spectral multiphonics (bb and bass)

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The spectral multiphonic: those elephantine sweeps from low fundamentals, easy to play once you’ve got the hang of it, easy to write, very idiomatic (especially for the bass clarinet), and one of the great clichés of clarinet writing in the last fifty years or so.

I get asked about these multiphonics more than any other thing when people write in about the blog, so this post is very much overdue. This is the only way to achieve multiphonics in the lowest register of the clarinet (any clarinet), and the effect is wildly different at different dynamic levels and in combination with other effects, so that’s what we’re going to cover today. (Contra multiphonics didn’t fit in the chart below, they’ll be on their way next week!)

If you find this post useful, you might also like that on spectral multiphonics for contrabass clarinet.

If you’re a clarinetist learning how to do these, I’ll try to offer a few tips. Start learning on the biggest clarinet you can get a hold of. They’re much, much easier on bass clarinet than Bb. Start on the low C (or low E if you don’t have a bass clarinet handy), and start practising them at very loud dynamics. From here it’s about finding the right amount of space in the cavity of the mouth and throat. I generally have the feeling that I’m creating more space. You could experiment with lowering the jaw and changing the direction of the flow of air. Once you get some kind of overblown sound it doesn’t take long to learn to control it. Practise sweeps from bottom to top and top to bottom, and isolating different pitches and at different dynamics, and you’re set.

When it comes to notation, there are of course a lot of different ways this can be done. You can notate specific pitches, you can draw lines to indicate pitch ranges, etc.

The multiphonics in the chart were brilliantly illustrated by the amazing Elena Rykova. We did something a bit unusual with the bass clarinet multiphonics, notating the bottom pitch in the bass clef and the top line an octave lower: normally I am very pro treble clef for everything bass clarinet, and pro ledger line, but the sheer number of pitches and ledger lines on each side of the staff made this rather impossible.

Okay let’s get on with different ways you can use the effect. Loads of examples in today’s post as there are loads of things one can combine the effect with. Big table with pitch information at the bottom of the post!

As for the database at the bottom of the post, the accompanying sound files aim to give as realistic an execution of each harmonic as possible. Some clarinettists will be able to go higher, some won’t be able to go as high. What I’ve recorded here is what I’m capable of, on a fairly average day. I wasn’t in perfect shape while recording these (as is often the case when I’m working on blog posts, as I’m then not in the middle of a rehearsal phase) but I wasn’t coming to these cold either.

To give you an idea of what these sound like, here are some sound files from the database, of the lowest notes overblown on Bb and Bass clarinets:

Because of the width of the bore on a bass clarinet, there are a lot more options for spectral multiphonics. Much more of the first register can be used to produce them with relative ease, and combining effects is less tiring and more effective. So mostly I’ll be demonstrating using the bass, though to some degree, all of this is possible on the clarinet as well. For example, spectral sweeps upwards.

First, on the Bb clarinet:

and then the bass clarinet:
As you can hear, creating a fluid glissando between pitches is much more easily accomplished with the bass clarinet.

While spectral sweeps upwards are pretty cool, it’s also possible to start from the top and go downwards. More difficult on the soprano clarinets, but here on the bass, it’s quite easy and fun:

As for articulation, here’s a demonstration of articulating different harmonics in a random order. As you can hear, it’s reasonably easy to control what pitch emerges:

And here’s a long file demonstrating an approach to fast articulation. Less control, more fun? I’m basically combining spectral sweeps with fast articulation and not minding what pitches come out:

And now, on to a brief but amusing catalogue of things you can add to spectral multiphonics to change the texture and create some new sounds:

Why not add some slap tongue?

Or perhaps flutter tongue?

Not raucous enough? Try singing:

One thing I always liked was super quiet fundamentals, and just letting the harmonics pop out very gently. This is possible with complete control and on all of the multiphonics in the database below:

The one thing you can not combine with spectral multiphonics is circular breathing. Here’s what happens when I try. No wacky effect, just a multiphonic that stops being:

Hope this is useful. Now, finally, examples of some spectral harmonics with pitch material for both Bb and Bass clarinets. I haven’t notated fingerings as these use the core fundamental fingerings for each pitch. Pitches are written (transposed)! The bass clarinet material obviously starts just over an octave below that of the Bb. You can continue to overblow across the range of both instruments with varying results, but what I really wanted to do here was to focus on the range where other types of multiphonics aren’t possible.

Fundamental Bb Pitches Bb Audio Bass Pitches Bass Audio
C 01c
C# 02csharp
D 03d
D# 04dsharp
E 01lowe 05e
F 02f 08f
F# 03fsharp 07fsharp
G 04g 08g
G# 05aflat 09gsharp
A 06a 10a
Bb 07bb 11bb
B 08b 12b
C 09c 13c
C# 14csharp
D 15d

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19 Responses to spectral multiphonics (bb and bass)

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

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

  3. Pingback: underblown bass clarinet multiphonics | heather roche

  4. Christina says:

    Hello! Thanks for this post and generally all the info you are uploading! I find it extremely useful!
    However, do you have a suggestion about the fingerings used as well? I would really appreciate it if you could let me know!
    Thank you in advance!

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Christina,
      Sorry if this wasn’t terribly clear, but these multiphonics are all based on normal fundamental fingerings. So the pitch (tranposed) I list as the base note of the multiphonic is the fingering the clarinetist would use — you don’t need to supply it, you can simple write “overblow”!
      Does that help?

  5. Pingback: Underblown Eb clarinet multiphonics | heather roche

  6. Pingback: … on writing Bb clarinet harmonics | heather roche

  7. Emerson Voss says:

    Hello, Christina!
    Thank you for this website! It’s inspired me to write a chamber piece featuring bass clarinet and these sounds!


    1. Why are these multiphonics called “spectral”?

    2. Are there mulitphonics that aren’t spectral on the bass clarinet?

    3. Is the term “spectral multiphonics” the widely agreed upon term for these multiphonics?

    Thank you so much for your time!

    Emerson Voss

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Emerson,

      Who is Christina?!

      1. Why are these multiphonics called “spectral”?
      Because they activate the harmonic spectrum!
      2. Are there mulitphonics that aren’t spectral on the bass clarinet?
      Yep – try looking at other posts on the site.
      3. Is the term “spectral multiphonics” the widely agreed upon term for these multiphonics?

  8. Pingback: Buzzing, noisy and distorted multiphonics for Bb clarinet | heather roche

  9. ben says:

    Thanks so much for these wonderful posts on harmonics! i listened to Sciarrino’s Let Me Die Before I Wake and was very interested in hearing (no pun intended) how all this works. Keep being amazing!

  10. ben says:

    oh also, quick question about your charts, are the notes sounding at concert pitch or transposing?

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Ben – I _always_ write in transposing pitches, just so that at least something on my blog is consistent ;)

  11. johnaulich says:

    Hi – if we overblow less conventional fingerings, is this still likely to illicit some kind of multiphonic?

  12. Yalda says:

    Hi heather
    Thanks for your amazing website
    I had a question about multiphonics (not only spectral ones)
    Is it possible to play tremolo between two multiphonics?
    As a composer (who doesn’t have any clarinetist friend :( ) i wrote two different multiphonics which their fingering has only one different key and i wonder if it is possible to play tremolo between them. I would be appreciated if you help with this

    • heatherroche says:

      Yeah, that should work! I do cover this on some blog posts (I think the ones about dyads in particular). It might create a ‘new’ multiphonic depending on the two you’ve picked but something will definitely happen there :)

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