The True Range of the C Flute


Back in the USSR, when information was really suppressed, many people were hungry for the truth. Now governments hide the truth from us under a deluge of information. I think composers suffer from this deluge, but it is not a government conspiracy.

The true range of the concert C flute is a matter of public domain, published in text books, on the internet, and God knows where else as a cold, hard fact. It is neither a state secret nor rocket science. Yet why is it ignored?

Sometimes I can understand why. We often work with composers of electronic music who transfer their sound world into “scores” and leave the instrumentation up to us. There are also arrangers who don’t sweat the details of register, and tell me up-front that I am free to choose which size flute I want to use when. That’s cool.

But when that’s not the case, how to bring this issue out from under the deluge information? I considered several options. Swear words, Russell Brand revolutionary rhetoric, sexing-up – what can I do to get your attention?

Here is my first attempt. Download it here as a PDF, or view it here. Suggestions are welcome, but please keep it family-friendly.

True_Range

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Writing Harmonics for Flute – when is a harmonic not a harmonic?


Harmonics are great! I love playing them, but I want to mention several common mistakes composers make when using them for flute. Here is the most prevalent – writing harmonics that are too low:

The same is true for piccolo too.

Another issue,  I will call it a misuse rather than a mistake, is writing quiet harmonics in the upper half of the 3rd octave up to the 4th octave. I suspect when composers write high quiet harmonics, they are imagining a sort of color that a violin harmonic can produce in that register: thin, ethereal, a bit breathy, maybe just slightly (and only slightly) out-of-tune. Or perhaps they might believe that a high quiet harmonic is easier to produce than a high quiet regular note. Well, folks, it doesn’t work like that. To get the upper partials on a flute, you have to blow like hell if you want to produce notes with more than 4 ledger lines above the staff. (Someday I will make a funny video on the subject for your amusement.)

Now if you have done this as a composer, you are in good company. Berio did it in the Sequenza. Generations of flutists have tossed around different solutions, alternate fingerings, whistle tones, anything to avoid playing a real harmonic fingering!

Wolfgang Rihm has done this too. Here are two examples from Nach-Schrift. Once again, the Bb. The D proceeding it works well as a G harmonic.

The following G# harmonic is borderline because it starts loudly, then one can change to the normal fingering. The G after that is also borderline.  You can see that my predecessor overblew it as a C, but for me that would be too flat.

If you have read this far in order to get a hard-and-fast rule, I must disappoint you.  I think the 4-ledger-line rule (as seen in the high G above) is a good guideline for my abilities, but there might be other opinions out there. Just please be aware that very high, quiet harmonics on the flute can not match the delicacy of a violin. An experienced player can indeed match such a sound, but will do so not by overblowing a resistant lower partial, but by using a fingering that adds ventilation and reduces resistance.

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Contemporary Music: Where’s the Music?


Funny how memories work. I am left with the lingering conviction, no doubt untrue, that the esthetic of Arnold Schönberg and the Second Viennese School was motivated by peevishness. Not that I was there to remember, but it is the sense I got from student reading and listening to hip lecturers. (For example, I enjoyed Brand and Hailey’s “Constructive Dissonance“, despite the 2 star rating on Amazon). It probably has to do with my own peevishness, and talent for turning fantasies into mis-remembered memories.

“Not the damned Waldstein again!”

Picture a circle of super intelligent youths, coming of age in a time when well-to-do educated folks actually made music together at social gatherings. We disenfranchised musicians can look back with nostalgia on this, but the Viennese version probably got on their nerves. I can understand their thirst for something more intelligent than the harmonic language of Sunday’s salon pieces, and for something genuine, unlike the popular faux-Bohemianism of Gustav Klimt’s circle.  If you are easily irritated (peevish), such a thing can make you want to set the world on fire. And they did.

OK, that was way simplified. Better informed and better working minds than mine have pondered and written about the evolution of the Second Viennese School. My point is to look at now. The biggest question that I ask myself in my ensemble work as a “contemporary” musician is this: Where is the music?

Schönberg may have been seeking artistic and intellectual integrity in music, but I want to know WTF happened to music itself? Yes, I am peevish and here’s why: Music seems the least important aspect to almost every project we do. If it’s a theater project, the visual aspect must take precedence (and be sensational, damn the score!). If it is multi media, the technology takes precedence. If it is “purely” musical, it must be set to a theme that draws audience members in, regardless of quality. (How else do pieces like Henri Pousseur’s  La Seconde Apothéose de Rameau get programmed?)

One benefit of all this is that contemporary classical music is reaching a wider audience. But are we marketing it to death and losing sight of the search for something genuine and meaningful? When I finished my formal musical studies I had a limited number of choices. Contemporary music was one of the least remunerative, but I felt it fit my Geist, somehow. I felt I understood the drive of 20th century composers such as Schönberg and Boulez to find a new language that satisfied both the intellect and the aesthetic. (Not that I put myself on the same level as them!)

Nice weather we’re having, did you enjoy the concert?

Somehow, I feel we have lost sight of this, and I wonder if we are facing the death of contemporary music as we know it. Because as musicians, when you focus on the banalities of market theory, embrace bourgeois  Sunday salon mentality, there is a danger of ignoring  the actual music, ignoring the basic precepts of artistic integrity (be genuine, don’t compare yourself to others). These things will die if not nourished. Even if art music doesn’t immediately expire, it will suffer the indignity of being back where it started. A musical revolving door.

 Rewind, look at Schönberg’s Vienna. Salons, forced small talk, social, artistic and economic comparison of others in a bourgeois setting. I don’t want it. I want the music back.

Revolution sucks. Evolution rocks.

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Intonation I : Flutonation


Practicing intonation, I’ve noticed a few funny quirks of mine which I know are shared by many other flutists, so I think it is worthwhile confessing and hanging them out to dry.
(By the way, barring any live musicians I can scare up to do my nerdy exercises, my partner in intonation practice is my Korg OT-12. It’s a bit chunky and pricey, but it offers decent range of sound output. It is also recommended by orchestral piccoloists for its good registration of high pitches.)

But first I need to get another pet peeve off my chest: flutonation. It’s the natural intonation of the flute. I often hear it when a flutist is playing a solo piece without accompaniment, esp. a contemporary (atonal) piece that they think doesn’t need to be in tune. Oh boy….eyes rolling…..
I admit that I have flutonation in spades: C# too sharp, low and mid Eb too flat, but the high Eb too sharp. This is why I hate hearing it in other players :-)

Now for those other quirks:
When tuning unisons, I notice I tend to tune just a few cents sharp. I realized why after awhile: when perfectly in tune with my OT-12, the sound of the OT-12 disappears completely! The harmonic structures are so interlocked that they are indistinguishable. If I’m a little sharp though, I can still hear the tuner. And in my quest to always listen, to play so I can hear my partner (even if mechanical), I play so that both can be heard. Funny, huh? A case where overdoing one aspect can mess you up in another area. Sort of opposite the way pitch rises in orchestra – where you play sharp so you can hear yourself.

Another thing is octaves. I can tune vertical octaves without any silliness, but melodic (horizontal) octaves are another story. They are almost always too wide. I don’t know why, maybe I have played the flute too long and have a severe case of octave flutonation. Then there is picctonation. I hear octaves on the piccolo too narrow. That’s probably because I like to play with the cork rather close to the embouchure hole – but still, I should know better. I really have to re-train my ears with a fixed pitch instrument or my korg. I’ve developed some exercises for octaves with my korg that involve listening, not looking at the blinking lights.

In general, I’ve got several exercises for tuning with a tuner that involve listening to combination tones, complete with explanations. They are no longer publicly on my site because I am considering publication, but- if someone is really interested I can send them pdf.

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Pet Peeves for composers


This is going to be a work in progress.

To all composers – here is one musician’s (of the flutist persuasion) list of pet peeves:
There is a compositional tradition which I would like to ask composers to please avoid, especially when writing for wind players. This is using a comma (which looks to a wind player like a breath mark) at the end of a note to indicate that the player should maintain the intensity of the dynamic and end the note abruptly, without tapering:



A wind player’s instinct on seeing this mark is to make a quick inhalation – not the effect desired. A preferable solution would be to make a stylistic indication at the beginning of the work, or to indicate the dynamic graphically:

A short list of other pet peeves:
  • Using empty note heads to indicate air or aeolian sounds. Please see my tips on this subject.
  • Bass flute together with bass clarinet. Neither their ranges nor sonorities match. IMO the bass flute is better paired with the A-clarinet. The bass clarinet is a different animal altogether, with a much broader range, more scope for dynamics, than the bass flute. Just because they are both labeled “bass” (incorrectly, as it turns out for the bass flute, but that’s another story altogether) doesn’t mean they belong together.
  • piccolo and E-flat clarinet ditto. Cliche. Why bother? Unless you want to sound like a screeching street band. Maurico Kagel was able to get away with it.
  • Fluttertongue. It’s also cliche. Give it a rest please. (And it’s not a given that every flutist can do it – Asian flutists have a more difficult time. I myself cannot do the forward version, but have to resort to the Parisian Gargle) And it’s often imprecisely notated, esp. when it comes to mixing the flute and voice. When written together, why are they sometimes written differently? If one does a fluttertongue, the other will automatically do it too – it would be nice to have it reflected in the notation.
  • Extended techniques stacked up on top of one another. This is something some resort to thinking that it will make the sound more interesting and intense. Well, some techniques cancel each other out and just muddy the waters. Better to pick a few that work acoustically well together.
  • Difficulty for difficulty’s sake. OK, Ferneyhough made it part of the esthetic of Cassandra’s Dream Song – to make the struggle an intrinsic part of the music. But this is a rare case of it actually working (IMHO), I do love this piece but I haven’t come across another that successfully uses this scheme.

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