Playing ‘Syrinx’ for a Sphinx

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Alumna flutist Mimi Stillman G’03 Gr’12 has spent the last year celebrating the 150th anniversary of composer Claude Debussy’s birth. Every day from August 22, 2012, through August 22, 2013 — 366 times in all — Stillman recorded herself playing Debussy’s “Syrinx for Solo Flute.” Why did she choose that piece? She explains on her website:

‘Syrinx’ is one of the most important works ever written for solo flute. Composed in 1913 as instrumental music for Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché, this 2 1/2 minute jewel highlights Debussy’s ability to create a universe of moods and timbres in microcosm, to invoke the soul of the instrument for which he writes, and to spark the imaginations of performers and listeners alike. Originally titled ‘La Flûte de Pan,’ the work was performed from the wings during Pan’s death scene, giving rise to the current performance practice of performing Syrinx in a darkened room. The eminent flutist Louis Fleury gave the premiere performances and subsequently included the piece in his recitals.

After playing “Syrinx” in concert halls, on the banks of the Schuylkill and even at a family seder table, Stillman visited the Penn Museum last month to perform beside the institution’s large Egyptian sphinx.

She recalled the experience on her site:

Today’s Syrinx performances at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology were among the highlights of my nearly entire year of performing Debussy’s work every day, and I have done so in many impressive and beautiful places. In this video, I appear in the Egyptian gallery with the largest sphinx in the Western hemisphere and architectural features from the palace of the pharaoh Merenptah (r. 1213-1204 BCE). The palace, located in Memphis in Lower Egypt, is the best preserved royal palace excavated in Egypt. The red granite sphinx is inscribed with the names of the pharoah Ramesses II, and his son and successor Merenptah.

As my sound reverberated against the ancient stone, I wondered about all the other sounds the sphinx, standing so grandly and impassively through the ages, had heard.

Want to hear Stillman’s sound reverberating against the ancient stone for your self? Check out this video, which documents the performance:

And check out WHYY’s video interview with Stillman:

—Molly Petrilla C’06

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