Tutti Fluti

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Duct Flutes

Ducts, the passage way that leads the air to the sharp edge at the base of the mouth (sometimes called a window), are most commonly internal as with our recorder and penny-whistle, but they can also be external or even both successively internal and external.

The external-duct flutes are common in Indonesia, especially in Java where the suling is used in the gamelan. They are made of a thin-walled bamboo or reed and the upper end is closed by a natural septum. At one point of the circumference of the head, the septum is carved away sufficiently to leave a passageway between the head and a strip of leaf, tied round the head, that leads to a mouth in the wall of the instrument. The number of fingerholes will vary according to whether the suling is tuned to slendro or pelog, the two scale systems used in that music, the former with six pitches and the latter with seven pitches to the octave.

The internal-and-external flutes seem to appear in parts of Melanesia in Oceania, and among the Navajo and some other tribes of the North American natives and in pre-Columbian Mexico. Jaap Kunst cites instruments in Flores, both single and multiple, where one blows in through the head which is blocked a short way down by a natural septum, where a small hole in the side of the head leads the air out to a passageway formed by a leaf that pierces the cortex of the body and forms a passageway that leads to a mouth in the side of the instrument through which the airstream can enter the body. The American instrument works on the same principle but the external part is a carved wooden block, tied round the body, with a groove cut along its underside to form the duct. Elaborately carved blocks are seen in the codices of pre-Columbian Mexico but the instruments themselves seem not have survived – I have never seen one in a catalogue. We may, I think, assume that the North American examples, which are still used and often referred to as an Apache flute, derived from the south.

Far commoner and used almost worldwide, certainly from Neolithic times onwards, are those with an internal duct.

Here one blows into the upper end of the instrument where a block of wood or other material leaves a narrow channel between the wall of the instrument and the block (hence the German term Blockflöte) which leads the air to a small mouth in the side of the instrument with a sharp edge at its base. The airstream is divided by this edge both internally and externally, and if its periodicity will match the air column of the body, the instrument will sound. The geometry of the duct and of the mouth, both the dimensions of the duct and the height (the cut-up) and the width of the mouth, are critical to the quality of the sound, but these vary widely around the world because different peoples prefer different sound qualities. Even in our own world, the sounds of a baroque recorder and a modern one are very different for these reasons. Also some peoples like to carve the duct in the side of the block; others shape the block or shape it of wax rather than wood, or of pith, to leave a passageway, and others carve a channel along the inside of the wall of the body, leaving the block cylindrical – this last is that used in our recorders and flageolets, because it makes it easier to replace the block if necessary. A more ephemeral method is to stick one’s tongue into the otherwise empty head of the instrument, shaping the tongue to form the duct; these are known as tongue-duct flutes. These might well have been the earliest form of duct flute, for the Neolithic instruments never preserve their blocks and therefore there is no way to tell whether they were tongue-ducts or had a more permanent block.

Because with a duct all that one has to do is to put the head of the instrument into the mouth and blow, these are by far the commonest type of flute in the world – of course actually playing the instrument does take skill, but at least it avoids the additional skills required on the rim flute. As a result, in those cultures where both types are used, such as in Turkey, the rim flute (kaval) is preferred by the skilled musician and the duct flute (dilli kaval) by the amateur.

There are so many types of duct flute around the world that it is impossible to name or describe them all. They include many whistles, vessel flutes, overtone flutes, panpipes, tabor pipes, and the organ, each of which has its own article in this series, as well as others even in our own culture.

The three most prominent in our culture are the recorder, the flageolet, and the tin whistle. The last, also known as a penny-whistle, is widely used in folk music. In the nineteenth century it was often made of a cylindrical brass tube (others, especially those of tin-plate, are of contracting bore, widest at the head), but be careful of using these brass ones, for the block was often of lead, which can lead to serious health problems; modern ones, available in most music shops, have either wooden blocks or plastic heads.

The flageolet has distinct forms: the common English one was a short wooden instrument with six fingerholes, whereas the French, by Mersenne’s time in the 1630s, had four fingerholes and two thumbholes. This was very much a professional instrument, often used for dance music and sometimes called a quadrille flageolet, and gradually acquired more and more keys for chromatic notes, culminating in a system derived from Boehm’s conical transverse flute of 1832, with rings and keys. An elaborate, and elegant, version of the English type appeared around 1800, made of boxwood with ivory mounts and ivory spots between the fingerholes to aid placing the fingers correctly. These were sometimes single but often double, with two parallel tubes in a common head which contained a sponge to absorb moisture. There was even a triple version which could provide bass notes for accompaniment, operated by the thumbs of each hand. These were aimed at the gentleman amateur. One must always remember the amateur market with all instruments, which are nearly always more elaborate in appearance or material than the equivalents made for the professional – ivory, glass, or other less-often seen materials, for until the days of the small portable radio or tape machine, music when required had to be played rather than just listened to. Hence all the walking-stick instruments (including flutes both duct and transverse).

The recorder dates back to at least the 1400s, both the instrument and its name, and it is distinct from other duct flutes in that it has both a thumbhole and a seventh fingerhole for the little finger. The little-finger hole was duplicated in the earlier one-piece instruments, hence the French name of fluste a neuf trous, the nine-hole flute, so that it could be played either left- or right-hand; the unwanted hole was blocked with wax. When, like the transverse flute, it was modified at the French court in the late 1600s, with a separate head, body, and foot, the foot could be turned to suit either hand and the ninth hole was eliminated; the flute then became known as the flûte douce, or simply as flute, for until the end of the eighteenth century ‘flute’ always meant recorder – the transverse flute was always adjectivally distinguished as transverse or German in whatever language that was employed.

Again there is so much literature available for the history of the recorder and other duct flutes that there is little need for more detail here, other perhaps than for one type that shows clearly the transition between the notch flute and the duct flute.

This is found in Brazil, where flutes are often made of animal bone as they were in the Neolithic period, often in Brazil of jaguar leg-bones. These are often strung together as a necklace, and sometimes one finds an open head with a notch, and sometimes the top of the head is covered with wax, leaving a small hole in the wax to lead the air to the base of the notch and thus turn the notch flute into a duct flute. It is arguable that a similar process took place in other parts of the world also, and that in many cultures notch flutes likewise led to duct flutes for greater ease in performance.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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