Why the recorder is more than just a “school instrument”

Leading recorder virtuoso Alicia Crossley at Metropolis



Like many of us, Alicia Crossley first started learning the recorder at school when she was about six years old.

Unlike many of us, the musician continued to play the instrument through adulthood – and now she is one of Australia’s leading recorder virtuosi. She will perform at the Metropolis New Music Festival, sharing with Australian audiences solo repertoire we rarely have the opportunity to experience.

“In Australia, there’s not a large number of professional players here, and certainly there’s not as much exposure as you’d get in Europe where it’s very common to play recorder professionally.”

“With a program like Metropolis, strangely enough even though there’s historic works in there, they’re all newly transcribed,” Alicia says. One Metropolis work she refers to is the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G, BWV 1007, which she has arranged for bass recorder.

“It’s about looking at a style we’re familiar with, shedding a new light on it, but also not having other peoples’ preconceived ideas in there.”

There are often preconceived ideas surrounding the recorder as an instrument – namely that it’s a “school instrument”. Though Alicia picked up other instruments like saxophone and bassoon when she was in school, she still possessed a fondness for the recorder and pursued a career with challenges faced by few other instrumental artists.

Alicia says it’s far more common to play the recorder professionally in Europe, where the instrument’s history is richer and the music is better exposed to audiences. But here, “it’s seen as a toy – you’re almost encouraged to get off it as soon as you can”.

Though well supported in her school environment, Alicia admits she did receive some stigma when she hit university. “We got a few odd looks in our undergraduate,” she says.

“With audiences, if you go and introduce yourself as a recorder player, you definitely get a few odd looks. Usually once I explain what I do – and definitely after hearing recorder players at a professional level – people are usually like, ‘Ok, that’s cool’.

“So the response is positive on the whole – as soon as you explain the stuff we do that goes beyond Hot Cross Buns.”

Quite obviously, there are centuries of works beyond this childhood basic Alicia refers to. But between these centuries, she explains there was a large gap of time in which little repertoire was produced. Alicia says 1750 was a “high point with the Baroque era”, which then deteriorated until the ‘50s and ‘60s avant-garde era and the advancement of extended techniques through contemporary repertoire.

It is this unique relationship between eras that Alicia is looking forward to presenting at Metropolis.

“I think it’s important to have the new in there more than the old – just getting people used to hearing recorders in a contemporary setting, instead.

“I think it’s important for musicians to have knowledge of Historically Informed Performance practice, but at the same time you need to take it with a grain of salt. Because a lot of these pieces – the nature of chamber music, for instance – means they’re meant to be performed in a small intimate setting with people sitting round having coffee.

“Yet, we’re performing them in 2000 seat venues, and trying to project that same emotion to a much bigger audience.”

Alicia will also perform works by Australian composer Andrew Batt-Rawden, Mark Oliveiro, Debussy, Tromlitz, and Jacob ter Velduis. Some works include electronic accompaniment, and it was her conscious decision to compile a varied program.

“If I’m thinking of an audience that’s coming to their very first recorder recital, I like to give a little bit of an explanation about the repertoire; explain the difference between what we’ve learnt at school and how the instruments have evolved.

“I try to show them the different styles that are available rather than pigeonhole into a particular area.”

The recorders she will play are the tenor and bass – the two larger instruments with a lower range. These were both featured in her Alchemy and Addicted to Bass albums – but she does have a favourite.

“The bass recorder is my baby. It’s the one I feel most comfortable playing.

“But recorder players never specialise in one particular style, as you would as a violinist sticking to violin. Recorder players need to be able to swap between programs and play more of the recorders.”

If you’re feeling inspired to return to the recorder you picked up in your school days, Alicia has some practical advice.

“We’re in a unique situation. If you choose to be a soloist, a lot of the repertoire you’ve got to be playing is modern.” Aside from the incorporation of electronics, Alicia says a recorder player is often alone on the stage. “We’re used to hearing solo string instruments or piano, but they can at least play harmonies. We don’t hear programs with a wind or brass solo, where it’s just a melody line.”

“If you’ve got other peers and staff members that will help guide you through those learning phases, it won’t seem so daunting when you’re having to make decisions professionally.”

Open your mind to the recorder as you experience Alicia Crossley’s performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 May, as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival. Book your tickets on the Melbourne Recital Centre website.

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