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Mastering the ‘Chiff’

Interview with Jewgenij Ilarionov

The Ukraine recorder maker Jewgenij Ilarionov is especially appreciated for his knowledge around the reconstruction of some of the earliest models of original recorders. Nik Tarasov spoke with him about his inspiration, developing and understanding in this field.

Dear Jewgenij, you live in the Ukraine, and the country is not really known for being a place where the recorder is played much. How do you got in contact with the instrument?

First I played guitar like most teenagers. I bought some books and through that I learned to read music. Once in the 1980ties, one guy showed me a Jupiter soprano recorder. These instruments were made in the GDR, so they were very cheap and easy to buy in our country. It was not possible to learn it in school these days, so I started to play it by myself as an autodidact.

Did the recorder then became a window to another kind of musical culture, even to other countries?

Sure, but even before I started to play music myself, I listened to all kinds of music very much. I bought any record I can get, mostly LPs from the Soviet Union. There were at least two professional early-music ensembles from there: one from Tallin, which was called Hortus Musicus and one from Moscow, which was called Madrigal. So I felt very special to listen to early-music recordings. It was even more special like listening to popular music.

Have you thought about studying music?

Not at all.I graduated in university in mathematics and started to work as a scientist. But I left my job for different reasons: I was not really inspired, and I also did not wanted to work in projects for the military, as I was kind of a hippie-minded guy. I liked hitchhiking and so I travelled much around, even to Tajikistan, and during that time I played music all the time. Life was easy: I was able to find some kind of well-paid job for half of a year which made it possible to live freely and relaxed for some two years.

But when the recorder crossed your way again?

It was the time of Perestroika when I heard the first ‘good’ recorder playing in reality by a German ensemble (maybe Rameau consort, or Marais consort – I don’t remember), and it was good historical interpretation. As in these days most educated people have been interested in all kinds of things on a rather high cultural level, even early-music had a forum in usual philharmonic concerts. So the access became principally easy for everyone. This concert by the German group was a big inspiration, and I immediately got some first technical ideas about blowing and saw copies of ‘real’ recorders. And I realized for the first time that the school recorders I played were bad instruments. During the conversation with a musician from another group, the Madrigal ensemble from Moscow, I was told that there is somebody who not only plays but also makes early-music instruments. So, “you can also try this”, he said. So with the help of a friend, who was a worker and had tools, skill and a lathe to do such kind of things, I made my first instruments. Not yet in the way of a professional maker of coarse, but just for myself: Some renaissance transverse flutes and a recorder, copied of an instrument made by Mollenhauer. The process of making and the search for knowledge collected by other people inspired me more than anything else!

In the 1990ties the Iron Curtain was opened. Had it then become easier to connect to the western early-music movement?

Yes and no. When the Ukraine and Russia became different states, the contacts in the field of early music were disunited and became uneasy. My personal situation also became very unstable. But then a miracle happened to me. You know that there are situations in life when you meet people and this feels like an explosion. There were some students of the music academy in Kiev who became involved in early music because they earned good money by playing for tourists in touristic places. And in these terms baroque music worked best. So I had appropriate instruments, and they have been looking to get instruments like this. Suddenly this was the first perfect situation – in 1992, just one year after independence of the Soviet Union. The second thing was that these students had a nice feeling and played really well, but they were not informed about historical interpretation yet. Again I offered them some personal help, because I had certain ideas through my records and my books. And I even knew to play recorder on the level of Handel sonatas including some proper ornamentation. So this became a nice cooperation: it was the first time that I had the opportunity to play with professionals, and after two months of working together we played our first concert in a theatre hall. Through this we were told that a choir was planning a project to play some baroque repertoire and was looking for an accompanying ensemble with baroque instruments. The next miracle was that they told us: “in half a year we are doing a concert in Germany and you can come with us!” Finally we went there two times. And this meant to me that in a rather short time I woke up not as the former amateur but as somebody who obviously was able to play on a high level with professionals who even used instruments made by me!

What kind of inputs have you received through your new environment?

Through these western connections and friends I heard that Peter Reidemeister, the former chief of the Schola Cantorum in Basle would come together with other people for giving masterclasses in St. Petersburg. There they invited some of my musically gifted friends and members from our ensemble to visit Switzerland and to do further studies there. This was made possible through the support of financial grants, at least for the first year of the stay. So also through all this I had the opportunity to come to Switzerland for the first time in 1996. One of the things I learned here was to get rid of my naïve thinking and I discovered how far my instruments were from a real professional level. So from that on I returned to Basle each summer, played at the station to earn money for my living there and spent all my free time in libraries for the theoretical background: I copied all possible things that seem to help me on my long way. So this was again self-education as I decided not to try to go on playing music on a professional level but to become a professional instrument maker. In Basle I received my first good advice by professional players how to improve my instruments. Here I also got the first opportunity to see the famous Japanese edition of Fred Morgan’s drawings of original recorders and I spent three months just studying them; my friends helped to get some other drawings, most important were Rosenborg and Elblag recorders. It was in the music museum in Basle where I have seen my first original instruments during an occasion when Conrad Steinmann organized a tour for his students. But in the year 2000 it was not possible anymore to play on them, so the main thing was the study the measurements in drawings of old instruments.

What kind of models attracted you? How about your plans to make your deal in central Europe as an instrument maker?

I collected notes on whatever I could. Much was also driven simply in the drawings and measurements of old instruments I was able to get. By coincidence I came over information on the medieval recorder found in Elblag, and my copies of  it became a first centre of interest. It became sort of a niche as most people were used to play medieval music on things like Ganassi recorders. When I started with it in 2001, nobody really took up a copy of this curious Elblag recorder. Just Annette Bauer took it to America, and I started to explain the characteristics of this type of recorder wherever I could. Around 2007 people then obviously had changed their mind, and the Elblag recorder started to become more accepted. For good reason: The Elblag and Tartu instruments survived in pretty good shape if you think how old they are! The diameters, the size of the fingerholes and, most important, the window is preserved. It shows that compared to ‘usual’ sopranos, the window size (cut up) of this recorders is very big. The challenge for the maker is to make this instrument speak without changing the original voicing. And this means a lot of time and a lot of work. One of the main complication is to make the two lowest notes stable. In 2000 life in my country was cheap, thus I was not forced to produce sort of mainstream instruments for the market. I had time to experiment and to search for the best possible solution of a close copy on an original and the way how in has to be played well.

What was your first strong impression how medieval music works?

It was in 2000 when Pierre Hamon together with his ensemble Alla Francesca gave a concert in Kiev playing Machaut’s music. It was the first time that I heard a recorder in concert (made by Adrian Brown after Rafi) with this rather high cut up! I later realized that most modern recorder makers used to make smaller cut up of the windows as shown on most originals from that period in order to produce a more ‘normal’ clear recorder sound (for example, in Adrian Brown’s Renaissance Recorder Database most of  altos have cut up more than 5 mm, and tenors more than 6 mm). But the interesting thing here was that although the event took place in a much too big opera hall, these two tenor recorders were still audible because they produced this typical ‘chiff’ – a short non-harmonic noisy attack at the beginning of the tone. Although the sound was small and I was sitting far away, I could hear it! Now think, in most countries folk recorders have also this feature. If you think of the Irish Whistle, the window is also very high cut up. The same in some registers of the organ. The produced ‘chiff’ is very important. And there are many different kinds and qualities of such a ‘chiff’! This feature is related to the size of the recorder’s window. For example, on a ‘conventional’ soprano in C (pitched on A = 440 Hertz) with a window size from 3.5 to 3.8 mm this will not work, but from 4,2 mm or more it will definitively produce such a ‘chiff’.

Different recorders on a table

How this interesting feature is worked out on relevant recorders? What are the important parameters in their construction?

Thinking of drawings of instruments from the 17th century like the Rosenborg recorder or the Kynseker recorders from Nuremberg, there is another point in the construction or realization of the voicing: unlike instruments from the 18th century there is no chamfer. And this is no wonder, because trough my experience, chamfers make the function of the ‘chiff’ weak. And secondly, big chamfers make the attack slow. On the contrary, there seem to have been a taste at least until the middle of the 17th century for the fast attack. Think of van Eyck’s music which works pretty well on a Rosenborg soprano. This instrument in the size of about a modern instrument in D (just pitched a little bit lower) has a rather big window of around 4.2 mm and definitively no chamfers (at least on the drawing).
Another point is that all the excavated medieval recorders (from Dordrecht, Göttingen, Elblag and Tartu) produce a semitone on the lowest fingerhole. This means that this kind of feature is a first step away from instruments with the basic note on the sixth fingerhole (like all kinds of whistles) to that what we are used to call a recorder, which has the basic note on the seventh upper fingerhole. Thinking in this logical system means that six holes are enough to play diatonic music when using one or just a few scales. For compositions which begin to use more scales or use modulation, this is less appropriate and the musician needs another type of instrument: From what we know today is that the recorder with seven upper fingerholes first appeared shortly before 1400.
There is an interesting feature on the Elblag recorder: fundamental on the 6th hole and leading tone on the 7th already remind on bagpipes, but even more: with opening the 4th hole, holes 5 and 6 have to be closed and kept like this for all higher notes – it reminds the “half-closed fingering” on great highland pipe or cornemuse de Berry. When I made a first prototype, it appeared that all notes starting from 4th are too sharp, but with closed 5th and 6th holes they were well in tune.
In consequence there is also no regular minor third on the scale that starts from hole six. If you want to play a minor scale, start from hole five. Basically you have more or less two keys on such an instrument: one (or two) for major and one for minor. As most medieval tunes are in minor you play them starting from hole five.

Ironically for us recorder players, the world of whistles should be principally very close, but in reality it is pretty far away. But the mutual understanding of different fingering systems can be very instructive.

This is funny. There should be more intersection between recorder players and players of whistles! There are folk musicians who are mostly used to perform on the whistle. Also today in the Ukraine, we have very good players of the whistle or the transverse Irish flute but no good recorder players (at least I don’t know). With Irish music – which is kind of a popular music – you can earn money almost everywhere…. Not so with the more complicated music which is uneasy to understand for the people. Fingering systems, bore and sound are very much connected to each other.
We already mentioned that the oldest recorders like Elblag or Tartu likely can be a step from 6-holes duct flute (a whistle) to a “modern” recorder like we know it from renaissance time. So I think it is logic to use whistle-type flutes (maybe some folk flutes) for medieval music, at least I see more logic in it than to use Ganassi recorders. Once we spoke about medieval recorders with Maria Jonas and Lucia Mense from “Ars Choralis Coeln”, they tried different ones from me and decided to choose for their ensemble wooden whistles.
Another kind of feature characteristic for whistle making is to put the block a little bit into the bore so that it stands out let us say around at least 0.3 mm. This can also help for the voicing of medieval recorders. And this idea can also be detected on some old paintings and some excavated instruments.
Irish musicians can also develop through the help of recorder players: I have noticed that most whistles are mostly played legato – which is, by my opinion due to the mentioned construction features – a rather perverse attitude! That is why my focus on making wooden whistles is always that I develop them for a perfect staccato playing also.

Jewgenij Ilarionov with a female student

But let us not forget the back thumbhole – another evolutionary step towards the development of the modern recorder.

Let us imagine: about 600 years ago one guy discovered that apart of adding a seventh hole it is also very useful to add a thumbhole which helps for overblowing. Now, you do not need to do change the register only with breath pressure. And apart from being just a register hole, the thumbhole can work as an ordinary tonehole and thus also adds another note to the scale. But I think the function of this new hole was discovered the other way around: It might have been planed first as an additional tone hole what is shown by the fact that if you just open all fingerholes (including this new back hole) on a medieval recorder like from Elblag or Tartu, this produces the pure octave to the fundamental six-finger note (unlike any kind of whistle and also unlike the modern recorder). Furthermore, you can also come to the same result here if you finger six fingers plus the back hole partly covered in terms of overblowing. So this is the newly invented double function!  

Let us finally jump to another breaking point, when most of these ideas have obviously given up: the baroque period.

To me this is really kind of strange: Something in the music must have changed much, so that the instruments suddenly received a strong tapered bore with a much smaller window with comparatively big chamfers. It looks like they wanted to get rid of the typical rough ‘chiff’ and they obviously wanted to achieve a very pure, narrow and noble tone colour. In connection with this aspect a totally new strength of the overtone row is produced. For example, on medieval instruments you have a strong first overtone (the octave) and a rather weak second overtone (octave plus a fifth).
Nevertheless I try to make copies of baroque recorders, but as close as possible to the drawings of the originals. But let me add, not without a certain touch of irony: I try to voice the attack of baroque recorders very close to the ‘chiff’, but without the ‘chiff’!




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