THE MAGIC AND MYSTIQUE OF THE FLUTE
By David Osborn
The Flute – An Ancient and Universal Musical Instrument
There are two main types of musical instruments whose origins go back to the very dawn of humankind, and which are universal in their presence, with representatives to be found among all the world’s nations and cultures: the flute and the drum. These two instruments, in all their various and sundry manifestations and embodiments, seem to appeal to two basic expressive or artistic impulses within man – the need for something to beat (the drum) and the need for something to blow (the flute). In the drum, the sound is made by beating on a semi-flexible membrane, which is usually an animal skin of some kind, even though a musical sound can be made by beating on many other types of materials. Similarly, the flute is only one way of producing musical sound by the act of blowing – there are other types of wind instruments, like those with a single reed and those with double reeds, or even free reeds, but the flute is so ancient and universal because it’s the most basic and primitive, even primal way to produce musical sounds by blowing, using the wind, or breath of the player alone to make the sound.
To the ethnomusicologist, flutes are known as aerophones, because air itself, in the form of the player’s breath, is used to produce the sound. In one way or another, depending on the particular type of flute, a focused, concentrated stream of air is blown or directed across a blowing edge that is actually part of the body of the instrument. The aerodynamic friction or turbulence that is created when the air stream is split in two then sets an enclosed column of air into vibration, producing a musical note. The pitch and tone quality of the note produced depends on the particular acoustical dimensions of the air column that is set into vibration: the longer the air column, the lower the note, and the shorter the air column, the higher the note. Likewise, a thinner or narrower air column will produce a thinner, reedier note with more clarity and definition, whereas a wider air column will produce a sound that is more broad and robust. The various cultures around the world that have produced flutes, which is just about all of them, have been quite ingenious and resourceful in the engineering of the flute to produce music.
God, or Nature if you will, was the first flutist as the wind whistled across an open reed and primitive man first marveled at this occurrence. And so, the creative impulse or idea to produce the first flute must have been a desire to imitate Nature and Nature’s God. Just as the Bible tells us that man was created in God’s image, so the desire to imitate what he perceived to be divine was an irresistible creative impulse in primitive man. Ever since then, the sound of the flute has always been thought of as the sound of Nature, and the flute as the musical instrument that was closest to nature. And so, pastoral figures and deities have always been associated with the flute. To produce a melody, a succession of musical notes or pitches must be produced, either by blowing on a succession of pipes or reeds of different lengths, or by boring finger holes into the same reed or pipe and opening and closing them. As the world’s two most primitive and universal instruments, the flute became the progenitor of all melody, and the drum became the progenitor of all rhythm – and these two elements provide the foundation of all music.
The Flute: A Vital, Intimate and Natural Musical Instrument
For those who play percussion and string instruments – at least the ones that are plucked, and not bowed – once you strike the drum or pluck the string, the sound is produced and set, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. With flutes, however, the situation is totally different – there’s a lot you can do as a musician and artist to change the tone you produce, which can even extend into subtle inflections of pitch as well. The sound of a flute is created and sustained by the player’s breath, and subtle changes in breath volume, pressure, focus and other dynamics can exert a very distinctive and heartfelt effect on the tone, or sound produced. Like bowed string instruments, flutes are quite given to playing long, flowing legato passages and melodies, but with the flute, the modulation and dynamics of the legato flow are even more exquisitely variable and controllable than with bowed strings. That’s because there’s no more intimate form of Self expression than one’s own breath, which is enshrined as the Spirit, or the Breath of Life, not only in the world’s various traditional healing systems, but also in the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions as well. Breath is Life, and Life is Breath.
In the words of my Pan Flute teacher, Damian Luca, the tone of a flute player is the personal expression of his or her soul. Although certain vectors and techniques regarding sound production in flute playing can be taught, the basic tone and texture of a person’s sound or playing remains uniquely personal, as distinctive as a fingerprint. Although certain aspects of a player’s tone or sound will improve as he or she gradually masters their chosen flute, this basic tone and texture remains the same as the personal vital signature behind their playing. The flute is probably one of the most intimate of instruments as well, if not the most intimate of musical instruments. The accomplished flute player will intimately caress his or her instrument in a wide variety of ways, with their lips and breath as well as with their fingers in the fingering of the flute. If we take sexuality and sexual energy to be an intimate and direct expression of one’s basic vitality and Life Force, then this intimate, caressing aspect of flute playing is definitely sexual in its intimations. And so, various legendary figures and deities associated with the flute, like Krishna, Kokopelli and Pan, had great amatory and sexual prowess.
Being originally made out of bamboo, cane or reed, the flute is also one of the most natural of musical instruments. You can take a flute out of Nature, but you can’t take the Nature out of the flute. And paradoxically, this also goes for flutes that are the product of highly developed modern technology and engineering, like the modern silver flute, or the Boehm Flute – the essence of the instrument, which is its sound, its tone borne of the player’s breath alone, will always be quintessentially natural. More primitive flutes, like the Bansuri or the Middle Eastern Ney, could be called “flutes in the rough”, which strive to leave Nature in as pure and pristine a form as possible, with a minimum of human engineering and intervention. Other bamboo flutes, like the Japanese Shakuhachi, strive for the ideal balance between Nature on the one hand and human art and craftsmanship on the other, with the former being the most apparent and the latter being more veiled and hidden. The sheer ingenuity and variety of ways in which flute makers from around the world have synthesized Nature and Art is truly amazing.