Timber and timbre : Affordances of the simple-system flute

Abstract: While the simple-system flute was primarily developed as a product of 19th century Western art music, it has since become established in other genres and traditions. The aim of the present study is to explore approaches towards the simple-system flute as it is used across genres and traditions today. These approaches are understood from the performers point of view, and focus on the relationship between the flutist and the flute. For this purpose, six professional flute players from four genres were interviewed. One of these musicians is also a maker of simple-system flutes and provided a maker’s perspective on the production of simple-system flutes today. The theoretical framework takes its point of departure in the concept of affordances as formulated by ecological psychologist James J. Gibson. Although previously used in music research, empirical research that applies the concept of affordances to the interaction between musicians and musical instruments is still scarce. Effectivities, a theoretical construct put forward by researchers inspired by Gibson, is also an important part of the framework of the thesis. Through an analysis of the interviews, the concept of affordances was contextually defined as relationships between the musician and the musical instrument. These relationships constitute the opportunities for actions. Four categories of affordances emerged from the results; (i) affordances of the column of air, (ii) affordances of fingering, (iii) affordances of sound, and (iv) affordances of repertoire. Additionally, one example of overlapping affordances is discussed – affordances of guidance. In this example, the combined categories of affordances provide the basis for extracting interpretative information from the instrument itself, through sensitivity towards its design. This approach, referred to as adapting to the flute is contrasted with the approach of adapting the flute. The latter of these approaches is inspired by the ultimate vision of a transparent musical instrument, where the flute becomes an extension of the body. Informing these approaches is the historical presence of the simple-system flute in the various genres, but also the subjectively perceived values that extends the strictly functional aspects of the object. The various playing techniques described and demonstrated by the interviewed musicians are reflections of the musical genre in which they are situated as well as their own background and their aesthetic preferences. The theme of exploration is central to the interviewed musicians’ descriptions of their development as flutists. They have all been part of processes of (re)establishing or introducing the simple- system flute in their respective genre. Innate in these processes is an element of stylistic development that is bound up with the exploration of new (and old) playing techniques, here understood as creative approaches towards the affordances of the simple-system flute.

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