"We Are What We Listen To"

An interview with David Bellugi by Nick Horn

Originally published in Australia's Journal of Recorder and Early Music, No. 22. 1998, pp. 3-6.

Take a bransle gay by Claude Gervaise. Imagine it as often played by a recorder consort: slower or faster, more or less politely, with a few diminutions or divisions added on the repeats. Ordinarily, perhaps, not very exciting. Now think what would happen to it if a whirlwind took hold of it, tossing the top line up, down and around the others, but so securely that the music might be knitting itself madly around a maypole. Excitement? You've got it! A bransle, then, played with gay abandon. That's a classic David Bellugi item.

David Bellugi is a recorder player and teacher working in Florence. He was born in the United States and lived there for his first 20 years, gaining a degree in Applied Musicology from the University of California San Diego, having largely taught himself the recorder since the age of 11. He continued his musicological research in Early Music performance practices in Paris under the guidance of Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume, a student of Arnold Dolmetsch. His current position is as a recorder teacher on the faculty of the Luigi Cherubini Conservatorium in Florence. He has performed as soloist with many orchestras and given recitals and concert/lectures in Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland and the USA. You will be able to catch him in Australia in January 2000 where he has been invited to perform and teach at the national Call of the Four Winds Festival in Armidale NSW.

The Landscapes CD discussed below is the most recent of Bellugi's 19 recordings, many of them with the Berry Hayward Consort and one as soloist under the baton of his father Piero Bellugi conducting the Orchestra del Chianti. His playing has received accolades from a number of notable musicians, including recorder players Piers Adams and Dan Laurin, as well as Luciano Berio, Leo Brouwer, Ennio Morricone and Ruggiero Ricci (see David Bellugi's homepage on the internet, details given below).

Bellugi's CD Landscapes: Three centuries of recorder music is a tour de force not only of performance, but of style. The music on Landscapes is wide-ranging but mostly dance-oriented, taking in Renaissance dances (by Juan del Encina and Claude Gervaise), Hungarian tunes from the same period, Ortiz's Recercada Primera, Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, a minimalist rumba by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer and some wild Klezmer pieces. His extremely fluid, free style has evolved from listening to flute and wind players from many different traditions, including Romanian, Armenian, Jewish, Iranian, Georgian, Turkmenistanian and Irish.

With this CD David Bellugi has taken an approach to the recording process that is (to my knowledge) unique in the field of the recorded recorder. He creates a "virtual" orchestra, playing every recorder part (the arrangements vary in number from six to 18 recorders, with a quartet of crumhorns thrown in for good measure in the Ortiz), working in addition with two percussionists (Ali Tajbakhsh and Chris Hayward). Bellugi recorded the CD by mixing multiply-layered DAT tracks through a computer. And does this result in an overly technical musical product? To the contrary! The general effect is described by David Lasocki in his 'internet conversation with David Bellugi' as 'like a wild calliope, especially when [Bellugi plays] fast and slurred' anything but coldly impersonal.

Having heard the CD last year, I was looking forward very much to David's proposed visit to Canberra for a one-day workshop and performance under the auspices of community music group Gaudeamus (on 23 August 1998). After a series of masterclasses in the morning, with great patience and attention to stylistic detail, he took a group of 40-odd players of mixed ability to a surprising level of performance in the afternoon, culminating in a very satisfying version of the Schmelzer seven-part sonata.

David's informal twilight concert was a revelation. Using a specially prepared CD recording of accompanying tracks from Landscapes, he displayed great virtuosity in solo performance. Notable were an absolutely idiomatic treatment of a Klezmer dance, and a joyful (and humorous) performance of Brouwer's Paisaje cubano con rumba.

In the context of the article on recorders in world music that I was working on (published elsewhere in this issue), I was keen to talk to David about his approach to the recorder, aspects of which are also (independently) present in the approach of the Australian performers discussed in that article. We had a conversation, but didn't quite manage an "interview." David did, however, kindly agree to answer some of my questions by email upon his return to Florence.

Tell us about your studies with Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume and his place in the Early Music revival.

Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume is a remarkable musician and man. I don't pretend to have absorbed all that he actually could give me, but certainly the time I spent in his apartment/studio in Paris has proven to be invaluable to the way I think about and approach music in general, not just Early Music. Antoine is now about 90 years old and is a product of the world that produced Arnold Dolmetsch and Pablo Casals. Following in the Dolmetsch tradition, Antoine's no-nonsense approach to his instrument and to music making involves a deep understanding of all of the treatises and other sources of evidence from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, including a fascination with sound documents as exemplified in surviving mechanical instruments, coupled with a fascination for ethnic music and natural sounds. The basic concept behind much of his music making is a subtle use of silences as a tool for musical expression and phrasing.

For example, when I first brought him Le rossignol en amour ["the nighingale in love"] by François Couperin, I was struck by how precise the notation was for Antoine. When he asked me if I'd ever heard a nightingale, I had to admit that I'd never listened to one carefully. When I arrived at my next lesson I found Antoine sitting with a crony of his, both enthralled in listening to a recording of nightingales that he had found. Another example: while studying Couperin's Concerts royaux, Antoine played me a tape of a Canadian folk singer as an example of some very smooth ornamentation and phrasing.

I should add that my connection with Antoine was particularly enhanced by the years I spent performing with a Paris-based musician, Berry Hayward, who, in my opinion, is the real "disciple" of Antoine in that he's maintained a working relationship with Antoine for almost 30 years. Berry and I also go a long way back and have ourselves had a working relationship that has spanned three decades from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. I recorded ten CDs with the Berry Hayward Consort in Paris and have done hundreds of concerts with them. Berry is a very interesting musician who plays recorders and all reed instruments (modern and old). Berry and I have very different playing styles but they [our playing styles] complement each other for two reasons: first, we listen to the same music, and second, we have complete respect for each other's musical thoughts.

With regard to Antoine's Dolmetsch connection, the following quote is of interest. It is excerpted from an email from Dr Brian Blood, Dr Carl Dolmetsch's son-in-law. The details follow a conversation that Brian had with the late Dr Carl:

The Dechaume family were "neighbours" of the Dolmetsches around 1911: the Dolmetsches lived in Fontenay-sous-Bois while the Dechaumes lived in Valmondoi (some dispute about this spelling), both suburbs of Paris. Antoine is the eldest son of noted portrait painter Geoffroy Dechaume and among his many siblings is Lady Glock (wife of the former Controller of Music, BBC) who was a god-daughter of Arnold Dolmetsch. Antoine studied early keyboard with Arnold Dolmetsch and was of a similar age to Dr Carl's brother Rudolf with whom there was a friendly rivalry. Rudolf was lost at sea during the Second World War (Brian Blood).

Tell us about the recording of Landscapes. Your "virtual" orchestra is recorded with great clarity and bite, and played with an interpretative freedom perhaps unavailable when working with live musicians. I'm curious to know where you stand on the issue of "live" recording and performing - Glenn Gould, for example, expressed a preference for the aesthetics of recording.

Of course I enjoy playing with people more than anything! I'm sure you can appreciate, however, when I tell you that I HAD to make Landscapes. As a matter of fact, Landscapes was in my mind for many years but I had to wait for technology to get to the point that I needed in order to make the recording. My goal was to make Landscapes 100% in the digital realm and it wasn't until the early-90s that this was economically feasible. Landscapes was a wonderful learning experience for me: I gained valuable insights into phrasing, intonation, diminutions and orchestration.

With regard to recording versus performing, I have no problem at all here. These are two different media - sort of like the parallel between theatre and cinema. I'm quite sure that I prefer performing to recording, but as I said I feel that recording is a wonderful and necessary learning process. Having done Landscapes, for the moment at least, I don't feel the "necessity" to record, whereas I certainly feel terrible if I'm not performing.

What is your attitude to MIDI sampling? You stress in your interview with David Lasocki that this technique was not used on Landscapes.

My goal in Landscapes was to produce a multi-track "acoustic" medium 100% in the digital realm. MIDI simply never entered the picture. I have nothing against MIDI per se, but at the moment it doesn't interest me other than as a wonderful technological tool. It's a great medium for producing scores and memorising and replicating musical (and non-musical) tasks.

I "stress" that I didn't use MIDI sampling because I want to make sure that everybody understands that I played EVERY note in Landscapes. Although Landscapes is only 39+ minutes long, if you were to lay all the tracks down horizontally then it would last over 6 hours!

Thinking about the recorder always, to me, raises the question 'What is its musical territory, anyway?' ... Many of the extra-recorder influences on your music seem to come from very distinct, perhaps even rigid, ethno-musicological traditions with their own identities, whereas the recorder has a sort of chameleon ability to trespass into foreign territory and blend into various "landscapes" (as you call them).

I like your idea of the recorder's 'chameleon ability.' In my opinion, a musical territory belongs to a musician's mind (or soul), not necessarily to his or her instrument. On that note, I'm often asked, 'Why the recorder?' My best answer is that the recorder chose me, not the other way around. I didn't approach the recorder because I liked its music, I chose the recorder because it was the instrument with which I could best express myself - my vehicle for musical expression. The recorder has taken me on some wonderful journeys!

You have prepared a "Sound Sample" CD containing 'a collection,' as you call it, 'of music and music making that [you find] particularly inspiring.' It's a fascinating mixture, ranging from recordings of an 18th-century barrel organ playing a Handel organ concerto and harpsichord performances by Geoffroy-Dechaume, to Klezmer music (which the Klezmer clarinettist Giora Feidman has defined as 'Jewish Soul Music'), to traditional music from Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and Ireland. What is the significance of this CD and is it your attempt to create some sort of alternative to the existing sources of recorder technique?

It isn't meant to "replace" anything - it's just a way of sharing. I like to stress that I'm not at all on a campaign against anything; I'm interested in exploring and sharing the wonderful and rich world of music available to us today.

I think the recording that I find the most inspiring is a CD called Les flûtes roumaines (Arion: ARN 64004). It's a magnificent collection of some of the most lively and expressive playing I've ever heard. Zamfir and Stanciu, the two greatest living pan-pipe players are on it, but so are some lesser-known geniuses (outside of Romania, that is) like Dumitru Zamfira, Jon Vaduva, Ion Laceanu, Ion Ionescu, Marin Chisar and Dumitru Farcas, who all play their instruments in a way that, in terms of sheer technique, tonguing and ornamentation, make ALL of us in the Early Music world pale in comparison ... If I were stranded on the proverbial "desert island" this is certainly one of the CDs that I'd like to have with me (but not the only one!)

Has your experience performing other types of music influenced your approach to music written particularly for the recorder (or in the Early Music tradition)? I thought that in your performance on Sunday there was a certain welcome freedom evident in the Renaissance dance pieces, but are you actually conscious of any particular influence?

Yes, certainly. "We are what we eat" in musical terms could have a significance: as in, "We are what we listen to." The best compliment I ever got was when, after playing a Bransle de champaigne at a private party, a New York musician brushed by me and with his thumbs up said, "Keep listening to those Romanian flutes!" New York cool just can't be beat!

If you listen to Craitele on the Arion CD, I think it will be apparent to you that I would love to be able to perform the first and last movements of Vivaldi's C major Concerto with that kind of lightness of spirit! (For world-wide web capable readers, I have a MIDI version of this piece at . I also have an "mp3" version of it "hidden" on the WWW: if you email me - - I'll be glad to tell you how to get it).

On the other hand, it seems to me that the road across any musical boundary must be a two-way street, and that "world music" performances carry traffic both ways. Are you conscious of what the recorder brings to the other musical territories you explore in terms of its own musical qualities?

Well, certainly the 'two-way street' you talk about exists in compositions throughout music history: Machaut, Encina, Handel, Purcell, Telemann, Bartok - just to name a few people "close" to recorder literature - were all involved in this two-way street in which they used popular musical culture but also concretely contributed to creating popular culture.

In what way (if any) does your interest in so many different types of music affect your own teaching practice?

I have given copies of the "Sound Sample" CD you have to all of my students. Glenn Gould may have had a point when he said that you can't really teach anything to anybody, but you can point them on an interesting road! On this note, I'd like to say that I owe my students a lot. I have learned a great deal about music, life and humanity through my relationships with them. Over the past four years I have had a wonderful group of students at home and at the Cherubini conservatory - from ten year old child wonder Tilly to students not only from Italy but also from Austria, Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Holland, Israel, Peru, Sweden and the USA. These cross-cultural interchanges give me great hope for the world's future.


Landscapes: Three centuries of world music. David Bellugi (recorders), Ali Tajbakhsh and Chris Hayward (percussion). Frame FR9506-2.

A complete discography of David Bellugi's recordings can be found at his homepage.


Lasocki, David. 'New landscapes for the recorder: an internet conversation with David Bellugi.' American Recorder, 38.1 (1997), pp. 16-17. (Also available at David Bellugi's homepage.)

David Bellugi's homepage:


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