Harry Partch’s Yankee Doodle, and my tin oboe doodlings

Tony Dixon cylindrical bore aluminum whistle

Harry Partch’s Yankee Doodle Fantasy is scored for soprano, flex-a-tones, tin flute(s), tin oboe and chromelodeon. The tin flutes were easy enough to aquire, thanks to the folks at www.tinwhistle.de.  For the tin flute, I played a Tony Dixon in E (transposing the part). For the two whistles part, I added a Clarke in D, pulled out to where it almost reached a C#. This gave me the needed minor third between the whistles.

Clarke tin whistle with a conical bore

For the tin oboe I found no good solution and ended up playing the part on chalumeau (an early single reed instrument), borrowed from my esteemed colleague Carl Rosman.  My research and asking around didn’t come up with anyone living who had heard or performed the piece with an actual tin oboe. Henry Brant, who played the premiere with Partch, passed away in 2008 and to my knowledge did not leave a recording. After the premiere Yankee Doodle was recorded with oboe ordinario.

Therefore I began my experiments with tin whistles in order to make a tin oboe. You need a whistle with a removable mouthpiece. Then I used a soft oboe reed with a plug of beeswax that I softened, formed onto the whistle and allowed to harden. Then the quacking started. Given the conical nature of the oboe, it is no surprise that I had no luck with the cylindrical  Dixon whistles, so I then attempted the conical-bored Clarkes. However, they are conical the wrong way around, so I put the oboe reed on the “wrong” end and did manage to get some interesting notes. However, I couldn’t manage to get the actual pitches or the range needed for the piece (d-minor pentatonic scale, one octave). At least that gave me the hint as to how Henry Brant may have built his tin oboe. Had I the time and funds to buy and try out numerous conical whistles, or if I were handy working with metal, this is the direction I which I would have gone. Still, how one can achieve an entire octave on such an instrument is a mystery to me, but maybe it is my lack of skills that held me back.

I also tried a large duduk that we had lying around the musikFabrik from Benedict Mason’s the Neurons…, but the range was not covered. I also considered modifying one of Wolf’s Kinderoboes. K1 is basically a conical-bored recorder with an oboe reed, but pitched too high. K2/2 was too expensive. Had I the funds and wherewithal to work with wood, I perhaps could have modified K1.

The chalumeau presented the easiest solution, it covered the range, it is still a reed instrument albeit a single reed, and to our tastes, it gave the right sort of “exotic” sound that fit the music and text.

A word on the microtonality. I admit to playing the tin whistles and the chalumeau tempered, and not making any adjustments with putty or tape over the holes in order to exactly match the chromelodeon notes. Doing so  would have given me a “good” first octave, but would have wreaked (unwanted) havoc on  the second and third octaves. Since the part is so virtuosic and requires a range of 2 and a half octaves, I decided to leave it.  I did do quite a lot of hole-taping when I put the two tin whistles together to make Partch’s so-called Bolivian Double Flute for Delusion of the Fury. That will be the subject of a later entry!




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.


Summer in the Back Seat

This summer has been wild. I’ve had no proper vacation, yet have had a lot of quality family time. Musically it’s been rich, but as far as teaching, I have given up my job at the Conservatory of Bremen. Although it is not a financial blow, it will make my musical life poorer indeed.

I imagine I would have time to devote to students and to build up a good studio when I reach my 60′s. However, 65 is the age of compulsory retirement in Germany (and many other countries). It’s just not fair. If I live out my given life-span, I would have about 20 good years to give and devote to my students. Although I will continue to teach privately, coach and give masterclasses, regular teaching will have to take a back seat, for now at least.

This summer has also been filled with large theater projects, where music may often take a back seat. Seen in a positive light, music becomes just one facet that makes up theatrical life. But it is astonishing how one has to often struggle in order to give the musical facet any substance. I sometimes believe that being a dead composer is the most difficult job in the world. Heaven forbid if you have taken the trouble to print specific directions for staging, costume and lighting. They will be ignored and trampled upon by future generations.

It doesn’t do to be critical though, poor J.S. Bach would likely cringe at my interpretation of his Sonatas. Life goes on.

I will finish with a contradictory thought I can’t get rid of. It seems to me that Contemporary Music is undergoing an institutionalization and a marginalization at the same time. (This is in spite of the critical acclaim that followed Stockhausen’s works at Lincoln Center and the Munich Biennale this summer. However, I stress, it wasn’t the music that drew such media attention.)

Institutionalization is likely a natural progression, it has happened to some extent with “regular” Classical Music and Jazz. By institutionalization of Contemporary Music, I refer to the number of Ensembles and Ensemble Academies that have sprung up, and the specialized Masters Degrees that are available. These are wonderful things!

just what are we broadcasting to the universe?

Marginalization is relative and less easy to define, but I can name a few trends. One is less air-time on radio. Another is academic. It is astonishing how few top contemporary players have top teaching jobs, and I mean full professorships and not just adjunct, assistant, whatever. Sophie Cherrier and Mario Caroli are wonderful exceptions. But what about Robert Dick, who is an amazing teacher? And if the trend continues, I believe that upon retirement, Harrie Starreveld will be replaced in Amsterdam with an orchestral player, not with a premiere contemporary ensemble player and soloist as he is.

Feel free to argue with me on these points, they reflect my rather limited experiences.



Tongue Trippin’ in Munich 3 – a Quetzalcoatlus Dances

Rehearsal photo of Zungenspitzentanz from Luzifers Tanz. Photo A. Ackermann

When you perform a theatrical piece like Stockhausen’s Zungenspitzentanz for the first time, you may have that need of, just, please, one more rehearsal, one more run-through, just so I don’t mess this up!  Immediately after that first performance you may still want to ask: Could I just try that again? Now?

At least that was how it was with me. I have performed this piece before, but this was the first time with orchestra and conductor – an entirely different animal, I can assure you. The afternoon before the first performance I lay in my hotel room in complete disbelief and denial that tonight was the night. Perhaps because it took so much force to pull myself together, I managed to keep myself together.

I want to mention a few things that helped me to manage and keep my nerve during this project.

One was filming myself daily. This may sound strange, but watching myself helped me get used to the idea that this is what people see when they look at me. It doesn’t mean that I liked what I saw, I am super critical when it comes to myself. However, watching seemed to de-mystify things. I know my brow-ridge looks too harsh and Neanderthal-like from a certain angle, I know that this move shows the tendons in my neck like a turkey, and so on. For me it was less about accepting and loving yourself, as the self-help books say, and more about getting used to yourself and getting over yourself. I seem to remember a Zen saying that goes something like: “To know yourself is to forget yourself”.

Something else that helped was balance exercises. Several years ago I discovered this while taking a yoga class. If I can do balance poses, in a class or at home, and really focus on them, I find I am less distracted by nerves. Good balance gives you physical confidence. There is probably some scientific literature out there on the subject, someday I will research it. This leads me to my next item:

The Quetzalcoatlus effect. My musical preparations have been accompanied by intensive research into Mesozoic reptiles and dinosaurs. My son demands a story about them daily, and the more he learns, the more he wants to hear about them. So after watching this 10 minute video about Pterosaurs and their incredible brains wired for flight, quick maneuvering and, again, balance, I faced my relatively meager human abilities. But we have better instincts that we realize, if we can get out of their way. When I started to feel uptight during this project, I would think of the Quetzalcoatlus, ungainly on the ground, huge as a giraffe, weighing hundreds of pounds. Yet that sucker could fly!

With flutist Natalie Schwaabe after the concert.

So to recap the two performances in Munich: During the first one, it took me about three minutes to settle in, but I think considering my mental state it went very well. For the second one, I was much more relaxed and focused, but the conductor went much faster! Nontuplets at a quarter-note = 80 are challenging enough, but it felt like he was approaching 90 that evening, so there was less accuracy to be sure.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was great! To top that off, they were all so nice! Nor was I the only soloist that evening: Michael Leibundgut sang Luzifer and Marco Blaauw rocked on the trumpet. Both were an inspiration and a pleasure to hear.


Tongue Trippen’ in Munich 2

If I were to write my memoirs,  I would refer to this summer as the Siberian Summer. It is astonishingly cold here in Munich; however, our tiny hotel room accommodates us well, and we keep each other warm. On stage, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,  the spotlights blaze and the astonishing playing,  especially from the brass section, generates its own heat.

My first rehearsal was a sectional with groups 9 and 10 from Stockhausen’s Luzifers Tanz – piccolo, euphoniums, tubas, synthesizer and percussion. I had expected it to be a disaster as far as playing together goes, and so it was. We had no staging rehearsals, nor purely musical ones, so everything had to be put together on the spot. How was I to turn around in circles and stay with the conductor, especially in the sections with ritardandi and fermati? Monitors were also not realistic. I made some comprimises by not going full circle for at least one of the sections. We also spent a bit of time puzzling over a tempo discrepency in bar 933 between the full score and the solo and chamber music versions. Along with Kathinka, we decided that the solo version of the tempo was correct.

The next rehearsal was with full brass and percussion. When I say full, I do mean full! I never thought I would need amplification while playing piccolo,  but I am now very grateful.

The first tutti rehearsal went better than I expected.  I have come to terms with the fact that we will not achieve 100 % ensemble togetherness (that would require an additional rehearsal phase), so I focus on sounding as good as possible and making the movements as well as possible.

Will write more,  probably when I have my laptop again.  This thumb typing drives me nuts!

Brass and percussion for Zungenzpspitzentanz


Tongue Trippin’ in Munich

This is the first of what I hope to be a series of entries about my preparation for Zungenspitzentanz in the Munich Biennale with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra . Bear with me, I am typing with my thumbs, a technique I have yet to master.

My biggest help has been this Smart phone, which has many hours of video saved of my attempts to move gracefully and play murderous pasages while kneeling on the ground.

Some other things that have helped my preparation:
Le Freq (will insert link later). These little pieces of brass help the response of my piccolo’s low D, a crucial note in this piece.

The articulation exercises from Paul Edmund-Davies’ Warm up book (link to follow), and Moyse’s exercises “pour les sons graves”.

Of course, Kathinka Pasveer, and colleagues and students who have been willing to listen.

My next entry may be bizarre, I have had some unlikely and exotic sources of inspiration that I want to share.

Reheasal reports to follow as well.


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!




Should I Study Flute with Karl Marx?

The short answer is no. Dialectical materialism* has no place in the music room.

Although his beard may have been bushier than Monsieur Taffanel’s.

The long answer is more complicated. I am no expert on the works of Marx, and realize I am using his image for exaggerated effect. My real argument is anti-materialist and I could have just as easily picked on the Bourgeoisie. Read the comments below for quotes on Marx’s ideas on creativity. At the end of the day, we may have a lot in common.

I approach the subject of materialism and economics with some humility and trepidation.  For many of my colleagues in the Netherlands and the USA, economic determinism has reared its ugly head. Many orchestral musicians have lost their source of income and teaching staff have been severely reduced in many music schools and conservatories. The latter has hit me as well. This has made me think more than ever about my teaching responsibilities and, as usual when I have conflicting emotions, spurred a belated adolescent rebelliousness.

Rebelliousness against whom? Against those who teach the lie: “there is a right way and a wrong way to play”, “play it my way because I have a job and a house (or a yacht or whatever), “work hard and you will be rewarded with_____”.

Materialistic success is dangled before the student like a carrot before a donkey. Even worse, the materialistic success of the teacher creates in some cases an arrogant sort of authority. Granted, this may do the trick for some students. A clever teacher will latch on to whatever motivates the student and use it accordingly.

Yet doesn’t it make more sense to train whole musicians? Performers who improvise and compose. Composers who perform (rather than sit at the computer or synthesizer, which then spits out the parts).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the opposite of what seems to be the majority opinion. Despite the dwindling opportunities for orchestra work and reduced funding for the arts, this is as good a time as ever for young musicians who have something unique to say. With the internet, the world is your oyster. With the big institutions dying out, this is the time for small enterprises to fill the niches. Finding an orchestra job may be a quicker way to material success, but it is not a given these days. Nor does an orchestra job (or any material success) necessarily equal musical satisfaction or personal happiness. Having a job is hard work. I can vouch for that as a former orchestral player and as a full-time ensemble player. If finances are the only thing keeping you at your job, that is the quickest way to burn-out and bitterness. When things are getting grim for me, I can turn my attention to improvisation, or listen with knowledge and pleasure to Jazz or Carnatic music. Then I thank my former teachers who exposed me to these wonderful things!

This is why I think it is important for students to be exposed to as many ways of making music as possible. How else can you find out what it is you want to express and the best medium for expressing it?

Human beings are not going to stop listening to music entirely. Music will always be there in some form or another, in the background, in the foreground, live in concert or through ear buds. Take heart that you can make music, and get paid for it, if you are courageous, persistent, and seek inspiration. The path may be long or it may be short, but if you want to be heard, you will be! There is no excuse not to be heard, these days.

*Footnote: From my reading I gather that Marx did not coin or make particular use of the term dialectical materialism. It was popularized in a Marxist context  by Stalin in his 1938 paper Dialectical and Historical Materialism. I definitely would not have wanted to study with Stalin.


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?