Someone recently asked Bjork about the ideas that animate her new album, and the visionary singer gave a visionary answer. She said she wanted to conjure a “post-Trump” world where listeners could “escape to an island, and there’s a lot of women there with children, and everybody’s playing flutes, and everybody’s naked, and there’s all these plants you’ve never seen before and all these birds you’ve never heard before, and orchids, and it has that feeling of pioneering into a new world.”
Click on the title track of Bjork’s “Utopia,” and you’ll hear what she sees. Or at least all the flutes. And while the sweep of these wind instruments sounds majestic, it might not feel as otherworldly as the singer had hoped. This year’s brightest jazz recordings featured some astonishing flute work, while various flute samples wafted through the year’s hottest rap hits, most notably Future’s “Mask Off,” the highest-charting hit of his career. So the sound is all around us — up on the bandstands, out on the airwaves, high on the pop charts, deep in our dreamtime.
Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. As a species, we go way back with the flute. Paleolithic bone flutes — some as many as 43,000 years old — are the oldest musical instruments ever discovered, and flute music has floated across cultures and continents in the centuries that followed.
In his 2013 book “World Flutelore,” ethnomusicologist Dale Olsen explores that breadth, examining the effects of a simple musical instrument that — according to myths, folk tales and religious stories from across the planet — causes “people to fall in love, plants to grow, animals to arrive, animals to go away, spirits to come, spirits to go away, armies to come, children and rats to march, people to be transfixed and unable to move, animals and people to dance,” and more.
Olsen describes the flute itself as “a tool that transforms inaudible breath into audible sound which becomes the sonic manifestation of breath itself” — which helps to explain why we’ve become re-enchanted by the flute in 2017. This is a sound that vibrates deep in our genetic memory. It reminds us of our humanity in inhumane times.
Bjork seems to hear it that way — and so might Nicole Mitchell, a flutist, jazz composer and the leader of Black Earth Ensemble, a group whose commanding new album “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” aims to reconcile dreams of a Bjork-adjacent paradise with the global miasma we’re living in.
“I’m curious about discovering what happens if we unify duality by smashing together two worlds: a dystopic world and utopic world,” Mitchell writes in the album’s liner notes. “Can human consciousness be transformed by embracing fears and establishing balance?”
Musically, Mitchell asks that question most directly during a piece called “Listening Embrace,” in which the bandleader breathes heavy into a fragile melody, as if trying to speed up the song’s stubborn drumbeat. Utopia-building is hard work. The friction feels heroic.
Elena Pinderhughes has a more delicate touch, at least during “Encryption,” a recent song with jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah during which the young flutist casually ascends into her solo as if momentarily stepping out of her body. And still, she plays with the stylish levity heard in many of this year’s flute-friendly rap songs — which isn’t a coincidence. Back in April, Pinderhughes, who also performs as Elena Ayodele, was recruited by Future to perform the mournful flute riff of “Mask Off” at Coachella.
Other rappers have pointed their flutes — some of them synthetic — in different directions. On Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision,” the flute sits high in the mix, twisting like steam. On “Get Right Witcha” by Migos, it moves differently, like a steady breeze. On Tay-K’s “The Race,” a thrill ride of a hit about the life of a teenage fugitive, the flute sounds bright and urgent — like an alarm that can’t be shut off.
If there’s a commonality here, it’s this: Instead of evoking fantasy worlds, these flute lines seem to be engaging rappers in sonic conversation.
Baroque composer Johann Joachim Quantz would probably approve. In his 1752 treatise “On Playing the Flute,” Quantz warns that a flutist’s lack of lung power will stifle the music’s ability to communicate. “Melodies that should be coherent are often broken up,” he wrote of deficient flute playing. “To separate several notes that belong together is just as bad as to take a breath in reading [words] before the sense is clear, or in the middle of a word of two or three syllables.”
So in that sense, rappers and wind players have always wrestled with the same fundamental question: How many ideas can be arranged on the length of a single breath?
It’s an especially interesting question for Future, a charismatic antihero who always sounds as if he’s rapping with a busted heart, a stoned brain and a collapsed lung. He rarely has much air to work with, so he communicates with the timbre of his voice, and to hear him gasp alongside the levitating flute loop of “Mask Off” — which producer Metro Boomin cribbed from the 1978 musical “Selma” — is to hear a phantom flutist nodding along in sympathy.
There’s an idea in country music that the keening sounds of the steel guitar help to convey the sorrow that unflappable singers won’t allow themselves to express. In this year’s rap music — and perhaps in Bjork’s and Mitchell’s new music, too — these potent flute sounds appear be doing something similar.
Spending our lives in the dehumanizing airlessness of digital space has made it easier than ever to absorb the heaviness of an ugly world, but there’s still a lightness to be felt on our every breath.