Intro to Multiphonics (and why they’re awesome)

As a young player I was terrified of multiphonics.  I saw someone perform Fish are Jumping by Robert Dick when I was in high school and immediately thought, “I can’t do that, it’s so hard” and also “why does it sound so bad.”  This was the start of my fear/dislike of contemporary music.  Yes, I at one time in my life did not love new music.  I didn’t understand it, had only heard it performed relatively poorly and just wondered why it sounded so bad.  (I was making super informed decisions; I had decided that all new music sounded like fingernails on blackboards and didn’t make sense).  Fast forward a couple years into college, where I get exposed to all sorts of new sounds, start to get a grasp of what people were doing in music in the 20th century, and applied for a competition where one of the required pieces for the final round was Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube.

As some of you may know, Ian Clarke has made a name for himself using extended techniques, and especially multiphonics, in audience-pleasing ways.  Zoom Tube is a blues inspired piece that uses a lot of multiphonics, quarter tones, singing and playing, and air sounds – all things I had no idea how to do or had ever had to play before.  Hell, I still thought Honami by Wil Offermans was super intimidating because it used harmonic fingerings.  But I had made the finals of this competition and I had to learn that piece.  So I started exploring the multiphonics in the piece.  I spent months learning the sounds, learning to sing, and how to come out of my timid flute player shell and pull off the whoop at the end.  And it worked.  I rocked it.  I didn’t place in the competition, but I gave a good performance of Zoom Tube.

Learning and performing Clarke’s piece, I caught the bug.  I had discovered that new music wasn’t something to fear, or ugly, or impossibly hard.  (Well some of it is impossibly hard, and ugly, but in the best way possible).  I wanted to play more of it.  I quickly went through the typical new music flute pieces; Jennifer Higdon’s rapid*fire, Takemitsu’s Air, Muszynski’s Sonata, Colquhoun’s Charanga, and Carter’s Scrivo In Vento.  Some of these pieces have a couple of multiphonics but nothing really difficult, so I ignored them for the most part.  Then I discovered Robert Dick’s music, specifically Fish are Jumping.  Now this was right up my alley, jazz and blues inspired (I had been taking jazz lessons, suddenly discovering my love of improvised music), and it had an improvised solo at the end.  But it has so many multiphonics.  And not the easy, lift this one finger and it’ll pop out, but natural harmonic (and altered) octaves.  My mind was blown.  I’d had no idea this was possible, and when bringing it to my teacher, and asking the grad students, no one really knew how to do them well, or could teach me how.

This was when I discovered the laissez-faire attitude of the average flutist toward multiphonics specifically, and extended techniques generally.  I understand why, and am guilty of this myself.  This happens because we, musicians as a whole, usually only practice a technique, like multiphonics, when we have a piece that uses them.  This means that difficult skills never get learned properly because we don’t practice them consistently.  So when we play pieces with difficult skills, like multiphonics, in them, we never really nail them or feel a mastery over them, so the piece sounds timid, sloppy, unfinished, or just not really like the composer intended.  Or we simply avoid them, not giving them a chance at all because they use techniques that we deem too hard.  This is a tragic loss.  There are some amazing pieces that use multiphonics that should be played, and played well and often.  And they can be if we decide to truly master extended techniques the way we master different types of articulation.  Even if you’re not into new music, learning how and developing the strength and control to do so will make you sound better overall and have better control in traditional works.

Also, when improvising, there are so many more sounds available to you when you master some extended techniques.  For why improvisation is awesome, see this post: Creativity.   (Sidenote: I use improvisation as a test of sorts for new skills I’m trying to learn. Can I improvise something compelling and natural sounding with this new thing in it? If I can, I know it decently well, if it sounds weird and unnatural, it needs a lot more work).

So, where to start when you want to learn to play multiphonics?  To make it simple, everyone should go buy Tone Development Through Extended Techniques by Robert Dick.  It’s at flute world, amazon, and on his website.  It’s an amazing book that starts with throat-tuning, goes through harmonics and whistle tones, timbral fingerings, and ends with multiphonics.  You see, multiphonics are at the end, because unless you have great harmonic and whistle tone technique, you don’t really have the skill base to play great multiphonics.  You can still play some, but eventually (or very quickly) you’ll hit a wall you can’t get over, because you don’t have the strength or control to play the difficult sounds.  On a semi-related note, throat-tuning is a magical concept that many of you may already do, though I was not one of them and spent over a year learning how, that will instantly improve your sound.  It also makes multiphonics easier, as is explained in the book and the video below. So while you work on your throat-tuning, harmonics, and whistle tones, there are some multiphonics you can start learning to figure out the technique.  Start by watching this video of Robert Dick teaching you your first multiphonic.

He has a very thorough explanation, and it’s just generally great.  Remember, this is a slow process, somewhat like learning circular breathing, in that the day to day progress is small or totally undetectable, but you will improve if you work at it consistently.

Next week, I’ll have some more multiphonic tips and tricks, and awesome pieces that use them.  Happy practicing!