By Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte
Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte. All rights reserved.

Chapter IV


Biography and Background of the Composer

Mario Davidovsky is best known for his work in the field of electronic music, with special recognition for his pieces combining live instrumental performance with recorded electronic sound, such as the ten Synchronisms. He has also composed numerous acoustic works, including his recent Concertino for violin and orchestra for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Davidovsky was born on March 4, 1934, near Buenos Aires, Argentina. During his early years, he studied violin, composition, theory, and history. He had lessons with Teodoro Fuchs, Erwin Leuchter, Ernesto Epstein, and principally with Guillermo Graetzer. He then graduated from the University of Buenos Aires. In 1958 he studied at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood with Aaron Copland, and through his interactions with some of the other composers, developed an interest in electronic music. It was during his time at Tanglewood that he learned from Milton Babbitt of the forthcoming electronic music studio at Columbia University. In 1960, he moved to New York City, where he has lived since.

Davidovsky's many honors include two Guggenheim Fellowships (from 1961–63), two Rockefeller Fellowships, a Koussevitsky Fellowship, the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, the 1971 Pultizer Prize for Synchronisms No. 6 for Piano and Electronic Sounds, a Naumberg Award, and the 1994 National SEAMUS Award. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Letters in 1982. Davidovsky has also received many commissions, including those from such major institutions as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Juilliard String Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, the Pan American Union, the Fromm Foundation, the Koussevitsky Foundation, Speculum Musicae and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Mario Davidovsky has taught at the University of Michigan, the DiTella Institute of Buenos Aires, the Manhattan School of Music, Yale University, the City University of New York (CUNY), and at Columbia University, where he directed the Columbia Electronic Music Center. He was the Composer-in-Residence at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1981 and 1994. In 1994 he joined the music department at Harvard University, where he teaches still. Since 1971, Davidovsky has served as director of the Composers Conference at Wellesley College.


Mario Davidovsky's Synchronisms No. 1 was written in 1963, and was the first of ten Synchronisms that Davidovsky wrote for electronic tape and an acoustic instrument. The piece was premiered at Columbia University in May of 1963 by flutist Harvey Sollberger, who also made the first recording of the work, on Columbia Records. The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio, where Davidovsky did much of his composing, was a focal point for electronic music composers internationally, and much electroacoustic music came out of this studio.

Synchronisms No. 1 holds the historical distinction of being the first electroacoustic piece for flute. More specifically, it is the first piece written for acoustic solo flute and electronic tape. Electronic pieces using the flute in some fashion existed before this, such as Otto Luening's pieces that used flute as a sound source for his electronic compositions; the flute was not played live simultaneously with the tape in those cases, however. It is for its place in history, along with its intrinsic musical value, that I've chosen Synchronisms No. 1 as part of my analysis of electroacoustic music for flute. The set of Synchronisms as a whole, which total ten in number, have afforded Davidovsky distinction as a composer. It is as a composer of electroacoustic music in particular that he is lauded. The most recent one of the set is Synchronisms No. 10 for Guitar and Tape, composed in 1992.

Synchronisms No. 1 combines Davidovsky's conventional musical upbringing with his affinity for the aesthetics of electronics and his adventurous spirit. While the piece certainly extends the normal expectations for the flutist, many more conventional musical devices are found in the piece. The form itself can be described as a three-part form, loosely an ABA form with a short coda. When referring to locations in the piece, I will have to rely on system and page numbers of the McGinnis and Marx edition. [70]  There are no measure numbers or times given, although there are dotted barlines that will aid reference within each system. It also can be useful to refer to the start time of the tape as notated in the score; e.g. Start 1, Start 2, etc.


Synchronisms No. 1 is a three-part form, loosely A B A, with contrasting styles and textures. The third section is concluded with a short coda. The first and third sections are both primarily lyrical and legato, and the tape is less present. Each of these sections begins with a held note, and they share some melodic and rhythmic motives. The second section is louder, more pointillistic and disjunct, and the tape plays a much more prominent role. This section represents a build toward a climax, which happens at the end of the section. Each section builds to a climax and then quickly tapers off, ending on the notes C to E (in different registers each time). Fermatas occur at eight strong locations throughout the piece, usually at the beginning or end of a phrase. Cadences occur when a flute note is held or the tape stops.

Section 1 lasts from the beginning of the piece through the third system of page 2. It begins with a held Bb, the length of which is up to the performer's discretion. This is the only piece in my analysis of electroacoustic pieces for flute that begins with the flute; each of the others begins with a few seconds of tape, after which the flute joins in. It is only possible for the flute to start first in Davidovsky's piece because the tape start and stop times are manual. Section 1 can be broken up into three phrases. The first phrase lasts from the beginning until the held G# in the middle of the second system; this is where the tape is stopped for the first time. The second phrase begins after the G# and continues until the first system of page 2; the last note of the phrase is the altissimo note, which is simultaneous with the last note in this tape phrase. The last phrase begins with the key slaps and continues until the next stop in the tape, at the end of the third system of page 2. Each of these phrases has the characteristic of building to a high note climax at the end of the phrase. The first and third phrases follow the high note by a brief softer note as an anticlimax (the same gesture as ends each section). In most of Section 1, the tape part is accompanimental. On the first page of the piece, the phrases are slurred in groups of two to twelve notes. The dynamic changes are somewhat gradual, especially as compared to the second section. Some important pitch material is introduced in this section — the Bb to C# at the very beginning returns in Section 3, and the wave-like contours of the melodic lines set up a melodic pattern that is continued throughout the piece. The third and last phrase of the section is much more percussive and pointillistic, with key slaps (both with and without air), and more tongued notes than the previous two phrases. This phrase is also much louder, and represents a build to the cadence of the section at the end of page 2, third system. The section ends with the notes C to E.

Section 2 lasts from page 2, system 4, until page 4, end of system 2. This is the highest energy section, containing angular and sharp melodic motion, crisp articulations, predominantly loud dynamics, and the most altissimo notes. The flute begins by itself, and in this first phrase it presents a triplet motive as well as extreme and sudden dynamic changes. This first phrase begins low and gradually moves upward, ending on four repeated top register Cs. The tape enters on page 3, system 1 at the end. The tape reiterates the triplet pattern, and both it and the flute have a very textured sound at this point (the tape is somewhat low and dirty sounding, the flute is fluttering). The phrase begins very quickly, and slows down at the end of the second system. After this, the fast notes are broken up by short rests, the melodic contour is very jagged, many notes are ornamented by grace notes, and the dynamics change frequently. The character here is dissonant, unstable, disrupted, irregular, and has a chaotic energy. At the top of page 4, the motion increases, and the interruptions cease to allow the music to catapult toward the climax. The flute and the tape both crescendo and accelerando throughout the first system of page 4, and the tape seems to take over the flute. Finally, the climax of the piece is reached on three top register Cs, followed by a flutter-tongued E in the flute (note again, the ending of the section on C — E). The flute ends, allowing the tape to finish the section in a slow decrescendo.

After the tape has ended the previous section and has stopped, the flutist begins Section 3 (page 4, system 3). The metronome marking here is 72 to the eighth note, much slower than the beginning of the piece. The section is lyrical, legato, and because the tape does not enter until the end of the section, is quite flexible. Davidovsky has marked the section Piu lento — freely. The character is much like the first section, in the use of legato lines with smooth contours, softer dynamics, and some shared pitch and rhythmic material. This section also gradually moves away from the soft dynamics toward louder ones, reaching ultimately a ffff on the last system. As has occurred in the previous two sections, the climax is followed by a shorter anticlimactic statement.

It has been suggested that the last phrase of the piece represents a coda to the A B A form. Supporting this theory is the use of the last altissimo note to end the third section, and the held G; the held note represented the beginning of both the first and third sections. Also notable is the a tempo marking over the held G, and the metronome marking which brings us back to the original tempo, quarter note = 50. It is also possible to see the last phrase as simply the denouement to the third section and to the piece, a concluding statement.

Electronic Sounds

The tape part for Synchronisms No. 1 was recorded first on a 7 1/2 inch, 2-track stereo, reel-to-reel tape. The piece was composed, of course, before computers were available for generating sound. The sounds were generated through the use of oscillators, sine-wave generators, white noise sources, and tapes of electronic sound. The sounds were then manipulated through ring modulators, mixers, filters, and reverberators, and the speeds and amplitudes were carefully controlled. Davidovsky then went about splicing, re-recording, mixing, and otherwise altering the material to come up with the final version of the taped sounds of Synchronisms No. 1.

The tape part contains many sounds that bear a resemblance to the flute sound, including whistles, bells, quickly moving high notes, and dirty sounds akin to the flute's flutter. While there are no literal repetitions between the flute and tape, the tape often imitates melodic fragments of the flute part. The tape very often mimics the legato or staccato character of the flute line, and the contours of the melodies. Sometimes the flute and tape share exact pitches. For example, the first entrance of the tape is on the note D, which the flute duplicates immediately after the tape states this note. The second entrance of the tape similarly matches the flute pitch, this time a B, which then moves to an Eb in both parts.

At the end of Section 1, the tape has its first solo, which serves as the cadence of the section and the transition into the following section. The tape's fourth entrance is the most striking exchange between the flute and tape — both voices are doing triplets, leaving some notes out, which are filled in by the other voice. As Section 2 progresses, the tape becomes a stronger and more independent voice, and finally takes over the flute at the climax at the top of page 4. The tape again ends the section with a solo, this time much longer. The last entrance of the tape is at the very end, and the tape has a brief solo line while the flute holds a long G. The sounds in the tape part interact very intricately with the flute, and good synchronization is key to a successful performance.

Pitch / Intervals

Davidovsky uses all twelve pitch classes and all interval classes in Synchronism No. 1. At first glance, it may seem that the piece is a twelve-tone piece, but further inspection reveals that it is not, although the influence of serial composers is clearly seen. The opening phrase utters each of the twelve pitches once, without any repetition of a pitch (except for a C#). This method of using a stream of pitches without repetition occurs often throughout the piece: at the end of the first page; on page 2, third system; on page three, second system; on page 4, first system, fifth system, and sixth system. But these streams of pitches do not undergo direct repetition, retrograde, inversion, or any other typically serial device. What we do see is that certain intervals tend to be favored, such as minor seconds and the corresponding Major sevenths and minor ninths. Also, certain pitches are favored. Significantly, there are notes that are emphasized by accent, fermata, flutter-tonguing, key slaps, or length; the most notable are C and C#. These two are related by half-step, which supports the emphasis on minor 2nds. The other two notes that receive attention are G and G#. Interestingly, in conventional terms, these represent the dominant of the C and C#; there is a subtle play between these two points of tonal focus throughout the piece. Each section ends with the note C moving to an E, that is moving the tonal focus toward C. Also, the very last phrase of the piece begins with a twelve-second long G, and then the phrase ends with a C moving to an E; the result is a subtle outlining of a C Major chord. More appropriately, though, these pitches serve as a tonal reference for the piece. There is also the interval of a tritone between the C# and G. At the end of the first system of the piece, a fluttered C is emphasized, and the next long note is a G# (middle of the second system). At the top of page 3, the flute states repeated high Cs, followed by a fluttered G#.

With intervals, the occurrence of minor seconds, as well as the related Major 7ths and minor 9ths, is emphasized through phrasing and grace notes. Most of the melodic fragments in the piece are between four and thirty-seven notes long, and in many of them, the first and last note of the fragment are a minor second apart. For example, notice the held C# on page 1, system 1; the next emphasized note is a C. At the top of page 2, the lowest note is a C#, which is followed by an altissimo note; Davidovsky has placed the X notehead on the fourth register D. The second section begins with the note F, and ends with the note E. At the end of the piece, the tape part conspicuously ends with a movement from A# to B. Clearly, the minor second is an important motive in this piece. Also, almost all of the grace notes ornament a note a Major 7th away.

Aside from the intervallic repetition, some melodic fragments are repeated, especially from the first to the third section. For example, on page 1, system 3, the first motive is repeated exactly in Section 3, page 4, system 6, just after the altissimo note. Also, the opening notes of the piece, Bb to C#, are stated again at the beginning of Section 3, as the fourth and fifth note of the section. Even though the repetitions may be subtle, they are used carefully to create unity without direct repetition.


Davidovsky has provided metronome markings for all parts of the piece, but has not provided barlines. The rhythm throughout has some flexibility, although the rhythmic motives should be played accurately, maintaining the relationships between the lengths of the notes. In Section 1, the quarter note pulse is divided into triplet and quintuplet patterns, and mostly is beamed according to beats. There are a great variety of rhythms, some of them very complex and irregular. There is almost no time at all when a pulse is felt during the piece, except momentarily when the tape enters at Start 4. The rhythmic motives help to provide contrast between the first and third sections and the second section. In the first and third, the rhythms are more varied and complex, and have less regularity. In the second section, the notes are mostly as fast as possible, with rests breaking up the rhythmic repetition at times. This regular and driving rhythm propels the piece toward the climax in a way that varied and irregular rhythms cannot.

Sections 1 and 3 share some rhythmic material. There is again the use of triplets, as well as fermatas over some notes. The rhythm in Section 3, (page 4, system 4, starting just after the dotted barline), is repeated exactly in the first Section (page 1, system 3, just after the dotted barline). Also, the melodic motive that is found at the beginning of the third system of page 1, as mentioned above, is repeated exactly at the end of the piece (page 4, system 6, after the second dotted barline). An interesting rhythmic detail can be noticed in the triplets at Start 4. The first triplet is accented on the first note, but all subsequent triplets are accented on the second note of the triplet.

An important aspect of the rhythm in this piece is Davidovsky's use of accelerandos and decelerandos. These are indicated by grouping notes under a beam, and then gradually increasing or decreasing the size of the beam. If the beam begins thin and becomes thicker, that indicates begin slowly and then to accelerate the notes; a beam that starts thick and becomes thinner indicates that the performer start as fast as possible and gradually slow down. This notation allows for an increase in speed without the complexity of continually changing note values. It is more appropriate than simply writing an accelerando over conventionally notated eighth notes, because the implication is that the group of notes is becoming faster, rather than thinking of each note as being faster than the previous one. A subtle distinction, to be sure. The exact speeds of the rhythmic gestures is left up to the performer, who will need to practice the tempos with the tape going (when the flute and tape play together) to ensure that synchronization is correct.

Register / Range

Davidovsky covers the entire range of the flute in this piece, sometimes over a very short period of time. On page 4, system 1, the flute moves from a low C up through the registers up to a fourth register C in just a couple of seconds. All of the registers are used regularly, although the middle register weighs a little heavier than the others. The flute leaps through the registers with agility, and often leaps as much as two or three octaves (see the first motive of page 2). To this day, it requires more use of altissimo register notes than almost any other piece in the flute literature. The altissimo notes are all notated with an X notehead, which implies to play as high as possible, yet they are all notated on specific pitches, and these specified pitches change. It has been suggested to perform the four occurrences of altissimo register notes as follows: the first as a C#, the second as a D, the third as a group of Ebs, the fourth and last as an E. This contour would imply a progression that may be more appropriate than playing all of them as the same note.

Dynamics / Texture

The dynamics in this piece are extreme, with a continuum of clearly marked dynamics between pppp and ffff. The median of dynamics is about a forte. On the loud end, forte is called for fourteen times, fortissimo nineteen times, fff twelve times and ffff four times. The softs are less unusual: fifteen calls for piano, twenty for pianissimo, three for ppp, and three for pppp. All of the dynamics are carefully and precisely notated, with little room left for question. The place where the most change happens is in Section 2, especially on the fourth system of page 2, where the dynamics change on almost every note. The least change happens in the second half of Section 2, where is it primarily loud. The long stream of beamed notes at the top of page four all come under the same ffff dynamic marking. Section 3 contains the softest gestures, although it does climb to fff and ffff more than once.

As a flutist, it is difficult to execute a truly ffff dynamic, as well as a pppp, compared to what other instruments may be capable of. It is also difficult to make audible differences between all of the dynamics, especially with the small dynamic range available on the instrument. As performers, we can exaggerate our dynamics as much as possible.


The notation of Synchronisms No. 1 is a mix of conventional and contemporary notation. There are tempo markings and beaming according to the beat. There are no barlines, except that there are dotted vertical lines that seem to imply barlines, but without any apparent function. Accidentals apply only to the note they precede. Two staves are provided to notated tape cues for the flutists; this is probably unnecessary, and one would have been sufficient and would have made the score shorter and page turns less of a problem. The altissimo notes receive an X notehead, depicting that the flutist should play as high as possible; there is also special notation for flutter-tonguing, undefined grace notes, and key clicks, all of which are explained in the score. Some large groups of notes are beamed together; it is possible that this indicates to play the notes as quickly as possible, although the score does not indicate this.

Extended Techniques

Davidovsky uses extended techniques in Synchronisms No. 1 to create changes in texture, to emphasize formal divisions, and to emphasize certain notes. He uses flutter-tonguing, altissimo register, accelerating and decelerating passages, tongue and key clicks, key clicks, grace note groups and extremely short grace notes. The flutter-tonguing was more of a novelty in 1963 than it is now, and many flutists had trouble fluttering short notes or moving between flutter-tonguing and normal notes quickly. This tool is used nine times in the piece, and occurs in every section (page 1, system 1; page 1, system 3; page 2, system 2; page 2, system 4, page 3, system 1, page 3, system 3, page 3, system 4, page 4, system 2, and page 4, system 5). The most difficult instance of this occurs on page 3, system 4, in which the flutter-tongued notes alternate with extremely fast grace notes at a fff. This group alternates with a group of soft notes, so the changes throughout this system are extremely fast.

The use of altissimo register is more extensive than almost any piece in the flute literature. Each section of the piece uses at least one altissimo note; in fact, exactly one occurs on each page (page 1, system 2; page 2, system 1; page 3, system 2; and page 4, system 6). Considering that there are only four occurrences of these extremely high notes, their presentation and location becomes very important. The first one occurs at the end of the first true phrase, and coincides with the first stopping of the tape. In this case, it helps in clearly ending the phrase, and creating a phrase shape that begins low and moves upward, gaining energy. The second occurrence, at the beginning of page 2, ends another phrase and coincides with the next stopping of the tape. The third occurrence uses four of these notes in succession, and occurs in the second section (page 3, system 2). This time it serves to launch the flute and tape into the final drive toward the cadence. The last occurrence is near the very end of the piece, (page 4, system 6), and this time serves to begin the end of the piece. Like all of the sections, this section grew in energy and momentum, in this case, toward the altissimo note. The following notes are a withdrawal from this climactic note. The altissimo notes can be difficult to play, especially the Eb4, E4, and F4, and one should make sure that the stopper in the head joint is exactly where it should be. In order to successfully produce these, the embouchure must be very relaxed, and a very large amount of fast air must be used. Part of making these notes successful will be daily practice.

The accelerating and decelerating groups of notes are not exactly an extended technique so much as they are an unconventional notation. Still, they can be difficult to execute by the performer, and careful pacing is required. When accelerating, the key is to start slowly enough and not speed up too quickly, so that there is room at the end for continued acceleration. The deceleration should be approached in the same way, leaving room to continue and not reach the desired ultimate tempo too soon.

After Harvey Sollberger premiered this piece in 1963, he and Davidovsky agreed that the tongue + key clicks and the key clicks should all be done the same way. They discovered that the key clicks alone did not resonate loudly enough to be effective. So, when performing, one should perform the notes with both of the denotations the same way — that is, with the key being slapped at the same time as a fast, wide stream of air is blown into the flute. These occur on page 2, system 1; page 2, systems 2-3; page 3, system 2; page 4, systems 1 and 4.

On the third page of the piece, in the last system, Davidovsky has indicated groups of grace notes with X note heads. The grace notes are to be played as quickly as possibly. When there is only one grace note, the result is that the grace note sounds more like a method of attacking the note it is attached to, rather than an independent note. The grace note groups also sound ornamental, rather than pitched, and are included partly because of their similarity to some of the tape sounds.

The extended techniques in this piece are not special effects; rather, they each serve an important musical function, and simply represent an extension of the flute's expressive possibilities.


Synchronizing the tape and flute parts is critical, but not difficult. The flutist will need someone (preferably who reads music) to start and stop the tape (or CD, if it's been transferred to CD). If the flutist follows the tempo markings carefully, the timing works out perfectly and the sections end together. It will take many listenings to the tape, as well as practice with the tape, to develop pacing that works out well. Harvey Sollberger's and Samuel Baron's performances are accurate in this regard, and study of these recordings can aid in good timing. There is still a great deal of flexibility in the flute part, especially if the flutist is familiar with the unwritten details of the tape part and can match the tape throughout the phrase. Davidovsky's experience regarding synchronization in this piece was quite positive: "What I found is that when the performer memorized the tape, they can take liberties, take rubatos, and can compensate because the tape will be there inexorably." [71]

Approach to Practice and Performance

One of the more difficult aspects of performing this piece is the purely technical one — the flutist is often directed to play a motive as fast as possible. In order for this speed to be fast enough to ensure timing with the tape, it often has to be very fast indeed. And, if the flutist has the ability to do it very quickly, this can lend more flexibility so that other parts within a given section may go more slowly. The best technique for developing speed in these sections is to practice the notes slowly and speed up, in the conventional style, but also to group the notes into reasonable sizes. Typically, a good size would be between two and four notes per subgrouping, and in this piece, many of the groups divide well into threes. For example, the beamed group at the top of page 4, can be grouped entirely into groups of three notes, with the exception of the last seven notes. The last three notes are all fourth register Cs, and should be grouped together. That leaves the previous four notes to be grouped. Grouping in this manner helps very much in organizing the pitches and not only being able to play them cleanly, but also to pace the motive well.

It is important in this piece to practice slowly, listening to the sound of every note, and making sure every note speaks well. The high speed of many of the notes can be dangerous; flutists may tend to play the fastest notes less cleanly and accurately than the slower ones if not practiced slowly often enough. Also, playing slowly will familiarize the student with the sounds and the relationships between the pitches, thereby making the relationship between flute and computer clearer. The flute and computer share many pitches, and an intimate understanding of this is essential. Also, the notes will need to be practiced carefully at varying dynamic levels. The flutist should be able to play a series of ten different dynamic levels on a given pitch, since the piece calls for ten different levels to be executed precisely (ffff, fff, ff, f, mf, mp, p, pp, ppp, pppp). It can be difficult to do this without distorting the pitch or going out of tune, so work with a tuner, along with an attentive ear, will help.

Footnotes  (See Bibliography.)

[70] Mario Davidovsky, Synchronisms No. 1 (New York: McGinnis & Marx), 1966.

[71] Mario Davidovsky, interview with Bruce Duffie.

Electroacoustic Music for the Flute by Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte.
Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte. All rights reserved.