Peter H. Bloom is a regular Visiting Performing Artist (flute) at the annual Snow Pond Composers Workshop co-directed by Richard Nelson and Edward Jacobs. For the 2018 conference, Mr. Bloom presented a lecture on “Effective Writing for Flutes and the Contemporary Flutist”, in which he discussed various topics using four contemporary works published by Noteworthy Sheet Music as examples: Richard Nelson’s Play of Light; Elliott Schwartz’s Soliloquy III; Elizabeth Vercoe’s Butterfly Effects; and Edward Jacobs’ Amuse-Bouche ... click the links to access NSM’s listings for additional information about these pieces and to purchase the full scores. With Mr. Bloom’s permission, we are sharing portions of his lecture (Peter H. Bloom © 2018) here on our website, with associated links to audio clips and additional written materials used as examples during the presentation (click to listen or view).
Excerpt from presentation/discussion given by Peter H. Bloom
for participants of the Snow Pond Composers Workshop, June 2018
The topics we could cover here, today are nearly limitless and might include:
1. The flute family with rules for transposition and practical ranges;
2. Extended techniques for the various flutes;
3. Improvisation, its various modes, and ways to include improvisation in your work;
4. Graphic notation;
5. Flute(s) and electronics; or flute with fixed media; or flute with mixed media.
The list goes on.
I believe that we can get the most out of this session by hearing and seeing what, to me, are particularly effective, masterful musical moments in some of the relatively new works in my current repertoire. And by doing this, we’ll visit in a practical manner a number of the topics I just mentioned. We’ll consider four brilliant, yet very different, pieces that have proven successful in concerts across the country, with diverse audiences from urban centers to rural outposts.
1. Richard Nelson’s Play of Light for flute (doubling piccolo and bass flute) and harp
2. Elliott Schwartz’s Soliloquy III for solo flute
3. Elizabeth Vercoe’s Butterfly Effects for flute(s) and harp
4. Edward Jacobs’ Amuse-Bouche for solo flute
Scores and parts for these pieces are available at www.NoteworthySheetMusic.com. Two are published in the Snow Pond Composers Workshop Anthology New Music for Flute 2015, and the other two are available separately.
Let’s begin with Rick Nelson’s Play of Light, wherein “flute” refers to three weapons among the flutist’s arsenal (bass flute, C flute, and piccolo) as one extended instrument.
Here’s an abridged version of Rick’s program note for Play of Light. He writes:
“Play of Light” is built around spaciousness, transparency, multi-hued shadings and playful chases. The incorporation of bass flute and piccolo further enhance the inherently rich color possibilities of the flute/harp combination—the three flute instruments in succession form a sort of “super-flute” in the work’s final section … The composition leads the players into a substantial section that they complete through improvisation. While they follow signposts on intensity, energy and pitch content … the improvisation creates an element of intrigue and unpredictability … (and) insures that each performance … will have a strongly individual profile.”
We’ll start by seeing (Score p1) the opening gambit of Play of Light. The unaccompanied flute flourish or arabesque is followed by very effective dynamic writing. The flute, playing piano in its third octave is subtly assertive—clear, clean and spare. The single p as opposed to a “three p (ppp)” pianissimo achieves the desired result without constraining the sonority, and without undue stress to the performer. Now, let’s look at Measure 9. The economical, spare, lucid harp lines let light show through. It’s like zinc-white impasto on an impressionist’s canvas. In Measure 21, notice the spacious tremolos in the flute’s lower range.
Let’s move to our second example (score pages 3-4). You’ll see the flutter tongue in Measure 28. In other compositions, the flutter tongue is often used as an aggressive element; here, in Play of Light, it lends a near optical shimmer to the sonic field, along with the grace-note droplets that follow in Measure 31. Let’s listen (PoL audio 2). The jagged counterpoint between the flute and harp that follows evokes the open space between subjects depicted in a fine-line sketch by legendary American illustrator Saul Steinberg. (If you haven’t yet encountered his work, please Google him.)
Rick sets up the improvisational section with another long “roulade” from the flute at Measure 87. In the improvisation (beginning in Measure 93), directives are given, including specific pitches that are prescribed, and some that are proscribed (as in “avoid the quality of Eb Major”). This is one of many techniques of employing what we broadly call improvisation in an otherwise through-composed work. Let’s listen to a bit of the improvisational section (PoL audio 3).
Rick had referred to the “super flute” in his program note. The extraordinary range of the “super flute” begins with the bass flute sounding pitches, produced as tongue rams a Major 7 below the bass flute’s practical range. You’ll see this in Measure 135. Note that the bass flute sounds an octave below where written. So, the bass flute tongue ram actually sounds a concert Db below the bass clef (somewhere around 69 Hz)! Rick has chosen to notate the bass flute voice as the flutist reads (prescriptively) and not as the harpist is hearing. There are pros and cons to this notational approach. On one hand, it’s easier for the harpist and flutist to communicate when simply referring to passages as notated. On the other hand, the harpist might find the octave displacements confusing. This is a conundrum. Let’s listen (PoL audio 4).
Moving on to our next examples. The light now fully in play illuminates the entire chromatic spectra as both the harp and “super flute” are in rhapsodic mode. From bass flute (PoL audio 5; score page 17), through concert flute (PoL audio 6; score page 20), through piccolo (PoL audio 7; score page 22).
Last year, we heard the entire Play of Light. This year, we only have time for excerpts. Keep an eye out for performances in a concert hall near you, and, check out the full score available at NoteworthySheetMusic.com!
The live performance of a musical composition is, of course, a staged theatrical event. The concert stage is a three-dimensional space. The event of a musical performance adds two further dimensions: the dimension of time unfolding, and the sonic dimension with its various phenomena. Improvisational elements add a sixth dimension, a dimension in which the performer may travel, with varying degrees of constraint, among unrevealed areas of the score through “portals of improvisation.” We touched on the degrees of constraint when we looked at Play of Light. I argue there’s a seventh dimension in the universe of musical performance, a dimension in which the circumstances of the performance space, itself, become another “instrumental” element of a composition. I’m aware that this talk of dimensions sounds arcane, or maybe insane! Allow me to illustrate how we might visit this seventh dimension by using Elliott Schwartz’s Soliloquy III as an example.
The published score begins with a detailed program note. Looks simple enough: one performer with three flutes (alto, C flute, piccolo), a gently (or minimally) prepared grand piano; a triangle and striker; and perhaps a mallet for striking the piano. Notated parts are to be placed into the piano case for when the performer plays into the piano. But, when we look at the score itself (score p1), we see that the flutist is required to navigate around the piano, depressing keys in one register, plucking strings at the opposite end, and so forth.
Unlike a standard musical score with a list of sonic events to execute, now there are complications that require significant strategizing. Preparing to perform Soliloquy III, with grace and poise, required that I construct a stage map. Now, Elliot did not provide a map, and he could get away with this. He had been writing for 50 years, his music had been performed by top musicians across the globe. He could envision the stagecraft in his mind. But for you composers, I recommend, when writing a piece like this: provide a stage map, indicating everything—props, placement, play action, etc.
In addition to the stage map, I prepared a number of sheets with music to be performed while playing inside the piano. Each sheet included the relevant score with bold markings, tagging my current station, telling me which flute to use, and indicating my next destination and actions. Following a score is one thing but following a route though the “seventh dimension” in the pressured circumstance of a performance (or even a rehearsal) is fraught. Again, Elliott did not provide these sheets; I made them myself. If you are creating a piece like this, provide the sheets and include them in the score! Do everything possible to keep the performer oriented on stage.
Again, about this seventh dimension: if you’re skeptical, I recommend learning and performing a work like Soliloquy III to experience the initial disorientation and subsequent elation of navigation in this Seventh Dimension.
Elliott was insistent that his score be followed precisely, but wry humor and rascality were never far off. When I gave the premiere of the piece here at Snow Pond in 2015, he told the audience that he called upon the solo flutist to activate a variety of piano sounds in order to transform the solo player into a virtual chamber ensemble, and to give the flutist something to do while changing flutes. (!!!)
Since then, I’ve performed the piece a number of times from New England to the Deep South. Rick included the piece in a concert that he presented at U Maine Augusta, where we also performed Play of Light and works by Mostly Maine Composers, with Elliott and all of the composers in attendance.
In November 2016, I performed Soliloquy III at the Ramsey recital hall at the University of Georgia in Athens, with a chamber quartet called The Fortunato Ensemble. Ramsey is a particularly well-appointed venue. On stage was a brand new 9’ Steinway D that had just been inaugurated that season. It was the shiniest large object ever witnessed indoors! The stage crew happily provided a velvet wrapped sand-bag for weighting the damper pedal. BUT, when it was revealed that I would be reaching into the piano to pluck and strum on strings, the hall manager indignantly ordered the new D removed. And before I had the presence of mind to respond, another spectacular, slightly older 1989 Steinway D was rolled into place, with the directive “have at it.” Ironically, the older piano, having been “played in”, was a far better instrument.
Later that week, when I played Soliloquy III at Georgia College in Milledgeville, a student inquired, after the concert, “What did that piano ever do to you?”
Elliott was adamant that the dramatic role of the performer is key. For example, one of his works requires the pianist to reach far into the case of the instrument to pluck, strum, and pound on, strings. In one instance, a diminutive performer enlisted another musician to assist and to execute the athletic “in-the-piano” actions. This, Elliott, explained, was not acceptable; a breach of protocol! The “seventh-dimension gestures” (my term) must be attempted by the performer, not by a surrogate. The performative act is central; it is just as important as the sounds created.
Let’s take a look, now, at a somewhat more conventional score by another composer.
Elizabeth Vercoe’s Butterfly Effects employs harp with C-flute, alto, bass and piccolo flutes. The score is available on Noteworthy Sheet Music. The audio examples are taken from a new CD, Butterfly Effects and Other Works by Elizabeth Vercoe, which we recorded at Futura Productions; the disc is slated for release later this year on Navona Records.
The first movement, Mourningcloak, calls for alto flute in its smokiest voice. If you haven’t written for harp, there are interesting notational and technical items to observe in the score (score p1), including pedal settings and attack indications such as sons étoufée (Measure 4). Let’s listen to the opening (BE audio 1a).
In the second movement, Banded Blue Pierrot, Elizabeth writes very effective flutter tongues in Measure 4. Note the harp “buzz” in Measure 12. It’s notated with a ½ pedal. Observe the use of tremolos in Measures 15 and 16; notice the pitch bend in Measure 19.
Movement 3, Common Jezebel, exploits a tango groove. Note the tongue ram in Measure 1, with the harp gesture (a string squeak). It’s difficult to convey, in a score, the intensity of the tango. The feeling must be free, but the pulse must be relentless. Look at Measure 3, where Elizabeth calls for a gritty prés de la table, requiring the harpist to pluck close to the sounding board for enhanced attack. Note the alto flute portamentos in Measures 10, 11, ff, and the key slaps Measure 25 ff.
The fourth movement, Question Mark, is “beatboxed” (flute part pages 8-9). This brings up issues of precisely what is meant by this relatively recent extended technique. As the vocabulary has not yet been established for flute beatboxing, I worked with the composer and publisher to clearly indicate what was required of the performer to deliver what was desired by the composer. We settled on phonetic notations such as bpuh, kuh, puh, keh, dji, and tchi, to voice articulations—especially the plosives. Note that the vowels are as important as the consonants in the sonic expression. Beatboxing in flute performance is easier when a microphone and amplifier are available, but in the chamber music setting of Butterfly Effects, this is impossible. Note, also, the vocalized flutter tongue (Measure 8 ff). This is deliberately vague, and the execution depends on the vocal range and vocal quality of the performer (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, etc.).
In Butterfly Effects, we see two excellent examples of what we mean by prescriptive versus descriptive notation. The articulations (bpuh, kuh, dji, etc) are prescriptive; they indicate precisely what must be done, technically, as indicated by the composer. Vocalized flutter tongue, on the other hand, is descriptive. It gives the performer the idea of what’s to be heard. Looking at Measure 35, we see this descriptive indication, where the harmonics ad lib indicates a sonic gesture. The ending (Measure 36) is a good example of achieving a theatrical effect by writing beyond the technical extreme of the instrumentalist. A bass flutist is hard-pressed to make it through the end of Measure 36 playing harmonics at the extreme range of the instrument on a single breath. You see the composer’s note to repeat 4 notes ad lib. It’s hyperbole. Let’s listen to the ending (BE audio 4a).
Monkey Puzzle (movement #5) is beautifully crafted to exploit the color of the alto flute as it ascends from Measure 9 though Measure 12. The harp writing is spare and elegant. There’s some exquisite use of retrograde here. Listen to an audio clip (BE audio 5).
Karner Blue is a subspecies of butterfly first identified by novelist Vladimir Nobakov. Elizabeth celebrates the bug with a blues, of course (movement #6). She uses the piccolo, here, in an unusual and perhaps ironic way: in Measure 1, languid and gently but a little sly are hardly qualities that one would associate with the soaring-yet-tense, shimmering, chirping solo voice in John Phillip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. The throaty low tessitura piccolo melodic meanderings in Karner Blues are supported by spare, bluesy, guitar-like harp interjections. Let's listen to a short clip (BE audio 6a). Low register piccolo tremolos are effective in this sonic context. Note that the portamento in Measure 22 prefigures the harp’s evoking of country blues-like guitar string-bending in Measure 25. Portamento on piccolo (and alto flute, for that matter) may not be as available as on a traditional open-hole C flute, but we manage.
The final movement, Psyche, summarizes the suite that preceded it. It’s an “overture in reverse.” Note that whereas Rick Nelson’s Play of Light calls on three flutes (bass, concert, piccolo) to create one “super flute,” Psyche engages only the C flute, through quotes, to summon the varied voices of the other flutes in the family. You’ll see in the score that Elizabeth gives cues as we recall the prior movements.
For our last section, I’d like to perform Amuse-Bouche by Dr. Edward Jacobs. The piece works beautifully on C flute and on Alto flute in G. That’s an excellent idea—to provide for multiple uses of any given composition.
The term “Amuse-bouche” means to “entertain the mouth” and refers to a small hors d’oeuvre provided free, before a meal, as an example and an expression of a chef’s philosophy of food and culinary technique.
Eddie writes, in his performance notes: “Amuse-bouche was written in 2015…to serve as a brief program opener. The particular occasion lent itself to exploration of a few of the flute’s extended techniques — jet whistle, slap-tongue, tongue ram, flutter-tongue in several guises — one hears these sounds used as thematic elements within this vignette. Perhaps this aural amuse-bouche might awaken the ear’s hearing buds to the flute’s colors…”
Consider the jet whistle, an iconic flute extended technique since Villa Lobos’ 1950 duo for flute and ‘cello, Assobio a jato. In the literature, the jet whistle is explained as a technique wherein the flutist entirely covers the embouchure and expels all air into the tube. In Amuse-Bouche, Eddie sometimes calls for the “traditional” jet whistle, and in other instances, he employs a more nuanced approach with a sustained sound. This is an excellent example of prescriptive versus descriptive notation. According to prescription, a sustained sound is unlikely with a “true” jet whistle, but according to description, the writing is very effective.
One could think of Amuse-Bouche as a sort of meditation on the jet whistle, wherein we have sonic moments (the jet whistle), followed by melodic gestures that are like sonic fallout from an explosion.
Slap tongue can be executed a number of ways. In one approach, the tip of the tongue is placed behind the incisive papilla (with the bottom of the tongue against the palatine folds). Try it! Another is performed with the tip of the tongue contacting the incisive papilla. A third is with tongue in contact with the incisors. A fourth is with the tongue between the lips. The first approach is less influenced by the fingered pitch of the flute (the effective length of tube) and is mostly a “mouth sound.” The other three are more pitch related and are more involved with the sound of the flute.
Tongue rams are like the compression of gunpowder that results in various expressions of the “jet of air.” The tongue ram is entirely related to the acoustical properties of the flute tube. The physical explanation has to do with the acoustics of a tube open at one end (as opposed to the regular functioning of the flute which works as a tube open at both ends). A true tongue ram results in the production of a pitch approximately a Major 7th below what is fingered (and notated). The longer the flute tube, the better. A tongue ram is only effective as an artifact of a pitch in the flute’s first octave, as it is a function of the fundamental pitch of the end-closed tube.
In closing, I want to offer a few thoughts about writing extended techniques for flute or, in fact, writing for flute in general—even in common practice.
- When looking to write for flute, consult an experienced flutist and preferably more than one.
- When writing for extended techniques, consider possible ossia options. In other words, provide alternatives to accommodate performers’ strengths and preferences.
- Notation is limited and highly subjective. Even something as iconic as the jet whistle can be approached in a number of ways. In fact, given the limited data provided by musical notation (as opposed to the amount of data contained in even the lowest quality digital recording), every notated musical composition provides performers with freedom that could be construed as “improvisatory.” As one example: consider the myriad interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If you haven’t heard the piece lately, check out some performances on YouTube.
- Avoid high-risk, low-return choices.
- Write what you hear, what you want to hear. If you can’t hear it in your mind’s ear, don’t write it.
- Make your compositions fun, interesting, clear and appealing for the performer—we want your music to be played!
Peter H. Bloom © 2018