multiphonic flute playing: an overview

line for lyons sample:

bach invention sample:

(if possible listen on good loud speakers, in the car, or use headphones.  turn up the bass.)

This style of multiphonic flute involves playing the flute while simultaneously singing.  It is a lot like whistling and humming at the same time.  Go ahead and whistle a note.  Sustain it.  Now “turn on” your vocal chords and hum a note, being careful not to interrupt the whistled note.  This is multiphonic playing.  So what’s all the fuss about?  It’s about trying to control the pitch of both the hum and the whistle (or in this case, the flute) to create music.

Multiphonic possibilities range from simple to highly complex.  The singing may be in unison with the flute line, adding a biting, raunchy texture to the tone.  It may be a series of percussive grunts designed to punctuate the musical line.  It may be a drone or a parallel harmony, creating simple accompaniment and basic polyphony.  For the more adventurous player, it may be a bassline, canon, fugue, or other counterpoint line.

I have been fascinated with multiphonic flute playing since 1989 when I found a dusty LP of Ian Anderson playing a 20-bar flute solo on “Locomotive Breath,” and I knew there was something special there.  Several years later I saw Denis DiBlasio experiment with multiphonics at a live show.  This concert inspired me, then a teenager, to work out my own multiphonic piece.  I arranged “Birdland” for solo multiphonic flute – a simple, short introduction to this classic jazz chart in which the flutist sings the simple bass line while playing the melody (with some percussive key slaps and grunts for texture).  It was thrilling to be able to create chords, harmonies, and contrasting movement, all on my “solo” instrument.

Multiphonics went on the shelf for almost a decade as I pursued classical and traditional forms.  But this past autumn, remembering the excitement and fulfillment of the Birdland performances, I opened the idea up again.  This time around, I set my sights higher.  I began to use the multiphonic form to play works of complex counterpoint.  I practiced this by sight reading Bach inventions, preludes, and fugues; improvising over drones; and embellishing scales with parallel and contrary movements.

At first I wondered if this project was too ambitious, or impossible.  Airflow was a major issue: each flute note requires a certain speed and direction of air.  And each vocal note requires a specific force and shape to the air and throat/resonating chamber.  When these requirements contradicted one another, the flute notes would break down an octave, fuzz up, fizzle out, or waver in pitch.  The vocal notes would sound strained from tension or improper throat shape, or bend out of tune from restricted air.  And if the two notes were close together (minor 3rd or tighter), if they were not perfectly in tune, the close proximity of the sources caused intense out-of-tune waves that seem to actually *break* the flute note, stopping it from sounding more than a poof of frayed air.

Over time I learned that each combination of flute note + vocal note has a special adjusted airflow and position, a unique throat openness and unique flute embouchure and unique airspeed, all of which must cooperate to execute that specific note combination.

• success of (flute note X + vocal note Y) —> adjusted techniques for note production

• adjusted techniques for note production = adjusted throat/palate position, adjusted embouchure, adjusted airspeed and direction

How many combinations of notes are there?  With a comfortable vocal range of 23 half steps, and a useable flute range of 33 half steps (I usually don’t go above high G in multiphonic pieces), there are an overwhelming number of note pairs.  I’ve only worked out a tiny percentage of these combinations.  That’s part of why I keep working with the Bach – his pieces cover every key signature, so practicing them keeps me trying new note combinations.  I also explore the combinations by using Taffanel & Gaubert and Walfrid Kujala’s Vade Mecum (classic flute technique books) and adding parallel 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths to these exercises.

Naturally, with all the Bach I’ve grown attached to several keyboard pieces with counterpoint that works beautifully in the multiphonic flute form.  Though I hope to honor Bach’s brilliance by performing and recording many of his pieces, I also want to carry multiphonics into other genres.  One of the most gorgeous and perfect works of counterpoint I’ve ever heard is not Baroque at all.  It’s an unaccompanied duet between Chet Baker and Stan Getz called “Line for Lyons.”  This happens to fit ideally into multiphonic flute, with a key adjustment of from G to D.  It would be lush and lovely in D flat, C, or B for a flutist who is a vocal alto.  I chose D to accommodate my soprano vocal range.

Here I share with you a preview of multiphonic flute recordings to come.  The first piece is a clip from my transcription of Line for Lyons.  The second is a bit of Bach Invention #4 in D minor.

line for lyons sample:

bach invention sample:

(if possible listen on good loud speakers, in the car, or use headphones.  turn up the bass.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009. Tags: , . flute, music.


  1. anna replied:

    It takes a bit to get used to the buzzing from listening to Lyon, but it sounds lovely. I’m trying to do it on my flute, but can’t quite get as nice a sound as these ones… It would be fantastic if you could post the sheet music here as well! 😀

    • christiehubbard replied:

      you’re right, the buzzing is a major difficulty. i think it makes the vocal line hard to hear. i am looking to experiment with different microphones and recording styles – perhaps i can capture the sound differently to reduce the buzz?

      i got started with the multiphonics by holding vocal drones and then playing a simple moving flute line. it’s easiest to start in the low register. try singing and playing low D (unison). then move the flute line slowly up a d minor scale, adjusting each interval for good intonation.

      i will look into getting a transcription of Line for Lyons posted. thanks for listening!

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