Kathryn Williams will be including a short piece of mine in her performance of one-breath pieces Coming Up for Air as part of the Deep Minimalism festival at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre this weekend. I am absolutely thrilled. Coming up for Air is an ongoing project of Kathryn’s, in which she collects and performs pieces for flute (or related instruments), all of which can be played in the space of one breath. I was very privileged to write the notes for Kathryn’s forthcoming CD, which documents 40 such pieces (by Chaya Czernowin, Brian Ferneyhough, Sarah Hennies, Amber Priestley, Jack Sheen and many more, nearly all of them written specially for her).
Coming Up for Air was inspired by Kathryn’s struggles with chronic respiratory conditions, and how she shaped her own practice as a flutist around these. Of course, as someone with my own respiratory issues I had to know more about what she was doing. After seeing her play at Cafe Oto last year I was inspired to sketch out a piece of my own (my first composition for 20 years!), based on a test for measuring lung function that she and I both know well, from our respective experiences with asthma and cystic fibrosis. The piece is called FEV1/FVC after the ratio that is used to measure the amount of obstruction within the airways. This is calculated from a breathing (spirometry) test that falls into three phases: deep breath in, breath out as hard as you can and then as long as you can, and then at the very end a short breath in as full and as fast as you can manage. All I’ve done with my piece really is insert a flute for phases two and three, but Kathryn makes it sound much better than this.
Spirometry tests are emotionally fraught territory for me – as they may be for other people with CF. As the primary measure of how well or not you are doing, there’s a lot hanging on how well you perform the test. A bad result might mean intravenous antibiotics, an intensified physio regime and a two- or three-week in-patient stay. Yet it’s not a simple test to do: there’s a lot of technique involved, and tension or anxiety can lead to constriction and a poor result. It’s a bit like playing an instrument, in fact, so I’m chuffed that my musical renditon is going to get an outing on stage.
Deep Minimalism looks like it is sold out this Saturday, but if you are able to make it, it would be great to see you there.