From Colombia to London: Mauricio Velasierra’s pioneering flute techniques

We continue to share info about each of the seven experimental artists involved with our two events this week.

Today we want to tell you more about the fascinating story behind flautist Mauricio Velasierra, and the unique techniques that he invented, as his project Bitch ‘n’ Monk hold their album launch at Rich Mix on Thursday.

Mauricio’s affinity to wind instruments started very early on in his life (he is known to have learned to whistle before he could talk). He started playing the traditional quena flute at the age of seven after picking one up from a traditional market in the Colombian city of Medellín. He was improvising with groups of friends before he knew what it meant, and would simply pick up a quena flute and jamming.

Entirely self taught, Mauricio made his way through the traditional New Latin-American revival music repertoire, including a movement by the name of  “La Nueva Troba Cubana”, influenced by bands such as Inti-Illimani and Quilapayún. By the age of twelve, he had started a number of bands and collected 300 traditional Latin American instruments, with money saved by washing cars and selling Colombian sweets at school.

After arriving in London at the age of sixteen, Mauricio began to explore the possibilities of the quena flute, which is a diatonic instrument (designed to play in just one key). Being exposed to jazz and classical repertoire, he decided to find new techniques to play any possible key and scale transforming the instrument into a chromatic one, after being told that this was impossible by a music teacher.

He took on the challenge and three years later, using half whole fingering and finger slides, he was able to move easily through chromatic passages. During this time he also was heavily influenced by jazz musicians at WAC. where he learned from musicians such as Jack de Jonette and Ian Carr, he also met future collaborators there such as Tom Herbert, Zoe Rahman and Tom Skinner among others.

Not content with the technical adaptations that allowed him to explore completely new territory on his instruments, he decided to study instrument acoustics and design at the Guildhall University, in order to make the design of the quena into a more versatile instrument by adding a tuning slide, which allowed him to retune his instruments to sit in with other musicians from other musical cultures, often with different fixed tunings.

He made over 100 quenas before deciding on the final design that he plays today, an instrument with a unique patented design, made by the celebrated luthier Brendan McAully. It allows him to easily perform fast passages and runs such as found in bebop and modern jazz, making him the only quena-player in the world with this unique ability.

The next stage in Mauricio’s musical development came through exploring the voice through the flute and the development of infra and ultra harmonics, and using what is known as wolf tones: A third audible note produced when combining two different notes at very particular frequencies, this third note is heard by the human ear but cannot be measured, it is a psycho-acoustic phenomenon.

His range of sounds has being explored further, through a series of electronic pedals that enable completely new timbres, and increased by the adoption of the bass mozheño, a two-metre-long instrument that, when used with pedals, can produce a sub-bass capable of breaking crockery.

With his insatiable curiosity, Mauricio continues to explore new techniques and sounds, he’s currently writing a book on quena technique from notes through rigorous investigative practice.

Some ideas on the music and technique from Mauricio himself:

“For me technique is simply a means to explore the edge of what I know, the work with Heidi in Bitch ’n’ Monk has facilitated a tendency to be at the edge of what we know or can understand, without fear, and with the support of a fellow cliff jumper! We are very honest with each other in terms of technique and what sounds good, which has certainly accelerated our abilities as musicians.

We compose all the music we play, which means that a particular section will ask of us musically a new solution, it is then that we really expand, and there is a real excitement there, not knowing what the music will demand next.

Often my ideas are way ahead of what I can play, the pursuit of these ideas becomes a very interesting game. But technique is not just playing difficult, fast passages, it is all about the sound, the sound is the most powerful tool to reach peoples emotions. In my case it is all about offering new sounds that go beyond description and classification, in a way like tricking the mind beyond what it knows. Once the brain is confused there is a certain kind of freedom that allows for the expansion of consciousness, taking over the body and senses.”


Full details about Bitch ‘n’ Monk, Survival Skills and Peter Ehwald at Rich Mix

£9 advance tickets

£19 to reserve a discount pre-release copy of the album at the merch desk with your ticket

£12 on the door

Design by Lou Steaton