“I just have to smile a lot and I’ll make lots of money. In order to get enlightened you have to be in touch with yourself. If you’ve got a hundred million bucks you must be worth…”
- Overheard in SoHo
I first encountered flutist Robert Dick in the mid-’80s when he was playing with the group New Winds at a venue in lower Manhattan. His playing astounded me and I’ve been a convert ever since. Dick’s roots are steeped in classical, post-classical (new music), and free improvisation. Though widely recognized around the globe he is, in my humble opinion, deserving of much more attention. We did an interview together; I hope it stimulates your curiosity about this incredible artist.
Steve Dalachinsky (Rail): Where were you born?
Robert Dick: I was born in New York City in January, 1950, a third-generation native New Yorker!
Rail: Tell us a bit about your studies.
Dick: I first heard the flute (a piccolo actually) in “Rockin’ Robin,” a Top 40 hit when I was a kid. As a child I studied classical flute very seriously and went to the High School of Music and Art. The trajectory was towards an orchestral career and as a teenager I was doing everything one could do to reach that goal.
I woke from the orchestral dream at Tanglewood when I was nineteen. In America’s finest student orchestra, I realized that somebody waving a stick, telling me what to do, just had to go! My own musicality and creativity were breaking through!
I went to Yale as an undergraduate and the Yale School of Music as a graduate studying composition, not flute. At Yale, I began the huge project of trying to map all the sonic possibilities of the flute―this was published as my book The Other Flute. The book has been very successful in that composers and flutists all over the world have used it and it blew the conception of what music a flutist could play wide open. It’s still the standard work, forty years later. But little did I know how branded I would be as a sort of “flute scientist.” Even today, reviews of my recordings and performances tend to start with references to it. Nice in its way, but I’d love to be more appreciated for the music I create.
Rail: Who did/do you admire, back then and now?
Dick: My heroes in childhood were classical flutists like Jean-Pierre Rampal and Julius Baker. I also had a separate set of heroes from pop music; I loved Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Good Golly, Miss Molly” was the first record I ever bought. The orchestra music I played was influential in that it helped me develop an ear for complex sound. And of course the major works for flute sunk in deeply; the Bach Sonatas, Debussy’s Syrinx, and Varèse’s masterpiece Density 21.5, which I first learned at age thirteen.
I arrived at Henry Zlotnik’s studio for a flute lesson one Friday afternoon when I was in high school, and he told me he had heard the strangest flutist on WNYC the day before. He said he hadn’t a clue about the music, but felt that there was something real and important going on. And he wrote the flutist’s name down for me. Severino Gazzelloni. The next day I went to the Performing Arts Library and checked out an LP by Gazzelloni. I didn’t know what to make of the music either, not yet having learned to hear the poetry in contemporary music. Gazzelloni was the first Western flutist to play things like multiple sounds, and he worked with 1950s Italian composers like Berio and Maderna. He blew my mind and I listened over and over.
In college, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and loads of rock musicians took over my listening. They were soon joined by world musicians like North Indian flutists Panallal Ghosh and Hariprasad Chaurasia, African drummers, Balinese gamelans, electronic music, Varèse, Stockhausen, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane―every kind of music I could get my ears on! I’m still listening widely and still searching for the things I haven’t heard. In the last few years I’ve been profoundly influenced by the African music recorded in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s by Hugh Trevor.
I’m among the very last to study electronic music before the synthesizer. The way one had to think about sound in what’s called the “classical” electronic studio, realizing that for starters there was nothing, that every aspect of every sound had to be imagined, thought about, and painstakingly created changed my hearing profoundly. Electronic music transformed my hearing! Suddenly I wasn’t hearing the sound of the flute as a whole, but as the amalgamation of harmonics and air that it is, and I began to want to remix those elements to give the flute a much wider spectrum of sound colors.
Rail: Was flute always your primary instrument?
Dick: Yes! From the first moment I played the flute I knew I had found my voice. (Not that I could have articulated it at age eight, but I knew.)
Rail: Do you feel there was/is a scene that you might have participated in?
Dick: The question presupposes that I’ve essentially worked outside of “scenes,” and that’s basically true. Because I was determined to find music of my own, I didn’t want to be influenced by tonality and I never learned much about harmony. Had I developed those chops, I could potentially have played rock and jazz. I certainly have been involved in rock projects and new jazz, recording Hendrix’s music, for example, or playing with Steve Lacy (a real musical icon for me), but I definitely cannot be called a rock musician or a traditional jazzer.
I’m one of the improvisers who have taken the stance that any musical role can be played by any musician regardless of their instrument. Today, the musicians I admire most are those who have made their own pathways and have truly original sounds. Evan Parker, John Zorn, Ned Rothenberg, Miya Masaoka, to name a few. If it comes down to one name who influenced me most profoundly, I have to give two names: Jimi Hendrix and Wassily Kandinsky. I’ve projected Kandinsky’s paintings and interpreted them as graphic scores many times, and even got to play with the originals at a small museum in Switzerland―an astonishing experience, inspiring and humbling.
Rail: Do you think that factionalism and scenes exists?
Dick: I don’t spend time thinking about this sort of thing anymore. I hope my obsessions at this point in life are positive ones. Groups of artists who feel a bond tend to coalesce. Why not? It’s healthy as long as the work is the center. When marketing or image-making becomes too influential and we start to hear dumb definitions of what is and isn’t, then artificial barriers get raised. We’ll have more than enough of this type of primitive thinking to deal with while Trump is in power. There’s no need to pollute our own ideas about our selves and our art.
Rail: Would you talk a bit about your invention?
Dick: Gladly! The Glissando Headjoint® is my baby. This is a telescoping flute mouthpiece and it really transforms the instrument. The closest analogy is to the consequences of adding the whammy bar to the electric guitar. For a demo video, please go to www.robertdick.net. There are about 200 Glissando Headjoints out in the world right now. The tipping point hasn’t been reached, but it’s coming, and the world’s idea of the flute will be changing yet again!
Rail: Expand on your quote, “I’ve been doing things independently my whole life.”
Dick: I’ve never wanted a label that says more than my name. If you are playing creative music only on flutes without saxophones or other [doubling on other instruments], you won’t have to worry about being woken up by the phone ringing. The pre-conception of the flute as a high, tweety voice is a 19th century cliché that just refuses to die. Flutes cover an enormous range, over seven octaves from contrabass flute, bass flutes, alto, and soprano flutes, and piccolo. And the difference in volume with [vis-à-vis] louder instruments, like reeds and brass, has been solved with amplification. Flutes can thunder! The expressive possibilities are limitless because flutes, like all instruments, don’t play music, people do! Too many see the instrument, not the person.
Because the flute isn’t considered a main instrument in jazz or rock and lots of other genres, it’s up to the individual to initiate projects, to conceive the music and to make it happen. And that’s my career in a nutshell. With a few exceptions, I started every group I’ve played in.
A central focus of my music is the idea that acoustic instruments can be treated as human-powered synthesizers, each capable of an enormous range of sonority and expression well beyond their traditional definitions. I have total faith in the ability of humans to transcend limits imposed by presupposition. As a child, I rejected the idea that the flute could only produce one note at a time and by my late teens had started to invent thousands of new sonorities. They were there for the doing, if one assumed they could exist.
The basic assumptions about the flute are that one can only play one note at a time. That those notes are the notes of the chromatic scale and that the flute’s tone quality and dynamic range are relatively limited. All totally, absurdly false! There are thousands of multiple note combinations a flutist can play, really! The flute is an amazing percussion instrument and can be played with a plethora of sound qualities, from the sweet classical sound everyone knows, to air sounds that resemble cymbals (but forwards and backwards), to paint-peeling primal screaming, to the most delicate high filigrees and much more.
When I started the huge search for sonorities, my musical concepts were embryonic. I wasn’t sure what I would do with these amazing new sounds, but I knew I would do a great deal with them somehow, someday. My early music very much sprung from the flute. It was “Hey! This family of sounds is astonishing, I’ve just got to create a musical form for them to sound natural in.” For the past thirty years or so, it’s more like, “The sonorities are there for pretty much everything I can imagine (and I can cook up new combinations of sounds as needed), so what’s the music that wants to be created?”
Rail: How do you describe yourself artistically?
Dick: I’ve never wanted a label that says more than my name. I’m a creative musician. I compose, improvise, and perform notated music. My compositions range from pieces for classically orientated musicians to structures to be realized by improvising musicians. These structural pieces have a lot of definition―they may or may not use conventional notation, but you’ll know you’re hearing the same piece if you hear one again, even if it's wildly different in many ways! I also do a lot of free improvisation, solo and in small groups. My newest CD Our Cells Know (Tzadik 4015) is solo improvisations on the contrabass flute. This was Zorn’s idea, and at first I wasn’t sure I could do an entire CD on only the contrabass, but in the end it turned out to be the best solo improvising I’ve ever done.
Rail: When and where are you playing in New York this spring?
Dick: From March 21 through 26, I’ll be in residence at the Stone; six nights, six different projects ranging from free improvisation to a collaboration with Texas bluesman and spoken word artist Vince Bell. I’ll be performing in duo with singer Thomas Buckner; trio with Miya Masaoka (koto) and Ken Filiano (bass); duo with drummer Tiffany Chang; a quartet with Ned Rothenberg (sax & shakuhachi), Stephanie Griffin (viola), and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion); a quartet with Vince Bell, David Mansfied (guitars), and Ratzo B. Harris (bass); and closing the week with a solo contrabass flute hit.
Prepare yourselves for my April profile of trumpeter Jamie Branch by picking up her LP-only quartet release, on International Anthem records, Fly or Die, with Tomika Reid, Chad Taylor, and Jason Adjemian. It’s a limited edition pressing on 200 colored and 1000 regular discs, with all original Branch compositions.
I recently heard a young musician claim, “Right now it is my responsibility to listen. One day the baton will be passed on to me.” Powerful, inspiring words.
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become onethe french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.