Hichiriki reeds

by Jean Jeltsch, Robin Howell and Barnaby Brown


This Japanese hichiriki reed was photographed by the bassoon reed researcher Jean-Marie Heinrich in the 1980s. It bears a striking resemblance to an aulos reed acquired by the Berlin Egyptian Museum in 1894:


This image is from Stefan Hagel’s study, ‘Understanding the aulos Berlin Egyptian Museum 12461/12462’ (2010). The reed was in the low pipe of an aulos bought on the antiquities market, presumably in Egypt. A drawing in the museum inventory is all that remains. The drawing is not to scale, but because the reed was fitted in the low pipe when it came into the museum (they share an inventory number) we can estimate that its total length was between 3cm and 5cm. This is roughly a third of the length of the hichiriki reed in Jean-Marie Heinrich’s collection, photographed above.

Hichiriki reeds are made from Phragmites australis. This 2015 study investigates why stems from one particular lake make the best reeds. The following three videos each show a different method of hichiriki reed making:

In the video above, skip to 6:56 for the reed-making sequence.

We are fortunate that Gagaku musicians are sharing this information online – traditionally, such matters were closed and secretive, as they have been in Scottish piobaireachd and Sardinian launeddas traditions. To have expert hichiriki players contributing to the revival of ancient doublepipes could be very illuminating. Their different approach and musical conceptions have a venerable lineage and may steer us in valuable directions, helping aulos players to escape modern-Western musical training. If you are a hichiriki player, please get in touch!

In his account of traditional performing techniques, Thomas Piercy notes:

Sliding notes and tonal variation obtained by producing the same pitch on different fingerings is a feature of its style… Traditionally, tonguing is not used… Instead phrases are shaped by the control of the airflow and selected pitches are accentuated by tapping the instrument’s holes with the fingers.

Hichiriki came to Japan via Korea, which has a similar tradition and instruments. In China, it is called the guan. Below is a 12th-century painting depicting three guan players and two dizi (transverse flute) players, accompanied by a paiban (wooden clapper), performing in the home of Han Xizai, a minister to the Song Dynasty emperor Li Houzhu.


Further west, we find closely-related instruments in the Azerbaijani balaban and Armenian duduk (for which there are some reed-making videos here). All these instruments are essentially monauloi with an entangled transcultural history – the result of centuries of trading along the Silk Road and Indian Ocean routes:

Silk Road_06 copy

This map was produced by The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

In a recent study, Ingrid Furniss and Stefan Hagel find substantial evidence for direct contact between China and the Hellenistic world during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE).  Remarkably, they also draw attention to an image of a doublepiper on a bronze vessel thought to have been made in north China, buried in the 5th century BCE:


The doublepipe was evidently known in China long before the earliest written accounts, which suggest that musicians from Hellenistic regions regularly reached the Han court and the eastern seaboard between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE. For more details, see ‘Xiwangmu’s double pipe: a musical link to the far Hellenistic West?’ in Imago Musicae 29 (2017), pp. 7–32.

In Japanese culture, reeds have powerful metaphysical associations. Toyoda Mitsuyo writes:

The Japanese narratives of the emergence of the world… depict chaotic, complex, and organic processes of genesis. They do not assume creation controlled by a supernatural being but illustrate an unpredictable spontaneous power of nature that continuously generates life. Things in nature have been metaphorically used to describe the divinity and dignity of the process of becoming. In Kojiki, the Records of Ancient Matters, for example, the words ashi (葦, reeds) and ashikabi (葦牙, reed-shoot) appear repeatedly as an expression of the vital organismic force of deities and the world.

… When wetland covered most of the lowlands of Japan, the landscape of thick reeds was symbolic of the prosperity of the country… In spring, strong reed-shoots grow straight up from the web of roots hidden in the soil or in the water. The power of growth represented by reed-shoots is also a wish of further development of life and culture.

This is from ‘Recollecting Local Narratives for the Land Ethic’ in Japanese Environmental Philosophy, ed. J. Baird Callicott and James McRae (OUP 2017), section 10.2.

We have yet to find videos of the old style of hichiriki reed photographed by Jean-Marie Heinrich above, either being played or being made. If anyone could let us know more about traditional methods of making reeds with a waist, looking like the one lost in Berlin, we would be extremely grateful.

Warm thanks to Jean-Marie Heinrich for permission to publish his hichiriki reed photos. Essential viewing for all reed makers are these photos showing the difference between high- and low-density cane (2017). In this one, he has sorted 1000 tubes of oboe cane by density:


Lowest density is on the left (0.47 g/cm3), highest on the right (0.78 g/cm3). For aulos reed-making, we want low-density tubes (10-12mm diameter). Softer cane significantly increases success rate during manufacture and reduces the problem of blades cracking during a reed’s working life. These issues have plagued the aulos revival so far. It could be that the answer lies in Phragmites australis, which has a lower density than Arundo donax.

Jean-Marie has published many articles of interest to reed makers. His doctoral thesis investigates what makes one reed better than another: Recherche du mécanisme régulateurde la qualité musicale de l anche double confectionnée en canne de Provence’, Université de Paris, 1986.

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