Surprising Natural Phenomena

16/4/00 for flugelhorn, didgeridoo & minidisk

Composer’s note

Take a hollow tube about a meter-and-a-half long and about three centimetres in diameter; anything will do, bamboo, drainpipes, a termite-hollowed branch… Apply loosely-pursed lips to one end & give a good hard puff. With luck & perseverance you’ll get a note. By tightening the lips & perhaps blowing a little harder, you’ll find a couple of higher notes; depending on the exact shape of your tube, you may or may not get pitches which lie on the harmonic series. Circular-breathing is a trick, a knack; any good teacher will show you. Once you get all this together, try singing at the same time as playing. Behold the miracle of the didgeridoo.

Not, incidentally a word from any Australian aboriginal language, but an onomatopoeic coining by whitefellas. Neither is the principle of the circularly-blown trumpet confined to the Australian continent. The musical resonance of a hollow tube under excitation by a lip-reed is a natural phenomenon which has been rediscovered many times.

Fast-forward to the age of steam; see the pistons, the valves and tubing, new ways of working metal. Here we have the flugelhorn, a valved post-horn inspired by the new piston-valved cornets & trumpets. By precisely controlling the internal dimensions of the tube, and allowing the player to instantaneously vary the length, we have an instrument capable of a chromatic scale over several octaves. Miles Davis found a place for it in the jazzer’s gig bag, and it’s always had a chair in the brass band. (Still just a tube, though.)

The piece grew out of the possibilities of the given instruments and electronic media. Singing through the didgeridoo works best on the notes of the harmonic series; this inspired the raga-like opening. Passages using circular breathing generate rhythmic ostinati, punctuated by the few other pitches available.

Some of the flugelhorn’s material is inspired by it’s affinities with jazz, in other places it seems to be trying to get back to it’s roots, to inhabit the same world as the didgeridoo.

The electronic material is a free fantasy on the material played by the two acoustic instruments; greatly sped up or slowed down, chopped up, looped & reassembled into a new shape.


Commissioned by Jo Baker (flugelhorn) and Carol Jarvis (didgeridoo) and first performed by them on 16/6/2000.

Duration ~10′