September 24, 2015

Flute and Aulos in Greek Mythology - The Importance of Translation

I have mentioned this before and I know I will again but this particular issue is very widespread and deserves a post all its own. At least if you enjoy researching music in myths.
When reading anything about ancient Greece that mentions "the flute", there are very high odds that it should say "the aulos". Aulos is so frequently mistranslated as flute that you almost have to assume that flute means aulos in any English text. The aulos is a double reed instrument played vertically, sometimes in pairs and sometimes not. The flute has no reeds and is played horizontally/transverse and almost no one is crazy enough to try to play two at once. The recorder is sometimes played in pairs but again, the recorder does not use reeds and so also isn't an aulos.
Pan Playing Double Aulos
Pan Playing Double Aulos Among the White Violets
The aulos does not exist as a modern instrument and we don't know all the details of how the aulos was made or played. We do have enough pictures from vases and sculptures, as well as writings about it, to know it was not like the flute at all. The aulos does seem to be somewhat like an oboe but that comparison is not precise either since oboes are not played in pairs and don't require a strap around the head. This means that whenever you run into something saying "Athena invented the flute", "Euterpe was the Muse of flute players" or "Apollo played flute with the Muses" it almost ALWAYS means aulos, not flute.
Now just to confuse things, there was a transverse flute in use in ancient Greece. It was considered a country instrument, not very sophisticated and linked to shepherds. There are almost no mythological stories that feature this instrument and the only reference to a God playing one (that shouldn't actually read aulos that is) that I have run across is Pan and I'm not sure about that one. It is possible that the original Greek text said panpipes or syrinx instead of flute, another common mistranslation. Although since Pan was a God of shepherds, it is not impossible that in this case, they actually meant the transverse flute.
Baby Pan Playing Transverse Flute
Pan Playing Transverse Flute Among the Wild Columbine
The transverse flute just didn't have enough respect to be used in the stories. It is one of the oldest instruments in the world but it took centuries for the flute to gain any standing among other instruments in Western culture. Yet people kept playing it, teaching it and writing music for it. And now, it is so hard for us to believe that this instrument didn't matter in the past that we change the name of other instruments to flute. Flutes can be sneaky little things.

For more on the myths of the aulos see  Athena and Hermes Musical Inventions, Apollo the One Man Band and A Night at the Theater

August 26, 2015

Wood and Bone - A Very Short History of the Flute

The oldest instrument ever found is a flute that is around 30,000 to 40,000 years old. It was made from the bone of a vulture’s wing. (There are older artifacts that some claim are parts of flutes but that is strongly contested.) The top is an open tube with a v-notch on one side. The assumption is the player blew through the top of the tube down the v-notch while holding the flute vertically. This is a fairly well developed design that suggests this type of instrument dates from even earlier but finding anything older will likely prove tricky. There are a number of folk flutes that are "end-blown" vertical designs similar to this but today the instrument we most often think of as a flute (the concert flute) uses a different design and is held horizontally.

Bone was a common material for flutes for a long time. Some old flutes and wind instruments were named after the bones typically used to make them (the tibia for example). Perhaps this is part of why flutes were associated with sacrifices and religious ceremonies. Some cities kept wind players on an official payroll because they were required at religious ceremonies regularly. At the same time, it was considered a rural instrument, played by country people and associated with nymphs and wild Gods who couldn’t quite be trusted. In many cultures, playing a wind instrument wasn’t as respectable as playing strings or singing. Girls and boys both could seriously damage their reputations by learning to play them.

Wood was another popular material for flutes. Boxwood was one of the favorites for most wind instruments for centuries but so many others were used that the list tends to get excessively long. (I happen to have a maple flute.) There are many trees called “whistlewood” because the branch or bark was (or is) used for flutes and whistles by instrument makers or children. A few trees are so perfect for whistles, they have been used for generations even though they are poisonous and can make children sick.

Flutes have been made out of nearly any kind of material that can be made into a hollow tube. Wax, glass, clay, potatoes and carrots (I’m not making this up) are just some of the examples. The metal flute is a quite recent development and some modern performers still prefer wood instruments. One common compromise is for the head joint to be made of wood and the body of the flute to be metal. This generally gives it more of a wood sound, but makes the key-work more reliable and reduces the likelihood of the wood cracking.

The older flutes were often made in a single piece. Later, they were made in 2, 3 or 4 sections so key-work could be added with less effort, to make it easier to tune to other instruments and so they could be taken apart and stored more easily. The first key was added to the flute in the 1620s. This is also around the time the flute became more popular in Classical music and began to take over the role the recorder had held for years. As more keys were added, flute players could use more accidentals and play a wider variety of scales comfortably. However, there was nearly no agreement about what keys were best to use, how they should be attached or even if they should be used at all so the technical ability of flute players often related very closely to the kind of flute they had access to. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Theobold Boehm standardized the keys on the flute although there are still controversies and new keys/key designs being developed and argued over. Some styles of music (trad. Irish for example) use strictly older flute designs with few or no keys even today.
Every change to the design of the flute, no matter how small, changes the sound of the instrument so it is hardly surprising that nearly all the older styles can be heard today. What's more, each musician sounds different on each flute so one flute may sound brassy, bright, haunting or lush when played by different people. And this is why I so enjoy meeting the different flutes in the world and in history!

June 9, 2015

Program Notes or What I'm on about in my albums

Amaltheia's Lullaby-program notes-
In Greek Mythology, Amaltheia is a nymph or a goat who raised Zeus the God of thunder. Pan, half God half Goat, is the God of the wilderness. There are many different stories of Pan’s birth and antics. As the son of Amaltheia’s goat, Pan was raised in a cave with Zeus. Another story says Pan and Arcas were the twin sons of Zeus and Callisto a nymph who was changed into a bear. In yet another story, Pan helped Zeus after his sinews were stolen by the guardian of the sacred oracle at Delphi. Pan often plays a panpipe or a syrinx that can put anyone to sleep. A Labyrinth is a maze with only one path in and out. The version often seen in Crete, where Zeus and Pan were said to have been raised, has seven corridors.
The four notes F G C and E-flat are a call to Pan according to some. All the pieces on this album relate to these notes.
1 Cave Lullaby---alto flute
2 Bear Dance-Cub Steps---flute
3 Bear Dance-Tempo Challenge---flute
4 Transposing Delphi-Lament and Lure---alto flute
5 Transposing Delphi-Mirror Dreams---alto flute
6 Beggars Pan---glass piccolo
7 Labyrinth-1st Loop-Lulling---flute
8 Labyrinth-2nd Loop-Memory Game---flute
9 Labyrinth-3rd Loop-In the Garden---flute
10 Labyrinth-4th Loop-In and Out---flute
11 Labyrinth-5th Loop-Weaving---flute
12 Labyrinth-6th Loop-Turn About---flute
13 Labyrinth-7th Loop-Rainstorm---flute
14 Rain and Flood Lullaby---flute

Waking the Devas-program notes-
A while ago, a friend of mine was telling me about her new garden. It was in the country across the road from a forest. It made her happy just seeing it. It overflowed with life as if little spirits were peeping out around the tomatoes, morning glories and grass. Even the bugs that ate plants down to the ground had a magic to them although that didn’t make them less of a nuisance. The garden became a nursery for nature devas, a safe place for them to gain strength as they step, roll and rush out into the world. This got me thinking about waking the devas, fairies, nature spirits in the world around us. Drawing them into the cracks in our lives and letting them run wild. Messy sometimes but more than worth it for all the joy they bring.
1 Lament’s Balm---glass piccolo in C recorded in a forest clearing
2 Rain Dare---glass picc during a rainstorm with a few cows
3 Thaw Longing (Sun in January)---flute as a wind front built up
4 Wind and Rain (Waking Lullaby)---glass picc in a garden during a break in the rain
5 Flood Drops---flute on a sunny winter day in a greenhouse
6 Drawing Out---glass flute in G on a windy sunny day in a greenhouse
7 Fireflies-Here and There---flute at early night on the edge of the woods with crickets
8 (Enter Chorus) How Hummingbird Sees Time---baroque flute on an afternoon in a forest clearing as the cicadas warmed up
9 (Fireflies) Spying on Starfall---flute at night on a lane in the woods with crickets
10 Chorus in the Elm---baroque flute on an afternoon in a forest clearing with cicadas
11 Fireflies-World’s Rim---flute at night on the edge of the woods with crickets
12 Perseids-Night’s Overflow---flute, rattle at midnight on a lane in the woods
13 Cicada Antiphony---baroque flute on a summer afternoon in a forest clearing
14 Perseids-Some May Yet Sleep---flute on a lane in the woods under meteors
15 Lament’s Balm/Lemon Balm II---flute at night on a wooded lane
16 The Fairies’ Hounds---flute. The hounds in question scrambled across a tile floor (click, clack go the claws) but refrained from howling till the recording was done.

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April 30, 2015

Daily Musings

A while back, I decided to work on memorizing more music. I've always kind of slacked in that department (Classical flute training allows this) and I've also always wished I didn't. So I've started keeping a musical journal where I record things I'm trying to play by memory along with some of the daily improvisations I create. Not sure where this will take me but I intend to share bits and pieces as I go.

Improv based on O'Carolan's "Farewell to Music"

"Carolan's Dream"

I'm mixing up the "simpler" folk tunes (some of which aren't that simple!) with Telemann and Troubadour music. The idea is that there will be some songs I learn more easily (which will hopefully encourage me) while I'm struggling with the longer pieces. In time, I hope to share a wider variety of tunes.

March 6, 2015

Flautist, Flutist, Fluter or Flute Player

Nearly everyone who plays flute will, at some point, be asked "What is the correct term for a flute player, Flutist or Flautist?" The answer is; either one. Yes really. Some people claim Flautist is based on older versions of the word flute however that just doesn't hold up to research. In English, Flautist is a fairly recent term; Nathanial Hawthorne seems to be the first writer to use Flautist in 1860. Flutist is the older English word with the Oxford dictionary dating it to 1603. Dictionaries currently list both as correct terms for flute players. Hawthorne may have been trying to sound European (a popular fad in his day) by inventing a word based on the Italian flauto (from old Occitan flaut) to get the word Flautist. But older writers (like Chaucer) use floute/floutour, flowte/flowtour and my favorite, floyte/floytynge (playing the flute). These all developed into flute and Flutist in English.

Many people think Flutist is more common in the USA but in my experience, both get used fairly evenly. Common musicians' gossip says that Flautist is more common in England (or Europe) but again, that doesn't seem to be true in practice. Some people feel Flautist is stuffy or even somewhat insulting; they claim its too similar to "flaunting" or "flouting" in spite of not being based on either word. On the other side of the debate, some people feel Flutist is an Americanization or less technically correct; both ideas are also completely untrue. It strikes me that the objections to both words are more based on emotional reactions to (and personal associations with) the words themselves rather than on dictionary meanings of the words or their true history.

The reality is words change over time and usage shifts back and forth for mysterious reasons (take a linguistics class if you want to really hurt your head with this phenomenon.) The great Flutist vs. Flautist debate has been going on almost since the word Flautist was tossed into English and it hasn't changed much in all that time. I prefer to skip the whole issue and say "I am a Flute Player" or "I play the Flute". But I answer to Flutist, Flautist and even Fluter without complaint or regret.
Just make sure you know me before you call me a Flutter brain.