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Louis Lots and Beyond: an interview with Michael Cox

Does it make the sounds you want to make, does it “speak” to you? Will you be able to have a relationship with it? If you push it in this or that direction, will it respond?

 

How did you first get into Louis Lot?

I think I started on metal Boosey and Hawkes or Rudall Carte. It was just some student rubbish, although I thought it was magnificent at the time. Then I had something called an Emperor, which was more upmarket. When I got to the Royal College of Music they told me that I needed something better to play on. This was very obvious because I had just a very, very low grade flute; a kiddie flute. So my teacher found me a Japanese, second-hand flute by Takumi, which is a company that sadly went bust. I really liked it.

 

Did you know that the owner of Takumi then went on to make Altus?

Are they linked? Really? Well there you go. Looks like I always had an Altus! This is really interesting because my wife always said that I had something very special on that Takumi, which she can now hear on my Altus, although, she thought that Lots were much, much better all-round.
So anyway, I had a Takumi and then I got to study with Bas (Sebastian Bell). So the flute was good but not wonderful. It was cheap and it didn’t have its original headjoint. I don’t actually remember what it did have and I don’t think it was even open-hole. So then, when I was in my third year at RCM, Bas said that I needed a better flute. I said that my problem was that I didn’t have any money, but he insisted that I needed a new flute, or more precisely a Louis Lot, and that he would try and find one for me. I knew that it would be troublesome because it was already difficult to buy the Takumi so a professional flute was definitely out of the question. So, eventually Bas got in touch with my parents and told them that I did need a new flute and my Dad lent me the money. He couldn’t give me the money but agreed to lend it to me so that I could buy a Louis Lot. So Bas started looking around trying to find one, and he got one from Peter Lloyd, which was previously owned by Rampal! So it has a very nice heritage. Also it was cheap! It had a split in the tennon joint of the main body, so I had to get it fixed. So the number was #7086 and that’s what I got my LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) job on and ended up playing on it for quite a number a years.
So what is it about Louis Lots? I was simply told to play on it and then was told it will be difficult to change. The instruments were such that you had to get to know them and learn to play on them to really get the most out of them, but the most vital thing is that they have the most natural and very special vowel sound. Its colours were unlike any other instrument I’ve ever known. Still, to this day I feel this way, that there is this complex yet very pure sound that Louis Lot flutes can produce. It’s very rich and beautiful and holds onto the information that you give it in a way that you don’t find in the most modern instruments. So, I think it’s no mistake that so many French composers latched on to this idea of the flute just being so beautiful. It was the golden age for the instrument in terms of manufacture, and it is extraordinary that Louis Lot got there so quickly. There were a lot of people making flutes at the same time like Godfory and Reeve among others. So Boehm sold his patent to Louis Lot. I actually owned another Louis Lot number #356 made in 1857. Interestingly, Boehm exhibited his creation for the first time in 1851 in Paris, so its remarkable that only 6 years later they were already making these extraordinary instruments at Louis Lot’s factory.

 

How did your Lots compare? Were they similar?

Surprisingly, they were very different in some ways, but I was still dealing with the core idea of vowel sounds. The second one was much broader in sound and a much fatter instrument.
So I came to the realization that the Lots were not the easiest instruments to play, but more than that, they were very inflexible. So even though it has got an amazing core sound, any spontaneous musical thoughts that you may have were very difficult to impose on it. It was difficult to get it to go from one place to another very quickly. That is why I have been amazed by the “copies” of the Louis Lots made by Altus. They kept a large degree of the core beauty of the sound I also now know I have got much more flexibility and they are much easier to play. I have spoken to a few people who have “come off” Louis Lots on to other instruments and realised that they are much better technically than they thought, just because it is so much simpler on a modern instrument!
The thing about Louis Lots is that everyone has to have them re-tuned and have a new lip-plate soldered on to it, so I guess the initial design and the response was different. So it’s a bit like with the old Strad violins when they changed the neck lengths and the tension of the strings. We’re not really playing on the same set up of instrument as it was designed to be. I know that Lots are famous for being unreliable, but I have to admit, if you had someone good set them up, they were fine. However, now that Bas is no longer with us it is more difficult to find a good repairer to set them up, but there are people out there. I actually remember one span when I literally had nothing wrong with it for 8 years! I didn’t have a single service, single anything, nothing went wrong. When people say that the old French mechanisms are unreliable I simply remember that those mechanisms have been around for 160 years in case of #356, so they must’ve been pretty good to last this long. I think it is really remarkable that so early on they got the geometry right, and then they have been butchered and re-tuned and they still keep going. Having said all that, I really do love the feel of modern mechanisms. They feel so light and nimble. Mostly it’s how the instrument responds when you blow it.

 

So the story goes that you were just looking for a B-foot and then ended up buying a whole new flute! Right?

Yes. Because I had been doing a lot of contemporary music with the London Sinfonietta, I got fed up with putting on the B-foot all the time. Even though the B-foot was made for my flute, it just didn’t sound the same. I never felt happy when I had to change to the B-foot, so I thought why not just buy another B-foot flute to use only when I need to. So I wasn’t too interested in the whole procedure, and I went to flute shops and I tried a whole load of them. I think it must’ve been a Thursday. Then, I think, on Friday we had a concert at the Barbican and I played a few of these flutes to my colleagues during the rehearsals, and every single one of them said “that one!”, which was the Altus AL. So then I went back to Just Flutes and tried a whole load of them on Monday and by the end of that day I had fallen in love with it. I remember Jenny (who works in the sheet music department) came in and said that “whatever that one is that you are playing right now, it is the one!”, which I thought was extraordinary. Then the next day we had rehearsal of Daphnis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and I decided to give it a try and played it in the rehearsal. Since then I’ve never picked up the Louis Lot again.

 

So what do you look for when buying new instruments?

I suppose it’s the full package of the technical ability of the instruments and fluency. The flute divides very naturally into three octaves. So I always divide the instrument into the these octaves and see if I like all of them equally because what you often find is that one instrument has incredible lower register (and people often start playing from the bottom upwards) and not even realize that the top register is actually not that great because they are so transfixed on this one aspect. Often when an instrument offers such an extraordinary aspect it is because one of the other ones has been short changed. So to my mind it’s a pursuit of finding something which work for me in all registers.

 

So it’s about finding a compromise?

It is, to an extent. Don’t make is sound so negative! What you’re really looking for is excellence in all ranges. It may not be the most remarkable flute ever, because often that comes at a price (and I’m not talking about the price tag!).
I can pick up an instrument and tell whether all three registers are good very quickly, but it is nice to be able to take an instrument out to really get to know it. Does it make the sounds you want to make, does it “speak” to you? Will you be able to have a relationship with it? If you push it in this or that direction, will it respond? So one of the main things for me is intonation i.e. Is it well in-tune with itself? Although I really don’t buy into this whole business of perfecting the tuning scale. I simply look for something which I can work with, if I play with the tuning machine and I can play in-tune then I am not terrible fussed about whose “scale” it is.
At the end of the day I do not really care so much for the label, or who made it or when. What I am really looking for is that special sound as a core sound, core colour. The other thing is the technical proficiency. This is only really noticeable once you take the instrument out to try. It will only come with a bit of work. You can’t really expect to fly on an instrument that is new to you. You need to have some feeling of security. You may keep coming across bumpy bits because of the way you blow, and the flute might not like it so maybe it’s not the instrument for you. But within reason, because there will always be a bit of an adjustment one will have to make. Again, I stress, within reason! You don’t want to fight really hard to make something sound good, unless the reward is so huge that you are prepared to take this risk.
The other big thing is the flexibility of the instrument. I think I lot of people are looking at what’s special about it. It might have a special colour, or it may be loud or they can play really fast on it, but I think the key thing is to find the instrument which allows you to be musical. The instrument needs to be able to convey the colours, the imagination and the poetry, and you need to know that it will take you to those places. Quite a lot of instruments might seduce you with a different kind of sound but what you don’t realize is that they only want to make that sound. And it’s not just instruments as a whole, sometimes headjoints do the same thing. So it’s about finding this balance between something which is a blank canvas and also has a beautiful sound. I find that many people buy instruments of makers who are popular at any given time and before long they are selling them on. Either because they are seductively loud or seductively bright or sweet and they like it until they get fed up with it and realise it doesn’t do any of what you are looking for as an artist.
That is fundamentally my big warning to anyone choosing a flute. Just don’t be seduced, because you always want something that you don’t have. I think it’s a matter of finding a perfect instrument for you. I am always struck by the fact that I can try a flute find it does some things and then the person who is buying it plays it and it’s quite the opposite.
The other bit of advice is try and get a second opinion when you’re buying. If you can find someone who is experienced at listening to people who are trying out new flutes, it may just help prevent you from going down the route of being seduced by something inappropriate. Also make sure that this “someone” is older and wiser! Because, I have seen students go in with fellow students and that just makes me anxious sometimes. Maybe it’s just because I am an oldie! I am really just afraid that they might be a bit more prone to fashions rather than what is the best canvas and the best box of paint. All artists work in a different styles so it needs to suit your style but also do other styles equally well.

 

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