Tutti Reedi

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Double Reeds

There seems little point in separating idio- from heteroglot double reeds, as we have with the single reeds, because the idioglot double reeds are essentially ephemeral and therefore we have no examples from any earlier times. They consist of straw and similar fresh materials which can have the upper end flattened to form the reed while they are green and still soft. There is much poetic literature referring to such instruments, ‘oaten reed and pastoral stop’, and so on. I have frequently used a paper straw, cut to a point, to demonstrate such instruments at lectures – plastic straws also work, but they need longer points to let them blow easily.

The heteroglot double reed is either a flattened plant stem or, for our oboes and bassoons, a slip of cane, gouged and scraped, folded over, separated at the thinnest point, and then joined together again at the thicker ends to fit over a metal staple.

The staple is necessary for all the expanding-bore double-reed instruments because the narrow end is so small in diameter that one could not squeeze a reed directly into the top, whereas a reed can be set on to the end of a narrow tube which can then fit into the top of the instrument. This is in contrast with the cylindrical-bore double reeds because with these the top of the tube is wide enough for a plant stem to fit into it.

These cylindrical-bore double reeds are comparatively few. They begin in time with the ancient Greek aulos which, as described in another paper in this sequence (Divergent Geminate and Multiple Reed Pipes) used either double or single reeds. There is a widespread range of instruments that either derived from the aulos or may perhaps have been its surviving ancestor. These are all single pipes, thus relating to the monaulos, the single-pipe aulos rather than the double one more often used by the Greeks, and they are found from Turkey through Armenia and Central Asia right through to China, Korea, and Japan. Whether they spread over this wide area from Greece or whether the origin was Central Asian, and they then spread both east and west, we simply do not know. This has been a trade route since ancient times, known as the Silk Route, and in the nature of trade and traders, objects can go back and forth in any direction, for traders will always follow the trade.

Two characteristics of all of them, from the Turkish mey, through the Armenian balaban, the Chinese guan and the Japanese hichiriki, are the very large double reed and the low tessitura of the playing range. The diameter of the reed at its cylindrical end is half an inch or more and its length varies from just over an inch to two or three inches. It often has a bridle over the flattened end to help keep it flat. The materials used vary from the bamboo of the Orient to the softer plants used at the western end of the axis.

The low tessitura is caused by the cylindricity of the bore, for a reed-driven cylindrical bore sounds around an octave lower than one of expanding bore of the same length, an inescapable natural law of acoustics. I said ‘around’ because those of expanding bore, often referred to as conical, are not true cones – the cone is truncated by the narrow end, but when they are blown the cone seems to complete itself part way down the player’s gullet, thus extending the length of the air column.

The expanding-bore double reeds are often called shawms. They are widespread around the world, and it is arguable that this is due to the spread of Islam, often confirmed by etymology. The Moroccan name ghaita came into English as the wait pipe – the waits were principally shawm players; alghaita is the name of the Nigerian Hausa version of the shawm, and ghaita gallega is still the Spanish term for a bagpipe, the subject of another entry in this sequence. The Turkish name is zurna, the Macedonian surna, Indian shahnai, and the Chinese sona, and so on. The English term shawm is more likely to be a corruption of chalumau from Latin calamus.

The reeds on some are very small, not much over quarter of an inch long, some of them made from underwater rhyzomes, whereas others are larger and made from grasses of various species. Some areas prefer a soft material that can be squeezed to shape, and others prefer harder ones that can be scraped from canes. All the reeds are held wholly within the mouth rather than being gripped between the lips, which leads to the loud sound that rings in the ears, ideal for an outdoor instrument such as the wait-pipes. And almost all are blown with circular breathing – the longest I have heard was about twenty minutes non-stop from a Burmese player of the hne, and that was an incomplete recording, so it may originally have gone for longer.

It was in our culture that the shawm needed to come indoors at the court of Louis XIV, and that led to an instrument with a narrower bore profile and a narrower and longer reed that was gripped between the lips, thus eliminating the higher partials of the shawm sound, our oboes and bassoons. There are suggestions, e.g. in Mersenne, that the bassoon may have been the leader, and certainly its predecessor, the curtal or dulcian, was more portable than the great bass shawm. At what stage in this process players were gripping the reed is unclear – it is possible that this only began with our early-music shawm players to avoid blasting the microphone out of the studio. We do know also that Indian shahnai players of classical and Bollywood music have fairly recently taken to lipping the reeds, again probably to benefit the microphones.

The use of a pirouette, a lip-plate or wooden block on the staple, varies from one culture to another. A Turkish player told me that it was only necessary for those with false teeth, and another said that it was to protect him while playing and dancing, in case he bumped into another dancer, so that the shawm would not be rammed down his throat. In Indonesia we see larger pirouettes, so wide that they support the cheeks, like the phorbeia, the cheek-strap used by the Greeks with the aulos.

One final point is that while the cylindrical-bore shawms can be made from plants that have a natural hollow stem, including woods with a removable pith such as elder, the expanding-bore shawms need a lathe-turned body – we see that first in antiquity with the Faliscans, a sub-tribe of the Etruscans around 400 BCE, and then with the Romans. There is one exception to this, the Forked Shawm, the subject of another, though older paper, in this sequence.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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