sevens/glass island reel

Sevens/Glass Island Reel:

(two flutes, piano accordion, Garageband loops)

Sevens. I learned this Liz Carroll original from her 2000 album Lost In the Loop.  At first glance this tune does not seem flute friendly because too much of the drone melody sits on the lowest fiddle string (out of flute range).  But I found most of the low drones were still convincing when brought up an octave.

Glass Island. Ethan Hazzard-Watkins wrote this contemporary contra dance tune in 1997.  He’s writes that it was “never intended to be an Irish session tune.”  But someone else captured a session recording and started emailing it around.  I ran across that recording when local fiddler Joel Mesnikoff sent it to me in October this year.


Monday, February 28, 2011. Tags: , , , . flute, music, traditional music, Uncategorized. 1 comment.

prosthetic flute thumb in action

Got a UCL tear?  No use of your thumb?  Can’t stop playing traditional Irish flute because your need to do so is a compulsion bordering on addiction, the cessation of which would cause a debilitating self-identity crisis?  No problem!  At least not if you have the following:

1.  Access to a great hand specialist practice.  I highly recommend Lamont Cardon (MD) and Broheen Elias (PA) at Alta Bates.  Competent and accommodating, they respected my professional needs and supported my decision to continue playing flute during the healing process.

2.  A solid cast to protect the injured ligament, one with extra wiggle room for four fingers.

3.  Prosthetic materials/supplies:  plastic coat hanger, ace bandage, scotch tape roll, OTC wrist support brace, duct or teflon tape, hot glue, patience, a sense of humor.

4.   (and this is critical…)  Indomitability.

5.  Optional: bottle opener fixture and epoxy to adhere.  I decided this was important because what could be cooler than opening someone’s beer with your prosthetic flute thumb?


Remove layers of scotch tape until the outer diameter of the tape roll fits into the inner curve of your coat hanger hook.  Glue the scotch tape roll into the curve of the coat hanger.  Use duct or teflon tape adjust the inner diameter of the scotch tape roll — it should fit snugly onto the bore of your flute, right at the point of desired support.  Optionally, attach bottle opener to the distal coat hanger arm using epoxy.  Here’s what it should look like so far.

coat hanger with scotch tape roll attached

bottle opener

Now work out how you will put the coat hanger on in a way that is comfortable and stable.  I used a simple velcro wrist brace to support the distal end of the hanger, then an ace bandage to hold the hanger in place against the cast and keep it adjacent to my forefinger.

Now your thumb is on, and you are ready to hit the seisiún.  Attach flute.  I play a keyless split-body (four piece) Olwell and designed the scotch tape roll to fit at the proximal end of the third section, right up against the silver tenon ring.  Wherever you choose to attach the hanger, the instrument should be held firmly in place, just as if you were supporting it with your previously-functional thumb.

A scrappy plastic thumb that can open beer bottles is exciting, I know, as is playing again for the first time since your big injury.  But be mindful of the medical situation and your (dis)abilities.  Muscle fatigue was a problem for me, as were hand tremors and spasms.  Be gentle with yourself and play only to tolerance.  Long term healing is critical, so construct your project with safety in mind — run the basic design of your prosthetic by a hand specialist.  That’s one of the reasons you went to the trouble of hiring a hand specialist, right?  Utilize his/her expertise.

For longer performances, detach the flute from the hanger to take a break and socialize.  But I suggest leaving the prosthetic attached for the whole evening, partly for convenience, but also because it is a great conversation starter.

Over time, make flute body alignment and ace bandage wrap changes as necessary.  As your fingers grow stronger and the swelling goes down, you may need to make minor adjustments to get the instrument in the right place for your healing fingers.

coat hanger thumb in action at the starry plough

an earlier version (pre- scotch tape ring) where globs of hot glue supported the bore

Wednesday, February 2, 2011. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . flute, music, sculpture, traditional music. Leave a comment.

palm sunday

Palm Sunday:

(flute, accordion, Garageband loops, palm banging on Ikea bookshelf)

I’ve been playing games with meter and rhythmic emphasis.  Palm Sunday is a traditional double jig in 6/8, and here I follow it with a “reel-ified” version of itself.  At the metric transition (1:04) I keep the eighth note beat the same but force the tune into 3/4.  One musician friend calls it “a heinous and impossibly fast death waltz,” but I think of it more as a reel with 6 subdivisions per strong beat (as opposed to the usual 4 subdivisions per strong beat).

Parts of the original 6/8 tune resemble a slide instead of a jig, so it already has some atypical phrase shaping that makes the tune feel a bit “off,” and I distort those phrases even more with the additional melody notes in my 3/4 version.  Some traditional music practitioners find the 3/4 adaptation to be quite disturbing – they feel it goes too far beyond the form and thus isn’t stable enough.  I don’t know what I think yet.

Monday, December 20, 2010. Tags: , , , . flute, music, traditional music, Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

UC Berkeley undergraduate recital

this is what a table looks like when traditional music is happening

Last week I played in a small recital by the UC Berkeley Music Department undergraduates studying world music performance.  The concert featured Chinese erhu, traditional Indian singing, and traditional Irish flute.  I was, obviously, the one playing flute, and shared a spicy salad of traditional and neo-traditional tunes.  Joining me was local guitarist and fiddler Will Wheeler, whose keen chord choices were a real treat.  (Check out Will’s latest project – Golden Toad Music and Dance Camp – an upcoming festival that promises a week of sleepless musical bliss.)

Here are live recordings of our three-set performance.

Maids of Mitchelstown/I Buried My Wife/Cliffs of Moher:

Crow in the Sun:

Jim Donoghue’s/The Lilac/Sligo Creek:

This concert was a pleasure because its somewhat impromptu nature allowed for a casual approach to the music- a good reminder that playing ought to be fun!

Saturday, May 8, 2010. Tags: , , , . flute, music, traditional music. 1 comment.

self-duets from outer space

two tunes using artificially galactic instrument sounds.  space piano is created by adding a phaser effect.  space flute uses amp simulation and speech enhancer.

Piano improvisation/Price of My Pig:

Here the piano plays an A pedal as the downbeat of every measure. The remaining notes in each measure are natural minor fillers, keys where my fingers fell (often with eyes closed.)  Over this the flute is playing an altered version of a traditional double jig, Price of My Pig, omitting the tune’s usual F#s and stripping it of its dorian flavor.

Breton Dance:

Some years back I learned this tune from piper E.J. Jones at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.   My sweet and eager piano wished to be both accompanist and melody partner.  I could not say no.

When E.J. recorded it on his excellent album The Willow he included these brilliant liner notes about this tune —

“This is a dance tune often done at night festivals in Brittany.  It has words which tell a story of a ten year old boy who tries to impress all the pretty girls in the town with a song and a gift of the eels he caught. ‘Je n’avais pas dix ans que je pêchais l’anguille pour en faire un présent à toutes ces joiles filles. Assis de sur un banc, je leur parle d’amourettes et je les divertis avec mes chansonnettes’ “

Thursday, November 5, 2009. Tags: , , , . flute, music, traditional music. Leave a comment.

Star Wars Cantina Band Reborn: Our Humble Salute to Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes

My light-and-gourd-adorned C whistle and I joined forces with other galactic instruments in an Earthen tribute to Figrin D’an and the gang.  On Halloween night we roamed the Mission and burst into restaurants and bars playing Modal Nodes classics.  And as if Bith masks and light up instruments weren’t fun enough on their own, we were accompanied by the groupie presence of many Lucas-like creatures and other unexpected assorted characters such as Giant Cockroach and Kenny G.

See other reports from Laughing Squid, Unnecessary Umlaut, and Arugula Designs.

Sunday, November 1, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , . flute, music, traditional music. Leave a comment.

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. 2 comments.

st. cecilia is in the woodshed

this is what music looks like   

this is what music looks like

i’m in the woodshed

haven’t visited for several years now –

been busy with bodies and babies, that instant high in the moment of birth

now st. cecilia, goddess of music, is tapping her foot impatiently

i’ve missed the feeling of her pine shavings under my feet

and the way she giggles at the sound of my fingertip stopping up a pipe to form a perfect note


everything i need is here –

quiet, cork grease, olive oil, string and beeswax for my one threaded tenon, cotton, metronome, water,  my hands

so we begin again

Saturday, November 1, 2008. Tags: , , , , , , . flute, music, song, writing. Leave a comment.


I recorded this album in the summer of 2005 after leaving the Army and taking an extended (and well-deserved) trip to Ireland.  It’s a solo work of original compositions inspired by folk, celtic, and modern sources.  Vocals, piano, Irish flute and fiddle combine haunting melodies and the powerful imagery of life and love.  An all natural unedited recording.  Featuring the awesome musical stylings of Jessica McFarland, Matthew Olwell, and Yuval Mann. Special thanks to Steve Tung for producing, recording, and shepherding this project.  Some sample tracks:


Spy Story:

Fairy Grove Polkas:

Yes, it’s organically grown! No artificial ingredients.  You can get a copy of Lockdown here for $15 (+s/h).  It’s also available on iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby.  I make my music available to people in all economic situations – please visit my recordings page for more information.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , . feminism, flute, music, song, traditional music, veterans. 2 comments.