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Extract from "Recorder Unlimited: A Preliminary Study of the Alto Recorder's MultiphonicResources",
Ph.D.(Prelim.) Thesis, The University of Sydney, April 1993.

Ian Shanahan is a composer and Lecturer at the Department of Music
of the University of Western Sydney (Nepean)

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4.1 Introduction

It should be stated from the outset that the following discourse cannot in any way pretend to encompass all imaginable compositional applications and strategies for recorder multiphonics. Many composers have already demonstrated that this technical resource is fabulously rich in musical possibilities; there is no reason to assume that they will cease to find new and intriguing ways of utilizing recorder multiphonics in the future, beyond those presented in this chapter.

<1> Interested composers will also soon discover that several of the concepts outlined in the ensuing discussion may be essentially incompatible with one another, or could be useful only to those composers who embrace a particular musical aesthetic or compositional philosophy. Intrinsic merit is not a relevant concern here. A composer, for example, who insists upon a predictable and replicable musical outcome, accurate in relation to a well-defined, precise set of notations and performance directives, might consider a specific compositional strategy for recorder multiphonics to be in accordance with these requirements, hence potentially valuable. Another composer, with Cagean orientations in which the creative process or performance gestures are conceptually more important than the resultant sound or its ability to be meticulously reduplicated, may, on the contrary, decide that the same strategy is worthless or in diametric opposition to their artistic purpose. (There is, as one might expect, a continuum between these extreme compositional viewpoints.)

<2> Because recorder multiphonics differ fundamentally in timbral profile from the usual monophonic recorder sound, they do require a substantial degree of sensitivity in their compositional treatment. Unfortunately, one encounters in recorder compositions far too many instances which demonstrate an alarming lack of such sensitivity. Miscalculations involving recorder multiphonics have been found to mar the compositional intent at even the most basic processual levels: harsh multiphonics can utterly ruin a proposed (local) tension-flow within a musical line if they are not painstakingly deployed, an obvious consideration which composers seem to overlook frequently. Composers ought to acquire, within their aural and intellectual imagination, a complete and perfect knowledge of the sound, behaviour and technical attributes of each recorder multiphonic that they wish to employ, prior to its placement within the mesh of a musical composition.

<3> As a radical departure from traditional sonorities, it could be logically argued that multiphonics demand a radical and fundamental re-evaluation of the artistic contexts into which they might be placed. Such resources cannot merely be grafted onto traditional sound-worlds, one may conclude: new, subtle and advanced formal procedures for recorder multiphonics will be required, in which composers avoid vulgar 'effects', the 'shock of the new', or other crass tactics, by intelligently, tastefully and - above all - musically integrating every aspect of the instrument's character (along with its selected multiphonic capabilities) into the very structure and conception of the work, at various hierarchical levels.

<4> This poses a major artistic challenge to contemporary composers, which must be met if the recorder and its concomitant technical arsenal and musical repertoire are to grow meaningfully.

<5> Unfortunately, it seems that many contemporary, post-Modernist composers - and particularly those working with the paradigms of tonality, minimalism or 'the New Romanticism' - have altogether rejected woodwind multiphonics as a viable musical possibility. This post-Modernist hiatus is, apparently, often justified on the grounds that multiphonics have a conspicuous association with certain, arguably unsuccessful, experiments carried out by the 1960s musical Avant-Garde.

<6> Whilst one could assert that within the musical climate of the 1960s, the startling sonic impact of the newly exploited multiphonics alone might conceivably have possessed some musical validity, such reliance upon crude 'shock value' (or any other kind of aesthetic guerrilla warfare) is obviously no longer sufficient to sustain worthwhile musical thought, since the sound-world of the multiphonic has now become totally familiar. It is, on the other hand, also clearly erroneous, obscurantist and ascetic to discard outright such an instrumental technique, simply because some Avant-Garde composers failed to adequately meet the challenge of creating fine music, of enduring interest, with this technique at that time. Multiphonics, inherently neither 'good' nor 'bad', are a perfectly neutral acoustic entity, which may be charged with positive musicality, or transformed into a negative irrelevancy. They, and indeed any sound, can also be infused with fresh meaning, or stripped of unwanted cultural and iconic accretions: one merely deploys, with infinite care, artistry and sensitivity, such resources within the chosen artistic sphere.

<7> This is surely a basic premise of eclectic post-Modernism. Hence, there is no cogent reason why (microtonal) multiphonics, for instance, cannot be effectively integrated into neo-tonal soundscapes (for example). Multiphonics are not fundamentally incompatible with musical styles/philosophies such as minimalism or the ubiquitous 'New Romanticism' - although superficially, to some, they might appear to be.


1. Even now, it seems that many of the compositional strategies and applications for recorder multiphonics which are considered here (and elsewhere) are original, in that they do not appear to have been used yet by contemporary composers. Therefore, such resources are given merely as hypothetical avenues for future artistic exploration, in the hope that they might bear music of real worth. The earnest reader is also urged to sift through the Appendix of this thesis - section 7 in particular - for further possibilities not examined herein. In each instance throughout this discussion, I have attempted to be completely objective and ecumenical by avoiding, as much as possible, the imposition of my own compositional aesthetics and biases. (Nevertheless, any ideas raised are also largely the product of my own limited musical imagination.)


2. These two viewpoints can also be characterized in terms of the composers' reliance upon the uniformity - or non-uniformity - of the acoustic response of disparate instruments in the hands of different performers.

3. As one would expect, these remarks are directed primarily towards those composers who work within a determinate framework, in which specific multiphonics are requested during the act of composition - and are expected to be heard during performance. 4. This manner of deep, intelligent musical thinking and integrated structural organization is often exemplified in the compositions of certain European composers, such as Brian Ferneyhough, Chris Dench, Richard Barrett, Michael Finnissy, James Dillon, Luca Francesconi, Klaus K. Hübler, Roger Redgate, James Erber, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf and Robert H. P. Platz, who are usually (but somewhat misleadingly) placed under the banner of a compositional school of thought that has come to be referred to loosely as 'the New Complexity'.

5. To this end, composers also need to tackle the multidimensional issue of musical psychology; in particular, they must address the perplexing question of perception of new formal procedures, strategies and compositional intentions - or non-intentions - involving recorder multiphonics: To what extent are these notions discerned, and at what structural levels are they perceived in the music? Where abouts do they register in the cognitive space ranging from the fully conscious to the subliminal? Will they impinge upon the mnemonic categories of the (very) short-term memory or the longer-term memory? Are they, or are they not, teleological? Will they somehow warp a listener's ontological/internalized time-flow? (etc.)

6. It is now quite obvious that many post-Modernist composers are reacting vehemently - but with inimical intellectual blindness - against the aesthetics and musical languages of the post-War Avant-Garde, thereby depriving themselves, at least potentially, of a wealth of Avant-Garde artistic possibilities which could successfully be incorporated into a post-Modernist sound-world. (This self-deprivatory attitude is, I feel, compositionally self-defeating; it even flies in the face of the central post-Modernist ethos of stylistic plurality and acceptance.)

7. This is surely a basic premise of eclectic post-Modernism. Hence, there is no cogent reason why (microtonal) multiphonics, for instance, cannot be effectively integrated into neo-tonal soundscapes (for example). Multiphonics are not fundamentally incompatible with musical styles/philosophies such as minimalism or the ubiquitous 'New Romanticism' - although superficially, to some, they might appear to be.


Ian Shanahan Lecturer,
Department of Music
University of Western Sydney (Nepean)
PO Box 10
Kingswood NSW 2747

Phone (Home) - (02)9871 4282 ISD 61-2-9871 4282

Phone (Work) - (047)360 877 ISD 61-47-360 877

FAX (Work) - (047)360 166 ISD 61-47-360 166


"Music is the embodiment of the intelligence that exists in sound"

- Heine Wronski


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