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?