The Ancient Pipes of Pan – Reborn for Modern Man!

By David Osborn

The Modernization of the Ancient and Mythical Pipes of Pan
Whenever anyone asks me what the Pan Flute is, my stock answer is: “You know the ancient Greek god Pan, who was half goat and half man, and the kind of flute with multiple pipes and no finger holes that he invented?  The Pan Flute is the modern, acoustically perfected, concert instrument version of that most ancient and mythical of all wind instruments.”  Truly, the modern Pan Flute is probably the best example I know of an ancient and mythical musical instrument that was reborn and revived in the modern era.  What used to be something that was just for the history books, and the anthologies of Greek gods and their myths has now become a living, breathing musical reality, open for anyone with the time, inclination and talent to learn and pursue.  And many flutists from around the world have done just that, to the point where we are now experiencing a wonderful worldwide renaissance of the Pan Flute. 

In Greek mythology, the invention of the panpipes, the Pan Flute’s ancient progenitor and prototype, is credited to the god Pan, who was the god of shepherds, and of all Nature.  From the waist down, Pan was a goat, with cloven hoofs, and from the waist up, he was a man, with a goatee of a beard, except for the goat’s horns that grew out of his head.  Legend has it that he was chasing the nymph Syrinx through the forest one fine spring day, loudly proclaiming his love for her, and finally cornered her by the banks of a lake, where the reeds and rushes grow.  Caught in a bind, Syrinx then begged her friends, the water nymphs, to transform her into a bunch of reeds.  When Pan threw his arms around her, he grasped nothing but that bunch of reeds, and sighing, discovered that his breath blowing over the tops of them made a beautiful sound.  “If I can’t have you for my own, then at least I can play upon you with my breath,” lamented the grief-stricken Pan, who then began to play a mournful tune on the raft of reeds that he had just assembled as the first panpipes.  This mournful melody, the first one played on the panpipes, was imaginatively re-created by the French composer Claude Debussy in his piece for solo flute, which was aptly named Syrinx.

It’s been a long, long journey of musical evolution for the ancient panpipes that finally led to the creation of the modern Pan Flute.  The ancient panpipes only had seven to nine pipes, which only gave them a range of one octave or so, but the modern Pan Flute has a range of three octaves or more, with 20+ pipes.  The ancient panpipes were made out of roughly hewn cane or reed, and had a rough, reedy sound; by contrast, the modern Pan Flute is usually made out of the finest quality bamboo, imported from China and the Orient, and has a beautiful, musically polished tone throughout the vast majority of its range.  In terms of artistic expression and playing technique, the modern Pan Flute has come a long way, even since the days of its first modern pioneers like Fanica Luca, and now virtually any kind of music can be played and interpreted on it, and the sky’s the limit for those with the training and virtuosity to match their artistic creativity and ambitions.  Today, the Pan Flute is one of the most universally known and loved of all world flutes, and sales of Pan Flute recordings continue to surge. 

So – What Exactly Makes an Authentic Pan Flute? 
The whole panpipe concept is probably the most primitive and basic one in wind instruments.  Primitive man saw that the wind blowing over the tops of reeds made a beautiful whistling sound, and that reeds of differing lengths produced different musical notes, or pitches.  The next step was to raft together a series of reeds, from longest / lowest to shortest / highest, in a musical scale – and the first panpipes were born.  The discovery that a single pipe could produce multiple notes or pitches by drilling holes in it that could be opened and closed by the fingers came later, and was another step forward in flute technology.  Because the panpipe concept is so basic and primitive, even primal, it also seems to be one of the most universal types of flutes around the world; and so, it is very hard, if not impossible, to pin down exactly where the first panpipes, or flute of the panpipe genre, originated.  Not only are its origins lost in the fog of prehistory, but multiple flutes of the panpipe family, genus Syrinx, if you will, whose members are all distinguished by the presence of multiple pipes and no finger holes, probably originated independently in different parts of the world. 

Like the wind whistling over the tops of the reeds, the Greek word Syrinx literally means, “whistle”.  In ancient Greece, a single piped end blown flute was called a Syrinx monocalamos, or “whistle with one reed”, as opposed to the panpipes, which were called Syrinx polycalamos, or a “whistle with many reeds”.  The same kind of nomenclature prevails in Chinese music, where the single piped end blown flute is called Dong Xiao, or a “single foot long pipe”, whereas the traditional Chinese panpipes, which were used in court music, were called Pai Xiao, or a “coming together of multiple foot long pipes”.  Besides China and Japan, where panpipes were used in imperial court music, panpipes can be found in many traditional cultures around the world – like certain Pacific islands, Africa and the American South – and, of course, in the Andes Mountains of South America.  Andean music boasts many different sizes and varieties of panpipes, like the Siku, Zamponas, Antara, Rondedor, etc…, but none of these qualify as an authentic modern Pan Flute.  So – what exactly makes an authentic Pan Flute?

The authentic modern Pan Flute has a wide range, and at least twenty pipes.  The prevailing norm among Pan Flutists today is an instrument with at least a range of three octaves, or 22 pipes.  Twenty piped Pan Flutes seem to be a thing of the past. 

The authentic modern Pan Flute has pipes with a wide range of bore diameters, from bottom to top, for a pure, strong, musically polished tone throughout its range.  If there isn’t a large or significant difference in pipe bore diameters from bottom to top, then it isn’t an authentic Pan Flute.  For example, my twenty-two pipe, three octave Pan Flute from the “G” above middle “C” to the “g”” three octaves above that, has a 16 mm. bore diameter on its lowest pipe and an 8 mm. bore diameter on its highest pipe – a two to one ratio.  If the bore diameters on the low pipes are too thin, the sound will be too thin and reedy, and the fundamental pitch difficult to produce.  If the bore diameters on the upper pipes are too wide, the sound will be too shrill and bleating, and difficult to control. 

The authentic modern Pan Flute has pipes with sufficient wall thickness, for stability and consistency of pitch and tonal quality.  If the pipe walls are too thin, the sound will be too thin and reedy, the pipes will squeak or overblow too easily, and the tone and pitch will be unstable, especially in the middle to upper range.  I prefer a wall thickness of 3.0 to 3.5 mm. at the bottom end to 2.0 to 2.5 mm. at the top end. 

The authentic modern Pan Flute is made from high quality bamboo or acoustical hardwoods.  This is another key requirement for ensuring a strong, pure and high quality musical sound throughout its range. 

The authentic modern Pan Flute has pipes that are slatted laterally on either side and glued together seamlessly.  Because there are no seams or hard edges between the pipes, the player’s lips can glide with great rapidity and facility back and forth from note to note, to facilitate rapidity and virtuoso playing technique. 

The authentic modern Pan Flute has pipes that are assembled together in a curved or arched format, in a single row of pipes.  The pipes are in a single row, so that switching back and forth between rows is not needed.  The single row of pipes is in a curved or arched format in an ergonomic design, to take advantage of the natural rotation of the arms and shoulders around the central head, neck and spinal column when moving from pipe to pipe. 

The authentic modern Pan Flute has pipes that are rounded or beveled at their tops, where they meet the player’s lips.  This final feature ensures that the playing will be rapid, smooth and comfortable; it also facilitates vibrato, ornamentation and the playing of the chromatic notes. 

Like the seven notes of the musical scale, these are the cardinal seven essential features or attributes that an instrument must have in order to properly qualify as an authentic Pan Flute.  The purpose of these seven cardinal features or attributes is twofold: to assure a strong, pure, high quality musical sound throughout the instrument’s range; and to assure ease and facility of playing, for all kinds of musical situations, demands and techniques.  Now, it may seem to some of you that I am being too picky here, but the truth is that, as many have rushed in to cash in on the Pan Flute renaissance, the standards of what exactly constitutes an authentic Pan Flute as opposed to a “wannabe” instrument have suffered, and the Pan Flute has suffered from an identity crisis as a result.  The Andeans from South America, as I said earlier, have their own indigenous forms of panpipes, and their own indigenous musical traditions to go with them.  But I take issue with them when they call their indigenous panpipes Pan Flutes – this is not to denigrate the beauty or worth of Andean music and its traditional flutes, but to preserve the identity of the Pan Flute.  And I have no issue with those from Peru and other South American countries who have sought to make Pan Flutes that comply with the above essential guidelines.

Believe It or Not – The Pan Flute is from Romania!
Another key part of the Pan Flute’s identity crisis, aside from the essential quality standards mentioned above, is a crisis of national or cultural identity as well.  If you are playing “trivial pursuit”, or are engaged in a trivia contest with someone, the seemingly trivial question of where exactly the Pan Flute is from is virtually guaranteed to confound them every time.  Many will guess South America, and that is a logical choice, I suppose, due to the plethora of Andean flute bands that have been playing in major cities around the world in recent years.  Others may guess Africa, or China and East Asia, but almost no one guesses Europe, let alone Romania. While on a trip to Peru a few years back, I would get into endless arguments with Peruvians when I told them that the Pan Flute was from Romania – they swore that it was from Peru.  But the Andean flutists themselves know better, and greatly admire the Romanian Pan Flute and its leading exponent, Gheorghe Zamfir. 

The Pan Flute renaissance started way back in the seventies, and was largely due to the amazing and prodigious musical talents of one man – Gheorghe Zamfir, a Pan Flutist from Gaesti in southern Romania, who really made an impression in France with his concerts in Paris and elsewhere.  By the eighties, Zamfir’s recordings were available in record and music stores everywhere, and Zamfir was getting to be a household name as far as the Pan Flute was concerned.  But then, as the eighties segued into the nineties, another phenomenon started to happen – the Andean invasion.  With flutes in hand as their passports to the world, enterprising Andean flutists started to leave their South American homelands of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador in droves and popularize their music around the world.  They didn’t wait to get booked or discovered by impresarios and talent scouts – they proactively took their music to the streets, selling their recordings to support their efforts. 

And yes, their homegrown panpipes looked quite similar to the Romanian Pan Flute in many ways – at least close enough to fool all but the seasoned musician or music appreciator.  And frankly, many of the Andeans took advantage of this situation, calling their various panpipes Pan Flutes, getting a ride on Zamfir’s coat tails, if you will.  And who could really blame them?  These enterprising young flutists were just doing whatever they could to make a living, and to advance their own careers.  And besides, the Pan Flute was a simple explanation or description for their flutes that everyone could relate to.  From an objective view of the situation, I would put at least as much blame on the Romanian government and its official reluctance to take credit for what is probably the most universally loved and admired gift of Romania to world musical culture.  You see, in the nineties, communism had just fallen in Romania, which regarded itself as a backward country doing its best to catch up with the advanced nations of Western Europe.  And the Pan Flute, that old relic of a shepherd’s instrument, was just too backwards and primitive.

The Pan Flute and the Romanian Diaspora
When communism fell in Romania in 1989, and even before that, many young Romanians – and Romanian Pan Flutists as well – left Romania, mainly for the countries of Western Europe and established themselves there as performers, teachers and recording artists.  Gheorghe Zamfir settled in Paris; my own teacher, Damian Luca, found a home not far away in Brussels, Belgium.  Simion Stanciu, the “Paganini of the Pan Flute” who also called himself Syrinx, settled in Switzerland.  Holland, being a country that received many Romanian expatriates and refugees, also received more than its share of Pan Flutists, and now has a thriving Pan Flute and Romanian folk music community.  And a talented younger generation of Pan Flutists started to establish themselves in still other countries.  And some of these younger Pan Flutists even taught those who became master Pan Flutists in their own right, like Roar Engelberg of Norway, whose mastery of traditional Romanian folk music even draws praise from Romanian musicians.  As a result, virtually every country of Western Europe now boasts at least one native Pan Flutist. 

As a result, it now gives me great satisfaction to see that the Pan Flute is so well established in Western Europe, and around the world, that its full transmission to succeeding generations is firmly assured.  Acknowledging the spiritual kinship between Romanian folk music and that of the Andes, Zamfir has given concerts in Peru to widespread acclaim, and has even inspired local Peruvian artisans to take up making the Pan Flute.  All this is a far cry from where the Pan Flute stood way back in communist Romania, when Fanica Luca, known as the “grand daddy” of the Pan Flute, took it upon himself to teach a younger generation of Romanians how to play.  Way back then, Fanica Luca looked around and saw that only a handful of feeble old men were left playing the instrument and realized that if he didn’t teach the younger generation, the Pan Flute and its art would die with him.  How indebted Pan Flutists today are to him!

The Pan Flute in the Digital Age
Everyone loves the sound of the Pan Flute, but is that Pan Flute music you’re listening to real – or is it synthesized?  Digital music synthesizing and sampling technology has gotten so advanced lately, that only the most discerning of musicians can pick it out.  But if you listen closely to a real Pan Flutist playing in a video, you’ll see that he or she can put in a lot more different “strokes” when it comes to ornamentation and interpretation, or song styling, than are in the repertoire of a synthesized “Pan Flute”.  Real musical interpretation is a distinctly human art.  Digital recording technology has also come a long ways, and the modern musician in his MIDI studio can turn out professional sounding recordings all on his own, at only a fraction of what it used to cost in money and personnel.  This has had a great democratizing effect on the music industry, opening the field to solo entrepreneurs with talent and ambition who were cut out of the action in the days of the old capital intensive music and recording business.  And many of these enterprising musical entrepreneurs of today are Pan Flutists.
The internet is another venue that has had a huge democratizing impact on the music industry, and which has been kind to enterprising young Pan Flutists. 

Internet Pan Flute chat groups really took off in the early years of the 21st century, and provided open forums that spanned the entire globe.  Every major Pan Flutist these days now has a website through which they promote their music and sell their instruments and recordings.  YouTube is another great venue on which any enterprising Pan Flutist can put up videos of their music, or to provide instruction in the arts of Pan Flute playing as well as Pan Flute making.  Pan Flute makers also have websites through which they sell their instruments, and there are some fine Pan Flutes being made today by makers from countries as disparate as Peru, Switzerland and, of course, Romania.  The internet and social media can indeed be a great vehicle or venue for promoting oneself and one’s music, but the professional player and recording artist can’t spend too much time online, because he or she needs to stay practiced on the Pan Flute, which is a very demanding instrument.