I Breathe At It

by salamandir

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The harmonic flute is a very simple instrument that makes very, very complex sounds. It was made from a piece of 1-inch PVC tubing, about 7 feet long, that I rescued from a construction site dumpster. I have been playing it for about 35 years. I have taken to calling it a “didjeri-flute” because when people see me playing it, one of the comments I hear most frequently is “digerydoo”… which is not correct (and, at this point, I find it somewhat annoying): It’s a harmonic or “overtone” flute, Hornbostel-Sachs Number 421.111.11:

4 – aerophones
42 – non-free aerophones
421 – edge-blown aerophones
421.1 – flutes without a fipple
421.11 – end-blown flutes
421.111 – individual end-blown flutes
421.111.1 – open, single, end-blown flutes
421.111.11 – without finger holes

A didgeridu is another very simple instrument, but to make a sound on a dijeridoo, you use your lips to buzz into the open end, which causes the vibration in the tube, and use your breath, tongue and voice to modify the vibration. With a harmonic flute, you blow into the open end, which is modified by having a notch carved in it, with a leading edge that has been sharpened, to make the tube vibrate. Without question, it is an instrument that requires very precise breath control, but that’s it: There’s no buzzing, and no tongue or voice involved at all. In this recording, the sound of the harmonic flute was fed through a Boss Digital Delay, and a Roland Cube amplifier. The recording also features a brass temple bell.

The harmonic flute makes different notes based on the harmonic sequence: The first note, or “fundamental” is quiet enough, and hard enough to produce, that I don’t use it on this recording, but I can play it. Sometimes I can play it loudly enough that other people can hear it as well. The second note, or “second partial” is an octave higher than the fundamental, and it is heard fairly frequently in this recording. The “third partial” is a perfect fifth above the second partial, the “fourth partial” is an octave above the second partial, or a perfect fourth above the third partial, and it continues along a known and predictable path from there. There are no holes in the walls of the flute, or “finger holes”. The harmonic flute has two holes, one at either end. The only way to control what note you are playing is to be able to control your breath.

Other, similar flutes include the fujara, which is a fipple flute with an air-pipe and finger holes; the quena, which is shorter, and has finger holes; and the shakuhachi, which also is shorter, and has finger holes.

The recording was made in an empty room with solid concrete walls about 1 foot thick, about 20 feet wide by 50 feet long by 12 feet high, with an open door at either end. The entire room, and the surrounding hallways on either end, are completely underground, and buried by 25 feet or so of earth, with bushes and trees on top. The room was one of the gunpowder storage rooms for one of the mortar bunkers at Fort Worden, which was an active U.S. Army base from 1902 to 1953. Now that it is no longer being used for destructive purposes, it has absolutely fantastic acoustics, and I have wanted to record there for many years.


released September 1, 2015

Photos: disk image by Thaddeus Spae • cover image by salamandir
Recording was done in two sessions, 150805 and 150818, with two Zoom H2 devices.
Studio tweezing with Audacity. • Field Engineer: Thaddeus Spae
Overtone Flute, Studio Engineer and Dangerous Substances: salamandir


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salamandir Port Townsend, Washington

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