Alia O’Brien. Credit: Mark Cira.

Instrumental: Alia O’Brien’s Flute is an Extension of Herself

Alia O’Brien’s life is forever and deeply intertwined with the flute. In fact, she finds it strange to even think about a time before she played it. In conversation over the phone from her home in Toronto in early December, she refers to the instrument as being an extension of both her voice and her body. The flute—melodic, expressive, and infinitely more malleable in the sounds it’s able to conjure than one might expect—allows her to explore countless different voices in her rippin’ heavy metal band Blood Ceremony, as part of the jazzy, psychedelic, experimental potpourri of Badge Époque Ensemble, and in her score work. On top of all the playing, writing, and performing, O’Brien holds a PhD in ethnomusicology, and her studies have also expanded her understanding of the instrument. It’s been her constant musical relationship and the driving force behind her creative pursuits since she was in her early teens.

“I think at this point—I mean, I do play the keys and whatnot, but people usually bring me in to play flute,” O’Brien says. “It is like a part of me, and so wherever I go, that’s what I’m bringing to the table. It’s almost like when people get cast for a role because of the specific kind of character they’re able to embody. I feel it’s sort of like: ‘I am the flute. The flute is me.’ I don’t know how to put this, but, I suppose it’s like an extension of myself at this point. I mean, it’s funny to think that there was a time before I played it. It feels so integral or central to who I am.”

It may have been fate. As a kid going into band class, what she really wanted to play was saxophone, but her school dictated that sax was not an instrument for newbies. So O’Brien had a choice between clarinet and flute, and went with the latter, bringing with her the understanding that it would just be a stop-gap en route to her saxophone dreams. “It found me,” she says. 

Eventually, when she went to university, her parents gave her a Yamaha 581 professional model, which she played into the ground—”One of the soldered pieces of a foot joint literally popped off,” she says—and still owns. She got it tuned up every year. The thing about metal flutes is that they’re very temperature-sensitive, and playing in sweaty clubs and outdoor music festivals is hell on the silver, which expands and contracts and affects the instrument’s intonation. So she found a resin flute made by Guo, a company in Taiwan, but parts and fixes proved hard to find. Right now she’s playing an intermediate Yamaha model, which she calls her trusted friend. “It’s nothing fancy. But it’s wholly reliable and totally sufficient for what I do. I don’t need anything terribly fancy for what I’m doing.”

You wouldn’t know it by the gymnastics she frequently engages in on songs like Blood Ceremony’s “Goodbye Gemini” and Badge Époque Ensemble’s “Nature, Man & Woman.”

Did you fall in love with the flute right away or did it take some time?

It took some time only because getting a decent sound on the flute is the hardest, most challenging part. You get some bad sounds when you’re first learning just because of the nature of it. I’m sure every instrument is like this—stringed instruments, too; I’m sure percussion has its things—but with wind instruments, it’s all about learning to control your breath. You have to build muscles in order to even be able to begin to get a decent sound—your diaphragm muscle, muscles in your face. And your body needs to start to shift to be able to hold the instrument properly. My body, I think, is permanently a little off-kilter just because I’ve spent a lifetime playing flute and it’s kind of an asymmetrical instrument. It’s like your body kind of has to start to change to be able to make the sounds that you’re supposed to make. So the initial process was for sure frustrating. You know how the instrument’s supposed to sound and you’re just incapable of making that sound.

I don’t know what possessed me. I mean, I guess I’ve always listened to a lot of music. I listened to a lot of rock and jazz and that sort of thing. And I wasn’t particularly great at flute, but I just liked music. And I think my parents were like, ‘Do you want to do a summer camp this year?’ and I went to this jazz camp, I think it was in the summer between grade eight and grade nine or grade seven and grade eight. But it was run by the person who would become my future high school music teacher. And something clicked in me then, because it was jazz camp—we were learning to improvise, we were encouraged to be expressive. We weren’t bound to what was on the page. I think that sort of unleashed something in me on the flute that I wasn’t able to explore previously. After that, I was off running. I just couldn’t stop playing the flute. I was practicing it constantly, and I improved really rapidly because I was working at it so much.

You mentioned the physicality of playing the flute. The flute sounds like a graceful instrument to me, and flutists, I think, frequently look graceful as they play, as well. What does it feel like—both physically and emotionally—to play the instrument at this point?

I mean, it’s weird because I’m just coming out of the COVID pandemic and not playing very much and not gigging very much, and so it’s different right now. It’s like I’m kind of getting to know myself as a flute player, getting to know the flute again. We just had the first Badge show in like, two years, which was my first show in essentially two years, which is the longest I’ve ever gone without playing music live like since I started playing music. It’s insane to think about. I was just sort of getting reacquainted with the flute, but I think before that time, there’s always this weird feeling where I’m like, ‘Where’s my flute?’ It almost feels like a phantom limb that’s connected to you. So, definitely, that began to happen, where it’s like this instrument becomes an extension of yourself or part of your body. I’m sure most people feel that way about their instruments. But there’s something weird about the flute. Maybe it is because it’s very limb-like. I don’t know, it’s like a third arm or something like that. There’s something about it, it feels like it’s definitely become a part of me. Many, many times, I’ll be somewhere and be like, ‘Oh, I can’t forget my flute.’ Even if I don’t have my flute with me. It’s sort of in the back of my mind that I need to make sure I’m not forgetting it. Even if I’m just out for dinner somewhere.

How do you alter your approach to writing or playing as the sound or project changes?

I really do think of it as an instrument that’s like a voice. And that’s sort of the role it plays in the orchestra. It has a bit of a choral quality, but you can make a million different sounds with your voice—it’s the same with flute. Just by altering a few things in your mouth or the position of your jaw or the speed you’re blowing, you can really transform the sound from warm to cool. You can really change the colour of what you’re playing with just some subtle changes. Then you can add things like singing into the flute, or making weird growling sounds; there are different ways to make tremolo sounds on your flute using the throat or the tongue. There’s just so much you could do. You can blow fast air and get a really harsh, almost dissonant sound, and slower air in the lower register gets a very open, warm sound. Even within a single song, different moments might demand different kinds of approaches to getting that sound.

I mean, it’s funny—with Badge I get to go all over the place. But really, it’s the same thing with Blood Ceremony. It’s more like a moment-to-moment basis or song-to-song basis versus the style of music. So Blood Ceremony will have some pretty Baroque or melancholic passages that call for a tone closer to a classical, sort of traditional flute sound. Very clean and pure and with some vibrato. But then there’ll be more bluesy parts where I kind of go into Herbie Mann or Jethro Tull territory a little bit more and start making the flute sound rougher and almost more like a guitar or something like that.

I think it was sort of when I started playing jazz, in junior high, that’s when I realized—and I think that’s why flute grew on me, too—that there isn’t one flute sound. The flute is your tool, and you can get so many different sounds out of it. That’s what came to excite me about it. You could sing into it and make it sound like a saxophone or guitar. And you can also sit back and make it sound more… I don’t know—ethereal or watery. I don’t know what the words would be, but I mean, yeah, it’s a cool thing. It’s such a small instrument, but like any instrument really, you can find so many voices in it. And I think the key for me is that I’m always trying to find new sounds, new timbres. You can practice your technique and learn new tricks and licks and ways to navigate chord changes or that sort of thing.

What do you think it is about those voices you can use with the flute that has connected you to it instead of other instruments?

I found piano, timbrally, really, really limiting. And I know that’s not the case. It’s such an expressive instrument, but there’s something for me about the flute. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it’s just me and my hands. And I think I maybe needed that voice element to be involved to really feel like I could use an instrument. So in my case, maybe because I’m a little clumsy with my hands or something, I don’t know, but piano, for me—it just didn’t work. It didn’t work as an expressive medium.

There are other instruments I’d like to play that really speak to me. I have a bass and I’ve tried to slowly, over the last five years or so, teach myself, and I’m not very good at it. I also played Viola for a little bit growing up. I’m not terribly good at string instruments, I think for that same reason. I have this belief—and maybe it’s not true—but I think some people get discouraged when you’re playing music by maybe ending up with the wrong instrument for their own needs. And it discourages one from continuing with music. But I do feel like different instruments are suited to different people. And the more instruments you try, the more likely you’re going to stumble upon the ones that you feel you could express yourself with best. Viola and piano didn’t really do it for me, and I think it’s not a limitation of those instruments. It’s just that I wasn’t connecting to them. I think I connected best to flute because first of all, there’s not a visual element—you can’t see your fingers while you’re playing. So it feels fully embodied and disembodied all at the same time. It’s all just tactile and auditory. There’s nothing really to look at. And I think that’s quite the same for all wind instruments. Stringed instruments, too, to a certain extent. And with piano, you probably get to the point where you don’t want to be looking at your fingers. I think that’s the goal for most instruments. But yeah—there’s nothing to look at, the flute’s off to the side. Maybe that is also why it feels like a phantom limb. For me, that lack of the visual element and the presence of that breath element allowed me to express myself more than I was able to with those other instruments.

In your time working on your ethnomusicology PhD, did you discover anything particularly fascinating about the flute?

In and around grad school, I did study the ney/nay, which is a different flute altogether. Different forms of it are played in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia. It’s basically an end-blown reed flute. And there are many different forms of this kind of flute. So I learned the Turkish ney, and Egyptian, Levantine ney, which are kind of the same. It’s a similar instrument, but the embouchure is totally different. I’ve studied and read a lot about the ney, because I was working a lot with Sufi music and Sufi practice, and the ney is very important in that world. So it’s interesting—when I talk about the flute as being an extension of the voice, I think that comes from what I’ve learned about the role of the ney and Sufi practice, because in a lot of Sufi music, there’s not always a vocal element. Sometimes it’s percussion and flute. And the flute is supposed to approximate the sound of the human voice at times. It serves that purpose. And once I learned that I was like, ‘Oh, that really is sort of what the flute is in Western art music as well.’ Sometimes, not always, but it has that quality for sure. And it’s a very old instrument, the flute. Not necessarily the Western transverse flute, but just the idea of blowing through a reed and making a sound. Flute and percussion are both very old. And it makes sense that an older instrument would imitate the human voice a little bit or be close to the human voice. So that’s definitely something I took away. And then I learned about the many spiritual connotations that the flute had, at least in Sufi poetry and that sort of thing. It definitely enriched my appreciation of the instrument, and also just kind of like decentered my understanding of what the flute is and can be and the purpose it’s served in different contexts, and the different meanings that have been ascribed to it in different places at different times.