Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say


This is an imaginary passage I have composed that has annoying and confusing articulation marks.

If you are not a wind player, the fact that this is annoying may puzzle you. It’s like this: as a wind player, from the very beginning you receive strict instructions on the use of the tongue. If there is no slur mark over a note, you initiate the note with the tongue, if it is under a slur mark, you don’t. Simple as that, a digital, on – off situation. The passage above, as written, contains too many possibilities for easy reading. It involves guesswork, and that involves time. In some cases, a composer may want to leave the details of articulation up to the player, and that is fine. I enjoy 18th Century repertoire for this reason, and it is perhaps worthwhile for composers to familiarize themselves with what J. J.  Quantz has to say about the possibilities of articulation in his treatise “On Playing the Flute”.  (If for nothing else than to understand the weight of history that flutists bear.)

Time spent on interpretive decisions is interesting time. Time spent on guesswork is not.

This is the 21st Century, and when I see music that is exactly notated, I want to play it exactly and I want to know what it is I have to say, and how I should say it. Because that is what articulation is all about: how you pronounce your phrase. I want to think that the composer has put some thought into this, as I am putting some practice time into his or her piece.

And, dear composers, please don’t say about a slur: “oh, it’s just a phrase mark.” Really? I am a musician, I make phrases for a living. I don’t need to be told to make one. But I do need to know when to use my tongue and when to hold it. And please don’t just say “oh, play that legato.” It doesn’t answer my question because I can articulate legato as well as slur something legato. Which should I do?

So if I haven’t pissed you off yet and you really want to see the possibilities for articulating the above passage, here they are.

The first two staccato B-flats are probably meant to be played:



but perhaps the composer meant:


I would really like to be sure.

Now, the two E’s, the second one having a staccato, could be played:


But did the composer mean: Articulationwell, maybe not, but how can I be sure? So I interrupt practice to contact him or her, or interrupt the rehearsal time to ask, or take time out of the rehearsal break in which I have twenty other things to get done.

Several years ago I was working intensely on solo improvisation. I kept a notebook with comments on segments I had recorded. The words “Say something, dammit!” were written in block notes at one point. When you listen to music, if it articulates nothing, it says nothing.


Composing Dynamics

In composition workshops, the question sometimes arises: in an ensemble or orchestral situation, how does one write dynamics for individual instruments? For example, if you want a balanced forte among winds and brass, does one write forte for the winds (assuming they are not playing in the altissimo register) but mezzo forte for the brass? Or does one just write forte for all instruments and expect the musicians (or conductor) to balance things out?

In spite of the wonderful composers (Ligeti among them) who have taken trouble to relativize dynamics for us, I would say: Write what you want to hear, not what you think we can play. Trust me. Let us do the musical work (or at least give the conductor something to do :-) ).

Other considerations: instrument building and playing techniques change over time. Abilities among players vary considerably. I can think of flute players who can drown out a brass section. If I were one of them, I would feel patronized by relative dynamics. Sadly, I am not, but I still feel sometimes annoyed by assumptions made by composers. For example, some composers assume a flute tone in the 3rd octave will be loud, so he or she will write pp for every passage in that register. Sometimes it’s obvious that is going on, sometimes it isn’t. What to do? Do you want your future performers spending their rehearsal time on your piece arguing with each other or putting your piece together?

This bears repeating:

Write what you want to hear, not what you think we can play.

Thank you for reading.




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.

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.


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 :)


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.

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.

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.