An Interview with Hammy Hamilton
“Concert pitch was much higher in 19th century England than it is now…as high as A=455 in certain instances, and when flutes built to play at these pitches are brought down to modern pitch, they lose a lot of their ‘oomph’ for want of a better word.”
Interview date: October 1998
Colin (Hammy) Hamilton was born in 1953 in Belfast. Attracted like many others to traditional music through the recordings of the early ballad groups, he began to play the tin whistle and eventually the flute. Hammy moved to Cork in 1976 in connection with research for a Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology, and in 1979 set up one of the first flute workshops in Ireland, also one of the first devoted to making flutes specifically for Irish music. He is now living in the West Cork Gaeltacht and is currently engaged in flutemaking. He has continued research into various aspects of traditional music in Ireland, gaining a PhD for work on commercial recordings of Irish traditional music, and is currently writing a major work on the social history of traditional music in Ireland.
Hammy is the author of The Irish Flute Player’s Handbook, an excellent guide for flute players. His playing can be heard on his tape “The Moneymusk.” re-released on CD in 2001 by Ossian, and on “It’s No Secret” with Con Fada O’Drisceoil and Seamus Craigh, also on the Ossian label. For more information, check out Hammy’s Web site, or contact him at:
Macroom, Co. Cork
Tel +353 26 45209; Fax: +353 26 45219
Q: You’re one of a number of excellent flute players from Belfast. Who were your main musical influences there? When did you start playing flute and who did you learn from?
A: I began playing flute in or around 1973 or ’74. I had been playing various other instruments, but had eventually settled on the whistle, and always had a fascination with the flute, and so I moved on to the flute as soon as I could find one, which was not an easy task at that time.
In terms of learning, it has to be remembered that in those days classes for traditional music were unheard of, and most people struggled on their own, trying to learn from records and the like.
My main musical influences were really the people that I was playing with at the time. The first session that I began to go to regularly was in the O’Donovan Rossa Gaelic Athletic Association on the Falls Road, normally just called the Rossa Club. It was there that I really began to learn to be a traditional musician, from the likes of Andy Dixon on fiddle, and Dermy Diamond on banjo and fiddle, and Leslie and Tara Bingham on flute and whistle. It was a tough school…with typical Belfast directness you were quickly told to shut up if you were out of tune, or didn’t know the tune or whatever. But it was good in the sense that you very quickly learned both how to play, and how to behave in the session!
There were a group of us who were learning our trade as flute players in the Belfast of the early to mid 1970s. Apart from me, this included Desi Wilkinson, Frankie Kennedy, Gerry O’Donnell, and Gary Hastings among others. I used to hang around with Desi and a fiddle player called Ben Gunn, whose people were from Fermanagh. (His father, Tommy, was a founder member of The Boys of the Lough) It was in their kitchen that I first met Cathal McConnell who was a major influence on all the young Belfast fluteplayers at the time. Apart from Cathal, a major influence would have been fluteplayers from the Sligo/Lietrim/Roscommon area, such as Seamus Tansey and Patsey Hanley, to name two.
Q: For many years you’ve been living in the west Cork Gaeltacht region of Cil-Aodha. Is there much of a flute-playing tradition there? In my mind I associate west Cork and Kerry with fiddle and box, but not flute.
A: You’re right, there is not much of a flute-playing tradition in this area. It was played, of course, but not to the same extent as it would have been in the mid-West. By the time I arrived in Cil-Aodha, most of the flute players, and they were few enough, would have been younger ‘revival’ players like myself. The only older player that I can remember anywhere in the broad area was Mickey Cronin, a brother of Paddy Cronin (the fiddle player).
Q: You have written some fine tunes, the most well-known being “The Woodcock” and “The Kerfunten,” which many people simply call “Hammy Hamilton’s Jigs,” or ascribe to some long-forgotten traditional source. Can you tell us a bit about those tunes: e.g. when you made them up, how you came up with the titles?
A: These two tunes, although normally played together, were actually written many years apart. The Kerfunten was the first and I wrote it while teaching at a workshop in Brittany. It was in a suburb of Quimper called Kerfunteun–hence the name. The spelling seems to have gotten a bit mixed up over the years, though! I think the spelling with the u is the correct one. There was a guitar player there, who was also teaching, and he was messing about one day, playing a chord sequence, I picked up a whistle, and began fitting a tune around them. Ten minutes later it had evolved into the Kerfunten Jig! The Woodcock I wrote some years later–I’m not exactly sure when, but it was sometime in the 1980s. I was looking for another tune to put with it and I remembered the other jig.
There was something about the combination that people seemed to like, and by the early 1990s the set had become really popular. It still gives me a buzz to walk into a pub and hear those tunes being played. I called the second tune the Woodcock because there was something about the way the melody swerved about which reminded me of the way a woodcock flies when it is put up by a dog.
Q: In your research and in your work as a flute maker, you’ve no doubt encountered many excellent flute players who have been overlooked or underappreciated by musicians today. Would you mention a few of your favorites and describe their playing styles?
A: The commercialisation of traditional music in the last 20 years or so has meant that each instrument tends to be associated with a few ‘virtuoso’ players. Don’t get me wrong…these players are almost without exception excellent performers and deserving of their status, but for those who are forced by reasons of geography to access most of their music via recordings it means that many excellent players and styles go unappreciated. The ease with which individual musicians can make good quality recordings these days has gone some way to ameliorate this situation, but there are a lot of players around that are really worth listening to who have never recorded or have made recordings that are hard to get hold of. It seems a bit unfair to mention some and not others but since I can’t mention or describe everyone I admire here are a few names you might bear in mind.
From the Sligo/Leitrim/Roscommon area:
- Patsy Hanley
- James Murray
- Colm and Seamus O’Donnell
- The Hynes brothers, Seamus and Michael
- ‘The Gabe’ O’Sullivan
From West Limerick:
- Francis O’Connor
- Joe Sullivan
In terms of those recorded in the ‘Golden Age’ in America try to find recordings of John Griffin, Tom Morrison, or Murty Rabbitte.
In terms of describing their style, I think it is really difficult to describe something which is so complex in a few words. Just listen to them…..if you can find them!
Q: Your solo album “The Moneymusk” is a nice piece of work. Do you have plans to record another?
A: Yes. but it’s on the long finger at the moment, even though I’m trying to collect tunes with this in mind. What seems more likely in the near future is a re-release of “The Moneymusk” on CD. [Editor’s Note: Hammy re-released “The Moneymusk” on CD in 2001, with several additional tracks that are not on the tape. It’s on the Ossian label. In 2001 he also released “It’s No Secret” with Con Fada O’Drisceoil and Seamus Creagh.]
Q: The Irish Flute Player’s Handbook is a great resource for flute players everywhere. What prompted you to write this book? Can you give us a preview of your plans for what will be included in the revised edition?
A: In a way the same reason why I became a flutemaker: there were no flutes to be had… or I should say…it was very difficult to get hold of a decent instrument in the 1970s. In the same way there was no real source book for the Irish fluteplayer, and so the “Fluteplayer’s Handbook” was originally conceived to satisfy that need. In some ways it was also based on the questions that I found I was being constantly asked by visitors to the workshop, and also at teaching workshops that I was doing.
The second edition will hopefully bring the book up to date..particularly with regard to the discography, but I also hope to include a section on flutemaking this time, with more concentration on design. Since I wrote the book there has been a complete turn -vis old and new flutes. In the 1980s, almost all serious players wanted a good old English flute. Now almost everyone wants a new flute. I hope to reflect this change in emphasis in the new edition.
Q: As a flute maker, what’s your general sense of the state of wooden flute manufacturing today? Are most makers simply making replicas of the old English flutes, or is there any effort to improve on those designs? Have we learned anything new about flute design and flute making in the last 100 years or so?
A: Since I began in the late 1970s to try and produce a playable alternative to the old flutes which were all that was then available there have been a lot of changes. I think…although its difficult to be exact….that I was the first maker to try and make a flute with Irish traditional music in mind. In the initial years I was alone as a maker who specialised in flutes of this type. Other makers were essentially pipemakers or made other types of wooden transverse flutes. Now, I think there are around 30 makers specialising in Irish flutes! Some makers still concentrate on copies of older instruments, and this is partly influenced by the early music movement thinking, where if the original instrument is not available then an exact copy is the next best thing. I think, though, in the last few years there has been what I would consider a welcome move away from this sort of thinking, and the best makers are now open to making instruments which satisfy their clients’ needs.
In terms of whether any advances have been made in flute design, and I presume we are talking here about cone-bore flute design, the answer has to be yes, but to a relatively minor extent. I think the best flutes being made today are better in tune, and in particular are more responsive than the best of the 19th century flutes. On the other hand, it is also true to say that apart from Boehm’s radical redesign of the flute in the mid 19th century, which has really little relevance for traditional players, makers such as myself are only really tweaking basic design features that have been around since the late 17th century! So in answer to the last part of your question, I think that what present day makers are really doing is rearranging old design features into a more playable format for Irish musicians.
Q: Some flute makers I know have remarked that it is becoming increasingly hard to find good supplies of blackwood (grenadilla). Is that true? What’s the long-term outlook for this wood, and how do the alternatives compare?
A: From my point of view, I don’t have any difficulty at the moment getting hold of good quality African blackwood. But there has been a persistent rumour for the last few years that this situation is about to change. Like all naturally grown wild timbers, there is a limited supply and an increasing demand, and this is likely to lead to problems in the future. There was a really interesting television documentary that I saw which dealt with this whole problem. Apparently one of the major problems that the species faces is a radical increase in bush fires in its habitat…which by the way is the open grassland/veldt type environment of East Africa, and not rain forest as a lot of people imagine. The larger trees…and they are not large trees by any account…can survive the intense heat, but the saplings can’t and so the problem is one of replacing the existing stock of trees. There is apparently no reason why they can’t be grown in a plantation type scenario, and some of the governments in East Africa are trying to do this.
In terms of alternatives, there are quite a lot of other timbers that will make a good flute, cocus wood, snakewood, the rosewoods in general ( barring so-called Indian Rosewood)…. the problem is that they tend to be under the same sort of pressures as blackwood itself, so that if there was a switch to these, they would very soon begin to suffer from the same supply problems as blackwood. In terms of synthetics, I think there is great hope for the future. I have made some flutes from nylon which in my opinion sound every bit as good as a blackwood flute. In fact they have some advantages of stability of response and tuning. Aesthetically they don’t begin to match up…. but in the future we mightn’t have that choice!
Q: There continues to be much debate among Irish flute players about the relative merits of the Pratten-style versus the Rudall-and-Rose-style instrument. Do you have a preference, and what do you see as the merits and/or faults of each design? Does the focus on Pratten and Rudall lead people to ignore the many excellent flute designs by other makers from the 1800s?
A: This is a debate which I think is nearing its end. The basics of it were that the Rudall type instrument was sweeter in tone and had more ‘character’ as opposed to the Pratten which was more direct and powerful. Other factors which I think have now come to have more importance, especially in ensemble playing, are the fact that, not to put too fine a point on it, the tuning of the Rudall type flutes is abysmal. The D is flat, as is the the F sharp and the B. These defects can be corrected by venting with the keys, but this is not really a feasible technique when playing Irish dance music. The tuning of the Pratten type flutes is much better, but it has to be said that both types suffer from an overall sharpness of pitch.
Concert pitch was much higher in 19th century England than it is now….as high as A=455 in certain instances, and when flutes built to play at these pitches are brought down to modern pitch, they lose a lot of their ‘oomph’ for want of a better word. This factor is, in my opinion, more noticable with the Rudall type flute, one reason being that the pitch was beginning to rise by the time a lot of the Pratten types were made. I think you can see that I am more in favour of the Pratten type flutes, although in fact I played a Rudall and Rose for over 20 years. Most of the flutes I make are based on the Pratten design, but are not copies. I still make the odd Rudall type flute to order.
In answer to the last part of your question, yes some types of flute have been sidelined by the predominance of the two major names. Many, many, other makers made flutes of just as good quality, especially of the Rudall type. Names such as Fentum, Wylde, Campbell, Prowse are just a few that spring to mind, and there are many others. There were fewer makers of good Pratten type flutes, Boosey and Co. being predominant, although Hawkes, and Hudson, turned out a few as well. It is not widely known that before the advent of the large holed English flutes made popular by Nicholson, the standard small holed eight-keyed flutes, especially those by makers such as Willis, Rudall, Potter, or Milhouse, were really well in-tune instruments, with a fine tone, if lacking something of the volume required by the modern player.
Q: When a beginning flute player is shopping for an instrument, what sorts of qualities should she or he look for in a new or used flute?
A: Buying a flute is a bit of a minefield. Buying a new flute is much simpler, in that in general you might know someone who has one and who can give you their opinion. You can also go back to the maker if unsatisfied.
With old flutes, few of these things apply, and there are many other confusing factors. An old flute which hasn’t been played for many years may play really differently after being played for a few weeks…..better or worse. Cracks can easily develop after playing for a while as well. Problems which seem irreperable can sometimes be quite easily fixed, whereas seemingly minor problems can turn out to be insurmountable.
Probably the best advice is to bring an experienced player with you when buying, and not to get carried away with fancy keys or mounts…..looks don’t really count. Its how it plays that matters.
Finally don’t forget to check the pitch….some flutes are impossible to play at modern pitch.