Carolin Ratzinger

Breathing and writing in 20th century flute music

Breath changed its purpose and role radically in the course of 20th century Western concert music. Up until then, taking a breath was solely a necessity for sound production for wind instrument players, and an aid to shape musical phrases. Therefore, breath signs often served a pedagogical purpose, and were mostly written to show suitable musical spots to inhale, or sometimes in order to clarify phrase boundaries. Breath should always be taken as inaudible as possible and without any respiration noise. This changed in the last century when breath related noise became a popular means of composition. Working with extended technique sounds, composers explored the expressiveness of breath, and its compositional possibilities, not least because of influences of musical cultures where audible breath is interwoven with the expressiveness and meaning of the sounds of instruments, like for example in the spiritual Japanese shakuhachi music.

The study presented here examines the emancipation of breath in the writing of 20th century concert music focusing on the flute. “Breath-pieces” for flute are numerous and the instrument’s sound production and performer’s embouchure are suitable for manifold breath-actions, like for example whistle tones, jet whistles, noisy breathing in and out, or airy sounds. The study poses questions on the nature of symbols and signs that were developed or repurposed for the visualisation of breath; notation not only serves as playing instructions but often also includes a sensory, perceptual, historic, cultural component, that indicates to a performative outcome.

This study is based on manuscripts and printed editions of selected pieces in which breath plays an important part: Heinz Holliger (t)air(e), Luigi Nono Das Atmende Klarsein, Klaus Huber Ein Hauch von Unzeit, Younghi Pagh-Paan Rast in einem alten Kloster.

This paper addresses breath by analysing writing operations in musical sketches as the written remains of creative processes and its display in printed scores. Departing from the theoretical background of sketch studies of the last two decades (Schmidt 2015, Kinderman 2012, Hall/Sallis 2004) and interdisciplinary approaches (Czolbe 2014) that are based on the concepts of notational and operational iconicity of Sybille Krämer (2017), a comparative methodology is followed. Comparisons between sketches of various composers from pieces at different stages of completion are carried out. Two main categories of breath signs are identified: (1) as a modifier of instrumental sounds, and (2) as an independent sound element.

The results show the role of the operativity of musical writing in creating the necessary notation for taking breath from mere respiration to a musical quality in its own right.



Czolbe, Fabian (2014): Schriftbildliche Skizzenforschung zu Musik: Ein Methodendiskurs anhand Henri Pousseurs ‘Système des paraboles’, Berlin: Mensch & Buch.

Hall, Patricia and Friedemann Sallis (eds.) (2004): A Handbook to Twentieth-Century Musical Sketches, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kinderman, William (2012): The Creative Process in Music from Mozart to Kurtág, Champaign Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Krämer, Sybille (2017): “Why notational iconicity is a form of operational iconicity”, in: Angelika Zirka et al. (eds.): Dimensions of Iconicity, Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company, pp. 303–320.

Schmidt, Dörte (2015): “Komponieren als Antizipation. Entwurfspraktiken in der zeitgenössischen Musik und die Chancen einer vergleichenden Skizzenforschung”, in: Die Tonkunst 9/2, pp. 161–176.


University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, Austria

Is a researcher and musician. She is currently a PhD candidate in the DACH- project “Writing Music. Iconic, performative, operative, and material aspects in musical notation(s)”at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. Her present research interests revolve around the operativity of musical writing and notation. She holds a master degree in musicology from the University of Vienna, and she completed her studies in flute performance at the Vienna Conservatory. Moreover, she holds a master and a bachelor degree in music education – voice and instruments from the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. As a professional flautist, she is performing as a member of numerous chamber music ensembles and with symphony orchestras for more than 10 years in Europe and Asia.