Paul Edmund-Davies is a well-known British flautist, teacher, and author. For more than 20 years Paul was the Principal Flute of the London Symphony Orchestra and for five years after that held the same position at the Philharmonia Orchestra. He has appeared in numerous recordings from baroque to jazz and on over 50 soundtracks, including such films as Star Wars, Mission Impossible, Braveheart, Aliens, Interstellar, and No Time to Die.
Paul Edmund-Davies has served as a Professor of Flute at the Royal College of Music and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and is currently on the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music in London. He regularly travels to hold masterclasses around the world. After the success of his book "The 28 Day Warm Up Book, for all flautists … eventually" he created and launched a flute-focused online educational website SIMPLY FLUTE, which is a platform providing instruction and interactive exercises to help flute players of all stages and ages on their journey with the instrument and music.
We met with Paul during the 16th Adams International Flute Festival in the Netherlands and wanted to know more about his upbringing, musical influences, and sources of inspiration.
Which conductors or personalities made the biggest impact on you?
There has been a long tradition throughout the United Kingdom of church music. I very much came from that tradition, as before I was playing the flute, I was singing in Canterbury Cathedral, in Kent. That’s where my musical journey began. I am not really interested in being just a flute player. I would prefer not to be labeled as such. If I am fortunate enough to be remembered once I am no longer here, then I would prefer to be regarded first as a musician and then as a flute player. It just happened from early on to be a flute that I played! I was the head chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, and as a young boy, I had a very good voice. As soon as my voice broke though… if ‘croaking’ was an Olympic sport, I would definitely win a gold medal for England!
My aunt emigrated to Australia when I was 7 years old. She traveled there with her family on a cruise liner, on a so-called “ten-pound ticket”. One of the stipulations issued by the Australian government was that entry to Australia as an immigrant would only be possible if you arrived carrying your possessions in suitcases and bags.
So, in order to be as economical as possible, she gave me her violin. Now if you’ve heard a seven-year-old trying to play the violin, it sounds as though the skin of a live cat is being slowly and painfully removed. Like most seven-year-old children, I really hated that sound.
When I was 9 years old, I already played the piano, and was asked “What other instrument would you like to play”? Having been heavily influenced when hearing one of the older boys at my school playing the flute I said, “I want to play the flute”. And then, it just happened that at my school in Canterbury, the flute teacher was someone called Trevor Wye. From a very early age, he started me as a beginner on the flute, and at that point, he had not written any of his books. Of course, he was an influence on my flute playing, but the singing I was engaged with in the Cathedral, was a greater musical influence.
At the age of thirteen, when I went to my next school (also within the Precincts of Canterbury Cathedral), I wasn’t over-academic in my studies. I did however spend many hours of the day with my flute and loved it. I succeeded in gaining a Diploma from the Royal College of Music (ARCM) before I left the school and was the youngest person in the six-hundred-year history of the school to do so. I am still quite proud of that.
The primary influences for me as a young musician were through the music that I experienced in Canterbury Cathedral.
In my orchestral life – I was very fortunate at the beginning of the 1980s to become a member of the English Chamber Orchestra. The music director then was Murray Perahia, the pianist and, of course, we performed many Mozart concerti with him. The flute chair was at the other end of the piano, so I really did have the best seat in the house! The lid of the piano was removed and the next person I could clearly see wasn’t the audience, but Murray Perahia, who directed from the keyboard. His musicianship is astounding and to this day I firmly believe that he is of genius status. There is a recording of the Mozart Sonata for two pianos with him and Radu Lupu, which is utterly sublime. Both of these musicians were a huge influence.
In my London Symphony Orchestra days I was very fortunate to play Leonard Bernstein’s “Halil” for flute and orchestra, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. I also recorded “Candide”, the opera with him. He was one of the few people that I can genuinely refer to as being a musical genius.
Although many others didn’t get on with Bernstein, I had no problem with him and as such, enjoyed working with him immensely.
Over the years there was a strong list of conductors who I worked with who were amazing: Bernard Haitink for Brahms and Bruckner, Colin Davis in certain repertoire (Mozart, Sibelius, and Berlioz). I loved working with Pierre Boulez, because if you were playing contemporary music with him, you knew exactly where you were, and he knew exactly where he was. So, that was very helpful! Seiji Ozawa was equally fantastic, and I worked with him on several occasions.
After the choral or church music influences, when I was 13, a friend played a recording of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to me, and that almost blew my brains out. Music was all of a sudden a new drug to me. I just had to get more of it!
Then there were pop-music influences too, such as David Bowie, then Herbie Hancock, and after that – Miles Davis and Al Jarreau (among many others).
Another huge influence has been Jordi Savall, the viola da gamba player and conductor. If you don’t know his style of music making – seek out his recordings of Lully (Jean-Baptiste Lully). Lully was a court composer for Louis XIV and wrote the most amazing music which Jordi Savall and his band bring magically alive. That’s my idea of Baroque music. Full of life!
Is there any piece of orchestra repertoire you haven’t played throughout your career?
The only piece major work that I haven’t played is Tchaikovsky’s “1812” overture. It somehow managed to slip by me throughout my 25 years as an orchestral player. Whenever it was scheduled to be performed, I was curiously absent. Yes, it was an intentional decision because I can’t stand the piece :)
Yesterday, in a masterclass you said that everyone should sing in a shower. Do you?
Yes, of course, I do. I would do anything to get these lung muscles working. I was talking with someone upstairs (at the Adams Music Center) about my Simply Flute program. It’s divided into what I refer to as The Four Pillars of Exercises. So, the first pillar or the first section of the program was initially titled Sonority. After a while though, I stopped using the word Sonority, because how on earth can you have sound without air? It’s a chicken and egg situation. Surely, the first thing to address is how to breathe properly for flute playing. Anyone can get a sound out of the flute but if you actually want to create sound with quality through the flute, you can only do that with good air control. So, I changed the name of the first section to Breathing and Phrasing. Unless you are in a bay of Biscay, on a very rough sea, or unless you are laughing the whole time, there’s no way we can exercise the muscles we need to use for flute, and these are the same muscles we use when we are playing soft or loud or short or long. They are just used in different ways. I refer to this process as being similar to using bellows for lighting a fire. The bellows are a large sac of air with a small nozzle through which air is pushed in order to ignite a fire. The flame of the fire is our sound. So, we’ve got to encourage that flame with plenty of air.
The three other areas of The Four Pillars Exercises are Finger Work, Articulation and Intervals. If we work on these every day, not only will we maintain our technical capabilities, but over time we will see noticeable improvements.
Coming back to your initial question – my latest fixation concerns playing intervals. I think that many of the intervals we play are just so incredibly special. They shout, “Make a fuss of me, do something special with me!”. One I am loving right now is the semitone or half-step. It is so powerful. Also the 7th note of the scale, leading to the tonic again. You just want to hang on to that note and savour every moment of it! This approach is so exciting for me.
Do you know Honegger’s “Dance de la Chèvre”? Can you tell me what it’s about? What’s the story?
To start with, it was a piece of incidental music from a play: “La Mauvaise Pensée” (The Evil Thought).
When I was young I was taught that the first, opening part which is very slow depicted the goat waking up. Following on from this was the lively melody, where the goat is dancing in a field. This is nice and sweet, but I believe it to be rubbish!
This is one of the best solo flute pieces that we have, but I am convinced that most flute players don’t really understand it. Perhaps I’ll get into trouble by saying this now, but I’m old enough to not worry about getting into trouble any longer. You get in trouble when you are very young or very old, so as I am now old, I am totally entitled to get in trouble!
“Syrinx”, written by Debussy was written 8 years before the “Dance de la Chèvre”. Honegger was part of Les Six, the group of six composers who weren’t really anti-impressionists but equally were not over-enthusiastic about the movement either. They constantly attempted to push barriers, considering “Syrinx” as very sugary, or very sweet. The mentor of Les Six was Erik Satie. In Europe, particularly in Northern Europe and France at this time, people were questioning their religion. Since the French Revolution, the church had gained a poor reputation. People were looking for alternative religions and this is one reason why pieces like “Daphnis and Chloe”, “L’Après-midi d’un Faune” and “Syrinx” evolved. Many were looking at other beliefs and historical reference points, to see what people previously believed in and to find out if these beliefs were applicable to them. Erik Satie was an occultist; he didn’t worship traditional Christian gods.
Honegger was fascinated by this. The first interval in “Dance de la Chèvre” is an augmented fourth which is the tritone, otherwise known as the Devil’s Interval. And this interval appears pretty much constantly throughout the piece. As mentioned, it was written for a play called “La Mauvaise Pensée” which translates as “the evil thought”. What is the animal of sacrifice in a satanic ritual? The goat! This is the dance of the goat that is being led to be slaughtered. It all makes great sense, and it makes a much more challenging piece to perform. At the beginning, dark forces emerge, requesting a sacrifice. Then, the goat is led to the altar. He knows that something bad is about to happen, so he struggles to escape. He dreams of being in calm pastures on a sunny day, but that melody is interrupted as he moves closer to the altar. In blind panic he struggles but is brutally sacrificed and dies, life gradually leaving his body. At the end, as with the beginning dark spirits once again emerge. This time, satisfied with the sacrifice, they slowly disappear back into the darkness.
How would you describe the style in music to a person who is not a musician or is just starting out to learn it?
As I already mentioned, these days I’m quite comfortable getting into trouble, unless of course, I am actually offending someone in the process! I have been fortunate to be in music my entire professional life, and I consider myself the luckiest person on the planet. I believe music to be one of the greatest but most underrated substances on earth, and is often much abused. When it comes down to even the flute world I think there are too many people who are convinced that they are right and are only satisfied if other people play everything their way. Style and personality/individuality should be close friends.
I have a method when instructing, of demonstrating something in two ways. You don’t need to be a musician to appreciate the way that connects with other people more readily and more easily. And this is loosely regarded as being expression. If you are not a musician you can still fall in love with how something sounds. We’ve all got the facility to express and there seems to be a common ground where people go “Oh, I like that”. Perhaps we can call it a sixth sense of music. It’s something you can’t really talk about because it’s undefinable, it just exists. It’s like saying “Is there God? Discuss”. So, we can have ideas about it, and I’ve got my ideas as I’m sure you have your ideas. However, ultimately I’m not really interested in discussing your deeper thoughts, as I hope you are not interested in mine. If something communicates and moves people, it is good. But there is such a fine dividing line between creating something which has a good taste and something that is vulgar. It really is a very fine line, but our job is to get as close to that line as possible, always staying on the right side if possible. It is a refined musical balancing act!
You are also known as a champagne expert. Which champagne pairs well with a musical instrument or a certain composition?
Over the years, I have enjoyed a rather unusual relationship with a Champagne House (Champagne Deutz in Ay) and I learned a great deal about this glorious wine of celebration! There are three types of grapes grown in the Champagne region: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. I compare these varieties to both musical instruments and music. The piano was associated with the Pinot Noir, because it’s the backbone of champagne. The Chardonnay is finesse and elegance, so it has to be a flute, and Pinot Meunier which is sometimes referred as ‘the other’ grape of champagne becomes an oboe. Whilst I love all types of champagne, the older I’m getting the more attracted I am to vintage Blanc de Blancs, made purely from Chardonnay grapes. The most interesting wines come from the Cotes des Blancs, which is South of Epernay. Impressionism comes to mind when tasting a great champagne. The textures and layers can be incredible, but in the best way possible, also slightly blurred.
What inspires you?
My journey through life, people and curiosity! Sometimes it feels that I have only just started. I’ve still got such a long way to go and much to discover. I’m also extremely selfish. One of the main reasons that I teach is because I learn myself at the same time. I don’t teach to dictate and I feel uncomfortable with people in the Arts who say, ‘No, that’s wrong’. With certain disciplines accepted, we all need to make our own choices and decisions and discover our own paths. That’s why I choose to present alternative ways when working with other flute players. As we are more emotionally ‘wired’ than we give credit for, nine times out of ten, the alternative way is the winner! And this is why I say that I don’t teach, I collaborate.