Vienna, 5 October 2020
My wife and I have been doing a lot of hiking since I retired. It’s a great way to keep fit, and it’s a great way to see Nature – slowly, with the time to appreciate what you are seeing. Initially, we hiked without sticks but alas! Time has taken its toll, in my case especially in the knees. So we finally bit the bullet and bought ourselves a set of walking sticks each.
Shortly afterwards, when we were out on hikes I would often hear a low moaning, coming seemingly from close by. It sounded like the noise a kid would make on Halloween when dressed up as a ghost, a sort of ‘woo-hoo-oo’ noise.
To make matters more confusing, the moaning came and went. After a bit, when I did hear it I would look around me to see what the source of the sound could be, but I could never identify anything. I began to think I was imagining the sound. Perhaps something was going wrong with my inner ear? Or was a tumour growing in my brain and pressing on some part of the brain that had to do with hearing sounds?
Luckily for my sanity, I finally figured out was going on. To explain, I need to throw in a picture of the upper part of our walking sticks.
Those holes allow me to modify the length of my sticks, by moving a button clip from hole to hole. It was the wind blowing over the holes that was causing the sound – my sticks were acting as flutes. This discovery led first to relief that I was neither mad nor sick, and then to a certain curiosity about flutes. As is my habit, I began to investigate (God, what a hopeless nerd I am …). I discovered a whole world out there that I had never known existed. I read that flutes belong to a bewilderingly complex family of musical instruments called aerophones. Someone even nerdier than me has come up with a scientific classification of musical instruments (the Hornbostel-Sachs system, so presumably the nerds in question are Messrs Hornbostel and Sachs). Aerophones are allocated the number 4, ‘non-free’ aerophones (“the vibrating air is contained within the instrument”) the number 42, and ‘edge-blown’ aerophones, which is the scientific name for flutes, the number 42.1. So as not to bore readers, I will at this point stop drilling down into the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, but they should be aware of the fact that I could go down five – yes, five – more levels: the permutations on the design and operation of flutes seem almost endless.
Out of this welter of information, I have seized upon one comprehensible fact: that while all cultures on all continents have at some point in time come up with ‘end-blown’ flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim at the upper open end of a tube”; number 421.11 ), only Asian cultures came up with ‘side-blown’ (or transverse) flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube”; number 421.12). Since my sticks were making a noise because the wind was blowing across the sharp rim of my sticks’ holes, and if therefore I were mad enough to classify them as a musical instrument it would be somewhere under number 421.12, I have decided to focus on this family of flutes (I also happen to very much like the music from one member of this family in particular, as we shall see in a minute).
Before I go off to explore transverse flutes, I want to pause a minute and muse on how come our very distant ancestors ever invented flutes in the first place. I mean, what possessed someone to take a hollow tube, drill some holes in it, and start blowing into it? And we are talking about very distant ancestors. The earliest known flutes are some 43,000 years old. They were unearthed in a cave in Germany. Two are made from mute swan bones, the third from a mammoth’s ivory tusk. This is one of those flutes.
Since bone seems to have been a common initial material flutes were made from, I am now going to make a huge mental jump, unsubstantiated by any evidence that I know of, and suggest that actually the holes in bones were made by a predator with large, sharp incisors, that the bone dried out and the marrow disappeared thus hollowing out the bone, that the wind, blowing over the holes, made the same kind of noise I was hearing on our hikes, that an ever-curious early ancestor, attracted by the noise, picked up the bone and started playing around with it, blowing into it, trying to imitate the noise, … The rest is history, as we say. I also have to presume that the creation story of flutes happened independently many times over in different places and that Stone-age bone flutes will eventually be found in many places other than Germany. I should also say that I have not created this story completely out of nothing. There is a cave bear femur with holes in it that was uncovered in a cave in Slovenia, also about 43,000 years old.
Initially, it was thought to be a primitive flute. This is now questioned, with the current argument being that the holes were made by some predator or other.
I can’t figure out if these German Paleolithic flutes were end-blown flutes or transverse flutes. There is a video online showing a pretend-Paleolithic woman playing one of these flutes (or presumably a copy) transversely.
Which makes sense to me: if my story of how flutes first started is at all correct, our ancestors who picked up “singing bones” would have imitated the wind and blown across the holes. But then why did most cultures end up with end-blown flutes? Or perhaps more accurately, why did our ancestors, except those in Asia, abandon initial transverse flute playing for end-blown flute playing? I will let that question hang there, because I have absolutely no idea of the answer. Any readers who have an insight to this puzzle are welcome to weigh in.
Well, after those musings on the Ur-story of the flute, I can finally turn my attention to transverse flutes. My research (i.e., the reading of Wikipedia entries) have led me to identify some 20 types of transverse flutes. Here again, I do not propose to bore readers with breathless descriptions of each and every one of them. I will just mention two, for reasons which I hope will become clear.
I start with India. There, the bansuri reigns supreme. It’s been an integral part of Indian music for at least 3,500 years. It has an almost mystical standing among instruments, being closely associated with the God Krishna. We have here a modern take on this, from a temple in Singapore.
And here we have an older take on the theme, a statue from the 15th Century.
The bansuri does indeed produce divine music, although that of course is a very personal judgement and has as much to do with the instrument as it has with Indian music in general. I’m not sure when I became aware of Indian flute music. All I can say is that I have a very clear recollection of seeing an Indian black-and-white film in my early twenties, no doubt in some rundown arty cinema somewhere, where the soundtrack was this achingly lovely, haunting flute music. I tried to rediscover the film and its music while writing this post but failed. I throw in instead this link to a video of the bansuri being played. Close your eyes and let the music flow over you, let it envelop you, let it transport you to some secret place in your soul where the music of heaven resides. Without being too morbid about it, I would be more than happy if such a piece of Indian flute music were to be played at my funeral.
My old Chinese connection brings me to the second transverse flute which I want to write about, the dizi. It’s been in use in China for at least 7,000 years, although I throw in here a photo of it being played considerably more recently. This is a late 15th-early 16th Century painting of the Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi nonchalantly walking on water as he plays his dizi.
It’s not only because of my connection with China that I mention the dizi, it’s also because of a very distinctive design feature this flute has. The dizi uses a mokong, which is a paper-thin membrane traditionally made from the inner skin of bamboo cells that is pasted over a hole located between the hole across which the player blows (the “embouchure” – such an elegant way of saying it, try saying it a few times, you sound really erudite) and the finger holes.
Don’t ask me to explain what exactly this does to the sound, I simply quote here what someone else has said: ”The mokong has a distinctive resonating effect on the sound produced by the dizi, making it brighter and louder, and adding harmonics to give the final tone a buzzing, nasal quality”. Readers may judge for themselves from this recording.
Like many things Chinese, the dizi (and flutes in general) migrated to the surrounding countries: Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam all have dizi-like flutes with the membrane and/or transverse flutes which had a membrane but where it has been abandoned. I throw in a couple of photos to record the use of transverse flutes in these countries. Here we have a transverse flute being played at a convivial meeting (a meal, I suspect) of Japanese men in the pre-modern era.
Here we have a group of Koreans playing various instruments together, one of which is a transverse flute.
Of course, there is a question as to where the Chinese in turn got the transverse flute from. I’m sure the Chinese would argue that they invented it locally. They certainly invented the use of the mokong – the earliest dizis didn’t have it. But as for the flute itself some music historians think that actually the Chinese got it from Central Asia. I will carefully refrain from taking any position on this issue. Let’s simply say that it is an open question.
Which leads me – sort of – to my last point. The transverse flute, I’m happy to say, allows me to bring up one of my favourite topics, covered many times in these posts, namely the transfer across Eurasia of various products and ideas. The transfer mainly took place along the Silk Road, that network of trading routes which stretched out across Central Asia from China to Europe, with most of the transfer going from east to west, but sometimes in the other direction. Readers will no doubt remember what I wrote above, that the transverse flute only existed in Asia. However, any reader who has been to a concert hall knows that the transverse flute is often used in Western classical music. So am I mistaken? Was the transverse flute also invented in Europe? It seems not, according to historians of music. They believe that the bansuri somehow made its way to Byzantium (they think it was the bansuri rather than the dizi, say, or some other transverse flute from Asia, because of how the flute is depicted in Byzantine sources) and from there spread slowly to the rest of Europe. I find this intriguing. There were contacts, although indirect as far as I know (i.e., through some intermediary country), between Rome and India, contacts which no doubt would have continued with Byzantium. I have to assume that as part of these contacts Indian flautists came to Byzantium and showed the Byzantines how to make and play the transverse flute. In any event, here we have someone – probably Orpheus – playing a transverse flute in an 11th Century Byzantine manuscript.
From Byzantium, the transverse flute made its way to Germany and France first, and from there – a good deal later – to the rest of Western Europe. The mention of Germany allows me to slip in a mention of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Most representations have him playing an end-blown flute, but some have him playing a transverse flute.
The use of transverse flutes got a big leg up from the military use of fifes. Armies in southern Germany and Switzerland began using fifes in the 15th Century, as a way of signaling maneuvers (fifes can be extremely piercing in the higher registers and so can be heard over the noise of battle). From then on, every serious European army began to have a fifing unit. It was only in the early 19th Century that fifes were displaced as a military signaling device. Nevertheless, many regiments continued to have a band of fifers (which is where the musical use of the word “band” comes from – a useless factoid which readers can cite at their next party). If I report all this, it’s only because it gives me an excuse to insert a photo of that wonderful painting by Manet of a young military fifer.
The Baroque period saw a makeover of the transverse flute, with it being completely redesigned. Various types of transverse flute were created. Music was written especially for the flute. And – once again – the rest is history. Just to round out the story, I throw in here a picture from an opera which has as one of its main protagonists a flute, Mozart’s Magic Flute. Without going into the details of its highly convoluted plot, the prince Tamino is given a magic flute which he plays at various moments. The opera is a delightful piece of nonsense, allowing Opera companies to go over the top with decors and costumes, as is the case here with a production by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
As readers can see, in at least some productions the flute in question is a transverse flute (although I seem to remember that in the production I saw it was an end-blown flute).
Well, I leave my readers with a link to a lovely piece of Western, modern flute music: Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx”. In the meantime, my wife and I will be plotting our next hike, where perhaps our sticks will sing in the wind.