Friday, June 01, 2007

Polyphonic Flute

Back when I was a flute-playing teenager I used to enjoy trying to play polyphony on my instrument. I did it by singing and playing at the same time. For a while I could play a special two-voice (or one flute and one voice) version of the exposition of the Bach C major Fugue (the one for solo violin). I remember once back in the late 1970s spending an afternoon with Robert Dick, the champion of "extended techniques" on the flute, and playing him my little parlor trick "arrangement." It occurred to me that my trick, with its close voicing, was something that he never would be able to do exactly the way I could, since the only way he could sing in the flute register (being a man) would be in falsetto. The overtones that would result from a man singing in falsetto and playing flute at the same time would be different from those of a woman singing in a comfortable register and playing.

I thought about this when a friend asked me to write a piece that he could use to help his students ease into the idea of singing and playing at the same time. I called the piece "On Such a Winter's Day" because it uses the basso ostinato from "California Dreamin" in the voice. I also thought of it while I was out walking on a cold November day. Until I heard this performance in February, I could only hear the piece (as played by me) with the vocal line being very close to the flute line, where it creates all kinds of interesting difference tones and extra-harmonic material. Keith Wright, the flutist in this performance, sings in a baritone register, making the resulting overtones very different from the ones I get. I actually prefer it with a male-register voice because of the contrast between the "pure" flute material (with polyphonic stuff written the "traditional" way by using fast arpeggios) and the vocal polyphony.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Robert Dick gave a talk at Stony Brook when I was in grad school there; he was pretty amazing. I'm sorry, all these years later, that I didn't pick up his books and play around with the techniques he had developed.

His playing was so, so different from the French school standard; it opened my eyes up to possibilities beyond beautiful tone.

Elaine Fine said...

I had no idea you were once a flutist, Lisa!

The stuff that Robert Dick included in his books is actually very difficult, and each technique requires a huge amount of work and dedication to perfect (or even play imperfectly). I am amazed with the that comfort some flutists (like Keith Wright, the flutist on the recording I linked to) have with extended techniques. I never got beyond singing and playing at the same time and the easy multiphonics that can be made by using finger combinations.