Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

Review in Ethnomusicology Forum JournalDecember 11th, 2015



Ethno forum cover
Cuban Flute Style: Interpretation and Improvisation
Lanham, Md., Scarecrow Press, 2014
xxix + 324 pp., ISBN 978-0-8108-8441-0 (£44.95, hardback)

Review by Dr Hettie Malcomson

Sue Miller’s monograph on Cuban flute style will be of interest to ethnomusicologists and flautists alike. It is a clearly written, highly musical book that serves as both a guide to performance practice and an academic text. Miller brings together performance as a research technique, interviews with musicians, lessons with renowned flautists, and detailed and extensive transcription and analysis of recordings to create a ‘musical archaeology’ (246) of creative processes, interpretation and improvisation in Cuban charanga flute performance. Charanga ensembles usually consist of a wooden five-key flute (or less often a metal Boehm-system flute), violins, double bass, piano, timbales, congas, güiro and vocals. While early twentieth-century ensembles performed danzones, these ensembles are particularly associated with mid-century cha-cha-chás and mambos.

Chapter 1 traces the history of the charanga, its primary exponents and renowned flute soloists. In Chapter 2, Miller documents charanga flute style performance techniques for both the wooden five-key flute and the metal Boehm flute, pointing to similarities and differences. Charanga flute style is characterised by its high tessitura and Miller provides relevant fingerings for altissimo notes on the Boehm flute, as well as diagrams of three alternative sets of fingerings for all notes of the five-key wooden flute (as executed by Joaquín Oliveros of Orquesta Jorrín, Polo Tamayo of Charanga de Oro and Eddy Zervigón of Orquesta Broadway). The book is thus a wonderful resource for flautists wishing to learn this style. It also provides insights into how ‘classical’ method books are employed in distinct contexts: for example, Miller describes how such nineteenth-century method tutors have contributed to the transmission of this part-oral, part-written ‘tradition’, how their exercises are practised both at pitch and an octave higher, and how extracts from these exercises find their way into improvisations. Likewise, Miller documents how ‘classical’ flutes have been adapted to suit the aesthetics of the genre (for instance, the five-key flute’s blow and finger holes are often enlarged). In Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 8, Miller provides transcriptions and analyses of recordings to document shifts in performance style. She traces the transition from mere melodic embellishment of composed danzón melodies in the early twentieth century to the solo improvisations of renowned Cuban charanga flautists in the 1940s and 1950s with their more extensive rhythmic, motivic and sequential material. Richard Egües (of Orquesta Aragón) and José Fajardo (of Fajardo y sus Estrellas) are widely regarded as the two exemplars of twentieth-century Cuban charanga flute improvisation, and in Chapter 5 Miller compares their styles, primarily through transcription and analysis of recordings. She complicates stereotypes of Egües as more melodic and Fajardo as more rhythmic (dedicating a chapter to each), and excavates how each creates his own sound (notable is how Fajardo maintains interest in his mambo improvisations over a single dominant seventh chord via virtuosic rhythmic invention).

Miller also probes the relationship between written composition and improvisation by comparing Egües’ written score for Bombon Chá (1955) with his Bombon Chá solos during live and studio recordings (Chapter 4). Quotation, borrowing and arrangements of melodies from other genres had been frequent in danzones from the nineteenth century (including excerpts from sea shanties, Cuban and US popular songs, classical repertoire, other popular Cuban genres and exercises from method books), and Miller analyses how this practice is manifest both in written scores and in charanga flute improvisations in Chapter 6. She draws upon Henry Louis Gates Junior’s concept of signifyin(g) and Samuel Floyd’s adaptation of it to argue that, through these borrowings, charanga music ‘retains its Cuban identity through its clave-based, communicative aesthetic’ (188). One of Miller’s most insightful methods is her analysis of recordings of the same piece over several decades. . . .

The full review can be found via the link below: