Subtitle: the Great Jet Whistle Lump
(for an introduction to the topic of Lumping and Splitting, read Part I)
“Airy Sound” is an indication that I come across very often. Although I use it myself in my own pieces, I am aware that it’s a whole kettle of lumped-together fish!
For flutists, the main distinction that has to be made is whether the air should go:
- across the flute in normal playing position (pitched air sounds), or
- into the flute with the mouth covering the embouchure hole (unpitched air sounds)
I want to write about the second type, these “unpitched air” or “inside flute” sounds. They are interesting for several reasons:
- you can make filtered noise with sibilant sounds (“s” – “sshhh”)
- you can play with vowel sounds (“ooh” – “iii”)
- you can mess around with speech (if you like muffled effects – bear in mind, speech produced with the hole covered will neither carry nor be understood).
- you can buzz around like a trumpet (not great for your embouchure, I like to do this in improv for shorts bursts, though)
- you can play jet whistles
OK, I have listed at 5 things you can do, and there are definitely more. But let’s not muddy the waters, let’s look at the ones that deal with just air, numbers 1, 2, and 5. These are all quite distinct techniques that sound very different.
So why, WHY, do some composers lump all these techniques together and call them “Jet Whistle”? This is lumping on a grand scale.
On Rogier de Pijper’s very useful webpage, he defines: “Jet whistle is a forceful and loud attack of air. It might be associated with the starting of a jet plane, that’s why they are called Jet whistle”. Exactly. Anything slower or softer is just an aeolian / airy sound with the embouchure hole covered, no jets involved.
It’s valid to imagine how a jet whistle would sound slowed-down, and one can do it a bit slowed down, the way a flutist would blow into their flute to warm it up. This is still a fairly quick action that needs time for breathing and to change the embouchure position. It takes air to get those upper harmonics resonating. Longer effects would be better served by writing a covered-embouchure air sound with the vowels “ooh — iii — ooh”, where the dashes represent gradual changes.
So why don’t I accept these longer effects as a “slowed-down” jet whistles? Because from the flute perspective, it’s very different on the technical production level, and because there are many other ways you can imagine this kind of slow, air/aeolian sound, with different combinations of shapes, vowels and sibilant sounds. This is where it pays to be specific, because there are so many different, wonderful, whooshing sounds possible on the flute! Why be generic?
For tips on how to notate air sounds, see this blog entry or this video on pitched air sounds or this video on unpitched air sounds. For a more general video on consonant and vowel colorations for flute, see this tutorial here.