Coming Up For Air Project
Kathryn Williams
11th May 2017
Coming Up For Air Project

Kathryn Williams is a flautist based in Manchester. Help Musicians UK supported Kathryn last year when she was in need of a sinus operation to enable her to carry on playing. She wrote blog for us about her new project - Coming Up For Air.

Coming Up For Air (no reference to George Orwell's novel of the same name) is a project made to explore the creative possibilities that emerge when a piece of music is restricted to a single breath.

The idea of creatively responding to breath restriction developed over time through two main experiences. Firstly, learning Brian Ferneyhough's monolithic solo flute piece Unity Capsule over a nine-month period. The piece is densely notated and requires an enormous control of body and breath (and brain!). The last instruction of the piece says: 'Last possible place at which to take a breath... when air reserves are exhausted, the actions for the remaining material are to be mimed silently.' This is an incredibly intense moment in a performance and, having performed the piece a dozen times so far, my available air supply at that point is different each time which leads to different realisations of the section.

Alvin Lucier's Self Portrait for Flute and Wind Anemometer controls breath at the opposite extreme: the flautist is to stand behind a wind anemometer (an instrument with blades to monitor wind speed) with a light beamed through it. Placed at face-height, the flautist exhales in a way that causes the blades to turn and varying speeds, dependent upon air speed and angle, casting shadows to hide or reveal her face. The length of the piece is completely up to the performer.

Coming Up For AirThe other inspiration was a chronic sinus condition which made it impossible to breath through my nose, smell, or taste for several years. This affected my playing in many ways. I would often have the feeling of not having enough air, yet not be able to exhale it quickly enough when playing. As a result, I would have an agonising build-up of pressure around my ribcage. To manage to play during my MMus and International Artist Diploma at the Royal Northern College of Music, I developed the ability to control smaller amounts of air than usually needed on the flute. This was never going to be enough as a long-term solution for a professional flautist and, frustratingly, medical intervention was slow to provide helpful solutions and I waited two years before being put on the waiting list for the operation. I was unsure how I would be able to create the performing career that I wanted when playing was such a pain.

At this point, I reached out to Help Musicians UK.They made it possible for me to have the operation (inferior turbinate reduction) privately within a month of my call to them and I was able to recover properly without worrying about missing work.

They also supported me to attend Ensemble Linea Academy in Strasbourg so that I had time and space to navigate the flute with my new nose. The operation was a success and it has transformed my playing. I am extremely grateful to Help Musicians UK! If not for their help, I certainly wouldn't be in a position to play challenging and physically demanding works like this. I will use the upcoming Coming Up For Air concert as an opportunity to raise funds to give back to the vital work of HMUK.

The performance is on 7 June 2017 at Islington Mill, Salford, Manchester. See more details here.

A group of wonderfully imaginative composers have written one-breath pieces for me. I will also perform Alvin Lucier's Self Portrait for Flute and Wind Anemometer' and Brian Ferneyhough's Unity Capsule, pieces that control the performer's breath at two extremes.

My HMUK JustGiving page can be found here

Going forward, I plan to expand the project further and will instigate an open-call for one-breath pieces soon. Watch this space