"I am a musician; I prefer universal language"
An interview with world-renowned flutist Marc Grauwels
by Iraklis Oikonomou
He was born in Belgium but soon his name surpassed the borders of that lovely European country. Under his command, the flute - a rather marginalized and underrated instrument at the time - became a tool for originality and innovation. Nowadays, he is considered as one of the leading flute soloists in the world, and rightly so! Not many musicians can boast of having a musical work specially composed for them by Astor Piazzolla! The fact that he has recorded for two prominent Greek composers, Thanos Mikroutsikos and Giannis Markopoulos, only adds to our understanding of his status. Recently, he visited Greece, invited by the Belgian Embassy in Athens. Thus, there could have been no better occasion for us here at ‘Musical Suburbs’ to interview him and share his inspiring vision, not only concerning the flute, but also music and art in general. Ladies and gentlemen, Marc Grauwels!
My favourite city in Belgium is Ghent. Ever been there yourself?
My first job in the Flanders opera was in Ghent. I lived there for three years and it is my favourite city in Belgium too! I know the city very well. And I have some very good Greek friends here in Belgium. At the moment, I have two Greek students.
In your concert in Athens, you were accompanied by the accordionist Christophe Delporte. How did your collaboration start?
Delporte is a fantastic musician, he is really great. It is quite a funny story how we got to play together. He has a tango group, a very good one. The name of the group is Astoria. They have made three albums and it is quite similar to the Piazolla’s quintet. They made two very good albums, and for the third one he called me and said: “I would like to arrange the ‘History of the Tango’ for flute and the quintet. Originally, this work was for flute and guitar. I did the premiere of the piece in ’85 but I have always missed the bandoneon or the accordion, and this special flavor of the tango. So, for more than twenty years I wanted to have a duo with an accordion player, and told him: “Yes, I agree to make this album, but only if we start a duo together. We did the record, you can find it on the Internet, from the label “Fuga Libera”. Then, one and a half year ago, we made a live CD together. The idea is that, even if you play Bach with accordion, it sounds great; it does not sound cheap. It sounds even better than an orchestra.
What is your own impression of Greece?
I love Greece; it is a very special country for me. I must tell you that I have a Belgian name, I was born in Belgium but I am not very much Belgian. My origin is Jewish-Polish. My father was adopted by the Belgian family Grauwels during the war. I always like to travel, probably because I do not feel very much of a nationalist, even though I like Belgium very much. Brussels is very international and does not have a nationalistic feeling. I am a musician; I prefer universal language.
You collaborated extensively with Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos. How did you get to meet each other?
In fact, I came to Greece for the first time because of Thanos Mikroutsikos. It is a very funny story. Thanos was working with stage director Henrie Ronse, who lived in Brussels. At that time, I was probably playing at the Radio Symphonic Orchestra. It must have been at the beginning of the 1980s, I don’t remember. They asked me to go to the National Theatre with 10-15 other musicians, to record music at the studio. The Belgians are very good side-readers, because they have a good music education, like the French do. We read music very quickly, as if it were a newspaper. We arrived at the studio and I saw Thanos. I did not know who he was, just saw this man who conducted the session. There were a lot of typical Greek or Byzantine rhythms, 5/8, not regular stuff. Musicians in western countries are not very good at it. Especially for the strings players, it is not easy for them. And I saw that this was not easy for Thanos either. At one time, I felt sorry for him, and tried to encourage him.
After the recording session, he told me: “I will need you for another session”. That’s how we got to become friends. At that time, I had a trio with violin, harpsichord and flute. We called it “Trio Baroque” but we played one part with Baroque music and the second part with 20th century music and music composed for us. This is part of my personality, playing different genres and different eras. So, he invited us to Greece and we went to Athens and to Thessaloniki. It was probably in mid-1980s. I also went to Patras a few times, when Thanos was in charge of the International Festival there. Then, he wrote the “Opera for One” for flute, a crazy piece which we recorded together. I haven’t seen Thanos for a while. I hope that he is well.
How did you originally meet with Giannis Markopoulos, another popular Greek composer with whom you recorded together?
Thanos Mikroutsikos had a composer who made arrangements for him. His name is Thanasis Nikopoulos. I haven’t seen him for years. Many times, I was in Greece because of Alkis Baltas, a very good conductor and a very good friend of mine. When he was in Thessaloniki, I went there every year to play with Baltas. In one of my visits, Nikopoulos called me and said: “I am at a recording session for Markopoulos. We have a very big problem with the flutist who recorded, he is out of tune. I know you are in Greece. Are you free tomorrow?” So, I stayed the whole day in the studio, side-reading and recording for the “Liturgy of Orpheus” by Markopoulos. Then, Markopoulos saw that I was quick in reading music and got excited. So, he started to re-write the music at the studio, more and more difficult! And this is how we got to become friends. We did many things together, not only in Greece. We played together in Belgium as well, in Flanders. And I also played his Concerto for Flute, which was part of the opening music at the Olympics.
As a top soloist, how do you assess the music of the leading Greek composers?
All these composers - Theodorakis, Mikroutsikos, Markopoulos, even Hatzidakis who is of course the best - they wrote popular music and then they tried to write serious music. I think they are better when they write popular music. There, they are great. I think that their serious music is a little heavy, the orchestration and the rest.
Your most prominent collaboration has been with Astor Piazzolla. He even wrote a piece especially for you, didn’t he?
Piazzolla was a good friend of Maurice Bejart. Hatzidakis also wrote ballet music for Bejart. This was the time I played in the Belgian Opera Orchestra. I heard his music and got crazy about it. Piazzolla was not known at the time. It was a ballet for Bejart and the name was “Our Faust”. The music consisted of the B Flat Mass, one of the best pieces by J. S. Bach, and the music of Piazzolla, mixed. It was great. He didn’t play at the ballet, it was with recorded music. There was a big festival in Liege, and Piazzolla came every year to play there. I had one concert with a guitarist the same evening. Piazzolla listened to it and got the idea to write the “History of the Tango” for flute and guitar, because he remembered that the tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires, played by such instruments. He wrote this piece and we premiered it in ’85, one year later. If you are really interested, things sometimes just happen.
What about Ennio Morricone? Is it true that he also dedicated a work to you?
Ennio Morricone was invited at the same big festival in Belgium, as Piazolla was before, and the organizers wanted him to write a Cantata for Europe. The work was not so successful. The text was compiled by texts authored by the various founders of Europe. Morricone wanted a soprano solo, choir, and guitar and flute soloists. I played at the premiere, but Morricone did not really dedicate the work to me.
Your concerts are characterized by a combination of classical and more modern material. Do you do this mixing on purpose?
You are right. In my concerts, I like to play classical things, but also at least one piece written for me. If you play too much classical music, people will not come to the concert. It is very exciting to have a new piece for an ensemble. If the music is good, then it is perfect. However, if it is bad, it is awful, because you will only play it once and then the composer will complain that you don’t play it enough. When I started playing music out of my job in the orchestra, I thought that at the time the public for classical music were only these old ladies with the green hair. I was a young guy going out and having fun. So, I asked myself: “why can I not play music for people like me?”. It was the time when Philip Glass and Wim Mertens were very popular. I play the flute on maybe ten albums of Mertens. With him, music was not the main reason for playing. I wanted to play for younger people and have other experiences.
How did you get involved with the world of music in the first place?
I started learning music at the age of 7. My father is a medical doctor and he listens to good music, real music. I always heard this music, and we always attended concerts in Oostende. I liked music as a boy, and they sent me to the music school. I was lucky because there I had a young teacher who became very quickly a friend of mine. He thought I had talent, and I became kind of a member of his family. In fact, my passion at the time was architecture and I wanted to become an architect. But when I finished my high school and my musical studies before the conservatory, I thought music would be more fun than architecture. I also felt very comfortable with the flute as an instrument.
When you began you career, was flute a kind of an ‘underdog’? Did you consciously attempt to ‘legitimize’ the instrument?
There are many flutists who tried to “legitimize” the flute. If you go to Asia, in China, in Japan, in South Korea, the flute is a very important instrument. In the traditional music of these countries, flute is very essential, so they are interested in it. In Europe, it is the opposite. Here, the flute was very popular in the Baroque and classical music. When romanticism came, the harpsichord became piano forte and piano, and all romantic composers like Chopin and Brahms and Beethoven had space only for violin and the piano. All other instruments were put aside, considered not important. Probably, the flute as an instrument was also not very good technically, at the time. It is only in 1850 that the flute becomes an instrument with big, clear sound and homogeneous intonation. After 1850, the flute becomes more sophisticated and all French composers, such as Ravel and Debussy, start to write music for the flute. We flutists do not have Brahms, we do not have Rachmaninoff or Beethoven. We ask composers to write and make the instrument more popular.
You began as a member of an orchestra, and then moved on to pursue a solo career. What are the pros and cons of each option?
For a flutist to become a soloist, he has to play at least for ten years at the symphony orchestra. Your musical education is not only at school. You learn to be a good musician when you play music. And when you are part of a good orchestra, you work with many different conductors who have different ideas, while different soloists join you every week. Also, in the orchestra the intonation is very important. You have very strict rules, you have freedom and not freedom. You really learn what music is. And then you have to get out of it in order to acquire a strong personality. This was part of my evolution. I wanted to do both, but at some moment I had to choose. So, I abandoned the orchestra in ’87 because I had too much work out of the orchestra. I miss the big powerful sound of the orchestra, but you cannot have everything. I am more of an independent person, prefer to do the business myself and not be part of something where someone tells me what to do. Teaching is a good alternative, having a fixed job while also being a soloist.
What is your approach to teaching? What are the key characteristics that you want your students to acquire?
In my lessons, I play a lot, because in music there is a lot of mimetism. It is a balance between being strict and being free. On the one hand, I teach them to have style, and on the other hand I teach them to have their own sound. Sound is the most important feature of a soloist. Sometimes, friends listen to me on the radio, and recognize me even if they don’t know who is playing. Nowadays, the level is incredibly high in music, but it is too standard. There is not enough personality today. This is what I try to convey to my students.
Is there a price to be paid for reaching the top? Isn’t it, for example, exhausting to have around a hundred concerts abroad every year?
I have many friends in different countries and this is very exciting. I travel maybe for half of the year, and stay at home for the other half. It is a nice balance. I come to Greece with an accordionist with whom we breathe together. Then, I go to Spain with my chamber orchestra. I travel with people that I want to travel. I cannot work with people with whom we do not click.
In which country of the dozen ones you have toured did you find the best audience?
People listen differently. The question is not the country, but the place you play, in terms of the hall. The places where people listen to you most carefully are Japan and South Korea. They analyse everything and they know everything very well; they are very sensitive to music. The most spectacular questions I have had after my concerts were always in Asia. They are such hard workers, they really try to understand. It is in their nature.
How do you approach a composer’s work? Do you obey to the original music, or do you somehow “recreate” it?
This is a very good question. First of all, that’s why I oblige myself to play a lot of Mozart or Bach, in order to have some discipline. In Mozart, everything is so fantastic that everything you do too much is cheap. Everything is in very refined details, in the quality of sound, it is not in adding things. For me, to play works written for me, it is to recreate them and somehow to rewrite them together with the composer. Most of the time, it is a big exchange with the composer. You have to suggest a lot of things, because it is contemporary, it happens today.
You played in the recording of the soundtrack for the immensely popular film ‘Amadeus’. This must have been a pretty exciting experience.
I recorded all the music of Mozart for flute. There was one piece, KV 617, for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello. This is one of the last pieces of Mozart, a wonderful piece, but nobody played the glass harmonica. And I did three CDs with all flute music of Mozart, the youth sonatas, the quartets, and the flute concertos, and this piece was often recorded with the piano or the harpsichord instead of glass harmonica. I didn’t like this, so I started to look everywhere for someone who played the instrument. I found a great guy in France who played the glass harmonica, and that’s how we recorded it, and that’s how the story started. In ’91, we had a program with the Mozart quartet and toured during the whole year. It was fantastic.
Have you managed to achieve what you wanted to in the first place? Have you fulfilled your own idea of success?
When I decided to be professional, I wanted to find a job. It is a hard world, you know! I got my first orchestral job when I was 19. When you do music, you have to earn your life from it. I was very motivated, got into my first orchestra but did not like the atmosphere there. So, I said I am not going to do this for my entire life. I loved the job but did not like some people because they were very functionary. Things went naturally. When you are young, you have energy to move mountains. Money has not been important. The important thing is to be myself and do what I like.
What music do you enjoy listening to, other than the one you play?
I listen more to classical music. If you were to put me on an island, let’s say, I would take the G minor string quartet KV 515 from Mozart. This is my number 1. The Letzte Lieder from Strauss and the Goldberg Variations from Gould are great. I also like listening to Fado, to Piazolla, to Miles Davis…
Who are the composers who you feel really took music for flute a step further?
The first one is Bach, because he wrote a lot for flute. And then Mozart. People say that Mozart did not like the flute; this is not true. He once wrote to his father that “I didn’t like this flute” but he meant he did not like the flutist who played for him. The flutist was an amateur and could not play the music written for him. The slow movement of the D major 285 flute quartet is probably one of the most beautiful things ever written for flute. And then, of course, all the French music by Debussy and the others. They didn’t write for the flute only because of virtuosity, they wrote music because of the quality and the colours in the sound.
Are you concerned that the crisis may affect your art?
There is less money for art and, yes, we are concerned. In art, a lot of money is public. They cut down orchestras, which means less opportunities for composers to have their music played. It is a chain reaction.
By the way, other countries will have the same problems that Greece is having now. It is a shame how Germany behaves. The reason of the crisis is not what happened with the banks. The real reason goes much further. The capitalist system has gone too far. People do not want to share. The people who are so rich could share a bit, but they do not want to. I have seen this coming for a long time.