Composer, performer, improviser, teacher, writer—Robert Dick must be multi-appendaged to have his fingers in so many different pies at once, and it would certainly go a long way towards explaining the sounds he can coax out of a flute. But sadly, in person he has merely the usual ten fingers on two hands attached to their separate arms, with no clear physical abnormalities to conveniently explain away his instrumental prowess—a product of the more intangible concepts of hard work and insatiable curiosity. Yet while Robert may be best known for his admittedly revolutionary advancements of flute technique, his accomplishments actually roam more widely. In fact, he prefers to term himself a “musician who happens to play the flute,” with full complementary skills in composition and improvisation that connect his music not just with physical prestidigitation, but also to actual listening.
Even with his inclination towards past models, Robert’s 21st-century skills fit him perfectly within present realms. “My evolution into a more creative musician really began at Yale, when I met my composition teacher Robert Morris,” he explains. “Out of the competitive classical cauldron, other inputs started to just happen. I was hanging out with people who weren’t fanatic practicers on the flute or the oboe or the violin; they had other interests, and we talked about other stuff, and it was the first time I played in a new music group.” His influences, which had been constrained by large-C Classical training in a myopic community, began to expand as well: “The influence of the rock electric guitar players—their amazing range of sounds, the highly individual approach to sound that they all had—really speaks to me, even today, extremely deeply.” Like his new mentors, the young Robert set out to explore every nook of his instrument’s sound world.
Letting his flute freak flag fly during college led to Robert’s development of The Other Flute, the first of his three highly influential books on new techniques for the instrument. He also became active as a composer and improviser during this time. Because of his work with technique, there is a tendency to view his creative work through the lens of “special effects”—but this is otiose. “Don’t concern yourself too much with how the sounds get made,” Robert advises, “just listen to the music.” And a rewarding listen it is; Robert’s work as a composer reveals a unique and multitudinous voice that incorporates influences as diverse as Edgard Varèse, Indian Raga, and Jimi Hendrix. The exchange of information between the audience and performer is loose yet direct and affecting. “The thing that limits creativity is self-consciousness,” says Robert. “The more you think about yourself, the less expressive you can be.”
We are now in the 50th year of Robert’s life as a musician, and there is no indication that he’s slowing down. Always the consummate collaborator, he remains active in a variety of groups as well as on the solo circuit. His own music has turned increasingly towards the chamber world, where it remains as much for the audience as for himself. “Music is for other people,” he explains. “Music is the communication of emotion and meaning and thought through sound, and what’s the point of making it if you’re not going to communicate to someone? Other people are what make it important.”