How did you become interested in making flutes, and how did you learn your craft?
I am a self taught flute maker. I have worked in wood since I was very little. For Christmas I always asked for woodworking tools from my father instead of toys - I hated toys! - so it has always been in my hands to work with wood. But then how did I come to flute making?
I always wanted to play a musical instrument, but I was not very good with schools and teachers - for me it was like prison. My father told me I could choose any instrument I wanted as a child but I had to go to music school. For me it was a strange idea to voluntarily go to another prison, so I never learned an instrument. And then, when I was in my twenties, I really missed the fact that I did not play an instrument, because a lot of my family are musicians.
At that time I heard a flute on the radio. It was a Persian ney (played with an interdental technique which gives it a very warm, windy sound) and it really opened up my interest. I don't know why, I think maybe because you make music with your breath and it's a simple thing - just a tube with some holes in it - and I was drawn to that. But I was unable at that time to get that instrument in hand.
But around the same period I heard a fujara on the radio, and the sound really struck me like lightning. I was like, “Wow, what the hell is this?” I investigated where it came from and who did the recording, and it was quite a coincidence that the guy who made the recording lived in my city. It was like a one in a million, because it's a very unknown instrument. I went to visit him, bought my first flute over the internet and started playing. But I was not really happy with the sound - it was ok, not a bad instrument, but he had an old flute there that made really interesting sounds – and that's when I decided that I must make my own instruments.
Everybody thought I was crazy because I came from art school and I was a painter doing murals to make a living. Everybody thought, “What's flute making? Old guys in mountains do it! Why should you?” But it was not really a choice - I really wanted to make my own instruments. I'm quite stubborn when I want something and quite meticulous! So I went by trial and error and that's how it started actually.
I didn't have the gear I needed, or the drills, but I heard that in Germany they had some old hand forged drills to make water pipes. I figured that if those drills could be used to drill a branch or the trunk of a tree to make a water line then they could also be used to make a flute. So, I went on vacation to Germany in search of these drills, looking on old farms and stuff like that, until I found my set, and then I just basically started fiddling around for a couple of years.
I really made a lot of bad flutes! Because it's not difficult to make a flute that makes a sound - but to make a flute that has a well balanced voice, is very controllable and has an intriguing sound and character, that's a very different story. Though I had in my own ways of course looked at some instruments, because I had no teacher I spent a lot of time searching for results by myself.
Then I went to Slovakia with my best results, and it was quite a strange experience. It was very interesting because I went to some of the best makers there, and they were really surprised that some Belgian guy came with their national instrument and did it completely differently. In fact it was kind of a reverse world, because one of the makers there asked me, “What have you done, can you show me this?” because he thought that the sound was interesting. So though I went there to learn something, I had to show him what I did because he thought it was exotic. So I thought “There must be someone here who can show me some stuff.”
Then I heard about some old guy who made fujara, and everybody was very envious of his sound. Pavol Smutny was his name. So I went with my backpack full of flutes to his village and knocked on the doors saying I was looking for Pavol. I found him in the forest chopping some wood and said hello. I showed him my instruments and he said to come to his workshop. I played some of his flutes and they were amazing! He showed me some methods he knew, which was by the way all with hand gestures because I didn't speak Slovak and he knew little German, so it was eye to eye which made it very intense. But I got along with him very well. When I left there it was a very special moment.
So that's where my whole basis came from: completely self taught, but then this old guy opened up to me and shared with me some stuff he knew about sound and what he thought about sound making.
So I got my basics of cutting a good fipple, started playing the instrument, making my own sound, and finding my tuning (which is traditional but adjusted, because I have to play along with a saxophone player for instance), and from there got interested in other flutes with different sounds, one of them being the kaval.
The Romanian type of kaval is also a fipple flute. In the Balkans it's just a tube and the player has to use embouchure which is quite difficult. It's the same in Macedonia. But the Romanians make it with a fipple on the back side of the instrument, so the lower lip can press on the sound window to alter the sound. So this is a fipple flute that has a very strong character. Because I was at that time very skilled in making fipples, I started making these for myself, making my own adjustments in sound.
The one on the video is a Moldavian kaval with additional holes. Normally its a five hole flute, but I make them with more holes so I have more possibilities. And I make them a bit more overtone sensitive. That's where the fujara making comes in, because I can alter the sound of the Moldavian kaval to be a bit more overtone sensitive, which is how I like them.
What gives your flutes their distinctive voice? How much of it is a mathematical design, and how much of it is intuition?
Well, though everything in a musical instrument is about physics, in the beginning a lot still comes down to coincidence. When one flute sounded different than another one, then I investigated why. Sometimes I actually opened up a flute or split it in half to see what happened - so there is some sacrifice. But actually, investigating why an instrument sounds bad makes you understand how a certain form or size can influence the sound. That's how I got my information.
A lot of people who get taught or go to school get the size and the scale and stuff, and that's the good way and that's how they do it. But some old guys told me it was very good I did by myself because, by trial and error, you understand why the sound is bad or harsh or sharp. This way, later, if people ask you to make an instrument and they want a sharp or fine or warm sound, you know how to do it because you made so many bad instruments.
Actually, there's not much coincidence any more because I have done it so many times. The voicing is purely mathematical, like the size of the window, the angle of the air, the diameters and lengths of the windway, and things like that. The nice thing is, because I work with the natural shapes of branches and with hand tools, so no machines, and I drill the bore with hand drills, there are always small errors which make each instrument have its own specific character or voice. So though I always apply the same techniques I know, which change constantly because I am always learning, and voice my flutes the way I want them to sound, there is still always this margin of unexpected things.
This is for me where the real beauty of these instruments comes in, because after years and years of practice you can actually get small mistakes in the right place, which create the beautiful character of the sound. For instance, sometimes in the beginning when you are learning, the flute sounds different than you would like, and you see that you had some kind of angle somewhere, or some kind of scratch, or there was fiber in the block and it gave a sound that was maybe bad. But if you control this error it can become interesting, because it doesn't disturb the general voice of the instrument. Actually, if the instrument sounds too clean you can make a small conscious failure somewhere, which is not a failure, just an altered form, which actually gives a lot of character to the instrument. If you file a sharp edge, or tilt the angle of the air by half a millimeter, this can voice the flute. So I learned to apply very meticulous, conscious mistakes you could call them, and that's how I do it now.
This is nothing new by the way, I read an article about old violin maker who first had some kind of symmetry going, and who then consciously made some asymmetrical changes to his instruments to get the character of the sound.
As you are primarily working with branches, did you find that the asymmetrical shape of the branch actually led to discovering these mistakes, as opposed to working with something like PVC?
Had I worked with industrial tubes I would have discovered things in the area where the sound is created, where the block is. But it is also important that you can alter sounds or tuning aspects with the bore, and this comes from making the bore yourself. You could find this with tubes if you pout wax inside in certain spots and and made bumps and things. But for me, a lot of the pleasure of making instruments is working with natural forms and natural materials. I have made flutes of PVC just to test or to search for scales, and the material is very unpleasant to me.
I think it's just my way to work with wood. It's not better than making flutes on a lathe or working with machines or with industrial pipes or whatever. That's fine too, it's just not my way. If you would work with pre industrial forms or make everything exactly the same you could make great instruments. My way is not better, just different. But for me it would be less interesting because I would not enjoy it as much if I made ten flutes which were almost identical. For me the passion or the joy I get from my work is that I make individual personalities or characters; And though each instrument is a voiced with all the techniques I know and with all my feeling for what I want from an instrument, the natural shapes and even very small characteristics of the branches make each instrument and individual with a distinct personality. I think most of the joy I get is from never making the exact same thing.
It might sound corny but when I finish an instrument, especially fujaras because they are almost human-sized, they can be in my workshop for up to one week and, once I get detached from the making process (which takes a couple of days), I can look at them as a personality who visits me, or a Christmas present, and it's a joy if you know what I mean. And this is because they are always unique pieces.
Where do you get your branches? How do you have to process them, and what has to be done to it in order for them to be made into a flute?
Each winter when the sap is low, I go and select trunks. I always work with trunks. Even for small flutes I use trunks of bushes or trees, because they are the best in structure for me. So I go and select the various wood types that I use, cut them down and put them on the drying rack. I leave the bark and everything there and put wood glue on the ends of the branches so they don't split, actually slowing down the curing process. Then in the first year some woods need pre-drilling with a very small diameter. For other wood I just glue the ends and leave it and, depending on what wood it is, remove the bark at certain stages in the drying process. So basically they are here for four to five years drying in a rack before I start using them.
And does the drying process cure the wood somehow, stabilize the wood or improve the tone?
Yeah of course. You can actually rush it by putting the wood in the kiln, which I have tried before, but for me it works the best to stabilize the wood in a very slow way. Once you get your wood reserve, it's the most easy thing actually. You can start screwing around with kilns, but once you have your one year of dry wood, it's ok just to forget about it.
Is the traditional approach to fujara making very similar to what you intuitively came to, in that you have to make mistakes and work on your own, and not necessarily just have the measurements handed down to you?
That's actually not the traditional approach. The traditional method is handed from teacher to student, and that's actually a difference that the old guy who I related to very well pointed out, that a lot of traditions get taught some way by a teacher, and the students do it the way he said and they just make the same stuff for 20 years. But for him it was very important to keep on experimenting. And he was one of the few who was messing around all the time, trying different stuff, and who had the nerve to make bad instruments actually. I think that's why he was such a good maker. He was known for his sound because he took the time to always research for improvements and was actually unhappy always making the same stuff.
There's not too many who still do this every time. A lot of people, once they know a certain way that works, go for that and that's it. But, for instance I was talking to a very talented virtuoso guitar player (he plays gypsy swing) and he was telling me about guitar making. There there was one guitar maker he always went back to, and in his eyes he was one of the best because he still had the nerve to make very shitty guitars. I think there's a lot of beauty in this. Because even though he had a very great name and was very famous, he still had the nerve to make a guitar that just sounded bad, because he was trying out some stuff and he didn't know if it would work. The guitarist said this is a way to recognize a good instrument maker, and there's a lot of truth in that.
In what other ways has tradition played a role to the development of what you do, or how has it worked against you?
Tradition for me is important – it's where a certain instrument comes from and it's how you learn to play it. So I have a lot of respect for these traditions and always try to learn what I can from a certain way of playing, or where it comes from, or the background of the instrument, or the fingering which is used. I listen to a lot of tapes and watch videos and stuff like that and I try to get as much information as possible. But then, for me, once I get the feeling and I've done some studying, it would be feel strange just to copy that and not add something, because then I would just be a faint copy of something which is not even my own. So what I do with a lot of respect is to try to play traditional tunes and learn the fingering, get some traditional instruments and look at them and smell them and feel how they are. And from that I do my own thing. Then again that's just who I am and what I do.
When you get invited by these countries it is strange in the beginning, because in a way they open their arms for you because you are some guy from abroad who is doing their stuff; But then again there are also lots of questions like “why?” and “who are you?” and strange stuff like that. And this is because you're not following their dogmas. And this is actually always very interesting for both parties but, for me, I don't get stuck in that.
I approach music in much the same way, in the sense that I play instruments from around the world and try always to integrate new acoustic sounds and voices. I also start by learning traditional tunes and fingerings and techniques. But for me also, the instrument really comes alive when I'm able to begin composing my own music on it. It seems to me that it's that same composition process that has fueled traditional instrument construction over the years, because as players invest their own abilities and time composing and they say “couldn't this instrument give me more of this or that quality which I am look for more of?” So traditional music is the basic course of education on how to play these instruments, because the instrument and the music developed together . But I don't believe that the instrument should be relegated to traditional approaches only, or somehow set in stone.
Yes that's true but you point out a very important aspect of this, which is that when people learn an instrument from a different culture or from a different tradition, they should at least put in the effort to learn as much they can can about where it comes from and what it is. Because a lot of these instruments are underestimated by people. Like there's a lot of musicians who say “it's just a flute with some holes.” Or a percussionist might laugh a bit at some sort of primitive drum or something. So they use these instruments as exotic gadgets and they don't really get into the old ways of playing. They make some noises and use them for gigs, and this is a pity in my eyes because these instruments are much more than that. So, for me, I try not to do that and not to call something my own just because I bought it, but investigate it first
You can compare it with abstract painting. A lot of people say that painting an abstract tree just takes some some brushes and some paint, and then you just go berserk. But, in my opinion, to do it in a good way, or a controlled way, it is important first to be able to paint a tree in an academic fashion and to have the necessary technique to paint a tree how it really is. Then you have the technique and the freedom to make an abstract version. I believe this version will be a lot stronger, with much more fundamentals inside of it, than a version by somebody who didn't even bother to learn the technique. This is something which I saw a lot of at art school: People hiding their inability to paint behind abstract painting. But some people made a lot of effort to really learn technique and this made them hit the tree in a couple of lines, because the lines were in the right spot. This is what guys like Picasso could do. A lot of his stuff might seem really weird, like “what the hell a child could this!” But if this guy made an acadmical painting he would blow you away. This is a very important aspect, and it's the same for me before learning some sort of instrument which comes from a tradition.
I have seen the same kind of resistance to the idea that an instrument that seems simple on the surface could have have the necessary depth to convey something beyond the level of novelty. But, conversely, it often seems that in the modern quest for chromatic versatility in instrument design, the innate characteristics that make instruments unique and enchanting can be ironed out. For instance, I have been listening to a lot of Bulgarian kaval music. For an instrument that is a tube with holes and a rim across which you blow, it's produced more compelling sounds than I could ever imagine. I think that the more time that musicians and instrument makers invest in evoking the unique qualities of sound that reside within a given instrument, the more reward musically speaking there actually is. Whereas when music and instrument design is focused on versatility – you can play the whole chormatic scale, any style, in equal volume in three registers for instance – the unique voice of the instrument can sometimes be left behind. And the value system that gets adopted is one of complexity, because when there is nothing left in the sound itself, you have to take that sound and make one hundred notes and play everything you possibly can. Someone who is steeped in that kind of value system of “complexity is everything” might overlook paying attention to the shape of one note or the depth of one note. But, on an instrument like a fujara or kaval that is so rich in overtones, the possibilities are endless in evoking the subtle qualities of that one note.
I think there's a lot of truth in that. For me what is also very interesting is restriction. Some instruments only have five holes or seven holes, compared to a chromatic instrument with keys. That's why a lot of people underestimate them. But in that restriction, you can also actually recognize the skill of the musician who holds it. Because again, you can hide behind a lot of notes and scales and virtuosity. But sound modulation is very important to me when I listen to music because, in the end, that's what touches me. I can enjoy a virtuous player who blows me away with lines and notes for 10 minutes, but then it's finished, because you cannot wow all the time. But someone who has really mastered the silence between the notes and who is a master in that sense can build up a whole piece with a couple of notes and mesmerize me completely. And so for me a lot of these things are in restriction and sound modulation. And that's also why these primitive instruments are very interesting and, I think, why they resonate.
In the end, why do people listen to a cello concerto from a certain composer? You can estimate that they listen to it because of composition or the player, or just because of the sound of the cello. I think, for me, each time I ask myself this question, I know that of course the composer and musicians are very important, but in the end why I put on a CD and listen to it is because of the sound of the cello. It touches me. And then this gets taken to a level a high level because of the musician and composer. It is, in the end, all about the sound.
For instance, the cello suites by Bach were initially written for the musician just to practice at home, but they are still some of the most beautiful pieces ever written. You can ask yourself why.
- Written by Chris Rippey