heather roche

…on close dyad multiphonics for Bb clarinet

This is one of the most beautiful multiphonic effects we have at our disposal, and despite having come across them in many pieces, I’ve been surprised that they aren’t better known. I’ve given a few workshops in Denmark in the last few months, and on playing these I mostly saw expressions of surprise.

Part of the problem is a lack of resources. Philip Rehfeldt’s book, which is still our standard resource for writing for clarinet, only lists five or six of these effects, whereas dozens are possible. Another problem is that they are for the most part quite difficult to play, though they can all be practised and learned.

I’ll present a few examples and a good fingering chart of the dyads I’ve managed to find. Composers, please read through this information carefully, even when I start to give advise to performers on how to play them, because the information given there can help you to use the effect.

A few points to keep in mind:

* The dynamic range of these multiphonics is very limited and always very quiet. With most of them, as soon as I push the dynamic too far, only the top pitch will come out. Be very careful if using these in an ensemble context. Multiphonics, especially these ones, are also difficult, very difficult, to produce if the clarinetist can not hear herself, so please do be careful with these.

* Adding flutter tongue often stabilises the multiphonic. If your clarinetist is not an experienced new music player (but can flutter), then this might help, rather than hinder them!

* Little bends are sometimes possible, and I’ve marked in the chart when that’s the case. And then only the top pitch can be bend downwards. If a dyad can be bent in this way, I’ve written ‘bendable’ in the notes section of the chart. Otherwise, the pitches are very much fixed and it’s difficult to adjust the intonation. Please consider this intonation problem when matching the clarinet multiphonics with other instruments.

* They should all work on A clarinet (in fact, there are even more possible there, so I should do an update at some point to this post with that information), but they will NOT all work on bass clarinet. Just a few of them will do, so I’ll do a whole new post on those ones sometime very soon, I promise.

On learning to play these multiphonics:

It is absolutely essential to practise these. As with all multiphonics, the fingering alone is not the key to success. It will never be as simple as playing one single pitch, and it would be a mistake to play the fingering once and assume that just because it doesn’t work on the first go, that the fingering doesn’t work.

The production of multiphonics requires a certain amount of flexibility and strength in the embouchure, and there are a few ways besides just playing multiphonics that clarinetists can train this, my favourite being an exercise in which the clarinetist plays a throat b natural, then without changing fingering plays all the possible harmonics on that fingering up and down, repeating the exercise on successively higher chromatic pitches.

In playing multiphonics, it helps when the clarinetist has a clear sense of both pitches in the ear, and then it’s a matter of finding the position of the embouchure to match that. Some are more stable than others, so if the clarinetist is new to this technique, I would start with numbers 4, 33, 34, 38, 39 and 44. Composers could also consider only using these ones if writing for a non-specialist, as I believe they’re the easiest ones.

It is also essential, if playing a piece that uses a series of multiphonics, whether they are close dyads or something else, to practise the multiphonics in order. Adjusting for the tiny changes in embouchure position takes much more practise than one might initially think, and if a piece uses a lot of different multiphonics, this can be tiring to the musician, especially if he or she hasn’t done the work to learn where each multiphonoic sits on the face.

It is also more difficult to successfully play a multiphonic when someone else is playing, this just goes to show what an important role the ear plays in their production. The clarinetist can train this skill as well (playing multiphonics while having headphones with other music on helps a little), but the composer should be aware that he or she makes the clarinetist’s job much easier when the musician can hear herself!

The chart:

The chart presented here includes the pitches, the fingering, notes on individual multiphonics and trill possibilities.
Please take the pitches with a grain of salt: some of these multiphonics are a little wider or narrower than the interval written, and most of them are very fixed (as in, if one of the pitches is too sharp or flat, there’s usually not a lot I can do about it). I’ve rounded up or down to the nearest quarter tone.

So I would avoid, for example, combining these multiphonics with open strings if writing an ensemble piece, as you might need the string player to adjust when the clarinetist can not. The dynamic range for all of these sounds is also quite limited, ppp to mp, at the very most. Do consider that as well, when combining with other instruments.

Please don’t forget to include the fingerings in your score, and do so every time the multiphonic appears. It is very difficult to remember the fingerings for a multiphonic based on the pitches alone, so please do this as it makes our lives much, much easier.

(The numbers, by the way, refer to my own multiphonic database and not to any of the existing ones, so don’t use the numbers for anything other than your own reference!)

The abbreviations used in the “notes” section:

bottom: The multiphonic can be started from the bottom pitch alone

top: The multiphonic can be started from the top pitch alone

together: The multiphonic can be sounded together

bendable: The top note of the multiphonic can be bent downwards using the embouchure

About the trills: If no number is listed that doesn’t mean a trill is impossible, only that there isn’t an option on this limited version of my chart. Ask a player! Multiphonic trills are easy to find just by experimenting with adding and removing fingers. If you’re interested in double trills, there are some that include multiphonics like these, so please see this post.

The chart here is a little unwieldly. If you’d like a .pdf with just the pitches and fingerings for every day use, then download that here.

166  bottom, top, together, bendable

# Pitches/Fingering Audio Notes Multiphonic trills
01 bendable, bottom, together  131, 132, 133, 47
02  top, together  134, 16
03  bottom  18, 135
04 [/audio]  bottom, together  136
05  bottom, together 137
12  bottom, top, together  147, 32
15  bottom, top, together
16  bottom, top, together  2, 134
17  bottom, top, together
18  bottom, together  3
19  bottom, top, together  133
27  bottom, top, together
32  bottom, top, together  12
33  bottom, top, together  45, 38
34  bottom, together 44, 39
35  together, very fragile!  40, 46
38  bottom, together  33, 41, 45
39  bottom, together  34, 44
40  bottom, top, together  35, 46
41  bottom, together  38
42  bottom, very fragile – to produce this one I have to draw my entire jaw very low and breathe out while bringing it back up slowly until I find the place where the multiphonic sounds. 38
44  bottom, together  34, 39
45  bottom, this one is a bit stubborn and doesn’t work with flutter tongue  33, 38
46  bottom, together  35, 40
47  bottom  1, 133
131  bottom, quite stubborn and actually works best in a trill with 1  1
132  bottom, together  1
133  bottom, together  47, 1
134  bottom, together. there’s a nice and easy trill to d4 if you just remove the top trill key.  2, 16
135 bottom, top, together  40
136  bottom, top, together. 4
137 bottom, top. very fragile, works best at very soft dynamics 5
147  bottom, together. (top is possible but often difficult to manage without a slight accent)  12
148  bottom, together 14
149 bottom  14
180  bottom, top, together
194  bottom, top, together, bendable
197 together
239  bottom  149
244 bottom, top, together, bendable
324  bottom, together