Who or what inspired you to take up the flute, and pursue a career in music?
When I was 3 my parents took me to a children’s concert by Atarah’s Band. I fell in love with the flute, and decided that was what I wanted to do as a career. I didn’t realise how big it was, and I remember being taken to a music shop so I could see a flute up close. I was really disappointed that I was too small to start learning. I started the recorder instead, and eventually got a flute when I was 6. It was still too big – I couldn’t reach the lowest keys, but I was determined to learn and I really loved it. I never really changed my mind – my whole life has been based on the fact that I was going to be a flute player. I was lucky enough to get to know Atarah Ben Tovim, the woman who played the flute in Atarah’s Band, and have been able to perform with her on a few occasions. I think she inspired a lot of people to start learning music, and I was lucky to have had a lot of support from my family and teachers ever since the beginning.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My main flute teachers have of course been hugely important – to list them all, David Robinson (a bassoonist, who was the only person who would take on a kid so young), Brian Ridge, Viola Calthrop Owen (who got me into shape after Grade 8 to prepare me for college auditions), and at the Royal College of Music Graham Mayger and Simon Channing. I also had lessons with Colin Lilley and Robert Dick. There was another hugely influential flute figure – Jost Nickel, a German flute player who I met as a kid. Our music school was twinned with another music school in Germany, and Jost was married to the director. He and his wife came to stay with us occasionally, and he was a huge inspiration. I remember sitting on the stairs in our house listening to him practice. It was the closest contact I’d had with a professional flute player at that time, and I learnt a lot from him.
Beyond the flute, I was lucky enough to encounter some hugely inspiring composers as an undergrad – particularly Edwin Roxburgh, who was the conductor for my first contemporary music ensemble playing, Boulez, who I was able to play Le Marteau sans Maitre for, and Peter Maxwell Davies, who became a good friend. These people opened my eyes to new possibilities and some wonderful repertoire. My composition teacher, Tim Salter, was also brilliant at showing me what the contemporary music world could offer.
I have been enormously privileged in my career to be able to work with fantastic colleagues, who always have, and continue to inspire me. I learn so much from working with composers, and from the other performers I’ve collaborated with, both in rarescale (which is a very special group of people) and outside. There are too many to name them all!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Generally speaking, I thrive on musical challenges and seek them out, because that’s how I learn. These have included trying to establish the alto flute as a credible recital instrument, starting at a point where there was very little repertoire; learning the baroque flute from scratch to premiere a piece with lots of microtones, and developing an efficient way of practising so that I can learn a lot of difficult music in a short space of time.
Of course, the biggest challenge that has happened to me in my life was the arson attack on my home in the riots in 2011; I lost literally everything apart from the clothes I was wearing. Rebuilding my life after that was an enormous challenge, both personally and musically. It took 2 years before my alto flute was replaced, and it really made me look at everything in my life and work out my priorities. I had so much support from the music world in particular, and I can’t express just how important that was in helping me to keep going. It was a difficult time and it still affects me every day – but I’ve tried to find as much positivity in the experience and come back stronger.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Three months after the fire I recorded a CD of improvised music for flute and electronics with American computer performer Scott Miller. We had worked together earlier that year, and part of the plan had been to record his piece for Kingma System alto flute and electronics, but I didn’t have an alto flute at the time, so instead we recorded on C flute. Straight after the fire I didn’t play for a couple of months – it was just too raw – so getting back into the studio and making something creative happen felt like a huge milestone.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
That’s a tough question, because I try to bring my best to every piece I play. I have a particular connection with the works that have come about because of a collaboration with the composer, especially the ones that challenge me in some way. There’s a repertoire of pieces that have been written for me that I feel enormously grateful for, and many of those I have performed several times, so they’ve grown with me as my playing develops.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
This is always a mixture of current projects and collaborations (for example at the moment I’m collaborating with a number of composers to create new works for baroque flute), as well as selecting works from my existing repertoire to suit the needs of promoters or themes of concerts. If I can I like to try to include one premiere in every concert – it’s not always possible but I always have new works looking for a performance opportunity.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I prefer small venues where one can feel an intimate connection with the audience. I don’t enjoy the barrier between audience and performers and always like to be able to chat to listeners after the concert if I can. At the moment I’m collaborating with Iklectik in London – it’s a lovely venue with a great acoustic and it’s just the right size for chamber music. The owner has a wonderful approach to experimental music and supporting artists and it always feels like home going back there.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
That’s a difficult question! It’s hard to deal with favourites when there is so much incredible music out there. My favourite pieces to play are the ones where it feels the composer really understands my instrument and has something meaningful to say; it’s important to me that the music expresses something, even if that’s something a little unusual or unexpected. As for listening, I try to make time to listen every day, whether to something new or something familiar. I love contemporary music and baroque music, and also sometimes take great pleasure in listening to the orchestral repertoire that I used to play before specialising on the alto flute. I don’t regret not continuing with my orchestral career, but I grew up playing in orchestras and I do occasionally miss being in the middle of that hugely powerful and expressive sound.
Who are your favourite musicians?
This one is impossible! I’m inspired by and learn from most of the musicians I encounter, including my students, friends and colleagues. I don’t think I can have favourites when so many people have so much to offer!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Again, there are a several I could mention. I will never forget the feeling at the end of performing Morton Feldman’s works; in recent years I have made live recordings of ‘For Philip Guston’ and ‘For Christian Wolff’ with John Tilbury (and Simon Allen in FPG). It’s such wonderful music which takes every part of your being and energy to play it – in terms of physical and mental stamina there is nothing like it.
Another recent highlight was performing with my flute ensemble, rarescale Flute Academy in Athens. The group was formed 10 years ago as the educational branch of rarescale, to teach university students how to play low flutes. This was our first concert abroad, and we joined with some of the young flute players from St Catherine’s British School for the concert. We do everything unconducted, and the energy coming from around 20 flute players, playing one on a part and everyone giving their all was something very special.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Above all, be true to yourself and work hard. It’s important to be reliable, responsible and to be easy to get on with, and professional values count for a lot.
Carla performs in Baroque Remix at Iklectik, London SE1 on 3 June with Liam Byrne and Benjamin Tassie. Further information here
Carla Rees is a UK-based low flutes player and arranger. She is the artistic director of rarescale, an ensemble which exists to promote the alto flute and its repertoire, and Director of low flutes publishing company, Tetractys. She plays Kingma System flutes and works frequently in collaboration with composers to develop new repertoire and techniques.