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(Quiet) Multiphonic Trills for Bass Clarinet

The effect I’m looking at today is fairly recognisable as something Sciarrino uses extensively, but particularly in his clarinet solo, Let me die before I wake. If you don’t know the piece, it’s worth listening to it, if only because it’ll make it that much easier to have a feel for the bass clarinet writing we’re going to be looking at today. Here’s a beautiful recording of Heinz-Peter Linshalm:


If you’re a clarinetist and you don’t know this piece, do check it out. It has become standard new music repertoire for clarinet, and it’s also probably one of the easiest of the big solos – not too long, focuses extensively on one effect, sounds a lot more difficult than it is, etc. It’s a great gateway drug for the rest of the amazing contemporary repertoire that we have available to us!

The notation for this effect is also a lot simpler than you’d imagine: here we have a very complex sound, one that is not terribly difficult to  play (at least for a clarinetist with some experience with multiphonics) and one that offers the composer a great deal of flexibility. Here’s how Sciarrino notates the trills:


The notation he uses isn’t without its problems – I think there’s probably a better way to achieve the same result with slightly more rhythmic clarity – but that’s not the purpose of the post today.

Today the purpose is to transfer this technique to the bass clarinet, offer some explanations and then present you (tada!) with a little database for your compositions. Here’s how the effect is transfered to the bass clarinet (this is the same fingering combination as the beginning of the second line in the Sciarrino):

So, how does it work: Essentially what we have is a multiphonic fingering (the low fundamental with either the index finger or the thumb of the left hand removed) trilling with the low fundamental, which creates enough interference that you can hear the trill faintly, but not so much that you lose the multiphonic (these beautiful floating high harmonics).

(Does this mean that essentially any multiphonic fingering based on a strong fundamental with only one extra key depressed to divide the air column could be used to create this effect? Theoretically, yes. One could really go nuts with these things. In practise, some things work better than others and the best combination seems to be fundamental with either the index finger or thumb of the left hand doing the trilling.)

What works: Transitions from fundamental to multiphonic, multiphonic to tremolo, fundamental to tremolo… these are all accomplished with relative ease. Very gradually allowing the harmonic to emerge, also works beautifully. Glissandi between the harmonics during the tremolo, also very easily manoeuvred.  Picking out individual harmonics is also not too difficult, though does need practise. You’ll hear that the higher harmonics are more difficult, they have a tendency to squeak, but can be controlled for the most part with practise.

Variation in the speed also works beautifully (which Sciarrino makes extensive use of in Let me die…):

This is essentially a quiet dynamic effect – it becomes a very different animal when played loudly. I think if I pushed it any harder than I do in the following example we’d end up with just the high harmonics:

And now, finally, here’s just over an octave of multiphonic tremoli. For each fundamental I’ve demonstrated what happens with the index finger and what happens with the thumb, and shown at least two harmonics for each (really only the very lowest fundamentals give three solid harmonics where you still also retain the sound of the trill). The low C and C# also produce a dyad multiphonic with the fingerings, as you’ll hear on the recordings (and as is notated).

Please use headphones! I’ve amplified the sounds slightly, but you won’t hear the low tremoli without headphones! You can also just download the whole chart as a pdf here.