Flute Like You’ve Never Heard Before
February 29th, 2016
Omaha, NE — Take a moment a listen to an instrument that might not be of this planet.
That is a hyperbass flute whose range goes down to negative E-1 on the musical scale, an octave below low C on a concert piano. There’s only two of them in the world and some of its tones can’t even be heard by humans. It’s one of many unique low flutes played by specialist Peter Sheridan. The Australian-based musician is in a one-week residency at UNO, culminating in workshops and performances both at UNO and Gretna Public Schools. His appearance is funded by the university’s Cultural Enrichment Fund.
When talking with KVNO’s Ben Rasmussen, Sheridan gave a quick rundown of several of the instruments he will play while in Omaha.
“So the alto flute goes four notes lower down to low G. Bass flute is one octave lower than that,” Sheridan said. “The contrabass flute that was developed in the late 70s is two octaves lower and that plays the same range as a cello. We keep going down from there. We’ve got the sub-contra or double-contrabass flute that goes right down to bottom C on the piano; a very interesting, dark, moody color. But, with all of these instruments, you can still hear that it’s a flute. You can still hear that jet whistle sound, the air being cut by the back wall…it’s very exciting. Your ears can’t fathom that it’s in completely the wrong octave. It would be like hearing a tuba in the piccolo range.”
Low flutes owe a lot of their repertoire to Sheridan. While studying for his doctorate at UCLA, he focused his dissertation on low flutes, but when he looked for diverse pieces to perform, he came up lacking.
“I found many abstract Eastern European pieces that are fine,” he said. “I have nothing against that style, it’s just something that I didn’t think was really highlighting the power of the instrument. One of their greatest assets is their lyricism. They absolutely sing when you get the right amount of air into the pipes because the pipes are bigger. So I started my quest to ask every composer I know…over the last 10 years, there’s been a sizable change in repertoire. It’s definitely grown and I think what’s helped is immediately recording those pieces, getting that music back out, and other composers hearing it. Now we have a cycle of happiness because more music comes in all the time.”
Sheridan said the main challenge of playing low flute compared to the traditional flute is breathing technique. Low flute calls for a slower release of air. Though blowing the same way, the quantity has to be released slower to catch the full phrase.
“I’ve worked with different tools,” he said. “There’s one called POWERbreathe that’s absolutely amazing. It’s a resistance device so as you breathe in you’re taking in less air, but you are training your lungs and intercostal muscles to really work. The more you do that, the more you will get when there is no resistance. A lot of air in, a little bit out is the concept.”
Peter Sheridan is currently in a week-long residency at UNO. This past weekend, he hosted several rehearsal and workshops inside the Strauss Performing Arts Center. On Tuesday morning, he hosts clinics and demos at Gretna High School before playing with the UNO Symphonic Wind Ensemble at 7:30 pm Tuesday night at Strauss. There, he will play the North American premiere of Houston Dunleavy’s “Mud Dance” with Dr. Christine Beard. On Wednesday, Sheridan will give a low flutes/clinic and demo to the entire UNO music student body before playing a recital at 7:30 pm with the Heartland Community Flute Choir featuring the world premiere of “Equinox” for solo alto flute and flute choir by Omaha composer James-Michael Sellers.
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