Tuesday, April 10, 2012

First Flutes

Since I began playing flutes, some 30 years ago, I have focused on ethnic flutes, especially bamboo flutes. I own a concert flute, a glass flute, a jade flute, flutes made of various hardwoods, and several dozen bamboo flutes. I specialize in suling, from Indonesia, and shakuhachi, from Japan. I don't claim to be a virtuoso flute player, as I am primarily self-taught, with the occasional guidance from more professional players. I play well enough for my own purposes: music for meditation, for ambient music, for my own compositions for flute and other instruments.

Playing flute for myself, I find it to be an instrument that calms and centers me, based as it is on the breath, the prana, qi, ki.

This is my first flute:

Not the first flute I ever owned, which was a flute of lesser quality that was a gift from a relative. This is the first flute I ever bought for myself, and which I taught myself to play. It has shown up on more than one recording over the years.

It's a large instrument, sounding in the alto flute range, with limited pitch range, a unique tuning, and very sensitive to breath pressure. It's called a Zen Flute, and was made by John Niemi in Hawai'i, in the early 1980s. I have three or four bamboo flutes made by John Niemi, all of superb quality, and all possessing a soul, an earth spirit. That's not just my opinion; other players and listeners have made similar comments to me, unsolicited.

In December 2011, when I was commissioned to record a new CD to be used for meditation, yoga, Reiki, and/or massage, which I titled Darshan, this flute was one I wanted to use on the recording. But I couldn't find it anywhere. I tore the house apart looking for it. I looked all through the studio, all over the basement, I looked in travel bags from my last camping trip last year. I thought with horror that it had somehow been lost, that I would never see it again. I had given up hope. I went ahead with the recording project, and was well satisfied with the music I was making, but there was a hole where this old friend had been.

Just this past week, it was returned to me. I had last used it on a recording project at the studio in Chicago, when I was living out in California, and in the turbulence of recent years I had lost track of it. Without remembering, I had left it in Chicago intending to record more with it later. My friend found it when he was cleaning out his place in Chicago, a few months ago, and had been waiting for the right time to return it to me, along with a half dozen other flutes all bundled together.

Having this flute given back to me is the best thing that's happened to me all month. It's like being reborn. Now that I have my Zen Flute again, I can hardly wait to make new music with it. I have plans to record more music for meditation, yoga, etc., and this flute will be featured prominently, you may be sure.

Here are the first two flutes I ever bought for myself:

Alongside the Zen Flute is my first shakuhachi. (Japanese end-blown flute, with a long and important musical tradition to its name.) It's a rough-hewn example of the breed, also made by John Niemi. This shakuhachi is featured prominently on Darshan, appearing on several tracks. It's my first shakuhachi, and even though I have acquired other shakuhachi of officially better quality, this instrument has a special place in my heart.

Here are several of my best-quality bamboo flutes, including three shakuhachi:

Three of these flutes were just returned me on the aforementioned occasion. The evening after I was reunited with these flutes, I spent a fair amount of time playing, caressing, just getting reacquainted. To have them all back again is inspirational. I am finding new music in them, each voice being as fresh as if never heard before. It's been long enough that I am rediscovering each old friend with great pleasure.

I spent some time tonight just getting to know all these flutes again, looking for new melodies. Each of them will appear on the next recording project, and I'll be sure that they are not parted from me again.

The three shakuhachi above grouped for a family portrait:

Making these photographic portraits of some of my favorite flutes from among my collection of musical instruments was an exercise in more than one photographic technique. All of these were made using a tripod and long exposures, with directional lighting from more than one source. It was a late-night photo session made in celebration of their return. These are all relatively long exposures. I used narrow depth of field to create the close-ups, desiring to emphasize the parts of the flutes where the mouth is placed, where the breath gives life to the music. One or two of the resulting images are iconic enough to be enlarged to poster size, and printed as decoration for the recording studio walls.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never tried to play a flute but I did learnt the recorder at school and I had three eventually, a sopranino, your bog standard descant and a treble. The school had a complete set but I never saw anyone ever make an effort to form a recorder consort. I had a friend when I worked in the Civil Service who played recorder professionally and it was he who gifted me the sopranino. In turn I wrote him a couple of pieces. The only one I can remember was called ‘Kraft’ (I think it was the only piece of music I ever named) and was written in the Gypsy scale. Of course I don’t have the sheet music any more. As I mentioned once before in a fit of self-righteousness about twenty years ago I binned almost my entire past; it’s a miracle that the poems survived because apart from a couple of oils nothing else did. The recorders ended up in a charity shop.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I've thought about that kind of purge, but I could never really do it. I don't collect a lot of different things, but my musical instruments are my living as well as my soul. I am planning a big lawn sale for later this spring, to divest of things I don't need, but some things I will keep.

I have two quality wooden recorders. I also have a couple of cheap plastic ones, which are still good quality, but they're not as good as the wood ones. I keep one of the plastic ones with the camping gear, for when I'm out in the woods.

Recorders are interesting. They're an instrument almost everyone has tried. It's an instrument that it's easy to get a decent sound from, as a beginner, although like any instrument real mastery comes only with time and practice.

I wrote a suite of three pieces for recorder consort some years ago, called "Aeolus." It was performed a couple of times, and I have a recording. It reflects my strong interest in early music, both as performer and composer.

One kind of music that will always excite me is modern is a small but growing genre of early music specialists working with jazz musicians to reestablish a modern early music that includes improvisation, a skill which was essential centuries ago in classical music, but which most modern classical players don't do. I'm thinking of groups like The Dowland Project, or Rolf Lislevand's various projects. These put early music and modern improv together brilliantly. Even Sting got interested in this, and did a really good job with his album of John Dowland songs with lute.

12:17 PM  
Anonymous Danny said...

I love how the flute came back to you!

Have you shared any of these with Julio? I'm sure he would be fascinated.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Danny.

This is the first time I've shared any of this with anyone, actually. Hopefully word will get around to the ears it needs to reach.

11:30 PM  

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