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Panpipe or Syrinx

The Panpipe or Syrinx is essentially, a set of whistles, a series of one-note tubes, without fingerholes, fixed together to form a melodic instrument. It has been found from antiquity and is still used over much of the world.

The names come from the European legend of its origin. The Greek god Pan was chasing the nymph Syrinx who cried to the river nymphs to save her from his clutches. Taking pity upon her, the nymphs turned her into a clump of reeds, whereupon Pan cut her into a series of tubes and played music upon her instead of what he had originally intended to do. The problem with using her name for the instrument in the plural is that a Greek plural in ‘nx’ becomes ‘nges’, thus leading to confusion with a common medical tool.

As well as the instrument just described, ‘a series of one-note tubes, without fingerholes, fixed together to form a melodic instrument,’ we have what may or may not have been a prototype or earlier version, a human panpipe as it were. A group of people each has a separate tube, each blowing across its top at the appropriate moment to produce a melody, a process known as hocketing because in mediaeval vocal music it sounds somewhat like hiccuping, with both words coming from the same root. Such ensembles are common in southern Africa, among the Venda people for example. A somewhat more complex version of the ensemble exists in Lithuania, again a set of individual tubes but played by only two or three people, with each player holding two or more tubes of the set and again hocketing to produce the melody. Whether such uses precede the panpipes we do not know, for panpipes are found almost worldwide, whereas it is only among living peoples that musicologists have observed the use of the disjunct panpipes (the technical term for such sets). We have no archaeological records of disjunct sets, but yet it seems very possible that these were an earlier idea, starting perhaps with two or three pipes, before somebody hit on the labor-saving device of tying them together. Certainly panpipes do exist with as few as three pipes tied together, in East Africa for instance. The only areas that I know of without record of panpipes is Australia.

There is a number of forms of panpipes, the most common across the world being the raft, a single row, sometimes a double row, of pipes lashed together, often with split cane struts to support them, but also often just tied with cord or thread. Another form is the bundle, a group tied together in a circle and, in Thailand, for example, sometimes luted together with wax plus a handle by which to hold them.

The pipes are most commonly arranged in scalar order, lowest at one end of the raft and the highest at the other – some people playing with lowest to the left and others to the right, sometimes as a cultural practice, but probably more often as a personal choice. For us in Europe, it was the invention of keyboard instruments, beginning with the organ, invented by Ctesibius in Alexandria around 250 BCE, that has led to the fixation of lowest normally to the left. The organ, since it is basically a box of whistles, is described in another paper here in this sequence. At least one people, though, the Quechua of South America, prefer a zigzag order of pipes. Whether this is random or in an order that suits a particular style of melodic pattern, I do not know – it would need a comparative study of specimens scattered over a number of museum collections to be certain, or the evidence from ethnomusicologists from many studies over a wide area of South America.

The tubes of panpipes, both conjunct and disjunct, are normally stopped at the bottom or at a point partway down the tube that produces the desired pitch. With the former, the bottom of the tubes make an evenly ascending line, but with the latter the top and bottom of the row may be parallel or again may ascend but not necessarily in the same pattern as the pitches they produce (the Quechua pipes are an example of this, for while the bottoms appear to be in zigzag order, the pitches may be in a different zigzag, as can be seen by looking to see where the nodes that stop the tube length are). Because the commonest material for the pipes is bamboo or reed, the commonest stopper is the natural node that separates the individual sections of many types of giant grass. Fine tuning of pitch is often adjusted by dropping pellets of wax into the tubes, rather than by recutting the top of each tube.

Most panpipes around the world are blown across the top, like rim-blown flutes, but in our culture they are more often duct-blown, as they are also in China and Japan. Rim-blown ones quite often have the edge further from the player’s mouth lowered in a crescent, thus approaching the notch flute, though actual notches are rarely seen. This is useful for the organologist because it tells us for certain which way the pipe was played, whether ascending left to right or right to left.

Double raft pipes, often seen in Bolivia for example, may have both sets stopped, in which case one row is usually half the length of the other, so producing near octaves, or one row may be stopped and other open, in which case both are usually the same length so that, again they sound in near octaves. This is because a stopped tube will sound approximately an octave lower than an open tube, as will one tube half the length of another. The octaves are approximate, usually with a slight vibrato between them, because of an acoustic feature called end-correction. When one blows down an open tube the effective air-column length is slightly longer than the tube that contains it, the air stream continuing a little way beyond the end of the tube, rather as we try to travel a little way further when a vehicle in which we are sitting slows down. End-correction applies to both ends of the tube, and if one end is stopped, we lose the end-correction from that end and so the pitch is slightly higher than that of the octave above that of an open tube of the same length. And if we have two stopped tubes, one exactly half the length of the other, then because the shorter tube is shorter, its end-correction is less than that of the longer. These very slight differences can be corrected of course, by careful cutting, but most peoples prefer the slight vibrato that results otherwise.

Many panpipes can be seen in museums from pre-Columbian Peru, carved in stone or more often made of pottery. Nowadays light reed and bamboo are the normal materials. It is today a common sight on street corners to see itinerant ensembles of Peruvians, Bolivians, Argentinians, and others playing their instruments in the hope of making money in this way.

Panpipes can be seen also on ancient Roman carvings and statues. These have an unusual appearance, with a short row of pipes suddenly followed by a longer row, presumably two groups a fifth or an octave apart. Very similar pipes appear also in some church carvings of the Romanesque period, which suggests that they must have survived in Europe from the Fall of Rome in the fifth century through to the eleventh.

We can presume, from Mozart’s use in The Magic Flute that they were customarily used by bird catchers in Austria in the eighteenth century, for panpipes are well-adapted to imitating the calls of a number of different birds, and perhaps for teaching birds to sing.

In Spain and Portugal, instruments with all the bores drilled in a single flat piece of wood, often with a horse’s head in profile as a finial, are blown by itinerant knife grinders as a trade call to announce their presence.

In Romania they have become a virtuoso instrument in folk ensembles, and many recordings exist of their music. The Romanian nai has its end-blown pipes fixed in a curve in a wooden cradle, the only panpipe made in that shape, though the form is now widely copied by makers elsewhere because the nai has become popular among other musicians.

Many showmen have used panpipes to call customers to their booths, and in Britain the panpipe was a common instrument for Punch and Judy stalls on beaches and showgrounds.

Today, it remains a child’s toy in many places.

As said above, panpipes are or have been used over much of the world, certainly over much of Asia, Europe and the Americas. In many areas they survive as folk instruments, certainly all over South America, China and Japan as we have seen, and in parts of Europe.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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