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The contrabass flute is one of the rarer members of the flute family. Typically seen in flute ensembles, it is sometimes also used in solo and chamber music situations. Its range is similar to that of the regular concert flute, except that it is pitched two octaves lower; the lowest performable note is two octaves below middle C (the lowest C on the cello). Many contrabass flutes in C are also equipped with a low B, (in the same manner as many modern standard sized flutes are.) Contrabass flutes are only available from select flute makers.
Sometimes referred to as the "gentle giant" of the flute family, the contrabass retains the facility for trills, as found elsewhere in the flute world. Ease of arpeggiation is moderate and thus equivalent to the rest of the flute family. The upper registers (middle C and above) lack the strength of tone found in its cousins; the strongest register is arguably that between G2 and G3. Though the upper register can lack strength, its sensitivity and lyricism can be used to great effect; and a good instrument can readily reach the high A or B (above middle C). The 'haunting' low register (below G2) has similar qualities to the bassoon, and the low B1 (three octaves below middle C) can carry well with an experienced performer.
The contrabass flute requires much greater volume of air to produce sound than most other wind instruments, and composers who write for this instrument might consider more frequent breaks in phrasing than one would when writing for smaller flutes. The contribution that the addition of the contrabass flute has made to the composition of flute choirs is enormous, offering at last the grounding of a true and deep bass sound. A wider, slower air stream is needed to produce a solid tone.
Contemporary musicians using the contrabass flute include Paige Dashner Long, Andy Findon, Laura Hyder, Madeleine Bischof, Pierre-Yves Artaud, Matthias Ziegler, Stefan Keller, Ned McGowan, Peter Sheridan, Patricia García, Sérgio Morais, David Lamont, and Vinny Golia, who also plays all the other sizes of flute, and has recorded with it on the CD Music for Like Instruments: The Flutes, in a quartet with three other flutists. Due to the price and rarity of this instrument, few people have explored this instrument.
The contrabass flute in C is produced by Jean-Yves Roosen (France), by the Japanese firm of Kotato & Fukushima, Eva Kingma, Pearl, Di Zhao, and Christian Jäger from Munich. Jupiter flutes has created a student model for flute ensembles. Kotato & Fukushima sell their double contrabass flutes for US$24,000.
Contrabass flutes have also been made from PVC pipe, by the Dutch flute maker Jelle Hogenhuis. It is reported that while it might be thought that an instrument made from PVC would be inferior, the PVC allows for a louder instrument if the wall thickness is kept small. PVC also permits more rough treatment, as the plastic instrument can be bumped without denting.
New solo and chamber music is being composed almost every day for this instrument, and performer Peter Sheridan has commissioned numerous works from composers around the world, including: Alex Shapiro, Patrick Neher, Vinny Golia, Bruce Lawrence, Adrienne Albert, and Sheridon Stokes. As a virtuoso solo instrument, even a few concertos have been composed for the contrabass flute. Catherine McMichael composed a concerto for low flutes and orchestra in 2006 entitled 'Three Philosophies', in which one of the movements features the contrabass flute. In April 2008 the well structured concerto "Bantammer's Swing" for contrabass flute and chamber orchestra by Ned McGowan was premiered in Carnegie Hall. In 2010, the 'Lyric Concerto' for contrabass flute and strings was commissioned by Sheridan from the late Australian composer Bruce Lawrence. 'Nola' by composer Benjamin Yusapov, was commissioned by the International soloist Matthias Ziegler, for multiple Low Flutes and orchestra. Numerous composers have written for the contrabass flute, including Wil Offermans, Robert Dick, Thomas Seelig, Andrew Downes, Catherine McMichael, Phill Niblock, and Günter Steinke, Juan Cerono, Nicolás Medero Larrosa, Fernando Curiel, Mariano Rocca, Angeles Rojas, Jorge Chikiar, Esteban Sebastiani, Valentin Pelisch, Ezequiel Menalled to name only a few.
Furthermore, the contrabass flute is being utilized more in the flute choir with most newer pieces including a part for the instrument. Though for many pieces, the part is either a duplicate or simplification of the bass flute part, some of the newest repertoire includes an independent contrabass flute part. Composers of such pieces include Peter Senchuk, Toby Caplan-Stonefield, Lawrence Ink, Phyllis Avidan Louke, and Judy Nishimura, among others.
One is a "contrabass flute in G," pitched a fourth below the bass flute and an octave lower than the alto flute; thus, this is technically a contra-alto flute. Another instrument is the subcontrabass flute in G, pitched one octave below the contra-alto flute, or two octaves below the alto flute in G. Kotato & Fukushima also produce a "subcontrabass flute in C", or double contrabass flute, pitched a full octave below the contrabass flute.