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 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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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 /, \, /\, or even \/, although you need a lot of air for that one (at least I do).
  • 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 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 only really work on the C flute, not 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 just doesn’t work on these flutes. A recent informal survey among flutists of my acquaintance confirms this.

Any flutists out there with any thing to add?

 

 

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Extended Techniques – a Do It Yourself Handout


Here is a 14 page booklet I put together on how to do the basics of some extended techniques:

  • Harmonics
  • Multiphonics
  • Singing and Playing
  • Whistle Tones
  • Percussive Effects
  • Circular Breathing
  • List of Studies for Further Practice
  • Selected Repertoire for unaccompanied flute

Here is the link. You may pass it on but please give credit where it is due. Any further suggestions are welcome.

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Singing and playing


Some time ago I decided to devote at least a few minutes of my flute practice time to singing. Long story as to why, I won’t go in to that here. But the decision to sing, and the upcoming workshop I am giving at the Adams Flute Festival on Sunday April 15, 2012 inspired me to put together these ideas.

Throat tuning is the best basic application of singing and playing. Tuning your throat to a pitch you want to play will help you to achieve maximum resonance. You can find a more detailed explanation in Robert Dick’s you tube videos and his exercises from Tone Development Through Extended Techniques. Here one of the exercises he demonstrates. This exercise is also much loved by Peter Lloyd:


You can start with Taffanel & Gaubert’s first daily exercise in any key. I have chosen B-flat because it falls easily in my range. You can also choose any octave you wish. In case the musical example is not clear, here is what you do: 1. play the first 5-note pattern, 2. sing the 5-note pattern while silently fingering the notes on the flute, 3. sing and play together, 4. play only, but keep the feeling and resonance as if you were singing and playing. You may notice a big change in your resonance.

Another application of singing and playing that I like to utilize is to use singing as a check-point for keeping a relaxed throat while playing high notes. If you can sing a low note while playing a high one, then likely you are using your embouchure and support correctly. If you can’t produce a low note while playing high, you are likely squeezing your throat in order to “help” the high notes out. That’s the easy way out! A good high register, though, has its support down below, and the lips do the work of narrowing the passage of air, not the throat.

To experiment, play a high note (any will do, I have G here, but you can go higher or lower) and see how high and especially how low you can sing while holding that note.

 You will hear many strange difference tones while doing this; as your voice goes up, you may hear a “ghost” glissando going down, and vise versa. Being able to create this effect is application I love about singing and playing. Some composers use it effectively, and it also comes in handy when improvising.

Now, back to the point about keeping the voice low: try playing octaves and keeping the voice in the lower octave. Keep the voice steady on pitch. Again, you can choose any key and any octave:


 A bit trickier is to keep the voice on a single low pitch while blowing through the harmonic series. If you aren’t familiar with the harmonic series, better to begin without singing. Don’t worry about getting the highest notes at first. Work your way slowly up.

C is a good note to start on, but you can choose another. Also, don’t be discouraged if you can’t produce the highest harmonics while singing at first, just work on getting them one at a time, no vocal glissandi allowed here!


And just because I am a bit fanatical, I wrote a vocalise to one of Reichart’s daily exercises. The voice sings the top line:

If anyone wants the whole exercise, I can send it as a Finale or pdf file (thank you Cutepdf!). Just send me an email at hbledsoe at helenbledsoe dot com.


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Circular Breathing on the Modern Flute


This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog
In 1992, while in residence at the Banff Centre, Canada, I spent eleven weeks learning to circular breathe so that I could perform Flames Must Not Encircle Sides by Robert Dick. I figured if I could do it at 1.500 meters (ca. 5000 feet) above sea level, in the dryness of the mountain air, I could do it anywhere. I won’t forget that first performance so easily! Flutist Aurèle Nicolet was also performing in that concert, so the pressure to perform well was intense.
There is one correction to make on this video: at ca. 01:04 I say “beneath the tongue” when I should have said “towards the base of the tongue”.
Michel Debost points out that Circular Breathing should be properly called Circular Blowing. I do believe he is right, but for the sake of consistency and electronic searches, I will keep the term Circular Breathing.
For more about the details and history of circular breathing I can recommend:
Michel Debost, The Simple Flute
Online

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Tongue Pizzicato


 A question came up on the Flute List about how to produce tongue pizzicato effectively. Here is a link to a video where I demonstrate this effect (along with other percussive effects and air sounds).

This is the notation I prefer for tongue pizzicato

To get a good POP, you have to close off your air passage from behind and in front, compress the trapped air, then release it. Perhaps a “bubble” image will help. That is what we are doing, popping air after all. It’s a simple concept that each flutist can do differently. I’ll now go into boring detail about what works for me.

To block the air from the back,  raise the back of the tongue as if you are beginning to swallow. If you try to close your throat further down (as it is in the middle of a swallow), that won’t work (for me).

For a tongue pizzicato, the release of of the air bubble can be varied, tongue on the lips, or tongue on the palate.

If on the palate, I find it more effective if the tongue is slightly retroflex. That’s a fancy word, but actually it only means the tip of the tongue is behind the hard palate, pointing up but not pointed. There should be an air-tight chamber (bubble), with the hard palate as the roof and your tongue as the walls and floor. The pressure to create the pop is made by trying to push the air bubble forward. When you feel the pressure, you can release front of the tongue and let the jaw drop a tiny, tiny bit, that will help the air bubble go down into the flute.

In the pizzicato with tongue on the lips (behind or between the lips, both are possible), the bubble’s roof is the roof of your mouth, the walls are the teeth and cheeks, and the floor is your tongue. The pressure is built up by squeezing whatever muscles you can (lips, cheek tongue, whatever works), then drawing the tongue quickly back. Letting the jaw drop here a tiny, tiny bit can also help here with resonance, getting the air bubble into the flute.

Hard to put into words what goes on inside us!

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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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Small-Interval Multiphonics


On the occasion of the publication of my article on Kazuo Fukushima’s Shun-San in Flute Talk May/June 2010 and Robert Dick’s upcoming masterclass in Bremen (July 6, 2010), I’d like to elucidate some ideas about multiphonics.

Working on Shun-San got me thinking about small-interval multiphonics (those with an interval of an augmented second or less). The first line of advice on how to produce these comes from Robert himself, and can be viewed here. His advice is fantastic, spot-on and humorful, I recommend viewing it.*
*Although I don’t agree with what Robert says in regard to offset G flutes or doing sit-ups, but that’s another story.

In my Flute Talk article, I touch on the subject of small-interval multiphonics. This passage has elicited some raised eyebrows and questions. To begin, I’ll site the passage:

Flutists often encounter difficulty with small-interval multiphonics because they are hung up on trying to produce a focus immediately. That is difficult to do when you are blowing in two directions at once. The irony of these small-interval multiphonics is, at first, you have to unfocus to get the sense of focus. Open up the embouchure hole and let both notes in. Initially there will be a lot of air, but with practice you can refine them. They will sound focused and rich because of the very low difference tone caused by a close interval. When you get the hang of playing these small intervals, it may help to focus on producing this difference tone rather than the individual notes themselves. That may seem strange but sometimes it works.

The first point of confusion may arise in that I assume the reader is already familiar with Robert Dick’s advice: get to know the dynamic range of each note first. Then, keeping a constant airspeed, use the angle of the air to find both notes. If you don’t research the gamut of air speed for each note, you’ll never find the small range of speed that overlaps and works for both.

This is what I meant by having to unfocus to get the sense of focus. You need a constant airspeed and a wide angle at first that will let both notes in. LinkLinkPlease forgive my artistic crudeness, but here hopefully you can see where the angles overlap. If your focus is too narrow at first, you may miss the range where the angles overlap.

Now, to explain that bit about the low difference tone. An explanation of difference tones can be found in Wiki. Often is is not an actual, distinct tone that I hear. Rather, it is just a low sort of humming sound, or it’s as if something opens acoustically at the bottom – a feeling rather than a sound.

I hope this has been of help. Some of those multiphonics in Shun-San are hair-raising! Even someone like me who has been familiar with them for years needs to put in serious practice time on them. It is a good refresher!

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