One of first classical flutist to apply the technique was Antonín Mach. In the first stage of the prestigious Prague Spring competition in 1959 he performed Allemande from J.S. Bach’s Partita for solo flute without any break or interruption for drawing natural breath, which shocked both the jury and the audience.
In the 1970s, Zdenek Bruderhans, included in his recitals transcriptions of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Niccolò Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo arranged for solo flute with circular breathing. Bruderhans demonstrated his skills in a number of courses and workshops that also took him to the United States and Europe, as well as in articles in music journals.
Circular Breathing in the History of the Flute
Works for the flute specifically calling for circulating were written in the second half of the 20th century. Due to the great variety of courses pursued by 20th-century composers and the vast body of their compositions, it is exceedingly difficult to identify the first piece written for the flute with the intention to use circular breathing. However, a handful of significant items in flute literature are certainly worth mentioning in this context.
One of the first pieces that require the performer resort to circular breathing is Drei Stücke written in 1973 by a German composer, conductor, cellist, and flutist, Konrad Lechner. It was dedicated to French flute virtuoso, Aurèle Nicolet, who included the work in his book Studium zum Spielen Neue Musik. Pro Musica Nova (1974). Nicolet included descriptions and guidelines for each individual performing technique, and for reading and applying them. The book also included Heinz Holliger’s Lied, another piece in which circular breathing is useful.
In 1974 a Hungarian flutist Istvan Matuz composed Studium 1/974 after several years of looking for new effects in sound and honing the circular breathing technique. He subsequently recorded the piece and released it on his The New Flute CD in 1992. Studium 1/974 is one of six pieces that Matuz summarised as follows:
“While composing Studium I realised that a flutist not only can but is simply obliged to compose for his instrument. Moreover, today new sounds and techniques are discovered more often than ever before. The results of that continuous experimentation and discovery should be made public in new compositions – études.”3
It is certainly one of the first pieces intended to make the performer apply circular breathing. Its essence is uninterrupted sustainment and modulation of a nearly nine-minute-long sound that provides the base for other acoustic effects. These effects are introduced nearly simultaneously and include singing while playing the instrument as well as the use of multiphonics.
Another piece worth mentioning is Projections (1992–93) composed by Gergely Ittzés, and dedicated to a Hungarian flutist Zoltán Gyöngyössy but inspired by Istvan Matuz. This virtuoso piece is based on the play of lights. The intervals, proportions, and timbres in Projections differ in the way apparent distances do in perspective, similar to the shadows cast by physical objects when the source of light moves. In the central section, the sound is infinitely sustained with circular breathing. At the same moment, successive tones, performed in pitch and rhythm set by the composer, are added on the base of the continuing sound. The effect is similar to that obtained by multi-reed instruments, such as the launeddas and the arghūl. In these instruments, one reed sustains the continuo, and the melody is played on other reeds. However, Ittzés achieved the effect using the single body of the contemporary flute.
A figure worth special attention in the context of applying the circular breathing technique while performing contemporary music is Robert Dick: an American flutist born in New York in 1950. He learned to play the flute as a child, his main teachers being Henry Zlotnik, James Pappoutsakis, Julius Baker, and Thomas Nyfenger. Robert Dick’s education prepared him to work as an orchestral musician, however, with time, he realised he should develop as a soloist and composer. Dick changed the perception of the sound of the flute, significantly expanding its capacity, and creating a huge number of new timbres. From the 1970s, when he started composing and improvising, he entertained the idea that contemporary instruments offer unlimited sound and expression capacities, stepping far beyond the traditional roles assigned to them in the music of previous periods. Dick made a vast impact on the development of the art of performing the flute through his educational pursuits, including a great deal of masterclasses in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Asia, and through his breakthrough book publications The Other Flute, Tone Development Through Extended Techniques and Circular Breathing for the Flutist, and two volumes of études: Flying Lessons.
An important resource in contemporary flute playing and circular breathing is his book Circular Breathing for the Flutist. His method is designed especially for flutists, and includes descriptions of the embouchure and coordination necessary to master proper air circulation.
Dick has composed many works that use permanent breath. One of the most attractive and most frequently performed pieces, spectacularly combining multiphonic music and circular breath, is Flames Must Not Encircle Sides (1980). Its uninterrupted sequence of various trills of specific timbre gives an illusion that the piece is being performed by multiple instrumentalists scattered around the room. It was included in the repertoire of the Internationaler Musikwettbewerb der ARD in 1990.
A composer who has exploited the unconventional sounds of the instrument is British flutist Ian Clarke. His works are inspired by film, oriental and jazz music, and he often intertwines these sounds between cantilena or improvised sections. One of his most famous pieces is The Great Train Race, which imitates the sounds of a train in motion. Of particular interest is the culminating moment, in which the composer calls for a mictrotonal trill. By indicating “circular breathe if able!”, Clarke only calls for circular breathing as an additional effect rather than a required technique.
Another expert in the circular breathing technique is a French flutist, Patrick Gallois, who made use of this skill in his transcripts of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for solo flute. The technique is also present in the compositions and course books of such flutists as Wil Offermans, Tilmann Dehnhard, and Rogier de Pijper.
Contemporary composers reaching for circular breathing more and more often in their works are notably Efraín Amaya, Dimitri Arnauts, Marcel Chyrzyński, Tim Mulleman, Jailton de Oliveira, Eduardo Luís Patriarca, Adam Porębski, Pablo Martínez Teutli, and Salvador Torré.
Jarząbek N. Świątek-Żelazna B. Infinity - circular breathing. JarmułaMusic 2020.
Realized under the scholarship program of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage