Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stockhausen in Adorjan's Lexicon

When I came across the entry for Karlheinz Stockhausen in Andras Adorjan's Lexicon der Flöte (Page 754), the elements of this blog entry started brewing. Let's see if I can form a coherent thought or two. First of all, here is the German text:
Gegen Ende der 1970er Jahre wurden die Aufführungen mehr und mehr von seinem [Stockhausens] engsten Familien-und Freundeskreis gestaltet, die Flötenmusik vor allem von Kathinka Pasveer (*1959); eine weite Verbreitung seiner Musik wurde dadurch eher behindert. Es bleibt aber zu hoffen, dass solch wichtige Werke wie Amour, In Freundschaft oder Kathinkas Gesang noch die ihnen gebührende Würdigung und öffentliche Zuhörerschaft gewinnen werden.
This entry was probably written in English and translated to German. It may be that the author of this entry was misunderstood; perhaps an infelicity of translation into German rendered the words not exactly as he intended. If my observations are based on such a misunderstanding, I offer my apologies.

Since I have not come across the English original, I offer a crude translation of my own:

Towards the end of the 1970s his [Stockhausen's] music was performed more and more by his family and close friends, the flute music primarily by Kathinka Pasveer (*1959), which rather hindered the propagation, (or circulation, or diffusion) of his music. One hopes however, that such important works as [...] will receive their due appreciation and listeners.
 For decades, many of Stockhausen's close family and friends have done their utmost to make Stockhausen's music accessible to the public and to performers. To blandly blame the music's lack of widespread circulation on the fact that it was performed by (and written for) them does them a huge disservice. The fact that it is accessible at all is thanks to the family and friends of Stockhausen. Since 1998, the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten have been run by Kathinka Pasveer and Susanne Stevens, in order to bring more musicians and public to Stockhausen's music. Furthermore, since his death, they run the Stockhausen Foundation, which puts its money where its mouth is, offering board and lodging for musicians and musicologists who are studying Stockhausen's works.

Who am I to comment on this? I am not a member of Stockhausen's circle, and although I have great respect for him as a composer, and have enjoyed working with him and Kathinka Pasveer, his late works are not exactly my cup of tea. However, as a member of a soloist ensemble which counts Stockhausen as one of its local composers, I am in a position to view this matter with, I hope, some objectivity.

Speaking of objectivity, I am surprised that this entry on Stockhausen was allowed to be printed in a lexicon. A lexicon, or dictionary, lists facts and lets the readers draw their own conclusions.

The author does make a true point about our repertoire. For flutists, none of Stockhausen's works are as prominent in the 20th century repertoire as the Berio Sequenza, Density 21.5 by Varese, Debussy's Syrinx, Takemitsu's Voice or Carter's Scrivo in Vento. (This is my personal top 5 list of Contemporary works that every advanced student should know.) What is it about Stockhausen's music that keeps it from being at the top of repertoire lists?

The most obvious elements are the requirement of memorization and the theatrical elements that some works require.  Amour, In Freundschaft, and Zungenspitzentanz are probably the least effort in this respect. Kathinka's Gesang on the other hand requires a huge commitment of time and energy.

Is the fact Stockhausen wrote these works for a member of his close circle that which hinders their circulation among the general public? Not as I see it. Here is not the place for a lengthy discourse on Stockhausen's aesthetics. But I can say this: his aesthetics are his very own, derived from his work with electronic music, ideas from the Urantia Book, and  the concept of all music as "opera" (having an inescapable visual aspect). His aesthetic has been called Fremde Schönheit or Strange Beauty. These are the highest hurdles to Stockhausen's popularity among performers. His music is not for the faint of heart.

The family members and close friends with whom he worked saw to it that his music could be executed on their instruments, and did not make compositional or aesthetic decisions. They have done their jobs well; everything in a work by Stockhausen is playable and clearly notated. In contrast, how many of us contemporary flutists have scratched our heads nearly bald trying to work out a piece written for a famous flutist of our day who didn't sweat the details of clarity of notation? I certainly have had my share of them, that is why I take the trouble to write this blog in the first place.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gaudeamus Interpreter's Competition

Here are, I hope, some useful ideas for those wanting to make a program for the Gaudeamus Interpreter's Competition in Holland. Bear in mind I took part in 1996, and things may have changed.

This competition has a different jury every year. They usually select a combination of composers and instrumentalists (or singers). 

 When making a program, you don't need to make a concert program. Just pick pieces that can be mixed and matched well together. Include only pieces you love and can really pull off. Any piece on your program can end up as a selected piece for the final round. An interesting program shows a variety of styles, and a good mix of traditional and extended techniques. If you are going as a soloist, don't take an "accompanist". If you want to do flute and piano music, make it a real partnership. You may be judged along with ensembles of long standing. If you play with electronics make sure they are fool proof. Don't feel you have to have accompanied pieces, chamber music, or pieces with electronics on your program for it to be accepted. If you want to - that's great, but remember you are going to be judged as a whole, along with whomever or whatever is on stage with you.

Here is a list of solo pieces that use extended techniques. (unaccompanied works) It includes works for piccolo, alto and bass flutes. If you are looking for the latest pieces, I'd trawl the latest recordings of contemporary flute music on CD and mp3 on the net. I am aware of many works, but things proliferate so fast that I have no way of being in touch with ALL the cool stuff out there. Good Luck!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Piccolo Pickles

Here's a comparison photo of three piccolos: (left) a Pearl Grenadite, (center) a Philipp Hammig with an August Richard Hammig headjoint, and (right) an Anton Braun.

The photo is pretty bad and overexposed, but you can see the difference in length and taper. Notice that although each piccolo was built to A= 442 specs, that the Braun is shorter and much more tapered at the end. Does anyone have an explanation for that?

I spent years trying to decide whether to spend over 5,000 Euros for a Braun piccolo. The Hammig hybrid I had been playing on is a very good instrument, but I often play in situations where I needed to play louder. People roll their eyes when I tell them that, but the piccolo is not always a deafening beast. In the low and middle registers, especially articulated passages, I was often struggling to project. It doesn't help that those registers are used often with E-flat clarinet, trumpet or percussion with hard mallets. Some composers seem to think that the piccolo will always dominate. However, it's only the third octave that really penetrates. (Then you get the composers who think you can match a pianissimo third octave note with a violin playing the same dynamic. NOT.)

I spoke about my dynamic and articulation problems in the middle and low register with Patricia Morris. She asked me what kind of piccolo I had. When I said Hammig, she said that's likely the problem. Then she allowed me to try her Braun piccolos and I could feel the difference. I could certainly have continued with my Hammig, but we now have a concert series in which our performances are recorded live for CD, warts and all. So I decided to take the plunge.

When my piccolo came from Herr Braun (photo left, with daughter Antonia), I asked him for some guidelines to break in, or rather play in the instrument. Everyone has their theory about new wooden instruments. He gives his general guidelines here but added the following information by telephone. He told me to give it a good 4 to 6 weeks to play in. I was bummed about that as I had a Xenakis program with Thallein and Jalons in 2 weeks, but I took his advice to heart. He said to start with the low register for the first week or so, then move to the middle and only then up to the high register. He said to not let anyone else play it (of course someone trying the piccolo for a few minutes is ok), that the instrument needed to get used to the way I blow on it. And most importantly he said, that I should try to blow more like on the flute than a typical piccolo, that he had made his instruments expressly so, that they could be played more flute-like. It should be a quite relaxed approach. By the way, if you can read German, here is his story, it is amazing!

Herr Braun's advice turns out to be crucial because the instrument can easily go sharp. I expected trouble as I played on my own with a tuner, but when I got with the ensemble, I was so happy that I could just blow and relax, and not have to reach up for any of the notes. I play pulled out a few millimeters. In short, this is a completely different animal from the Hammig! I am liking it very much, though.

I'll put in a good word also for the Hammig and the Pearl. For about 9 years I played on the Hammig with a Werner Fischer head. These are very colorful, flexible and light head joints. Easy to play and very dolce. They are good for non picc specialists or specialists for whom projection is not an issue. I then heard the A. R. Hammig was making very good heads, and ordered a grenadilla one. It gave me an improvement in depth for the middle and low register, and I really liked the overall sound. The Pearl grenadite is the best cheap piccolo on the market, in my opinion. I couldn't believe how well it played compared to Yamaha and the others. For me, anyway.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Non vibrato and the Book of Disquiet

Still from the film projection "Book of Disquiet"
Michel van der Aa

On the first of August this year (2010) I had the privilege of performing Michel van der Aa's "Book of Disquiet" , a multi-media work based on texts of Fernando Pessoa's "factless autobiography". We even shared the stage with Klaus-Maria Brandauer , who gave a powerful if impulsive performance. In addition, since this was a film festival and not a hole-in-the-wall contemporary music festival, we were put up in a 5 star hotel and had our concert in the stunning opera house in Wroclaw. Every once in a while, the perks percolate to our level!

I wanted to use this as a platform for my thoughts about non vibrato, because, well, playing without vibrato for many flutists is a disquieting prospect. It is no longer a novel concept - the Early Music movement has seen to that. However, I've run across a number of contemporary composers who use it as their esthetic, not only for flutists, but for the whole ensemble. It was also the contemporary music trend for ensembles in the 20th century, especially in the Netherlands. I'm not sure if Michel van der Aa is an heir to this tradition, or if his non-vibrato esthetic stems from the sound world of electronically produced sounds.

In any case, the challenge for me was to blend with three violins (also playing non vibrato) and with the other winds (clarinet, bassoon and trumpet). The violins and the flute are often in unison in the high register. No place to hide. The other challenge was the transparency of texture - this is music that has to sound, hmm, nice, for lack of a better word. Not pretty or sugary, but clear and listen-to-able. When a flutist thinks of sounding nice, they will add a shimmer or shine to the sound (i.e. vibrato), just as a person naturally smiles when trying to be nice. Vibrato is our smile, so to say. Without it, we are in danger of a death-like grimace.

I encounter this mortal danger in my studio, too. My students are pretty well behaved when it comes to preparing Baroque pieces. They do their homework, listen to traverso recordings, read Quantz, and sometimes dutifully stifle their vibrato. Stifle. That is the initial reaction to non vibrato. The sound is dead and flat, not only in intonation but in color. What is the trick to playing with a good, healthy, in-tune sound without vibrato? The dilemma of disquiet.

Now, the question of whether one should play Baroque music without vibrato on modern flute is a separate one. My answer to that is: one should played with a modified vibrato (which includes the possibility of non vibrato). If one is performing with a modern piano, I downright discourage complete non vibrato. (read why here)

To avoid death and poor intonation while playing non vibrato
  • practice Moyse's de la Sonorite first with vibrato, then repeat non vibrato (B-A# with vibrato; B-A# without vibrato; etc...). The exercises "pour les sons graves" can be practiced in the same way. Make sure the tone quality and intonation of the non vibrato sound matches the sound with vibrato.
  • anything that helps you to build support, such as harmonic exercises (those by Trevor Wye, Robert Dick, Peter Lukas Graf, and many more), or using the "Ha Ha Ha" (abdominal accents without tongue) articulation on scales or arpeggios.
  • anything that will improve the resonance of your sound, such as singing and playing. The reason behind this: if you can manage to get all overtones of a note lined up, in tune and ringing freely, you should have a nice sound without having to add any wobble.
Easier said than done. I'm all ears for other ideas.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Small-Interval Multiphonics

On the occasion of the publication of my article on Kazuo Fukushima's Shun-San in Flute Talk May/June 2010 and Robert Dick's upcoming masterclass in Bremen (July 6, 2010), I'd like to elucidate some ideas about multiphonics.

Working on Shun-San got me thinking about small-interval multiphonics (those with an interval of an augmented second or less). The first line of advice on how to produce these comes from Robert himself, and can be viewed here. His advice is fantastic, spot-on and humorful, I recommend viewing it.*
*Although I don't agree with what Robert says in regard to offset G flutes or doing sit-ups, but that's another story.

In my Flute Talk article, I touch on the subject of small-interval multiphonics. This passage has elicited some raised eyebrows and questions. To begin, I'll site the passage:

Flutists often encounter difficulty with small-interval multiphonics because they are hung up on trying to produce a focus immediately. That is difficult to do when you are blowing in two directions at once. The irony of these small-interval multiphonics is, at first, you have to unfocus to get the sense of focus. Open up the embouchure hole and let both notes in. Initially there will be a lot of air, but with practice you can refine them. They will sound focused and rich because of the very low difference tone caused by a close interval. When you get the hang of playing these small intervals, it may help to focus on producing this difference tone rather than the individual notes themselves. That may seem strange but sometimes it works.

The first point of confusion may arise in that I assume the reader is already familiar with Robert Dick's advice: get to know the dynamic range of each note first. Then, keeping a constant airspeed, use the angle of the air to find both notes. If you don't research the gamut of air speed for each note, you'll never find the small range of speed that overlaps and works for both.

This is what I meant by having to unfocus to get the sense of focus. You need a constant airspeed and a wide angle at first that will let both notes in. LinkLinkPlease forgive my artistic crudeness, but here hopefully you can see where the angles overlap. If your focus is too narrow at first, you may miss the range where the angles overlap.

Now, to explain that bit about the low difference tone. An explanation of difference tones can be found in Wiki. Often is is not an actual, distinct tone that I hear. Rather, it is just a low sort of humming sound, or it's as if something opens acoustically at the bottom - a feeling rather than a sound.

I hope this has been of help. Some of those multiphonics in Shun-San are hair-raising! Even someone like me who has been familiar with them for years needs to put in serious practice time on them. It is a good refresher!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Paradies Remembered

It's been over a month since the marathon premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klang cycle. I have been wanting to share the experience here, but I survived the project with too many mixed feelings. However if I don't get it out, my blogging energy may get permanently clogged. Also, Robert Bigio, the editor of Flute (the journal of the British Flute Society) has entrusted me with another project: a feature on Kathinka Pasveer. So it's time to get my thoughts in order.

Paradies is an 18-minute work for solo flute with electronics (8-channel tape). It must be played eyes closed, from memory, while wearing a specific shade of pink (HKS31, it's called in the German textile industry). A shirt in this color, worn with white pants and shoes, is also acceptable. The piece does not require movement on stage or any sort of choreography.

I have performed this piece 12 times between April 24 and May 29, 2010, and will perform it again in November in England.

Most of the questions that come my way have to do with how I managed to memorize the work. It is nowhere near as daunting as one might think because:
1) The piece uses the same series of 24 pitches over and over, mostly in sequence and only occasionally in easily recognizable variations. Analysis of this work is a no-brainer.
2) The player is involved in the compositional process.

To begin, I must explain that the work has 24 strophes. Each of these strophes has two parts:
1) a ritornello in which a melody is given but the dynamics, speed and articulation are decided by the player (this is the "involved in the compositional process" part)
2) a composed insert. The composed parts are called inserts because they may be inserted at any point during the ritornello. (Theoretically. This piece is fraught with unwritten rules, and the insertion of the composed insert must follow certain guidelines not given in the score.)

I began work on the piece after New Year's 2010, so had just over 4 months preparation time. There was no way for me to memorize the piece from the outset, since the ritornelli needed to be worked out and played for Kathinka. I didn't want to write anything onto hard disk only to have to erase it later. What I did memorize from the beginning was the structure of the piece. That in retrospect was a good idea. By the way, the ritornelli's dynamics, speed and articulation should be worked out rather than improvized. Whether you write them out or not is up to you. If your memory is at all visual or photographic, as mine partially is, I recommend writing.

I also realized the sooner I had a good version of the ritornelli, the sooner I could begin memorizing them. So my first order of business was writing the ritornelli. During the first rehearsal with Kathinka (January 25th), I ended up having to erase about two-thirds of what I had written, having trespassed many of the unwritten rules. By the time of the next rehearsal with Kathinka, on April 1st, we had a version that we could both be happy with and I could start the memory work in ernest. At that point it was not difficult. The ritornelli had been worked on for so long that memorizing them came easily, and the structure and the composed inserts had already been memorized.

I hope readers were not expecting a full discorse on how one memorizes music. For most of us it is an individual combination of visual, analytical and kinesthetic elements. For me, it is perhaps
Visual = 10%
Analytical = 10%
Kinesthetic (muscle memory)= 80%

Some of my tricks included
1) Setting a time schedule by working backwards from the date of the performance. Divide and conquer. Don't try to memorize all at once but set a certain amount for a certain time period.
2) Going through the piece without the flute in hand or the music in front of me. This I often did in the dark before going to sleep.
3) Procrastinating as much as legally possible in order to have the peace of mind required for clear intellectual work. This means taxes didn't get filed, Spring cleaning waited until Summer. Sort of the buy now, pay later strategy. If you can afford it, it does work.

Photos: Melvyn Poore and Liz Hirst

Sunday, April 11, 2010

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Just Intonation: Thirds and Sixths, an exercise

I'd like to take the opportunity to write about the benefits of doing intonation exercises with 3rds and 6ths using just intonation.

  • To refine the ear. These are simple intervals, and the difference tone (or combination tone) is strong enough to easily adjust.
  • Flexibility. To make these adjustments, a flutist must be willing to make minute changes of the angle of the air by manipulating any three points: lips, jaw, or rotating the flute in or out.
  • Accuracy. The theoretical knowledge that, from the bass note, major thirds are 14 cents flatter and minor thirds 16 cents sharper will cut out some of the fishing around for the right direction. (That's thinking like a flutist. Objectively stated: major thirds are narrower, minor thirds are wider.)
  • Grasp of microtonality. Seriously. Take the second bar of the exercise below. The G is first played as a just major third to an E-flat (=14 cents flat). Then the bass note changes and it becomes the just minor third to E-natural (=16 cents sharp). The difference you have traveled is 30 cents, almost a sixth-tone! You get a feel for these sixth tones, double that, you've got third tones and you're off!

But why do these exercises? After all, I do not propose that thirds and sixths should always be tuned justly! There are many times when it makes sense to tune these intervals using equal temperment, such as when playing with any fixed pitch instrument. (I wish conductors would also take this seriously. How many times have you worked on intonation during a wind sectional rehearsal, when your ears will naturally drift to just intonation, only to have it completely different when you add the strings, harp, percussion or piano!)

Another place to avoid just intonation in real life is when tuning minor thirds in minor chords (See Claudio's comment below). Here, the equally-tempered minor third works better. Here's why: remember, if you tune an interval justly, the difference/combination tone you should hear will belong to (or complete) the implied major chord. For example, let's take the minor chord:

A justly-played C and E-flat will give you a difference tone A-flat, because A-flat is the major chord that the interval C - E-flat implies. That sounds very nice! But add the G and it's no longer nice because G and A-flat are causing dissonance. This may be why, historically, those beautiful mediaeval works in minor keys always ended on major chords. See what you can learn about Early Music by delving into the details of intonation! The practices were, well, practical, not academic.

While playing this exercise it will also become apparent why, historically, notes with flats were generally played sharper and notes with sharps were generally played flatter.

Directions for playing with a tuner: during the fermatas, change the pitch of the tuner with the right hand while holding the flute (or piccolo) with the left hand only (use B-flat thumb for Bb and A#). Try not to interrupt playing during this process so you can make the adjustment as finely as possible.

Click here for the exercise (this is the same one that was previously on my website).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tips for Complex Rhythms a la Ferneyhough's Superscriptio

Below is some advice for works by composers (such as Brian Ferneyhough) who use complex rhythms not based on pulse-centered activity. I spoke with Mr. Ferneyhough about this subject and he was very clear that in his music, the measure is a "domain of a certain energy quotient" not related to a pulse.

In other words, a measure can be interpreted as an "area of activity". The level of activity can easily be reckoned using the starting tempo. From there we can calculate the length of any measure or individual note through simple mathematics.

So if the rhythm cannot be felt as a pulse, one can at least memorize the speed in which it is supposed to happen. Surprisingly, it's sometimes much slower than one thinks!

Ferneyhough's Superscriptio for solo piccolo is a good example. The basic tempo is an eighth-note at 56. This means a whole note in 4/4 equals 7, because there are 8 eighth notes in a 4/4 bar, and 8 divided by 56 = 7.

From this number 7 you can deduce all the "odd" time signatures that are not based on divisions of the eighth note. An eighth note quintuplet (or a "1/10" bar) will equal 70 because there are 10 quintuplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 10 = 70). To find the length of a 3/10 bar you would divide 70 by 3. If you have a 5/10 bar you would divide 70 by 5. An eighth note triplet (or a "1/12" bar) will equal 84 because there are 12 triplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 12 = 84). To find the length of a 3/12 bar you would divide 84 by 3, and to find the length of a 5/12 bar you would divide 84 by 5.

What if the compound rhythms are stacked on top of each other, as in Ferneyhough's other works? This is an imaginary example:
Let's imagine as in Superscriptio the starting tempo is an eighth-note at 56. The last six 16ths (at the end of the bar) roughly equal two 16th-note triplets at 64. The nine 32nds under the 9:5 are roughly equal to three sets of 32nd triplets going at 116.

It could have been notated thus (among other possibilities):

Here's the math:
From above we know that a 1/10 bar equals 70.
A 4/10 bar will equal 17.5 (70 divided by 4 = 17.5).
Each 11-tuplet will be 192.5 (17.5 x 11 = 192.5).
There are 6 of these 11-tuplets at the end. If we think of them as two 16th-note triplets, divide 192.5 by 3 = ca. 64

5 of those 11-tuplets equals 38.5 (192.5 divided by 5 = 38.5).
In the 9:5, if you think of the 9-tuplets as 3 sets of 32nd triplets, those triplets go at ca. 116 (38.5 x 3 = 115.5)

A click track will ensure accuracy without a doubt. However, if you opt for another approach, try the following: memorize the speed of each bar by practicing related bars together. Keeping Superscriptio as an example, you can practice all the bars based on "1/12" while keeping the metronome at tempo 84. (Yes, you will be jumping from measure to measure, or page to page.) Then do the same for all the "1/10" bars, then "1/8" etc. You are not trying to achieve musical continuity yet, this is just an exercise to help relate all the bars with this tempo, and to keep them consistent. When you finally put the piece together, your "internal conductor" will hopefully have a kinesthetic memory of the pulse of each measure and make the tempo changes accordingly.

Also see my post Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough.
Other thoughts?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Trouble-shooting problems between composers and performers

There are several categories of potential trouble areas between composers and intstrumentalists:
1) Basic orchstration mistakes
2) Unfamiliarity (on either side) with a particular extended technique or effect
3) Unclear notation

What I am about to say may seem a bit didactic and Miss Mannerish, but really, it's common sense. And as you may gather, I've had enough bad experiences to know what works and what doesn't. I'm all ears for other ideas though.

Flutists, unless you are dealing with a composer/performer, you are the expert of your instrument and in a possible position to educate the composer. See your role as that of an educator, but use it with care because no one likes to feel patronised. To say simply "this is impossible" is very unproductive, even when it comes to a simple mistake such as a low C on the piccolo.

When faced with difficulty, the first step is to find an alternative. It is sometimes useful to take the initiative and suggest one yourself. As in all possible conflict situations, it is better to retain the "I" message rather than the "you" message. For example: I naively expect composers to know basic orchestration rules for flute and piccolo; therefore I am constantly disappointed. What to do? Some example suggestions: "could I take this low C up an octave? My standard piccolo only plays to low D." or "given the (lack of) time we have, I would much prefer to play this rapid 4th octave passage on the piccolo rather than on the flute." or "on this high C, I can achieve a much nicer pianissimo on the piccolo rather than on the flute." The composer will most likely get the idea.

Articulation of staccato notes is another difficulty I run into with composers (and even conductors). On the lowest notes, the flute has a long resonating tube, and this takes time to speak. Some head joint cuts are designed so this register speaks loudly and easily. One can always strive to do better, and there are many exercises for the improvement of this technique. However, if you run into serious trouble trying to match the length of notes with string instruments or electronic sounds, you do have an acoustical excuse. If you see an alternative, suggest it. If not, express your willingness to work on improvement, but show the composer the length of tube required to resonate (and thus the physical limitations).

Often, when puzzling over an extended technique, rather than say "this is impossible" or "I can't do this", it helps to ask what the composer actually wants acoustically. Is there another technique which you can do which would be just as or more effective? Or ask where s/he got the technique from. Was it from another player whom you could simply contact for advice? Was it from a book? Were acoustical considerations overlooked such as the difference between a B foot and a C foot, or the difference between any two flutes or flutists?

Most composers I have worked with are very open and eager to look for solutions together. I once experienced a misunderstanding in an ensemble piece where I was faced with a passage of rapid, high whistle tones (notated exactly so: "whistle tone") marked forte. The composer, Beat Furrer, actually wanted these sounds loud, which is an acoustical impossibility. He insisted, however, that the previous player had achieved this. I asked him what the previous player had actually done, then tried out a few things according to his description. It turned out that what he wanted were overblown harmonics with a lot of air, which in the context of this ensemble piece did give a whistling effect. So these effects were not whistle tones as I had learned them, nor as they appear in textbooks. I pointed this out to the composer, who did not take my point or make any "correction" in the part. As long as we had found the acoustic solution together, he was satisfied his notation had produced the results he wanted. What to do? In this case, I decided I had done my "duty" by pointing out a possible misunderstanding for the next flutist. To have taken "educator" role too far would have just meant getting into an argument (which I would have undertaken had this been a solo piece).

This is perhaps a long way of saying to my fellow flutists: let's work together with composers to encourage the following:

  • a more standardized notation for extended techniques
  • a good working score for the next performer who comes along!

Tips for composing and notating aeolian (air) sounds

Here are some tips on the use of air or aeolian sounds:
Be sure to specify if you want these sounds:
A. produced in playing position (so the air goes across the flute and produces a pitch that corresponds with the fingers), or
B. produced inside the flute: i.e., if you want the flutist to cover the embouchure hole and produce a kind of unpitched "white noise".

Sometimes I am asked to produce type "A" with the specification "no discernible pitch". This is nonsense: if a flutist blows across the flute they will always produce some sort of pitch. Even with no fingers down, you will get something in the neighborhood of C#. If you want unpitched noise, ask to flutist to blow into or inside the flute (cover the embouchure hole). In this position, the flutist can produce a range of unpitched sounds from bright (higher sounding white noise) to dark (lower sounding white noise) by changing the position of the tongue.

This leads to my next point: the use of different vowel sounds for color effects. This is most effective with the embouchure hole covered (type "B"). A good example is Hans Zender's Lo-Shu II. Vowel sounds are much less marked in normal playing position (type "A"), so be sure to take care in ensemble situations.

Some general thoughts about notation:
There are several notational traditions from the Artaud and Levine books concerning the notation of "aeolian" or "air" sounds which I would like to ask composers to avoid. When composing these sounds especially in a situation where rhythm is crucial (especially in an ensemble situation) please avoid the notation that uses empty note-heads:

This notation makes the distinction between a quarter note and a half note difficult. When a player is reading, this can be very annoying. It's good to have a different note shape, but be sure to fill in the note head in when needed so the player can read the rhythms easily:

An easy way to indicate a gradual change from normal sound to air is by using text with a dotted line:

or simply with a filled circle connected to an open circle by a dotted line:

Tips for composing singing and playing techniques

When writing for the flute and voice there are several things to take into consideration.

The first may be: where to notate the voice line?
For solo pieces: if you have an extended or complicated voice line it is customary and practical to use a separate staff below that of the flute line. On the other hand, for short simple passages, I prefer to have the voice pitches on the same line as the flute.

In the context of an ensemble piece, I would use the same guidelines as above, and please be sure to notate the voice line below the flute. As a general rule, it is best to leave free space above the staff for an ensemble player to mark in beats, que notes, or remarks from the conductor.

Another consideration is the distortion produced by the simultaneous use of the voice and flute. The use of the voice (as most of you know, I am sure) in conjunction with the flute greatly distorts not only the flute sound, but the voice line and any text that you may want to set. Because of this distortion, getting a true polyphony going can also be tricky if you have a complicated passage. In this case, if you want true polyphony, use two instruments. I prefer the use of the voice and flute as a coloristic element, rather than using it as an attempt to create polyphony.

If you want to set text that is understandable to the audience, it is not advisable to ask the flutist to play at the same time as speaking. A better technique would be to have the flutist speak or sing the words using the resonance of the flute only. Beware of text with nasal vowels, these produce no resonance on the flute.

Speaking or singing directly into the flute (with the embouchure hole completely closed) is another option. This of course produces a muffled effect; however, rapid key action will interrupt the muffling and create an acoustic "panning". This effect can be heard at the beginning of George Crumb's Voice of the Whale

Some examples of the most effective uses of flute and voice are Noa Noa by Kaija Saariaho for flute and live electronics, and Toru Takemitsu's Voice .

When using a vocal line with the alto flute, there is the option of transposing the vocal line or writing it at pitch. Personally, I prefer having the voice line transposed with the alto flute. Since I have only a relative sense of pitch, it makes sense for me to have the voice always referring to the alto flute pitch; although, if the flutist for whom you are writing has a strong sense of perfect pitch, it would be better to write the voice part at pitch.

Composers, Common Mistakes When Writing for Flute

Some common mistakes are:

  • Low C# to D# trill on flute
  • Harmonics in the first octave
  • Low C and C# on piccolo
  • Percussive effects in the second and third octave: key clicks, tongue or lip pizzicati, tongue ram. While these are not mistakes per se, they are not very effective outside the flute's first octave.

see also:
Writing for Students
Pet Peeves

Saturday, February 13, 2010

All music is an articulation exercise (or could be made into one)

In response to the question "How should I practice articulation?", I always answer "everything is an articulation exercise, or can be adapted into one". Spending more money on expensive Leduc editions will not help your tongue. Reading theories about where the optimal point of articulation is (behind the teeth, on the palate, between the lips) can give you ideas but not answers, since nobody seems to be in 100% agreement.

Since nobody can look into your mouth and tell you where to put your tongue, I'll repeat another truism: all articulation practice is tone practice. Your ears will tell you what works. Good articulation requires just as much awakening of the ears as the tongue.

"But I have an OK tone, it's just when I use my tongue for any amount of time it starts to sound bad!", you may answer.

"Good!" I say, "So the ears are switched on."
The short answer to this problem is that when you engage the tongue, the air behind it has to keep going despite a short interruption. Many players forget this and instead of increasing abdominal support to keep the energy behind the air stream they tighten the embouchure, or even worse, use the jaw to help the tongue! This is what causes fatigue and lack of control in long articulated passages.

It could also be the tongue is working too hard. My former teacher Bernard Goldberg used to admonish me be saying "you are only slicing air, not last week's bagels".

There are a few checkpoints: maybe the distance between the Du and Gu of double tonguing is too great. Some find it useful to shorten this distance by thinking the Du Gu action as having a vertical (up and down) dimension to it as opposed to just a back-and-forth motion.

How to establish efficiency? There are no shortcuts. I'll go out on a limb and say that if you seriously, seriously devote time to this aspect of playing, your body can't help but adopt the most efficient means possible - if you include your ears and brain in the process. The ears tell you when it's good and your brain tells you to stop, re-investigate when it's not good or when you're fatiguing yourself. This process will repeat itself a zillion times. Like any muscular activity we need diligent, consequent practice and patience to establish new habits.

Try the following with Mendelssohn's Scherzo, it's an adaptation of Aurèle Nicolet's method:

Break the solo into manageable passages (for example, the first passage could be the first 13 complete bars)
Play the passage slowly legato - each note focused and resonant
Play the passage slowly with ha ha articulation (no tongue!)
Play the passage with flutter tongue (either kind, throat or tongue)
Play the passage double tonguing every single written note (g,g,b-flat, b-flat,c,c,d,d,etc...)
Play the passage as written

You notice I try to avoid advice on placement and mechanics of the tongue, and mention of particular "schools" like the French School, which is supposedly the ace of articulation. That may well be, but listen to old recordings from the early 20th century English virtuosi, holy smokes, they could hold their own! Also, South Indian musicians, whose native Dravidian languages use retroflex sounds, where the tongue is actually pointed backwards, can move their tongues at lightning speed. Just listen to any mrdangam player doing the rhythmic solmization of konnakkol (that ta-ki-di-mi stuff)!

In a nutshell:
Ears are just as important as the tongue.
Remember the air produces the sound, not the tongue.
Invest wisely, get more on your return! In this case it means a long-term committment to intelligent practice.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Fourth Octave: How to not kill yourself and not be killed by your neighbors

Twentieth Century pioneers in the realms of composition and performance have set the standard for us in terms of how high we are expected to play. For better or worse, we need to have fluency at least up to high D. Hmm, gee, thanks guys, I guess.......

Just do it. Play your normal scale and arpeggio routine up to high D. And the younger you start the better. That means now. Tomorrow you will be older. (If you need an online guide to possible fingerings for the flute, try here.)

Before launching please consider these tips. They will save you time and prevent injury. If you have any more to share, I am all ears (while I can still hear!).

• Wear earplugs during practice sessions including 4th octave. Loud noises can tire you just like muscular activity. Protect yourself from them, you will have more energy and be able to practice longer. The ordinary wax kind will do the job and are better than the foam ones because they nestle in your ear more snugly.
• Robert Dick's initial advice: get the angle of the air correct first by finding the whistle tone. Usually we need to be rolled out a bit more that we are used to. Then blow!
• Think of putting energy into your airstream, not your lips. The lips have to be firm to withstand the onslaught of air, but that's all. Don't try to create the sound with them, the source is down below. A quick focus on the muscles of your pelvic floor before you blow will help. They should move down a bit in contrary motion to the upward energy that comes with the air (as happens naturally when you cough).
At first practice the fourth octave in your own dynamic, don't try to do extremes of loud or soft. What comes will come.
• Come down again! Don't spend too many consecutive minutes in your practice in the fourth octave without playing some in the first octave, or even just resting and not playing at all.
• And while you are resting: if the fourth octave passage is technically difficult and requires a lot of technical repetition to learn, finger the passage silently with the flute comfortably in your lap. Watch your fingers, concentrate on relaxed breathing, inhaling as well as exhaling, without any unnecessary stress or tension in your shoulders or hands. Combine this practice with actual playing.
• Watch intonation. In a repertoire passage, if tempo allows, choose fingerings that are as in tune as possible. If the passage is microtonal, I often use standard fingerings for notes that should be up to a quarter tone sharper in this octave, then play the "normal" notes with flattened fingerings.
• With a difficult repertoire passage, make a short exercise based on the 4th octave notes and include it in your daily scale and arpeggio practice. Then while practicing the piece, you will have time to work on musical aspects.

Some general remarks about dynamics:
Sometimes composers are kind and allow for the natural dynamic of the fourth octave (fff). Sometimes not. This is where you can go "virtual", that is, create the impression of a real piano even though the sound may be quite present. In some cases the struggle to play quietly is part of the composer's esthetic, or sometimes the composer just wants a diminishing of energy and will allow for a "relative" piano. Always ask if possible, don't knock yourself out trying to achieve perfection if the composer doesn't want it in the first place. If the composer really wants a true piano at that octave, do your best to keep the air up and not pinch, let go and allow a little airiness in the sound, it may still sound loud up close but it will carry less.

Photo: EPA stock photo

Friday, January 15, 2010

Contemporary Music : Express!

Classical Contemporary Music which is abstract, atonal or just plain impenetrable may demand something beyond the traditional idea of instrumantal expression we are taught as flutists (the use of vibrato, tonal colors, dynamics and so on). Here are some random tips on how to tap into other sources for musical ideas.

Studying works that are outside the tradition of virtuosity can help you to focus on producing expression and dramatic impact. Extreme minimalist music or graphically notated music, for example, is divorced from ideas of technical wizardry; therefore one has to concentrate on aspects of timing, bodily movement, manner of breathing, and concentration. The difficulty is to find a way of generating intensity and maintaining interest throughout a work that may be nothing but a series of bizarre noises. Some examples of this type of music are certain works by John Cage (solos from Song Books, the flute part to Concert for Piano, which can be played as a solo or in conjunction with other works by Cage), Earle Brown (December 1958) or Cornelius Cardew (Treatise). Finding expressive solutions to these scores is a good exercise for stretching your musical imagination. Having travelled to this strange land of extremes can give you great perspective upon return.

To capture the particular expressive and dramatic style of the composer, I often rely on a practice idea that I picked up from Robert Dick: Play a passage of the piece you are working on, then turn the music away from you and improvise a passage in the same style, using the same range, dynamic inflections, length of phrases, etc. Once you've put yourself through this creative process, go back to the written passage. I always find something fresh to consider - perhaps a new inflection, a different color progression, or maybe a new sense of rhythmic clarity.

When searching for expressive solutions, the world of the visual arts can sometimes provide interesting insights. Here is one example of how visits to museums helped me to solve an expressive problem: While working on the Berio Sequenza from memory I started to wonder, what does one actually do with the mind while performing? Some performers may have a photographic memory and are able to visualize the score during performance. Not having this ability, I needed something to focus on, to keep my visual area from being distracted by the audience. (Playing with your eyes closed is not a good option when trying to communicate).

I do see this as a problem of expression: from the point of stage choreography, playing solos from memory is a challenge for flutists. Pianists are in profile, violinists are also a bit angled so their f-holes are facing the audience. Even clarinetists can pretend to look down at their fingers. And unlike singers, we do not have total facial freedom, nor can we hide behind a mask of facial expression (the bottom half of our face being otherwise engaged). We also do not have the words to carry the expression. Since we face the audience directly, we need a special courage and a strong method of focus. Of course, you can focus on the "exit" sign at the back of the hall, but still, what are you doing with your mind? I don't want to be thinking of the "exit" sign!

One tells children to "think up a story" as an aid to performance. However, that hardly seemed appropriate for a work such as the Sequenza, and could prove even more distracting than the audience. What helped in the end was to allow abstract images to form on their own, inspired and dependent on the sounds I produced during performance. This allowed me to concentrate on the actual sounds I was producing and not be distracted by any preconceived, representational, artificially imposed images or thoughts.

These images that I formed were inspired by visits to the Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums in Amsterdam, where I was living at the time. I was also able to think of a color scheme and progression that helped me through the opening of Franco Donatoni's Midi, which can otherwise seem like a salad of endless noodles.

In yoga, the focus of your eyes is called drishti. Sometimes it is straight ahead, sometimes the tip of your nose, sometimes your belly button (not recommended for flutists!). Do whatever it takes to develop your own drishti. Be relaxed in the focus of your eyes, this will help you to concentrate.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Microtonality: some basic tips

Microtonality is the use of intervals smaller than a half-step such as quarter tones, sixth tones, eighth tones and so on.

There are several standard ways in which microtones are used (which may be interconnected):
• As part of a "just" intonation scheme (based on pure intervals instead of equal [keyboard] temperment). Used in a simple way (also known as mean-tone tuning), one plays perfectly in tune in a given key, less so in related keys and totally "out there" in remote keys. So far I have come across no better explanation and description for just intonation than David Doty's Just Intonation Primer. Or click here for an on-line explanation of just intonation.
• As part of a "spectral" scheme where the notes are not tuned according to equal [keyboard] temperment, but according to the intonation of upper partials of a given overtone sequence. This is related to just intonation (and again David Doty's book explains this wonderfully), however in a "just"intonation environment there may be a tonality implied, whereas in "spectral" music a tonality is rarely implied (although there may be a tonal center). Here is an example of how the overtone sequence on our low C is naturally (purely) tuned. The deviation from equal temperment is measured in cents. (Cents are measured by dividing an equal tempered half tone into 100 units. These are marked on most tuners to indicate the degree to which one is sharp or flat.)
◦ 1st harmonic (fundamental): C (no change)
◦ 2nd harmonic C (no change)
◦ 3rd harmonic G: (2 cents sharp)
◦ 4th harmonic C: (no change)
◦ 5th harmonic E: (14 cents flat)
◦ 6th harmonic G: (2 cents sharp)
◦ 7th harmonic Bb (31 cents flat)
◦ 8th harmonic C (no change)
◦ 9th harmonic D (4 cents sharp)
For the deviation up to the 31st harmonic, see Wikipedia's entry on the Harmonic Spectrum.
For tips on how to get these partials in tune without having to resort to watching the cent meter on your tuner (i.e. by ear) read my entry on spectralism.

• Sometimes a composer may invent a tuning system, then it is up to you to determine: a) why/how the composer uses microtones and b) how you should approach them. These questions will help to determine whether or not the composer has included microtones as special "effect"; i.e., should the "de-tuned" notes be given special colors to contrast the "normal" notes, or does the composer want consistency of timbre? This is an important factor in determining fingering (if not already prescribed by the composer).

Once the interpretive questions have been addressed, there comes the time to actually play them. There are several fingering charts available such as Matts Möller's quarter-tone chart. They are good resources but think of them as starting points. My personal advice is to know as many fingerings as possible for a particular note. Be flexible in the choice of fingering because there are several factors to consider when making your choice:
• the speed of the gesture
• the intervallic relationship to its neighboring notes
• the dynamic and tone color
Although each of these is an important consideration, it is crucial to know your end tempo and always have it in mind. I have made the mistake of carefully going through a score and writing in all the "correct" fingerings for microtones, only to have to change them later as I got the piece up to tempo. Practice the notes in tempo, if only two or three at a time to get a feel for this.

Sometimes the solution can be simpler than you think. Turning the flute in or out to "de-tune" a note can work just as well as a really complicated fingering. For example: on a standard flute there is no stable fingering for F 3/4 sharp. If you need a loud, stable tone just play F# and lip up. If you need a quiet clear tone, finger G and lip down. (Of course if you want that hollow, bamboo sound, use low B and half hole the F-key [index finger right hand].)

A note on different flute models: I play on a quarter-tone Kingma System (produced by Osten-Brannen). This is a really great system, and I can recommend it for anyone who wants to play a lot of contemporary music. These flutes are also suitable for all repertoire. However, every flute has the capacity to play microtonally (as we all know, sometimes inadvertently!). Please don't be discouraged from playing the modern repertoire if you have a standard flute, even if you only have a student model with closed holes. There is still repertoire that can be played on student models such as the flute solos by Karlheinz Stockhausen. See my repertoire list for more suggestions.

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!

Friday, January 8, 2010

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.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Extended Techniques: Benefits, Applications and Tips

I'd like to open with some inspiring words by Sax player Jack Wright
In the early decades of free improv, when new techniques were the mark of a fresh approach to traditional instruments, they were often considered the new standard to be displayed. But at this point I find players using a more integrated technique, where nothing is "extended" because no technique by itself connotes a radical departure. [...] [N]ow every technique tends to be subordinate to the direction of the music, and pyrotechnics are not flashed as a distinctive badge of mastery. Of course, there are some in every audience who will be impressed by circular breathing, the kind of "look, ma, he ain't breathing!" reaction, but if we want to stay on course we know we aren't about impressing people but rather opening up our musical hearts. And for me, this opening calls for the hugest range of sound the imagination can wring out of body and instrument. [From an interview with John Berndt]

The study of extended techniques as an extension of good traditional technique and good practice habits gives our imagination wide scope for expression. Studied carefully, they will help to strengthen many aspects of flute technique: embouchure, air flow and the cultivation of patience! Below are some of the benefits and applications that I have discovered myself and collected from others:

  • Harmonics. Benefits: embouchure strengthening and development, improvement of upper register, especially articulation of quiet attacks, familiarization of "natural" tuning, finding the correct angle of a note, and their use as "alternate" fingerings
    • to relieve stuffy notes - take a high note that tends to stuffiness such as G#3. Play it first mf sustained. Then play it as a harmonic of C#, then as a harmonic of middle G#, then as a harmonic of E, then as a harmonic of low C#. At each step, play the note sustained, then with repeated articulations: single, double tongued, and flutter tongued. Listen to the intonation as well. Note how much or how little you have to do to "correct" it.
    • for third-octave rapid passages, use harmonic fingerings for ease and improved intonation
    • when playing alto or bass flute in the third octave, I almost always use harmonic fingerings as the "traditional" ones are inevitably too sharp.
  • Singing while playing. Benefits: opening of the sound, improvement of the sense of pitch, control of air flow
    • as an exercise for hitting high notes: sing and play low C, then blow up through the harmonic series. To reach the highest C, notice how you needn't sing louder. The speed of the air is what produces this sound. You can create that speed by moving the lips forward - like you would sqeeze the nozzle of a garden hose to get the water out in a faster stream. Find the correct angle, focus your energy at the pelvic floor (as if you are about to cough) and blow! But notice how you can keep your throat relaxed: keep singing.
    • throat tuning to help smooth out potentially "bumpy" intervals - such as (above the staff) E down to A.
  • Multiphonics. Benefits: embouchure refinement and strength, control of air pressure and speed, control and awareness of angle of air column
    • as an exercise for refinement of quiet tones: push the flute in all the way and play multiphonics of very small intervals (see Exercise L: Robert Dick Tone Development through Extended Techniques). My method is to play the notes separately and refine the sound of the upper note first. Once you have refined it - remember the air speed, this is the one you will need. It can't be weaker and still produce the upper note! Then by changing the angle of the airstream find the lower note. (This is Robert Dick's advice, then he further suggests to tune your throat to the weaker pitch.)
    • as an exercise for opening up the sound - (pull the flute back out if you have pushed it in) - play muliphonics of large intervals (see Exercises D and Q: Robert Dick Tone Development through Extended Techniques). For these intervals it helps to think of having a "tall" embouchure, the upper lip controlling the upper note, the lower lip controlling the lower note.
    • When you need to hit a stable multiphonic in an ensemble situation, it is often advisable to aim for the top note and don't let it waver, otherwise it will sound like a mistake. (For example, the multiphonics in Xenakis' Jalons.) Of course, make the sound as rich as you can by including as much of the lower tone(s) as possible
  • Whistle tones. Benefits: control and awareness of the lip's aperture, control of very slow air-stream
    • as listening and refining exercise choose a low note such as low C, play whistle tones carefully seeing which notes of the harmonic series you can pick out. To find the proper resonance, whistle the normal way - this prepares your oral cavity for the right shape of the whistle tone.
    • as a relaxing/de-stressing exercise: work on controlling slow air streams by practising low whistle tones. Your embouchure has to be very steady because there is little air behind it to support it. (Patience: It took me a long time to get to low C!) This is another case where thinking "tall embouchure" helps. It also helps to think of having a cushion of air behind your lips (i.e., your lips are not too flat against your teeth) and to relax your jaw. Once you can do this reliably, it is a good de-stressor before going on stage.
    • if you have trouble producing a fourth octave note, find the correct angle by first finding the whistle tone (you may find yourself rolling out more than usual), then blow. It should help.
  • Circular breathing. Benefits: development of the larger muscles for embouchure flexibility and stamina, ability to play longer phrases in moving passages.
    • in classical repertoire, one can use this for rapid or trill passages. I like to use it for long cadential trills because you can give full power without fear of having not enough air for the final note.
    • as a checkpoint for resonance. When I am warming up or just about to go on stage, I check my circular breathing regardless if it is required in the piece I am about to play. This is a sure-fire test to see if either of my nostrils or the back of my throat is blocked. If I am clear enough to circular breathe then I should be able to play with maximum resonance!
To approach a given technique musically, ask yourself (or by all means the composer):
  • is the technique used to create a certain atmosphere?
  • does it evoke something concrete?
  • does the technique play a role in the form of the piece?