bass flute low register Stockhausen

Low Register: Descending to Paradise

Countdown: just about one month before my performances (8 in two days!) of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s PARADIES for flute and electronic music. Am I panicking? No. But I have been soundly kicked in the butt. This piece allows for absolutely no technical weaknesses. In addition, I’ve been challenged to really expand my stability, dynamics, and coloristic range of the low register.

PARADIES is composed of 24 stanzas. Each stanza has a group of notes (ritornelli) that may be played freely and repeated, and a composed insert which can be played at any time within the stanza. Each ritornello has a fermata on a low note – that makes a lot of long low notes that need to be varied in terms of length, dynamic, vibrato, or even air sounds, fluttertongue or singing and playing.

Soft, quiet dynamics are not acoustically viable in PARADIES (even though the flute is miked). They appear at strategic moments when the electronics are not sounding full blip, but these are rare moments. I think this is too bad, but hey, Mr. S didn’t ask my opinion. A quiet dynamic may be played within the ritornelli, but there needs to be a crescendo after it. Therefore, my expansion has been in the direction of forte.

So I’m finally getting to the point about what I’ve learned about the low register. [By the way, the following can also help with bass flute playing.]
The number one killer of the low register (for me at this time) is pressing of the flute into the chin. This makes the distance from the exit of the air stream to the edge of the embouchure hole too short. The “air reed” needs space for that register, especially if you want to use a heavy vibrato!

The whole challenge in playing loud and low is to be able to give more air but to make sure the air is not too fast. Aim it down, move the flute away. These are not original ideas, but just something we all need to be reminded about from time to time. Also, there are two pieces of advice from Michel Debost (The Simple Flute) that I find really work for me:
1) Play on the middle breath. That sounds strange because if you have a long low note marked ff, the instinct is to take a huge breath and blast away. But if you have a very full tank in your lungs your airstream will me more difficult to manage, it just may come out too fast and crack that low note. I’ve found that with practice, I can play a long, loud, low note without having to take a HUGE breath.
2) Release a bit of air through the nose a fraction of a second before you play. That also sounds strange, but makes sense if you think of your airstream as a violin bow that is being set in motion before the attack.

Now to see if this all works even if I’m wearing pink! That’s right, the score specifies what color you have to wear for this piece, regardless of your chromosonal situation. The color for the 21st hour of the KLANG cycle that PARADIES represents falls in the pink spectrum. (If you play Harmonien, you wear blue, Balance, you wear green.) Dynamic expansion and wardrobe expansion, all-in-one!
Photo: Disney clip-art

bass flute contemporary music Luigi Nono

Nono: a Bass Flutist Prepares

Working on Das atmende Klarsein has provoked a bit of a crisis. Not that I can’t handle a piece for solo bass flute, small choir and live electronics. I eat that stuff for breakfast. Well, ok, I usually wait until after breakfast….

The crisis comes from several directions. One is historical. You wouldn’t think a contemporary music person like me would be faced with issues of historical performance practice, but it happens all the time. Styles change, techniques change, instruments are built differently, all with the rapidity of less than one generation. And I’m not even thinking about the electronic components!

I did not really like the piece at first. Take the first movement for flute: at first listening it is nothing more than a grab-bag of (now cliché) flute sounds: airy, elephantine honks on a piece of metal plumbing along with the rattling of ill-fitted key work. A real 1980’s museum piece. How on earth does one mould these sounds into something that can say something today? Was there even a “something” that needed to be moulded? My guess was yes. I have noticed a direct correlation: the more obscure something sounds you can bet the more heavy the philosophical component lurking behind the work. And it turns out I was right. At least that is somewhere to start! Research!

There is no lack of information regarding the background of this piece. The score is sold with a DVD for didactic purposes. OK. I’m undyingly grateful and informed. However, the audience will not have the benefit of this DVD, they may not even bother to read the program notes. I need to present something that sounds convincing without a brief lecture on the philosophical texts of Plato, Hölderlin, Walter Benjamin and Rilke. Is it just me, or am I strange in thinking one should be able to enjoy music on a purely sensual level?

That is crisis No. 1 in a nutshell. Crisis No. 2 is this: I’m having to eat my words. All my composer spanking has, in a way, come back as a great kick in the behind. Ok, some of you may be sniggering about that. Go ahead. You see, Nono was one of those great composers who really, really worked closely with the performer. This is what I’m always encouraging composers to do, telling them not to do this, not to do that, to be precise in notating what the player can do. Well it seems to me in this respect Nono was so successful that I see in the score what Roberto Fabbriciani could play, and in fact, I don’t know really what Nono himself wanted. I can only infer it by gathering background information on this piece and working with those who knew him. (So you see, oral tradition still plays a great role!) That is a grey area I can deal with, as I am experienced in interpreting and improvising. But it is an example where I wish the notation were a little, hmm, less precise and more open to variations of articulation, dynamics and sound color. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel as if I am playing a piece by Nono at all sometimes. Of course the overall concept of the piece is his, but when it comes to the flute part I feel less like I’m crawling into the skin of the composer and more like I’m crawling into the skin of Roberto Fabbriciani. Please note, I mean absolutely no disrespect here for the man!

However, Fabbriciani says in the DVD that the score is a point of departure for interpreters. Whew! The role of the bass flute is also explained: it represents a nostalgia for the future, as the choir represents a nostalgia for the past. I wonder if it is the same esthetic as his work for violin, tape and electronics, La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura? In any case I found this a useful concept. Nostalgia for the future also goes through it’s fashion, from Star Trek to Sun Ra’s cult film Space is the Place. The trick is to present sounds, phrasing and so on that sound fresh and forward-looking in today’s world.

I was reminded of a passage from Stanislavski’s book An Actor Prepares. The actor was to interpret the role of the hero who was a misogynist. The difficulty was, the piece was a light comedy, not a tragedy. What is funny about a misogyny? Analysing the role, the actor discovers that the hero does not really hate women, he only wants to project that image. That gives lots of scope for irony and self-deprecation. The parallel here is that I am reminded again not to take the written score at face value, but to find in it the voice I want to project.

Was I successful? Well, depends on who you ask. After the concert I was pleased to hear from some that they enjoyed the piece on a purely musical level, not knowing Nono’s music. Approval from the non-cognoscenti, so to speak. However, one Famous Flutist remarked that it was impressive, but had nothing to do with actual flute playing. I was disappointed that was how it came across, as if intonation, long-ass phrases and extreme control of the direction of air stream have nothing to do with flute playing. Although maybe it was a compliment in that the technical processes were well hidden enough so that at least something came out?

(edit) Here is a read-only share link to a later formal article that I co-authored with Daniel Agi concerning Nono’s late flute works.

Advice for Composers bass flute

Bass Flute ins and outs – for composers

Here’s some collected advice on how to compose for the bass flute.

Please realize that the bass flute is not a true bass instrument. It won’t honk unless you amplify it or use its third octave. Both can be very effective, but I often wonder why composers don’t take advantage of the beautiful acoustic sound of the instrument’s first octave more often. What it lacks in carrying power, it makes up for in soulfulness.

When composing extended techniques – some are very effective! All the percussive tricks like tongue or lip pizzicati and tongue rams work very well in the first octave. Be aware though that they too can get lost in an ensemble situation, especially if you have percussion or bass clarinet also doing slaps. It’s difficult to match the dynamic impact of a good bass clarinetist doing slaps.

Key clicks – as with the C flute – fall under my category of “why bother” techniques. I almost always find I need to supplement the key sound with a tongue or lip pizz. They can be effective though if not much else is going on. And please (this is almost a no-brainer, but I have to repeat it all the time) when you write a fast passage, bear in mind that you’ll only get key noises on the notes that require you to ADD a finger. Logically, descending passages work better than ascending.

Multiphonics work on the bass flute – fingering charts can be found in Carin Levine’s book The Techniques of Flute Playing vol. 2. Basically, you can use most C-flute multiphonics that don’t require half-holes. Again, though, there are acoustical considerations. Quiet dynamics, please! with the exception of high overblown harmonics. Multiphonics can be tricky on the bass flute, so don’t be disapointed with an airy, unstable result. If that’s the effect you wish to create – all the better! To seek a stable, dynamically viable multiphonic, work with the individual player. Each player will have his/her own set of multiphonics which come easier.
It’s less of an issue nowadays, but beware that some cheap instruments are still being made without trill keys – so multiphonics using trill keys will not work on them.

Whistle tones work well but are difficult to control. Sweeping through the overtone spectrum on a fingered low note can be effective. Again – as you all probably know – this is easier for the player when it’s just an atmospheric effect. Longer notes please! Or if they need to be short, it’s best to have a free or undefined rhythm as the response time may vary.

Air/aeolian sounds. This is a great, if perhaps overdone, effect on the bass flute. Toshio Hosokawa uses it often in his ensemble works to good effect. Beware though that young or inexperienced players will need some time to develop when it comes to producing louder dynamics.

Click here for frequently asked questions.

Click here for more information through Carla Reese’s excellent website.

Click here for repertoire for bass flute (add filter “solo bass”)