Flute Multiphonics – Q&A for composers

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Q: Should I write in the fingerings for multiphonics?
A: Yes. It saves time. It saves misunderstandings. Books go out of print, so please avoid naming multiphonics by number. I know writing or drawing in multiphonics can be a pain. If you have many of them and want to save time and ink, you could write the multiphonics with fingerings in your performance instructions so you need not repeat the fingerings in the score.

Q: How should I notate the fingering?
A: Robert Dick has the most intuitive system, it is just a template of the layout of the flute’s keys. Carin Levine and Pierre Yves Artaud don’t draw the trill keys but refer to them with the letters “A” and “B”. A flutist unfamiliar with these books (esp. if they get out of print) won’t know what to do. If you need a template, you may use the jpg below (taken from Robert Dick’s Flying Lessons):

There is also a cheap downloadable font for Sibelius, Finale and text editors available here. I haven’t tried this out myself, so I don’t know how easy it is to use, but I like the results.

Q: Which multiphonic resource should I use?
A: At the time of this writing, I would most highly recommend Robert Dick’s The Other Flute and Carin Levine’s The Techniques of Flute Playing. Do not use Bruno Bartolozzi’s New Sounds for Woodwinds.

Unless you are a flutist yourself, I would not advise using The Virtual Flutist. When a resource shows every single pitch that can be produced by a certain fingering, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a multiphonic can be created from these pitches. Try it with a live player before trusting a theoretical projection of the flute’s acoustic response.

Q: Can I just notate the main note and leave the multiphonic up to the player?
A: Sure! Be aware though that on the lowest notes only harmonic multiphonics are possible. In layman’s terms, multiphonics are made possible by venting the tube at a certain location which causes the note to split. Low notes need the long tube of the flute. If we vent a key, we shorten the tube: therefore no low note. In short, the best range for “free” multiphonics is the middle register and up to the flute’s 3rd octave B-flat. At least that is the most comfortable for me.

Q: Can you trill a multiphonic?
A: Depends. Almost all have the possibility to do at least a timbral trill. Check with your local flutist.

Q: Can you fluttertongue a multiphonic?
A: Yes. Some very close multiphonics are actually easier with fluttertongue. This is assuming however, that the flutist can fluttertongue. It’s not always a given.


Robert Dick, 22 March 2009

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Left to right: Charlotte, Johanna, Nozomi, Robert, Wan, Kanae

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending, albeit briefly, Robert’s masterclass in Wuppertal, Germany. It was great to see him! The last time I saw him, he was walking out on a concert I gave at the BAM in New York! Not because of me though. Our group was playing very loud minimalistic music, not his (or my) cup of tea. At least I got to wear earplugs. Since then, we’ve both become parents, so we had a good exchange on the joys and difficulties of juggling children and career. We’re both “older” parents, and are on our own as far as having no near relatives or live-in help to give us a hand.

Be that as it may, I got a good dose of inspiration. He began Sunday morning chatting about singing and playing, and the importance of singing in general. There’s nothing like it to get you listening. He said that if he were to teach a beginner, he would start with singing. This resonates with what I have been thinking these years, esp. after having studied in India. There, one learns to sing or use the voice first, even in training to be a percussionist! I think we are a strange musical culture, that puts some object into a kid’s hand and says, now make music out of it! Someday, I must put my India notes on blog.
Anyhow, back to Robert.

5 of our (Harrie Starreveld’s and my) students, past and present, took part. I was very impressed with what Robert had to say about Mozart and Kuhlau. This was the first time I had heard him coach the classical and romantic repertoire; his keen musicality and vivid imagination made for very good lessons.

We did touch on learning harmonic multiphonics, in the context of Fukushima’s Mei. This applies to Berio Sequenza as well. [The 1st days of the masterclass went into extended techniques in detail – I unfortunately missed them.] When it comes to the harmonic multiphonics that are found in these two pieces, it pays to put in some serious time in studying them before learning the piece. You don’t learn the sonority in the piece, just like you don’t learn the D major scale by playing Mozart!

He described it thus: by not practicing the sonorities first and just hoping they come in the concert – it is as if you walk down to the sea and just happen to reach in the water and pick out the exact fish you wanted!

How to go about preparing harmonic multiphonics:
Practice octaves, fifths, and fourths – in that order.
With octaves, it is easiest to begin where the flute has a short tube: C2 – C3. then work your way down.
With fifths and fourths, begin where the flute is longest, low C or B and work your way up.
Suggested practice time devoted to this: 15 min each day.

The benefit of this is not only to learn these sonorities, but to make the lips fit. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. This is the practice pathway up the mountain!