Matthias Ziegler is a Professor of Flute at the Zurich University of the Arts and is one of the world’s most versatile and innovative flutists. He is committed both to the traditional literature for flute as well as to contemporary music and concepts that cross the boundaries between classical music and jazz. Matthias also composes his own works that make full use of his unique arsenal of instruments. His two most popular recordings on YouTube, Maschad and Recercada Primera are only small tasters but great examples of what he is capable of.
I had the privilege of studying with Matthias for four years, completing two Master’s degrees in the process. Matthias was, and continues to be an enormous inspiration, both as a musician and as a human being. We are extremely excited to welcome him to the Australian Flute Festival in 2019 and to help you get to know him a little more, we would like to share with you this interview.
Mark Xiao: When did you start playing the flute and what made you choose it?
Matthias Ziegler: I started at age 4 with the recorder and at age 9 with the flute. At age 7, I heard a concert of flute and organ and my grandparents (who had taken me to this concert), told me afterwards that I stood up with the first note of the flute and would not sit down until after the concert. Obviously, I was most fascinated by the flute and I still am after all these years.
MX: What do you love most about the flute?
MZ: The flute is the closest instrument to the voice and has, unlike other instruments, no physical elements like hammers, strings, reeds etc. between the breath and the sound. Therefore, the player is very much connected to the sound. It is a light instrument which unfortunately in my career was constantly getting heavier with all the bass and contrabass flutes.
MX: What flute do you play on and what made you choose it above other brands and models?
MZ: I am playing a Louis Lot, number 2030 and change between the original headjoint and one made by Miguel Arista. Both heads allow a light, but highly saturated sound and a rich middle register. For contemporary music, in particular for my low flutes, I collaborate with Eva Kingma. The Kingma System Flute and her newly designed Alto flute, in collaboration with Bickford Brannen himself, are all wonderful creative tools.
MX: As someone who has had a number of different flutes, what made you choose a new one each time? Was it always an improvement or did you just want something a little different?
MZ: I had different flutes while I was still studying, and it was a Jack Moore flute that helped me to define my sound. Once I had a clear picture of how I wanted to sound it was a small step towards a Louis Lot. Once you have a clear idea of a sound, you are able to reproduce it on different flutes. Of course, the scale of a flute has to be good. I always needed a lot of time to judge different flutes. I can’t just pick up an instrument and give an immediate feedback on it.
MX: How much do you think the player impacts the result and how much difference does the instrument make?
MZ: Most of it is the player if we compare the same class of instruments (silver, handmade etc.). The instrument can help to enhance the player’s ideas.
MX: Have you had formal training on the flute through a conservatorium or university?
MZ: Yes, it was through the Zurich University of Arts which at that time was still called the Zurich Conservatory.
MX: How important do you think that is for a career in performance and/or teaching?
MZ: Studying at a Conservatory or University gives you a lot of structure. A lot of this work is pure training where it is the amount of hours you spend with your instrument.
However, this is not enough. In classical music, it is important to know the whole history of your instrument and its music. You first discover the world of music through your instrument. When your studies at the university include analysis, history of music, ear training, piano playing and chamber music, you get the tools to understand what you discovered. Sometimes it is hard to develop your own voice. I have been lucky with my teachers. They were very generous and open minded and let me develop my own view on the music without disconnecting from the music itself. In a society which doesn’t have a common sense anymore about “qualities” of music, you have to come up with your own criteria of what you consider to be important qualities in a performance. There are musicians who develop their own voice without having ever seen a conservatory from inside. I am always fascinated by individual musical characters.
The other important point of going to a University is the network you build with your fellow students. All my first projects of my freelance career started with ensemble playing at the university. Your time at university is the best ground for networking, communicating in different languages and becoming active in developing projects. The time during your studies should act as a creative motor for all your life.
MX: How important is teaching of others for you as a process?
MZ: When you first start teaching, you refer to how you have been taught. Having had several teachers, I learned different styles of flute playing. Even today I know exactly where my ideas in teaching come from. There are also things I developed myself but even then, I know which idea they refer to. André Jaunet was only interested in musical structures and not in flute technique and he was a counterpart to Geoffrey Gilbert who strictly taught you how to play the flute. William Bennett opened a huge window of imagination and creativity in music, like a wake-up call to let your imagination lead you. Very interesting was my first teacher Conrad Klemm who was also trained as a teacher of Alexander Technique as well as having been former principal flute of Santa Cecilia Rome. He would just interfere when an interpretation was not convincing. He would never force a student to play with a distinct musical expression. But he wanted to be convinced by what the student played.
There is another aspect of teaching. You have to be able to analyse what you hear from your students. It might not be something that has been a problem in your own playing but by looking at it through the eyes of a coach it becomes your problem for that moment until you manage to solve it. This situation can affect your own playing if you are not aware of it and if you don’t manage to switch gear from performing into teaching mode.
MX: Did you have any musical or even non-musical heroes that you looked up to?
MZ: The way I was brought up was in a world without heroes. You could look up to people you admired but the reference point was always human life and creativity.
MX: As a composer as well, do you feel composing has affected the way you play the flute?
MZ: I am hesitating to call myself a composer. I am rather a collector and hunter. But putting your ideas on paper makes you look at composed music with a deeper understanding. It is the process from an idea to a piece of artwork which is fascinating.
MX: Do you have some favourite pieces of music?
MZ: There are some pieces of music which became landmarks in my memory:
- Stravinsky: Sacre du printemps
- Schubert: Tod und das Mädchen
- Dvorak: American Quartet
- Luigi Nono. Prometeo
- B.A, Zimmermann: Die Soldaten
- Jethro Tull: Aqualong and Thick as a Brick
- Pink Floyd: Atom Hard Mother
- Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, In a silent way
MX: Do you think of yourself separate from the flute or do you think being a musician defines who you are?
MZ: I am not defining myself through the fact of being a musician. But I can’t separate being a musician from my personality. For further information, please contact my wife…
MX: What has been the highest point of your career?
MZ: There have been several high points in my career. However, I never thought of a highest point. Looking back at many years of flute playing, the high points become episodes in a longer story and therefore lose some of their unique singularity. A career is not what you plan, it is what you leave behind, and it finishes the day you leave this planet.
MX: What advice do you have for someone wanting to pursue a career in music performance?
MZ: Don’t plan a career, be open for unexpected changes. Following a planned career step by step is the most uncreative path you can go. I am not saying that you shouldn’t have goals but don’t pre-determine the whole path.
Practising an instrument is the perfect metaphor for the career. You set goals and you constantly compare with your personal limits. It is a continuous working process in developing your personality to get to know yourself better and better.