Composing for Flute, advice and warnings

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Here is a running list of salient points from my separate blog entries together in one place. This is a work in progress, so any tips are welcome. For more advice on composing for flute, you can view my entries in the categories: composers, or pet peeves.

Range of the Flute and the Characteristics of its Octaves: for a full rant on the subject, read here.

First_OctaveThe first octave of the flute has a special timbre due to the fundamental being relatively
weak in relation to its first partial ( a partial can also be called a harmonic partial or overtone). Projection over other sounds doesn’t come easily in this register. Dynamics are possible and are produced by adding and subtracting the upper partials of the sound.

First_Octave_C_to_E

A special word about the lowest notes of the flute. These are produced by the right hand pinky on the foot joint of the flute. Fast passages that are not purely chromatic or scalar can be difficult because they require sideways motion. Consider writing fast passages for these lowest notes on alto flute. A fluid motion from B – C# is not possible because the C/natural roller lies in between the B roller and the C# lever.

Cis The middle C# of the flute deserves special mention. Because it is the open note of the flute it has a naturally hollow timbre. Debussy used this to great effect in the opening of his L’Après-midi d’un Faune. Although it technically lies in the second octave, its projection possibilities are limited due to its lack of upper partials in the sound.

Second_OctaveThe second octave of the flute doesn’t contain as many caveats, but beware writing these notes as harmonics (see below).

 

 

Third_Octave

The third octave is where the flute can really shine in an orchestral situation. However, sustained quiet passages, or dynamics al niente or dal niente can be difficult for the highest notes of this range.

 

One mistake composers commonly make is to write loud passages in this range on piccolo instead of the flute, thinking that the piccolo will project more. However, the third octave of the flute projects much better than the second octave of the piccolo. If you want a brilliant sound for this register, use flute and not piccolo.

Another mistake composers make is to write these notes as harmonics, thinking that this will make them quieter and give them a more détimbré sound. That may be so on string instruments, but from around F or G up in this register on the flute, harmonics require more air and a higher air speed, and are therefore difficult to produce quietly. If you want a special quiet sound, find a special fingering that vents the sound and don’t rely on an overblown fundamental. However, if you want a full overblown sound, the harmonics in this register work very well.

Fourth_Octave

Use the fourth octave sparingly, especially when writing for young players. A non-harmful 4th octave technique takes time to develop. In ensemble or orchestral music with extended or technical passages in this register, please consider using piccolo. If the passage contains sustained notes in this register, piccolo is also better.

In this range, the flute will be heard, no matter how many ppp‘s a composer writes. Loud dynamics only. The remarks about harmonics in the third octave also apply here.

Trills: avoid the following trills on the flute. They involve a sideways motion of the right hand little finger instead of the quick up-down motion that produces a good trill.

No_No_Trills

Harmonics:

ForbiddenHarmonics

Since harmonics are produced by overblowing on the flute, the first octave notes cannot be produced as harmonics. The E-natural, F and F-sharp in the second octave are not available as harmonics because the fingering is the same in the first octave as in the second. They are already harmonics.

As mentioned above, quiet harmonics are difficult above the upper third register. If you want quiet, especially sustained sounds with a special timbre, consider using alternate fingerings rather than true harmonics. Read why here.

Multiphonics:  Basic guidelines:

  • write the fingering (or for extended passages where this will clutter the notation, provide the fingering in the performance instructions).
  • use an intuitive template for writing the fingerings, such as those in Robert Dick’s The Other Flute.
  • unless you are a flutist yourself, I would not advise using online resources such as  The Virtual Flutist. When a resource shows every single pitch that can be produced by a certain fingering, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a multiphonic can be created from these pitches. Try it with a live player before trusting a theoretical projection of the flute’s acoustic response.
  • if you want to give the flutist a choice of multiphonics based around a certain pitch, Mbeware that the lowest pitches will produce only harmonic multiphonics. The second measure, the C in the second octave, gives more inharmonic possibilities than the first.
  • take care of the surrounding dynamics in an ensemble situation. The flutist has to be able to hear him/herself well enough to produce these sounds accurately.

For Q & A about writing for mulitphonics, read here.

Jet Whistle: A really high-powered jet whistle needs time and quite a bit of air to set up. For best effect, have a rest (ca. one second) before and after a jet whistle. It is too often that composers think of a jet whistle as a kind of climax or punctuation after a phrase, as in the following example. But there are two problems: 1) There is no time to set the embouchure 2) There is no time to breathe. It bears repeating, if you want a full force jet whistle, give the player time to set it up.

JetWhistle

Harmful things:

  • Slamming hands onto the key work. A key click is OK.
  • Immersing part of the flute in water.
  • Closed embouchure techniques on wooden mouthpieces. (Tongue ram, jet whistle, etc.)  Saliva contains enzymes that will degrade the wood over time.
  • Extreme temperatures.

Some pet peeves:

  • Using empty note heads to indicate air or aeolian sounds. Please see my tips on this subject.
  • Extended techniques stacked up on top of one another. It is easy to think that this will make the sound more interesting and intense. Some techniques cancel each other out and just muddy the waters. Better to pick a few that work acoustically well together.

 

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Which extended techniques are harmful to flutes?

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During composer workshops, I am sometimes pleased to hear the question: “What are some techniques we should definitely not use because they may harm your instrument?”

So I will keep a running list here.

  • Slamming your hands onto the keywork. A snap of the finger for a key click is one thing (and not all flutists like to do this, including myself), but once I was actually asked to raise my arm above my head and bring my hand down full force on the keywork. Repeatedly. For some reason, I had trouble convincing this particular composer that this might actually break or bend the posts and rods holding the keys in place.
  • Immersing part of the flute in water. If water, even a tiny drop, gets onto the key pads, the pad can swell up and not seal properly (and it may need to be replaced). The same can happen when pads are exposed to excess moisture, which is why I do not like to play out of doors, but that can’t be helped sometimes.
  • Putting your mouth directly on wooden lip plates. This is why I get out my plastic piccolo if I have to do a tongue ram or any percussive effect that requires me to close the embouchure hole with my mouth. Salivation is the first stage of digestion, and I don’t want the result of those chemical processes on finely carved wood.
  • (Not an extended technique, but please bear in mind.) Extreme temperatures. With metal flutes, key pads and the mechanism might go out of adjustment. With wooden instruments, it can be fatal! Some insurance companies will not even pay out if damage occurred while the instrument was below or above certain temperatures.

I am sure I have forgotten something!

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Tempo, Where’s the Hurry?

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In my last entry, I made some sarcastic remarks about the tempo in Berio’s Sequenza for flute being too fast. Now with genuine curiosity, I would like to probe composers’ psyche in the hopes that it will reveal why given tempi are often too fast. I will try not to make this a rant.

Given today’s technology, it is not surprising that computer generated scores can churn out notes at a certain tempo that sounds “correct” when electronically reproduced. Then when produced with actual living, breathing creatures playing mechanical objects, the composer realizes that compromises or adjustments to tempo have to be made. That is understandable.  However, I  encounter this phenomenon with pre-technological pieces as well as contemporary ones that were composed away from the computer.

The problems I see when a tempo is too fast:

  • Variations in division of the beat are poorly perceivable. Personally, I like my quintuplets to sound like quintuplets, and be discernible from sextuplets or sixteenth-notes.
  • Variations in pitch are poorly perceivable. Not only are fingering and lipping microtones difficult at high speeds, but can you really tell in a blur of notes if I play an F or an F a sixth-tone high? Should I really bother? [When I (and probably most flute players) get excited about a loud, fast passage, my F, and all the surrounding notes,  will be a sixth tone higher whether I like it or not.]
  • Variations in articulation are poorly perceivable. If inflections of long and short are important, I would appreciate time to produce them and to make sure the audience has time to capture them.

Sometimes I am annoyed when I point out these things to a composer, and the response is: “Oh, that is the tempo you strive for, the ideal tempo.” Well, do I really strive for that tempo (which I can achieve in some cases) and sacrifice the musical details? If you know me already from reading my blog, I am at my worst when presented with conflicting information. I do appreciate conflict as a positive creative force, but do not appreciate it when it is a result of artistic laziness.

But I am a nice person, and cannot believe that the majority of composers are lazy. So what is going on?

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