Multiphonics on the Oboe

Below this article are three video conversations with the composer Paul Archbold around the subject of multiphonics.

1. Multiphonics  and the Oboe

2. Music extracts

3. Further discussion
A great deal more information will appear here about multiphonics in the near future

The multiphonic possibilities of the oboe are enormous, ranging from double harmonics to very complex pitch combinations. Not only is there a very wide range of pitch combinations but there is also a rich pallet of timbral sounds. Particular compositional skill is required in order to use them well as they can easily turn into little more than circus tricks, but a creative imagination, fuelled by a study of significant compositions can lead to some exceptional music being written. The potential for creative composition using this beautiful sound world is enormous and even now offers a great deal of territory which has been little explored. Not only can multiphonics be used together but they can be linked with single sounds, used as a harmonic basis for a work and can also be used in certain kinds of contrapuntal writing. The idea that they are necessarily loud, raucous and demanding on the ear is a common view (held both by some composers and some oboists) but, also an incorrect view. Yes, they are often used in this way but this is not the complete picture, they can equally create very subtle textures, exciting and very beautiful quiet passages, for example, witness their use towards the end of Berio’s Sequenza VII.

In an ideal world the composer will always have the opportunity to work with the performer for whom they are writing. Unfortunately we do not always have such opportunities and in some cases we will be writing for musicians we don’t know at all or for musicians who themselves have no prior experience of multiphonics. This can present some very significant challenges.

The problems this presents can be addressed in different ways depending on what one wishes to achieve. At one extreme we have the approach Ferneyhough takes in Allgebrah. In this work he asks the oboist to choose multiphonics that speak easily. His aim in choosing to use multiphonics in this way is primarily percussive. The pitches, and even the timbre are left to a great extent to the oboist. What is central to his instructions is that the multiphonics speak easily.
Greater pitch control can be gained by stating one specific pitch that you require and asking the performer to produce a multiphonic around this pitch and thus maintaining the pitch in the multiphonic. A brief study of The Techniques of Oboe Playing by Peter Veal and Claus-Steffen Mankopf (V/M) will reveal a large number of these possibilities.

If you require multiphonics to fit with a specific harmonic sound world then obviously you need to be able to predict exact pitches. This is the point at which the use of multiphonics becomes much more difficult. A work such as Jonathan Harvey’s Death of Light/Light of Death is a good example. The specific multiphonics requested really do need to work well within the overall harmonic texture. There are still problems with some of these examples as the pitches can vary and some of the multiphonics can be difficult to produce. A solution to the problem is to give some possible alternatives; at least two, but even better, three fingerings rather in the nature of an ossia. This approach (which, granted, is more of an onerous task) gives the performer greater choice and, possibly, working with the range of fingerings may be able to develop something quite close to the first choice.

When using reference books such as V/M it is vital to copy out into the oboe part all the details given in the book such as breath pressure, lip position on the reed and especially the fingering itself. Don’t just rely on the reference number of the fingering in the book or simply write out all of the pitches. Many oboists do not own all of the available books and will feel frustrated by the lack of information. Remember also to state in the copy what you mean by the various positions of mouth, breath pressure etcetera.
If you are using several multiphonics in a row then consider the implications of the change of teeth position or embouchure, because some changes are very difficult to achieve under certain conditions. For example, a multiphonic that requires the performer to place the teeth on the reed followed by a standard embouchure position is going to be very difficult to execute legato. A similar problem can occur with rapid changes from one fingering to another.

Holliger’s Studie über Mehrklänge is worth looking at in some detail. He notates the fingerings very specifically but the pitches on the whole are not notated. The method of notation is very helpful for the performer and easy to reproduce. The overall effect is a stunning example of what can be achieved using multiphonics.

Whichever method of notation you choose for the multiphonics, do remember that the oboist must see fingerings. Unlike writing a chord for the piano, simply writing out the pitches you want gives the oboist absolutely no idea of how to reproduce the sound, unless of course the performer happens to have seen that particular multiphonic before.

Do not presume that fingerings that work on the oboe will necessarily work on the other instruments in the family. For example, a multiphonic fingering on the oboe may not work on the cor anglais, or, may work but produce quite a different multiphonic and not simply the same pitches transposed down a 5th. This is the case in part because even if the performer is using comparable instruments, say the same age, same system and from the same manufacturer, there are sections of the design of the other instruments of the family that are different. This is partly of course because of the size of the instruments and the impossibility of always being able to cover the holes with the fingers. The mechanics have to change a little. Many of the other instruments of the family also have no bottom Bb key and some will lack a third octave key.