Archive for the ‘MugPhlute Chronicles’ Category

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Ocarina Making Satisfaction


Sculptural OcarinaIt has been a while since I took a day to construct a sculptural ocarina. For those who have not been following along, my sculptural ocarinas are fully functional, single octave ceramic musical instruments plus there is a significantly different, sculptural look to each of them. My earlier face-sculptured ocarinas did not have the detailed facial features of this piece.  For several months I have been studying portrait sculpture and facial anatomy to get a better understanding of how to form facial emotions with some degree of believability.  Even though the face on this ocarina is caricature-like, I would like to believe that the direction is toward believability.

One commenter on my Flickr account noted that this instrument looks either Mayan or Aztec.  That is intentional and may be more evident if I can master the making of custom decals…but that is a post for another day.

Ocarinas with this much ornamentation (approximately 9 separate pieces assembled) brings with it a greater risk that cracking or breakage may happen in the firing process.  The majority of these pieces survive.  Some do not function as well after firing as a ceramic musical instrument due to warpage in the airway and tone-producing fipple area…all the more reason to at least have a surviving sculptural piece that can make a great conversation piece.

I have been asked on several occasions, “Why are these pieces so expensive?”  The total time to form, carve, assemble, tune, fire, glaze, and re-glaze several times can be upward of 20-30 hours. Factor in the cost of materials and energy and what may look like a toy become something of a serious investment.  For me personally, the “AH-HA” moment when a new friend hears the flute-like sound for the first time and inevitably smiles one of those happy, raised-eyebrow smiles makes it all worthwhile.

NaNoWriMo is Upon Us


Ten days from now, National Novel Writing Month begins. For anyone who has ever made the statement, “I’ll write a novel someday”, well, November is the month to write that some day novel. I have enlisted the utterly obscure, eccentric, music archeologist, Dr. Ephriam Bowen to write with me this year. He will have to find his way from a secretive excavation site in Central America to make meetings here in the states, but he has generously committed to do so. This shy, pith-helmet adorned fossil has much to say and I look forward to hearing his story. The following is just a glimpse of what the novel will reveal:

EB Note Top“I have been too busy and too excited to journal this week. We have discovered additional evidence of the reverence that the Uxmalico community placed on music. As hundreds of years of burial fill and dust were painstaking shaved from the base of a test pit, just a fraction of an inch at a time, a large ceramic shard overcame its shyness to bring smiles and cheers to the whole team. Wind of Macaw GlyphStaring up from centuries of silence appeared a glyph bearing the classic image of a Macaw playing a horn flanked by a graphical symbol reserved for identifying brightness of gods. On the horn is a simple arc and half-moon that can be translated breath or wind. A tiny inscription near the base of the horn is not completely discernible, but may be significant upon closer exam.

Surely it is mere coincidence that a calm day was interrupted by a gentle breeze and the flutter of wings as we gathered around the excavation’s prize. But I cannot help but to interpret this finding as another indication that music played a part in the mysticism of this culture. The scribe who painted this glyph has not been identified and the crudeness of the style may be an indication of youth, inexperience, or perhaps a caste who was not considered worthy of contributing to the permanent record. We continue to excavate and will expand the tests to the edge of a square depression that borders the hostile overgrowth.”
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Ceremonial Whistling Bottle


Ceremonial Bottle - Whistling VesselThis a different sort of whistling vessel – ceramic musical instrument.  Only the fact that it plays two tones slips this into a category as an instrument, otherwise it is a tone sculpture.  Some 25+ wheel-thrown and hand-built pieces of stoneware were assembled to bring this piece up to its maximum height of 25 inches.  Now that it has been bisque fired to 1700 degrees (F), the actual height is closer to 23.5 inches.

This ceremonial whistling bottle sounds when one of two events happen.  By removing the small, stopper-head on the back side, the vessel can be filled with water.  After replacing the stopper, the entire piece can be rocked forward (ceremoniously bowing), until water escapes through the rolled tongue of the larger head at the top.  Due to the design of the tube that feeds the spout, a slight back pressure forces air up a second tube that will play the whistle locate beneath the surface of the nose on the larger head as the water flows from the spout.  The second way that this piece sounds happens when the partially filled vessel is rocked back to its upright position.  Air passing back through the tube and airway spout create a column of air that plays the whistle in the smaller bottle-stopper head. Yes. I know that sounds complicated… but it is that level of sophistication that the Inca figured out several hundred years ago.  That is a sophistication that I still find humbling in today’s world of high tech.

There are intentional sides to this piece that reveal characteristics of a woman, a posture of worship, a gargoyle-like protector, and the mechanical mysteries of sounding a tone and delivering a stream of water.  I will leave it up to Dr. Ephriam Bowen to tell the story behind this ceremonial vessel.  In the meantime, the stoneware survived its initial firing and awaits staining and glazing.  Pictures of the construction process will be coming soon.


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Whistling Vessel Mystery


Novel writing hit a speed bump last year when I discovered that there were actual, historical artifacts that related to my protagonist’s quest to discover the source of mesoamerican, ceramic instrumental music. OK, so it wasn’t a speed bump, it was more like an aha-moment-stop-the-presses event that sent me into a frenzy of applied research and experimentation.  Whistling vessels are a fascinating mystery.  Whistling jars that involve the use of water are even more mysterious. The key word for the historical fiction writer exploring these artifacts is mystery.

Double globed, clay musical instrument - Whistling Water VesselIn contemporary circles there seem to be a couple of theories regarding the use of  whistling vessel artifacts found primarily from present day Mexico to Peru.  Donald Wright makes a solid case in Peruvian Whistling Vessels that their use involved making metaphysical or supernatural connections:

“…A discovery utilizing sound that could transport human beings into a new and unique realm of experience…possibly to other worlds of existence. This sound was not music, but instead a special toning of whistles which, when blown together with other such vessels, had the ability to induce what has been described as a trance state of a spiritual nature.”

Brian Ransom, (educator, clay artist, musician, and researcher) writes that water rather than human breath played a role in the function of whistling water jars.  His extensive studies into the actual construction and artistic characteristic make a solid case that these instruments may have served a variety of functions but ultimately compound the mystery of their actual use:

“Music, ritual and contact with more-than-human realms via hallucinogenic substances as well as in everyday belief systems are prevalent among indigenous South Americans today. We can speculate that these mystical religious beliefs were also prevalent in ancient times. With these thoughts in mind, we can theorize that whistling jars were used as a means of spiritual contact.”

Daybreak - Ceramic Musical InstrumentToward the end of Don Wright’s article are suggestions that whistling vessels were very personal, evidenced by their presence in a number of Pre-Columbian burial sites. Equally intriguing is the concept that the mysteries of the spiritual qualities, construction, and inherent powers are passed along to select individuals from one generation to another. I count myself as a skeptic to the mysticism and powers of an inanimate object, even a whistling vessel. When demonstrated, however, the reactions by individuals who see and hear, first-hand a whistling vessel in use is often an other-wordly, “Wow”. Those reactions alone are sufficient for Dr. Ephriam Bowen to delve further into the mystery of ancient, ceramic musical instruments as well as the keepers of the skill to construct these enigmatic works of art. The time is approaching that my old friend Ephriam will pick up his pen and wrap up The MugPhlute Chronicles.

Pictured here is the work-in-progress whistling water vessel that will likely inspire Dr. Bowen’s fictional accounts.

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Primordial Face


'Playing by Ear' WhistleSome of the earliest whistles and whistle pendants that I assembled included facial features and complete faces…it isn’t an original idea at all but it is definitely fun. The “Playing by Ear” whistle on the right is a favorite concept that needs to be revisited…but not now.  Small whistles happen by a campfire when small pieces are about the only things that I feel comfortable transporting in a delicate, greenware condition and frankly, a campfire is not a pleasant image in Middle Tennessee’s unseasonably hot weather (I regress).

So last night while procrastinating over a honey-do list and watching The Fugitive for the umteenth time, a subconscious acknowledgment the face-in-a-flute concept happenedFace of Primordial Music - OcarinaThis little guy’s face seemed to find his way out of the time-consuming texturing and finger-hole placement and into the world.  The usual curly handle of this series of ocarinas somehow sprouted a nose…and the next thing you know, he is a full octave, primordial faced, ocarina.

Dr. Bowen has been jabbering about broken flutes discovered at Uxmalico… something about captured breath that enters a flute being transformed into something ethereal.  Today’s technology can explain the harmonic vibrations that occur when a column of air splits at the fipple of an instrument and produces a tone.  For ancient Mesoamericans, wouldn’t it make sense that the transformation of human breath into something god-like via a magical implement would be logical?…and the act of breaking a flute at a burial site could represent the unbinding of a last breath to release the departed into an afterlife.  Ahhh, theory and mystery…more, later from Dr. B.

Another Weekend, Another Ocarina


B-Flat Ocarina in stonewareFriends are telling me that an ocarina of this size (approximately 7″ tall and roughly 4″ wide) is a better option for a shelf display than some of the earlier MugPhlutes that are two and three times that size.  That sounds pretty good to me, since this sized piece takes much less time to craft,  is easier to voice, and probably won’t takes weeks of slow drying to avoid warpage and cracking.

So, what’s with the mezoamerican looking pots, anyway?
My reading and research continues on glyphs that feature references to Mayan music, K’ojom.  There are only hints that musical notation ever made it to print and those artifacts have disappeared over time due to the frailty of the bark paper used for writing.  To say that music was never carved in stone illustrates the higher status of the scribes compared to the status of the musical priesthood.  Dr. Bowen’s personal experiences at the Uxmalico archeological site bears witness to this:

EB Note Top“It is becoming clearer each day that conflict developed between the scribes and the MugPhlute priests. Can it be mere coincidence that references to music played for high calendar, astronomical events clearly identifies the date, who ruled the event, what instruments were played…but have the names of the musicians obliterated? Something odd happened at Uxmalico. Something powerful…and it involved the impact of music at these events.  Was there jealousy between those who chronicled these events into stone and those whose music from the event became portable and available in the lowest of households?  Was music a threat to the status of the scribes?  Did the evolution of sophisticated instruments and talented players elevate music to a status beyond simple songs of every day Mayan life?

We’re excavating an area that has exposed large quantities of shards of pipe and bulbous ceramic shapes.  At first glance it appears as little more than a garbage dump from a ceremonial clean-up, but there is a layer below with skeletal remains aligned in a manner to suggest burial of the living.  What did these individuals do to meet their fate in such a cruel fashion?  So many questions and so many new markings to interpret. ”
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Tlapitzquiquiztli - Horned Flute of the ConchCombining large pinchpot pieces with pulled handles can take some time, particularly when there are ceramic gymnastics involved…and this piece definitely qualifies.  The basic components were scored, slipped, joined and then braced while resting on the banding wheel.  At leather hard stage, the fipple of the ocarina was added and scoring for the areas to be sculpted was roughed out.  At each step, the entire piece received a light misting and was allowed to rest, completely covered,  overnight.  There is still much to be done, but a peek into the process might help others understand how these things are built.

The intent of the construction is to represent a snail (or conch), complete with shell and proboscis.  References to animals and use of animal part (tortoise shell, conch, animal bone, etc.) were common among Mayan wind instruments, and although this particular instrument is the object of a fictional story, it will produce multiple sounds.

I do wonder if the workspace of Mayan musical instrument makers ever became as cluttered as the space where this piece is sitting.  I’ll have to ask E.B. if there isn’t some sort of ancient proverb that suggests that out of chaos comes creativity 🙂

EB Note Top“Only brief mentions in ancient text speak of a rare flute that mimics the conch and snail. This rare find could be but one survivor of the Cenote at Uxmalico. The glyph imprints have not been identified, but the instrument is definitely ceremonial. Once clear of silt and several hundred years of debris, I’ll not be surprised if this piece still plays. I have named the instrument, Tlapitzquiquiztli – Horned Flute of the Conch.”
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