A few months ago this blog featured the Boston Trombone Project and we explored the history of the trombone and what makes it special. Now it's time for an instrument on the other end of the spectrum, the flute. This week, I sat down with Stacey Chou, from the flute quintet, In Radiance, to talk about what exactly a flute quintet is, what makes it so special, and how they're changing around the chamber music concert.
How did you come about starting a flute quintet? They aren’t very common.
My second year in grad school at the Longy School of Music, we had a chamber requirement and my teacher found an arrangement of the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloe arranged for flute quintet so he gathered a bunch of us from his studio. We found that we really enjoyed working together and we loved the process of putting together this piece, and you’re right, flute quintet is a really unique thing, there aren’t many flute quintets in the world! We realized that we all were really interested in reaching people in different ways other than in classical music concerts and so we started putting projects together for our group. Next month, we’re giving a presentation called 'The Metropolis of Sound', in the final round of a giant competition at the National Flute Association next month. They had a similar competition a few years ago and we did a project for that as well, so we definitely have a history of trying to branch out as much as possible in an innovative way. We’re trying to be relevant to the 21st century.
You guys are all based in different cities, how does that influence your rehearsal schedule?
We’re originally based in Boston so we all come together in Boston a few times a year to plan the year and put in a few days of really hard work. Part of it is that I will find an opportunity to play or organizations will reach out to us and we work our schedules around that and then we have these really aggressive, intense rehearsals and we do workshops, performances, and rehearsals back to back.
I’m looking at your homepage photo now and I see three different types of flute, what are they and what might they sound like?
Yeah, so they all do sound like a flute but different timbres of flute. The three of us in the middle are playing concert flutes which is the flute that most people start on and it’s the most common flute. The girl on the right, Gabby, is holding an alto flute and it’s a little bit lower and more mellow than the concert flute. It’s slightly longer than the concert flute because it’s lower. On the left, there’s the bass flute which is a full octave lower than the concert flute and it’s even longer and has a darker sound than even the alto flute. In general, with the flute everything effects the sound, so her nickel-based bass flute will sound a little bit different than if it were made of silver. Something lighter like nickel is actually pretty helpful for holding because it can get pretty heavy! This bass flute is more on the powerful side so it projects much better and helps the voice have its own color instead of getting lost in the wash.
On your website, you talk a lot about breaking out of the traditional concert setting mold, what type of steps do you take that are new and exciting?
With ‘Leaping Neurons’ in particular that was a themed concert. Two years ago we commissioned a composer friend of ours, Paul Sayed, to write a piece for us for the National Flute Convention so he wrote this piece called Across the Synapse. We were doing long distance at the time and he thought it was really cool that we were working so hard to communicate virtually, through Skype and whatnot, and so his concept was like how the electron connections in your brain have to jump across these spaces between the different neurons and across the space called the synapse. In the actual piece, there are different themes and motives that leap across the ensemble and so for that particular concert we focused on pieces that had passing motives and how each piece connected to the next one. In general, we try to do a lot of interactive things where the audience has to participate more than in just listening, so we might talk to them or at the least do a theme similar to ‘Leaping Neurons’ and we make them think about something or do something related to the music. We do a lot of arrangements ourselves and generally we’ve found that people like to go through the process with us. So if we talk about the process they get really excited about it and they get it! Another way we try to be current and break out of the traditional mold - we also like experimenting with extended techniques and in the last year or so have been getting into beat-boxing! Also, as a group we also really like to try to connect with our supporters in many different ways. We recently started a mini-series called "20 Seconds With In Radiance" — short video clips with a glimpse into our world.
Tell me about your latest project, Metropolis of Sound.
It’s four complete pieces each based on the different cities that we are from (Boston, Denver, Dallas, and New York City). Each city would have a piece composed for it and for that particular moment, location, and environment we would have two live improv pieces. The last year we’ve been breaking more into composition and improvisation, not just arranging, and I think it also brings the audience more into that musical process. I feel like the audience would latch more into it if they realize that this performance is special to their city. Also, because it’s improv, they wouldn’t be able to hear the same thing ever again.
What are the interesting things about a flute quintet?
A string quartet is really traditional but with flute, part of the appeal is that it’s unique in itself and there really aren’t many flute quintets out there. There’s one flute quintet in Germany and there’s one in Canada, but that’s it that I know of. As far as professional flute quintets go, we’re one of the few. Most people haven’t seen a bass flute in person, and so that’s always a point of conversation for people to explore. We are just different and that makes it special!