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Divergent Geminate and Multiple Reed Pipes

Here we can go back into Antiquity and to archaeological finds such as the silver pipes of Ur of the Chaldees, and to the aulos of the ancient Greeks, and with these divergent pipes, one can play in two parts, or play a melody on one pipe against a drone on the other. Divergent because the pipes are separate and are held, one in each hand like a large <. All these divergent reed pipes are of cylindrical bore and therefore with a lower pitch than one might expect from their length and of limited range. This is a fundamental matter of musical acoustics: cylindrical pipes played with a reed sound around an octave lower than a flute of the same length and instead of overblowing an octave (like a flute or an expanding-bore reed instrument) they overblow a twelfth (an octave plus a fifth, eg C to g), which means that unless the player has an unnatural number of fingers, or the instrument has the keywork of a clarinet, there is a gap in the compass between the top note of the fundamental range and the lowest note of the overblown range.

The silver pipes from Ur, excavated by Leonard Woolley from a ‘private tomb’ in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in the 1920s, are the oldest example that we have of divergent geminate reed pipes, dating from around 2450 BCE. They have clearly been deliberately broken, ‘killed’ in ritual terms (a not uncommon practice with tomb finds), and each pipe was both bent and broken into short sections so that their reconstruction into playable tubes is controversial, especially as it seems probable than some sections may be missing. Dimensions vary in the literature, even the bore diameter has been variously stated to be 3mm and also 6mm, and the number of fingerholes in each ‘reconstructed’ pipe has varied from three to five; there does at least seem to be a general consensus that there were two pipes. We cannot know what reed types were used to sound them, whether they were played with single reeds or with double reeds, nor whether they would have been held divergently, one in each hand, or tied together as parallel pipes to be fingered across the pair, though divergent seems to have been the more probable from the probable positions and numbers of the fingerholes. The reeds are more likely to have been single reeds like those we have already met, perhaps of straw if the narrower bore diameter is correct, or cane if the wider, but we cannot eliminate the possibility of a flattened stem to make a double reed. At least we can be certain that they were musical instruments, for it is difficult to think of any other use for narrow tubes with holes along their length.

We have so few surviving auloi, nor that many Roman tibiae, and nor that many clear illustrations of either, that we cannot be certain whether always, or sometimes, each pipe had the same number of fingerholes as the other. Such few examples as survive sometimes have the same number and spacing of fingerholes, but the majority do seem to differ both between each of a pair and between different pairs. A number of illustrations on Greek pots and in carvings etc do mostly look as though the player is fingering differently on each pipe, whereas some others do look as though the fingers on each hand are at the same level on each pipe. However, since such pot paintings and carvings are not photographs we are left with the eternal problem of iconography: did the painter or sculptor actually know how the pipes were played? And did he or she really know what they looked like? After all, one could not make a working guitar by copying a Picasso painting! Nor do we know for certain whether they used an idioglot single reed, or a double reed. Again we are dependent on the iconography, and this does seem to show quite clearly both types of reed, so it may well have been a matter of personal choice by the player, some preferring a single reed and some a double. While there are literary accounts of the aulos being used with the military, the overwhelming evidence of the iconography is that they were played by women, often for parties and after-dinner entertainment, and that the women may well have performed other functions later in the evening. What we can say with certainty is that the auloi were always held divergently, with one hand on each pipe, and that the majority of players used a phorbeia, a strip, probably of cloth, laced tightly across the cheeks to prevent them being too greatly distended while the player blew.

We can assume from this that the players used circular breathing, using the cheeks as an air reservoir while breathing in through the nose. We know, from watching Nigerian shawm players, that they do distend their cheeks while doing this, almost like balloons, and we have seen that sometimes when they stop playing their cheeks fall like dewlaps, rather as one sees with a bloodhound’s cheeks. This is because, with much use, the skin gradually loses its elasticity and so can fail to go back to shape. This was something that the Greeks clearly wanted to avoid, and therefore they used these support straps. Other peoples have had a similar idea, and in Java the shawm tarompet sometimes has great wings of coconut shell. or metal. to go across the cheeks and support them in the same way as the phorbeia – we shall meet an example in another paper on Double Reeds. We shall also find that this may have been the reason for the invention of the bagpipe.

The tibia was the Roman derivative of the aulos, coming perhaps through the Etruscans. Like the aulos, it could either be a single instrument, monaulos, or more often a pair, also held divergently. Some that have been found had a mechanism to change pitch so as to use a different scale or mode. Not with keywork like our orchestral instruments, but with rings that would close off one hole and open another. In this way, different modes could be played, for one must remember always that with divergently held instruments, the player had only one hand on each. Thus, with only four or five notes available, it could indeed be useful, for example, to close an E and open a D or an F instead, or to flatten or sharpen a note.

One of the things that we do not know about the aulos is where it originated. We have no evidence for the instrument from the Bronze-Age Myceneans; all seems to have come from the later classical period, but whether the aulos was an indigenous invention, whether it was adopted from somewhere further east, or whether it travelled eastwards from Greece, we simply do not know. What we do know is that it travelled in one direction or the other, for we do see its derivatives all over Central Asia. All of these are a monaulos, that is to say a single pipe played with both hands, and all the examples that I know of today have a large double reed, so we shall not meet them until we reach that paper in this sequence on the Double Reeds, but there is one European divergent reed pipe that is clearly an aulos descendant, and it is both divergent and multiple, not just a double but a triple pipe.

This is the launeddas of Sardinia. There are two chanters (melody pipes) held divergently, one smaller than the other, played one with each hand, the smaller usually with the right hand, and a third drone pipe, ie without fingerholes, lashed to the larger pipe. All three pipes have each an upcut idioglot single reed. The launeddas appears to be a conflation of the aulos and the typical North African geminate single reed pipes that we meet in a separate article in this sequence.

Further European aulos derivatives are different. Some are bagpipes such as the Italian zampogna, to which we shall return in the Bagpipe article here, and others, in Sicily for example, are duct flutes and thus beyond our subject here.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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