Ligeti Hamburg Concerto (Horn Concerto)


I thought it would be a nice segue from my last post on the True Range of the Flute to a work that, great as it is, has serious issues regarding range. Composers, if you have overstepped the bounds of the flute’s range, you are in good company.

Gyorgi Ligeti is just about my favorite composer. However, the fourth movement of his Hamburg Concerto poses serious problems. The first flute, playing flute, not piccolo, has to contend with this, at tempo dotted-quarter = 120:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-24B

I have heard this played on flute, the 1st player just ignoring the octave indication. If I’m not mistaken, this was the solution on the recording that was made with Ligeti. I did not work with Ligeti on this piece, but have played under conductors who have experience with the piece. What I did was play this passage on piccolo, but that poses another problem later on since there is no time to change back to flute. Our solution was this: 1st player plays piccolo until “l”, leaving out low D-flats and E-flats (they are doubled anyway). Have the 2nd flute play “l” through “m” while 1st changes to flute, then 1st resumes playing at “m”.

Earlier on in this movement, the 1st player has the following passage. The Notes after “V” are possible, but when played on flute, it throws the dynamic balance of the ensemble totally off:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-2(1)3A

I solved it by changing to piccolo at “U”. The last time I played it, I thought “what the hey”, and just played from the beginning of the movement on piccolo (transposing the written part down an octave, of course). It makes for better dynamics at “T” (not that it is impossible on flute). The only note you have to leave out is the B in the third bar of “T”. I don’t present this as an authentic or brilliant solution, it was just a whim and the conductor went with it.

I hope this helps future flutists working on this cool piece (including myself, just so I remember what we did)! If you know of other solutions, I am all ears.

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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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Notating New Sounds – Rewrite?


I love it when a composer takes the flute in hand and explores its sounds while writing for flute. It shows more dedication and curiosity than just looking up techniques in a book (not to disparage the good books about writing for flute).  Sometimes, it can produce an original sound, but sometimes it re-invents the wheel. Which is fine, but the wheel may come with a new symbol and complicated instructions. I have seen this cause frustration, esp. when the instructions are lengthy and not in your language. Once you reach understanding: “ah ha, so it is ____(fill in known technique)” it may be easy to adjust to a new notation. If not, then I am faced with the question, do I spend time re-notating, or visually re-adjusting to the score? This is something I will come back to.

In no way do I wish to discourage composers from exploring flute sounds themselves. However, be aware that today there are not only books, but a rash of flutist composers out there who have spent decades thinking about how to write new sounds in ways that flutists can easily understand. So if you really want to delve into the world of new sounds, check out these composers and their written scores: (Feel free to add to this list in the comments, but please keep it to composers who use extended sounds.)

It might interest you to look at the late flute works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Thanks to his collaborator, Kathinka Pasveer, everything is 100 % playable and extremely well notated. Xi, Flautina and Kathinka’s Gesang are several examples of pieces with well-notated techniques.

You will see that even among flutist composers there is no standardization of extended techniques. However if you study them, you get a feel for what is accepted and what the players are used to reading. So take your pick; if the player has questions, you can always refer back to the piece or composer from which you took the notation.

Now, about re-writing, or rather, re-notating. When the question comes whether to spend my time re-notating or to spend time learning a tricky or non-intuitive (for me) notation, I almost always choose to re-notate. This might be to more easily read the notation of an extended technique, microtones, or rhythm, etc. Please note this is a last-resort solution. I am already comfortable with many variations of key-click, tongue pizz, air sound, and multiphonic notations. However, when the score presents a real visual problem for me, I decide to re-notate. This has the following advantages:

  • I get to know the music really well away from the instrument
  • While practicing, I can easily and more directly process the composer’s intent (i.e. the music)
  • In concert, I feel more secure. When under pressure, there is enough extraneous sensory information and certainly there are enough extraneous emotions to deal with. If you are not playing from memory, the score is your anchor. It has to be solid.

In the olden days, copying scores was one way students learned music. There is a lot to be said for this method, but I don’t recommend subjecting 21st century ensemble players to it. Solo pieces are different matter. However, if your piece is being work-shopped along with six other pieces in the course of one day, your piece will stand out, but not in the way you hoped :)

 

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Effective Use (or not) of percussive sounds


I have already written a lot on the subject of percussive sounds, but here I would like to add a few subtleties of usage.

We will be performing Grisey’s Talea soon, and preparing the score, I am struck by how fantastic the piece is, yet how awkwardly some of the percussive effects are used. My goal is not to fault Grisey, but since there are composers who may emulate him (and why not? he was a wonderful composer!), I want to smooth the way. It seems to me Grisey and many other composers have a misconception of what these effects can actually achieve.

A tongue or lip pizzicato does not add volume to a note (especially in an ensemble context), and is never louder than an ordinario note played at the same volume. It is a misconception to think that starting a note with a pizz will intensify its initial volume. A really forceful accent with the airstream, or with the langue sorté, will do the job better. In a solo work, a pizz will give a satisfying pop, and is an effective way to vary articulation. This pop is produced by closing off the resonance of chest cavity and most of the flute tube (since there is minimal air traveling down it), and is not compensated by the meager resonance inside the mouth.There is no air stream to project the sound. This is why I am frustrated by the following passages, where if I play a true pizz, I get a lessening of volume and intensity – just the opposite of what is musically called for:

This next sample shows a similar volume difficulty with the tongue ram at the end of a crescendo on the downbeat of 26, along with the difficulty of switching quickly from closed embouchure position to open in the two bars after 26. And I have to ask, who the hell is going to hear those key clicks? This is why they fall so often into my “why bother” category of techniques. Great use of pizzicato here, though.

Why am I bothering with such small things? The musical intentions of the composer are clear, and one can easily perform the gesture with alternatives.  However, students of flute and composition are getting younger and younger. Our youth ensemble is tackling repertoire I never dreamed of when I was in my teens. They may not have the experience to immediately grasp what is needed musically. They will, at first, take the score literally, thus getting frustrated. If their teacher is also inexperienced, there will be a double frustration and the trust between composer (alive or dead) and performer damaged.

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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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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!

 

 

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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, 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. Some of my colleagues with Brannen Kingmas and Kotatos can do them well.

Any flutists out there with any thing to add?

 

 

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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.

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Air & Percussive Sounds for the Flute


 This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog

This video gives a brief demonstration of some common air sounds and percussive effects on the flute.

Here are some further tips for players and composers:
For players, when doing air sounds, it is not always necessary to use as much air as possible. After a long, loud passage, you might find yourself passed out on the floor! The trick here is to make as sibilant a sound as possible. One way of doing this is to actually narrow the throat a little to make the air passage smaller (I know, just the opposite of what we all learned!), then raise the tongue a little, so that it disturbs the distribution of air wanting to escape from your mouth. These are subtle adjustments, you needn’t do too much. All you are doing is speeding up the air, as when you narrow the end of a garden hose to make it spray further. For loud passages, you will still need to give extra support from down below, putting your abdominal muscles into play.
The pizzicati sounds will be louder and more resonant if the flute is turned out a bit. The more you can make resonance in your own mouth, the better. For maximum resonance for key clicks, stay in playing position, open your throat as far as possible, and open your mouth just a bit more over the embouchure hole to create an extra resonance chamber.

I have posted some further information on the production of tongue pizzicato here.

For composers:
There is unfortunately no standarisation of notation for these effects. I have shown on the video those recommended by Pierre-Yves Artaud in his book Present Day Flutes. I find these to be quite intuitive, but maybe another flutist will have another opinion.
When notating air sounds for the flute, please avoid using empty note heads, unless an empty note head is rhythmically called for (a half note, dotted half note, or whole note). I know, Helmut Lachenmann, Isabel Mundry, and other well-known composers use open note heads, but it makes their music extremely frustrating to read. I am hoping that this tradition will die out. (For more about this and to see written musical examples, read my blog entry here.)
Key clicks on the flute fall into my “Why Bother?” category. Unless you carefully compose them in a solo work, or under amplification, you won’t  hear them.  95 % of the time, I end up having to reinforce them with a tongue pizz. Helmut Lachenmann’s Mouvement is an exception, there are some passages with pure key clicks that can actually be heard! However,  other passages in that piece that need the reinforcement of a tongue pizz.
Note that the difference between a tongue pizz produced on the palate and a tongue pizz produced on the lips is not very distinct. It may be best to let the player decide where to produce the pizz. Some can do it on the palate better, others more effectively on the lips. However there are circumstances, such as close amplification, where that small difference can be quite interesting.
Now, if only I could beatbox…..

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Trouble-shooting problems between composers and performers


There are several categories of potential trouble areas between composers and intstrumentalists:
1) Basic orchstration mistakes
2) Unfamiliarity (on either side) with a particular extended technique or effect
3) Unclear notation

What I am about to say may seem a bit didactic and Miss Mannerish, but really, it’s common sense. And as you may gather, I’ve had enough bad experiences to know what works and what doesn’t. I’m all ears for other ideas though.

Flutists, unless you are dealing with a composer/performer, you are the expert of your instrument and in a possible position to educate the composer. See your role as that of an educator, but use it with care because no one likes to feel patronised. To say simply “this is impossible” is very unproductive, even when it comes to a simple mistake such as a low C on the piccolo.

When faced with difficulty, the first step is to find an alternative. It is sometimes useful to take the initiative and suggest one yourself. As in all possible conflict situations, it is better to retain the “I” message rather than the “you” message. For example: I naively expect composers to know basic orchestration rules for flute and piccolo; therefore I am constantly disappointed. What to do? Some example suggestions: “could I take this low C up an octave? My standard piccolo only plays to low D.” or “given the (lack of) time we have, I would much prefer to play this rapid 4th octave passage on the piccolo rather than on the flute.” or “on this high C, I can achieve a much nicer pianissimo on the piccolo rather than on the flute.” The composer will most likely get the idea.

Articulation of staccato notes is another difficulty I run into with composers (and even conductors). On the lowest notes, the flute has a long resonating tube, and this takes time to speak. Some head joint cuts are designed so this register speaks loudly and easily. One can always strive to do better, and there are many exercises for the improvement of this technique. However, if you run into serious trouble trying to match the length of notes with string instruments or electronic sounds, you do have an acoustical excuse. If you see an alternative, suggest it. If not, express your willingness to work on improvement, but show the composer the length of tube required to resonate (and thus the physical limitations).

Often, when puzzling over an extended technique, rather than say “this is impossible” or “I can’t do this”, it helps to ask what the composer actually wants acoustically. Is there another technique which you can do which would be just as or more effective? Or ask where s/he got the technique from. Was it from another player whom you could simply contact for advice? Was it from a book? Were acoustical considerations overlooked such as the difference between a B foot and a C foot, or the difference between any two flutes or flutists?

Most composers I have worked with are very open and eager to look for solutions together. I once experienced a misunderstanding in an ensemble piece where I was faced with a passage of rapid, high whistle tones (notated exactly so: “whistle tone”) marked forte. The composer, Beat Furrer, actually wanted these sounds loud, which is an acoustical impossibility. He insisted, however, that the previous player had achieved this. I asked him what the previous player had actually done, then tried out a few things according to his description. It turned out that what he wanted were overblown harmonics with a lot of air, which in the context of this ensemble piece did give a whistling effect. So these effects were not whistle tones as I had learned them, nor as they appear in textbooks. I pointed this out to the composer, who did not take my point or make any “correction” in the part. As long as we had found the acoustic solution together, he was satisfied his notation had produced the results he wanted. What to do? In this case, I decided I had done my “duty” by pointing out a possible misunderstanding for the next flutist. To have taken “educator” role too far would have just meant getting into an argument (which I would have undertaken had this been a solo piece).

This is perhaps a long way of saying to my fellow flutists: let’s work together with composers to encourage the following:

  • a more standardized notation for extended techniques
  • a good working score for the next performer who comes along!

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