Low register colour fingerings: the special case of the paperclip contra

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to add something useful to the blog, but I think this will be worth it; not only is this a beautiful effect, but it’s also my very first post on the contrabass clarinet. Composers, try to stay calm. I know, I know, it’s hard for me too.


hey there handsome

So, I guess the first thing you need to know about the contra is that each model has its strengths and weaknesses, and if you’re writing for contra, you’ll probably need to be a bit flexible. The Leblanc “paperclip” contra is one of the more popular models, especially in new music, due to its flexibility and compactness. It’s also the only model on which Grisey’s Anubis can be done properly (as far as I know), due to the mechanism of the lowest notes. (If you want a contra that can make a lot of noise and basically – to me – feels as comfortable as playing bass clarinet then you’ll want one of these bad boys. Utterly beautiful, utterly enormous.)

On other models (and on the bass clarinet) if I play a low Eb and then hold down the low C# or C keys on the back of the instrument, a C# or C is produced. On the Leblanc contra, you need to have the D key held down as well in order to make produce the lowest tones, so instead what results are these beautiful colour fingerings in the lowest register, an essentially unachievable effect on any other member of the clarinet family!


The two keys to the left of the large oval (the thumb rest) are the C (on the top) and C# keys.

So what Grisey writes, at the beginning of Anubis, are low notes with different colour fingerings and at different dynamics. If you’ve never heard the piece, there’s a fabulous recording of Carl Rosman on the Musikfabrik online label. The colour fingering stuff starts about 40 seconds in with a spectral multiphonic (but it’s worth hearing the whole thing). And it looks a bit like this on the page:


This is Carl’s copy, you can see he’s written in when to use what finger, as Grisey uses this slightly confusing tabulature, with the lowest notehead indicating C, in the middle C# and then high position (not shown) is normal.

This special case of the low C and C# keys applies to every low note until G#. From G# I can start to add other colour fingerings (like the D and E keys, for example) and from every note above that, there are more and more that can be added, just as is true with all the other clarinets.

So now, some examples. Grab your headphones! For each starting fundamental, I have gone through the following variations, and in each variation I play normal, then with C#, then C:

  1. Slurred – first piano, then forte
  2. Legato articulation – piano, then forte
  3. With spectral multiphonics added (overblowing)
  4. Flutter tongue articulation – piano, then forte (honestly you can barely hear a difference!)
  5. Slap tongue – piano, then forte

Starting fundamental of low Eb:





G# (and here I’ve introduced the use of the D key as well!):

Questions? Comments? Go for it.

This entry was posted in contra, flutter tongue, slap tongue, spectral multiphonic. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Low register colour fingerings: the special case of the paperclip contra

  1. Pingback: Index / TOC (scroll down for recent blogposts) | heather roche

  2. Pingback: spectral multiphonics for the contrabass clarinet | heather roche

  3. Pingback: Favorite blog posts, August 2015 | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

  4. Michele Falk says:

    Where can I find a fingering chart for the paperclip model? The double octave keys are different than anything I have played, and I have no idea how to get the notes between Eb and C.

  5. Hi there!
    Sorry to bother you. I just obtained an Eb Contra Alto Paperclip. I don’t like the mouthpiece that went with it, too dark and lyrical for my taste.
    I would like to have a bright crackling jazz sound, at least in the lower regions. Which mouthpiece would you recommend, please?
    Yours swingcerely,
    Han Wezenaar

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Han – sorry for the very long delay — I’m actually not a big expert on contrabass clarinet multiphonics. If you’re still looking, you should ask Jason Alder!

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