Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Too Many Flutes (7): Solid Gold Cadillacs and Copper Tubing

The price of flutes rises steeply depending on the metal they're made of, from silver-plated nickel through solid gold and platinum. The influence of the material on the sound of the flute is a matter of debate. Jennifer Cluff, a Canadian flutist who posts a great deal of valuable information on the web, sheds some clear light on this matter, as does a paper by Gregor Widholm and others.
I had the feeling that flute makers were charging disproportionately for the metals they use, so, out of curiosity I weighed my Sankyo silver flute on an admittedly not absolutely accurate kitchen scale. It weighs just about 500 grams. Assuming that it is sterling silver (it isn't - it's a special alloy developed by the Sankyo company), the silver in the instrument would be worth $230. So, let's say, $250 to give Sankyo the benefit of the doubt. That's not a large proportion of the price of the flute. Assuming that flutes made of other materials weigh about the same, a 14 karat gold flute would contain about $12,000 worth of gold, which goes far to explain the high cost of these flutes. Platinum is a bit more costly. But, if it doesn't make a noticeable difference in the sound of the flute, why pay so much more for a gold or platinum flute? (Or, for that matter, a solid silver flute as opposed to a silver plated flute?)
Looking at it another way, if the metal in a silver flute doesn't cost more than, say, a maximum of $500, given the different types of silver used by the best makers, why should a Brannen flute cost $13,000 or more? Obviously, it's a matter of the workmanship, and if I had a huge amount of spare cash, I would be very tempted to buy one. But still...
Saxophones, which are much heavier than flutes, are generally not made out of silver, though manufacturers do make silver neck joints for them. Some musicians I know use these silver neck joints, and they claim that they improve their sound. That's possible but also very subjective. A wind instrument sounds different to the player than to the listener. The musician's body is essentially part of the instrument, and their ears are not a few meters from the production of the sound. It's impossible for players to judge their sounds objectively, because they are part of the sound.  If the material of the flute or neck joint or whatever makes the instrument sound better to the player, regardless of whether the listener notices the difference, that's an important justification for paying more. Making music on a high level is extremely demanding, and every psychological edge helps the musician.
All of this is by way of justifying an unjustifiable purchase. After I donated my Armstrong student model flute, which needed some adjustment, to a music school, I had only (!) one flute, my expensive Sankyo flute. What if I brought it with me on a trip, and it was stolen? What if I dropped it and had to have it repaired? I persuaded myself that I needed, as it were, another, less expensive flutes.
A Taiwanese company, Guo, makes flutes out of plastic, but they didn't appeal to me. Then, one day, I searched for "copper flutes" on the web, and, lo and behold, I found one, made by the Schiller company, a defunct German manufacturer, which was revived. The Jim Laabs store in Wisconsin markets Schiller instruments (and, apparently, has them manufactured in China). It wasn't outrageously expensive, so I bought one. I was a bit depressed at the time, and I decided to cheer myself up by buying myself a present.
The pleasure of getting a gift was soured a bit because it took a lot longer to arrive in Israel than I had expected, partly because the store had the instrument adjusted before it shipped it, and partly because Fedex sent it back to America because they didn't have my phone number. It appears to have been made by people who were trying to produce something decent, and it is. Not as good as my Sankyo, but, considering that it cost about a sixth of what the silver flute cost, it's an amazingly good buy.
So now, in addition to all my folk instruments, I own two Western flutes, which is definitely twice as many as I need. But I enjoy playing on the copper flute. It's a bit harder to play than the Sankyo. The low notes don't come out as easily and as clearly, so playing it is a bit like running with lead weights on your ankles. When you take them off, you're lighter on your feet.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Too Many Flutes (6): A Luxury Item

I was persuaded to spend about twice as much as I planned to spend, when I decided to replace the Di Zhao flute I had owned for a couple of years. That flute was in the category of a "step up" instrument, better than a student model but not professional level.
The flute that Asaf Ginzburg sold me, a Sankyo silver flute, is on the bottom level of professional instruments, which extends upward through solid gold flutes that cost much as much as a luxury automobile.
Asaf set me down at a counter with about six excellent flutes, and, together, we tried them all and narrowed the choice down to the one I finally bought. From the very first note I played on one of the sample flutes, I could hear and feel the improvement over the Di Zhao, so the die was cast right away.
Asaf is a persuasive salesman, a clever businessman, and I like him. I like visiting his store in Tel Aviv. I love to see the huge array of instruments he has for sale. And I appreciate his knowledgeability. He knows his instruments. His prices are not low compared to the prices of huge Internet outlets like Woodwind and Brasswind. But his store is in Tel Aviv (only an advantage to Israelis, of course). You can go there, try out the instruments, compare them, and bring them back for adjustment. By the time you buy an instrument from an online store, have it shipped to Israel, and pay the VAT, the price isn't that much lower than in a local store. In my opinion, Ginzburg earns the difference between what he charges and what you'd pay if you ordered something from abroad.
Ah, but let's get back to the flute itself.
I've had dealings with Ginzburg over the years, and he pretends to recognize and remember me when I come in - being the fine salesman that he is, he probably does remember me. He more or less guessed my age, my income bracket, and my seriousness about playing the flute. As we moved toward closing the deal, which included trading in the Di Zhao flute and buying a new case for my baritone saxophone, he admitted that the flute was better than I was. At my level of playing, I didn't need a professional level flute. However, how many more flutes was I likely to buy in my lifetime?
(This reminds me of a friend of mine, at least eighty years old by now, who bought a big white SUV, saying to himself that it was probably the last car he'd ever buy).
I usually have a good deal of sales resistance, and I don't tend to buy high end stuff, but Asaf overcame my parsimony, and I'm grateful to him. Having an excellent instrument pulls down all the barriers to one's progress as a musician, and it's also an incentive: I want to play well enough to justify owning such a fine instrument. In the two years that I've owned it, I have improved, and, most importantly, I have enjoyed playing it.
Yesterday I played a Telemann trio with my wife, playing the piano, and a friend of ours, playing first flute. It was a hot day, and I wasn't feeling so great, but playing the music, even though our performance was hardly on a professional level, energized me. Where does that energy come from? I asked. Certainly not from the notes printed on the paper. Objectively speaking, it comes from within the musician, but, subjectively speaking, it feels as if it comes from a higher source. So if my overly expensive flute can give me that feeling from time to time, it is worth every penny and more.
So why did I buy yet another flute?
More to come.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Too Many Flutes (5)

When I decided to buy a Western flute I went to a small shop run by Charly Elbaz, in downtown Jerusalem (he has closed it since then and doesn't deal in used instruments anymore). I've known Charly slightly for a long time and he's repaired my instruments now and then. He had a small selection, some for 800 sheqels and some for 1000 sheqels - not a lot of money.
I bought a used flute manufactured by the Blessing company, which no longer makes flutes - they specialize in brass instruments today. I couldn't really try the different flutes out at the time. Charly had to show me where to put my fingers on the instrument. The one I bought probably wasn't much worse or better than the others at that price.
There are literally hundreds of used student-level flutes on the market at any given time. Just check on ebay or on the Goodwill Industries web site. Lots of them cost less than $25, but they're probably not worth fixing up. There's something sad about that.
I struggled with the Blessing flute for several months, trying to figure out how to play by watching instructional Youtubes. I figured (arrogantly) that I had enough experience with woodwinds, that I didn't need to take lessons, and, in a way, that was right. By trial and error I could have reached some level of proficiency and left it at that. But I was dissatisfied and frustrated, and I wanted to play flute as well as I can play saxophone. So I sought out a teacher and ended up with Ra'anan Eylon, a master teacher with decades of experience, who has worked out a sound method for turning beginners into musicians.
As I advanced, I discovered the shortcomings of my first flute and traded it in with Charly for a slightly better one, an old Armstrong flute. Charly, being a gentleman, gave me full credit for the Blessing flute, even though I offered to accept less than the 800 sheqels I had paid for it.
I played the Armstrong for a while. It was a reliable, solid instrument, quite easy to play, but limited in its responsiveness. But I was outgrowing it and got Ra'anan's approval to look for a better flute. He wouldn't authorize me to upgrade until I reached a level that required it. When he finally told me that I had progressed enough to reward myself with a better instrument, I started looking.
On a local web site that I found that someone was selling a new Di Zhao flute for 3500 sheqels (if I remember right), or approximately $1,000. Coincidentally, the man who was selling the flute was a young student at the Jerusalem Academy who, in partnership with Ra'anan, my teacher, had imported half a dozen flutes by Di Zhao, a new Chinese company established by a craftsman who had worked for the Powell Company in Massachusetts (I believe), making head joints for them. So Ra'anan had no problem in recommending the Di Zhao flute, which I played for a couple of more years.
The Di Zhao flute was a good instrument, made with care, and I played on it for a couple of years. If I wasn't sounding good, it was my fault, not the instrument's.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Too Many Flutes (4) - Traverso

Before I took up the Western Boehm system silver (plated) flute, I reasoned that it would be easier to play a baroque flute. I love baroque music, and I particularly love the soft, round tone of the baroque flute, which gradually supplanted the recorder during the eighteenth century in Europe. Wooden baroque flutes, copies that modern craftspeople make of old flutes that are in collections and museums, are, as they should be, very expensive. But a Japanese company called Aulos, which makes recorders, also manufactures baroque flutes out of resonite, for much less money.
I bought one.
On the scale of frustration, the Turkish Kaval and the Peruvian Quena are 10 on the scale (most frustrating), the Chinese flute is 4, and the Indian flute is 3. I rather expected the baroque flute to be easy to play. Boy was I wrong. Getting a decent sound out of it was difficult (indeed, I didn't make much progress in that direction till I had played a Western flute for a while), and playing in any key except D major turned out to be cumbersome. The instruction sheet that came with the flute warns that F natural is out of tune, and you have to turn the flute lower the pitch. It also sounds fuzzy, as do other very common notes like C natural, B flat, and so on.
When I listen to contemporary musicians playing the baroque flute, such as Stephen Preston, whom I met at Wildacres in the summer of 2016, I'm astonished at the apparent ease with which they play. I would say that I don't know how they do it, but I do know how they do it: they practiced like crazy when they started out until they mastered the instrument.
That being said, an expert musician can play passages faster on the baroque flute than on the Western keyed flute, because you don't have to move anything mechanical except your fingers.
Incidentally, on a trip to Ireland I fantasized about buying an Irish wooden flute, thinking to add to my collections of instruments that I can't or don't play (including a metal G clarinet that I bought in Istanbul), but they cost up to a thousand euros, and that seemed like a bit too much for a souvenir.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Too Many Flutes (3) - Bansuri

When we finally got to India in February, 2015, the only souvenir I knew I wanted was a bansuri - an Indian flute. Before the trip I did a lot of poking around on the Internet and discovered that one of the top makers of bansuris, Anand Dhotre was from Mumbai, where we would be. From his excellent web site I was able to purchase a flute in the same pitch as a Western flute, and he agreed to deliver it to the hotel where we were staying. He brought two flutes for me to try, but, since I had never played a bansuri at all, I could only choose by the decoration on the flute: the one with the orange trim, which I happen to be holding in the picture with Anand that someone in the hotel lobby took for us.
My intention was not to learn to play Indian music, though I love to listen to it. Indeed, at this moment I'm listening to a Youtube of Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasiya, whom I have heard in concert several times here in Israel. I love the deep sound of the bamboo flute, the way the player makes the sound float, the gentle energy. During our trip, only two weeks in a country where you should spend at least a year, I played the bansuri every day, and when I returned home to my Western flute, I found that it had helped my tone. Every once and a while I take it out and play it. It has a slightly charred smell from the way Anand burned the fingers holes into the instrument.

I didn't really have to buy a high end bansuri. Not far from our hotel, a peddler was selling flutes to tourists for a tenth or so of what Anand's flute cost. I bought a small one and recently gave it to my grandson, a very musical fellow who got a sound out of the instrument within minutes.
Perhaps the best way to use my bansuri would be in a form of musical meditation, which is the way Indian music sounds to me.
That trip to India was mainly focused on textiles, and we hardly heard any music at all. Perhaps we'll be able to take a musical tour some time. Meanwhile, I have my bansuri to keep the memory of India warm.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Too Many Flutes (2)

Our first trip to eastern Asia was to Vietnam, a difficult destination for a man who reached maturity during the Vietnam War, and whose every desire was to avoid going to Vietnam, both to stay alive, and also in political opposition to the war - though I am constrained to admit that I was not an anti-war activist.
Everything about Vietnam was surprising, from the intense motor-scooter traffic on the roads to the youth and energy of the population, from the candor and intelligence of our guides to the vigor of the practice of Buddhism as a folk religion, with the burning of incense, the bustle of pilgrimage sites, and altars covered with offerings for the monks. I was also surprised that we encountered no hostility because we were American-born. The Vietnamese have made it a matter of policy to put resentment and the suffering of the war behind them (though there are plenty of museums and monuments to their victory).
The music in Vietnam was a also major surprise for me. We heard live music in several places, and it pleased and interested us. So, when we passed a shop in Hanoi that sold traditional instruments, I decided to buy a flute as a souvenir. This instrument is called a dizi. It's a Chinese instrument, and the writing on the end of the instrument is a classical Chinese poem, which a friend of ours, Andy Plaks, translated for us.
It took me some time to get a sound out of the instrument, but I finally managed, and that encouraged me to take up the Western flute later on. Some time after we came home from Vietnam, I can't remember now whether it was months or years, I decided to buy a used flute from a local music store, and after struggling on my own, I decided to take lessons - and that was the start of an obsession.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Too Many Flutes (1): Three folk instruments I can't play

Here's a pan pipe. My daughter bought it for me in Peru, and it's a good one, not a product for tourists, but I find that playing it is frustrating. Just getting a decent sound out of any one of the tubes is fairly difficult, but then leaping from tube to tube with your mouth to make melodies is too challenging for me.
I imagine this was the first kind of flute that people made, when they got the idea of playing different notes on reeds that they blew across, before they figured out that you can change the pitch by making holes in the pipe and opening and closing them.
I don't mind that I can't play it. I'm glad to have it. A friend of mine, Professor Jeremy Montagu, professor emeritus of music at Oxford, amassed a huge and varied collection of musical instruments and wrote several learned books on the subject. His collection is museum quality. Mine, maybe 100th the size of his, is essentially composed of souvenirs thrown together without much of a plan.
A few years after my daughter came back from Peru with the pan pipe, we went to Peru ourselves, and I bought a quena, another kind of flute, which I find hard to get a sound out of, though recently I've been able to produce a decent tone - occasionally.
To get a sound out of the pan pipe, you just blow across the top of one of the bamboo tubes, the way you blow over a soda bottle. To get a sound out of the quena, you have to press the instrument against your chin and direct a thin stream of air onto the notch in the mouthpiece. Essentially it's a recorder without the structure on the top end to direct the air. When you blow into a recorder, you can't miss. You always produce a sound. When you blow into a quena, you have to find the right angle.
The quena in the picture is a sophisticated model, with a bone mouthpiece and a body made of hollowed out wood. The simpler ones are fashioned of bamboo. Once a visitor to our home, not a friend, but a man who showed up for some event, noticed my quena, tried it, played amazingly well on it, and offered to buy it on the spot for much more than I paid for it. I absolutely refused.
I've seen and heard Peruvian musicians playing these instruments with facility that astonishes me.
As much as I love them and enjoy owning them, I'm not adept at playing folk instruments. I know how to play modern Western instruments with elaborate systems of keys and pads, and that's the kind of instrument I feel comfortable with.
Here in the Middle East musicians play the ney, a tube with finger holes in it, and no mouthpiece at all. Neys are usually made of bamboo, I think, though people also make them out of pvc. Once on a trip to Turkey I bought a related instrument, a kaval. It's long piece of caved cherry wood, light and delicate, and, for me, hard to play. I'm pleased when I manage to get a sound out of it at all, and always impressed when I hear musicians playing the ney in concerts of Middle Eastern music, getting a rich, breathy sound. Played into a microphone, it carries over all the other instruments.
To master any of these three folk instruments, I would have to invest long hours of practice, and I'd also have to play the kind of music they're intended for. I enjoy hearing that music, but it's not what I listen to frequently. Owning the instruments isn't, for me, a commitment to playing the music they were made for, but more a tribute to the human desire to make instruments and extend our voices.