Preparing "Chatter" by Nicole Chamberlain - Spitting Encouraged

About a year and a half ago, Kelly and I were searching for duos to perform that were interesting and innovative. On Youtube, I came across a recording of graduate students from the Hartt School of Music performing Chatter. I thought that it was really challenging and that it would be appealing to audiences. The only problem –my flute training did not include a focus on extended technique. This has been on my flute ‘to-do” list for a long time and was eager for the opportunity to explore extended technique through Chatter

Nicole Chamberlain is an Atlanta based flutist and composer who wrote Chatter in 2011. Chamberlain explains the work as a conversation between two good friends. They begin to chit-chat, often finishing each others sentences and then settle down to discuss, more seriously, one of their problems. Chamberlain artfully uses beat-boxing techniques to mimic the pace and staccato nature of chatting and transitions to a more lyrical treatment for the more serious discussion.

I had always known that extended technique can expand the tonal possibilities of the flute and add limitless color to the flute’s range of timbres. I knew about the groundbreaking work of Robert Dick in revolutionizing the flute sound. I just didn’t think that I could ever do it well, so I shied away from studying it deeper, despite my desire to explore it further.

To prepare for Chatter, I visited Nicole Chamberlain’s website where she posted a tutorial on how to create the sounds that were required for her piece. This is also where she shared the program notes for the piece. This was an amazing resource and so helpful to learning the piece. In general, Chamberlain’s site is really great. She writes about each of her compositions and often has audio examples as well. In addition, her music can be purchased directly from the website.

I also listened to a lot of music by Greg Pattillo, the beat-boxing flutist. Pattillo was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music and studied with Joshua Smith, but quickly branched out into making beat-boxing a regular part of flute playing. While Greg Pattillo is not the only flutist who beat-boxes, he is credited with bringing the technique to the flute community. In fact, his work, Three Beats for Beatbox Flute, was commissioned by the NFA (National Flute Association) for 2011 Convention High School Flutist Competition. Here Pattillo is performing the first movement

In his solo interpretation of Peter and the Wolf, Pattillo uses many techniques that helped me to understand how Chatter worked. In addition, he and his colleagues in Project Trio (flute, cello, bass) have reimagined and updated the story of Peter and the Wolf. This was also a great resource for study. 

Once I carefully listened to the recordings, I had to face the fact that I actually had to try to make these sounds. Family members looked at me quizzically as they walked by my practice room. My young flute students, although curious, did not know what to make of it. My two cats pricked their ears with alert caution whenever I worked on Chatter. Despite these mild recriminations, I soldiered on. Here is what I took away from the experience:

  1. You will spit - a lot - and that’s OK.
  2. You will contort your face and feel silly while you are doing it.  I spent a lot of time looking at the shape of my mouth in the mirror as I experimented to find the best sound. Usually, the more exaggerated the syllable, the better the sound effect.
  3. Transitioning between beat-boxing and traditional tone was the most difficult. Once I got the hang of producing the sound I wanted, the real challenge began. I spent a lot of time on the sections of the piece that alternated between beat-boxing and traditional tone. It took a while to coordinate my tongue and embouchure to transition quickly to and from the beat-boxing. 
  4. Sometimes you need an extra pair of ears to evaluate the sound. Kelly, who has way more experience than I do in this area, was very helpful and provided honest feedback on my progress. She made some great suggestions to tweak some of the sounds I was trying to create. 
  5. Your idea of what good tone is will evolve and change. When I started learning this piece, I had to drop all of my expectations regarding what good tone sounded like. Furthermore, my definition of good tone was trapped in the 19th – 20th centuries and needed to be re-framed to accommodate all of the possibilities that extended technique and beat-boxing afforded me. 
  6. Once you open yourself to the possibilities, you will never look back. There is just nothing like the excitement you feel when something this challenging comes together. What’s next - Glissando Headjoint anyone? Something like Robert Dick and Greg Pattillo improvising