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Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: On Robert Dick

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In tribute to Robert Dick on being awarded the National Flute Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, August 2014

I first met Robert Dick -- flutist, composer, improviser- when starting my graduate work at the Yale School of Music. He had finished up already but was very much in the mix of the musical scene. We became friends through similar musical interests, musical exploration, a desire to bridge the gap between high (new art music) and vernacular music (jazz, pop, and the blues), and a shared excitement brought to ping pong, which we would play for hours.

Robert gradually introduced me to the new language of extended techniques he was creating for the flute and I was intrigued and entranced by its possibilities. He was not only writing works for himself in the tradition of Paganini, but seeking out composers who wished to write for his extraordinary capabilities. Among those who signed up for the challenge from the neighborhood were Bruce MacCombie, Cindy McTee, and Robert Morris. I wrote him Plum-DS II (the DS stands for Dream Sequence, the first having been for solo amplified trombone). Robert ended up playing it extensively, in this country and abroad, and recorded it (in Europe on Attacca-Babel 9158-1; in the States on Summit Records Solos DCD-442), all for which I am still most grateful. He took friendship and musical quality equally seriously.

Dick has remained fixed on his initial goals and vision throughout his long and fruitful career. He has revolutionized the language of the flute, codified it in his seminal treatise The Other Flute, and brought it to artistic fruition in his own fine compositions.

Afterlight, the early seminal piece of 1973 (GM 2013), combines the sensuousness and luminosity of Debussy's Syrinx with the insistence of Varese's Density 21.5, while introducing and solidifying his new vocabulary. This includes multi-phonics (the sounding of more than one note at a time), whistle-tones (just what it sounds like), glissandi (like what strings are capable of doing-sliding from note to note), microtones (those tones between the cracks of the usual ones), percussive key clicks (a whole world of them, rather than just the few in the aforementioned Varese composition), and more generally, a vast array of complex sounds. The work still sounds fresh and alive and remains a fine introduction to his musical world.

Meristem, written for the Asia/Beaser directed New York new music ensemble Musical Elements in the eighties, is for flute and seven instruments. It is an excellent example of the extension of Dick's lexicography to other instruments. He presented a revised version just a short while ago in Pittsburgh.

Dick has from the beginning been involved in bringing together new music, avant-garde jazz and world music, in particular through his strong interest in the cross-over work of Jimi Hendrix and explorations of the flute in other cultures. He has pursued this genre bending via his partnerships with the Soldier Quartet, New Winds, King Chubby, and other performers such as Steve Lacy, Bobby Naughton, John Zorn, and many others.

These influences and partnerships result in the great aesthetic success of his discs Third Stone from the Sun (New World Records 80435-2, 1993) which includes arrangements of Hendrix tunes by Dave Soldier and Dick, as well as their own music; and the mostly solo disc Venturi Shadows (OODiscs #7, 1991). Also in this regard, his long partnership with jazz/new music pianist Ursel Schlicht produced the extraordinary Photosphere (Nemu Records 002, 2005)) which contains some of his/their richest compositional and improvisatory work. It is a real "conversation", as he put it, and the two have created singular and vibrant soundscapes.

His most recent work is with the vocalist Thomas Buckner (Mutable Music 17541-2). I hear it as combining sounds of the eastern Pacific Rim languages, with the sputters and mutterings of a deconstructed language associated with early Meredith Monk and Joan la Barbara. It is full of playfulness, wit, and whimsy.

In all these works one hears exploration, the widest gamut of human emotion and expression, great virtuosity, and very much not least, humor. This is a colossal feat.

Dick has also revolutionized the instrument itself. Like one of his early mentors, Arthur Weisberg, he has not been simply willing to accept the instrument as is, but has been finding ways to improve its expressive and technical potential. These include explorations of new fingering mechanisms, a re-designed bass flute, and the whammy bar Glissando Headjoint that allows note-bending that puts the flute in the mix with Clapton and Hendrix (check out Sliding Life Blues).

One of the things I love about Robert is that he pulls no punches and says what needs to be said. There is a major piece of the new flute repertoire by one of our most famous composers which he said he had a hard time finding very interesting (guess what- that is because it really isn't, except in his hands). He eventually recorded it, but only after finding a truthful way to make sense of the work and bring it to a new place of meaning and expressivity. This is no small achievement.

In a time of musical superficiality, triviality, hype, and the omnipresent marketing and purveyance of that which is mostly empty of meaning, Robert Dick-virtuoso flutist, revolutionary pioneer, superb composer, and genius/seer- is the real deal. His efforts will be felt for a very, very long time. So MacArthur Foundation, do what you do best, and follow up this wonderful award by the National Flute Association and lay one of your own on this guy!