Tutti Fluti

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Anomalous Flutes

There are some flutes which fit into none of the categories described elsewhere in these articles. They are neither end-, notch-, duct-, nor transverse-blown. Nevertheless they are obviously flutes of some sort; Laurence Picken, in his book on the Folk Instruments of Turkey, categorised one of them (the second below) as ‘Flutes that are not flutes’.

One of them is known as the ‘owl hoot’. This is a human instrument: the hands are cupped together with the two thumbs aligned with each other, and the player blows between the middle phalanx of each thumb. The different pitches are produced by varying the cubic capacity of the hands and by moving the fingers to open apertures. Thus they must be categorised as variable capacity vessel flutes, but there is no sharp edge, and a sharp edge, or at least a sharpish edge against which one can blow, has always been regarded as a prime requisite for identification as a flute.

Another is known as a widgeon whistle. This consists of two small shallow discs fixed together edge to edge to form a curvilinear box, with a small hole in the centre of each disc; a children’s version is a fruit stone rubbed against a rough surface to form a hole in each side, and then the content extracted to empty the stone. The whistle is held between the lips and the teeth and the instrument is sounded by both ex- and inhaling through the holes, the pitch depending on air speed and mouth shape.

Another is a stone whistle, the stone soft enough that it is easily worked by a tool; alabaster would be one such stone. The stone is hollowed out from one edge and a hole is bored on one side to meet the hollow. The whistle is held partly within the mouth and the pitch again depends on air speed and mouth capacity, with tongue movement to direct the air.

At least all three of these instruments create their sound by generating a regular series of vortices within an air body, and this, another of the diagnostics of a flute, is common to all three.

Doubtless there are also some others which I have not yet encountered. And although two of the three above are termed whistles, nevertheless they have a range of pitches and so, in normal terminology, they should be thought of more as flutes than as whistles.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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