I've been asked by a french magazine to write a paper about our instrument. And the recurrent question of the right/legitimate name for it bothers me again. Particularly in French.
Nowadays, the popular usage has consecrated the nouns nose flute in English, Nasenflöte in German, and neusfluit in Dutch. A few people still use nose whistle, almost no German people say Nasenpfeife, and dutch people use neusfluit (nose flute) and not neusfluitje (nose whistle).
Indeed, in anglo-saxon countries, there had been a continuity from the 1920's until now, even if the strand has been very tiny at some periods of the 20th century. After the 1900-1930 first wave, Gretsch launched the plastic Humanatone in the 40's, and Weidlich&Lohse the Schwan in the 1950's. Those were imported in the Netherlands. And there were people to play those instruments, creating what can be called a nose flute culture. Finally and progressively, the name of the instrument has been fixed and frozen. Nose flute, Nasenflöte, neusfluit.
There is such a sparse but spread culture that the instrument received some nicknames, more or less ironical: "tin handkerchief", "snot flute", etc.
Even the japanese people say hanabue (鼻笛), and they indifferently write 笛 for whistle or flute. They still use the name they had for the traditional bamboo nose flute.
The Specificity of French
In France, there has been no continuity from the 1920's Ocariflute to... to what? There are no nose flutists in France. Well, let's say there is just a handful of players, disseminated and isolated. No way to compose a common knowledge and culture, no way to agree around a name. Worst, when some new instruments appeared on the market, they generally were called by their trade names: Ocariflute, Mellibrou, ... Bocarina!
From time to time, however, some people had to use a generic name, and were a bit embarrassed. This is the case now, while the instrument begins to be known.
The most used appellations are "flûte à nez" and "flûte de nez".
The disadvantage of the first one is a possibility of confusion. "Flûte à bec" ("flute with a beak") is the name for the beak flute, and people are used to it. So "flûte à nez" sounds like "flute with a nose".
"Flûte de nez" sounds rather filthy in French (it sounds like the flute is coming from your nose...)
Flûte nasale (nasal flute) would certainly be the most elegant version, but is generally used for the traditional nose flutes, the polynesian vivo for instance.
Only "sifflet nasal" (nasal whistle) would sound regular and would not be confusing... besides the tonal variability which is not induced by the noun whistle.
But is our instrument really a flute or is it a whistle?
The Generic Name: Flute or Whistle?
Is our instrument really a flute? There are several possible approaches to answer this question.
First, let's take a look at the Horbostel-Sachs classification (1914), which is the reference for scientists and academics.
Our instruments are aerophones, and its classification begins with the figure 4.
Then, immediately, a problem occurs. Is the vibrating air contained in the instrument? Well... partly yes, and partly no. Is the mouth cavity part of the instrument? Well, no, as the fingers do not belong to the piano. But the instrument is not comparable to a whip or a bullroarer. Let's say the air is contained in the instrument (in the airway, indeed). So, we belong to class 42.
Next step is 421 and even 421.2 ("breath is directed through a duct against an edge").
Finally, we get a 421.221 ("Single flutes with internal duct").
Then, a "fatal error" happens: either we have to decide to be a simple whistle (open flute without fingerhole), but this class (421.221.11) allocates no possibility of tonal variability, or to choose for the "stopped flute" (by the mouth) and slowly make for a piston flute!
Well, there is another possibility: 43, Unclassified aerophones.
As you can see, the Hornbostel-Sachs classification is not perfectly adapted to every instruments. What number to give to the typewriter used by Erik Satie as an instrument? Even being less extreme, other paradoxes have been reported (for instance, see: A proposed new classification system for musical instrument by J. Montagu and J. Burton)
An Answer by Randy Raine-Reusch
[Please, be sure there is no disrespect towards Mr. Raine-Reusch or his work in what follows. Mr. Raine-Reusch is an eminent ethnomusicologist and scholar, with a knowledge far above my little speculations. The lines that follows are not an attack, just a series of questions]
When I received a mail from the ethnomusicologist Randy Raine-Reusch (see this post) about the Guaranis, he began his answer by:
« Thanks for writing. First let me please make a correction. The instruments you play and are interested in are not flutes, so calling them a nose flute is not correct. They are in fact whistles and are correctly called nose whistles. »
Why did Mr. Raine-Reusch sort the instrument among whistles and not beside flutes? There are several possibilities for that:
- the usage
- the absence of finger holes
- the sound
- the shape
The idea behind this is that a flute would produce music and a whistle a signal or a rhythm only (a percussive instrument). This would lead us to call nose flute our instrument.
Maybe Mr. Raine-Reusch was precisely dealing with the Guarani instrument, from which he wrote:
« The instrument that you play is originally from the Guaranis people used for calling birds, to my knowledge it was not used for melodies. However, this whistles along with many other native whistles became popular for use in Samba bands in Brazil, and you can easily see them at the Carnival parades. »
It occurs that a reader of this blog (Mr. Don Luis, from Mexico) found a quotation showing that the Guaranis, long before Blues and Jazz bands, used the instrument to play music, and not only to call birds:
(Nelson Gastaldi, Fairy Tales from the Grilling Fields):
« You also lived with the Guaranies Indians.
« Yes, I lived for some time in their tribe near the Brazilian border because I was interested mainly in their very rich language. (...) The Guaranies have a very special music that can be located in the field of ritual music; in fact, the relationship between the sacred, magic and music has been historically present at all times and in all civilizations. The Guaranies mainly use a nose flute, and they sing in groups gathered around the fire. Sometimes I accompanied them with a harmonica or a melodica, and they were pretty interested in the results of this musical experience. Zima, the shaman from the tribe, once said I was always with the Indians and with the dead people. »
Since they played ritual music, we may suppose that musical nose flute playing was not a modern usage for the Guaranis...
Anyway, our instrument is used for music, and even if some may blow it during carnivals, nobody would call "signals" the beautiful 1924-27 solos by Lloyd Buford Threlkeld, or the recent ones by sensei Mosurin...
The Finger holes
Has a flute to have finger holes to be a flute? As noted by Mr. Montagu, "we have already encountered the Venda and Lithuanian flute bands in which each instrument only produces one note". I would personally add a question: "how many pipes must a pan flute have to be called a flute?".
So, the question of the finger holes does not seem to be relevant.
Any person that has already listened to a decent nose flute knows that it sounds close to a flute, and quite far from a whistle. Anyway, if you build a decent whistle, with a big "belly" in order to get a lower tonality, you can approach a flute sound. Contrarywise, take a very small flute, very sharp, and you'll get a whistle sound. So, the point is not relevant.
Here comes probably the core question... Have a flute to be a long rod to deserve the name of flute? Does the word "flute" include a notion of tube?
In Latin, a flute is called... a tibia. That's the reason our bone is called tibia, because tibia mean stem, and induces a notion of length and hollow.
But we're not talking of a tibia, but dealing with a flute.
early 14c., from Old French flaute (12c.), from Old Provençal flaut, of uncertain origin, perhaps imitative or from Latin flare "to blow;" perhaps influenced by Provençal laut "lute." The other Germanic words (cf. German flöte) are likewise borrowings from French.
Other etymological dictionaries are less hesitant about the flo,flare origin.
No reference to a long rod.
In the probable case the word comes from the latin flare, I went to check my Latin etymological dictionary (Ernout et Meillet, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine):
Flo, -as, -aui, -atum, -are : souffler. (...) « fondre » (le métal pour la monnaie, aes flatum, etc.). Ancien, usuel.
That is: Flo: to blow. (...) « to melt » (metal for coins...).
So, Flute would be related to the fact of blowing and not to a shape. This is the same etymon that would have driven to flow, blow, blasen (german) or fluxus...
More, this air flow has no specific relation with the mouth. Flatus means the breath or the wind. The trivial evidence is that the word also provided flatulence.
And contrarywise, why the Hawaiian nose flute made of a gourd, with a globular shape, is called a flute? Because of its two finger holes?
In conclusion, I cannot see any solid reason NOT to call a nose flute a flute. But I certainly would appreciate a lot an answer from Mr. Raine-Reusch, because I'm not sure to have scanned all the points that drove him to discard our instrument from the "flute world".
On the specific "french problem" in finding the most appropriate generic name, I still have no anwer, beside nicknames like Nasalette, Narinette, etc. Well, flûte nasale is probably the best...