Dissertation: Woodwind doubling on folk, ethnic, and period instruments in film and theater music

My doctoral dissertation is now available online through the University of Georgia library:

Woodwind doubling on folk, ethnic, and period instruments in film and theater music: Case studies and a practical manual

It was completed in 2009 so some things are already out of date. Also, lately I’m trying to steer away from the term “ethnic” instruments (“world” instruments seems slightly less problematic until I can find a better solution).

Enjoy(?).

ABSTRACT

Woodwind doubling is the practice of playing instruments from more than one woodwind family. In musical theater and film music, woodwind doublers are valuable for their ability to produce the sounds of a varied woodwind section for a fraction of the cost of hiring a specialist musician to play each instrument.

Since the 1990’s, composers and orchestrators in musical theater and film scoring have shown increased interest in instrumental sounds from outside the traditional symphony orchestra. Many have featured folk, ethnic, or period instruments as solo instruments, bringing authentic sounds to scenes set in faraway locations or historical periods, giving an exotic flair to fictional locales, or simply adding new colors to the usual palette of instrumental sounds.

Composers of film and theater scores have used ethnic woodwinds, in particular, in their scoring. To meet the demand for ethnic woodwind sounds, many prominent woodwind doublers on Broadway and in Hollywood have adopted these instruments, in addition to their usual arrays of modern Western instruments.

Eight folk, ethnic, and period woodwinds recently employed in film and theater scoring have been selected for study in this document: bamboo flutes (especially the Indian bansuri and flutes used by some flutists in Irish traditional music), the Chinese dizi, the Armenian duduk, the Native American flute, the panflutes of Romania and South America, the pennywhistle, the recorder, and the Japanese shakuhachi.

For each instrument, a representative example of use in theater or film music has been selected and transcribed from a commercial audio recording. Each transcription is discussed with emphasis on demands placed upon the ethnic woodwind musician. Additional discussion of each instrument includes suggestions for purchasing instruments, fingering charts, description of playing technique, description of instrument-specific performance practices, discussion of various sizes and/or keys of each instrument, discussion of instrument-specific notation practices, annotated bibliographies of available pedagogical materials, lists of representative recordings (including authentic ethnic music and other music), and information on relevant organizations and associations of professional or amateur musicians.

Read the full text at the UGA library website

Irish flute/whistle ornamentation symbols à la Grey Larsen, in Lilypond

If you are nerdy/awesome enough to be into (1) the pedagogy of Irish traditional woodwind playing and (2) open-source text-based music notation software, then you may want to check out my set of symbols for Lilypond, based on the excellent ornamentation system by Grey Larsen. You can get the .ily file on GitHub (and submit your pull requests to make improvements to my code).

Cuts, strikes, rolls, cranns, etc.
Cuts, strikes, slides, rolls, cranns, etc.

If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Larsen’s system and you play pennywhistles or wooden flutes, then really I must insist that you buy a copy of his The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle immediately—his ornamentation system is clear and logical and should be regarded as the standard for teaching and learning Irish-traditional ornamentation for wind instruments.

If you are unfamiliar with Lilypond, chances are good that you won’t like it even though it’s free and produces much better notation than the software you already spent several hundred dollars on.

Also, it’s worth noting that Chris Throup already had a similar idea a few years ago. Mine is a bit more complete, but his is really simple.

Sláinte!

Anatomy of a bad bamboo flute

Bamboo flutes and other “world”-type woodwinds of true musician quality can be difficult to find, and if you’re not experienced with them it can be nearly impossible to tell if an online seller’s wares are genuinely playable or more like souvenir items. I’m going to share an experience of mine in which I gambled and got burned, in case it is instructive to anyone out there.

Recently I needed a bamboo flute in a specific and unusual key (high B-flat) on very short notice for a gig (a performance of the Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite). My favorite trusted flutemakers don’t currently make flutes in that key, so I placed an order with a flutemaker that I hadn’t bought from before. (I won’t identify the flutemaker here, but I will say that he and his staff were very nice to me. When there was a totally-understandable wrinkle in getting the flute shipped on time, they even overnighted it plus threw in a very nice flute bag at no extra charge.)

Ability to ship quickly was certainly a factor in my choice of vendors, but I was also reassured by the fact that the maker sells flutes in three grades: student, intermediate, and professional. I ponied up the money for a professional flute, and expressed to the flutemaker my need for excellent intonation and a strong high register.

Here is what I received:

cute, right?
cute, right?

Now, the proof of a flute is in the playing, and there’s no way to know for sure if it’s any good without giving it a try. But here are some immediate visual warning signs:

  • Uh-oh
    uh-oh

    The embouchure hole is strangely shaped. I don’t know for sure what the flutemaker intended, but round-ish is pretty standard. Since bamboo is an irregular material, a certain amount of air noise (vibrational inefficiency) is to be expected, but this flute is very airy, and I suspect the oddly-shaped and roughly-finished embouchure hole is a contributor to this.

  • This is an extremely wide-bored flute. Often for flute-like instruments we see a length-to-diameter ratio of something around 30:1, but this one is closer to 15:1. To oversimplify the ramifications of this a bit, a wider-bore flute (a smaller ratio) will generally tend to be stronger in the low register and weaker in the high register. For this gig, I needed a flute that could play just to the second octave above the fundamental note—not an unreasonable demand for any common variety of bamboo transverse flute. I couldn’t get this flute to do it. A smaller-diameter bamboo would improve this flute’s upper range.
  • The finger holes are fairly large, and about the same size. Generally, similarly-sized holes leads to more even tone across the instrument’s scale, but also means that the right hand index and middle finger holes are placed very close together for a simple-system major-scale flute, and on this one the holes are uncomfortably close for me. Larger holes decrease the likelihood of finding usable cross-fingerings; I needed one good cross-fingering for this gig, and couldn’t find one that worked—couldn’t even “lip” the chromatic note into tune. A well-designed flute strikes a balance between large and small holes, and similarly- and differently-sized holes.
  • The second octave is quite noticeably flat. This is a common problem of bamboo flutes (or any cylindrical-bore flutes), but this one is particularly difficult to wrangle into tune. Really excellent bamboo flutes are sometimes made from bamboo carefully selected to have just a bit of taper in the embouchure-hole end, like a concert flute’s headjoint, or have some bore work done to create an internal taper; this helps to bring the upper register into tune with the lower.

When I realized that the flute wasn’t going to be usable, I packed my piccolo and a B-flat pennywhistle as possible alternatives. As it turned out, we didn’t end up playing the movement in question, so I was off the hook.

Shop smart!

Reader email: Chinese woodwinds

Some dizi and xiao from my collection

I recently got email from a reader about the use of Chinese woodwinds in theater and film music. I did my best to answer his questions, and I’m posting them here in case they are of use to anyone else. Both questions and answers are edited here for length and awesomeness.

My question for you is about bamboo flutes. I see the term bamboo flute thrown around (such as in the reed 1 book for Aida) and I wonder what exactly that means. Do those musicians own 12 bamboo sticks with holes drilled in them, or do they use a specific style of bamboo flute from a particular part of the world?

If the part calls for “bamboo flute” with no other clarification, I think that leaves it pretty well open to interpretation by the flutist and musical director. Aida is set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, where, according to my Wikipedia research, bamboo per se did not grow. Probably the best-known bamboo-ish Egyptian flutes are neys, made from bamboo-like reeds.

My guess is that most woodwind players would substitute some variety of bamboo transverse flute, such as an Indian bansuri, a Chinese dizi (perhaps with the buzzing membrane replaced by a piece of tape), or a non-culture-specific bamboo flute like those sold by Erik the FlutemakerDoug Tipple’s PVC flutes make an excellent and economical substitute for bamboo, with nice tone (I dare you to hear the difference) and consistent intonation and response. You might be able to contact musicians who have worked on specific shows, and find out what solutions they came up with; the Internet Broadway Database is a good starting point.

Your listing for The Lion King is much more specific, which brings me to my next question: dizi keys. I happen to be in China right now. Tunable dizi flutes are cheap, and one-piece dizi are cheaper. Do I need 12 tunable dizi? What keys are actually played in theater and film in the US? Continue reading “Reader email: Chinese woodwinds”

More on the science/fiction of woodwind materials

Photo, ~Bob~West~

There’s an interesting woodwind-related post by blogger “MarkCC” at Good Math, Bad Math, entitled “My Newest Flute, made of… Plastic?!

MarkCC recently acquired a new flute of the type used in Irish traditional music, the kind that are most often made of wood. But MarkCC’s is made of polymer, and it sounds like MarkCC has wrestled a little with the issue of whether a plastic flute can really measure up to a wooden one.

But… Plastic?

I’ve seen several acoustic studies that claim that the material the instrument is made of isn’t that important. In a wooden flute, the physics show that the head joint is the only part of the flute that really has a significant influence on its sound. But the head joint of a wooden flute is actually lined with metal. So the wood isn’t really having too much influence on the sound.

As it turns out, MarkCC is something of a doubler, and also plays the clarinet.

Most people (including me) play on mouthpieces made of hard rubber or plastic – so the primary sound-producing piece of the instrument is plastic. The barrel of a wooden clarinet is (obviously) wood, so according to the physics/acoustics, that’s the only piece of wood that actually has any measurable acoustic effect. And the physics of this isn’t sloppy stuff put together by an instrument company trying to sell their plastic clarinets: to the limits of my ability to understand it, it’s good, solid stuff.

And yet, I’ve played a whole lot of clarinets, and by god, there’s nothing like a grenadilla wood clarinet. Even the best clarinet makers, even when I put my wooden barrel on a polymer body, it doesn’t sound the same. Of course, that’s subjective, and we humans are notorious for hearing what we want to hear in a subjective situation. And, by god, I’m a math geek. I’ve seen the math, and it’s correct.

One of the most-linked articles on my blog makes the same point about our expectations about materials coloring our playing experience. It’s worth pointing out, too, that a different barrel made from the same material will also affect the instrument’s sound.

I do think it’s a grey area to refer to a mouthpiece or barrel (or flute headjoint) as “sound-producing.” The instrument’s parts don’t produce any audible musical sound (unless you hit them with drumsticks)—it’s the column of air contained within them that vibrates in a musically useful way.

But MarkCC goes on, I believe, to hit the nail on the head: Continue reading “More on the science/fiction of woodwind materials”

Getting started with ethnic woodwinds: your holiday wish list

I’ve got ethnic woodwinds on the brain lately, and no end in sight since they are the topic of my doctoral dissertation research. If you haven’t added any ethnic instruments to your arsenal yet, here’s what I recommend for a relatively easy to play, low-maintenance, inexpensive, and versatile beginning to your collection. Continue reading “Getting started with ethnic woodwinds: your holiday wish list”