spectral multiphonics (bb and bass)

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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Posted in multiphonic, performance, spectral multiphonic | 9 Comments

upper joint stopped air technique

This technique, which follows in the footsteps of two posts, namely that on air noises and the one about playing with only the lower joint, is further dedicated with many thanks to the fantastic composer Johan Svensson, who introduced me to this technique earlier this year.

In this technique, we are isolating the upper joint of either the Bb or Bass clarinets, and stopping the bottom end of the joint with the right hand as in the following photographs:

By blowing into the clarinet (either with or without the mouthpiece), we can create a high pressure situation, which when relieved by opening one of the available keys, creates a short and accented blast of white noise. It’s not all that loud, alas, so this is still no way to keep up with flute air noises (cue me, shaking my fist at the heavens), but I think it sounds great. Not only that, but when we allow ourselves some pitch (with the mouthpiece on, of course), then we have some nice opportunities to play with multiphonics…

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Posted in multiphonic, preparations, register key, tongue ram | 1 Comment

πτελέα | Ptelea has been released!

My first solo album has just been released on HCR/NMC!


Each of the pieces on πτελέα | Ptelea was written in the spirit of intense collaboration: six pieces by six composers from different parts of the globe – the United States, Japan, the UK, Norway and Chile – each composer engaged in a deep relationship with the clarinet and its performer, each piece illuminating the unique musical language of its composer.

Including soundscapes of softly emerging dyads (Bauck), elusive sounds that sit on the border of inaudibility (Morishita) and pre-recorded human voices that emerge from inside the clarinet’s bell (Einbond), all these composers have made careful and intriguing selections of materials – there are no ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ here. Rather, this collection is concerned with aspects of resistance or limitation and the exploration of margins and boundary zones.


1 Aaron Einbond: Resistance (2012) for bass clarinet and live electronics
2 Chikako Morishita: Lizard (shadow) (2011) for clarinet
3 Martin Iddon: Ptelea (2014) for bass clarinet
4 Martin Rane Bauck: kopenhagener stille (2014) for clarinet
5 Pedro Alvarez: Instead (2013) for clarinet
6 Max Murray: Ad Marginem des Versuchs (2015)


Grab your copy HERE.

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A selection of contrabass clarinet multiphonics

When Scott McLaughlin and Mic Spencer were last here working on our composer-composer-performer project, the lure of the contra sitting in the other room proved to be too much to resist (honestly that’s why I keep it out so much of the time, heh.). Scott and I spent an hour or two experimenting with some multiphonics, and I thought I’d put our 15 favourites from that session up on the blog.

Update (24/11/15): there are now 26 multiphonics!

Three of these, 2, 7 and 11, I thought sounded nice with fluttertongue, so I’ve included that in the recording. You’ll hear this in the recording as well, but these pitches can not all be played simultaneously, you’ll always get the fundamental and one of the high notes. (Except where pitches are in (), those are pitches that sound but can NOT be isolated, you’ll always hear them.)

They’re all relatively soft multiphonics, some with very interesting textural properties, and all a little on the fragile side. I rather like them.

And don’t forget these are all for a Leblanc paperclip contra, so there’s no guarantee they’ll work on any other contrabass clarinet.

Everything is transposed!

Use headphones!
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Posted in contra, multiphonic | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in contra, flutter tongue, slap tongue, spectral multiphonic | 5 Comments