For May 2016’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Fiona Last, a first year oboist in the Historical Performance program and OIA work-study student. Originally from Dibden Purlieu, a village outside of Southampton, England, Fiona earned a degree in Arabic and Ethnomusicology from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. During her undergraduate studies, Fiona studied abroad at the University of Damascus in Syria for a year.
Fiona has been studying music in the United States since 2009; first at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, followed by the Yale School of Music, and now at The Juilliard School.
Eye on Culture has not featured a Historical Performance student before. Can you tell our readers a bit about the HP program at Juilliard? How would you say it differs from other programs?
I imagine one of the main differences between the HP program and others at Juilliard is that we function as one studio despite comprising many different instruments, and we are all graduate students. There are only 24 of us, and so we form a sense of ensemble very quickly. We still have to pass or take the Juilliard history, theory, and ear training prerequisites, but we also have our own history classes and a symposium with guest lecturers, as well as a continuo class (where the non-keyboard instruments learn to realize figured bass). We have incredibly high-level guest conductors such as Masaaki Suzuki and Jordi Savall leading each concert, and we play music and instruments from various time periods – for example, this semester I played concerts on alto shawm, baroque oboe, and classical oboe in the space of two months. It’s a very intense and immersive program, but it’s great preparation for what (hopefully!) awaits us outside of Juilliard.
What are the benefits and challenges to playing a baroque oboe compared to a modern oboe?
I think the answer is the same for the challenges as it is for the benefits – you are playing a much more fundamental instrument. Baroque and modern oboe aren’t separate beasts – they’re just at different stages in their evolution. Unfortunately a lot of discussions about historical performance or historical instruments involve questions of superiority, and I don’t think that should have anything to do with it. We’re all trying to mine as much as possible from the music we play, however we choose to do that. I still love playing and listening to the modern oboe, and far from it being the choice between the two that some people imagine, learning the baroque oboe actually made me a much better modern oboe player, because you have to focus so much on the fundamentals. There’s no automation to the instrument, so your air and the evenness of your fingers are all you have. It’s extremely different from playing the modern oboe where if your set up is functioning well, a nice even scale comes out over multiple octaves, no questions asked. That’s the starting point for your practice and music making. On baroque oboe though, the starting line is a few steps back from that. Nothing is in tune without work, high notes don’t speak without work – obviously you get to the point where these things are second nature and the instrument feels as natural as the modern version, but an awareness of that scarier bottom line is always there, and that’s definitely the challenge! But, there are great musical benefits. You can shade the intonation of notes based on any given harmony, the reed accepts articulation in much more varied ways, the incredible amount of air needed can give amazing color palette. It’s a really tough instrument but it can teach you so much about the music you’re playing, and bring a special kind of life to it.
When did you begin playing music? Have you always played the oboe or did you start studying a different instrument? If so, what made you change?
I changed schools when I was 7, and my new school offered a year of free lessons on the violin, the piano, or the flute, and I chose violin. When the year was up I decided I wanted to play something more unusual, and I walked past a room where a girl (I still remember her name was Melanie Clegg) was practicing the oboe. My parents tried very hard to convince me that what I’d seen was in fact a clarinet but I was determined!
You are currently a work study student in the Office of International Advisement and will continue to be for part of the summer. What do you like most about working in OIA? What is your least favorite (you can be honest)?
We share a space with the Office of Community Engagement and the Dean of Student Affairs, and it’s a very fun and collegial environment. This isn’t really a tough downside to have but Cory’s unending stash of candy is very dangerous…
When you are not playing music or working one of your many on-campus jobs, what do you like to do for fun?
I’ve actually been feeling really bad about my lack of answer to questions like that! I enjoy walking, cooking (and eating), and I used to do a lot of Bikram yoga…I really should find a hobby! I would like to spend more time outdoors, and rediscover reading, which I used to do voraciously but don’t seem to any more. Check back with me when I’m out of school!
Do you have a hidden talent or a cool party trick? If so, what is it?
What is you biggest pet peeve?
People saying “I could care less…” – that really bugs me! The point is the double negative….that you in fact couldn’t care less! Pretty much anything grammatical, I’m a big language nerd. It makes me very popular…
This series is called Eye on Culture, so let’s talk about the culture in which you were raised. How would you describe your hometown and its culture?
I grew up in a village called Dibden Purlieu (I usually just tell people I’m from London, where I used to live, or Southampton, which is the nearest city, to save American giggles at the name). It’s on the south coast of the UK and on the edge of a big national park called the New Forest. It wasn’t quite as idyllic-country-village as some of the places actually in the forest and I’m not sure I can identify any major cultural traits but as somewhere to grow up it was pretty well placed between city and country.
Before coming to the U.S., you earned a degree from the School of African and Oriental Studies which included year abroad in Syria. Can you tell us a little about the school and your experience in the Middle East?
My first degree was a BA in Arabic and Ethnomusicology at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. It’s a really small student population, and the school is on the corner of Russell Square in London, where the British Museum is. As the name suggests, it’s a pretty niche institution, and one I’m really glad I went to at a formative age because it’s so diverse. The university system in the UK is a little different, you mainly take classes for the whole year instead of by the semester, and you only take maybe three or four, all specific to your degree. My core curriculum was intensive Arabic language classes but I also got to study classical Arabic literature, and I took a year of Mandarin Chinese in addition to core studies in ethnomusicology. We were also required to spend a year abroad – mine was in Syria studying at the University of Damascus, where we wrote our dissertations in Arabic (mine was on music in Sufism and how that fits into the larger body of Islamic thinking on music).
As you know, the situation in Syria is dire. By studying abroad in Syria, the conflict hits closer to home than for the average Westerner. What are your thoughts?
It’s a little strange talking about Syria now, especially to say what a great year I had. I also would never want to sound like I was trying to insert myself into the drama of that situation in any way. It sounds ridiculous to say, given what is currently happening, but when I was there, there was a sense of cautious optimism. It still wasn’t what you would call an open political climate, but people were I think quietly hopeful that Bashar al-Assad would prove a better leader than his father, Hafez had been.
For us as students it was wonderful. Damascus seemed an open and religiously tolerant city, and it has such an incredible and rich history, the layers of which were openly visible. Syria has (tragically now had, in most cases) mosques, cities, and archaeological monuments and ruins to rival any other Middle Eastern country, but for various reasons it was only just beginning to be on the tourist trail. That meant you had full access to these sites for next to nothing, and with barely anyone there compared to somewhere like Giza or Petra. Cheap buses meant so many travel opportunities; we could spend weekends in Latakia, Aleppo, Beirut, or take trips to Jordan and Egypt. I spent a week in an 11th-century monastery that is built into the mountains outside Damascus, and where anyone can stay if they help with the daily chores – you can show up and leave when you wish. Syrian people are so incredibly hospitable, and the food is amazing. Oh, and it snows in the winter, a lot! I hope none of that sounds reductive – it’s hard to capture the nuances of a country like that without sounding like you’re trying to make political or cultural statements, which I’m anxious not to try and do in this forum!
You have been living in the US for a while now. What do you miss most about the UK? Is there anything you don’t miss?
What I miss most is definitely my family. My brother and I were very lucky in that our parents travelled a lot with us, and we were raised to want to do interesting things in different places – between us we’ve lived in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tanzania and Uganda (and the US of course), and my brother currently studies in Sweden and is about to go to Ghana for six months. None of us would have it any other way, but of course it is hard being so far away from family sometimes. That said, it does keep things fresh and I’m always glad and excited to go home! I don’t know that I want to single out anything I don’t miss, but I will say there is a sense of space and breathing room in this country that I didn’t feel so much in the UK.
When you first came to the US to study, what part of US culture most surprised you? What took you awhile to get used to? Is there anything that you still struggle with?
What’s interesting about US culture is that even being from a country with its own sizeable [English-language] film and television output, I still knew pretty much what to expect here from what I’d seen in movies and on TV. Because for me there were no massive language or cultural shifts, things that seemed stranger were the little details – street signs or license plates for instance. Everything is essentially the same but just a little bit different – and what’s funny is that that now works in reverse when I go home. Also size – US cities are big in a way that UK cities aren’t. I first lived in Philadelphia, the center city of which isn’t huge compared to NYC or Chicago, but everything is still so much higher and wider. I also wasn’t aware until I got here quite how much politics is tied up with religion, culture, and intellectualism in a way that it just isn’t at home.
And I still struggle with the fact that you guys don’t understand the appeal of Marmite.
What do you think you want to do after you graduate? Do you have a “dream job” in mind?
This is the fourth degree I will have graduated from, and the first one I won’t be following immediately with more school! My hope is to set myself up for an interesting and productive OPT year freelancing, during which I can spend some serious time thinking about what I derive motivation and enjoyment from, what my long-term priorities are, and how I can turn those into something approaching the “dream job.” A teacher at Yale used to talk about a ‘portfolio career,’ which is an idea that really appeals to me. I have degrees in Arabic, modern oboe and Historical Performance, I’ve studied I think 8 languages to varying levels, and I really enjoy writing and editing – somewhere in there is a really fulfilling career! I just need a little space to find it.