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by Stefan Keller
The fascination of low flutes is something that has been haunting me for nearly thirty years.
What really sets this fascination are the deep “slow” vibrations, the “sonorous sound”, the “resonance” of the different sized tubes, and the unbelievable sonority.
In the following text I introduce the individual low flutes from my very personal point of view, from the alto to the bass, contrabass to the subcontrabass flute. I would like to encourage all colleagues to try out these exciting instruments themselves and possibly integrate them into their own playing, into the ensemble or into the lessons. It is worth it!
The alto flute
The sound of the alto flute compared to the concert flute is warmer, fuller, rounder, more “woody” and mixes perfectly, either with other flutes or with woodwind instruments in general and also with strings and with the piano.
It is worthwhile to play flute duos with two alto flutes the well – known duo pieces by G.Ph.Telemann or W.F.Bach or J.J. Quantz, etc. Suddenly appear this wonderful pieces, not only because of the fourths lower, in a different “light”. I can only recommend to try this yourself.
The alto flute as a solo instrument
Solo literature on the alto flute sounds to me fuller and rounder, more relaxed and “rich in content” than on the concert flute. All known baroque and impressionistic solo pieces such as the Partita by J.S.Bach, the solo Sonatas by C.Ph.E.Bach, the Telemann Fantasies, Marain Marais “Folies d’Espagne”, “Syrinx” or “Dance de la chèvre”, sound on the alto flute outstanding.
Also jazz tunes or contemporary pieces gain in wealth and content through the “other” sound. Multiphonics sound more differentiated and are more clearly recognizable.
The alto flute in the Low Flutes
As soon in a Duo or Trio, when the lowest part is played by an alto flute and the first & second part by an concert flute, the combination of the different flutes brings in more clarity, more colors ans more power to the music.
The bass flute is another story …
First, the bassflute is comfortably an octave lower than the concert flute, but by its shape with the U-bow on the headjoint, already a bit different to hold and play.
Until you have found the right adjustment of the head piece in connection with the U-bend, it needs a lot to try and mark. But it’s worth it! To achieve a comfortable posture and a balanced sound on this heavier flute, you need a lot of training and adjustment.
The sound and the resonance of the bass flute I find absolutely beguiling! A new world opens up when you spend a lot of time on it! Bass flutes with at least two or three open keys (g, a and e) or the bass flute developed by Eva Kingma with a complete quarter tone system, go one more step further and allow additional nuances.
The bass flute in the classroom
The bass flute is ideal for accompanying students during lessons.
As a result, the distance between the individual voices to each other is greater, and the voice of the students are much more audible. The overall sound increases enormously and gets more foundation. The upper part is, so to speak, “carried”. From a pedagogical point of view, too, the bass flute is an excellent accompaniment for students, as they can perceive their own voice much better. In a trio, as soon as the lowermost voice is played by a bass flute, the same thing happens very distinctly.
The bass flute as a solo instrument
Personally, I find the bass flute a formidable solo instrument.
The immense possibilities of playing, from whistle-sounds to slaps, key-clicks to tongue-stopps and multiphonics, etc., allow a wide range of sounds, which, in a good room, come to fruition without any problems. The full sonorous sound of the bassflute has its own appeal and invites to a variety of checking out the classical literature.
The bass flute in an ensemble
As soon as a bass flute is added to an flute ensemble, the sound spectrum expands enormously. The upper parts are much clearer and the lower voice gets more weight and increases the carrying capacity of the whole ensemble. The harmony becomes much more colorful, sonorous and rounder. In a large ensemble, so from five – and more flutes, and several bass flutes, the effect is even greater!
The contrabass flute
The fascination with this instrument leads back to an incredible experience around 1983 in Boswil, Switzerland. The first flute symposium, in honor of Marcel Moyse, took place there, and Pierre-Yves Artaud played a modern piece on a giant “golden” flute, solo in the church. Sounds, which until then were completely unknown to me. Pierre-Yves Artaud played with full physical strength, and the audience was thrilled. Much later, I learned what kind of instrument that was: an octobass (in french), made in brass by Jean-Yves Roosen.
Much later, I saw in Basel (Switzerland) by the fluteshop from Haruo Uesawa, such an instrument. Hidenori Mikami, flutemaker from Kotato & Fukushima, built this instrument and brought it to Switzerland to his new workplace by Uesawa. I was allowed to borrow this instrument and play with it for a while. What an experience!
Contrabass flute in C, F and G
The contrabass flute in C plays two octaves lower than the concert flute, has a tube length of about 3 meters, has a C or B foot and weighs about 4.5 kg. There are also versions in F and in G, which are then called either contrabass or subcontrabass flute. It is designed for standing playing and very ergonomic. This is very conducive to breathing and allows for fatigue-free playing over a long period of time. The unbelievable length of the tube results in a resonance that is second to none. The contrabass flute is currently being built by various manufacturers: Kotato & Fukushima; Jelle Hogenhuis; Jean-Yves Roosen; Eva Kingma; Jupiter; Pearl; DiZhao; etc.
Jelle Hogenhuis is even the only one who manufactures instruments from plastic, so they are not too heavy and affordable, as well as those made of metal. Eva Kingma even makes a version with partial or complete quarter-tone mechanics.
Meanwhile, these instruments are so sophisticated that they are widely used in ensembles and flute orchestras. If an ensemble even uses several of them, the result is a powerful and very well audible bass, which wonderfully supports the music.
The Contrabass flute as a solo instrument
The contrabass flute is a very versatile solo instrument. Their tube length allows sounds that are very subtle but also extremely strong and expressive. The sound only with the keys – sounds, only with wind noise, but especially with Tongue-stopp, Multiphonics, etc. are extremely versatile and very atmospheric and effective in use.
Through targeted miking, the very finest noises and sounds of such a flute can be made audible and used musically. The sound possibilities seem inexhaustible to me and enjoy great popularity!
The Contrabass flute in the ensemble
In the newly founded «KRASS – Flute – Trio», together with Madeleine Bischof and Andreas Stahel, we meticulously checked out all sorts of combinations of all kind of «low – flutes».
The starting point are three contrabass flutes, going on to three bass flutes, three alto flutes to the combination with subcontrabass flute in G and C. It is really unbelievably exciting and fascinating, how the individual combinations react with each other, how the sounds mix, what with overtones and undertones happens, just an new wonderful sound world!
When the same piece is played with a variety of flutes and a variety of combinations, the same piece plays in a different color each time.
The Subcontrabass flute
The “Harley Davidson” among the flutes is the 5m20cm very heavy subcontrabass flute. The first flute of this kind was heard by the 14 Berlin flutists many years ago. On a CD recording a deep bass was heard, which did not seem from this world.
When I was allowed to perform in Tokyo in 2002, I visited the manufactory of Kotato & Fukushima on the edge of the giant City. Luckily, my Japanese friend came with me because no one spoke english in the factory. I was allowed to visit the individual steps for large flutes, but finished instruments were not on site. But when I asked about the subcontrabass flute, a grin went through the crew. Two men jutted out a huge metal box under a table and began to assemble the monster in pairs. The huge pipe had to be mounted on a rack, because the instrument weighed about 30 kg and could not be held while playing with bare hands.
After the construction was completed it was to try. The resonance of this instrument is simply absolutely incredible. Everything in the room vibrates, as we are dealing with frequencies in the limit of around 35 Hz. WOW! For me THE sound experience with low flutes. Of course, Kotato & Fukushima wanted to politely sell this flute, but the handling, the weight and the transport are just incredibly complex.
Through research I found out that such an instrument is in a shop in Berlin, and when I was in Berlin for three months in 2005, I tested the instrument several times. The sound is really absolutely unique and full. The ergonomics rather getting used to.
Years later, I got to know the subcontrabass flute by Jelle Hogenhuis. At the National Flute Convention in New York City in 2009 played a large flute ensemble and the full sound in the deepest layers was striking, although well over 20 flutes was involved in the ensemble. It was a black subcontrabass flute, played by Peter Sheridan. With his subcontrabass flute he laid the ground for the whole orchestra, just unbelievable! And this absolutely unreinforced. Carrying deep, clearly understandable bass lines! I was very impressed and looked for someone in Switzerland who plays such an instrument. With Matthias Ebner, I found what I was looking for and was allowed to try the instrument thoroughly. It was confirmed the impression: It is really possible to produce such a deep and full sound purely acoustically with such a powerful tube. The flute responds very easy and even the instrument itself, being made of plastic, is quite easy to transport, but above all, to play. Even my smallest student at that time made a sound when visiting my studio …
Subcontrabass flute with live electronics
When I combine the Sub-contra with live electronics, simply with amplification of the natural sound, then, assuming the speakers join in, the full deep round sound, the unbelievable power, the abundance of overtones, the broad and deep sound, make it one great joy! This gives the player that “Harley Davidson feeling” of power again. Also, the mechanical sounds of the keys then recede into the background.
As a classical flutist, who, like everybody, started with the concert flute, I can recommend it: Try out low flutes. They enrich our world of sound in a variety of areas, make our sound concept more open, allow us to listen differently, challenge us physically, which then also benefits the concert flute.
The low flutes bring new colors to the flute routine, beginning with solo, but also in duo and all other combinations. The solo literature, played on the low flutes, also changes our approach when we play these pieces again with the concert flute. Breathing, posture, overtone structure and sound benefits from the experience gained with the larger instruments and broaden the horizons immensely!
Lets go low!
Stefan Keller is an active flutist who plays a wide range of musical styles and instruments. This is reflected in his diverse projects and invitations to international flute festivals as a specialist for low flutes, improvisation and loops. His own compositions and practice books for flute complete his activities. He organizes since over 20 years the flute event FLAUTANDO in Boswil, Switzerland.
The classically trained flutist explores sound worlds with his flutes, known as FLUTE TRENDS by Stefan Keller.
As a musician and composer, as well as sound designer and „sound – image – designer“ of baroque – classical – avant – garde – jazz and improvised music, Keller has found his own language. He has been honored several times by the Aargauer Kuratorium for his innovative artistic work and attended further education at the „Cité Internationale des Arts“ in Paris and at the Aargauer Atelier in Berlin. His unique musical projects such as „under water“, „Sound – Castle – Hallwyl“, „Concert in the factory hall“, „carpentry“ as well as the collaboration with visual artists have made him known in Europe and Japan.
Keller plays Alto and Bass flute, Contrabass flute as well as Subcontrabass flute, Gemshoerner, Kalimba and various Bamboo flutes, acoustic and with electronics.
As a musician and composer, Keller moves in the area of baroque – classical – avant-garde – jazz and improvised music.
As an looper, he has been working with the latest live sampling techniques for 25 years. He uses a specially developed surround – loop software, which offers unbelievable sound possibilities.