The magic flute

When Rebecca Lenton started studying flute in London almost 30 years ago, little did she know she would one day become a Berlin ambassador of experimental music.

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Photo by Joanna Wizmur

“We called it ‘squeaky gate music’,” Rebecca Lenton laughs, remembering her time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London in the 1990s. It wasn’t until the Basel Music Academy and a particularly inspiring teacher that the Coventry-born flute player realised the beauty of contemporary music. “You always had to play Mozart concertos for orchestral auditions and there is this pressure of playing it as perfectly as you can, but also giving your own personal interpretation, which of course thousands and thousands before you have tried to do.” Playing contemporary compositions meant a new kind of freedom. In 1999, Lenton moved to Berlin to be with her German boyfriend; four years later, she officially joined the 11-strong KNM ensemble for contemporary music, with whom she’s played ever since, touring famous concert halls across four continents. But Lenton still treasures those early Berlin years, when they’d play the city’s many derelict buildings, like that office space spanning an entire floor of one of Treptow’s towers. “On a recent trip up the Fernsehturm, I was just looking around and I thought – wow, we played there, we played there, we played there… and now all these spaces are full of offices and flats.” She now lives in Gesundbrunnen with her two children.

Lenton admits that the scores she plays are appreciated by a small circle of older, often grey-haired types, plus a handful of music students. The scene, she says, is so small that she often recognises the faces in the audience. Yet she disagrees with the notion that the genre is elitist: “I think there is a fear of ‘not understanding’. But people do go and enjoy Die Zauberflöte, and yet how much do they understand about the harmonic progression and such? I guess it’s totally okay to listen on that level.” But surely, the music is less familiar to audiences, and this can cause peculiar experiences, like what she calls the “worst experience of my entire career”, playing a full duet out of sync. “It was one of those tours when everything went wrong – the piece was with electronics, and it had a sort of looping effect, which meant that the audience couldn’t really tell if what they’re hearing is you or the electronics. I just played the whole piece without knowing where my colleague was in the score. It was a terrible feeling!” Much to her dismay, people later came up to her, raving about the wonderful music they’d heard.