Robert Dick’s invention, the Glissando Headjoint, is a sliding headjoint that opens up a whole host of new possibilities for the flute. It has recently been re-released and is now available through the website: www.glissando.biz.
While many flutists will have seen the YouTube videos of Dick performing Sliding Life Blues (or more recently, beatbox-flutist Greg Pattillo’s Barn Stomping video), there have been remarkably few pieces actually notated and published for the Glissando Headjoint.
The pieces discussed in this article, Líos na Gaoithe by Ian Wilson (available through Ricordi & Co, London) and Sea Echoes by John Buckley (available through the Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland), were both written for the Irish flutist William Dowdall. Dowdall has recorded these pieces and there are videos of his performances available on his website: www.williamdowdall.com. Both pieces were written in 2008 and they each take a different approach to exploring the new capabilities that the Glissando Headjoint makes possible.
The Challenges of Performing with the Glissando Headjoint
Whether improvising or performing notated compositions, there are a number of challenges that a flutist will have to face when using the Glissando Headjoint.
In the first place, the flutist is presented with the usual hurdles involved in adapting to any new headjoint. Headjoints are so varied in cut, style and material that even without the ability to slide, the Glissando Headjoint will inevitably feel different from the headjoint the flutist is accustomed to. The Glissando Headjoint also has its own unique idiosyncrasies. The metal arms that embrace the cheeks take some getting used to, and it may take time and experimentation to find a position that allows for maximum comfort and control. There is also a shift in the weight and balance of the instrument; the flute will feel a little more top-heavy than normal.
Descending glissandi are very simple: the flutist merely plays the note he/she wishes to start from and slides the Glissando Headjoint out of its home position (where it behaves as a traditional headjoint), by moving the body of the flute to the right. Ascending glissandi are slightly more complicated as they require the flutist to finger the destination note and begin the slide with the Glissando Headjoint extended to the position required for the starting note. The flutist must find the position on the slide in the same way that a trombonist does. This requires careful listening and practice on the part of the flutist.
1. The Glissando Headjoint in the home position
2. The Glissando Headjoint fully extended
What may not be immediately apparent about the Glissando Headjoint is that once it moves out of home position, the notes of the flute are no longer ‘in tune’ with each other. Sliding the headjoint out lengthens the tube, but the keys and tone holes remain in the same positions. This destroys the precise ratios that Boehm and subsequent flute makers have carefully worked out and refined. What this means is that when the Glissando Headjoint slides out, the notes move closer together in pitch.
Another challenge is that, using the regular fingerings, some notes will not slide all the way. Notes produced using fingerings that create an unbroken column of air (such as the flute’s first octave) will slide through the Glissando Headjoint’s full range of motion from home position to fully extended. However, notes that use vented fingerings (such as D2, Eb2 and many of the third octave notes) will often crack, or jump to strange, seemingly unrelated pitches or harmonics at some point during the slide. This happens because as the Glissando Headjoint slides out, the vents are no longer in their correct acoustic positions in relation to the length of the air column. Dick’s solution to this problem has been to provide a chart of alternate fingerings that will allow glissandi through the Glissando Headjoint’s full range of motion. The fingering chart also documents the distance that each note/fingering can slide.
Ian Wilson - Líos na Gaoithe (2008)
Wilson’s Líos na Gaoithe explores a remarkably large number of the new sonic possibilities made available by the use of the Glissando Headjoint. The piece opens with an eerie motif created by oscillating whistle tones, shimmering over a faint, sliding residual tone that slowly ascends and descends as the Glissando Headjoint is moved in and out. In the liner notes to Dowdall’s recording of Líos na Gaoithe, Wilson writes:
Líos na Gaoithe (pronounced liss na gwee-heh)… is the Irish language name of the place I first lived with my family when we came to the Republic of Ireland in 1999 (Lisnagea in English), a place on top of a hill near Carrick-on-Shannon. It means something like ‘wind of the fairy fort’ and this literary image was my way into the work which has resonances, in my mind at least, of a time and place both magical and more than a little isolated – one can understand why so many stories about fairies have come about, with nothing but fields, lanes and hedgerows as far as the eye could see, largely unpopulated by real people. The compositional intention is to create a mosaic of elements which, apprehended together, form a complete picture.
Wilson constructs this mosaic out of a wide array of the flute’s extended techniques, and extends them even further using the Glissando Headjoint. He combines glissandi with key clicks, flutter tonguing, tremolos, multiphonics and harmonics, and uses the entire range of the flute from low B up to the fourth octave F. The (almost entire) lack of traditional flute sounds evokes a magical, inhuman world.
Despite the radical nature of the techniques and sounds being used, Wilson’s notation is clear and eminently readable. He provides diagrams for the non-standard fingerings where they are required and is quite specific in his instructions without cluttering up the score. Glissandi are notated traditionally and all the ascending glissandi begin with the Glissando Headjoint fully extended, which takes some of the detective work out of locating the correct starting pitch.
For flutists who regularly use extended techniques this piece is not all that technically difficult. The biggest challenge in performing Líos na Gaoithe is finding the right pacing. A sense of mystery and stillness must be achieved, without allowing the music to become too disjointed or grind to a halt.
John Buckley - Sea Echoes (2008)
While Wilson has used the Glissando Headjoint to conjure wind, Buckley has chosen to evoke water. On the glissando.biz website, Dick refers to the Glissando Headjoint as enabling the flutist a “flexible, liquid approach to pitch,” and Buckley has exploited this fluidity in Sea Echoes. In the liner notes to Dowdall’s recording, Buckley writes:
As the title suggests, the work is inspired by the undulating shape of the waves, the sibilant whispers as they arrive and retreat from the shore and the distant suggestion of bird and whale song. Overall I have tried to create a sense of evocation and mystery rather than direct reference.
Buckley, in stark contrast to Wilson, barely uses any extended techniques beyond the slides achieved using the Glissando Headjoint. Apart from a few instances of flutter tonguing, Sea Echoes requires a ‘traditional’ flute sound throughout the entire piece. Líos na Gaoithe tends toward a timbral exploration of the Glissando Headjoint’s capabilities, however Sea Echoes is more melodic. The piece begins in the low register, with the Glissando Headjoint fully extended. As explained above, when the Glissando Headjoint is extended, the acoustics of the instrument are changed dramatically. In the low register all the notes will ‘work’ but the pitches sound much closer together which creates an exotic, ‘non-Western’ sounding scale.
Performing Sea Echoes requires a little more investigation on the part of the flutist than Líos na Gaoithe. For instance, there are descending glissandi from third octave notes that require alternate fingerings that are not included in the score. Fortunately, Dick’s fingering chart provides several options for these glissandi. Harmonics produced from second octave fingerings will also work. Each fingering option has a slightly different tone so it is up to the flutist to decide what will work and what will sound best. Sea Echoes also contains a number of ascending glissandi and specifically notated microtones that require the flutist to carefully work out fingerings and slide positions.
Buckley also takes a different approach to notation for the Glissando Headjoint. Like Wilson, he writes small, individual glissandi in a traditional manner. Large sections of the piece, however, are performed with the Glissando Headjoint fully extended or slowly moving, independent of the fingered notes. To notate this, Buckley has used a separate staff, above the flute staff, to indicate the position of the Glissando Headjoint. This means that unless the Glissando Headjoint is in its home position, the notes on the flute staff merely dictate the fingerings to be used and are no longer an indication of pitch sounded.
With composition for the Glissando Headjoint in its infancy, the full capabilities of this instrument are still unknown, and in fact we may only have seen the tip of the iceberg. Dick has announced, via Larry Krantz's FLUTE list (October 2011), that he will be publishing a collection of short pieces for flute with Glissando Headjoint in 2012. It will be fascinating to see what the inventor, the performer who knows the Glissando Headjoint's capabilities most intimately, will produce.
 Ian Wilson, liner notes to Breathe: New Notes for Flute from Ireland & New Zealand, Atoll ACD 111, CD, 2010.