The meeting

A few weeks ago, as my friend Hasan and I were strolling in the ancient parts of Istanbul, we passed by a rustic dusty music shop.  It looked more like an antique shop than anything else.  Hasan grew up in that neighborhood.  It turned out that the owner of the shop and Hasan were buddies at one time or another.  As they tried to fit comparing forty-some years of altered memories into a few minutes, I was taken by the array of neys.  I have played the harmonica and the fife, but nothing as fancy as the flute or the sax.

The ney is different, though.  It looks illusively simple an instrument to produce such mystical sounds.  The owner must have noticed the admiration and interest in my looks.  He approached: "Do you play?" picking one up.  "No" I said, softly.  "It takes a long long time to master" he said.  "It takes months even to get a sound."

Now, that sounded like a challenge.  "There has not been an instrument on which I couldn't produce a sound in less than five minutes" I said.  "Oh yeah" he said handing me the ney.  "How?" I asked.  "Just try it." he said and hastily turned away to talk to Hasan.

I tried and tried and, for the life of me, could not produce a sound.  My five minutes were up.  I was a little annoyed.  A little because here was a simple bamboo rod with holes, and I could not produce a fleeting note.  Also, because the owner gave me no clue.

As we were leaving, "Does it come with these carrying cases, or are the cases extra?" I inquired.  "I am not sure I would sell you the ney" the shopkeeper said, deliberately looking away.  "You see, Hasan is my childhood friend and I must be brutally honest.  It takes many years to master the ney.  And let's face it, you may not have that many."  I thought he was just being smug because I couldn't make a sound.

Technology to the rescue

The ney stayed in its case until I got back to Ankara.  Once back, I got onto the net and found a few sites.  Now, here were some instructions. I skimmed through the writings and looked at the pictures.  I took the ney out of the case, put it to my lips and in a few seconds it whistled.  "Not five, not even one minute" I thought.  The previous attempt should be disqualified, I rationalized.  I tried putting my fingers on the various holes to see what it sounded like.  I can read music if I have to -- but usually I don't have to.  It is so much more fun to play intuitively.  Play as you would whistle, I think -- that is the best.  But the ney seemed to be an odd sort of instrument.  It appeared counterintuitive.  There are only six holes.  Moreover, the shape of your mouth and lips seems to affect the pitch, the tone, and the timbre.  This effect may easily reach a quarter of a tone.  As with the simple recorders, if you blow harder you get a higher octave.  But sometimes you seem to get a fifth !

More technology

ney and microphoneI quickly searched for a program that could listen to the microphone and  show me the frequency.  Since I run Linux [Ubuntu ], locating and loading open-source applications is a breeze. I simply use the Linux package manager.  I loaded the Free Music Instrument Tuner (FMIT), which has the look and feel of a chromatic guitar tuner.  The best part, I can see the frequency of the tone.  I quickly wrapped the earpiece I use for VoIP and measured the frequency of the notes. I could see the notes produced by the different fingerings.  Moreover, I could see the effects of blowing soft or hard.  It may not be proper, but it is possible to get a fifth by blowing a bit harder.  Not bad for a few minutes of work using the most mundane components lying around, no?

At last, I have an intuitive feel for the instrument.  I can play "test" pieces, just to see how the notes correspond to the feel.  I don't think about the notes.  I play just as I would whistle.  Here is a test piece I recored with Audacity.  Audacity loads directly from the Linux package manager.  Being open source, I have no fear of viruses, spyware, or addware.  The software is good, but as a novice, my sound is no good -- no charisma whatsoever.  The mic is "speech quality" at best.  Also being directly downwind from the mouthpiece, the sound is contaminated.  The notes are not precise either.  But that is all OK.  At this point, I just want to learn which note is where...

Here is another test piece.  I noticed that many modern performers add a little reverberation to the sound when playing live, or when recording.  I wondered how that would sound.  So I looked for a reverberation plug-in for Audacity.  I found Gverb and many other plugins, all bundled under "Steve Harris's LADSPA plugins," again available simply through the Linux package manager.  I took the test piece and added reverb.  Here is the result.

I do sound like a pedestrian now, but I wonder if I could ever master the instrument and sound like this?  Or, if the shopkeeper is right after all...

 

[addenda]

I continue to play and record with the same set up.  Here are a few samples:

February 2, 2008

February 3, 2008

 

The University of Southampton Centre for Ultrasonic and Underwater Acoustics published virtual sounds of methanefalls on Saturn's moon Titan.  Researchers use physical properties such as density, gas composition, temperature, etc. to predict how thing would sound in different environments.  Also published is the sound of a splashdown of a spacecraft onto Titan's methane sea.  The virtual sounds are available from the University of Southampton website.  I converted these sounds to MPEG-4 Audio suitable to be used as ringtones.  Please note that the extensions m4r are used by iPhone.  You may rename the extension for other phones.  If you want to load these ringtones on an iPhone, first add the ringtones to your iTunes library and then load the ringtones to your phone.