Who gives a toot about the flute anymore? A panegyric by Clive Bell on the once potent pipes of Pan, and some green shoots of hope for this currently degraded wind instrument.
Who is the most irritating character in a Dickens novel? Admittedly there are plenty of candidates, but among the top three surely is that serial evader of responsibility, that self styled innocent child-man, Bleak House’s Mr Skimpole. Early in the book Skimpole generously offers his friends the opportunity of paying off his debts: “Here you see me utterly incapable of helping myself, and entirely in your hands! I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies!” And which musical instrument does this parasitic phoney favour? In chapter 61 we finally get to the point: “Mr Skimpole, lying on the sofa in his room, playing the flute a little, was enchanted to see me.”
The flute’s reputation has fallen so low that it’s a fiction writer’s shorthand for fecklessness. Alan Bennett, in a short story that I seem to have thrown away, has a character acquire a new, unsuitable boyfriend. The young man’s dubious character is subtly sketched: he plays the flute.
What happened here? The flute used to be a source of power and fear. It was invented by the god Pan, who was such a monstrous baby that his nurse fled in horror, or rather panic. When Bacchus was kidnapped by pirates, vines grew across the ship and terrifying flutes were heard. And we can only guess what went on in the Hohle Fels cavern in Germany: in 2009 three flutes made from the wing bones of vultures were found there, dating back at least 35,000 years.
But the flute today is a neglected instrument, with little excitement or expectation around it. Where is the flute-playing equivalent of John Butcher’s innovation on the saxophone, or Rhodri Davies on the harp?
Maybe the flute is over evolved: as orchestras swelled and composers demanded more, 19th century engineers modified the wooden flute into a metal marvel, dripping with pads, keywork and other technology. The aim was to be able to play louder, and race about in any key. So now flutes can do little else than race around in any key, earning diminishing returns.
The saxophone came to dominate Anglo-American jazz ad nauseam, and it’s not till you look at Brazilian music that you realise this wasn’t inevitable. In Brazil flute players like Pixinguinha and Benedito Lacerda were the bandleaders and innovators of the choro tradition, and experiments with timbre and flair were conducted on flute rather than sax.
As a flute player myself, I feel someone ought to do something about this crisis. Flutist or flautist? We don’t even have an agreed job title. The best recorded flute playing I heard this year turned out to be the wind blowing across a metal gate, outside Sandwick Junior High School in Sandwick, Shetland. It was recorded by Martin Clarke for a compilation of field recordings titled v-p v-f is v-n on Winds Measure. Martin tells me the wind was doing 40 mph.
It’s even hard to compete with pigeons. In Beijing and Indonesia flutes are attached to pigeons, who then generate a sky-borne flute choir by flying in circles. In the UK we’ve had a chance to hear this, thanks to Dead Rat Orchestra’s Nathaniel Mann. For the Audible Forces tour of aeolian sculptures, Mann devised flutes for pigeon fancier Peter Petravicius and his flock of Birmingham Roller pigeons.
And here is the France based sound sculptor Will Menter, in his new book, Always Sound: “I listen to the wind. I change its song with simple ceramic flutes mounted high up on posts where it blows harder, capturing and tuning the air currents from whichever direction they arrive. Or I climb trees, as high as I dare, and hang the flutes from the branches.”
Sometimes it can feel like flutes are managing just fine without flute players.
Is there any hope? I’ve found two green shoots, flute players doing something new, maybe tapping back into that primeval power that Bacchus and Pan flaunted so languidly. Kelly Jayne Jones is half of the duo Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides. Her mix of flute and lo-fi electronics is ritualistic, with a cussed strength that owes nothing to technical flash. There’s an early hint of it on the below extract from PWHMOBS's Bataille De Battle, though Jones’s sophistication has grown in the five years since that was released. Live, her flute is fully integrated into a table’s worth of pedals and percussion. The duo have found their own way into a beguiling world, less austere than much current Improv, where grapes might climb a mast.
And in Berlin there’s Sabine Vogel. She has a sound artists group project called Landscape Quartet, where she drags sound out of the flute’s secret interior, or records the environment through a microphone hidden inside a flute. And she’s made a wonderful album for Absinth Records, called Kopfüberwelle (Headlong Wave), improvising with The Necks’s Chris Abrahams on church organ. Here’s a live set from 2012 – there’s the persistence and delicacy of a John Tilbury:
Both Vogel and Jones have the nerve to let a flute sound like a flute. It may not have nurses fleeing in horror, but it’s a start.