While Cape Breton (Canada) is mainly known for its fiddling royalty such as Ashley McIsaac and Natalie MacMaster, fellow Novia Scotian flautist Chris Norman, has in his own quiet way fused his classical training with his the wild Celtic music of Cape Breton. While Chris lacks the quirkiness of the Quebecois group Matapat, his clear high notes and technical prowess has turned heads of classical music critics and roots music enthusiasts alike.
His latest release, Caledonian Flute (in which Chris performs on several flutes including a Rudall Rose Boxwood from 1835) introduces Celtic music of the 18th and 19th century. The compositions come from various collections and might seem academic for listeners raised on Celtic pop or traditional British folk. And yet, Chris breathes life into these hauntingly beautiful songs, at times causing listeners to kick up their heels. And in the case of Will ye lend me your Loom, bawdy lyrics are included.
Caledonian Flute marks Chris sixth solo release. Other releases include, The Flower of Port Williams, Highlands, Lullaby Journey, The Beauty of the North and Man with the Wooden Flute (which hit the Billboard charts). Chris has also recorded with the super group, Skyedance, the Baltimore Consort (Dorian label) and with the group Helicon among other musical ventures. The ambitious flautist runs a music festival dedicated to wooden flutes called Boxwood Music Festival which takes place in Halifax every summer and has showcased some well established talent over its eight year history. And this dedication and learning through musical collaboration shows up on Caledonian Flute, an album that appeals to classical and roots sensibilities.
The Chris Norman Ensemble which includes, James Blachly on bass, Andy Thurston on guitar and Mandola and Simeon Darley-Chapin on percussion and of course, Chris on flute and small pipes, has collected critical praise. Jane Varnish with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sang praises, “But it was charmin’ Norman’s night, whether hovering expertly between several flutes or pumping the bellows of Scottish pipes. He is a star in this Celtic crossover firmament…then turning around to caress a folk melody as if it were the best of Mozart.”
(I interviewed Chris via e-mail, which comes as a new experiment for me. Although this e-mail interview lacks the conversational approach of a traditional interview, I have found this approach to be relatively successful and this will allow me to publish interviews with artists from around the globe).
Cranky Crow: It seems that a lot of media attention has fallen on the fact that you play a wooden flute as opposed to a silver flute. Is your choice of instrument more noticeable in the classical world than the roots music scene?
Chris Norman: Yes, it was certainly more unusual when I started playing 25 years ago, particularly from a classical standpoint. Nowadays there’s nothing unusual about it at all, as there are a number of prominent orchestral players that have switched to playing a wooden Boehm system flute in the classical realm, as well as a surge in interest in all kinds of indigenous musical instruments, including flutes.
CCWM: With the world music circuit, many types of flutes exists from the Asian bamboo flute, to the Peruvian flute and the wood flute of Native American music. And in fact, indigenous people throughout the world play some type of flute or whistle for various purposes, herding animals (highlands of Southern France), spiritual practices in Asia and Africa to music for dance in celebration worldwide. How do you see yourself fitting into the larger scheme?
CN: I don’t even want to think about what a “world music circuit” might be. If such a thing exists, I don’t think I’m part of it. I do think about the fact that there were playable flutes discovered in a Chinese archeological dig that are 10,000+ years old, making them the oldest surviving musical instruments of any ilk anywhere in the world. That suggests something quite profound about the ability of the flute to offer something universally compelling to human civilization. So in that context I’m aware that, at its best, the voice of the flute is capable of reaching deep into people’s hearts & minds. My own struggle is to make music with enough energy, intelligence and integrity that lives up to that potential.
CCWM: Do you have an interests in flutes outside of the Celtic and classical tradition?
CN: Absolutely. I played in a group called Helicon from about 1985-1995, and this group attempted to play traditional instrumental music from all over the world. During that time I experimented with playing all kinds of different flutes from the Chinese diz, to the Andean quena. It made for a diverse evening of music, but it became obvious fairly early on that I had cast the net too widely with that sort of approach, and that it really just diluted the authority of my playing to be so spread out musically.
I do have a lot to learn yet on the instrument, and players from different traditions have a lot to offer in their approach to music. I started a festival and workshop eight years ago called Boxwood that invites a variety of players, makers, and scholars to gather for a week each summer in Nova Scotia and share their vision and expertise. The concept has been so successful that we’re now running a number of weekend workshops as well. There’s more info on this a my site.
CCWM: You have been credited by the media in both Canada and the US for bringing the wood flute back into popularity. This reminds me of Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai that brought the traditional songs of Native America and the Native American flute back to our attention. Nakai works with Native American spirituality and you perform Celtic music which is also spiritual in nature. Do you connect with the spiritual element of music when you perform?
CN: We had R. Carlos Nakai as one of our featured guests at Boxwood a number of years back, and I remember being struck by “his” response to that question when he was asked during a class; His answer was long and very thoughtful but the ultimate answer was “no”. As for myself, I do feel that I try to make that connection when I play (not just perform). As with all things human, your have you good days and your bad.
CCWM: In the future, do you see yourself collaborating with indigenous flute players from other parts of the world?
CN: Yes, that’s a built in component of my work with Boxwood.
CCWM: In the Native American scene flautists (Carlos Nakai) and Mary Youngblood have crossed over into other genres including classical and even blues. Are you familiar with her work?
CN: Yes, and I admire their boldness in trying to expand the tradition with these projects. That’s how traditional music grows and stays relevant. That said, there’s no substitute for the raw unadulterated core of any traditional art form.
CCWM: You have also brought classical music to roots folks and roots music to classical audiences with positive results. Could you comment on this and also the differences between the two genres?
CN: That’s a big question, so an incomplete answer follows in taking note that the relationship between what I think of as art music and traditional music has existed since the beginning of the two genres. The size, depth and scope of our society allows artists to be specialists to a large degree nowadays.
If you trace art music and traditional music back in time in a particular place, like Scotland or Ireland for instance back about 300 years, you find that while distinctions between genres existed to a certain degree, the boundaries are not the same, or as clear as we think of them today. The lives of many musical people at that time involved playing, collecting, composing, teaching, promoting, and publishing music for the church, the drawing room, concert hall, kitchen, and pub. You had the same people involved in all of that with each influence spilling onto the other.
So in that context, the whole notion of “cross-over” as something novel and recent is false. Louis Armstrong said it best “if it sounds good, it is good”, and it doesn’t make any difference who’s playing it, or where they come from. The elements of good music are the same in any genre.
CCWM: Many traditional and even ancient instruments are resurfacing around the globe as is an interests in ancient spiritual practices. And in some cases, the two things go hand in hand. Do you see an interest in the spiritual aspect of music with your wooden flute students? Or are they searching for their heritage when discovering the wooden flute?
CN: I think it’s an individual thing for each person. For the most part though the traditional arts offer something that’s simple, meaningful, and often quite social. Whether or not there’s a historical link to one’s own family heritage is not really that important.
Additional information at http://www.boxwood.org.
This is an archival interview from Cranky Crow Whole Music
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Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.