Overtone (Harmonic) Flutes
The simplest of all flutes, other than stopped whistles, is the rim-blown overtone- or harmonic-flute. Here all that one needs is a simple tube, usually between one and two feet long, long enough to get a series of overtones and not so long that the far end is beyond the reach of a finger of the hand that is not supporting the instrument. Any material will serve, cane, reed, wood, plastic, or metal. It is an instrument of unknown age that only fairly recently has become known to musicologists because unless one hears and sees it being played, who can recognize any odd bit of tubing lying around as a musical instrument? Thus no archaeologist will ever recognize it and it is only since folklorists have begun to describe their local instruments in books and articles that it has become known.
One of the simplest is the Romanian tilinca. Here, while a musician who is also a craftsman will make and often decorate a wooden tube for the instrument, any one else can pick up a discarded bit of water- or heating-pipe and start to play it. It will work better if the upper edge is chamfered externally, rubbing it down against a stone or with a file or emery or sand paper, or for wood and cane by chipping at the top, but this is not essential. We live in hope that an archaeologist may recognize that a bone tube has such a chamfered end, for then we would know, rather than suspect, that such flutes have existed since remote antiquity. However, since few archaeologists are aware of musical potentials save when they can see an obvious series of fingerholes, or parts of well-known string instruments such as lyres, this seems unlikely to happen unless they read this and other articles on it.
Within the past century, Tiberiu Alexandru recorded many players of such simple harmonic flutes in his own country of Romania and thus has made the tilinca known to us.
With the far end of the tube open (represented in the musical example below by round noteheads and upward stems) it should be possible to get the first eight or more partials, from the second partial upwards, and, with the far end closed (represented by square noteheads and downward stems) with the finger, from the third partial, the partials of a stopped tube starting an octave lower. These interlock so that diatonic scales are available and, with some shading by only partly closing the end, a few notes in between. So in the key of C one can play:
Much easier to blow, and to recognize, is a tube with a duct in the head, just as it is with whistles. We find these in Slovakia, for example, varying from 30cm or so long, which can produce that same sequence of notes.
Another duct-blown overtone flute is the Norwegian seljefløte. Traditionally this was a springtime instrument, a tube of coiled willow bark (selje is Norwegian for willow) with a mouth near the top and a piece of wood, cut to form the duct, pushed into the upper end of the tube so that the flute could be blown transversely. When the bark dried out and fell apart, another strip could be coiled up and the wooden head transferred to that. However, it was only possible to make the seljefløte in the spring, because it is only then, when the sap is rising between the bark and the wood, that the bark can be removed easily. When players wanted to continue to use the instrument throughout the year, Egil Storbekken devised a tube of plastic in the 1960s, covered with bark, or imitation bark of printed paper for the sake of good appearance, with the traditional wooden head inserted into the near end. Such instruments can be obtained today in Norway, with variants, including one with a plastic head similar to those used on tin whistles, from many other sources.
Similar instruments seem to exist all over northern Europe, from Norway to Russia and down into Poland, made either of willow or birch bark, and more permanent versions, of wood or plastic, appear widely today on the internet.
As yet we have few reports of such instruments outside Europe, but one exception is Papua New Guinea, where the great secret flutes, two or three metres long, are used in pairs, hocketing their overtones against each other. These flutes are side blown, transverse flutes, the pair, usually made of bamboo, a tone or two apart in pitch, with a very wide embouchure (mine are about 25mm in diameter). The two players face each other with the lower ends of the flutes resting on the ground. The upper ends are often closed by an elaborately carved wooden stopper, and these stoppers, without the flutes, can often be seen in museums as art objects. Shorter flutes are also used there, with the distal end stopped by the hand, ‘the hand’ because the bore is much too wide for a finger, around four or five millimetres in diameter. These are called secret flutes, sometimes sacred or spirit flutes because while all may hear them in the rituals in which they are used, only initiates may see or play them, certainly as so often with sacred objects, they may never be seen by women.
It would seem probable that so simple an instrument, whether end- , duct-, or cross-blown, must have been used in the past, and perhaps still today, in other areas that are as yet unstudied by ethnomusicologists, and one may hope that with more reports of their existence and use they may gradually become known to us.
© Jeremy Montagu, 2018