“The Blistering Price of Power” by Eric Lyon
The flute is a classical instrument. The flute belongs in an orchestra with other woodwinds. If the flute is feeling particularly randy, it will join a marching band. But one day in the 90s, a flute played by Elizabeth McNutt, then a graduate student at the University of California – San Diego, discovered interactive music. The school had hired a musician who was also a computer programmer, and McNutt’s flute discovered it could not only play music by living composers, it could play music interactively with a computer as its duet partner.
Now in her fourth year as University of North Texas music teacher, Elizabeth McNutt has pieces written for her by contemporary music composers, and she is flown into places like Belfast, Seoul and Switzerland to debut new works. On Monday evening (April 13), Elizabeth performs with The Tornado Project in Denton – a trio for flute, clarinet and computer.
Elizabeth McNutt: I’m an ensemble director – I direct the music ensemble NOVA, I teach flute students, I coach chamber music, and then I’m also on the composition faculty and I lecture in courses pertaining to contemporary music.
A&S: Do you compose specifically for the flute?
E.M.: I don’t consider myself a composer. That’s what’s strange about me being on the composition faculty – I’m technically not a composer. Publicly, I’m not a composer.
My favorite class is a graduate seminar in contemporary music performance practice. So that’s really good for performers and composers, and very practical, because it’s coming mostly from the point of view of someone who mostly only plays contemporary music. I also teach a class about music after 1945 – recent trends in contemporary music.
A&S: Tell us about this concert you have coming up.
We had shared dressing rooms at festivals and had a friendly relationship backstage, but we had never worked together until two of the composers cooked up this idea. And they literally cooked it up – they were in one of their kitchens. They got this idea that we should get a bunch of composers together – and these were people in the UK, so there they were in Ireland – and they were thinking, “we should write for Esther Lamneck, who’s in New York, and Elizabeth McNutt, who’s in Texas.” We have had, so far, five pieces written for the two of us, but our trio is with computer. We’re flute, clarinet, computer.
A&S: Is there improvisation involved?
E.M.: Many times. In the case of this concert, four of the five pieces have a lot of improvisation.
A&S: How is playing with the computer different from playing with people?
E.M.: It’s often guided improvisation; there is a score that the composers write, then they also do the programming, so they have some kind of model in mind for what’s going to happen. I’d say the relationship with the computer changes based on the piece and the composer and the style. It can be a purely passive model, where the computer is just imitating. But in other cases, like in one of the pieces by Andrew May, the computer is doing a lot of interacting with us based on what we play. We don’t know how to manipulate the computer. In a way it is like playing with a person. We’re interacting with the sounds; it’s also hearing us and responding in a certain way. And it’s very fun, and you never know what to expect.
A&S: You’ve been all over the world with the “cyber-flute repertoire.”
E.M.: I have traveled quite a bit doing this.
A&S: Is the response different in different places?
E.M.: You never know. I can be playing a concert somewhere and think no way will anyone be interested in this tiny town of 500 people, and you can have people who love it. It was sort of odd when I played in Seoul. I was signing autographs in the bathroom. One of the great things in working with technology is that there can be tremendous stylistic variety in the music itself. That helps appeal to a wide audience, because every piece has a drastically different mood and character so it stays really interesting and fresh.
A&S: Were you familiar with Denton before coming here to teach?
E.M.: Absolutely. UNT is so well known as a college of music. I had been here a couple of times, once recording and once to do a festival. I had no idea I would someday be working here, and I remember being so impressed by the facilities and the people here. So when I went back home I actually brought a brochure to show my husband. It’s amazing.
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.