Q&A/What to SEE/Music

Composer looks to the past

9 May 2022

Composer Kate Milligan is diving back to the 16th century via an ancient shipwreck. The composer has received funding to unite old and new by bringing together electronic music and a flute that has spent 500 years underwater.

Kate Milligan has received funding from the 2022 APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund to compose a piece for a unique replica of a 500 year old flute recently discovered on a Dutch shipwreck. She will be collaborating with flautist Jonty Coy to bring to life the oldest transverse flute of its kind in the world. They spoke with Rosalind Appleby about the project.

Rosalind Appleby: Congratulations Kate Milligan on winning this prestigious award. You’ve devised a project that is culturally incredibly rich. Where did the idea come from to write a work for a Renaissance flute and electronics?

Kate Milligan: Thank you, Rosalind! The idea came from a philosophical provocation of sorts—the seemingly paradoxical challenge of uniting (very) old instruments with new, experimental music. Renaissance flute and electronics might seem like an unlikely pairing, but the combination raises interesting questions about tradition, cultural inheritance, and what it means to be truly “new’”.

A black and white photo of a man with short dark hair, wearing a collared long-sleeved shirt. He looks pensive
Flautist Jonty Coy is currently studying early music in the Netherlands. Photo supplied

Jonty is currently studying a Masters in Early Music in the Netherlands. We have collaborated previously on some initial sketches for historical flute and electronics, and we’ve found it to be richly rewarding. We discovered that Renaissance music and new music have unexpected similarities. As the temporal “bookends” of Western Art Music as we understand it today, these are both liminal periods of remarkable transformation and novelty. There’s a certain compositional freedom in 500 years of time-travel!

RA: Jonty Coy you’ve got a replica of the 16th century shipwreck flute – what does it sound like and feel like to play? Tell us the story of this instrument and how it is different from a modern flute.

Jonty Coy: This is indeed a very special instrument – I feel extremely lucky to have access to it! It all started in 2017 when an archaeological diving team from the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) unearthed this flute from wreckage of a 500-year-old ship near Warder in North Holland. Thanks to the preservation work of researchers at TU Delft, and the impeccable craftsmanship of flute-maker Roberto Bando, we now have two playable copies of this instrument, one of which I have on loan from Australian flautist and professor at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, Kate Clark. Kate is the world’s leading expert in the field of Renaissance flutes, and was consulted by the RCE in the creation of these replicas. After playing the original, Kate described the sensation as being “like a kiss from the 16th century” – an evocative phrase, and one that absolutely rings true with my own experience of playing the replica.

The Warder flute is, in many ways, a typical early-16th century flute. It is an almost perfect cylinder made of boxwood, with no keys, six finger holes, and a relatively small round embouchure hole. Despite this relative simplicity, it has a fully chromatic, two-and-a-half-octave range, and can play some incredibly virtuosic music. As with many historical flutes, the lack of keywork means that the experience of playing the instrument is very immediate – you can literally feel the air vibrating beneath your fingers! The flute is extremely sensitive to changes in articulation, and can produce a varied palette of “consonants,” almost as if you were singing through the flute. The Warder flute is particularly special because of its wide bore, which gives it a rich, deep sound – almost like a contralto singer rather than a soprano. This unique tone colour is perhaps my favourite feature of this flute – a feature that makes it well worth the hours of work required to master such an instrument.

The whole experience is drastically different from that of modern flute playing, which often aims towards the production of a strong, uniform, consistent tone across all keys and all registers. Renaissance flutes, by contrast, produce an enormous variety of tonal colours by virtue of their design. Every note has its own particular tonal characteristics – while some are strong and brash, others are naturally fragile and introverted. This variety of colour is what makes playing these instruments so satisfying.

An ancient wooden flute with six holes lies on a black cloth. Alongside it are two replicas made with modern wood.
Kate Milligan’s composition project is inspired by this 16th century flute found in the Warder shipwreck, pictured alongside two modern replicas. Photo supplied

RA: Much of this project is meticulously planned and researched, drawing on the harmonies and notation from the Renaissance and the historically accurate gestures of flute performance from that time. But some of it is left to chance too – Kate tell us about how you are creating the electronic score?

KM: The electronics will be represented in the score by water damage to paper. This will be an experimental process—I’m not sure exactly what the visual result will be! We nevertheless hope to provoke questions about the preservation of culture, the passage of time, and the power of natural forces. What happens when we use decomposition as a formal device? This aspect of the work was inspired by the tiny scroll of manuscript found rolled up inside the Warder flute after 500 years underwater!

I’m very interested in experimental notation, and a practice known as graphic scoring. This isn’t as new as some might think. Most Renaissance composition occurred before the codification of modern music notation. Mensural notation—a system used until the late Renaissance—sometimes included quite florid and intricate illustrations.

RA: Jonty you also perform as a bass-baritone and will also be singing as part of the piece – how does the vocal part fit in?

JC: Kate will be notating some music for a consort of low voices, which will be pre-recorded and form part of the work in performance. I’m really excited about the prospect of combining these two media! Partly because it will allow me to combine two parts of my musical practice, but also because this is a technique that has historical precedent.

Flutes like the Warder flute were regularly used as consort instruments – that is, as part of a family of instruments (including bass, tenor and descant flutes) that would play together in three, four or even five-part polyphony. A lot of what we now think of as purely vocal or choral music would originally have been played by consorts of flutes, viols, recorders, sackbuts, or even by “mixed” consorts, combining singers and instrumentalists. It’s entirely possible that a piece written for four voices, for instance, might have been performed by three male vocalists, with a flautist performing the highest vocal part. These various combinations result in all kinds of strange and wonderful textures, which we are hoping to recapture in this piece.

RA: Kate I know you are heading to London shortly to commence a Master of Art at the Royal College of Art, London, in interdisciplinary practice. That’s sad for those of us in WA who have been benefiting from your conducting and composing skills. But I guess it will make it easier to collaborate with Jonty, who is currently studying in the Netherlands?

KM: I hope to be back and forth between Perth and London to some degree, but I will certainly miss my wonderful colleagues here! The most rewarding work that I do as a composer arises from close collaboration and friendship—sharing knowledge, passion, and inspiration. Jonty will just be a train-trip away. We’ll be able to undertake thorough conceptual research as well as a series of workshops to understand fully the idiom and character of this unique instrument.

RA: Now you have the funding from the ACPR AMPCOS Art Music Fund, what is the next step in the project?

KM: At the moment we are talking to our presenting partners, and planning the eventual premiere of the work, which will occur in Australia and the Netherlands. I will be immersing myself in the Renaissance sound-world and working on some initial sketches for the remainder of this year. Jonty will be brushing up on his Renaissance performance practice, and we will begin workshop development of the work in early 2023.

RA: What are you hoping listeners will experience at performances of this work, and when are we going to be able to hear the final product?

KM: The premiere will be in late 2023, with dates yet to be announced. Listeners can expect to be immersed in an antique, sunken sound-world. We will be presenting Renaissance polyphony reimagined, and textures seldom heard by Australian audiences. Despite having historical precedent, the blend of Renaissance flute and low voices is nevertheless rare, even in HIP circles. We hope to breathe life into this long-lost instrument, with novel presentation for a contemporary audience.

Jonty Coy will perform the premiere of Kate Milligan’s piece in 2023. Watch this space for details.

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Pictured top: Kate Milligan looks to the past in this project for ancient flute and electronics.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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