Copper and Stone Flutes

March 30, 2011

Copper Flute with BAg

This is a copper flute made from 1/2-inch copper tubing, just under 11 inches long.  It is made in the style of a Japanese shakuhachi (rim-blown crescent-shaped mouthpiece; four soundholes in front, one in back; tuned to a pentatonic minor scale; decorative “root end” at bottom).  True shakuhachis are at least twice this size, and are bamboo flutes made according to strict traditional rules.  So this is just “shakuhachi-inspired” and the copper tubing has a smoother, more ringing or whistle-like voice than a bamboo flute.  Compared to a tin whistle, the sound is breathier, more expressive, and less shrill.  The holes are beveled so it’s easier for my nearly-numb neuropathic fingers to find them, and the ornamental endcap keeps the flute from rolling.  The lowest note is middle C.  The lined drawstring bag is made from my “Blue Tiger” fabric and various indigo cotton scraps.

As a severe asthmatic, I never thought I’d be able to play a rimblown flute, since even fipple flutes like the tin whistle or the recorder are a challenge for me, though I used to play them years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that it isn’t too hard, though it’s one of those “easy to learn, difficult to master” kind of things that I always seem to stumble into.  I haven’t heard of anyone making rimblown flutes out of copper plumbing pipe, although some flutemakers are using PVC pipe to make shakuhachis, Andean quenas, and Anasazi flutes.  Copper is cheaper, easier to work with, and prettier than PVC.  So I am experimenting with different sizes and designs, hoping to come up with something that sounds beautiful that I can carry with me on desert hikes.  The one above works nicely but I’d like something a bit larger as well.



“Tiger Breath” is my first stone flute, carved from a bubbly-looking, naturally hollow chalcedony tube.  These agate tubes were new at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Shows this year.  I bought two:  this one (which was one of the smallest available) and a larger one for which I’ll make a separate mouthpiece.  This material comes from Mount Merapi in Indonesia.  Although sold as “fossil bamboo” (and apparently called that in Indonesia), it is neither.  It is a unique and spectacular example of mineral replacement after a volcanic eruption.  More photos HERE (the link is not the company that I bought from, but is probably the ultimate source). 

So how did they form?  A volcanic eruption produced ash (a fall of silica glass sand) that buried plants of the genus Equisetum, called “horsetails” in the U.S. and Europe, and “Japanese Bambu” in Indonesia.  These primitive spore-bearing plants are related to ferns, and grow in clumps of narrow, cylindrical stems.   The stems are rich in silica and rather rigid, which is probably why they stayed erect while being buried in ash.  In the humid climate, the volcanic ash quickly weathered and broke down into silica, clay, and iron oxides.  The rotting stems were replaced with iron and manganese oxides, probably with the aid of bacteria.  The resulting  iron oxide “sticks” provided convenient surfaces for a thick layer of silica to crystallize around them, creating an “organ pipe” structure of multiple straight tubes.

To make the tube into a flute, I carved both ends and drilled five beveled holes, but left most of the tube completely natural except for a gentle polish with very fine diamond compound to bring out the colors and texture.  The mouthpiece is shaped to give a clean, piercing sound, and the opposite end is a polished cylinder that fits neatly into the endcap.   The endcap protects the edge of the tube from chipping, and keeps the flute from rolling off a table.  It is carved from a piece of Archaean banded iron that I found in the Shirley Basin, Wyoming, in 1999.  I chose this material because it matches the color of the three iridescent brown iron oxide bands within the agate tube, and because the stone that I used was a ventifact (wind-polished pebble) so it derives some of its shape from the High Plains wind.

Rimblown flutes are not easy to play, especially when they are very small, and the notes are somewhat dependent on the player’s breath.  The bore on this flute is quite irregular (imagine the “bubbles” in reverse, with the inside of the tube covered in dimples) so tuning is rather uncertain and the flute is harder to play than a similar sized flute made of copper or bone would be.  But it DOES play, and is especially pretty on the loud, shrieking high notes. 

The “tiger” theme has several layers of meaning.  Of course the three bands on the agate tube are reminiscent of a tiger’s tail (I didn’t see any other tubes that were banded like this – most were uniformly light yellowish, or had bright red or orange patches).   The banded iron endcap continues the tiger color theme, since it is striped brown and black.  It’s hard to imagine two more opposite environments, geological and biological, than these  two stones represent, but they are a good match.


2 Responses to “Copper and Stone Flutes”

  1. Kim said

    This reminds me of your Ironwing Strength card. Beautiful.

  2. Debra said

    How wonderfully strange. I’ll be interested to see how the copper one looks as it ages. I like the fabric bag, too.

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