Govern These Ventages with thy Fingers and Thumb, Give it Breath and it will Discourse Most Elequoent Music.

August 16, 2009 at 1:37 pm (By Theo Boehm) ()

I’ve been very busy the last few weeks preparing for and attending the National Flute Association’s annual convention, this year held in New York.

This is a not-to-be-missed event for serious American flute players and makers. It also attracts a large international following. It may seem strange to have a convention for devotees of a musical instrument, but every year 3,000-odd flutists and flute makers cram themselves into a hotel in some sweltering city in August to hear concerts, go to lectures and workshops, and attend a trade show with every conceivable type of flute and flute-like instrument on display.

I realize this may sound to many, especially to musicians who don’t play the flute, like a particular circle of hell. But flute players have always been highly social creatures, seeking, I think, more than other instrumentalists, both to compete with and to be approved by their peers. It’s been this way for a long time. The first periodical journals devoted to a musical instrument were early 19th century British flute magazines. The flute has been a popular amateur instrument for a long time, so it isn’t surprising that music magazines aimed at this particular audience sprang up in the era of the rise of the middle classes, many members of which now had the leisure to devote to doing things like learning to play the flute or the new piano in the parlour.

The flute makes players insecure because it is, of all the woodwind instruments, the one with the greatest tension built into its very concept. Other woodwinds use mouthpieces and/or reeds that the player interacts with to produce the basic sound. These are ephemeral things that constantly need renewal, and over which players can exert considerable control and personalization. There is also an intimacy to making a sound with something vibrating in your mouth that is different than that experienced with any other musical instrument.

But the flute is oddly extrinsic. The sound is to a very real degree built into the instrument, and the job of the player is to discover it, shape it, and bring it out. Although this is extremely personal, it resembles the interaction of the player with practically every other musical instrument, and not the intensely internal kind of relationship other woodwind players can have with their instruments. The slightest physical problem, especially with the lips or mouth, can make it almost impossible to play the flute, but at the same time, there’s always something out there, just beyond the player’s grasp, that needs the best posible physical control. The tensions inherent in this situation tend to make players insecure. So it’s very common for flutists constantly to be seeking new headjoints (the top part of the flute, where the pedal hits the metal, so to speak), or to be on the lookout for a new instrument.

This is a very good situation for flute makers, but highlights another tension in flute playing: The instruments are expensive.

I’ll get into this in more detail another time with one of my usual musical instrument posts, but the basics of the situation are that the modern, metal flute was invented in 1845 to be made, not of just any metal, but of silver. The techniques used in making it are variants of silversmithing methods, and those alone, combined with the price of the precious metal, tend to produce instruments that are costly. The best flutes are also made to a very high standard of craftsmanship, which has been the tradition of flutemaking since the days of boxwood and ivory flutes in the 17th century. Related is the problem that the post-1845 Boehm flute (named after its inventor, Theobald Boehm) has a very difficult-to-make mechanism, whose complexity and subtlety of interaction with the player are found nowhere else among woodwind instruments.

Here’s a picture of old Theobald, looking very determined, and holding the wooden version of his new toy (developed AFTER the metal one):

A good, professional modern flute will start at about $10,000. There are usually a number of options of precious metals and variants of mechanism that most makers offer, so it is not uncommon for a player to spend $15,000 or more for a fine instrument. The reasons are, of course, the high cost of silver, gold, and platinum (the metals used to make flutes and/or various bits on them), and the fact that a truly well-made instrument can take hundreds of hours of skilled craftsmanship to produce.

There are perfectly good cheaper instruments, but the reality is that it’s necessary to spend at least $3,000 to get a flute made of silver that approaches professional standards. You can get $149.95 flute-shaped objects at Target, usually made in a sweatshop in China out of some dubious nickel alloy, which may or may not be radioactive because of the medical waste in it. But you can depend on these excuses for shipping toxic waste from China to ultimately end up at the bottom of a pile of junk in the basement or forgotten in some closet, long after poor Buffy has given up playing the damned thing. It just was a lot harder to play and so much more out-of-tune than anyone expected, especially the unsuspecting kid on whom it was foisted.

That is not to say that decent instruments are not made in China. But, while they may be cheaper than similar instruments produced elsewhere, for reasons that Chinese goods are always cheaper these days, the fact remains that you get what you pay for, and you are going to have to spend upwards of a minimum of $1,000 to get something functional and which resembles a musical instrument.

So there you have some nice reasons for insecurity: The nature of the instrument, the player’s interaction with it, and the expense.

If those don’t make you want to seek help, I don’t know what would. And what better place to find it than among 3,000 of your best flute-playing friends?

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)


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Today’s Dead Musical Instrument: the Viola da Gamba

July 11, 2009 at 5:25 pm (By Theo Boehm) (, , )

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)

Some of the ghosts with whom I particularly enjoy having conversations are defunct musical instruments. The good thing about dead instruments is that it sometimes doesn’t take much to bring them back to life. One easy and grateful resurrection has been that of the viola da gamba.

The old gamba is with us again, speaking in its high, nasal voice, like an ambassador from those centuries when it was the principal bowed instrument of European music. And, like any good diplomat, it knows how to fit its style to the message it intends to deliver.

Sometimes acerbic and edgy, telling stories of war and glory to the ladies and gentlemen at home, as in the clip above, with all the drama of that great age of warfare and theatre, the 17th century.

At other times, smooth and eloquent as at a great council from the same century, its head bowed in prayer at the convocation, and its subsequent discourse profound yet courteous, as in this 6-part Fantasia by William Lawes, the last great English composer for the viol (as it was known in English) before the Civil War and the age of Cromwell. Lawes was, in fact, killed on the Royalist side at the seige of Chester in 1645, but not before he demonstrated the manners he had learnt at Court:

Developed in the 1400’s, the viola da gamba, as it was known in Italian, held sway during the same centuries as the harpsichord. Viols were made in various sizes, something like the violin family, but with a few more thrown in for variety’s sake, and played, not under the chin, like the violin and viola, but on or between the legs, the larger sizes being held something like a ‘cello. Viols had six strings, tuned in 4ths with a major 3rd in the middle, like a modern guitar, and commonly had tied-on gut string frets, like lutes, early guitars, and other plucked instruments of the time. The bass closest in size to the ‘cello was often fitted with 7 strings, which was begun in France in the 17th century. Sometimes the bass sizes were played fretless, leading ultimately led to our modern string bass, which is, in fact, the lone member of the viol family to survive in continuous use into modern times.

The bow was also held with the hand turned upwards, a finger or fingers helping to regulate the tension of the bow hair. The so-called “German” style of bow and bowing technique used by some modern string bass players is the only survivor of this method of playing stringed instruments.

An early example of a depiction of the viol is this angel, playing a rather kinky-looking instrument with an equally kinky technique in this detail from the famous Isenheim Alterpiece of Matthias Grünewald of around 1512-1516:

Clearly, some music not of this earth is being made here.

If we fast-foward 2-1/2 centuries, we find ourselves face-to-face with this slightly tipsy-looking gentleman, the last professional virtuoso on the viol, a German living in the London of Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Johnson, one Carl Friedrich Abel:

Abel had his portrait painted by Gainsborough, and wrote music like the following, although his tie-back wig would have kept any flowing locks from getting caught in the strings as this guy’s threaten to do:

The one, great, semi-pop-culture moment for the viola da gamba came in 1991 with the release of Tous les Matins du Monde, a movie based loosely on the life of Marin Marais, a gamba virtuoso at the court of Louis XIV, which starred Gérard Depardieu, and sparked a short-lived craze for viols and their music, especially in France. It’s an excellent movie, except for the complete lack of coordination by some of the actors pretending to play on their instruments, the music actually supplied by Jordi Savall, who is in the first clip in this post.

If we’re back in the dramatic 17th century through that movie, we might as well get a final taste of the young Marin Marais charming the elusive Sieur de Sainte-Colombe and his daughter, Marais being played by Guillaume Depardieu, who actually could play the instrument a bit, and who came to a tragic end last year:

There are plenty of ghosts here, old and new, to keep us company if we want to bother with them. They’ve always seemed more to bother with me, but, as I say, that’s just my particular bit of luck.

—Theo Boehm

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