Last September, when social contact was still a desert landscape, Ecka Mordecai cycled to my home to present me with a gift of eggflutes. To describe them (only) as musical instruments would be to reduce them to a functionality that belies their presence as objects, but then this is true of all instruments. They are assemblage, or shrine, or ceremony, or sphere. Painstakingly made and beautifully decorated by Ecka herself, the emptied egg shells sit as if nesting in small ceramic bowls that are themselves reminiscent of half-eggs, the delicate, hard surfaces protected by soft beds of sheep’s wool. Further protection comes from circular wooden boxes in which they are encased. Each egg is pierced at one end with a small, irregular aperture of sharp edges against which, with trial and error, I can seek out strange glissandi of dove and owl-like timbres, some surprisingly low pitched. One flute is white, entirely covered with minute black marks of Indian ink, as if a calligraphic text with no point of beginning or ending, a decipherability that can only be approached by holding its endless page in the hand. The other is smaller, speckled brown, decorated by tiny dog bones or what might be the letter I.
Since there were no performance opportunities at that stage of the pandemic, my playing of the flutes was added to the strange texture of contemplative isolation in which everything was both potential/futurity and immediate nowness. In that respect they were perfect because their sound was so intimate, so utterly private and enclosed. I was reminded of Peter Sloterdijk’s words I had bookmarked in Bubbles: Spheres I – “. . . a participation in spheric resonances”, or, set underneath a familiar image, Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of uterus, embryo and placenta, “On the way through the evasive underworld of the inner world, the schematic image of a fluid and auratic universe unfolds like a map in sound, woven entirely from resonances and suspended matter.” Much as I liked this proximity to Sloterdijk’s ruminations on spheres, bubbles and what he calls the “fetal ear” (unavoidable when listening to a flute made from an egg), I also felt ethical qualms, albeit projected into a speculative futurity of public performance. For one thing, they were Ecka’s invention. My relationship to them necessitated thinking through the notion of the gift, its implication that I might use her instruments within my own sphere of practice, and the ambiguous nature of collaborations in which terms and conditions are not so much small print as entirely unvoiced. The second qualm related to my veganism. This seems to me unresolvable. After all, I play a number of instruments which incorporate animal parts or extracted substances, ranging from an African (possibly Congo or Central African Republic) chordophone of animal skin stretched over carved wood, to the mother of pearl inlays set into certain keys on my alto flute. If somebody has taken sustenance from an entity and then given new life to that entity from its remnants then I can semi-square that with my own life choices.
As it turned out, I had ample time to reflect on these questions and allow them to settle. Live performances in the presence of audiences resumed (for me, at least) at the end of July 2021, a duo with Thurston Moore. Since then, they have grown more frequent. Finally I found the setting to play an eggflute in a trio with Mark Wastell and Chris Dowding in a Norfolk chapel. A duo with Avsluta (Lucie Štepánková) at Cafe Oto the following week (22.11.21) offered a context in which those patiently settling conversations with the thickness of objects afforded what might be called a finding place. By that I mean a not entirely dimensional place in which new discoveries are made ‘in the moment’ of live action (which is the reason why performance is a practice of discourse and learning distinct from preparation, rehearsal, practicing, technical development, theorising and all the other activities enacted away from the presence of an audience, whether physical or not). Some people call this spontaneity but I would suggest these moments are sparked by a strange mixture of pressure (to perform) and mindlessness (an unnecessarily derogatory word that describes an enviable and rare condition), plus the working out of possibilities arising from previously acquired knowledge. What I found myself doing was playing the eggflute as a flute, while simultaneously using it as a resonant chamber to amplify sound transmitted through a bone conduction speaker. The sound came from a cassette recording of a Japanese shakuhachi piece called “Water and Stones”, player unknown. I also used my teeth for bone conduction, so there was a feeling within myself (barely conscious, because I don’t like to think too much during performance) of cavities and edges at work together. In itself, this amplifies a more general feeling of working with these elements, forces and materials within this duo; as Sloterdijk has said, a participation in spheric resonances.
Limited editions of eggflutes have been on sale on Ecka Mordecai’s Bandcamp/Merch page. Currently they are sold out but perhaps more will appear in time:
I met you for about 5 minutes, 40 years ago. I hope you’ve forgotten. It was at Marie Yates’s house in North London. She introduced me as having an interest in free improvisation. I had got that interest from workshops with Lol Coxhill and Veryan Weston at Digswell. You asked “Where do you think the music should go next?” I was a gauche, shy twenty-something year old, and I hadn’t a clue. I was out of my depth. But I remembered a recent review of a Steve Beresford DJ set where he had played mostly Latin American music. I said “Latin American Music.” There was a long pause, then you said “Interesting”, and we pretty much agreed to leave it there.
I have since read some of your books. I particularly like Oceans of Sound and Into the Maelstrom. They are everything I want from a book about music. Beautifully written, stimulating and thoughtful, and introducing me to hundreds of musicians I would never otherwise have encountered.
My own practice is sporadically public these days but the question you asked all those years ago still pertains. These days I avoid the categoric answer and try to follow the hints and whispers from within my playing. So it seems timely to modify the answer I gave to you back then. “Not necessarily Latin American music”, I’d say now. Thanks.
With warmth Jonathan Wood