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Living with Extreme Instruments #008, the Subcontrabass Flute

The relatively recently developed subcontrabass flute is very heavy, extremely rare, and requires the lungs of a rhinoceros and forearms like Popeye to play properly. It initially attracted me for a number of reasons. As a composer my ear always gravitates towards the lowest notes in an orchestra; the trouser-flapping bass emerging from a Cavaillé-Coll organ, or the resonant thud and grind from horn-loaded loudspeakers. As flautists however, we’re almost invariably playing tunes and ‘fannying about’ on top of the texture, so when I was given the opportunity to play Friesian flute-maker Jelle Hogenhuis’ original subcontra prototype, borrowed from him for a flute orchestra project, I leapt at the chance. The thing was made with roughly hewn, filed and melted plastic; mouse-mat keypads cut with scissors and screwed onto plywood, and rusty bent wire keys and joints held together with twine and rubber bands. It gave me horrific internal wrist injuries almost immediately and trying to wring delicately limpid Debussy arrangements out of it was a major challenge, but I loved it nonetheless.

My potential as a multi-instrumentalist is hampered somewhat by both lack of available study time and poverty, which means that I am unlikely ever to learn, or own, a double-bass, a tuba, or a Sousaphone. With the subcontrabass flute having the same fingerings as your standard flauto grande, all I really had to do was educate myself on the various stages of hyperventilation. My friend Hans Witteman the great bass clarinet player told me all about this in the early days, but as he was instructing me I realised he was only putting into words what I had experienced already. The dizziness, stars in front of the eyes, tingling extremities, ringing in the ears and ‘the shakes’ are just preliminary indications: the point at which one should stop is when you turn out to be playing completely different notes to the ones written, and realise that you have become entirely incapable of correcting this peculiarity. Developing the lungs of a rhinoceros and the forearms and embouchure of Popeye are purely incidental side-effects. I just apply the anchor tattoo and take a tin of spinach before each concert – detail is everything in contemporary music.

I am frequently to be seen playing subcontra in the Netherlands Flute Orchestra. For many years the orchestra’s principal bottom was a mere contrabass flute, also built by Jelle Hogenhuis, which, with a little subtle amplification, seemed adequate enough. The addition of the subcontra has however made a significant difference to the orchestra’s sound. Comparing recordings now, it is like the difference between an organ with 16 foot pedal, and one with a 32 foot register. Such high artistic considerations were however secondary to me at the time. Jelle Hogenhuis makes his heavy bass flutes from attractively economic PVC tubes, and all I wanted was to be ‘the one at the back with the big heap of drainpipes’. Mine is numbered SBC 008, and privately I call it ‘Bill who is Resting’, although ‘Felix Leiter’ would have been a more recognisable reference. If I’m too loud, the conductor gets to ‘Kill Bill’. We do have such fun.

I started playing the standard flute at the age of nine after the traditional recorder initiation period, and was unaware of any discrimination against my instrument before moving to The Netherlands fifteen years later. My old teacher at the RAM, the late great Gareth Morris, told me that in his time flute players were among the tougher members of the orchestra, often to be seen playing with smoke rising from a fag wedged between the fingers, a skill I later also acquired - pretentiously and fleetingly - using cigars. In the 1980s in Holland, I heard a now well-known composer who shall remain nameless stating that he ‘hated the flute’ after nonetheless having written a flute piece for one of those student melting-pot workshop evenings in a local theatre. "If you hate it, why write for it?" someone asked, "I don’t know" was the lame reply, which followed an equally lame piece. There seemed to be no real excuse or reward for prostituting his art to the loathed tube other than ensuring another moment in the small-time limelight. This, to me, seems one of the reasons we have no-one of the stature of a Beethoven in our time. OK, Mozart reportedly hated flutes as well, but what he probably hated more were flautists who were incapable of playing in tune with their primitive pipes. He still managed to create works of genius for the instrument, even if it was only because he needed the money. One of the reasons he spent so much time in the pub playing billiards and writing dirty canons might indeed just have been in order to avoid having to listen to them.

Our Dutch composer was in fact more probably reacting against the romantic French style and repertoire often represented by willowy girls in today’s Conservatoires. The Hogenhuis subcontrabass flute is by far the least flute-like of any of the Boehm-system flutes currently made, and to me is the 1950s flute-cred equivalent of performing with a smouldering Churchill in one hand: eccentric and extrovert, but undeniably making a statement - that statement possibly either being "what smoking ban?" or "I can play the flute and do you a small barbecue at the same time." It has the same sounding range as a properly tuned five-string double bass, and with Jelle Hogenhuis’s wide-bore drainpipe proportions the lower range has a punch and weight which even satisfies most down-to-earth Dutchmen and even some jazz musicians. It also features a cleverly reversed key mechanism in order to cope with the U-bend, something guaranteed to break the ice at flute conventions. I have to admit that it’s probably the only kind of flute on which you can play Louis Andriessen’s ‘Worker’s Union’ in an ensemble of amplified guitars and power brass without sounding impossibly twee and silly. You can play almost anything written for the flute on the subcontra, but its low tessitura and the size of its noisy keys flapping like a seal’s flippers safely remove this instrument from effectively performing Berbiguier Etudes or the fast bits in Kuhlau. Attempts to do so result in a clattering, asonorous soundness and either acute repetitive strain injury or Popeye forearms. I have recently started sitting in with a new band called The Hague Improviser’s Orchestra, and discover new things about both myself and the instrument at each rehearsal and concert. The key thuds can give a good slap-bass imitation, or can take on almost any percussion instrument you can name. The bizarre effects from singing into and around the thing can create a zoo of animals, or shifts in perspective which beg for a new Sequenza. Oom-pah basses are of course highly effective fun, but if you take over the melody in a sweetly elegant salon waltz it creates complete collapse in both the audience and the other ensemble members, such is the gruffly humorous rendition which inevitably emerges: imagine the Flower Duet sung by Tom Waits and the late Arthur Mullard, and you’ll be somewhere close.

In its own right the subcontrabass flute is capable of surprisingly mellifluous expressiveness – especially in the upper registers. Variety of colour and dynamic range are available throughout the whole scale, even if some party-trick fingerings are required toward the extreme heights of middle C. My good friend Richard Sims has been ‘writing’ a live electronics piece for me and my instrument for many years now, and at an early stage reported that the overtones and harmonics of the subcontra are similar in timbre and richness to a great Prague bell he sampled for some of the effects used. Without circular breathing there are limitations to the length of legato passages playable, but achieving true continuous power is troublesome. I swelled with pride when, during one of his excellent classes, Robert Dick complimented me on my repertoire of grunts, squafs and plorks on the thing – helpfully pointing out to the assembled willowy girls how very difficult the thing was to play. He had previously bought an earlier example of the Hogenhuis subcontra but ended up selling it in frustration, seeing it as having broken the law of diminishing returns. To him the most notable thing about the instrument was its huge case, which "was like having your grandmother’s coffin leant against a wall in your room." He liked my more recent example however, making it sound like a mechanically enhanced didgeridoo with his effortless circular breathing, simultaneously deflating my ego and inspiring me on the spot.

Few will admit this, but showing off is all part of being the full-fat bass in any orchestra, and being the one at the back with the big heap of drainpipes has great attention-grabbing potential – the charm of which is somewhat cancelled out at close range by the Popeye embouchure and forearms, and that last bit of spinach stuck in the teeth. When someone points at your instrument case and says "wow, that’s a big one" there’s something spiritually satisfying about being able to reply, "yes, but that’s only the head-joint." What Gerard Hoffnung would have made of it we can only speculate, but I like to think he would have loved the thing and ordered one on the spot.

There is never a dull moment with a subcontrabass flute. I shall however spare you tales of the specialist vehicles and whale harpooner’s upper-body strength required for transporting such an instrument, or how I once knocked an unfortunate woman under a train at Utrecht Central Station with it - no serious injuries to the flute, I hasten to add...

Dominy Clements



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