Tuesday, January 24, 2006

It’s shopping, Jim, but not as we know it… 

At how many shops do you have to ring the doorbell to gain entry? But then, how many shops have a display case containing - I’m guessing wildly here - perhaps £100,000 or more worth of merchandise just inside the door? No, this wasn’t a jeweller’s, although the items on display shared elements of their provenance with jewellery, with precious metals and meticulous craftsmanship at the heart of their design.

My daughter’s flute studies have reached the point where she needs a new instrument – something approaching professional standard – in order to develop her technique further. We’re fortunate that, living close to London, we have two specialist flute shops almost on our doorstep. Buying a flute turned out to be quite a pleasurable experience. I took the day off work so as to be able to avoid the busy weekend rush; we spent about two and a half hours in a large and comfortable practice room, comparing a number of instruments, and took two away on trial, with a third to follow by post – the final choice needs to be made after several hours practice, and in consultation with her teacher.

In researching the choices available, I became fascinated by the details of flute construction - how a flute is assembled from 257 parts; how shims half of one-thousandth of an inch thick are used to fine-tune the seal of each pad individually; how tiny details in the way in which the embouchure hole is finished affects tone quality; how different ways of fabricating the holes in the flute’s body produce a different sound and different playing characteristics.

Japan is clearly the world centre of flute manufacture, with the USA coming second. As far as I know, there are no large scale manufacturers outside of those two countries, but instead there are a number of master craftsmen around the globe producing hand-crafted instruments to special order.

What a wonderful way to make a living! Delicate precision work, where the quality of craftsmanship comes above all other considerations. There’s a kind of paradox in taking cold hard metal – albeit precious metal – and turning it into an artefact from which such warmth, softness and beauty flows. The flute maker is like an alchemist, but his or her creation is even more astonishing than merely turning base lead into gold; that would simply be a transformation of one inert lump of metal into another. The flute maker starts where the alchemist leaves off and gives that metal the potential to bring something alive, a potential finally realised in the hands of the player.

How awareness of that potential must dwell in the mind of craftsman, helping him lift his skills to the very highest level of which he is capable, knowing that the precise way in which he forms the metal – in an environment that must bear more than a passing resemblance to that of the alchemist - will eventually bear glorious fruit, not only in the beauty of sounds in concert halls across the world, but in the hearts and souls of the audiences which those halls hold.

Composers and performers are both celebrated, yet individual instrument makers (as distinct to manufacturing companies) are rarely known outside of the circles of the cognoscenti. Stradivarius is possibly the only exception to that, but even that level of awareness probably comes about more from public interest in money than in music. Yet in a way, the instrument maker is on a par with both composer and performer; each starts on a separate path, a separate act of creation, which only comes becomes one in the performance; each would be impotent without the other, unable to bring into existence the full potential of their creation.

I wonder if there are any flute makers who’d like a mature apprentice?

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