February 14, 2014

A Love Story

Some people devote themselves to one specific instrument and remain faithful to it their whole lives. Some people fall for multiple instruments and learn to juggle their various passions. I fall somewhere in between these two forms of musical devotion by playing several different types of flutes. Each flute requires slightly different adjustments in how they are played but I love the changes of tones the different materials and designs have on the basic flute sound.

The concert flute is my first love and the flute with the most flexibility in scales, accidentals and the widest range. It is the flute most people think of first and are used to seeing in orchestras. It is generally the top sound and gets some of the most ornamented parts. It can be flashy and used to imitate birds but it also is used for slow, sad tunes. It is often used in music meant to evoke natural settings. As popular as it is in Classical music, it is generally ignored by other genres such as Jazz (sax players often double on flute but solo players are rare) and folk (guitar and/or traditional instruments are much more common) so it actually adds some unusual sounds to these areas.

The alto flute has a wonderful lush sound in its lower register. I was captivated by it the first time I played one (not uncommon for those who like this instrument) but it is the heaviest flute I play. This is the flute I lift weights for. Much as I love it, playing an entire show on this instrument alone is not practical if I want to keep my arms in good working order. So this flute gets short, attention grabbing appearances mixed in with the other flutes. It is associated with darker music than the concert flute and gets used for more mysterious pieces. It is lush, velvety and surprisingly powerful.

I play 2 different sizes of glass flutes. The one in C is similar to a piccolo or a fife. The one in G is halfway between a regular flute and a picc. Their sound is bright and cheerful and a kick to play in the rain. These are both from Hall Crystal Flutes. I'm not generally a fan of piccolo sounds (I like low better) but the glass material darkens the sound wonderfully. And I admit, it is very nice to have light instruments that are easy to clean up after a long dusty day. Smaller flutes and piccs have light and bright sounds but they are also very effective at creating haunting music. The key is getting the contrast right between their brilliant sound and a darker musical line.

The one-keyed Baroque flute sounds soft and quiet up close but always surprises me with how far its sound carries. Mine was made by Daniel Dietz. Wood flutes generally have a rich dark sound which is part of what gives period and traditional flutes their distinct timbres. I am especially enchanted with how wood flutes can imitate the alto flute sound in a smaller, lighter instrument. This flute is wonderful with Troubadour tunes and other Medieval and Renaissance music of course but it really takes flight on the lively pieces.
Many Flutes
Alto (with curved headjoint), Glass flutes in G and C, Baroque flute and Concert flute.

I have a set of panpipes but I haven't mastered the trick of them. Truth to tell, I dislike how it feels to move the instrument on my lip so I leave performing on this instrument to others. They are quite delightful to have for party tricks though.
I have several different ocarinas (they just sort of accumulate) that are lots of fun to have on hand when the flute is just too large to be practical. They are basically extremely fancy whistles with a full octave range.
Then there are the recorders. I do play them since they are quite easy for flute players to handle but their sound doesn't really suit me. They are very delicate sounding and it is actually surprisingly tricky to play them WELL. They take a precise touch that is rarely mastered by people who think of them as a children's instrument. It makes perfect sense to me that they were used in the same age as lutes and other subtle sounding instruments when amplification only existed in cathedrals and caves.
Panpipes, Ocarinas, Recorder
Panpipes, Ocarinas and Recorders, oh my!

I have studied a few other instruments (guitar, piano, harp, violin) over the years but never "hit it off" with them the way I did with the flute. Studying the basics on a couple of other instruments helps performing musicians be more flexible and gain more control of their instrument whether they become a doubler or not. In my case, the flute keeps tempting me back.
And so the love affair continues...

February 10, 2014

(Not So) Simple Lydian

This post is part of a series about the modes.

Lydian is the same as a major scale with a raised 4th step or the white keys from F to F. To play this scale on a different starting note, play a major scale and raise the 4th step. For example, F major has one flat (B flat.) Since B is the 4th step of the scale, we raise it to B natural.

Lydian is challenging. Something about that raised fourth makes it very difficult to use this scale. In fact, I started this series on the modes partly in hopes that it would encourage me to figure out Lydian a bit better. I find it interesting that even though modern music theory spends a lot of time worrying about 5ths, changing the 4th can cause even more trouble. The 4th used to be considered one of the most important intervals and even today, it is described as one of the "perfect" intervals. But it doesn't get as much attention as the 5th or even the 3rd in music theory. It is treated like a stable, reliable and immovable landmark that we can count on forever. So it is no wonder that when we change this step of the scale, it throws us for a loop. The only mode that is more trouble is Locrian (up next, may the Muses help me) which changes TWO scale steps instead of just one.
The one thing I have managed to do with Lydian is use it delicately. If you ease into it and treat the scale as a fragile mental construction, you can sneak up on that fourth without it throwing the whole piece into another key. It can be a serious challenge to avoid that fourth until the melody is strong enough to handle it but I do like the pop a successful Lydian fourth gives. It lifts the whole piece up into a different emotion.
"Robin m'aime" by Adam de la Halle (also known as Adam le Bossu or Adam d'Arras) uses a Lydian scale. This is a wonderful tune from the 1200s. It is simple and sweet with the Lydian fourth opening the melody up in gentle and unexpected ways. (By the way, "Robin m'aime" seems to have started out as an old chanson that Adam borrowed for Le jeu de Robin et Marion which is the oldest surviving secular play set to music.)
The C-sharp makes this piece Lydian. Several versions of the lyrics are easy to find on-line. Basically, Marion is saying Robin loves her and buys her nice things so she likes him too. Some versions are more risque than others.