Photograph by Nino Cocchiarella

Hearing Zara Lawler play the flute is unlike hearing any other musician in the world play that same instrument. That’s not just a testament to her virtuosity, it’s more about the choices of this critically acclaimed Barnard- and Juilliard-educated musician, and the connections she makes between her music and the rest of the art world.

Take, as an example, Lawler’s new CD of duets, created with partner Paul Fadoul, issued this fall. Not a buttoned-up collection of classical favorites, the tracks of Prelude Cocktail are mostly short pieces dubbed “major works for short attention spans.” The CD not only features well-known works by classical heroes, but also includes two world premieres by innovative composers, including one by Katherine Hoover, a contemporary flutist whom Lawler met while at Barnard, and whose work was part of Lawler’s thesis.

The instrumentation alone is a tip-off that the new CD is something different: Lawler plays flute while Fadoul plays the marimba, a type of giant wooden xylophone. The marimba wasn’t invented until the 1950s, centuries after the deaths of Bach and Chopin, two composers whose works are included on the CD. The results are clean, modern-sounding renditions of much-loved classical pieces. The flute and marimba combination is one of those rare mash-ups that, once you hear it, make you wonder why musicians haven’t been combining them since the marimba first came on the scene. “We worked together to create a repertoire and a history for our instruments including new transcriptions of older works,” Lawler says. “So the result is two new, commissioned pieces and the rest of it is really quite well-known.”

Lawler and Fadoul began playing duets together soon after meeting in 2003; their partnership works so well that their instruments sound made for one another. “I understand her breath and phrasing more than any other musician I’ve met. In fact, when I play with other musicians, I realize how good our chemistry is,” Fadoul says. “We compliment each other so well and we’ve always been close. She was the best woman at my wedding!” Photograph by Nino Cocchiarella

While Lawler’s education focused on traditional performance, her time at Barnard gave her the opportunity to meet Hoover, which nurtured her interdisciplinary spirit. Lawler worked with her for a senior thesis on women composers; the pair has been working together ever since. “That’s been a lasting legacy, a very satisfying thing for me,” she says.

Receiving a degree in music performance from Barnard in 1992, Lawler enrolled in the master’s program at Juilliard, and then spent a year as a struggling New York-based freelance flutist. But following a three-year stint with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, she began to focus on more experimental work. She performed nationwide with Tales & Scales, an avant-garde educational quartet that created and performed new music and theatre for family audiences. Tales & Scales was inherently interdisciplinary, combining instrumental performance with acting and dancing, and Lawler loved it. It’s also where she and Fadoul met. “The work in Tales & Scales took my little nascent idea about interdisciplinary performance and blew it wide open. It was a huge expansion of what I thought was possible. We were always dancing and playing at the same time. It led to a lot of what I’m doing now, which is finding new ways to combine music with theatre and dance,” Lawler says.

When she’s not touring with Fadoul, Lawler lives in Manhattan with her wife, Aine Zimmerman, a professor of German at Hunter College, and combines flute performance with dance for a program called The Flute on its Feet. She also does outreach programming to bring classical music to life for a wide variety of audiences.

“I think, somewhere deep in my psyche, I definitely always wanted to be doing this kind of work—combining the arts and paving new ways to do that,” she says. “My elementary-school teacher sent me a letter I wrote her back then. I wrote, ‘When I am an adult I’m going to play the recorder and sing and dance with my friends.’”