Flute beatboxing is continuing to excite classical flute players from all corners of the globe and there are more and more of us embracing the challenge of learning to beatbox. At both the 2011 National Flute Association (NFA) Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina and the 2011 Australian Flute Festival (AFF) in Canberra, there was an enormous buzz around each of the beatbox related happenings. The NFA convention saw the world premiere of Greg Pattillo’s composition Three Beats for Beatbox Flute, a solo flute piece in three movements that showcases an astounding array of wild beatbox virtuosity. The piece was commissioned by the NFA for the annual Young Artists Competition. Having the work in this competition meant that each of the six semi-finalists – the cream of the young American flute-playing crop - learnt and performed it.
The AFF’s Beatbox Flute 101 workshop (led by this author) was packed to the brim with enthusiastic flute players of all ages. The workshop gave everyone a hands-on introduction to beatboxing on the flute and extended into many of the more difficult beatboxing techniques. Some of the questions raised during the class included “how and where does one go to hear flute beatboxing?” and “what do you do with this beatboxing thing once you’ve learnt the techniques?” To help address these issues I would like to shed some light on what’s out there for the budding beatbox flutist and share some of the ways that flute players are forwarding the art of beatboxing. During the last two years I have been researching beatbox flute as the subject of my Masters thesis at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and have learnt a great deal from the many innovative musicians I’ve been lucky to work with (many of whom will be discussed later in this article). Outside of the world of flute, there are a few artists worth exploring both to see what ideas translate well onto the flute, and to simply enjoy some wild performances. These are Colin Stetson, sax and clarinet player; and Shlomo, beatboxer and artist-in-residence at London’s Southbank Centre.
BEATBOX FLUTE: A SHORT HISTORY
Beatboxing (without the flute) originated in 1980s hip-hop as a form of rhythmic accompaniment for rappers and MCs. “It involves vocal imitation of drum machines as well as drums and other percussion, and typically also the simultaneous imitation of bass lines, melodies, and vocals, to create an illusion of polyphonic music.”1
Flute beatboxing sprang into popularity across the world via the Internet in early 2007. Greg Pattillo made recordings of his beatbox flute performances and posted them on the YouTube website in December 2006. Shortly after this, YouTube placed one of Pattillo’s videos on their home page, producing over a million hits in one week. Other flute beatboxers with YouTube videos from around this time include Nathan “Flutebox” Lee and Tim Barsky.
Whilst Pattillo, Lee, and Barsky are among the first to bring beatboxing to the flute, there have been many similar extended techniques in recordings by jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson, Robert Dick, and others since the 1960s. Popular compositions such as Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube contain many percussive articulations that aren’t explicitly linked to beatboxing, but firmly establish the flute as an instrument that one can groove on.
EXISTING BEATBOX FLUTE REPERTOIRE
Based on its skyrocketing popularity, beatboxing on the flute is one of the most important innovations in twenty-first century flute playing. There are already a small handful of notated pieces available for beatbox flute. These include a concertino by American composer Randall Woolf, solo pieces by Greg Pattillo, Dirko Juchem, and others (including myself), and the Project Trio’s compositions for flute, cello, and bass. The following section contains a short description of each of these pieces.
Randall Woolf’s Native Tongues is scored for beatbox flute and string orchestra and was commissioned by Ransom Wilson and the North Carolina School for the Arts (UNCSA). You can see Ransom Wilson conducting the premiere performance with soloist Greg Pattillo and the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra on YouTube. The score is available for free download from the composer’s website. Whilst preparing the piece for performance, Greg Pattillo edited the flute part (which is not included with the score) to bring it in line with his style of notation. When comparing Woolf’s and Pattillo’s flute parts, I certainly found Pattillo’s part to contain the more clear and concise beatbox notation.
As well as Pattillo’s Three Beats for Beatbox Flute (available online), there are solo flute pieces to be found in the booklet that accompanies German jazz musician Dirko Juchem’s CD 16 Flute Solos in Jazz Flute-Beatboxing Style. The booklet contains song sheets for many of the pieces featured on the disc as well as some tips on how to make the sounds that Juchem uses (check it out).
Released by the Project Trio (consisting of Greg Pattillo, Eric Stephenson, and Peter Seymour), “PROJECT Trio: Book 1” contains scores and flute, cello, and bass parts for five of the trio’s compositions collected from each of their first three albums. The group explains in the preface to the book that all of the music “comes from a very improvisatory style,” and that performers can decide to either play exactly what is written or “to adapt and arrange portions so that it works for you and your ensemble.” This flexibility means that the arrangements are accessible regardless of how much interest you have in improvising. The pieces each differ in style and in the amount of beatboxing and extended techniques required. Cherry Blossoms contains only traditional classical sounds and would be welcome on any classical program, whilst pieces such as Fast are most certainly steeped in pop music styles containing driving motor rhythms and plenty of beatboxing. This book is available online as a PDF download.
Box Caravan, my own contribution to the beatbox flute repertoire is an arrangement of the jazz standard Caravan. The initial motivation for notating this piece was to include a beatbox piece on my repertoire list for the Gisborne International Music Competition in New Zealand. See the score and video here.
WRITING BOX CARAVAN
I had previously used Caravan as the basis for improvisations whilst busking and did not have a fixed structure before notating it. The biggest challenge in writing it down was settling on a fixed drum pattern for the beatbox part. Before penning the arrangement, I altered the drum patterns each time I performed it. This made it a real challenge to choose just one option and write it down.
Another challenge in writing a solo beatbox piece was working out how to make it fit successfully on a concert platform. Busking for passers-by (who hear you for a few seconds) and holding a concert audience’s attention for several minutes are two different things. This led me to approach the piece like a traditional solo flute composition, especially with respect to the harmonic role of the flute.
In the opening of the piece, I outline the four central melodic notes from the A section of Caravan - that is, C B-flat B-flat F. I did this primarily to establish the pitch pattern in the audience’s ear so that it was recognisable in later sections where these main notes are obscured. In a dramatic sense, I also imagined this sustained opening to be a moment of stillness preceding the action ahead. These long notes also present a chance for the performer to show off some beautiful tone work before launching into the extended techniques.
After spending time thinking about this opening, the rest of the arrangement was more or less based upon an ideal framework for my improvisations on Caravan. I aimed to build the intensity and thickness of the texture over the first three quarters of the piece. At the three quarter mark, the tension drops and the beatbox sounds are built up before a driving recapitulation of the A section melody that climaxes on a final trilling, singing swoosh. Many of the compositional techniques used are discussed in the following section.
ARRANGING AND JAZZ IMPROV
Whilst playing other people’s beatbox flute compositions is fun, there is also much to be gained from improvising and creating your own arrangements. After all, beatboxing is a part of hip-hop - an aurally transmitted, improvisatory art form. When I first took a lesson with Greg Pattillo, he emphasised the need to memorise tunes and to learn to improvise patterns based on a chord progression. This is useful when busking and when playing with other people, not to mention practical - it’s a whole lot more fun if you can play a tune as soon as it’s called out without worrying about whether you brought the sheet music.
The first place I turned to for material suitable for beatbox arrangements was a beginner flute book. The tunes were all simple, short and many were popular folk songs or melodies from the classical repertoire – perfect for easy memorisation! After learning to play the melody with a few simple beatbox patterns it’s fun to start to play around with the tune. If you maintain the beatboxing whilst only fingering the main notes in the melody you’ll soon find that there’s room to increase the complexity of the beatboxing. You can create contrast in a beatbox flute improvisation by first playing the melody with a simple beatbox pattern, then play an outline of the melody whilst showing off your beatboxing. The following examples show how these techniques can be applied to the first two bars of the theme from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A minor.
Figure 1. A basic beatbox pattern on the first two bars of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Figure 2. A more complex beatbox pattern using the key notes of the melody
Lead sheets (used by jazz musicians, these contain the melody and chord symbols of a tune) are another excellent place to look for beatbox flute material. Since the chord symbols are written above the melody, you can quickly pick out a bass or harmony line to play whilst someone else plays the melody. Then trade!
Another way to expand upon a simple melody is to improvise a solo between repetitions of the melody. When playing by yourself, it can be effective to alternate between beatboxing and improvising every one or two bars. Quickly alternating between the two helps to maintain the momentum of your groove. Sustaining the beatboxing pattern whilst soloing is a little more difficult but it sounds really effective once you’ve got your head around it. Just start slowly with simple ideas.
Some might ask “but what if I can’t improvise?” There are plenty of ways to begin to improvise. The simplest way is to listen and play. Just do it! Books like Jamey Aebersold’s “How to Play Jazz and Improvise” are also a great start.
Each of these ideas is drawn from the many fabulous musicians that I met with and studied during my research. They are ideas to help inspire you to get out there and try this exciting development in flute playing. Give it a try! Post some videos of your own performances and write some compositions.
1. Dan Stowell and Mark D. Plumbley, Characteristics of the beatboxing vocal style, Technical Report (London: Department of Electronic Engineering Queen Mary, University of London, February 19, 2008), 1