Online Guide to Bass Flute Multiphonics
Taylor MacLennan & Nicholas Moroz
Having both worked on various repertoire with Explore Ensemble featuring multiphonics – e.g. Luigi Nono, Salvatore Sciarrino, Patricia Alessandrini, Gérard Grisey, John Croft – and as Nick started work on a new piece for bass flute and live electronics for Taylor, we both got fed up with having to trail through several flute books for multiphonic fingerings only to find that the results on Taylor’s bass flute often varied considerably from what was notated. Obviously it’s a given that results will vary depending on the instrument, but as we spent some time investigating and recording these sounds on Taylor’s bass, we thought it would be a nice idea to share our findings and the audio samples in the form of an online guide.
This guide has 26 multiphonics which all work well on Taylor’s Pearl. They’re organised chromatically low to high, and intervalically low to high when they share the same fundamental pitch. They’re shown at written pitch, meaning they’ll sound an octave lower than written. We’ve approximated everything to the eighth-tone. Nick used Openmusic to check the exact microtonal pitches heard in the audio samples. You can view M1-M26 on their individual pages with audio samples via the above sub-menu (we had to separate the pages individually as there are too many soundfiles to load at once), and you can find all 26 shown in an image at the bottom of the page. Below are some loose thoughts on how it’s put together and some friendly general suggestions for anyone wishing to use them.
Our thinking is that an online guide with samples and info about a carefully selected number of multiphonics that we know work well is more useful than the usual experience of having to sift through numerous books with hundred of (mostly redundant) options, which anyway when you get to work with a player, never quite work as written.
One key aspect that we felt could be done better with multiphonic guides is to emphasise their variability through dynamics and register. Often you find them in books listed as 3-6 note chords, but of course it’s impossible to hear all of these notes at once. You can only truly ever get 2-3 distinct component pitches to speak stably at a time, sometimes there’s the odd subtle extra note(s) mixed in, or even phantom difference tones when two pitches are loud enough (flute players will know these as the bane of intonation issues in ensemble/orchestral playing, especially in the upper register / on piccolo).
A player can aim for certain components of a multiphonic by varying their air speed, embouchure, and air direction. With this in mind and to show how you can sweep through the sounds, we’ve notated them as arpeggios.
With that said, composers might consider writing multiphonics out not as 4-6 note chords but as 1-3 note components with the corresponding required dynamics, more like a melody than fixed sonority. It’s also possible to sweep through the components of a multiphonic like an arpeggio (Grisey does this a fair bit, e.g. Talea, or Vortex Temporum). Most of the listed multiphonics have arpeggio sound samples so you can hear how they work.
We’ve abandon the whole idea of scales of ‘difficulty’ as found in many flute books – multiphonics either work for you or they don’t, or they might be too awkward to be worth it when alternatives are available; plenty of other fingerings to try. Nonetheless, in the notes we point out when a multiphonic only works within a certain dynamic range or when there are other peculiarities to consider, some practical, some musically interesting.
We’ve used slurs to show which components can be played simultaneously as dyads and dashed slurs to indicate when three components tend to sound all at once. You can almost always play neighbouring components together, however sometimes you encounter breaks, and weaker passing or shadow tones between components. We tried to aim for these tones but they’re virtually impossible to bring out as stable pitches; the instrument seems to prefer to go to a stronger nearby component. Nonetheless, these subtle shadow tones seem really important to the beauty and individual characters of multiphonics, so we’ve notated them as smaller bracketed noteheads. The occasional difference tones as mentioned above are shown as small bracketed noteheads with the abbreviation ‘d.t.’, and lines to show which tones produce the sound.
Another thing we wanted to show, getting back to how multiphonics vary across register, is how some tones will bend in pitch depending on whether you’re aiming for the lower or higher components. Essentially, the lower you are, the lower some pitches will bend, and vice versa. The change in pitch can vary from an eighth to a quarter-tone tone. We’ve shown how pitch varies across register with the accidentals in brackets above the bendable notes, basically the accidentals in brackets above individual pitches are what you get when you play higher and/or louder. You’ll notice that this usually only applies to the middle or inner tones of the multiphonic..
We’ve notated the fingerings in what we think is a straightforward way, and have noted when a multiphonic corresponds to a listing from either the Artaud or Levine books, abbreviated as A.1 or L.1, for example. If you look these up you’ll see our results with the same fingerings often get different results!
We hope you find this a handy go to guide for your moments of bass flute fancifulness. If anything we hope to save people (even if only just us!) some time and frustration by creating a permanent yet working record of reliable multiphonics that means we don’t have to go back to the same books and get frustrated with different or dodgy results. Do get in touch via the website contact page if you have any questions or comments. If you have a different instrument perhaps it would be interesting to see how these work for you, or whether the results deviate from what we have here. Enjoy!