Interview with flutist Carolin Ralser 

by Laura Chislett

I came across Carolin Ralser’s intriguing compositions for flute and electronics on Soundcloud several years ago. I was immediately struck by the originality of the music. I noticed that Carolin is currently living in Singapore, so when I had the opportunity to visit there for a week early in 2023 I set up a chat over coffee with her in a lively café in the north-eastern leafy suburb of Upper Thomson. I asked her first about her formative years growing up in the South Tyrol region of Italy, near the Austrian border. 

Carolin Ralser: I started studying music in Graz. My main teacher was Dieter Flury who was a former principal flute of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. My education was very classically oriented, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t open to contemporary music, quite the opposite. He’s an amazing Baroque flute player as well so I got the full range of music. But what I learned studying with him was the human aspect of being a musician, and how we express ourselves as an individual through music. He would never try to impose his likes or dislikes onto me. These were very important experiences for me as a developing musician. Also, the whole concept of having a portable career, and having the flexibility to do different things, whether that was playing, composing, or founding an ensemble, that was deeply rooted in my upbringing in South Tyrol.

In the South Tyrolean culture every little village has their own wind band, and the government tries really hard to maintain the cultural life of the villages, so there’s a lot of funding for music education and musical culture, like traditional symphonic wind bands. It’s almost as though you are predestined to play a particular instrument from birth (I’m exaggerating just a bit…). The wind bands try really  hard to promote participation, and to integrate new players into these multi-generational bands where 11-year-olds play alongside 80-year-olds. I loved the summer programs for kids. You get to rehearse together with the other kids, and you learn self – discipline, because there’s no saying no.  

The music schools are subsidised, so even families with multiple siblings can go to music school. I’m one of five siblings and all of us went to music school. I would not be a musician and sitting here today if I’d not had that government supported music education. The camaraderie amongst the wind bands members was also really important.

LC: How did you transition from the wind bands to tertiary study?

CR: In South Tyrol when you go to music school you also have individual lessons. After a certain level I was encouraged to enter the Austrian Youth Music competitions called ‘Prima la Musica’. The competition alternated biannually between solo and chamber music. I was quite successful but I never thought about this as a career. When I was 17 I went to the UK because I’d won a scholarship to spend a year in Bournemouth. I played in the Wessex Youth Orchestra and had lessons with Barbara Brown from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra who suggested to me that I might like to consider music as a career. A year or so later I did decide to do music, studying for my Bachelor’s in Graz. I then went to Freiburg and studied a year with Felix Renggli which was a very nice experience. I then went back to Graz and did my master’s degrees in both Performance and Music Education, after which I moved to Vienna to study classical chamber music.

I had received a great foundation in contemporary music during my time in Graz, and I had attended the contemporary music masterclasses during the Klangspuren Festival with the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern, which I found very inspiring.

I really worked hard for the audition for the International Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt. I went to see a mental trainer for six weeks before the audition because I wanted to prepare myself mentally. I’ve always been very self-critical and wanted to get rid of any self-doubt about my playing. Everywhere that I’d got in, I’d had to really pull myself together and say to myself  “OK there are other players who’ll audition and we’ll all try really hard but I don’t necessarily have to assume that everybody is at a higher level than me”. I think I’m a little over-sensitised from when I was put in groups that I was too young for, where everyone else was older or more experienced than me. 

So I didn’t want to take these thought patterns with me into the Frankfurt audition: why should those thoughts be there, in the way, hindering me from playing the way that I knew I could?  I only had this one chance…   So, working with my mental trainer I really  applied myself to his mentoring strategy: I did my exercises, and in the end I was so excited about playing, in a way that I’d never had before, and I said “wow, I can go and play” and I was so happy, I remember thinking finally “OK this is my slot now” and yeah it went really well, and I got in! 

This was a transformative moment for me, the realization that there are people who can train you to do this, and that it’s not “rocket science”. And I’ve been able to help students conquer these feelings. 

I feel that the jury can really perceive that you are someone who loves what you are doing, and that it’s not just that you really want the success, but it’s like “okay, this is what I have to offer, with a positive mood and disposition”.

The Mental Training

LC: Was your coach from a sports psychology background, or had he coached musicians before?

CR: I found him online. He was a mental coach from Vienna, and no he wasn’t specifically for music. He was a graphic designer and while he had coached musicians before, this wasn’t on his website so it’s not the reason that I chose him. It’s not necessary to know about the field of music to teach these concepts. He really was able to open my eyes to my deeper thought processes: for instance, there was one session when he challenged me to think of the possible advantages of not succeeding in the audition. I’d never thought about this before. I had a whole list: that nobody would find out that I can’t actually do my job; that I wouldn’t have to prove myself yet again; I would not feel so stressed about it; and oh, I would not have to practise day and night learning all the new repertoire;  I could actually stay in Vienna and not move to Frankfurt because I’ve moved a lot of times, but, you know,  again… All these reasons were subconsciously there, preventing me from really wanting to go to Frankfurt. Having this knowledge, that there is subconsciously a part of my thinking that would benefit from me, Carolin, not getting the job, was a game changer. I learned to challenge my thinking, to ask myself, “is this helpful,  is it really true?”. I knew from then on that I didn’t have to prove anything. If you can challenge and explain every little doubtful thought in that way, then the thoughts disappear, and they won’t be weighing on your shoulders when you have to perform.

Transition to the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra

LC: So you went to the Ensemble Modern Akademie for one year

CR: Yes, unfortunately only one year. It would have been great if it had been longer, but they compress everything into one year. With all the concerts and seminars it was quite a lot of work. While I was in Frankfurt a delegation from the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra came to hold auditions for their orchestra. They were holding auditions in Europe and the US. I auditioned because I thought that as a classical musician, we are supposed to hold a fixed position in an orchestra at least once in your life. So I auditioned and they offered me the job.

My contract with the Ensemble Modern Akademie was over in October, and I could start in November, which was perfect. The orchestra was quite new, it was only four years old at that time, so there were pros and cons:  everything works much more easily when people have been playing together for many years, when there’s a system in place. Also, there was limited possibility to play outside of the orchestra: I wished I could have played more classical or contemporary chamber music.

Transition to other interests:

I wanted to do different things besides the orchestra. I wanted to have my own ensemble for contemporary music, and I also started writing my own pieces during that time. I wondered what would have happened if I’d stayed in Frankfurt for 2 or 3 more years, and then I received a phone call the following year asking if could play as a substitute in Ensemble Modern! So I started doing that, and then I let go of the orchestra. I had missed my music, I had missed deciding for myself what to do, having some autonomy, and because I did not speak Chinese, life outside of the orchestra was relatively difficult. I felt like a three-year-old who’s constantly asking for help .  

Back to Europe

When I moved back to Europe I did some teaching at the Mozarteum in Innsbruck, and was gigging in in Austria, Germany and Italy. At that time, we also founded the ensemble chromoson. Then I started with my doctorate in Munich.

LC: What’s the topic of your doctorate?

CR: The working title is “Enhancing music creativity through contemporary music in music education”. It’s about teaching certain concepts of contemporary music and the process of artistic decision making: so, switching between imagistic and technical aspects of playing. We know that the more we switch back and forth between conceptual thinking and imagery, that the creative result will be enhanced. I was doing research on creative insight and neuroscience as well, about how the brain functions when we switch between the different representations in the brain. I’m still some way from finishing it.

There’s not much written about contemporary music and education and I find it really fascinating that there’s so much more that we can actually do on the instruments at a very young age that could actually help to advance our learning.  I see how interested young students are, especially if they can connect with imagery or with a story that they are familiar with. 

I started to compose my pieces for students to play in competitions because there’s a lack of contemporary repertoire for younger players. I’ll soon get back to my research and to writing more pieces. My pieces are regularly played at the Austrian National Youth Competition, and every time a piece of mine inspires a young student and is well received by the audience and jury, my heart is full.

This is the title page of my piece ‘Rosinante’ by Nino Lasciaperdere which in Italian means “let it go”.  So this is about Don Quixote’s horse Rosinante. There’s also a poem that goes with the music. There are many different techniques involving harmonics, singing and playing, different articulations, and the horse neighing. 

I am planning to write a recipe book about contemporary pieces also, where the ingredients are the different extended techniques.

LC: Do you have a publisher?

CR: I think they could be publishable, but I haven’t done anything about it yet. I could even self-publish them via my website or something, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I should really get them published, as they should be more accessible.

LC: Nino Lasciaperdere is a great name…

CR: Nino came to me during a long flight: I wanted to find a name so that I could hide behind it, and you know…it’s Italian, so I thought, imagine you are a flute teacher and you see the name, like Sciarrino, so you’d think it must be good. And then I thought if I fail it’s not so bad if it’s Nino’s name on it, you know.

There’s a backstory to all this: when was living in Vienna my weekend job was helping to write theses. I helped students who were not native German speakers to write their theses. It was quite easy for me, because they were not in my name. So I learned it from there, that if you take on another name, all the pressure is gone. There’s a Canadian artist called Shea Hembrey, he’s done a Ted Talk called ‘How I Became 100 Artists’. 

He wanted to stage a bi-annual arts exhibition and, to cut a long story short, he ended up creating 100 artists and their artworks. He made up their biographies, where they came from, where they started, their style, etc. He created all their artworks and he did this for two years and had 100 different exhibits. It was amazing you know, he changed himself into 100 other artists and unlocked boundless creativity.  As his real self he would not have produced that amount of art. It really amazed me how much you can get out of yourself.  When we perform we are pretending to be somebody else, it’s not us any more, it’s not really this great romantic idea of being an individual and having to create and having to play by yourself. Anyway, now I’m older and I know that I can put my own name on it. 

One of the most recent pieces is a piece for three headjoints, flute, piccolo and alto flute. It’s based on a German poem, “Morgens früh um sechs” where a little witch comes and wakes everybody up at 6 o’clock. There are lots of sound effects, for example the coffee machine, opening the door, footsteps, and a really cool effect made by whistling into the end of the alto flute headjoint which produces a nice multiphonic whistle. There are seven little miniature movements with the text of the poem. All the sounds are created just with the headjoints.

A student of about 9 years old played this piece recently at the competition and she was wearing a witch’s hat and doing some cooking actions like stirring the pot with the cleaning rod. The student had a lot of fun and that’s most important, keeping their motivation high.

Singapore and SOTA

LC: So tell us about your transition to Singapore

CR: I started in Singapore in August of 2018. I teach at SOTA, the School of the Arts. It’s a pre-tertiary institution, it’s like a secondary school but at the same time, a conservatory, like in Europe you have these conservatories with a secondary school attached. So the students have their academic subjects and then they have their Arts subject, like music, dance, theatre or visual arts, later they can join the film department. There’s a large endowment fund to support students who cannot afford the fees. School fees are quite affordable there. In the music department we have six year levels, so we have around 180 to 200 students. It’s a six-year program and in the last two years they offer the International Baccalaureate.

My favourite subject to teach is called ‘Process of Performance”. This course helps the students – both performers and composers – who have decided that they want to be professional musicians to bring themselves and their pieces through the rehearsal process from the moment the piece is written until the moment it reaches the stage. My interest in performance science flows into this: for example, how to prepare ourselves, how to manage ourselves emotionally, time management, preparation communication, stage fright and anxiety. Ensemble leading also falls into this category. 

LC: Did you experience that sort of education, or is this something that you have developed yourself?

CR: I learned all these things as part of my development as a musician, not just through teaching but as a creative musician, an entrepreneur, and as a coach. So a lot of it is based on my own experience and on my own research. When I face a problem I would also try to find out where it is coming from. When you talk to your musician colleagues for example, sometimes these issues, these topics come up, and then you want to dig deeper to find out what’s behind that and the motivation. You hear a lot about motivation right now, and I always refer to this thing called the “motivation wheel”, or the “energy quadrants”. For example, how we can manage our energies best and how can we recharge our batteries. These are things you encounter in your daily life, or in your students’ or with your colleagues.

LC: What do you see as the role of creative and independent musicians in society at the moment?

CR: I recently did a concert in Vienna working with a young composer who’s looking for new ways of playing traditional instruments. His aim is to explore what else can be done with those instruments and that it’s possible to see the world with different eyes, and to find new ways of treating everyday items.

Contemporary music can do this, it can enhance people’s imagination and their fantasy. We don’t use our imagination much anymore because everything is given nowadays. That’s why people are overwhelmed when they come to contemporary music concerts, because they think that they need to understand straight away, and they want to have structure. When this falls away and you get sounds without structure it can be very frightening. So I say, OK let’s listen to something that’s unfamiliar and still enjoy it, by allowing ourselves to imagine differently. I see a musician’s role as helping to unlock everyone’s creativity, and to inspire in others the idea that we can all be passionate about something.

Part of this is bringing to life music that has never been heard before. I find this really exciting, when a composer has written a piece and then you play it for them, and they hear it for the first time. 

Classical musicians can also demonstrate that quality is worth striving for, and that the effort and dedication required to achieve quality is a valuable contribution to society.

LC: Is there adequate funding for music at the moment?

CR: Music and the other Arts should bring together not just people who have been acculturated to going to the concert hall and to the theatre, but also people from all income levels and cultures. Concert tickets in Singapore are quite expensive, and there are people who would never come to a concert in the concert hall. In Europe it’s similar, and there are a lot of programmes making music and art more accessible to everyone. Music should be accessible to people from different parts of society and different age levels. We should have universal music education so that people can appreciate more deeply what is going on. For that we need more funding.

LC: What are your forthcoming projects?

Firstly, the recording of a new album of Southeast Asian flute pieces; then I have a couple of projects going on with my ensemble overseas, the ensemble chromoson  which will be celebrating their 10 year anniversary in 2024. There are also a couple of collaborations coming up with different composers and festivals which I’m really excited about, both in Europe and in Asia.

Then I have my two long-term projects: to work on my pieces, and to finish my PhD, which is huge because it’s based on the three pillars of my master’s degrees which are performance, contemporary music, and music education, and to bring all these aspects together in one thesis. This is really important to me, to get this completed.

Carolin Ralser

Carolin Ralser is a dedicated performer, educator and researcher, who completed all her Bachelor’s and Master’s studies with Distinction. She studied flute performance, music education, chamber music, and contemporary music at universities of music and performing arts Kunstuniversität Graz, mdw Vienna, Hochschule für Musik Freiburg and Hochschule für Musik Frankfurt am Main. She studied with Dieter Flury (principal flute, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra), Felix Renggli, Thaddeus Watson (principal piccolo, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra), and Dietmar Wiesner (Ensemble Modern).

Carolin was first prize winner at the International Friedrich Kuhlau Flute Competition (GER), and received various grants and scholarships, e.g. from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the International Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt/Main. As part of many orchestral, chamber music and solo projects, Carolin has performed in major venues all over Europe, Japan, China and South America. She performed at festivals and concert series such as Salzburg Festival, cresc… Biennale Frankfurt am Main, Transart Festival Bolzano, Klangspuren Festival, Manifeste at IRCAM/Paris, ITYCP Hongkong, Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Festival Royaumont, HÖRBAR! Tag der Neuen Musik Bolzano, Novalia Festival, Gustav Mahler Musikwochen, Distat Terra Festival Argentina – among others.

Carolin’s deep interest in contemporary and experimental music was fostered through numerous masterclasses, among them the Ensemble recherche, the Klangforum Wien and the Ensemble Modern. She was principal flute player of the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra in 2012-13, and played as a member and guest musician in various orchestras and ensembles such as the Ensemble Modern Frankfurt and the Vienna State Opera stage orchestra. Carolin is also a founding member and executive of chromoson, an ensemble dedicated to the creation and promotion of contemporary music and art.

In the field of education, Carolin specialises in contemporary music for young players and audiences, composing contemporary pieces for young students, and giving lectures and workshops on teaching contemporary music and improvisation in music education. Before joining the SOTA Music faculty, she was a lecturer at the University Mozarteum Salzburg/Innsbruck. She is currently a PHD candidate at the University of Music and Theatre Munich and researcher in the field of Music Education, Creativity Research and Performance Science.

Laura Chislett

Website | YouTube | Apple Music

Australian flute player Laura Chislett has established herself on the international stage as a performer, educator and recording artist across a wide range of musical styles. Her recordings, on eleven different labels and multiple streaming platforms, range from Bach and Boulanger, to Ferneyhough and Dench. She has become known for her inspiring and rigorous performances, described as the “Rolls Royce versions” by the legendary composer Horatiu Radulescu.

Laura has a new CD release scheduled for early 2024: ‘In Two Minds’ was recorded last October at Ayriel Studios located in the midst of the beautiful North York Moors National Park (UK). The repertoire consists of eight improvisations, co-created with the composer, pianist and artist, Edward Cowie, for the Métier Divine Art label. The improvisations are inspired by nature, particularly birdsong, and by art, with track titles like “Dawn Bellbirds”, “Guten Morgen, Herr Kandinsky”, “New York-New York” (referring to Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock) and “Dusk/Night Lyrebirds”. 

Laura Chislett