Bass and Alto Flute Resource – a gold mine

I want to share with you two websites by Carla Reese that just about say it all when it comes to composing for alto or bass flute.

Alto Flute

Bass Flute

What I appreciate are her explanations about the dynamic capabilities and limitations of these flutes. I am often frustrated by composers who write ensemble works and choose these flutes for their range only, rather than for their timbral capabilities. Often, I am expected to match the dynamic environment of my colleagues playing trumpet, (bass) clarinet, bassoon, and English horn – instruments that more or less match the range of these flutes. When frustrated, I have been known to peevishly remark to the composer, “a saxophone would have served your purpose better.” The inevitable response is:”but I love the color of these flutes.” “Well then write so that you can actually hear the color of these flutes”, is my usual unspoken response.

As Carla explains on her site, “Dynamic range, and projection, on the bass [and alto] flute[s] is controlled predominantly by tone colour rather than actual dynamic”. She further provides a spectral analysis that compares the sound of the C, alto and bass flutes.

If you are considering writing for bass or alto flute, especially in an ensemble situation, please read her pages!



Some thoughts on composing jet whistles

Jet Whistles on the flute can be amazingly effective, but one has to compose them with care. You can hear a sound file here on Mats Möller’s website. He calls it “Strong air stream without tone”. Two composers who use jet whistles effectively in ensemble situations are Helmut Lachenmann (Mouvement, Zwei Gefühle) and Bernhard Lang ( DW 9 Puppe/Tulpe) –  you might want to check out their notation and usage.

A few basic pointers:

  • Jet whistles need time to set up. The flutist has to go from normal playing position to inserting the entire lip plate into his or her mouth.. (insert dirty joke here…) You can sorta, kinda do it with the lips just covering the hole instead of the whole lip plate, but it doesn’t have the impact. To be on the safe side, make sure there is a rest before and after the jet whistle.
  • A jet whistle is a quick blast of air that can begin with an ascending pitch or a descending pitch. Graphically they can be /, \, /\.
  • Quick is the operative word here, especially if you want something that will carry in an ensemble situation. I have been asked to do slow ones, which are possible if you don’t need a high pitch at the peak and if you don’t need to project the sound. In other words, it has to be a quiet environment. I would even go so far as to argue that what I would be doing in this situation is colored air noise, and not a proper jet whistle.
  • It is not possible, in my experience, to notate the exact resultant pitches. A graphic representation is the nicest way to go about it.
  • Jet whistles are most effective on the C flute, and less so on piccolo, alto or bass. One can make whooshing sounds and all kinds of colored air noises in these flutes, but for whatever acoustical reasons, a true and dirty jet whistle doesn’t have the same impact on these flutes. Some alto and bass flute can produce a decent jet whistle, but you need a very sharp blowing edge on the headjoint. Only a small handful of my colleagues with Brannen Kingmas and Kotatos can do them well.
  • I mentioned the piccolo, and would like to add that piccoloists with headjoints out of quality wood are not going to want to subject their embouchure holes to the acids in their saliva. Putting your mouth on the instrument is a quick way to devalue it. The embouchure cut is very precise on a piccolo, the smallest changes to the blowing edge can make a big difference.  The instrument is difficult enough without degradation to its blowing edge.

Any flutists out there with any thing to add?



Bass Flute ins and outs II – for composers

Since my last post about composing for bass flute, I’ve taken note of other questions that pop up with regularity.

Q: Should I notate the pitches as sounding or transpose up an octave?
A: Please transpose them up an octave. Flutists are not used to reading ledger lines below the staff.

Q: Can a bass flute play glissandi?
A: Yes. There are two things to be aware of though.
1) Most bass flutes don’t have open holes like normal C flutes, so research with your local flutist if you want a smooth glissando over an interval larger than a minor second. From a middle C to E-flat, and the C to E-flat an octave above, the flutist can use the trill keys to effect a good glissando.
2) A long tube means the pitch is more difficult to manipulate. Unlike the piccolo, which can go out of tune if you look at it the wrong way, a bass flute requires more effort to bend the pitch. In the lowest octave, where the tube is the longest, a lip glissando of a quarter tone is about the easiest one can do. A lip glissando of a  larger interval can be done if you allow the dynamics to help you. To let the dynamics help: use decrescendo for a downward slide, and a crescendo for an upward slide.

A bass flute by Eva Kingma with open holes. Not every flutist is lucky enough to have one.

The third octave of the bass flute is easiest for glissandi. Here you can use a combination of lips, adding or lifting keys to get a good glissando. For the exact range of a glissando on a particular note, it’s best to check with the flutist for whom you are writing.

Q: Can a bass flute play microtones?
A: Yes. Third tones, quarter tones, and sixth tones are all possible. (Actually, the smaller intervals are easier, for me at least.) Since most bass flutes don’t have open holes, there are basically two ways to produce microtones:
1) De-tune a normally fingered pitch by turning the flute in or out and adjusting with the lips. The lowest notes from its lowest C to E-flat (an octave below middle C) have to be done this way (see question above as to why that could be problematic).
2) Using a special fingering, usually a “shaded fingering” or “forked fingering” that adds keys to a normal fingering.  These fingerings tend to sound very unstable and diffuse (it’s a cool sound, but not always what you need).

Q: What about fast passages with microtones?
A: Beware of writing fast passages with microtones. On any flute, not just bass, learning a fast passage with non-standard fingerings will take the flutist not only twice as long, but I’d say up to ten times as long. That’s fine if you are investing time in a solo work that will get a number of performances and you are sure every note will be heard and count for something.

Q: What about playing fast microtones with just the lip or turning the flute in or out?
A: That’s fine if you have only quarter-sharps or only quarter-flats. Otherwise, you will have a good laugh watching a flutist bob his head in two directions at once. If you are lucky, the flutist will not bang his headjoint against his front teeth and claim liability.

Low Register: Descending to Paradise

Countdown: just about one month before my performances (8 in two days!) of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s PARADIES for flute and electronic music. Am I panicking? No. But I have been soundly kicked in the butt. This piece allows for absolutely no technical weaknesses. In addition, I’ve been challenged to really expand my stability, dynamics, and coloristic range of the low register.

PARADIES is composed of 24 stanzas. Each stanza has a group of notes (ritornelli) that may be played freely and repeated, and a composed insert which can be played at any time within the stanza. Each ritornello has a fermata on a low note – that makes a lot of long low notes that need to be varied in terms of length, dynamic, vibrato, or even air sounds, fluttertongue or singing and playing.

Soft, quiet dynamics are not acoustically viable in PARADIES (even though the flute is miked). They appear at strategic moments when the electronics are not sounding full blip, but these are rare moments. I think this is too bad, but hey, Mr. S didn’t ask my opinion. A quiet dynamic may be played within the ritornelli, but there needs to be a crescendo after it. Therefore, my expansion has been in the direction of forte.

So I’m finally getting to the point about what I’ve learned about the low register. [By the way, the following can also help with bass flute playing.]
The number one killer of the low register (for me at this time) is pressing of the flute into the chin. This makes the distance from the exit of the air stream to the edge of the embouchure hole too short. The “air reed” needs space for that register, especially if you want to use a heavy vibrato!

The whole challenge in playing loud and low is to be able to give more air but to make sure the air is not too fast. Aim it down, move the flute away. These are not original ideas, but just something we all need to be reminded about from time to time. Also, there are two pieces of advice from Michel Debost (The Simple Flute) that I find really work for me:
1) Play on the middle breath. That sounds strange because if you have a long low note marked ff, the instinct is to take a huge breath and blast away. But if you have a very full tank in your lungs your airstream will me more difficult to manage, it just may come out too fast and crack that low note. I’ve found that with practice, I can play a long, loud, low note without having to take a HUGE breath.
2) Release a bit of air through the nose a fraction of a second before you play. That also sounds strange, but makes sense if you think of your airstream as a violin bow that is being set in motion before the attack.

Now to see if this all works even if I’m wearing pink! That’s right, the score specifies what color you have to wear for this piece, regardless of your chromosonal situation. The color for the 21st hour of the KLANG cycle that PARADIES represents falls in the pink spectrum. (If you play Harmonien, you wear blue, Balance, you wear green.) Dynamic expansion and wardrobe expansion, all-in-one!
Photo: Disney clip-art

Nono: a Bass Flutist Prepares

Working on das atmende klarsein has provoked a bit of a crisis. Not that I can’t handle a piece for solo bass flute, small choir and live electronics. I eat that stuff for breakfast. Well, ok, I usually wait until after breakfast….

The crisis comes from several directions. One is historical. You wouldn’t think a contemporary music person like me would be faced with issues of historical performance practice, but it happens all the time. Styles change, techniques change, instruments are built differently, all with the rapidity of less than one generation. And I’m not even thinking about the electronic components!

I did not really like the piece at first. Take the first movement for flute: at first listening it is nothing more than a grab-bag of (now cliche) flute sounds: airy, elephantine honks on a piece of metal plumbing along with the rattling of ill-fitted keywork. A real 1980’s museum piece. How on earth does one mould these sounds into something that can say something today? Was there even a “something” that needed to be moulded? My guess was yes. I have noticed a direct correlation: the more obscure something sounds you can bet the more heavy the philisophical component lurking behind the work. And it turns out I was right. At least that is somewhere to start! Research!

There is no lack of information regarding the background of this piece. The score is sold with a DVD for didactic purposes. OK. I’m undyingly grateful and informed. However, the audience will not have the benefit of this DVD, they may not even bother to read the program notes. I need to present something that sounds convincing without a brief lecture on the philosophical texts of Plato, Hölderlin and Rilke. Is it just me, or am I strange in thinking one should be able to enjoy music on a purely sensual level?

That is crisis No. 1 in a nutshell. Crisis No. 2 is this: I’m having to eat my words. All my composer spanking has, in a way, come back as a great kick in the behind. Ok, some of you may be sniggering about that. Go ahead. You see, Nono was one of those great composers who really, really worked in close tandem with the performer. This is what I’m always encouraging composers to do while telling them not to do this, not to do that, to be precise in notating what the player can do. Well it seems to me in this respect Nono was so successful that I see in the score what Roberto Fabbriciani could play, and in fact, I don’t know really what Nono himself wanted. I can only infer it by gathering background information on this piece and working with those who knew him. (So you see, oral tradition still plays a great role!) That is a grey area I can deal with, as I am experienced in interpreting and improvising. But it is an example of where I wish the notation were a little, hmm, less precise and more open to variations of articulation, dynamics and sound color. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel as if I am playing a piece by Nono at all sometimes. Of course the overall concept of the piece is his, but when it comes to the flute part I feel less like I’m crawling into the skin of the composer and more like I’m crawling into the skin of Roberto Fabbriciani. Please note, I mean absolutely no disrespect here for the man!

However, Fabbriciani says in the DVD that the score is a point of departure for interpreters. Whew! The role of the bass flute is also explained: it represents a nostalgia for the future, as the choir represents a nostalgia for the past. I wonder if it is the same esthetic as his work for violin, tape and electronics, La Nostalgica-Futura? In any case I found this a useful concept. Nostalgia for the future also goes through it’s fashion, from Star Trek to Sun Ra’s cult film Space is the Place. The trick is to present sounds, phrasing and so on that sound fresh and forward-looking in today’s world.

I was reminded of a passage from Stanislavski’s book An Actor Prepares. The actor was to interpret the role of the hero who was a misogynist. The difficulty was, the piece was a light comedy, not a tragedy. What is funny about a misogyny? Analysing the role, the actor discovers that the hero does not really hate women, he only wants to project that image. That gives lots of scope for irony and self-deprecation. The parallel here is that I am reminded again not to take the written score at face value, but to find in it the voice I want to project.

Was I successful? Well, depends on who you ask. After the concert I was pleased to hear from some that they enjoyed the piece on a purely musical level, not knowing Nono’s music. Approval from the non-cognoscenti, so to speak. However, one Famous Flutist remarked that it was impressive, but had nothing to do with actual flute playing. I was dissapointed that was how it came across, as if intonation, long-ass phrases and extreme control of the direction of airstream have nothing to do with flute playing. Although maybe it was a compliment in that the technical processes were well hidden enough so that at least something came out?

Bass Flute ins and outs – for composers

Here’s some collected advice on how to compose for the bass flute.

For both composers and performers:
To check out solo repertoire you can refer to my repertoire list – scroll to the list of works with piccolo/alto and bass flute. You can also listen to my playing Boulez’ Dialogue de l’Ombre Double arranged for bass flute.

Please realize that the bass flute is not a true bass instrument. It won’t honk unless you amplify it or use its third octave. Both can be very effective, but I often wonder why composers don’t take advantage of the beautiful acoustic sound of the instrument’s first octave more often. What it lacks in carrying power, it makes up for in soulfulness.

When composing extended techniques – some are very effective! All the percussive tricks like tongue or lip pizzicati and tongue rams work very well in the first octave. Be aware though that they too can get lost in an ensemble situation, especially if you have percussion or bass clarinet also doing slaps. It’s difficult to match the dynamic impact of a good bass clarinetist doing slaps.

Key clicks – as with the C flute – fall under my category of “why bother” techniques. I almost always find I need to supplement the key sound with a tongue or lip pizz. They can be effective though if not much else is going on. And please (this is almost a no-brainer, but I have to repeat it all the time) when you write a fast passage, bear in mind that you’ll only get key noises on the notes that require you to ADD a finger. Logically, descending passages work better than ascending.

Multiphonics work on the bass flute – fingering charts can be found in Carin Levine’s book The Techniques of Flute Playing vol. 2. Basically, you can use most C-flute multiphonics that don’t require half-holes. Again, though, there are acoustical considerations. Quiet dynamics, please! with the exception of high overblown harmonics. Multiphonics can be tricky on the bass flute, so don’t be disapointed with an airy, unstable result. If that’s the effect you wish to create – all the better! To seek a stable, dynamically viable multiphonic, work with the individual player. Each player will have his/her own set of multiphonics which come easier.
It’s less of an issue nowadays, but beware that some cheap instruments are still being made without trill keys – so multiphonics using trill keys will not work on them.

Whistle tones work well but are difficult to control. Sweeping through the overtone spectrum on a fingered low note can be effective. Again – as you all probably know – this is easier for the player when it’s just an atmospheric effect. Longer notes please! Or if they need to be short, it’s best to have a free or undefined rhythm as the response time may vary.

Air/aeolian sounds. This is a great, if perhaps overdone, effect on the bass flute. Toshio Hosokawa uses it often in his ensemble works to good effect. Beware though that young or inexperienced players will need some time to develop when it comes to producing louder dynamics.