How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I’m new to playing the flute and I am curious.

I am aware that today’s classical music flute player plays with a more pure sound whereas the player of Irish traditional music (ITM) desires to play with more of a growl or gravely sound.

How or why did the two come about to be so different?

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Ppl might be put off by your "pure" terminology

But speed, beat, bounce, reciprocal breathing and connaught style piping had major influence on the Irish flute. Specifically connaught style piping, best of luck and good question

Irish flute players create a pulse or beat for dancers by creating glottal stops on the beat

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I don’t know for certain, but I suspect a better framing of your question might be: "why did classical music change to prefer a pure sound", because that is likely what happened.

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Beid, I certainly did not mean to offend anyone by that term "pure". I am not speaking of rhythm at all. I am referring to the sound or tone coming from the flute. There is a difference in sound from the two players (nothing to do with rhythm or beat or bounce. It is very hard to describe sound. Use whatever term you want to describe the classical players "tone" or "sound". It is different from the ITM sound or tone. Why or how did we get such a drastic difference in the two?

Calum, thank you. That was one of the possibilities that I started to list but found my post was getting very long so I edited all the possibilities that I could think of out of my original post.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Why does any music change from pure this to pure that? It would die if it didn’t.

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

My theory would be that the "hard" or "edgy" tone helped flute players in the Irish countryside to be heard when playing along with other fairly loud acoustic trad instruments like fiddles, whistles, and pipes. Especially when playing for dancers, either informally or in a large Cèilidh band. The kind of sweet tone preferred by Classical players today might have been lost in the mix.

That tone works for modern Classical players because they’re organized in a woodwind section in enough numbers to be heard, and that particular timbre is one of many used in orchestration. There are other instruments in an orchestra like horns and reed woodwinds to fill the "edgy" role.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Well back in the 19th century - 1800 to 1900 - marching bands were more popular in Ireland than today. In them the Fife is popular. Then as Classical Orchestras moved to Boehm from the wooden Concert Flute, a trickle of those arrive in the Irish market. There is a YouTube clip of Patsy Hanley talking about this very thing, but cannot locate that.

That’s not an answer to your question but does provide a backdrop. Guess the technique used by professional Concert Flautists enriches the Irish embouchure which had developed from simple Tin-Whistle style.

As for ‘glottal stops’ and such, suspect one has to start very early in life to achieve that depth of control, never mind ‘circular breathing’ which is almost as obscure. And would prefer not to pontificate on style too much, being an obsessive ‘Leitrim - Roscommon - Sligo’ tradition fan, Matt Molloy, Seamus Tansey, Patsy Hanley, Josie McDermott, John McKenna, Mike McGoldrick, and a train load of others which escape a bad memory.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

If the term *connaught style piping* was the phrase patsy touhy, oneill and John McKenna used to describe it, it’s good enough for me.

I knew what you meant by pure, no worries

But the beat and the pulsing that give it that sound come from glottal stops that are there for dancers.

I know flute players who have played for years and don’t hear what your hearing and or have no concept of your question so you are on right track.

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I´ve seen this framed as a contrast between the Nicholsonian (Named for Charles Nicholson, 1795-1836) a flute player of Legendary Strong, penetrating, tone, founding what has been called ´The English School of Flute´, and the so called ´French School of Flute´ founded by Claude-Paul Taffanel. The French were early adopters of the modern Boehm system flutes, and came to dominate modern orchestral flute playing. You could say Irish Trad Flute players have never abandoned Nicholson´s conic simple system flutes and never abandoned the ´Sound´
Nicholson demonstrated.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Thank you, postie, for an actual attempt to answer the original question, and both informative and plausible at that.

As for "reciprocal breathing"… It turns out that words fail me.

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I should add, that Robert Sidney Pratten was the protégé of Charles Nicholson, and Nicholson´s ´Big Sound´. Pratten gave us the large bore, large hole conic flutes we call Prattens or Prattenesque, that are much favored in some Irish Trad Flute-playing circles.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Sigh, postie, you beat me to it.

One of the interesting aspects of Nicholson (a.k.a Leather Lungs) is his description in his tutor of how to get a soft airy tone. But then going on to say it should be used only for special effect. Whew!

It’s hard to imagine a clear line of inheritance from Nicholson or even his period to modern Irish flute playing. Especially when we notice that, in early images such as you see in O’Neill’s, most of the early Irish players seem to be wielding small-holed German flutes. So it’s perhaps the case that our Irish players and the 19th century flautists independently discovered the same approach to conical flute playing. If you give enough monkeys enough typewriters, sooner or later…

Wayne Gandy, you might find this of interest:
http://www.mcgee-flutes.com/Getting_the_hard_dark_tone.htm

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I wonder how someone with no preconceptions about how a flute ‘ought’ to sound would choose to try and make it sound in that musical context. (Thanks for the link to Kevin Henry Beid) .

I’m inclined to think, along the lines suggested by Beid, Conical Bore and others, that it’s a sound that works well with the style of playing adopted by the other instruments so that’s what people did (maybe not so readily on those German flutes).

We hear conical flutes flute played that way in other traditional music but I guess it’s hard to know (except where people have said) if that is due to a pervasive influence of Irish music or because people have independently found that that is what works for them.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

This style of Irish flute playing is actually handed down straight from the fairies…

Well, actually, I think perhaps aiming for a tone closer to the uilleann pipes might have influenced the playing. And perhaps also as mentioned above an English tonal ideal that originated with Nicholson.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Thanks to all who have responded to my original question and thank you Terry McGee for the wealth of information in the link and its associated links that you provided.

I’ve never been fond of the classical flute tone. When learning to play the Irish whistle last year I was listening to a lot of ITM and the sound of the Irish flute caught my attention. I’ve now begun to learn to play it and am having a grand time doing so.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Spellchecker socks.

I mean I hate spell check?
Circular breathing is probably what I meant

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Along the lines of what hnorbeck just posted (and Beid earlier), I’ve heard it suggested by Grey Larsen and others that the fingered articulations (ornaments) used by Irish flute players were adapted from the sound and technique of the pipes.

If this is the case, then it would make sense that Irish flute players would go for a "reedy" tone as well. This could have been an independent development, unrelated to Nicholson’s influence.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Why are ye giving monkeys typewriters terry?

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Infinite monkey theorem…. learning something new everyday. That’s a first for me. Lol

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

If you give a monkey a banjo, within infinite time, he’ll come up with "The Bucks Of Oranmore" - but I wouldn’t want to wait around for it 🙂

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

@ Terry McGee. Great explanation on the difference between Classical and Irish Flute technique. Very clear, well written, enjoyed reading. Thank you. It answers the question well.

http://www.mattmolloy.com/home

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Thanks Beid, Wayne. I think it’s good to talk about the tone and ways to get it. In my day (going back to the early seventies) teachers and players seemed more obsessed with repertoire and ornaments, leaving tone to develop itself.

On the topic of the hard tone, I think "being able to hear yourself" might also have been an issue that led to the harder, more focused tone. Especially if you have a flute that isn’t all that powerful. Play such a flute in a session or ceili band with a meek blowing style and you’ll only be there for visual effect. Fiddles, pipes, accordions, banjos, pianos, etc all have much more robust and efficient sound generation systems than our flimsy "air-reed". Even the whistle has the benefit of being out in a relatively uncolonised part of the sound spectrum. But we are in the heavily populated part of the spectrum, surrounded by canon. Edgy tone and powerful rhythmic effects can reset the balance.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I think postie is the only one close to the answer. This is how English large hole conical flutes were blown and if you need a loud sound from one then it’s how they must be blown.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

It may well be true that the tone we associate nowadays with traditional Irish flute playing was partly inherited from C18-19th English flute playing. But it seems obvious to me that a style of playing that has evolved to accompany lively, energetic – and often noisy – dancing would need to have a more robust tone than a style that has developed for the purposes of entertaining silent, sit-down audiences. Competition for audibility with other instruments (in ceilidh bands, sessions etc.) may also have been a contributing factor, but we have to bear in mind that, in past times, dances were often accompanied by just one instrument (which, in North Connacht, is as likely to have been a flute as a fiddle or anything else) and it takes a powerful tone to be heard above the talking, laughter and battering of feet.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Audibility for dancing in time before amplification also. I think that was mentioned in a discussion of the style of players such as John McKenna - powerful and less ornamented than many more recent players.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I would add one further historical fact as food for thought. We have a number of illustrations of pipers playing in rural settings for dancers. This would be early on, say 1790´s to the early 1800´s. Often they might be accompanied by fiddlers at these country frolics, but nearly as often you might see someone playing a military fife as well. These could easily ´cut through´ and provide accompaniment for the dancing. Rural Ireland at that time had a poorly developed infrastructure, and the British had only recently ´pacified´ the hinterlands, so barracks, and military strongpoints were salted through country-side, along with their associated regimental bands. Fifes are cheap, loud, and durable. They lend themselves to the ´huff and puff´ playing style we find in some Irish Flute playing traditions.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

And how about "applied ignorance" being part of the mix? When I decided to "take up flute" I went into town and bought one. A Boehm metal flute. This was back in the early 1970s, so no internet. I worked at it for a while to prove it was possible, then decided I should probably take a few lessons. When I went to a local flute teacher, she was appalled. I was playing really flat! She checked the flute - set the embouchure hole back to in-line - then passed it back to me. Still flat. She decided I was blowing too far down into it, and ordered me to blow more across. "No, higher. No, higher still. That’s better. Keep it like that."

And every week she’d check to make sure I was in tune. I didn’t like the tone I was getting, but I didn’t want to be playing flat either. And the flute head was pressed hard in, so it was all up to me. The flute was built on the assumption of a blow-across embouchure approach. Bit by bit, I learned to play it up to pitch.

And when I got a wooden flute, I kept blowing across, even though I now had plenty of tuning slide pulled out. It took some years before I was moved to go back to blowing down. I had a lot of "unlearning" to do.

So if I, learning to play without a teacher or any other guidance, naturally adopted a blowing-down approach, perhaps generations of Irish players simply did the same. You fiddle around until you get the tone you like most, and then work on improving it. Why would you think to blow in a direction that yielded a less attractive sound?

It would be interesting to offer flutes to a number of non-flute players with a minimum of instruction, and see where they end up.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

From Terry McGee: It would be interesting to offer flutes to a number of non-flute players with a minimum of instruction, and see where they end up.

Me: I’m thinking the subjects would be heavily influenced by what kind of music they liked and the sound from the flute they liked. Likely, non-flute players who liked classical would keep adjusting things until they got what they thought was an appropriate sound from the instrument. Likewise, ITM non-flute players would search for the dark tone.

Now if you could get some people who had heard neither……..

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

Terry, you always did favour an experiment over a speculation, didn’t you?

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Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

I think Terry would agree that we have wandered into the ´black arts of cutting flute embouchures´. Does depth of the chimney demand a certain style of blowing? The Boehm world has very carefully staked out embouchure parameters, very different from the Rudall & Rose World. And, we have yet to pay a visit to the sub-continent of India and the Bansuri world of thinwalled bamboo fluting.

Re: How did the Irish Traditional Flute "sound" come to be?

The reedy sound and volume which was reported by those who listened to Nicholson, is thought to be due to his closed embouchure technique which increases the volume of the second harmonic. The low notes are played at just below the point were they jump to the next octave. Increasing the amplitude of the second harmonic relative to the first creates a well documented psychological effect of the listener thinking that the first harmonic(the note the listener reports as hearing) is louder. This technique flattens all the notes compared to open technique so Nicholson could make the finger holes larger. The sound spectrum for both Boehm system and conical flutes shows that for the low notes the amplitude of the second harmonic is greater than that of the first. Part of the answer as to sound quality difference bteween the two flute systems is due to the greater difference between the first and second harmonic amplitude that is observed on conical flutes. The reedy or wooden sound of conical flutes is generally more noticeable when playing low notes