The Reeds: Observations Based on Ancient Evidence

Below you will find Barnaby Brown’s six observations regarding ancient reeds based on (1) the iconographic evidence which I present in a forthcoming article, and (2) a text by Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC). Following each observation is some discussion between Stefan Hagel (SH) and Barnaby Brown (BB). This is edited from an email exchange on 24 September 2014 in preparation for our 2nd meeting, with revisions made and illustrations added after our meeting, on 22 October 2014.

BB: The ancient evidence points fairly clearly to the following:

1. Blades are shaped more like a bassoon reed than a duduk reed: the sides fan out, they are not parallel. To produce this fan, the tube should be largely thinned from the interior before squeezing (not the exterior).

SH: Definitely. Off the exterior not much more than the bark ought to be scraped.

2. Ideally, each pair of reeds is formed from a single tube, cut in half. The resulting reeds have blades from adjacent sections of cane, either side of the cut, which helps to ensure similar behaviour:

When the internodium is cut in two, the mouth of each tongue is fabricated at the cut of the cane. If the tongues are manufactured in another way, they are not in good concord, it is said. (Theophr., Hist. Plant. 4.11, trans. Stefan Hagel)

SH: For the Louvre and Berlin auloi, I get good tunings with 90mm, or even a bit less.

BB: So, allowing for trimming, we could cut 90mm tubes to make two reeds, each 40-45mm.

3. There is a narrow constriction roughly at the midpoint of each reed, with a bulge either side, apparently formed by tying when the cane has been softened in hot water.

4. The foot of the reed may also have to be constricted by binding when soft, reducing the diameter to fit the reed seat. This is suggested by the width at the tip of the blades relative to the diameter of the pipes in some of the iconography, but might not be necessary if using tubes of greater wall thickness. However, this would mean more internal thinning at the blade end, and external thinning at the foot end by knife rather than by binding when hot-soaked.

SH: The ends going into the pipe are the opposite ends of the original piece of cane. One of them is usually wider. If the main bores are equal, it makes sense to constrict this instead of scraping it. I’ve done so on two of my new pairs.

BB: So that’s two separate bindings when hot-soak constricting: one at the ‘waist’ and one at the ‘foot’, leaving a bulge imbetween. The constriction at the waist serves to increase resistance, like the tip of a staple, while the constriction at the foot serves to fit the reed seat and may or may not be necessary.


Parthian frieze from Ephesus, after 169 (166?) AD.
Ephesos Museum, Vienna

Phrygian pipe of an Archigallus

Funerary relief of an Archigallus from Lavinium, mid-2nd century AD. Capitoline Museums, Rome

SH: These depictions have always been in my mind when feeling guilty about having bridles instead of constrictions. The bulge below results, I think, from sitting between two constrictions: the ‘waist’ and the inserted ‘foot’. It’s all very much exaggerated on the Parthian frieze (partly caused by longitudinal compression). The funerary relief is more reliable, giving front and side views of the reeds (because the curved horn is lying flat).

5. After constricting the waist and preparing the foot for the reed seat, the blades are squeezed flat in hot water and possibly toasted to ‘remember’ the shape, like a duduk reed. Careful thinning and a light incision on opposite sides before squeezing helps to guide the split, ensuring the blades are symmetrical and as wide as possible at the mouth. A metal former or a screw press is the crucial tool here, pressing the blades together in boiling water to form the basic shape, before scraping.

SH: Do we have good results with toasting? As yet I have not dared doing so…

BB: I know Thomas Rezanka has. Have a go! The Sardinians do it to straighten cane that is bent at the node when making the body of the launeddas; some of my instruments have a really burned aroma. Seeing the duduk reed-makers do it gives me confidence that it is worth trying. It is about memory and stability, holding the new shape rather than opening out during playing.

6. There is NO bridle; only two reed caps, tied together.

This entry was posted in Iconography, Reeds and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Reeds: Observations Based on Ancient Evidence

  1. Pingback: More thoughts on reed making | The Workshop of Dionysus

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *