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.


Sounds of Silence

When a composer includes silence in a solo work, it cannot tossed off as a neutral medium for spacing out notes or phrases. One has to ask, is the silence an arrested motion, or is it a mere suspension of action? Determining the type of silence one wants to create is crucial.

This is why I often think of silence in as colorfully characteristic terms as possible:

  • the very tense, pregnant “Japanese” silence, a sumo wrestler poised for the lunge
  • the brief, contemplative silence that can fall between a “question” phrase and its “answer”
  • a peaceful, empty silence
  • the silence that covers “hidden action”, as a stream disappearing beneath the earth, only to resurface elsewhere
  • the conscious, present silence, in which the music stops and one expressly becomes aware of extraneous noises

The possibilities are numerous.

Another interesting interpretation of silence is to see it as YOUR turn now to listen to the audience. I read about this but can’t remember to whom this idea should be credited!

The type of silence you create will be determined not only by how you move, or how still you are, but how you breathe during the silence. It is interesting to see how Heinz Hollinger composed silences in his solo flute piece (t)aire(e) with specific durations and written directions such as “hold breath as long as possible”, “inhale slowly”, and “inhale imperceptibly”.

This kind of choreography plays an important role in interpretation, and not only during the silent parts! Allow me to make a negative example: Peter Lloyd likes to tell of a student of his who played the Berio Sequenza beautifully. However, the constant languid, swaying movements of the student distracted him, especially since such movements are appropriate only momentarily (if at all) in the Sequenza. This is an important lesson. While you are busy giving an audience a well thought out interpretation, make sure your body does not betray you by telling a conflicting story!


Interpretation of Contemporary Music: Finding the Composer’s Voice

Familiarity with a composer’s style and esthetics is essential in preparation of music from any period. How can we go about learning these essentials when faced with music of a composer who is new to us?

First, research and familiarize yourself with the composer’s other works, and perhaps more interestingly, find his/her sources of inspiration. These sources may be musical (traditional Japanese music, in Toru Takemitsu’s case) or non-musical (Edgar Varèse and Iannis Xenakis were both inspired by architecture). Here are some specific suggestions:

Luciano Berio, Sequenza no. 1: listen to the Sequenza no. 3 for voice (even though the vocal Sequenza post-dates that of the flute). Listen to a recording of Cathy Berberian for whom the piece was written (recorded on the Wergo label), or Luisa Castellani (Deutsche Gramophon). If you ever have a chance to hear Ms. Castellani perform this piece live, jump at it, she does a stunning job from memory.

Edgar Varèse, Density 21.5: listen to the woodwind solos in the ensemble pieces: Intgrales, Hyperprism and Octandre. Poeme Electronique, his last finished work, I believe, shows how he realized his concept of blocks of sound electronically. This piece, architecturally inspired by LeCorbusier, seems to be a culmination of his ideals.

Toru Takemitsu, Voice or Itinérant: Listen to some traditional shakuhachi playing as well as music from Noh theater, although Takemitsu only later in his career composed with traditional Japanese elements and for Japanese instruments. In November Steps, a concerto for solo biwa and shakuhachi, you can hear how he combines these traditional instruments with modern orchestration. The films for which he wrote music show how he valued the notion of timing and movement.

Kazuo Fukushima, Mei, Shun-San, Requiem: Fukushima was not a terribly prolific composer. Although he is still alive at the time of this writing, he seems to have stopped composing at the end of the nineteen-sixties and devoted himself to full-time teaching. To understand the esthetic of his works, one should be familiar with the sounds of traditional Japanese Noh Theater, its flutes, drums and chorus, and the experimental style of Western music of the sixties with its early forays into the use of extended techniques and graphic notation.

Salvatore Sciarrino, Opera per flauto vol. 1 & 2 : Each piece in this two volume set exists in its own sound universe through the exploitation of a particular set of extended effects. For me it was useful to hear how he translates some of the same effects to other instruments such as the clarinet solo Let me die before I wake. His ensemble pieces Esplorazione del Bianco and Introduzione all’oscuro are good examples of how he uses particular instrumental effects to create atmosphere.

Find the composer’s sources of inspiration by reading biographical information or reading his/her own writings, often easily found in libraries or the internet. If the composer has little internet presence one can also try:
• searching the directories of national composer’s unions (ASCAP in the US)
• sending inquiries through the composer’s publisher
• sending inquiries to the CD or record label on which that composer is recorded

Information about lesser-known composers may be scant, or recordings of their works may not be available. In this case, don’t despair, ask around. Use your own resources, knowledge of different styles and the knowledge of colleagues or friends. Ask the advice of other composers. If they are amenable, offer to play for them. Sometimes it has helped me to play for someone who is trained to listen to form.