Effective Use (or not) of percussive sounds

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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?

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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.


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?