So Sunday, I went to the re-opening of Montpelier Mansion just because. And lo, the gift shop had an assortment of the wooden craft stuff you see at Williamsburg, including a signal whistle. So I picked up the whistle so that I could study it at home at leisure.
It's not all that good, but the geometry of the fipple is really clear. So I tried to fix the duck bone whistle by:
Using a flat file across the upper (mouthward) edge of the blowhole, flattening it and deepening it.
Using the same flat file to slope the edges of the blowhole. Shallowly - not the 45 degree angle on the Williamsburg model - but the whistles in my bones book look shallowish, too. Also, the bone isn't round, it's flattish.
Removed the fipple and deepened the airway, aiming for twice the depth of the blowhole.
Alas, the whistle did not magically work (although... maybe... an improvement in tonal clarity?). And while trying to remove the fipple for another go with the airway, I cracked off the top of the whistle. (See: baked bones are brittle.)
But by gum, it looks more like a proper flute blowhole now. Maybe I should give the PVC pipe another go?
We got a rotisserie duck from the Amish farmer's market. I grabbed a wing bone and said, "What the heck, let's try this." I know you're not supposed to used baked or boiled bones for making things - they're brittle - but it's what I had. (And I have a suspicion not a few of the bone flutes from history were made the same way.)
Verdict: Mostly failure. The whistle (I was aiming for one note) is hissy, not piercing. Something is wrong. It may be too small (my book on bone, antler and ivory artifacts only shows bigger whistles). Also, I still managed to cut the blow hole backwards.
But lessons were learned:
Cooked bone is easy to shear and easy to cut with a paring knife (I "drilled" the holes with the tip of a kitchen knife).
Next time, buy pipe cleaners.
Pay attention to which parts of the bone are flat, and which are rounded. Blowhole should probably go on the flat side, right?
Files are your friend.
I've put pictures of the result up on Pinterest. Allegedly, the code I've copied over will embed the pins here on the blog. It's not showing up in the preview, so let's see if it works. (If it doesn't, I'll fix it later.)
I ordered 3oz beeswax from The Bee Folks for my whistle project. It came the other day, and I promptly began to try to jam it into the flute to make a fipple.
I heated it in the microwave in 15-second bursts until the 1oz cake was soft around the edges, then twisted off a piece to work with. It was easily pressed into the tube until just visible through the blow hole.
Then, a comedy of errors involving trying to flatten one edge to create the narrow airway the fipple is supposed to do. Finally, realized:
1. Force wax into whistle.
2. Let cool and harden.
3. Remove, shave off wax to form airway.
was probably the way to go.
That seemed to be a better way to do it, but it still doesn't work. I figure the culprit could be:
The beveled edge of the blow hole might not be sharp enough.
The D-shape of the blow hole isn't as D-like as it could be across the flat side. I could file that down.
When the pipe was cut into lengths, the plastic sort of got dragged by the saw blade down across the diameter, so there's a lip there now. The wax is shaped by the lip into a cylinder a little narrower than the actual inner diameter of the pipe. Maybe I need to clean that all up.
There could still be some problem with the fipple
For a 'simple instrument,' this is surprisingly hard!
Many thanks to Dave C., who emailed me a whole passel of articles on pre-Conquest and medieval bone flutes!
Indeed, I jumped the gun a while back. Just because the 40,000-year old flutes were notched and end blown doesn't mean the Anglo-Saxon ones were and, indeed, the archaeological finds seemed to all be fipple flutes. I have to go over the articles in-depth, but some measurements jumped out: a fairly intact, large specimen 19cm long and about 11mm in diameter. That's about a pennywhistle with the last three holes cut off.
Remember the PVC pipes I bought back in March? Finally hauled one of the smaller diameter ones out and drilled two holes in it, near either end. I used a mitre box and saw to try and turn one of the holes into a D-shaped blow hole, then used a small square file to file down the edge. It looks about right.
No fipples survive; beeswax has been suggested as a possibly substance that would conform to the irregular inside of a cleaned bone. I don't have any beeswax, but thanks to having two small boys, I have an abundance of Play-Doh.
Play-Doh does not make a very good fipple, at least not right off the bat. It's too soft. I can plug up the entire end of the flute with it, but when I try to make that tiny channel for air along the top, everything just goes squishy.
Maybe I should make a plug and let it air-dry, then file off a flat spot? It'll shrink as it dries, but a thin layer of fresh 'Doh ought to make up the difference.
The call for class proposals for Fall University has gone out, and I think I want to teach a lyre-playing class. I know of at least three gentles in Atlantia who have found the lyre on their own; perhaps there are others who would be interested in giving it a try.
Now, to teach lyre playing, you need some lyres.
I asked the folks on the Anglo-Saxon Lyre Group for some advice. I was getting ready to try and make some resonator-less lyres (boards with hand-holes and strings, essentially), when Master Arden of the East mused that it might be even easier to nail together some wood in the appropriate shape. Bless him, he even provided notional sizes of the wood needed. I sure wouldn't have had any idea.
So I have a collection of bits now:
Poplar 1" x 1" x 3' - to be cut into lengths the width of the lyre. One at the top, one at the bottom, one at around the middle.
Poplar 1/4" x 1.5" x 2' - The sides of the lyre. Couldn't find any small craft boards that were exactly 1" to match the cross-supports.
Beech (? I have to check) 3mm thick plywood - from a craft store. Soundboard and back of the instrument.
1/4" x 5/8" rectangular basswood dowel - for bridge. Grabbed at the last minute in the craft store; I worry the basswood will be too soft.
5/8" round dowel and brass flat-headed screws - possible tailpiece assembly. The other advice I got was just to put in small escutcheon nails and tie the strings directly to them.
Got sandpaper, polyurethane spray, etc.
Still need: zither tuning pegs, fluorocarbon strings. (60-80lb, 40lb and 30lb test are decent starting points, apparently).
My tied-on wrist straps have seemed low. They hold the instrument to my hand well enough, but I can't relax my arm into them and still reach the strings. I recall that at least one of the extant lyres has mounts for a strap, and they're higher on the arms. My knots won't hold up high, though.
Solution: Add friction! Photo essay below the cut.
I have an ILL out on some of Graeme Lawson's reports on Anglo-Saxon bone flute finds. No offense to Arthur MacGregor, but if there's only two such bone flutes cited in his book, I may as well check them out in the original archaeological reports and see what the musicologist has to say about them. Then I go back to the bone book to figure out how to make the thing.
For Mother's Day, I took myself to the House of Musical Traditions and scored a bamboo quena. It's a notched, end-blown flute (NEBF hereafter, because I am lazy). Since I have no experience in making instruments of any kind, I thought I should get a real NEBF to see if/how I could play it, and how it was made.
I can get sound out of it, but not really reliably. Progress! But need practice. With this as a template, I can measure off proportions for trying to make a NEBF out of some PVC pipe I picked up at the hardware store.
I think I also need to lay hands on an actual archaeological report (or two or six) documenting some of the actual Anglo-Saxon flute finds. I think I've sort of assumed that because I saw one bone flute in the news that was a NEBF, obviously all early bone flutes were the same. That might not actually be the case.
Graeme Lawson's website lists his publications, which include analysis of several Anglo-Saxon flutes. None of them are easily available (read: free and on the Internet) but I can check my local university card catalogue and see what turns up.