Bass and Alto Flute Resource – a gold mine

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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

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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 enzymes from 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

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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 or reading bass clef.

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.
Q: What is your favorite work for bass flute? Or which scores do you recommend for study?
A: At the time of this writing, I am particularly fond of Luigi Nono’s Das atmende Klarsein.
I would recommend studying this score. Rebecca Saunders’ Bite was written for me, so it naturally contains the things I love to do on bass flute.

Click here for more information through Carla Reese’s excellent website.

Click here for repertoire for bass flute (add filter “solo bass”)