ThisIt’s something that we do 17,000 times a day, without thinking enough about it: breathe. It is the physical necessity without which speech, song and entire families of instruments could not come to life, didgeridoos to French horns and saxophones to ophicleids.
But some composers have paid proper attention to this continuous miracle of inspiration and expiration, in pieces that use the arc of human breath as a structural and expressive necessity, such as the framing sections of Steve reich‘s Music for 18 musicians, or Richard Reed Parry’s album Music for the heart and the breath.
Yet few musicians have delved as deeply as flautist Kathryn Williams. Williams Coming for air project is a series of commands – around 100 of them to date, with 40 tracks released on a 2019 CD – of complete pieces of music designed to last the time of a single arc of its breath. The range of sounds and expressions that composers have found are breathtaking, from the post-modern hip-hop miniature of Cee Haines DOOO to the pain, to stop Lucy Hale When we breathe.
How does circular breathing work and how do you do it?
Other wind instruments can give the illusion that the musician is able to breathe – continuously, superhumanly, oddly – for minutes. This is thanks to the tighter mouthpieces of the oboe, bassoon or saxophone, and the virtuoso technique of circular breathing, in which you fill your cheeks with air, expelling it through the instrument as you breathe in through your nose.
It takes the brilliance of musicians like Heinz Holliger or Pascal Gallois to make it work in pieces by the Italian composer Luciano Berio which seem to pass in one breath. Saxophonist Kenny Gee Uses The Technique In His Listening Ease rhapsodies: he played once a single record note for over 45 minutes.
How do orchestras breathe together?
Yet breathing is vital for instruments and ensembles that do not need air pressure to bring their sounds into the world. Orchestras need symphonies to have the ebb and flow of breath on an epic scale. Driver Claudio Abbado conceived his performances as arcs of breathing so that the music like the expansive 25-minute final movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony unfolds over a single elementary period of tension and release.
American composer Pauline Oliveros worked with this expanded idea of the breath in a sound meditation called Learn to fly. How? ‘Or’ What? “Start by just observing your own breathing… bring in your voice… continue as long as possible naturally, and until everyone else is quiet, still observing your own cycle of breathing. “
Our breath is our most essential connection to the natural rhythms of which we are all a part, from the rising tides to the lunar cycle, from the ellipses of the solar system to the breath of the universe. As Pauline Oliveros said: breathe and fly, and breathe and fly.
Drawing: Maria corte maidagan