Sub-Bass and Contrabass Flutes (Sub-Contrabass and Double Contrabass)

Sub-Bass Flute (Double Contra-Alto or Sub-Contrabass)

Sub-Bass Flute in G range

Contrabass Flute (Double Contrabass)

Contrabass Flute range

These two Brobdingnagian flutes I will treat together, and are the lowest flutes out there.  The Contrabass Flute is the same pitch as the Contrabassoon.  The Sub-Bass is in G  and the Contrabass is in C.  These instruments are only seen in the largest of flute choirs and make more of a visual impact than an aural statement.  Depending on manufacturer, these instruments may or may not possess a low B foot.  I would advise against writing this note.  In fact, as of the writing of this treatise, I would advise against using these instruments altogether.

The sounds produced by these instruments are soft and barely audible.  Doubling would be advisable, but, as the availability of even one is a long shot, the possibility of two or more is nigh impossible.  Some performers employ so-called “beat-boxing” techniques.  These breathy, harmonic sounds are one of the only ways to project sound, but belie the true depth of the instrument.  Due to the immense size of these instruments, response is extremely slow, so fast passages are ill-suited for them.  Held notes are best for ensemble use, though not of too long a duration, as the player will tire quickly.

As for use, these instruments are probably best when doubled at the octave by another voice.  Their unique sound will only be apparent in the most minimal of situations.  Any voices other than flutes or light percussion, harp, or piano are likely to drown out the sound of the Sub-Bass and Contrabass.

Another factor to remember is that these instruments must be played standing or seated upon a tall stool.  It is advisable to keep them towards the back of the ensemble for this reason (which will in turn diminish the sound of the instrument… so in other words, it is probably best not to use them to begin with!).

A modern composition on the Sub-Bass Flute in G

Local TV spot showing the Contrabass and a small bit of the G Sub-Bass.

Bass Flute (Contrabass)

Bass Flute (Contrabass)

Bass Flute range

This instrument, two octaves lower than the C Flute and one octave lower than the Tenor (former Bass), has been growing in popularity over the past two decades.  It provides a true bass for the flute ensemble.  In pitch, it is equal to the Bassoon or Cello.  Its sound is rather weak but haunting.  Response is somewhat slow, so the fast passages associated with the C Flute are not advisable on the Bass Flute.

Scoring for this instrument must be done very lightly.  Higher flutes, light percussion, harp, and piano are preferred.  In octaves with the Tenor Flute, the Bass Flute is at its best.  A lightly played Bass or Alto Clarinet or even Horn could make effective combinations with the Bass Flute.

This instrument is still quite rare, but I can foresee a day in a few years when we will see them as commonly as the Tenor Flute – an unusual, but not endangered species of woodwind.

Three Philosophies, concerto for low flutes