Well, then you have to work a little harder. [Note: The American composer and recorder player Tui St. George Tucker (1924-2004) developed recorders with extra holes for the purpose of executing quarter tones.]
BD: What advice do you have for a composer who is going to write for you?
MP: Normally I always sit down with a composer and talk to him about the instrument, and I will play a piece for him so that he gets a feeling of the instrument. I would, of course, tell him the different ranges of the different sizes, and I would tell him things like it is impossible to play loud in the low register. The natural loud register is the high register in the recorder. A forte-fortissimo on the lowest note, for example; that wouldn't work. Then he will write the piece, or write sections of it, and I'll look at it and say, "This is difficult," or, "This is maybe too easy." I can sometimes see that the composer he is afraid of writing too difficult. He may write the whole piece in C major. I always make sure, beforehand, that I tell him that he shouldn't try to limit himself at all, because you can play in all keys on the recorder. It's easier to make things less difficult afterwards than the other way around.
* * * * *
BD: You've made a number of recordings. Do you play the same in the recording studio as you do in the concert hall? Do you find yourself playing with the same intensity and the same ideas for the microphone as you do for a live audience?
MP: [Thinks for a moment] I used to, but now I have fortunately become so used to recording that I dare take more chances when I am recording. I used to be the other way around. I used to think, "This is the recording. I must play perfect. And then I put safety first, always. But now I am so familiar with the situation, and also so experienced, that I know that it takes more whatever it is you do to come across on a record than it does in a concert. In a concert you are helped very much by your own person being there onstage, and by your movements. They are supporting the music, and by the audience focusing on you and being supportive. But when people put on a record they will rarely sit down and really listen to it from one end to the other. The situation is a little different, and, in any case, they won't have your person to look at. So you need do more, even more, play more exaggerated, musically, what you do on a recording, I think.
BD: Do you then ever feel that you are competing, in the concert hall, with the recordings that the same audience has listened to at home the night before?
MP: I try not to think of it because it may make me nervous. I used to, but now I just go onstage and do the best I can for the evening. I try to give people an experience rather than thinking that they may compare it to a canned product.
BD: Have you basically been pleased, though, with the recordings that have come out?
MP: [Without hesitation] No, never.
BD: [Very surprised] Never?
BD: [In a soothing tone] Ahhhh, but we all like them so much.
MP: Well, I'm very glad to know that. No, I tend to hear the things which are wrong in them. But, fortunately, I'm more pleased with the recent ones than I was with the first. I think I still need to learn to play more and more musically in the recording studio. I make new experiences every time.
BD: Then do you share those new ideas with the audiences when you do the next live concerts?
MP: Not so much. For me, apart from the music, the situation is so much different that I can't really compare the two situations. The most difficult of all things is to play a concert which is being recorded. To play a concert is nice. To play a concert which is broadcast live is just like having an expanded, extended audience. But to play a concert where you know the result is coming on tape, and you have to have both the spontaneity of a concert and the perfectness that you want to have on a tape, that's a difficult combination. But still, at least for the moment, I try to play most like a performance, even if it is taped. I try to make it a live performance rather than a perfect product.
BD: Can music be too perfect?
MP: No. The perfectionism shouldn't be at the cost of the musicality. It doesn't matter if it is perfect. Musicality comes first.
BD: Then let me ask you a philosophical question. What is the purpose of music in society?
MP: [Thinks for a moment] That is almost impossible to explain, because if you feel it, then you know what is the purpose, and if you don't feel it you can't really have it explained. I think music is very important. When I go and hear a concert with some great artist, or maybe if I go and see a play with a great actor, I come out of the theater much more optimistic, and much more happy, and much more energized, and really ready to go on working some more with my own thing. I think that is a very good purpose of music. That's easy for me to say, but I feel that music is very important without being able to explain why it is. If you look at life so that it is more than just things you can take and grasp, then music certainly is very important. Like any other art, theater is also important, I think. Anything that communicates is important. We must communicate feelings and emotions rather than just computer information.
BD: You don't want to be reduced to just being part of a computerized mechanism?
MP: [With certitude] No, no, no. Not really.
BD: Are the concerts that you play for everyone?
MP: I think so. I used to think they were for specialists and music lovers, but I have realized many times that somebody has happened to be in the hall, somebody who had to help putting up the chairs, or putting up things for the orchestra. They have had to hear the concert for some reason, and they have often come afterwards and said how wonderful it was to listen to a concert. They never knew it would be so nice. That is one of the things that really makes me very, very happy, because then I know I've reached somebody new. And the funny thing about music is that once you have sort of listened to something that way, once you have opened your ears for that way of listening, then you have it always. You listen to music differently in all the future. You have been opened up somehow, and that's really nice when such things happen. So I think music is for everyone.
BD: If one of the big rock groups asked you to play an obbligato with one of their pieces, would you accept that kind of offer?
MP: If I find it was a good rock group, I would certainly, yes. I haven't listened so much to rock music, but much of the music I've heard I like, and much I don't like. A lot of it is simply the same over and over again, and too hard for me, somehow.
BD: And too loud?
MP: Too loud, yes, absolutely. Although I think that has gotten better. Ten years ago there was a tendency to play it even louder.
BD: So there's hope!
MP: The funniest thing about when you play something loud, you are actually unable to hear whether it is in tune or not. So as long as you play something loud enough, anything will sound well. So you can get away with a lot of things if you just turn up the volume. [Laughs]
* * * * *
BD: Do you like being a wandering minstrel?
MP: [Thinks for a moment; then, most ambivalently] Yes, I do. The traveling part of my job is very tiring, but it is something that belongs to the job, and something you learn to cope with. But I like getting around and meeting people all over, and what I like most, I think, is feeling at home everywhere, which I do by now. I have traveled for so many years. For 14 years I've been traveling full-time. The first few years were a little hard because I kept coming to new places, meeting new people, and playing with new orchestras. But now I mostly come back to the same places, and I just feel good about it.
BD: How do you divide your career between solo performances and orchestral performances?
MP: I think half of my performances are recitals with harpsichord, and those I do mostly with my mother. The other half is mostly orchestra engagements with different orchestras. I may do a tour with an orchestra which is something I enjoy very much, because then we get to know each other very well, and we mostly perform the same pieces. We really get to know each other as an ensemble, rather than just getting through the program as we have rehearsed it. We really get to make music that way. But most of that part of my activity is with different orchestras. Then I'll occasionally do other things, like make records and I will play with a guitar. I've played some concerts with Kazuhito Yamashita. He's a very good guitarist. I also play some chamber music.
BD: When you're playing, for instance, a tour, like you're on now, how do you keep the 15th or the 23rd concert fresh?
MP: That is very easy, because that's also something you learn to work on. Always consider the music new. You have to be able to do that to be a musician. You don't play for your own pleasure. When I play, I play to communicate something to the audience, and since the audience is new every time, I know that it is a new experience all the time. I think it would be difficult for me to keep the music fresh if I knew I played the same concerto 50 times to the same audience. Then I would feel a little embarrassed, somehow. But I know it's a new audience all the time. For example, the Vivaldi concerto I'm playing on this tour, the C major, is one of the most played recorder concertos. I've played it, I think, more than 600 times altogether, and I've recorded four times. [Both chuckle] It's quite amazing, but I every single time I play it I still feel it as a new concerto. That is something you need, self-discipline. But you must be able to look at it in a new way every time.
BD: I hope you can still consider it new when you're 40 and 50 and 60 years old.
MP: I hope so, and I think so as long as I keep seeing other things. I may go to a museum one day, and then when I play the concerto in the evening I will be that much different that I can play the concerto differently.
BD: Are you coming back to Chicago?
MP: [With sincerity and enthusiasm] I very much hope so. I really like it here. It is one of my favorite American cities.
BD: Hooray for us. Thank you for spending some time with me this afternoon. I appreciate it. I learned a lot.
MP: Thank you very much.
BD: This was lots of fun. And thank you for the demonstration.
MP: You're very welcome!
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© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on February 26,
were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1991, 1993 and 1998.
This transcription was made early in 2007 and posted on this website at
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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
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