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  • Leah Stevens, Flutist

Arcanum: Explained

This post is a transcript of the speaking parts of "Arcanum," presented on February 29th, 2020 at Carnegie Mellon University. Links to full recordings are included.


This recital came out of my desire to explore music that expands and extends what the flute can do. I wanted to challenge myself and the audience by exploring technology in conjunction with music. As the program took shape, it became so much more. This recital explores live electronics, amplification, and pre-recorded sound, using man made technology to uncover truths about the natural world. As someone who has never worked with electronics before, and someone who has gone through my entire Master’s program without even owning a computer, I knew this was an ambitious project. I’m fascinated by thinking of sound as a cue to our changing relationship with the environment (see Sound Switch). It is an important sense for interpreting the world around us. It feels more vital than ever to explore this concept as our relationship with the environment is in turmoil. The program today moves from dissonance to consonance in an attempt to unravel some of these tensions. With this program, I want you to consider the following questions: What is our relationship with the environment? Does what is human and what is nature exist in a binary? Can sound help heal our relationship with the environment? I don’t have the answer to these questions, but this program will illustrate the complexities of how we connect with the environment, bringing attention to the more nebulous attributes of these questions.


The first piece on the program is NoaNoa by Kaija Saariaho. This piece for flute and live electronics is a mix of pre-recorded and live processed sounds. In this 9 minute piece, the flutist is called to press a pedal 63 times to trigger specific sounds and effects in Max, such as whispering voices and reverberation. “NoaNoa” translates to “fragrant,” taken from the title of one of Paul Gauguin’s woodcuts, and a travel journal of the same name. The spoken words throughout the piece are evocative fragments of text from the journal:

L’arbre sentait la rose, la rose très odorant sentait la rose The trees smell rose, the rose, very fragrant, the smell of the rose Mes yeux voiles par mon coeur sentait la rose, la fleur My eyes catch my heart, the fragrance of the rose, the flower Très odorant melange, melange d’odeur l’arbre sentait la rose, fleur Very fragrant the mixture, the mixture, the fragrance of the rose tree, flower Melange d’odeur parfums, parfums de santal très odorant The mixtures of fragrances, perfumes of the sandalwood L’arbre sentait fleur dorée The smell of the tree, the golden flower Je reviendrai I will return Mes yeux la fleur fanée My eyes, the flower, wilted Je... la fleur... la fleur I… the flower… the flower

Translation: Hargreaves, Jon. Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues.

Saariaho takes small, motivic ideas in the flute and repeats them, layers them, abuses them with the electronics. To me, NoaNoa explores the volatility, the beauty, the violence, the sensuality, the intimacy, the extremes of nature. In a sense, these elements are claimed within the performer’s body, culminating in an outburst where the text implies human and nature as one. Excerpt from NoaNoa:

Full performance of NoaNoa


George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for amplified flute, cello, and piano was written in 1971, shortly after Crumb heard the first whale recordings released to the public. Environmental activism and movements like Greenpeace and their “Save the Whales” campaign were gaining traction. While the piece is not overtly political, it was born of an extremely volatile era of US history- the Vietnam War raged on amidst protest, Cold War tensions grew, hearings were held for police corruption and brutality, and Nixon launched the War on Drugs. The amplified instruments of this piece give the music a sense of being not only as boundless as the ocean, but a sound of cosmic proportions. The score is marked “from the beginning of time…” in the opening Vocalise, and “ the end of time” with the closing Sea Nocturne, suggesting a world that isn’t human-centric. This plays out in many layers. The opening flute Vocalise is interrupted by clamorous piano chords and plucked bass strings, indicated in the score as “parody of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Not only does this quotation become a thematic building block of the tensions throughout this piece, but it suggests the ongoing consequences of a Man vs. Nature struggle. Crumb incorporates the music of many cultures in this piece, such as Indian raga and Javanese gamelan, injecting these world influences into an eight movement theme and variations. The global, and even cosmic, scope of this piece makes it timeless, and relevant to current day. The building tension of Vox Balaenae opens up to a soaring, Schubertian Sea Nocturne, and it feels like there will be a resolution, an answer to the question posed by the Also Sprach parody. However, ominous chords in the piano and a recall of the parody point to a never-ending cycle of conflict. Read my full researched analysis of Vox Balaenae. Excerpt from Vox Balaenae:

Full performance of Vox Balaenae


The next piece on the program is Toward the Sea (Umi e) by Toru Takemitsu for alto flute and guitar. This was not his first piece about water- in the 1980s, he wrote at least twelve compositions that are referential to water. While Vox Balaenae was composed when Greenpeace was just emerging, Toward the Sea was commissioned by Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” campaign nine years later, in 1980. The movements are “The Night,” “Moby Dick,” and “Cape Cod.” Like some of his other works about the sea, he plays with a cipher of the word “SEA,” where E-flat is the German “S,” E-natural is “E,” and A-natural is “A.” Assigning tones to each letter of “SEA” provides compelling harmonic and melodic material throughout the three-movement work, setting the cipher within different spaces physically and psychologically. This quote from an interview with Toru Takemitsu perfectly illustrates the compositional style of this piece: “I love the sea. It has many faces. Numerous currents are whirling in it, each with a tempo, a color, and a temperature of its own. This phenomenon reminds me of the structure of music.” While beautiful, this piece is melancholic and bittersweet. After a journey through three movements, the “SEA” cipher mournfully concludes the piece. Excerpt from Toward the Sea:

Full performance of Toward the Sea


The closing piece on the program is Elizabeth Brown’s Arcana for flute and pre-recorded sound. On the score, Brown provides three definitions of “arcanum:” 1. A deep secret; a mystery. 2. Often arcana. Specialized knowledge that is mysterious to the average person. 3. A secret essence or remedy; an elixir. In choosing how I wanted to frame this program, I became quite obsessed with this word and its meanings, particularly the idea of this essence, this elixir. As musicians, as artists, as creatives, we not only hold up a mirror to the current world we live in, but in this space we can, and we have the responsibility to, pose a possibility for the future. The previous pieces have been uncertain, unresolved, defined by dissonance and conflict. Arcana wanders mysteriously through a palindromic form, where the closing section nearly mirrors the opening section, but instead of ending with a question, it finally reaches a resolution. In this piece, I offer you that secret essence, the elixir which may serve as curiosity, empowerment, and hope for a better future. Excerpt from Arcana:

Full performance of Arcana


Reference List:

Brown, Elizabeth. “Arcana.” Elizabeth Brown - Composer/Performer, 2015,

Brown, Elizabeth. “Arcana.” Elizabeth Brown - Composer/Performer, 2015,

Hargreaves, Jon. Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues. Routledge, 


Korhonen, Kimmo, and Risto Nieminen. "Saariaho, Kaija." Grove Music Online. 

2001. Oxford University Press. Date of access 5 Feb. 2020, <>

Narazaki, Yoko, and Masakata Kanazawa. "Takemitsu, Tōru." Grove Music 

Online. 2001. Oxford University Press. Date of access 5 Feb. 2020, <>

Ohtake, Noriko. Creative Sources for the Music of Toru Takemitsu. Ashgate, 


Saariaho, Kaija. “NoaNoa.” Kaija Saariaho, 2015,

Varga Bálint András. Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers. University of 

Rochester Press, 2015.

West, P. “Brown, Elizabeth.” Grove Music Online. 2015. Oxford University Press. Date of access 5 Feb. 2020.

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