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Geminate and Multiple Idioglot Single Reeds

On the whole, these seem to be more common than the single instruments that we have been looking at in the other Idioglot papers in this sequence. One reason seems to be that when the two pipes are tied parallel together, so that one can finger across the pair of pipes, with each fingerhole producing the same nominal note, this generates a stronger sound than when blowing either pipe separately. This is because the two are normally very slightly out of tune with each other, just by a few vibrations per second (Hz). This sets up a vibrancy in the sound as the two pitches beat against each other by the number of Herz between them, and it enhances the loudness as well as making the sound more interesting to the ear.

One further point is that all the instruments we have met so far have been cylindrical in bore, and therefore they are lower in pitch than one might expect from their length, and also that their range was limited. Here we have to diverge briefly into acoustics.

With a reed-driven instrument with an expanding bore, like our seventeenth-century-onwards orchestral oboe for example, if one opens fingerholes in turn from the bottom, sounding from C up to B, then closes them all, squeezes the reed a little and blows harder, one can go on up the scale from that B into the next octave.

But, with a reed-driven instrument with a cylindrical bore, like our seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century chalumeau, this does not happen; going up the scale from the bottom and then closing all the holes again, squeezing the reed and blowing harder, would give you an upper G instead of the C, so there is a gap between the top open note and the upper note beyond it.

Now, this example is a bit simplified, and I used ‘seventeenth-century’ in order to avoid the keywork that was introduced in the eighteenth century that does allow you to fill that gap, but the instruments that we are talking about here did not have any keywork. As a result, they could only play in their basic, lower range, or, with an extended technique in the upper range, but not continuously from one range to the other. Most in fact stick to the lower range and in addition, a reed-driven instrument with cylindrical bore will always sound lower than one with expanding bore of the same length. This applies to our modern instruments, too: if you stand a clarinet and an oboe side by side, they are much the same length, but the lowest note of the clarinet is an E most of an octave below middle C, whereas the lowest note of the oboe is only a semitone below middle C. I am not going into the reasons for this here; they will be found in any book on musical acoustics. But the result is that all our instruments in this section sound rather lower in pitch than one might expect from just by looking at their length.

The simplest geminate pipes are those that have one melody pipe or chanter and one drone pipe, and are made from cane. They are often, as with my arghūl from Egypt, lashed together with tarred twine. The chanter, usually the right-hand pipe, normally has six fingerholes, though sometimes there may be fewer, and the holes are usually knife-cut, though sometimes they may be burnt with a hot iron. Often, as though the maker was uncertain whether he was making this type of instrument or one where each pipe has fingerholes, the drone-pipe has marks on it parallel with each hole of the chanter. There are usually extensions to the drone-pipe, some up to two or three feet long, so that different drone notes can be sounded. These extensions are attached to the ends of each drone section with the same tarred twine that joins the pipes together so that they do not get lost. I bought one of these, and the next instrument, in Egypt while I was stationed in the Canal Zone with the army in 1948, hearing Egyptian music on the loudspeakers in the streets of Port Said, and being introduced to Hans Hickmann, by the staff of the Institut Fouad Premier de Musique Arabe in Cairo, in search for further information – I can’t remember whether I bought them in Cairo or in Port Said. These were the first exotic instruments I had ever heard and I was fascinated by their sound. However, what with post-army musical studies and a career as a professional musician, it was not until I spent a year as Curator of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum from 1960 to ’61 that my interest in the instruments of the rest of the world was rekindled.

The more normal geminate pipe, such as my Egyptian zummāra, has two parallel chanters, two bamboo tubes held together with tarred twine, each with the same number of fingerholes. Such instruments are of quite high antiquity. Hickmann published an example of New Kingdom period, with a wall-painting of a player of Old Kingdom date, c.2700 BCE. Each pipe on my example has six circular fingerholes, very neatly knife-cut (if they were burned, all traces of charring have been removed), and each the same diameter. The mouthpieces have upcut idioglot reeds and, as is quite common, there are two spare mouthpieces, attached with a long twine, as are the inserted mouthpieces. The construction is quite elaborate: each mouthpiece is inserted into a middle-piece, which in turn is inserted into the body with its fingerholes, forming a stepped expansion over the whole. As a result, it sounds in the octave that one would expect for its length. These two instruments must also be the first instruments in my collection. There is a two-millimetre difference in length for the bodies, which provides the normally expected vibration in the pitch of each note that is played.

One thinks of expanding-bore instruments as getting wider quite smoothly from the reed to the bell, but a series of steps, each cylindrical but a bit wider than the next, is surprisingly effective, not effective enough for our orchestral purposes but perfectly adequate for the simpler requirements of much traditional folk music. Expanding bores are often referred to as conical bores, but this is not correct terminology because they are not truly cones, so expanding bore is the preferred term.

A variant zummāra of mine was said to have come from Arabia, and I have seen others from other Arab countries. The two slightly expanding-bore body tubes are of bird-bone, held together with soldered metal bands at the top and the bottom (the bands are non-responsive to a magnet, so perhaps they are of tinned brass). A strip of the same metal, lying between the bones, runs along the two tubes at the back, with a soldered-on metal ring below the top band to which the two very short cane middle pieces, held together with tarred twine, are tied. There are six drilled fingerholes in each tube. The mouthpieces have upcut idioglot reeds, and some hair remains under the left reed, a common device to make the reed more responsive by holding it very slightly open; a beard or moustache hair is usually better than one from the head because it is slightly thicker. The bones are incised with ring and dot black-filled decoration, with two parallel lines above and below each fingerhole, with four rings in two pairs between each (ie fingerhole, 2 lines, 4 rings, 2 lines, fingerhole), and eleven rings between the lowest fingerhole and the foot (5 pairs with a single central above). All is beautifully made and very light in weight.

Instruments like these are found all round the Mediterranean and beyond, in a variety of forms, many more or less identical with these. Others take the form of hornpipes, like the pibgorn we have already seen but geminate like those immediately above, and others as bagpipe chanters, with or without the bag. Others, from further afield, use a gourd as a chanter stock, and all these we shall meet here.

Starting on the west side of Europe, in the French part of Euskal Herria, the Basque area which crosses the border between France and Spain, during the International Folk Music Council (now the International Conference for Traditional Music) meeting in Bayonne in 1973, I bought from a French-Basque nationalist an instrument that he told me was spiritually the most important of the Basque instruments, an alboka. Some years later, a better one was given to me by Sabin Bikandi Belandia, with an LP played by the maker, in exchange for some books. Dr. Bikandi, who lives in the Spanish part of the Basque area, played down the spiritual importance, but agreed that along with the pipe and tabor, this was an important instrument among the Basques. The alboka is a geminate horn pipe. The two pipes of cane are set into a half-moon shape wooden yoke, embedded in beeswax, like pipes laid in a trough. The neatly-made yoke has two heart-shaped cut-outs, with between them the initials LB, for the maker Leon Bilbao, along with scroll patterns burned into the wood. The horn bell with three holes on each side (small, larger, small), has very fine dentations cut on the edge. Both it and the mouth-horn are pinned to the yoke with two small nails on each side; the cane pipes are luted to each horn with beeswax. A horn octagonal ring is attached to the bell by a copper wire, and holds a chain which goes to the front cut-out. The two mouthpieces are embedded in wax, one in the top of each pipe, and they have idioglot downcut reeds, which are bridled with white thread and are well and properly tuned to produce beating unisons. There are five burned fingerholes in the left-hand pipe and three in the right-hand pipe, parallel with the lowest three in the left.

A Tunisian example is more like the normal zummāra, save that it has a small horn bell on the end of each pipe – an identical instrument serves as the chanter of a bagpipe, and each is called a zukra.

Bagless bagpipes, as Anthony Baines called them, are endemic in what was Yugoslavia, and appear in various forms, all usually geminate. Some have two bores drilled parallel in the same piece of wood, others have two divergent tubes, and both use a wooden mouthcap in which the reeds are set into the tops of the pipes. The mouthcap has a groove round the top of the cap, which shows that once upon a time this cap was the stock of a bagpipe and that the use of the bag has now gone out of fashion. There is usually a different number of fingerholes in each pipe, often five and three, and the player may either finger across both pipes for the upper holes, using the lower hole or holes as a drone, or more usually have one hand on each pipe.

Instruments with a gourd body are used all over the Indian sub-continent; one well-known use is as the snake-charmer’s pipe, though the punghī is also used as a musical instrument without a snake. Usually there are two pipes, one with fingerholes and the other without, but I have one triple example with a second drone pipe.

It is clear that this use of geminate pipes is common over a wide area of the globe, and it is not restricted to reed instruments, for double or even triple flutes, similarly arranged, are even more widely distributed.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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