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 instead of the whole lip plate, 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 /, \, /\.
  • 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 at the peak 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 are most effective on the C flute, and less so 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 doesn’t have the same impact on these flutes. Some alto and bass flute can produce a decent jet whistle, but you need a very sharp blowing edge on the headjoint. Only a small handful of my colleagues with Brannen Kingmas and Kotatos can do them well.
  • I mentioned the piccolo, and would like to add that piccoloists with headjoints out of quality wood are not going to want to subject their embouchure holes to the enzymes from saliva. Putting your mouth on the instrument is a quick way to devalue it. The embouchure cut is very precise on a piccolo, the smallest changes to the blowing edge can make a big difference.  The instrument is difficult enough without degradation to its blowing edge.

Any flutists out there with any thing to add?





5 responses to “Some thoughts on composing jet whistles”

  1. Robert Raines Avatar

    What a wonderful web site for performers and composers of music for flutes. It must have been a great deal of work – thank you!

  2. Tomás Avatar

    From Argentina, thanks a lot for doing this and your videos. They’re helping a lot with my compositions.


    1. admin Avatar

      Thanks, Tomás, glad they are helping!

  3. Eva Avatar

    Hi Helen,
    thank you for your great postings!!!
    just short comment…
    i miss a few things…f.ex: i call it ‘jet whistle technic’, producing exact pitches inside and also do longer actions… maybe ‘jet’ itself is short, but it is possible to go through the harmonics inside the flute…
    and also up down up…
    and: i never cover the whole lip plate, so the changements to normal sound are possible… maybe discuss it another time, when we meet again?

    1. admin Avatar

      Hi Eva, yes, this is something to definitly discuss in person since it’s hard to describe these things with words. As I mention, in my understanding, a jet whistle is a quick action. I think it’s interesting you call the longer actions “jet whistle technique”. I would be afraid to do that because of confusion with a real jet whistle, so I would prefer “aolean sound” or “air sound” with a symbol indicating a covered lip plate.
      Sometimes I don’t cover the lip plate entirely either, especially if there is a quick change to normal sound. But if the composer wants a really loud pfifff!!! I find I have to cover completely.
      Thanks for your comments, I would love to hear you demonstrate! Helen

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