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For the Contemporary Flutist

introducing the 12 flute etudes on extended flute techniques from the etude book 'For the Contemporary Flutist' by Wil Offermans


Etude 5: Multiphonics

Without doubt, the multiphonic is a most exciting technique. Typically, we have learned to regard the flute as a monophonic instrument, which can produce only one pitch at a time. But we will see that with the technique of multiphonic we can actually produce several sounds simultaneously. By controlling the airflow and by manipulating the vibration inside the tube we can indeed play two pitches at once, like two different waves co-existing inside the same tube.

multiphonic: two waves in one tube
VIDEO Etude 5: Multiphonics
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Etude 5: Multiphonics

This short sample video is on Etude 5: Multiphonics from the book For the Contemporary Flutist by Wil Offermans, which contains the 12 studies on contemporary flute techniques. Offermans recorded the etudes on the CD Daily Sensibilities.
* for copyright protection scores in the videos are partly blurred.
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This short sample video is on Etude 5: Multiphonics from the book For the Contemporary Flutist by Wil Offermans, which contains the 12 studies on contemporary flute techniques. Offermans recorded all the etudes on the CD Daily Sensibilities.

From Harmonic to Multiphonic

from harmonic to multiphonic
Sio how to produce two sounds simultaneously? For this, let's first look back to the technique of harmonics. There we already discussed that we should perform a harmonic by controlling the airflow, especially by using vocalization. At the same time we should try to avoid to perform harmonics by changing the lip-tension, which would result in a thin and dull harmonic sound. To develop the vocalization we studied the mouth cavity to produce different vowels and concluded that 'big-space' vowels like [o] (like in ‘york’) do stimulate the lower harmonics while 'small-space' vowels like [ee] (like in ‘cheese’) do stimulate the higher harmonics. Low sounds require bigger resonance spaces compared to higher sounds (like a cello is bigger compared to a violin). Imagining vowels can strongly stimulate us to manipulate the mouth-cavity, especially with the back of the tongue. The mouth cavity is a most complex space, like a room with many niches, which can be enlarged and reduced with a nearly unlimited flexibility. Because of its flexibility, our mouth cavity can contain more than one vowel at the same time. And this is exactly the secret for performing a multiphonic: we not use just one vowel (like when performing a harmonic), instead we use two vowels simultaneously, so that two harmonics will sound simultaneously!

In a nutshell: to perform a harmonic we actually filter one harmonic out of the harmonic series by applying the vocalization of one specific vowel. Now, to perform a multiphonic we go one step further and we need to filter two sounds out of the harmonic series by the vocalization of two vowels. By combining two vowels we acoustically prepare the mouth cavity, but also the breath flow and the embouchure, to support two sounds simultaneously.

Exercise for Singing Vowels

Multiphonic: two waves in one tube
Let's have a look to exercise (A) where we sing a long tone while changing the vocalization. While doing so, we concentrate on the sound and the shape of the mouth cavity. For the first study we start on a 'big-space' vowel like [o], imagining the [o] vowel in the lower part of the mouth cavity. While keeping the [o], we gradually add [ee] in the higher part of the mouth cavity. Next we gradually reduce the [ee] sound again until only [o] is left.

In a second study in this exercise we sing the vowel of [ee], imagining the [ee] sound in the higher part of the mouth cavity. Now we first gradually add and later gradually remove the [o] sound, which we locate again in the lower part of the mouth cavity, until we end again with only the [ee] sound.

When speaking we often used the lips to produce the different vowels (though this is quite language-specific). However with this study our focus is to change only the mouth cavity, especially by changing the position of the back of the tongue. Here we should avoid to involve the lips, keeping them in a relaxed and nearly closed position. Have a look in a mirror to check that you are not making any significant lip-changes when when performing this [o] and [ee] exercise.

Audio samples: Shomyo singing

Goge - a short extract of Shomyo, reciting by Japanese Buddhist monks, Japan

Multiphonic Fingerings

Here let's take a closer look to the fingerings in relation to the multiphonic. With the bamboo tone topic we have learned that we can divide the fingerings of the flute into two categories:

1/ Basic Fingerings: looking down from the embouchure-hole, all tone-holes are closed until a certain spot, whereafter all tone-holes are open. Most of the traditional fingerings in the first two registers of the flute belong to this category. A basic fingering creates a clear ending of the vibration and will always have a bel canto sound quality. Also it will have the harmonic series as we discussed with Etude 2: Harmonics (octave; octave+5th; etc.).

2/ Fork-Fingerings: all tone-holes are closed until a certain spot, whereafter one or more tone-holes are open, followed again by one or more closed tone-holes. We may know the fork-fingering from the recorder. A fork-fingering on the flute creates an diffused and mixed ending of the vibration, so it will always create a less clear sound: a bamboo tone. Also it will have some unexpected series of harmonics, totally depending on the exact fingering (and there are thousands of fingering possibilities!).

multiphonic: two waves in one tube

Are Multiphonics pleasant?

In new music compositions in the flute literature, we see that the fork-fingerings are the most frequently used fingerings for creating a multiphonics. Since the intervals of fork-fingerings often include more dissonant intervals, we seem to often associate the multiphonic with a kind of harsh and unpleasant sound. However, if we perform multiphonics on the basic fingerings we will also be able to create consonant intervals, resulting in very pleasant and beautiful sounds.

A sample of this can be be found on the arabic nay flute, where we can hear parallel octaves in a most expressive way (also used in some fingering samples later in this chapter). By the way, it is most interesting to note that the nay flute has the rim not horizontally like our flute, but vertically positioned. This demands a high embouchure, instead of wide. You can see this demonstrated in the photo of the nay player Abdo El-Chamy (Egypt).

The Egypt Nay performed by Abdo-El-Chamy in Cairo
The Nay performed by Abdo-El-Chamy in Cairo, Egypt
Open-hole versus Closed-hole flutes
open- and closed-hole flutes

open thumb key on Kotato 18K gold flute
One more thing to mention is that if you really feel attracted by multiphonics and bamboo tones, it is recommended to use an open-hole flute. Simply the amount of interesting fingerings is so much more extended on an open-hole flute, since we can also make use of the five small centre-holes and its combinations (only the rim is pushed down, while keeping the centre hole uncovered).

For similar reason I actually had opened my left-hand thumb-key on my 18K Kotato flute, to create an 'open thumb key'. So with a total of now six open holes I have even more combinations of open holes available, which I all can manipulate directly with the finger or the thumb.

Audio samples: Multiphonics

Egyptian Nay flute - listen for the parallel octaves

Studying multiphonics

To study any multiphonic we follow these four basic steps:

  1. Play a long note on the lower pitch. Use the vowel [o] to support this sound. Imagine the [o] located in the lower part of the mouth cavity.
  2. Play a long note on the higher pitch. Use the vowel [ee] to support this sound. Imagine the [ee] located in the higher part of the mouth cavity.
  3. Play slowly and legato from the lower to the higher pitch. While doing so, change the vowel from [o] to [ee]. Next take a breath and do the opposite: play slowly and legato from the higher pitch towards the lower pitch while changing the vowel from [ee] to [o]. This is certainly not an easy step, but indeed most challenging and interactive.
  4. Now, intend to play both pitches simultaneously. Concentrate first on the lower pitch, supported by the [o] vowel located in the lower part of the mouth cavity. Additionally play the higher pitch supported by the [ee] vowel located in the upper part of the mouth cavity. Avoid any additional lip-tension.
The fingering can be notated in two ways: either by a diamond-shaped note or by a fingering diagram. Also bear in mind that, depending on many factors, some pitches are microtonal and can be slightly higher or lower as indicated.

In exercise (B) we see two samples with each the four basic steps to study. You can recognize the first fingering as a basic fingering, consequently creating more consonant intervals (in this case a fifth). The second fingering however is a typical fork-fingering and indeed creating a more dissonant and intense interval (here a ninth).

Exercise multiphonic about 4 basic steps

Next you will find a variety of some interesting multiphonics to study in Exercise (C). Each of these multiphonics can be studied with the four steps as described before.

Exercise multiphonic samples

Transposing multiphonics

In Exercise (D) we simply transpose a multiphonic by moving the 'acoustic ending situation' up or down. To do so, transpose the first open hole, as well as the amount of closed holes after the initial open hole, up or down.

Etude 5: Multiphonics

Exercise multiphonic transposition

In the Etude 5: Multiphonics from the etudebook For the Contemporary Flutist we can find a variety of multiphonics. Basically throughout the piece, there are just two multiphonics on one breath-phrase. If we compare this to painting, we may imagine each phrase like one slow brush movement. Now, halfway such brush movement, we change the brush-position or the direction, changing the image of the painted line. Strive for such calm and natural atmosphere throughout the piece. Imagine you are painting. In that way, we may experience the multiphonic not as just two simultaneously sounds, but as a most attractive sculpture, as an object of sound.

A most fruitful Tool!

It is true that the subject of multiphonic can be quite complex and demanding. In general it can be difficult, or extremely difficult, to perform a multiphonic with stability. However, we should remember ourselves that we first of all want to use the multiphonic as a tool to develop. And this tool is really useful and effective, even when we do not manage to reach as far as a 'perfect' result. Using such a tools should first of all be enjoyable, stimulating your imagination and extending your possibilities for controlling your mouth cavity. In that way, the multiphonic as well as the other extended techniques will certainly help you to play your Bach, Poulenc, Takemitsu or whatever other music with a more flexible and enjoyable sound.


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