bass flute

Bite by Rebecca Saunders

This is a cross-posting from Musikfabrik’s BLOG

In Bite for solo bass flute, Rebecca Saunders attempts a special synthesis of speech and bass flute sound that I have not encountered in the repertoire so far. Unlike most works that use the voice and the flute, the voice is not relegated to a singing or narrating role. The phonemes of speech are used to shape elements of the flute sound, much like an ADSR envelope shapes the amplitude and filter of a synthesizer’s oscillator. This what I call speech-gesture language was developed during our work on her ensemble piece Stasis. In Stasis, I was given a text from Samuel Beckett and had quite a lot of freedom to put words to various palettes of multiphonics or other sounds, forcing each word into a sound.

In Bite there is no such freedom, it is a thoroughly composed work and all the speech-gesture language has found its way into the notation. No clearly spoken text can be heard.* A performer does have the freedom, however, to add text if it helps to shape a phrase or even a single sound. Some text I added found its way into the printed version.

My only other interference in the compositional process had to do with the editing. The first draft lasted about 19 minutes, we brought it down to about 13 for this final version. I pleaded for one section not to be cut, because I particularly liked playing it.

Aside from learning the notes, I had several particular challenges in learning this piece. The first was the physical challenge. Since my bass flute is particularly heavy I had to buy a special stand to take the strain off my wrists and elbows. The work is also quite cathartic, sometimes one is required to shout or loudly vocalize with fluttertounge. This is something I enjoy, but I had to take care not to strain my voice during hours of practice.

There were plenty of artistic challenges for me as well. The work is interesting in its contrasts. Spectrally, one goes quickly from very rich, saturated sounds to very détimbré sounds, from over-blown rock ‘n’ roll sounds to the finest multiphonics. That in itself is technically difficult. In addition, all sounds are introduced in the first three minutes of the work. Since sonically nothing really new is introduced, I have to somehow generate my own flow of energy to engage the listener for the remaining ten minutes. This energy and engagement is musically very important because there is no development or narrative (which I find amusing in a piece which uses elements of speech).

I think this is one of the brilliant aspects of Rebecca’s music. Its modular components allow one to color their own interpretation with their own spectral and dynamic palettes. Indeed, one is forced to do so, because one can’t rely on traditional forms or gestures to carry the music. This opens up the path to contemplate and develop other aspects of musicianship.

I hope in these endeavors I succeed somewhat, and curious listeners will enjoy this recording. It took place after several years of performing it in concert, so I had plenty of time to let the interpretation mature. Yet each time I look at it anew, I always make discoveries!

The score is available through Peters Edition. If you have a library copy, check to see if that copy matches the latest Peters Edition version. There are quite a few differences.

*This is a great contrast to the piece I am working on now by Georges Aperghis for solo piccolo/narrator “The Dong” based on text by Edward Lear, which will be premiered in Musikfabrik’s concert in Darmstadt hopefully August 1st, 2021.

bass flute fourth octave practice technique

(Bore) Size Matters

Several times this year I have had other flutists asking me about my bass flute and whether I was able to play easily in the upper 3rd and into the 4th octave. My Kingma bass flute has a mid-size bore (sorry, don’t know the exact specs) and is able to play up to high C comfortably, high C# and D with effort. When I recorded Mark Barden’s Personae for bass flute and bass clarinet last year, I resorted to borrowing a Pearl bass flute that had a narrower bore, because I could never reliably hit a high E on my Kingma (which is otherwise an awesome instrument!). This passage is an example:

I am posting this to reassure you that if you are a seasoned bass flutist and are having real difficulty with these notes, don’t bang your head against a wall or berate yourself. Check your bore size. If you have one of those lovely large-bored instruments I really envy you – they sound marvelous! But I don’t envy you when you have to play in the 4th octave. Carla Reese sums things up nicely in her guide for buying large flutes:
“In general, a big bore instrument will have a stronger low register and a weaker high register than a small bore instrument. Bigger bores also tend to have a slightly slower response and more difference in tone between registers. Big bores are ideal for playing in flute choirs (especially for the bass) but can be heavier and need more air. Small bores are ideal for solo repertoire, where the demands can require more agility and a stronger high register.”

A colleague of mine who is a woodwind doubler has an extra small-bore Kotato bass flute, he says a high D pops out with hardly any effort.

I wish someone would invent a bass (or alto) flute that has an adjustable bore size!


Audition videos and tapes – presentation advice and warnings

Here are some of my insights into presentation as someone who watches and listens to many auditions. Please feel free to add to this in the comments below. I won’t talk about equipment or software now, an internet search will provide lots of advice on this subject.

Audio or Video? If given the choice, I prefer video, or at least a mix of audio and video. Good audio is a pleasure to listen to, but it is easier to get an idea of your musical personality with a video. If there are many excellent candidates to choose from, this can be a deciding factor.

Visual Aspects for video auditions:

  • Lighting. If you find a good acoustic space, please make sure you are not back-lit by a window or any other light source. The main source of light should be from the front and sides. It is very frustrating to watch someone but not be able to see them properly.
  • Music Stand. Keep it as low and flat as possible. A rule of thumb is to have a flute length’s distance between you and the music stand. Make sure to do a trial-run to see if your musical movements sometimes get hidden by the music stand. If you are someone who ducks down a lot while playing, put your stand even lower.
  • Unless otherwise stipulated, videos can be edited (montage) with fade-in and fade-out between orchestral excerpts or repertoire pieces with what are called “jump cuts” in film jargon. However, even if jump cuts are allowed, it is very impressive if one can do a complete unedited video of all one’s orchestral excerpts and do it well.

Audio Aspects: make sure you record in stereo and that your mix is in stereo. It is a bit strange to hear a candidate through only one ear of my headphones. Somehow I feel something is missing, even if it is only psychological.

Make sure the recording levels are decent. Some devices will flash green to indicate a good signal, with others you will have to watch a meter, or rather have someone watch it for you. An internet search will give advice on how to achieve good recording levels for your device.

Cheating: Audition tapes and videos usually stipulate unedited materials. This really means no post-production manipulation of your sound signal such as splicing or enhancements. Simply mixing your audio and video together does not fall under this category. Other exceptions may be adding “jump cuts” (see above) and titles to your video, but check the requirements.

Really good digital manipulation is very difficult to detect, even by professionals. But you would be surprised at how often I come across it done badly. If you don’t want to make your auditioner suspicious, watch out for the following:

  • If you are making a video, make sure your audio has realistic reverb decay and pre-delay times that correspond to the size of your room.
  • Make sure there are no sudden changes in the noise-floor level. This is a dead giveaway that indicates the dynamics have been manipulated. Some microphones that are optimized for recording speech have built-in compressors that automatically change recording levels according to the level of input. However, with these you will hear an increase in the noise-floor level during quiet dynamics and a decrease when louder. With post-production digitally manipulated dynamics you hear the opposite.

File Formats: this may depend on the requirements. For me personally, a streaming platform is better for audio and video such as YouTube, Vimeo or Soundcloud. This is more convenient than waiting for a file to download on your computer.

Be aware some formats and platforms are Apple specific. It is better to avoid those and choose cross-platform formats.

Putting your last name in your file: For example, “LastName_Repertoire.doc” or “LastName_CV.doc”. This is particularly important for supporting materials such as resumes, letters of recommendation and repertoire lists. Auditioners may have many documents open at once, and it is easier to navigate them if the file name has your last name in the heading.