Shakuhachi Materials Discussion Thread

(excerpts from a fascinating discussion posted Feb 4-6 2002 to the Shakuhachi mailing list; also see the Shakuhachi BBQ discussion and this scientific discussion)

From: Zachary Braverman (ten.amadotok|yrahcaz#ten.amadotok|yrahcaz)
Date: Mon Feb 04 2002 - 19:02:34 PST

I don't get the controversy. Has anyone ever seriously argued that the material something is made of has no effect on the tone that thing will produced when struck, blown into, or twanged (is that a word?)?

Isn't it intuitively and experientially obvious from playing the thing that the material vibrates along with with column of air, and determines in large part how the column of air will sound?

Ever play a wooden shakuhachi? It sounds like wood, not bamboo. There's a reason that people don't all play wooden shakuhachi, or PVC shakuhachi. Take a wooden bowl and a glass bowl of the same size. Would you expect them to sound the same when tapped? Of course you wouldn't.

I remember hearing somewhere that the Stratavarius (sp?) violins that cost millions have their distinctive sound because the trees used in making them grew in a swamp. I'm no violin expert, but for some reason that piece of trivia has always stuck in my head.

I'm not sure physics or acoustics textbooks have that much to teach us about shakuhachi. Then again maybe that's why I dropped out of physics….

From: Nelson Zink (moc.xemwen|kniz#moc.xemwen|kniz)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002

What we're talking about is areophones, NOT idiophones. This means we're talking about woodwinds, NOT instruments that you strike.

It's important that you understand the reason for this distinction. With idiophones the material IS vastly important. With idiophones that's what you're playing - the material.

Now Zack, focus your mind. With an areophone (a flute), what is the material you're playing? It's AIR! The material all areophones use to make sound is AIR. When you really GET this, the whole thing will clear up. With a shak you're NOT playing bamboo you're playing AIR. The material used to enclose the AIR is incidental. With areophones it's the shape of the emptiness that you're playing, the geometry. A shak isn't dependent on it's bamboo, it's dependent on the shape of it's air. All woodwinds use the same material—AIR!!

Shakuhachi makers don't shape bamboo, they shape emptiness -that space in the bore!! They just use bamboo to do it. They just create a 'bottle' for the material - AIR.

I'm not being difficult, arcane or argumentative. When you really comprehend how a shak works your playing can go to a whole new and much deeper level. You're playing shaped AIR - that's the instrument. Open your mind to the fact that air is a substance, a material that can be formed into musically interesting shapes.

Sorry for being so direct, but it's my birthday today and I'm taking liberties.

From: Monty H. Levenson (moc.ihcahukahs|ytnom#moc.ihcahukahs|ytnom)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002 - 01:03:04 PST

Great discussion. Glad to see I'm not the only one losing sleep over these issues.

My own experience as a shakuhachi maker totally corroborates Coltman's and Jakeway's conclusions:

"… the sound [of a woodwind] comes from the vibrating air column inside the instrument. This sound is produced through the end or through open tone holes, not by vibrations of the instrument's body, as is true of string instruments. Dozens of published reports, some dating back 100 years, converge toward the same general conclusion: so long as the walls are thick enough to remain rigid - about 0.4 millimeter (0.016 inch) for metals, two millimeters ) for woods - and the inside walls are smooth, the kind of material used for a wind instrument is, for the most part, immaterial."

This became quite clear to me when developing a technique for mathematically scaling the bores of various sized flutes to produce a prototype for my 2.8' (Key of G) shakuhachi. In order to minimize variations in wall thickness and resulting finger hole depth, I attached bamboo mouthpieces to PVC flute bodies which were then outfitted with precision bores. The sound of100% bamboo instruments that grew out of these experiments is indistinguishable from the prototypes. They have identical pitch, timbre and resonance qualities.

There is complete consensus amongst researchers on the acoustical physics of woodwind instruments in regard to this issue. It was amply summed by the renowned Arthur H. Benade in his Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics (2nd ed., pp. 499-500), who wrote:

"The question of whether or not the playing properties of a wind instrument are influenced by the material from which it is made has been the subject of curiously bitter controversy for at least 150 years." … [The walls of a pipe] cannot radiate sound into the room with sufficient amplitude to be heard in the presence of the other sources of excitation. Because of this, changes in the material or the thickness of the walls cannot detectably alter the sound of an instrument insofar as it depends on radiation by the walls… .

"Since 1958 I have made several studies of the possible difference in damping that can be made by using copper, silver, brass, nickel silver, or various kinds of wood as the air-column wall material. If the walls are thick enough not to vibrate and if they are smooth and nonporous, experiment and theory agree that switching materials will make changes in the damping that are generally less than the two-percent change that most musicians are able to detect."

It may be hard to believe, but the bamboo, tonoko and urushi that make up a shakuhachi have nothing to do with the sound it produces. Their function is to define the physical parameters of its resonating air column and other structural aspects such as the mouthpiece and chimney height of the finger holes. The sound we are so taken by is a manifestation of air molecules vibrating inside of an empty (albeit highly-defined) space.

From: Zachary Braverman (ten.amadotok|yrahcaz#ten.amadotok|yrahcaz)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002 - 01:38:02 PST

I don’t mean this to sound snide at all, but if that is the case, then why don’t you just mass produce flutes made to your specifications out of PVC? They wouldn’t be pretty, but they’d be very cheap, and if they had the exact same sound, the only reason people would object would be romantic sentiment for the appearance of bamboo.

From: Monty H. Levenson (moc.ihcahukahs|ytnom#moc.ihcahukahs|ytnom)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002 - 10:32:40 PST

Good question, but what took you so long to ask? I say this with a smile because I get it all the time.

The answer is simple. Opinions about the "fact or fiction" of woodwind acoustics aside, which would you rather own as your personal instrument, a shakuhachi made from PVC or one made from madake bamboo? The preference is obvious and it's hardly "romantic sentiment".

Furthermore, why bother making a flute out of plastic water pipe when crafting one from bamboo requires the same amount of time and attention to detail. (I would argue that working with bamboo is actually easier. Ever try sanding PVC?)

I would also suggest that a well-playing shakuhachi — made from any material — is impossible to mass-produce. Nor could it be sold "very cheaply", as you suggest. Wooden lathe-turned models made using a reamer to fabricate the bore attempt this, but do not come close to the standards demanded by most professional players. Unless the bore profile is meticulously fine-tuned to within a a few hundredths of a millimeter along its entire axis, the instrument will not perform adequately. That process requires a great deal of time and effort, not to mention expertise as a craftsman and player. I've yet to see the machine that can accomplish this task.

Polarizing this issue into opposing camps of "science vs. art" is useful up to a point, but ultimately misses the boat. The experience of shakuhachi is a total one, encompassing and transcending such dualistic explanations. As you well know, the encounter with this instrument can be simultaneously visual and tactile, emotional and deeply personal as well as acoustical. Bamboo and its long history as a human resource, in and of itself, is a fundamental undeniable part of that experience, In this regard, the science of sound does not take away from the mystery of shakuhachi. It only adds to it.

Correct, there's a thriving business awaiting someone who can figure out how to make a really great inexpensive shakuhachi out of PVC. Sorry, but that person just doesn't happen to be me. I'm too busy scouring the hills trying to find the perfect piece of madake.

From: Peter Ross (moc.cisumsdnahduolc|ssoretep#moc.cisumsdnahduolc|ssoretep)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002 - 16:45:46 PST

Hi Nelson,

Even though it's your birthday I couldn't disagree with you more. I believe that without a doubt the material is of extreme importance. I feel that the bore and the mouthpiece affect how strong a flute plays and the material affects the tone or voice or soul of the shakuhachi. Air is vibrating inside and off of the material. This affects the tone we get, just as acoustics vary in a wooden, or a concrete performance space. When I perform in a concert hall with hardwood floors and ceiling the sound is different than plaster or concrete and I know I'm not vibrating the room. The sound waves are bouncing off the material. Some material is more or less absorbent than other material. The shape of a hall is important but so is the material. Ask any performer.

While I can't back up any of this scientifically, I know shakuhachi made of different materials sound different. I hear it. I also don't know why I get a sound when I blow into my flute. Couldn't explain it to you. But I know how to get that sound and I sure hear differences in flutes of different materials.

I've made hundreds of shakuhachi over the last 30 years. Most out of bamboo, some on a lathe out of various hardwoods, and more recently dozens out of pvc. The wooden flutes not only sound different than bamboo, but each wood has a distinctive sound. I used a steel tapered reamer so the bores were uniform. Rosewood sounds different than maple or ebony etc. & etc. All the maple sound alike, and all the cocobolo alike but different than the other woods. Same shape, different material.

I've also made hundreds transverse flutes out of bamboo with hardwood lip plates. This small amount of wood in the mouthpiece greatly affects the tone color of the flute. Ebony is brighter, purple heart is mellower etc. Silver flute players put a rosewood head joint on their flutes for a sweeter, warmer sound.

The pvc shakuhachi I make play surprisingly strong even without a tapered bore. They have a decent tone, but if you play a bamboo flute after the pvc in comparison it's different and not as sweet or bamboo sounding. I don't think plastic lined or plastic shakuhachi sound like "plastic", but they don't sound as dark, sweet or warm as bamboo. They have a different voice.

Ji-nashi flutes have the most natural, bamboo sound. Flutes filled with plastic, or made out of plastic may play loud but lack the dark , warm tone most professional players like. I think the filler used in Japan is somewhat porous and allows a warmer sound to come through, or off of, but if there's too much filler of any kind it affects the tone. And the tone is so important. Some Americans are into volume over tone it seems, but the Japanese players discuss tone color all the time. Sure, volume is important, and we all look for a strong playing flute, but the voice is of equal or greater importance. Here's an example. If you went to a night club and heard a loud singer with a voice you hated, would you leave and turn to a friend and say "She had an awful voice but at least it was really loud"?

No one, especially a scientist can convince me that I don't hear what I hear.

From: Brian Miller (moc.tcennocr|kbrellim#moc.tcennocr|kbrellim)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002 - 17:28:37 PST

During this fascinating discussion I was thinking how it relates to stringed instruments, where the type and quality of material have a major impact upon sound quality.

Here is my theory, FWIW: The sound board of a stringed instrument is just that - it must be able to vibrate in order to generate sound waves. It is the same, in theory, as a speaker cone. Flexibility, tensile strength, thickness, rigidity, and density (along with other things, I'm sure) all factor into how efficiently it converts mechanical vibration of the strings into sound waves. The sound box, on the other hand should be a good sound reflector; any vibration of this structure absorbs energy rather than amplifying or projecting it. However, it's this vibration (along with that of the soundboard and strings) that adds unique tonal colorations to the instruments.

In wind blown instruments, the purpose of the body of the instrument is to set up the resonances in a column of blown air. Again, vibrations in the body of the flute steal energy away from the air column. Apparently Monty's experiments have proven that the degree of vibration in a flute body has an insignifcant impact on the tonal coloration.

BUT - the inspiring experience of a vibrating shak between ones fingers is hard to deny. It is as if a second, and much stronger energy - prana or Qi if you will - is awakened in the flute by passioned blowing.

From: B. Ritchie (ten.tta.tendlrow|0002omen#ten.tta.tendlrow|0002omen)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002 - 17:35:27 PST

Right on Peter!,

I agree with everything you have said here.

When people bring me their flutes or flutes they are considering buying for evaluation I always make them sit in a chair with their backs to me and I play their flute along with any other shakuhachi I have in the same length. In the most common case, 1.8, that means I play shakuhachi ranging from beautiful old Kinko flutes to Monty's cast bore, Edo period ji nashi flutes, PVC flutes, wooden student models, Myoan flutes, and whatever else happens to be around. I then play the same piece of music on each flute and ask the listener to react to the sound itself.

Even the least experienced people have no trouble distinguishing between the different sounds, and generally describe the flutes in terms which would be expected for a flute of each type. For example old Kinko flute, smooth, rich. Monty cast bore, bright. Ji nashi, earthy. Plastic flute, thin. Wooden student flute, dull. They are almost always able to tell by the sound which flutes are old and which are of recent make. Because they are not looking at the flutes when they listen they are not bringing preconceived notions to the evaluation.

On the other hand the feeling one gets from a flute is totally subjective. Nobody else can tell you how a flute makes you feel, or how it should make you feel. I enjoy playing PVC flutes on occasion. I keep one in my car for when I'm stuck in gridlock. But I can play an old jinashi flute for hours and not get bored. I doubt I'd be able to do that with a PVC flute or even most good quality modern bamboo flutes. And by the way the jinashi flutes I have are not out of tune. Why do people buy jinashi flutes that are out of tune? Anyway no flute is "in" or "out" of tune because flutes don't play themselves. People play them. A good player can deal with a flute that is slightly awry or a lousy player can make a hideous sound on a well balanced instrument. Personally I am bored by flutes that have had the idiosycracies removed from them by overzealous makers. Let the music be a conversation between the bamboo and the human. The player should bring out the music that is latent within the bamboo, not attempt to dominate it and show it who's the boss. If you spend enough time with a shakuhachi, especially one that is unique, the instrument will teach you how to play the music. You just have to listen and react.

Respect the bamboo!!!

From: Peter (moc.oohay|anuhakahs#moc.oohay|anuhakahs)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2002 - 23:17:46 PST

I also didn't check this account for a few days and found 48 messages. Looks like we've found a controversial topic here. Peter Ross and Brian Ritchey pretty much summed up my experience, so I'm really just seconding their eloquently expressed thoughts on the matter, for what that's worth (2 cents, do I hear 3 cents, 3 cents anyone?). I know I can hear a difference due to materials, but the other argument, that they don't matter, is very convincing as well, but more to my head than my ears. If there were fifty cast-bore shakuhachi makers out there instead of a few, perhaps the difference would be clearer. As it is, cast-bore flutes always sound purer, less complex to me. And wood ones sound heavier. One possibility that hasn't been brought up: bamboo (which is a grass, not a wood), unlike any of the other materials discussed, consists of parallel fibers running longitudinally, right? Perhaps that has something to do with the special sound, along with the much greater porosity of ji over resin or wood—note that non-porosity was a stipulation for the difference of material not affecting the acoustic properties. Just a hypothesis, but my experience, like Brian's and Peter's, is really strong on this point. I noticed Nelson talking about a purer sound, but that's what I find with these non-traditional flutes, that the sound is too pure, not "dirty" enough. That's purely a value judgement, as is that one is better than the other. If you want that pure sound, such flutes are probably more apt to deliver it. As for age affecting the sound, I also find that it does mellow it out. I'd have to strain to think of an old flute (an old flute that's been played a lot) I've played that didn't sound relatively, or very, mellow, or a new one that didn't have a more raw timbre. Tom Deaver and I had a talk about this one time and he pointed out, as did Paul Hirsch, that rounding the edges mellows the sound, and that the holes get rounded on the outside from the fingers, and a bit on the inside from the air stream; so that alone may account for the mellow tone. He also pointed out something that Nelson mentioned, that an oval bore will create a more complex sound. Traditionally, Native American flutes were made by hollowing out the top and bottom halves and fitting them together, giving the flute an oval bore, whereas many nowadays are made by turning them on a lathe, and since I own one of the former type and have blown a lot on it, and have played many of the latter type, I can say without a doubt the turned ones have a purer, less complex tone. But different woods sound different, and at least a couple makers have told me they use different woods to create different timbres. So, as that Daoist master Forrest Gump conluded, "maybe they're both right."

From: Nelson Zink (moc.xemwen|kniz#moc.xemwen|kniz)
Date: Wed Feb 06 2002 - 00:48:05 PST

Peter,

"but that's what I find with these non-traditional flutes, that the sound is too pure, not "dirty" enough."

Ahhh. Now we're gettin' down to it. How to put some funk into the sound. You've got two things: shape and surface.

Shape includes rounding/sharpening corners, etc. as it changes the shape of the emptiness. Circles, ovals, weird river-stream kinds of shapes cut out by gouges and/or files/rasps. Cloud shapes. Circles changing into ovals changing into something indescribable at the second hole, making a straight shot to the choke point and then meandering over some gravel to the foot. What's going to be the sound of that shape? You'd have to play it to know. Fat, skinny. Fat and going on a diet at about the thumb hole. It's all geometry.

Surface: hard, soft - slick, rough. Those sounds? Combined with different variations in shape would give an infinity of subtle shades.

Like mellow? Make the surface softer, rougher and the shape generally fatter. Carpet the walls with beaver fur - from very small beavers.

To a large extent shape and surface effects are interchangeable. Brassier? Either go skinnier or harder/slicker. Or Both.

I've been surprised that people seem hesitant to experiment with their bores. Peanut butter is a very fast way to contemplate and test modifications. You put stuff in your nose as a kid didn't you?

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License