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24 May 2010

Re-activating performative spaces: the meta-flautist's zones of intensity

Jean Penny Image: Jean Penny  

This article by Jean Penny is based on her recently completed doctoral research, The Extended Flautist: Techniques, technologies and performer perceptions in music for flute and electronics. The 'zones of intensity' in the article title refer to Edgard Varèse's zones of intensity: 'opposing sound masses of different colours and amplitudes, timbre and intensity, rhythms and densities - distinct and perceivable in sonic space' (Pape, 2004).

The interface of instrumental performance and electronics generates changes in performative perceptions, understandings and musical interactivity. This discussion draws together flutes, technology and performance to explore the impact of digitally activated environments on instrumentalists, and performative responses to a variety of platforms. My perspective as flautist creates a strong bias towards influences directly observed and provoked by personal performance experience and intersection with the field over the last twelve years.

The impact of technological interventions on performance is primarily grounded in the expanded techniques demanded of the repertoire or styles, the sonic, physical and implied repositioning of the players in the performance space, an expansion of musical sonority and newly defined interactive relationships. In this setting, the traditional idea of the flautist has transformed into a meta-instrument entity: a collaborative symbiosis of instrumentalist, technologist, hardware, software, virtual and real performance space, and sound. It is a multidimensional performance zone, where exchanges between body, instrument and electronics meet.

There is a radical shift in performance experience when playing in this re-shaped habitat, where the performance space becomes a place for interaction and interpretation - as its edges, density, and activity change. Much is invisible and intangible; at times the source of sounds is not apparent, or is generated from outside the body, altering body-instrument-sound expectations; or the illusion of proximity and intimacy to the musician-instrument can be evoked by varying degrees of amplification. Flute music can include the smallest perceivable sounds, the 'interior' of sounds (timbral constructs, frequencies, micro-components of sounds as they are amplified, isolated, expanded and manipulated), as well as huge expansions of sound and stunning diffusion. The transformation to meta-flautist may take place as this array of elements is brought together as an integrated ensemble.

Early works for flute and electronics largely involved working with fixed media, such as tape or CD accompaniment. In works such as Richard Karpen's Exchange for flute and CD (1987) the tempi of the computer generated material force the flautist along at break-neck speed, imbuing the performance with a feeling of captivity, of a wish to escape by getting to the end - and a longing for the accompanying euphoria that a successful arrival brings. Technologies began to move away from this format to some extent from around 1987, when score following (real-time tracking and synchronisation of live performance and computer) was developed and used in flute music by such composers as Manoury1 and others.

Tracing the musician's responses to these shifting emphases in real-time performance, and transforming them into tangible text was a goal of my recently completed doctoral research, The Extended Flautist: Techniques, technologies and performer perceptions in music for flute and electronics (Penny, 2009). A few observations and reflections are related here through a selection of specific works and technological platforms.

Empowering projection

Amplification is ubiquitous in this era to such an extent that acoustic music is starting to hold a renewed attraction in some post-electronic performance circles.2 It can still be said, nevertheless, that amplification in the classically based flute performances of Western art music still remains something of a novelty - certainly within the majority of conservatorium and institutional concert presentations. For the flute player moving into electroacoustic territory an intriguing world of new musical elements is uncovered, and this journey begins with amplification. At a basic level, amplification will change power balances, generate an ability to use sounds that would be otherwise inaudible, manipulate the tone in minute or massive ways, create a startling sense of intimacy, reposition the soloist in the performance space and provide the base for digital transformations. An exciting and immediate change of scene is generated: an assemblage of new expectations, concepts and performative responses.

Vivid effects created through amplifying very soft intimate tongue, lip or key clicks, breath tones or fragile multiphonics may evoke uncertainty and instability in player and listener. Amplified whistle tones suggest distance and may be used to depict a distant character or thought, as in Marco Stroppa's little i for flutes and electronic room, or entire soundscapes may be constructed from these frangible threads, as in Mary Finsterer's Ether for amplified solo flute (1998), which consists almost wholly of amplified whistle tones. Changes in vibrato intensity and speed can give a shimmering colour variation with amplification, especially in combination with reverberation. Other techniques may include combined flute tone and voice or breath, which can introduce a grainy, indistinct tone that is quite malleable with amplification. New dramatic elements join the performance, with implied, veiled or commanding characters mixed with the flute. Amplified microtones and overtones may be mixed together effectively to distort pitch; and magnified percussive sounds bring completely contrasting sonic worlds into play with, for example, sharp, metallic key slaps or muffled articulations. A profusion of breath tone techniques mix with various quantities of normal resonant tone, or voice, multiphonics, or articulations, creating an abundance of sound choices, adding new layers of colour and meaning, illusions of proximity, and a sense of extending the inner self out into the hall - a connector of inner and outer identities.

The amplification may not even be immensely apparent, as in Mario Lavista's Canto del alba for amplified flute (1979), where microsounds are gently reinforced. Multiphonics, microtones, breath tone, altered timbre fingerings, whistle tones, harmonics, glissandi, voice and flute tone, varied vibrato, and the occasional resonant passage all become balanced and effective in this work through light amplification. A startling sense of place, of sitting in a beautiful forest, is evoked in an atmosphere of mindful meditation. The feeling generated by engagement with the music and the impact of the various techniques has a transforming effect, here illustrated from the performer's perspective:

An astonishing sense of anticipation is felt, the imminent connection to notes, the opening multiphonic, the breath that imbues this work with meditative and seductive style; quarter tones, altered tone fingerings, strands of tones linking and separating, spaces in sounds, spaces of sounds. Here in performance, the spinning threads construct the evocative soundscape, transporting us into the music. The breathing reflects a stylised gesture, locating the performer at once in that sound, and coming from that sound. An immersion is created, we glide together: the audience's attention is palpable.

The flute becomes a body extension, part flesh, part conduit, simultaneously directing and following the performance. Dreams again, of perfection and ease … My thoughts become the notes, travelers across the page, the room…. What a sweet sound, what a beautiful song of yearning, of wafting and dreaming. The music appears to move, to build invisible textures and structures, to draw us in.

The amplification is amazing, it projects strength and colours, it provokes confidence and definition, it is in love with whistle tones so hard to pitch, it throws a resonant phrase to the back wall, it creates amazing whirls of harmonics and glissandi. An unimagined delicacy of tone arrives, a shimmering vibrato slides through the room, a sharp accent penetrates the fragile timbres.

We are in a forest? What a place this is! (Penny, Journal entry, 2007)

Other works, such as Salvatore Sciarrino's vastly spacious flute works, Andrew Ford's piccolo piece, ...les debris d'un reve (1992), and Chris Dench's Caught Breath of Time (1981/2004) use spatialisation of amplified flute sounds to compliment musical ideas inherent in the composition. The electronic version of Dench's work pans the sound from the flautist towards the audience, past and back to the performer again as a radiant metaphor for the passing of time. Developed for performance by this author in 2004, the electronics also create a new relationship of audience to sound, of location and dislocation of the performer's presence, and an extended performance space.

Illusions and delusions

Reverberation and delay used in flute compositions are primarily textural effects that expand the soundscape to create a sense of place, multiple voices and specific atmospheres. Polyphonic build up and enlarged tonal spaces create a sense of immersion for the player, giving an imagined sense of support, and dialogue with the musical material or implied hidden persona.

This effect is a feature in much of Kaija Saariaho's flute music, where reverberation has a strong influence on perception of space and placement. In NoaNoa (1999), for example, reverberation is used throughout to create sustained tones, introduce multiple voices and to add structural richness. The immersive sound environment and the fully entrained attitude demanded of the techniques and interpretation create a powerful sense of performative and musical space. One's whole body is participating here: chest, abdomen, vocal cords, arms, hands, legs, feet, throat, mouth, ears, eyes and mind, and the surrounding virtual spaces appear to confirm the sense of involvement.

In Thea Musgrave's Narcissus (1988), the delay is used to invoke the character of the reflection. The evolving mental chaos of Narcissus is depicted with a build-up of the echoes and resultant harmonisation effects. For the performer, this creates an engagement with self-immersion, spatialisation of self through the reflective layering, dialogue, distortion and harmonisation of the tone. The delay sits at times at an easy distance, at others extremely close, and at others in harmonisation and altered pitch. In performance, the impression of one's own sound coming straight back as a new voice can be astonishing at first, but here serves as a brilliant underpinning of the dramatic character of the piece. This revelation has an empowering impact on interpretative understanding, intensifying the depiction of deluded megalomania evoked by the personality of Narcissus.

Reverberation in Georg Hajdu's Sleeplessness (1987, revised 1997 - for a performance video, see website) creates an atmosphere of anxiety, of aloneness and of the dimensions of the rooms of a house. The narrative (spoken and pre-recorded by the flautist) describes a head-voice commentary; a sense of uneasiness is immediately created with the opening words - You'd been restless the entire day - expressing apprehension, discomfort, and an unsettled mood. The listener becomes situated within the house: a spatial metaphor for the psyche of the self, moving agitatedly through states (or rooms) of unease. Anxiety is expressed through the score's motivic, fragmented and disjointed phrases, unfocussed tone colours, angular lines, and disjunct accents creating a sense of insistence and interruption. The electronics add undercurrents, especially through reverberation, capturing feelings of shakiness and nervous twitches. Shadows and confusion are also conjured up, through the harmonization effects, introducing new characters and voices. The reverberated staccatos and the harmonizations imply spaces through echoes and shadowed musical lines. These echoes confirm and surround the sound in the space, indicating dimensions of the place as well as emotional responses. Low, indistinct pitches of the bass flute imply intimacy; high screeching piccolo pitches signify panic. Unfocussed flute sounds, or rustle sounds, blur the edges of these spaces, and rushed sequences represent an agitated, restlessness within this confined area.

Embodied gesture

A focus on the microcosm of performance techniques inevitably leads to the highlighting of body use in performance. The 'performative layer' is explored succinctly by Schroeder and Rebelo (2009) as additional to the habitual and present layers of Merleau-Ponty analysis (1962). This performative layer is described as 'a folding in of a new substance' (2009, p.137), a process that is shaped, rehearsed and integrated into the act of performance to create a unique performative environment and expectation through bodily behaviour. The use of electronic technologies stimulates the performer's awareness of bodily behaviour and changes the meaning of movements in numerous ways.

A striking self-awareness may be generated, a magnification that correlates to the microphone effect, as an intense focus on micro techniques occurs, for example, highlighting muscular awareness of embouchure flexibility and fluidity, throat relaxation, internal mouth shaping, and air pressure control. New cause and effect relationships may arise, as bodily actions lose direct control of sonic events, and new ways to construct meaning in performance are established. The physical requirements of movements normally associated with playing the flute may confirm meaning through gesture, but additional actions such as pedaling or computer interaction extend this into a wider spectrum. Using the foot for pedaling creates a new set of balancing requirements, which in turn vigorously influences posture, breath and playing position. Whole body gestures may also be used to trigger events, creating intense focus and movement. The effects for both the Saariaho and Hajdu works mentioned here are activated through a MIDI pedal and Max/MSP: the pedaling techniques required bring a strong sense of physicality to the performance of these works, as whole body muscle use rebalances the flautist, and engages with the propulsion and drama of the music.

Warren Burt's Mantrae for flute and live electronics (2007 - for a performance video, see website) is an interactive work that explores connections between the individual and the world. Stillness and movement, inner calm and chaotic change are juxtaposed in a setting that transforms physical movement into sonic forms. The shifting relations of the self to a digital other, the responses and controls, are activated through motion capture and sound modification, using Plogue Bidule as the host program for the processing and Cycling 74's Hipno sound processing modules. In this work the flautist is instructed to intensely focus on each of the three Mantrae and to move randomly from one to another. The flute begins solo, with the electronics appearing after the first thirty seconds. Then the flute sound is processed through the plug-in effects, which are programmed to change through Modulator/V Motion as the flautist sets off the camera/motion sensor by moving from stand to stand.

In Mantrae, full body gesture activates a new sonic world, converting gesture into digital sound. From the outside, the body becomes the visual prompt, the revealer of process, the audience informer. The meaning of the piece, the trajectory of flute chanting, the (dis)connections to the outer world become focused through the image of performer. Intensity of purpose, sensed through musculature and postures of concentration, discloses the conceptual basis of the work, the centrality of the individual within the disarray of life. The invisible presence of the transformative technologies, the motion tracking and effect triggering, are representations of perceived connection, a linking fabric between gestures of exchange.

The flute sounds are traditional at the source, resonant, articulate, and impelled. The altered sounds emanating from the loud speakers bear little relationship to this focused flautist; they are nebulous connections, the sounds of otherness. The technology creates the communication, and the dichotomy between flautist (the individual) and chaos (the world). The overlap, the linking performance gesture becomes the technological gesture, the sonic changes incurred by the computer plug-in software, connect movement with sound texture and timbre, the 'extended flautist' here becomes a representation of individual and global relationships.

The experience of performing Mantrae is an unfolding focus on motion and location. New balances and sensations evolve, challenging acquired performance knowledge, and merging with the desire to be completely free within this circle, to attempt to move with abandon, swiftness and grace, to dissolve into the music, to position oneself within and against the environment. The movements are sharp and fast, turning with seeming unpredictability from one stand to another. There is some awkwardness, some difficulty sustaining vision of the scores, moving without unravelling basic flute playing techniques and postures. Modulating this potential for instability begins a search for greater fluidity and cohesion, a shaping of the matrix of patterns.

Invisible alterities

I was first introduced to the concept of electronics as the 'invisible other' through personal correspondence with Italian composer, Marco Stroppa, in 1998. His flute work little i (1996) is an ensemble work for flautist, sound technologist and electronics, in which all three participants work as chamber musicians to create a real and virtual musical space and drama. Connections between the musical partners are explored, as the flute and the two sources of electronic sound (the technologist and the pre-recorded material - synthesized sounds and processed flute sounds) participate in an imaginary trio. These ideas are further explored in the connective environment activated by Max/MSP in Russell Pinkston's Lizamander (2003). In this work pitch and threshold triggering occurs as driving rhythms are built in real time from the live flute sound. There is no visible triggering at all as the live electronic processing occurs as a result of sonic triggering - when the flute plays certain notes, or moves above a certain pitch threshold, sound effects are triggered, and the work progresses. This technique appears on the surface to be simple but it demands care in presentation. The acoustic space, for example, has a critical effect on the functioning. A pure clear pitch is needed, and if the reverberation in the space is too great, for instance, the computer has difficulty picking up the correct sound and the piece does not progress, and sound effects require manual activation from the desk.

Working as an invisible partner, the electronics encourage a sense of mystery and uncertainty. The interactivity may be imperceptible to an audience and sound events may lose their definition and source. Unawareness of processes and misunderstanding of intent can occur, the sense of the open or closed environment of the electroacoustic concert can alienate, the visual scene can be informing or confusing, the changed physical manners can surprise and provoke question. Alternatively, the audience may respond with pleasure to a repositioning of performer, to illusions of intimacy, to complex sound configurations and challenged expectations.

Emerging entities

The transformation of the flautist entity into a meta-instrument - an integrated ensemble that reflects an expanded identity, new capacities and relationship dynamics, an ecology of sounds, processes, machines and people - generates changes of attitude that give permissions, controls and scope for expanded roles, expanded space and integrated narratives. Relationships of flautist to instrument, flautist to technology, and flautist to technologist adjust and expand as new performative patterns are added to the body, new cognitive responses evolve and a new sense of multifaceted identity is generated. The flautist can revel in the increased ease of projection, the empowering scale of refinement, and the capacities for enriched and engaging encounters provided by this environment.

Dancer and academic, Susan Kozel, refers to Margaret Morse's statement in Poetics of Interactivity (2003) that the computer 'is not just an instrument . . . or the interval between clicking and getting somewhere else' (2008, p. 186). This comment provokes investigation of the meaning and realisation of interactive technologies and instrumental performance. There is more than a human-machine duality here - the transformative capacities of machine, instrument, body and sound interconnections have the potential to profoundly inform us by questioning the nature of performance activities and relationships, through exploring human senses and extended lived experience.


Burt, W. (2007) Mantrae for flute and live electronics [score]. Self-published.
Hajdu, G. (1997) Sleeplessness for flutes, live electronics and narrator [score]. Hamburg, GbH: Peer Music Classical.
Kozel, S. (2008) Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lavista, M. (2003) Canto del alba para flauta amplificada (3rd ed.) [score]. Mexico: Ediciones Mexicanas de Musica.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962 / 1999) Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge Classics: London
Musgrave, T. (1988) Narcissus for solo flute and digital delay [score}. London, UK: Novello.
Pape, G. (2004) 'Varese the Visionary'. Published in Contemporary Music Review 23 (2): 19-25.
Pinkston, R. (2003). Lizamander for flute and Max/MSP [score]. Self-published.
Penny, J. (2009). The Extended Flautist: techniques, technologies and performer perceptions in music for flute and electronics. DMA dissertation, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Available on the internet (pdf 6.2MB).
Penny, J. (2008) 'Amplified breath: (dis)embodied habitat'. Published in Computer Music Modeling and Retrieval: Genesis of Meaning in Sound and Music, 5th International Symposium, CMMR 2008, Copenhagen, Denmark, May 2008. Berlin, Heidelberg, Germany: Springer. Accessible on the internet.
Saariaho, K. (1999) NoaNoa for flute and electronics [score]. London, UK: Chester Music.
Schroeder, F. and Rebelo, P. (2009) 'The Pontydian Performance: the performative layer'. Published in Organised Sound 14(2): 134-141. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


1. Philippe Manoury's Jupiter for flute and electronics was the first work to use score following technologies, developed by researchers including Barry Vercoe, Miller Puckette and Manoury.

2. Whether or not this represents a desire to reclaim certain acoustic sound properties, or for traditional control and identity, or something else altogether can be debated, but the interesting issue is the influence that electronic sound modification has had on instrumentalists, and the new approaches that this has fostered in relation to all instrumental playing and listening.

Jean Penny’s career as flautist, researcher and educator stretches across a wide compendium of styles and arenas. She has performed many premieres, has had numerous works written for her, and has performed and presented her work in national and international settings. Her passion for new music performance includes a dream to initiate significant expansion of the repertoire for flute and interactive electronics by Australian composers.


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