Reed Flutes — Portals To Now
Reed flutes, consciously constructed, are a kind of ancient recording system and portal to the present moment — the only moment in which we live.
I accidentally discovered the wonders of reed flutes 25 years ago in 1991. They come into, and go out of my life as they please. Currently I’m sensing another return visit from them — it seems they have some new-but-ancient work to do.
The first time reed flutes entered my life I was living in the old Chickering Piano factory in the historic Lower Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. The Piano factory, built in 1854 was the 2nd largest building in the United States after the US Capitol and was converted to an artists live-work community in 1972. My three daughters, their mother and I had a two bedroom duplex apartment that opened onto a one acre interior courtyard.
In late August we took some time away from Boston and the Piano Factory and went on vacation to a small rented house at Pemaquid Point, Maine. There was reed grove of Japanese knot weed growing next to our small house — a lobsterman’s shack that had been moved inland from a nearby harbor and then expanded.
Japanese knot weed is a fast growing species of reed that likes to grow where the ground is moist, often on the south-facing banks of small streams where the reeds can keep their feet cool and heads hot as they live their lives as energy conduits between sun and earth.
My daughters Zoe, Coco and Eva discovered this reed grove and found it to be fine place to play some of the imaginary games young girls of 8, 6 and 4 like to invent. The reeds are easily pushed aside by hand to make paths and clear spaces — cool and cozy cave-like houses would appear.
Bees would buzz overhead, dipping in and out of the late blooming flowers at the top of the reeds as they reached their peak in late August and early September. The reeds grow to be about 8 to 10 feet tall so the bees would be well away from the occupants of the reed house below, but their buzzing always within earshot.
Reeds from the previous season dry out, turn brown, fall over and blanket the base of the fresh reed grove with crunchy stalks. My daughters liked to fashion these stalk into little canoes and brown stick figure dolls.
One day while I was sitting in the girls’ reed house (my three daughters are often referred to as “the girls”) the thought occurred to me that one could make flutes from reeds. I had never played a flute nor made one. Yet the idea presented itself to me that I could do both.
Turns out Japanese knot weed is easily worked into a flute with just the simplest of portable of tools: a hacksaw blade, some sandpaper, a pen knife and a threaded metal rod about three feet long.
I mention these tools because I’d like you to picture flutes being made nearby where the reeds actually grow and being made in one quick session — perhaps 1/2 an hour to an hour, tops.
One only has to cut a length of reed, scrape off the outer bark, remove the internal membranes between sections and then shape blow and finger holes — a flute is made.
Like any craftwork, there are nuances of technique that have to be discovered and perfected in order to produce excellent results. I’ll talk about these details another time. It’s only important to know these reeds were crafted into flutes very quickly. Almost in a moment one could say.
The practice of making reed flutes with such simple tools is very meditative. The sounds of sawing, scraping, boring and sanding still the mind by providing aural perceptual focus that dispels thought.
Crafting a reed flute, quickly, during a still-mind period allow the presence of mental stillness to be embedded in the flute. The peaceful stillness experienced during the gathering and construction of a reed flute reemerges as sound when the flute is played.
Not only stillness, but other resonances of the day are embedded as well — the time-of-day light, the temperature, the amount of humidity or relative lack of it, sunshine or fog … all poured into and embedded in the flute.
The reed flute is able to record both formless stillness and resonance of forms during its construction, then play back stillness and form-resonances when activated by the breath of the performer.
As to the sound of the reed flute … the reed flute has a memory of growing on a river bank, its feet wet and head hot — a circuit of energy from sun to earth. When one fashions a flute from this kind of reed and plays it, one hears the longing of the dried reed to be reunited with the sun and earth. This is the essential quality of the reed flute sound — longing for right place and right union.
Years after accidentally discovering the reed flute flute I came across a poem by the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, “Song of the Reed Flute”. Rumi had the same experience of hearing longing for union in the sound of the reed flute and wrote beautifully of it — 700 years earlier.
I suppose if I have anything to add to the sentiment of Rumi’s poem it is this — if one fashions a reed flute quickly, during a period of still mind, one can actually record or embed qualities of that moment into the flute and add them to the reed’s own own memory and longing.
This type of reed flute is both a way for the flute maker to experience a creation moment during construction, and then experience a new unique moment, related to the first, when it is played.
The reed flute plays back energy embedded by multiple creators — sun, earth, water, human flute maker and offers a portal to the Now.