The Glorious Return of the Flute
All of the clarinets were taken. So I took the flute.
In an elementary school band that consisted of 14 clarinets, one trumpet, one guitar (the teacher) and one flute, it may have been fate that I was the one to pick the flute – of all my band mates, I am the only one who played my instrument beyond middle school. Eventually I also learned to play the alto and tenor saxophones. Whereas the flute was delicate and light, both things I was not as a head-to-toe tomboy, the saxophone had weight, had substance. Wearing a tenor saxophone as big as my torso always amused the senior citizens at the local retiree home where we volunteered on Wednesday afternoons; with my frizzy hair, oversized glasses, and bruised basketball knees, I imagine I looked endearing.
Basketball became the priority in high school, and there wasn’t room for both sports and band. As my friends were forming weekend rock groups with their “mainstream” instruments, there was no use for a flautist. Green Day, Everclear, Blink-182 – all the late-90’s bands they tried to emulate – ignored the flute. Some bands like Collective Soul and the Goo Goo Dolls incorporated violins and cellos, but never gave the flute center stage. Having never properly learned music theory, I contented myself with playing in my bedroom after school, learning Beatles songs and movie scores by ear. The day I mastered Eleanor Rigby was a personal triumph, but it wasn’t going to get me a date to the prom.
In college I kept my flute a secret. Our resident John Mayer would play his guitar in the common room, but I would rather sneak up to the grassy hills above the dorms and play alone, accompanied through my headphones by the London Symphony Orchestra. The flute came with me to Seattle after graduation, but now, in a series of small apartments with poor acoustical insulation, I could never find an appropriate time to play without eliciting fist pounds on the wall. It’s not very fulfilling to play the flute at half-volume, and over time I stopped playing altogether. At the time of writing this, I have not played the flute in over two years.
A few nights ago, DeadMau5 (pronounced “dead mouse”) played a sold-out show at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. Fifteen minutes before the doors opened, the line stretched across the street and down the entire block, full of high school and college-age kids dressed in neon colors, rave sticks at the ready. Among other things, his track “Moar Ghosts N Stuff” was played over the Olympic speakers as USA skier Hannah Kearney performed her gold-medal run in women’s moguls. Super cool. I actually really like DeadMau5 – my husband is a regular fan of the techno genre, so I tend to hear it now and then. But in a decade – and particularly a city – where digitally-created music has become the standard for successful new artists, I find myself clinging to musicians who still perform with an old-school instrument, and perform the hell out of it.
Then, as I researched flute lore this week, I found a performance so extraordinary that it brought back faith in my delicate instrument. And what brought it back was so un-delicate that it made the flute…cool.
If you haven’t seen him yet, do yourself a huge favor and find the flautist (and Seattle native) Greg Patillo on YouTube. And be prepared to have your Ke$ha-listening ears blown, because this guy knows how to play analog. Not only are his finger gymnastics incredible to watch, but the man beat boxes as he plays. His humorous performances of the Super Mario Brothers and Inspector Gadget themes have gotten the most views, but it’s his rendition of Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” that left me speechless. Watching it is shocking at first – when did the flute become so violent? – but the shock quickly turned into a mixture of reverence, awe, and excitement. This guy kicks ass…and all of a sudden, so does the flute.
Enthusiastic as I am about this discovery, I doubt I will become a combination flautist/beat boxer anytime soon. Up until this point I’ve been satisfied with the return of the flute to recent mainstream indie artists’ work: the Fleet Foxes’ ensemble at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival included a flautist, and the Icelandic band Jónsi (my current iPod obsession) uses the flute in the majority of their songs. But Greg Patillo gave me new hope for the flute, hope that it can be hip, mysterious even. Because more than anything, what the flute has never been is surprising, and that’s exactly what makes Patillo’s performances so can’t-look-away fascinating. So much intensity, so much saliva, but so much ingenuity and talent. I can’t hope to recreate it, but knowing that it exists is enough for this frizzy-haired flute player.