Our article, written in a pleasant collaboration with the uke master and nose flute enthusiast Will Grove-White, has just been published in the londonian prestigious dandy magazine The Idler, by Tom Hodgkinson. Our paper is a 11 pages presentation and history of the nose flute, with full pages pictures.
However, by courtesy of Will Grove-White, here is the content in plain text (better for automatic translation):
Honkin' with your hoooter
The nose flute is not an instrument to be sniffed at, say Will Grove-White and Antoine Carolus
Over the years, many strange musical instruments have come and gone, discarded at the altar of long-established instruments like violins, pianos and trumpets. How quickly we look down our noses at newer, ‘novelty’ instruments and write them off as low-brow. But it would do us all good to reach beyond our comfort zones and embrace the unusual, the unsightly, the unpluckable. As the quote attributed to Henry Ford reminds us, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”
So perhaps it is time to reconsider one of the most popular and yet most despised instruments of all time – the nose flute.
When it was launched into Western music at the turn of the 20th century, nose flute fever swept across America, Europe and the Far East. In 1920s America the instrument was heralded as “the most wonderful musical instrument ever invented” by the New York Times and went on to be championed by jazz musicians and vaudeville performers. To its shame Britain has never really embraced the nose flute in the way that other countries have – even today, most music shops in Germany still carry a good stock of nose flutes. It’s estimated that over 100 million instruments have so far been manufactured worldwide.
After the initial nose flute craze, the instrument’s mainstream popularity waned but more recently there’s been a huge resurgence in sales. In music shops from Japan to America nose flutes have been once again on the march, spreading like a heavy head cold into our lives. Nose flute ensembles and orchestras have cropped up all over the world, notably in Germany (Der Grindchor: Das Original Oberkreuzberger Nasenflötenorchester) and across Japan, where there are even ‘official’ and regional nose flute organisations. The largest of these is the Hanshin Hanabue Association who annually perform a massed nose flute rendition of Beethoven’s 9th.
The nose flute is an ingenious little instrument that is played with, of course, the nose. But it’s not a flute that you blow through your nostril (that’s a different type of instrument played mostly in the South-Pacific). Rather, it is a simple device, usually made from plastic but sometimes from metal, wood, clay or even cardboard which covers the nostrils and mouth to produce a delightful flute-like sound. Any tune in the world can be played on a nose flute, and it can be mastered in a matter of minutes. The player simply exhales through his nose and produces the notes by changing the shape of his open mouth (rather like whistling). The instrument can be either held in the hand against the face, or, if one is accompanying oneself on a guitar or ukulele, fastened with elastic around the head. A skilled player with a good nose flute can get a range of almost three octaves and it is certainly a joyful instrument: it makes people happy when you play a nose flute, and if it doesn’t, it makes them happy when you stop playing it. You can’t lose with a nose flute.
But if nose flutes are the easiest instruments in the world to learn to play, why don’t we see them everywhere? This is a difficult question to answer, given the massive success of the kazoo. Some cold-hearted people have declared that the instrument is unhygienic (in fact our noses are cleaner than our mouths) and that it makes the player look like an idiot Hannibal Lecter (hard to argue with this one), so perhaps it does have something of an image problem. But given time, and an army of bizarre-looking disciples, perhaps one day it will be held in the same high esteem as the ukulele and the Swanee whistle.
The unconventional look of the nose flute should not deter the novice player. He is in excellent company. Over the years, artists, musicians and poets have thrilled to its timbre and proved that the nose flute is not an instrument to be sniffed at.
The Godfather of the nose flute was probably the amazing Lloyd Buford Threlkeld (aka ‘Whistler’), a guitarist and singer in the early 1900s from Kentucky. Threlkeld’s big break came once he played the nose flute with Whistler and His Jug Band, the first pre-war jug band ever to be recorded on film. A master of the instrument, he proves that in the right hands the nose flute can sound as beautiful as a nightingale. You can listen to his mesmeric blowing on YouTube (Low Down Blues and Jug Band Special, both from 1927).
Across the Pacific, the nose flute would make an altogether different debut: in an opera. In 1923, Ezra Pound opened his one-act opera Le Testament de Villon with the nose flute. Perhaps unfortunately for the audience, Pound was tone deaf - the poet William Carlos Williams wrote “he knows nothing of music...”, following this with the curious statement, “That’s what makes him a musician.” After seeing the opera, composer Virgil Thomson wrote: “The music was not quite a musician's music, though it may well be the finest poet's music since Thomas Campion... Its sound has remained in my memory.” Not exactly a rave review but nevertheless Pound's Le Testament is the first and only known opera to include a nose flute.
In the right nostrils, the nose flute can sound as beautiful as a nightingale
Artists, too, have warmly embraced the honker hooter. The legendary painter, sculptor and Pataphysician Jean Dubuffet was an avid nose flautist. The inventor of Art Brut (Raw Art), he recorded a series of albums of experimental music (or ‘bald music’, as he referred to it) using the nose flute and other unusual instruments, which suited his surrealist sensibilities down to the ground.
But of course it was musicians who fought hardest to keep the nose flute torch burning. It is rumoured among Elvis Presley aficionados that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll had plastic surgery on his nose in 1956, and this may go some way to explaining the mysterious appearance of a nose flute tootling away during his song Barefoot Ballad which he performed in one of his less memorable movies, Kissin’ Cousins. Sadly Presley didn’t get to blow the nose flute on the track; Elvis historians conclude it was played by legendary saxophonist Boots Randolph, the man who wrote and played the Benny Hill TV theme tune, Yakety Sax.
A more likely candidate for a star player was Leonard Cohen who used the nose flute on his second album, Songs From a Room, on the track Tonight Will Be Fine. It certainly is a ‘loose’ performance, very probably by Cohen himself - a lifetime outsider thumbing his nose at musical conventions by playing an unfairly marginalised instrument.
It’s also worth noting that the nose flute has become a popular shepherding tool among some farmers. Recently in Ireland, sheepdog trials champion Tim Flood used a nose flute in place of traditional whistling. He appeared on One Man and His Dog singing the praises of the nose flute and performed a short Irish reel for the audience.
So where did it all begin? Who are we to credit with the invention of this ugly/charming (delete as appropriate) instrument?
Like so many instruments, the nose flute’s precise origins are unclear. The first nose flutes were probably produced in South America; in Paraguay by the native Guarani people and in Brazil by the Pataxós. After returning from Brazil in 1817, Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied wrote in his book, Reise Nach Brasilien, that “frequently, these savages [the Pataxós] imitated the voices of owls, capoeira and other birds” and ethnomusicologists like Randy Raine-Reusch confirm that this mimicry was achieved using nose flutes: when the conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 16th century they would have found the natives using their wooden nose flutes to imitate birds and modern videos show the Pataxós still do so to this day.
But in the West, the nose flute was quite separately invented and patented by a poor Irish immigrant to America, tinsmith William Carter, who settled in Albion, New York. Whether he had encountered a South American flute is unknown, but it seems unlikely. He christened his invention “The Nasalette”. Carter patented his nose flute in 1891 but he soon sold the rights to a shady New York piano salesman and inventor called Garrett J. Couchois, a wheeler-dealer who would eventually end up in jail for infringement of copyright and blackmail.
It’s hard to determine, but it seems Couchois had become so obsessed with Carter’s nose flute that he had bought the patent for a good deal of money. Couchois would go on to launch the first commercial nose flute at a world fair - The World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago in 1893. He named it the “Humanatone”. Couchois enjoyed great success with this device, selling 40,000 at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition alone. He went on to design new versions including a spaceship-style nose flute and another called “The Magic Flute”.
In 1903, sensing the business potential of the instrument, a family of novelty-makers, the Stivers, bought the rights to both Carter’s and Couchois' patents, and registered the trademark “Humanatone”. It was, they promised, “The Wonder of the Musical World” and under the shrewd direction of George Stivers and his sons the nose flute enjoyed an incredible surge in popularity, most notably between about 1925 and 1935. Jazz musicians and jug bands gleefully embraced the new instrument and it became a highlight with vaudeville stars and comic song shows of the era. One of these was Syd Shipman and his Humanatone Orchestra, who toured America and Europe and regularly got rave reviews in Billboard Magazine: “To say they did big would be superfluous - just say it was one of Syd's regular successes, and you've got it... Say, boys, they can whistle!”
Its popularity in America meant that versions of the Humanatone rapidly spread across the globe - to the UK (as the Humanaphone), Germany (Wunderflöte), France (Ocariflute), Austria (Austopfon) and Belgium (Vociphone). From Holland it was exported to Bali and the Dutch colonies, as well as to Australia and New Zealand, where it was sold by Albert & Son as The Magic Flute. Regrettably the advent of World War Two forced the Stivers to stop production of tin nose flutes because of metal shortages but fortunately for us, polystyrene plastics arrived just in time to save the nose flute.
In 1943, the hard-nosed businessman Fred Gretsch (of the Gretsch guitar company) bought the Humanatone brand from the Stivers, and relaunched the nose flute in a plastic-injected design by Illinoian Ernest Davis. They were lighter and, crucially, cheap. The plastic nose flutes enjoyed a new popular revival partly because soldiers were able to take one with them to war (along with their ocarinas and mouth-harps). Gretsch even made a special edition of the plastic Humanatone in a box with a printed area in which to write the soldier’s address.
After World War Two the nose flute continued its ascendancy. In 1955, the German instrument manufacturers Weidlich & Lohse launched a plastic model which is still produced to this day in China, where it’s manufactured in its millions. The plastic Humanatone has also been massively copied (also in China as no-name spin-off models) and a variety of other plastic models were produced in the USA, Germany, Sweden and the Basque country.
Millions of these plastic Humanatones are still sold around the world but more recently a growing number of independent companies and artisans have begun to make different types of nose flute from wood, clay, cardboard, bamboo and even chocolate. With modern nose flutes now also being produced in such unlikely places as South Africa, Vietnam, Israel, Hungary, Thailand and Brazil they have become a global phenomenon.
So perhaps it’s time to get your hands on one yourself and become part of the olfactory musical revolution. In a time of too much puffed-up self importance the nose flute is guaranteed to stop you taking yourself too seriously and bring you down to earth – the more people who are willing to toot a jolly tune whilst looking like Jason from Friday the 13th the better for all of us. And it is also unexpectedly good for you– studies show that breathing though your nose leads to a longer life and a healthier body.
An excellent modern brand of nose flute is the Bocarina nose flute (available online) although there are many different varieties to experiment with. The only thing left is to consider which tunes to play. Colonel Bogey might be worth a try, or perhaps God Only Nose by the Beach Boys - just make sure you have a box of tissues ready if you ever attempt The Weather Girls’ 1982 hit, It’s Raining Phlegm.
W.G.-W. & A. C.