World Flute Society

 

 

An Interview With Flutist Ron Korb

by Dr. Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl

Canadian flutist Ron Korb has traveled around the world collecting bamboo and various indigenous flutes. Reflecting Celtic, Asian, classical, jazz, and Latin influences, his music embodies the diverse cultures, traditions, and experiences of his travels. An award-winning flutist, he is renowned for playing a wide variety indigenous woodwinds from around the world. His critically-acclaimed music has been released in 20 countries on various record labels. The albums are on many top favorite lists, and legendary singers in Asia have made cover versions of his music. He has toured extensively throughout Europe, Canada, the United States, Central America, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, Singapore, and Japan. Ron’s compositions evoke imagery of the diverse cultural traditions and experiences of his travels.

Ron has played on numerous movie soundtracks, many of which have been nominated for Oscars and Cannes Film Festival awards. Some of the films include: Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999); Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), Sweet Hereafter (1997), and Felicia’s Journey (1999); (1998) by Robert Lepage; Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra (1996); John Woo’s Blackjack (1998); and the IMAX 3D film Space Station (2002), narrated by Tom Cruise. Other credits include: The Snow Walker (2003); Return to Kandahar (2003); Being Julia (2004); and the Merchant-Ivory’s film, The White Countess (2005), which takes place in 1940s Shanghai and stars Ralph Fiennes, and Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave. More recently, Ron has performed on the television miniseries World Without End (2012) and Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot (2013) by Golden Globe winning composer Mychael Danna, with stars Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon.

Ron’s 2014 album Europa, on the Humble Dragon label, won a 2012 Global Music Award for Excellence in Composition, as well as Best Instrumental Solo Performance, Album of the Year, and Best Album Design. His most recent CD, Asia Beauty (2015), is receiving rave reviews. It contains a 36-page hard-cover digibook and features 19 tracks, plus 3 bonus selections.

Ron Korb is listed as one of the Ten Best Flutists in the World. He shares this distinction with other outstanding flutists, such as Sir James Galway, Jeffrey Khaner, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Watazumi Doso, Robert Aitken, Susan Milan, William Bennett, Michael Cox, and Richard Gilford Adeney.

The World Flute Society is please to announce that Ron Korb will present an evening performance and a class at the 2016 convention, July 27-31, 2016, at the Haas Fine Arts Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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Kathleen: What was your first introduction to music?

Ron: I was a small child when I first heard flute music. There was a program on Canadian television with Moe Koffman, who wrote “Swinging Shepherd Blues.” I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to dedicate one's life to music. It would not be until years later that I would have the opportunity to learn an instrument.

Kathleen: What was the first instrument that you learned to play? How did you learn? Why did you choose that instrument?

Ron: The first instrument I played was the recorder in primary school. Our teacher taught us how to play some simple tunes. What really excited me was when I played my first songs by ear.

Kathleen: What is your music education background?

Ron: I studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, but during my teens I was mainly interested in jazz. Every weekend I would go down to the local record store and collect jazz records, especially anything with flute. I went to York University for a year, where I was exposed to jazz, as well as world music. Part of the ear-training course even included East Indian drumming, and I was exposed to some other types of Asian music, as well. Also, I was able to serve as music director in a number of theatre pieces. Those band-leading skills helped later on in my professional career. After my year there, I transferred to The University of Toronto's Faculty of Music program where I graduated in flute performance. After that, I was fortunate to be involved in many album and film music projects where I learned a lot about the art of recording.

Kathleen: Did you have a favorite jazz flutist when you were in your teens?

Ron: I really loved Hubert Laws, especially the San Francisco Concert album with versions of classical pieces like "Farandole" and "Scheherazade." I also really liked "Come Ye Disconsolate” and “Airegin" from the recording, In The Beginning. When I met Steve Gadd, I mentioned how much I admired the drum and flute duet on “Airegin," and I was surprised that he remembered it considering the thousands of recording sessions he did. I also collected all of Moe Koffman’s records, even the obscure ones like Curried Soul and Solar Explorations.

Kathleen: What attracted you to jazz?

Ron: Actually, I suppose buying those Moe Koffman records got me interested in the sound of jazz. From there, I just started collecting hundreds of jazz albums. As a teenager, it was quite unusual to be hooked on jazz instead of rock. I would always go to see the greats when they came to town like Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis. There were also many great jazz players to see locally in Toronto, like any of the members of Rob McConnell's Boss Brass.

Kathleen: What instruments do you play?

Ron: I feel that I have the most affinity with the bamboo flutes like the dizi, misatobue, shinobue, and the Irish flutes and whistles. I also really love playing the Chinese bawu and xun, as well as the Cambodian pie pook. Of the metal flutes, I would say bass flute is my favorite. As far as non-woodwinds, I play a bit of piano, which I use as a tool for writing.

Kathleen: What attracts you to the bass flute?

Ron: What doesn’t attract me to the bass flute? I really like the delicious low register and the throaty middle to high register. The ease at which you can bend notes because the tubing is longer is truly appealing. I feel that the bass flute is the most expressive of all the metal flutes.

Kathleen: Has playing world flutes affected your silver flute playing? Has it enhanced your overall musicianship, shaped or altered it in a new way? Has it affected how you perceive music in general?

Ron: Yes, on all accounts. For example, learning to play the ryuteki in Tokyo without using any vibrato, yet stay in tune and have a pleasing sound, was difficult. However, it expanded my palette of tone colors, as well as control of vibrato and pitch that I can apply to silver flute. My general perception of music changed as I realized that there is a whole literature of flute music that does not involve flashy passagework. Music can be incredibly slow, but still draw the listener in using slight variances in textures. I use some of these techniques in “Blue Bamboo” from my new album, Asia Beauty.

Kathleen: What is one of your favorite aspects of playing world flutes?

Ron: I find that there is something very enchanting, organic, and primal about many of the world flutes. It is almost like you feel more human or closer to nature when you play one, as opposed to a Boehm-system metal flute. Even the shortcomings of some of the world flutes are a joy. It is disenchanting when something becomes so perfect that it becomes a machine. Imperfection is part of the beauty.

Kathleen: What is your philosophy about music and music making?

Ron: Music is the lifeblood that runs through every culture and society in the world. It is an essential phenomenon, just like water and air.

As far as music making, I start with a visual image in my head. For example, in the case of my latest CD, Asia Beauty, the image is something like the Forbidden City in Beijing or a beautiful bamboo forest in Taiwan. I do not expect the audience to envision the same thing, but the goal is to spark something in each listener’s creative imagination.

Kathleen: On what projects are you currently working?

Ron: Currently, I am working on creating videos for my new album, Asia Beauty. I am creating videos because that is the way artists promote their music nowadays. However, I hope the videos do not limit the imagination of the listener. I prefer that the listener create his or her own mental pictures and stories of the songs.

Kathleen: Who are your musical influences?

Ron: When I began the silver flute, Rampal, Galway, Hubert Laws, Paul Horn, and Herbie Mann were some of my influences. Outside of flute music, I loved concept albums where they conveyed a story and elements beyond the music itself. Cat Steven's Numbers album and Wally Badarou's Words of a Mountain are particularly memorable. I supposed that is what inspired me to make so many concept albums myself. My recordings Tear of the Sun, Japanese Mysteries, Behind the Mask, Native Earth, and now Asia Beauty all follow in that tradition. I would also say that living in Japan was one of the most significant influences on me musically and otherwise. Studying the ryuteki and shinobue there gave me a new perspective on life and flute playing, as well as an appreciation of history, musical traditions, and even taste in music.

Kathleen: Who is your favorite composer and why?

Ron: This is a difficult question because there are so many composers in many genres. If I have to pick one, I choose J.S. Bach because every piece he wrote had depth, beauty, and meaning.

Kathleen: Who are your general life influences?

Ron: I admire people who can live their life in balance and have a positive outlook. I would actually have to say my wife is my primary influence now. My nickname for her is “Lady Confucius,” because her thoughts are very mature and wise and she always knows the correct thing to say at the right time.

Kathleen: How does it feel to be listed as one of the Ten Best Flute Players in the World?

Ron: It was a big surprise, as well as very humbling and completely undeserved. I think the only reason I appeared on that list is that I write my own material and perform flute in a style outside of the norm.

Kathleen: How often and for how long do you practice?

Ron: My practice now is either for a specific goal or an upcoming performance, so it depends on my schedule. I find that it is important to start in the morning, practicing for an hour or two.

Kathleen: How do you approach your practice sessions?

Ron: In every practice session, it is important to be focused on what you want to achieve. Recently, there has been a lot of data coming out about how the brain works and how we learn. From the planning part of our brain, many of us have background static in our mind of day-to-day things about which we are worried. It is important to quiet those worries and clear the mind, in order to concentrate on what you are doing in the present.

Kathleen: What is your teaching philosophy?

Ron: I think teaching should always be approached from an attitude of kindness. The teacher should put aside his or her own ego and sincerely try to help the student in any way possible. In the end, the gift to the student might be to allow him or her to enjoy music and life from a different perspective.

Kathleen: In teaching, what difficulties have you encountered, since people come from so many different backgrounds when in comes to music? How do you handle the various issues/hurdles that arise?

Ron: One of the most significant problems is helping students overcome bad habits that they have acquired over years of playing. As far as helping them overcome the hurdles, it is important to establish a point where they fully understand and then work slowly from there. If they do not understand one explanation, I try another description or demonstration.

Kathleen: If you could spend a day playing music (duet) with someone (alive or dead), who would it be? What piece would you play and why?

Ron: Living, it would definitely be Stevie Wonder with any of his songs. It would not matter what piece, because I love them all. With regard to someone from the past, I would say either Louis Armstrong or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and not a specific piece either. I would just like to jam. Another person with whom I would love to spend another day is Uyeda Ryu shakuhachi master, Tani Senzan, who passed away in Osaka in 2008. He was a great friend from whom I learned a tremendous amount. I miss him very much.

Kathleen: What projects do you have in the works?

Ron: I have a Latin-influenced recording in the works. I have written most of the songs and I have already recorded some tracks. It will be a year or two before I release it.

For more information about Ron Korb, please visit: www.ronkorb.com

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CD Review: Ron Korb’s Asia Beauty

by Dr. Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl

Every once in a while, I come across a flute CD that truly makes a powerful and lasting impact on me. As a long-time silver flute and world flute player myself, finding a flute recording in any genre that astonishes and profoundly affects me is often elusive. When I listened to Ron Korb’s latest endeavor, Asia Beauty, I was utterly captivated by the beauty, elegance, and artistry of the music, as well as overwhelmed by the wondrous radiance of Ron’s phrasing, tone quality, and transcendent flute playing. I was enchanted by the CD’s innovative and engaging programmatic concept, with the central theme of Ron’s world travel experiences uniting the musical selections. Judging by the cover, the interior photos, and song titles, I expected Asia Beauty to be an assortment of mostly traditional music played on indigenous Asian instruments. Ron’s recording is actually a masterful musical blending of eastern and western musical elements, contemporary and traditional. The grace, creativity, and virtuosity of Asia Beauty is uplifting and inspiring to both my senses and my being. It is the most heartfelt, expressive music that I have experienced in a very long time.

The CD presentation of Asia Beauty is exceptional. The CD is a hard-back booklet containing 36-pages of beautiful color photographs coupled with engaging explanations of each musical selection. The CD is securely placed in a thick pocket sleeve at the end of the book. The detail presented in this digibook is impressive. I have seen very few CDs with such a professional presentation and expansive detail.

“Hanoi Café,” my favorite selection on Asia Beauty, is an exquisite melding of musical cultures. Even though the composition’s title alludes to Vietnam, with Hanoi being the country’s capital, the music has a decidedly French flair. Ron explains this mélange of music cultures in the liner notes: “When I visited Hanoi, I noticed that the old French influence was still apparent in the architecture, language, and cuisine.” The French occupancy in Vietnam spanned nearly a century, from 1858 to the Battle of Dien Ben Phu in 1954. As a result, the two cultures influenced each other in many respects, including music and the arts. On “Hanoi Café,” the instrumentation includes: bass flute; silver flute; erhu, a Chinese two-stringed spike fiddle with a small resonator body covered in snake skin; accordion; piano; acoustic bass; and drums. Within this instrumentation, the Asian element is realized by the erhu, with the French sidewalk cafe component aurally illustrated through the incorporation of the accordion. Ultimately becoming a symbol of Paris, the accordion was often heard emanating from the city’s many cafés in various ensemble combinations, as well as solo.

In “Hanoi Café,” the music is understated and poetic, yet full of charm and superlative flute work. Ron’s flute melody is restrained and refined, not ostentatious or florid. And, that is what really makes this selection so striking and memorable. The aural personality of “Hanoi Café” is redolent of 1930s Parisian café music. Ron perfectly emulates this musical style, being light on the vibrato and tone color. He opts to be true to the appropriate musical style, rather than opting for a dramatic, razzle-dazzle approach to the melody. It is often the clean and simple in music that speaks most clearly to the heart. This transparent idea is embodied within this music, and it is what makes “Hanoi Café” truly exceptional.

The flute melody on “Journey Begins” is imbued with a deep emotional warmth and poignant musical phrasing. Ron’s flute playing is beautifully spiritual, tender, and wistful. His flute tone is dreamy, with a gentle intensity that yields a sad, emotional melodic exploration that is delicately supported by a soulful piano accompaniment. “Journey Begins” truly pulls at the heartstrings, and leaves the listener in a state of thoughtful contemplation.

“Children’s Jig” is a euphonious revelation! Here, two distinctive cultures are mixed together, Asian and Celtic. The result is a lilting, charming musical experience. On this selection, Ron adroitly plays the Chinese dizi, the Irish whistle, and the flute. Also heard on “Children’s Jig” is the erhu, pipa, piano, guitar, tabla, acoustic bass, spoons, cajon, darabuka, djembe, bells, and shakers. This musically eclectic selection is Irish in character and musical form, with a jig being a lively Celtic folk dance in a compound meter. Yet, it achieves its Asian persona through the use of traditional instruments. The musical blend is bright and delightful.

Asia Beauty is a stunning journey into a world of musical exoticism that is ripe with understated musical power that leaves the listener breathless with the gossamer beauty of the music. Ron’s flute playing is extraordinary, and his compositions are exceptionally crafted. Regardless of the flute type that he plays, Ron has a special finesse that enables him to transcend earthly bounds, giving him musical wings to soar and swoop on the ethereal wind currents of musical bliss. Ron is one of today’s finest, most remarkable world flutists. His presence on the Ten Best Flute Players in the World list is truly deserved.