Monday, March 30, 2009

Tara Breen and Cathal Mac An Rí

A selection of tunes commencing with “The Bee’s Wing” hornpipe and continuing with “Jackson’s Reel” by All-Ireland Senior Duet Champions for 2007, Tara Breen and Cathal Mac An Rí from CCÉ Doora/Barefield, Co. Clare.

Blackwood used in Musical Instruments

If you have ever heard the mellow tones of a jazz or classical clarinet solo, you have been listening to the natural sound of an instrument made of mpingo. In the last century, cocuswood from the Caribbean region was the wood of choice for woodwinds, but the species was driven into economic extinction by that demand. African blackwood is now the wood used exclusively for fine quality woodwind instruments. Their manufacture demands a perfect piece of wood free of all defects to allow the intricate machining necessary to create such a complex instrument. To quote flutemaker Casey Burns, "African blackwood, which makes an excellent flute, is now the standard by which all other flute tonewoods are judged."

Since blackwood is a tree that grows twisted and full of flaws, extracting high quality timber is extremely difficult.mpingomusicblanks.jpg (18276 bytes)Graders at the mill reject up to 90% of the wood to the scrap pile. Additionally, instrument makers are finding that they lose up to 20% of their workpieces during the machining process at the factory. It is thought that this may be due to the exposure of mpingo to fires in excess of what would occur naturally during its growth. This may create hairline cracks and invisible defects in the wood that cause it to explode apart on the lathe during manufacture. Such large amounts of wastage put an added demand on the remaining stands of timber.

African blackwood's exceptional stability under extremes of humidity and temperature is a necessary characteristic for instruments played by blowing air into them. Its density and fine grain structure allow it to be machined much as if it were metal. Its tight grain and oily nature allows it to be polished to a beautiful sheen. Not only does blackwood have no peers for this purpose, no suitable natural replacement is known. Composite materials made of blackwood dust and resins, as well as various plastic compounds have been used for the manufacture of woodwind instruments, but their acceptance among professional players is poor.

The clarinet is perhaps the best known of the woodwind instruments and serves as an illustration of the indispensable place blackwood holds in the world of music. The clarinet consists of a cylindrical tube with a bell-shaped opening at one end and a mouthpiece at the other. The mouthpiece has a flat cane reed attached which vibrates when blown upon. This vibration produces a full, rich tone. The tube contains open holes and holes covered by keys. The fingers open and close the holes and operate the keys to produce notes within a range of over three octaves. The complex machining required to produce this configuration produces an excellent result when the wood is mpingo.

Blackwood clarinets are known for their warm and beguiling musical tone. Most professional musicians feel there is no substitute for an instrument made of blackwood. Acker Bilk, well-known clarinetist for such pieces as "Stranger on the Shore", had this to say about mpingo clarinets in the PBS video, "The Tree of Music": "It's got that warmth about it, that live sort of feel about it–wood–you can't beat it!"

Mpingo also figures prominently in the making of bagpipes. bagpipes.jpg (10592 bytes)A bagpipe is a wind instrument which produces sound through reeds. Except in a few special cases it is made of at least two sounding pipes tied into an airtight bag with a further pipe to allow it to be filled with air. Pressure is applied to the bag using the arm, and this causes the reeds to vibrate and sound. Mpingo is an excellent material for the sounding pipes of this instrument.

Most of the mpingo harvested in eastern Africa goes to the music trade, its primary economic use. Some rough estimates, such as cited in the "Tree of Music" video, say that there are about 3 million mpingos in Tanzania. Of these, only about 600,000 are suitable for the music trade. Since there are between 20,000-30,000 trees harvested per year, one can calculate that there only remains a 20-30 year supply of harvestable mpingo. Of course, other trees growing may mature into suitable candidates for harvesting, but the natural regeneration of mpingo has been negatively impacted by the increasing pressure of human activity. Set-fires, for agricultural purposes, have a considerable impact on the mpingo population, since its natural resistance to fire is not strong enough to resist the human-set fires which are more intense and occur more often than natural fires.

Fauna and Flora International, a conservation organization in England, has been instrumental in gathering information about the status of mpingo in recent years. It has created a project called SoundWood to address conservation issues concerning the woods used in musical instruments. SoundWood conducted a conference in Maputo, Mozambique in the winter of 1995 to discuss the mpingo tree--its status and implications for its future conservation.


Old Flute Care

This page is about looking after 19th century original flutes.

All woodwind instruments require the same general care. Given that care, there is no reason why they should not be in perfect playing order in another few hundreds of year’s time. The rules are simple:
Always mop out your flute thoroughly after playing. Otherwise, the moisture from your breath will soak into the instrument and cause it to crack or raise corrugations in the bore. Mopping also polishes the bore, preventing the build up of roughness and ridges that weaken the tone.

Prepare a piece of absorbent cloth (old T-shirt material is good) that will just pass through the narrowest part of the flute. I find a strip about 250mm (10") long and 75mm (3") wide about right. Attach this to the end of your cleaning rod.

Mop out the foot joint and body sections first, as these tend not to be so wet. No point in distributing moisture from the headjoint throughout the rest of the flute! When you mop out the headjoint, fold the cloth back over the tip of the cleaning stick to get right into the corners near the stopper. Twist the rod both directions to remove as much water as possible.

If your flute has a metal tuning slide, remove the slide from both the headjoint and body and mop any moisture out from the ends of the tenons and the insides of the sockets. This is important as the endgrain of wood soaks moisture up very quickly.

What happens if you don't clean your flute. This cork stopper was taken from a German flute whose owner admitted he never bothered to clean out after playing.

The cork of the stopper can be seen as the dark brown patch on the right hand side. On top of that is a cracked crusty layer of something organic - probably based on Guinness. On top of that is a vibrant growth which clearly enjoys the lifestyle. There was more but it came off in the battle to release the stopper from inside the head. The inside of the head was lined in similar accretions, the flute now plays considerably better with them gone.

Treat a new flute gently. For the first week, limit your playing to sessions of about ten minutes in duration. Mop out the flute and give it a rest to dry out for a few hours. Slowly increase length and frequency of playing over the next few weeks.

If you're playing for a while, it's a very good idea to mop out every 30 minutes or so. Preventing the build-up of moisture achieves two things. The flute is less likely to be damaged and it is easier to play and sounds better.

If possible, leave the instrument's case open after mopping out. This allows the remaining moisture to evaporate.

Never leave the instrument in a hot place, such as a car, mantelpiece or window sill. This invites cracking.

Regularly oil the bore with proper bore oil (not vegetable or machine oils). I use and recommend LeBlanc's Bor-seal, available from most music stores or me. Oil the flute each week for the first month, then each month for the first year. After that, twice a year should be enough.
Prepare a small piece of cloth for oiling your flute. I find a piece about 75mm (3") by 40mm (1 1/2") useful. You will find that until the cloth is saturated in oil it tends to rub off as much oil as it applies. For this reason, I recommend soaking the piece in oil and consequently keeping it in a small plastic sealable bag. Otherwise you will find your supplies of oil diminishing quickly and you won't be really sure whether you are applying enough.

The bore must be quite dry before oiling, and a few hours or preferably a day should then elapse before the flute is played. Strip the flute down to its component parts, removing tuning slides and stopper. If you have keys, either remove them or slip pieces of plastic sheet (or cling wrap) under the pads to prevent contamination by the oil.

Attach the oily cloth to the end of your cleaning rod (try to minimise skin contact with bore oil - you don't want your pores sealed). Squirt a little bit of oil into the bore of the flute and use the cloth to distribute it uniformly throughout the bore. The bore should glisten with the oil, but there should be no blobs or runs forming. If the bore doesn't look wet, add some more oil.

Because endgrain of wood absorbs water so easily, make sure to oil any endgrain areas where moisture might gather. Examples include the bottom of the sockets and the ends of the tenons (the parts that plug into the sockets). If your flute has a metal tuning slide, this applies to the ends of the tenons that plug into it.

Do this in each section of the flute and set it aside to dry. Pack your piece of oily cloth away in its bag and store it with the oil. Carefully reassemble the flute when the oil is dry, remembering to reset the stopper to the correct position as shown on the other end of the cleaning stick.

The outside of the instrument can be oiled with bore oil applied with a cloth. Buff off any excess oil with a soft cloth. You can also use furniture polish.

Do not leave the instrument assembled for long periods. This compresses the tenon cork, requiring the cork to be replaced earlier.

Use cork grease on the tenon corks as soon as you detect any sign of resistance when assembling your flute. Keep the cork grease with the flute so that it's always available.
For best results, massage the grease into the cork with your fingers. Grease the inside of the socket too. If resistance persists, seek attention from the maker as the socket wood might have swollen and could jam.

If a joint becomes loose, have the cork replaced by the maker or a qualified woodwind repairer. As an interim measure, you can wrap some waxed dental floss around the joint. Do not use cotton thread as this can swell with moisture and jam the joint.

If a joint jams, do not attempt to force it. Leave it for a few days without playing. The swelling should go down. If jamming persists, seek attention from the maker.

The rings on the flute sockets are not just decoration - they are vital to preventing the thin socket wood from splitting. If a ring comes loose, do not assemble the flute, but seek attention from the maker or a qualified woodwind repairer.

Dirt building up inside tone and embouchure holes can affect tuning and tone. Do not use anything harder than soft wood to remove it. Be especially careful of damaging the edge of the embouchure hole.

Be careful while cleaning or oiling not to damage or dislodge the cork stopper in the head-joint. You can check the position of the stopper by inserting the cleaning rod up the head-joint backwards. With it touching the face of the stopper, the mark engraved near its end should appear centrally in the embouchure hole. (This assumes that your cleaning rod is calibrated for a conical flute and not a modern cylindrical flute. The mark should be 19 mm from the end of the rod.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Mist on the Mountain Jig

Fintan Vallely

Fintan Vallely is a musician and writer on traditional music. From Co. Armagh, he has taught flute at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Co. Clare since 1986, and was the author of the first tutor for Irish flute - Timber, the Flute Tutor - in 1986. This book is being reissued during 2008 in a new, expanded form as The Irish Flute Tutor, published by Walton's, the leaders in teaching manuals for Irish music. His other books include The Blooming Meadows (a collaboration with Charlie Piggott and photographer Nutan), Together in Time (a biography of Antrim flute player John Kennedy), and a major reference work, the edited, A-Z Companion to Irish Traditional Music (1999). This book is currently being revised for a new edition in 2009. Also coming out in addition to The Irish Flute Tutor in 2008 is his Tuned Out - Traditional Music and Identity in Northern Ireland, and a satirical song collection titled Sing Up! Irish Comic Songs and Satires for Every Occasion .

He features on several albums, with a solo recording in 1979 with Shanachie, USA (re-issued in 2008) Irish Traditional Music on Concert Flute, and another in 1992, The Starry Lane to Monaghan. I in 2000 an album of satirical song with singer Tim Lyons was produced, and an album of his own music compositions - Dark Loanen - is due in 2009.

He is currently lecturer in Traditional music at Dundalk Institute of Technology. There he is also supervising research in Traditional music undertaken by several highly regarded musicians including Gerry O'Connor, Jesse Smith, Jacinta McEvoy, Oisin Mac Diarmada, Seosamh O Neachtain and Sean McElwain. A major emphasis of the overall research programme which Fintan Vallely is directing through the concluding years of this decade is an investigation of the association of Traditional music development, popularization and globalisation with Popular music aesthetics and promotion.