An Interview with Patrick Olwell
This interview was conducted by in October 1999 by Tina Eck, a flute player from Washington, DC. Tina wrote the introduction and transcribed the interview, and also provided the photos for this interview.
Note that a documentary film about Patrick is available.
Patrick Olwell is one of the world’s most reknowned makers of Irish flutes. Seamus Egan, Matt Molloy, Mike Rafferty (to name only a few) and numerous happy non-celebrity flute players in America and overseas are playing his instruments. In England, Ian Anderson ( of the band Jethro Tull) plays Olwell bamboos and a wooden flute in the key of G#. And Brian Finnegan (currently playing in the band Flook!) is a virtuoso player of Olwell bamboos. Patrick a Cincinnatti native – lives and works in Nelson County, VA south of Charlottesville. His shop is located in the tiny, ghostly quiet town of Massies Mill, VA in the upstairs of an old bank building built in 1921.
Patrick started making flutes in the 1970s. What began as a repair and restauration job of antique flutes soon led to his first keyless bamboo flutes. He started making wooden flutes in the early 80s. His instruments (bamboo and wooden flutes) are of exquisite beauty and quality. The wooden flutes are made of African blackwood, rosewood, cocus, or boxwood. They come keyed or unkeyed, with a lined or unlined headjoint, in keys of D, Bb, C or whatever the customer requires.
Olwell flutes integrate a characteristic powerful “bark” with the warm sound of a wooden instrument. Patrick’s flutes are an optimized “fusion” combining centuries of experience by the old flutemakers in London, New York and France with Patrick’s new technological approach and autodidactic sense of experimentation and innovation. Olwell flutes are sought after by avid flute-players all over the world, so the waiting list is long but not hopeless.
Contact: Patrick Olwell, Historic Woodwinds, P.O. Box 117, Nellysford, VA 22958, USA. Tel: +1 804 277-9215
Q: When and why were you first getting interested in making flutes?
A: In the late 70s and early 80s, I listened to a lot of folk and flute music from South America and Japan; I also listened to medieval, early music on woodwinds. And the sound of these instruments was the fascination. Modal Music. When I heard the Irish flute, that seemed to me like a living, breathing representative of a medieval tradition that had died out. And there is something about the simple system flute–made out of wood or bamboo–that appeals to people, that the silver flute doesn’t have. It is almost mystical. Flutes have long been associated with meditation and thought to be soulful. I only know that when I am playing a wooden flute, I feel connected to something that I don’t feel connected to when I’m not playing one.
I was not a great flute player in the beginning myself, but I started to try and build those fascinating instruments. My flute journal starts sometime around July 1981. That’s when my first flutes were made. I never apprenticed with anybody and had no money or tools. Instead I had a family and two kids to support. I found a lathe in a friend’s basement and borrowed it. Other friends helped me with a drill press, a band-saw and rotary grinder for undercutting the fingerholes and shaping the mouth-holes. I got some chunks of wood and a drill and got to work. I had previously started out making bamboo flutes; that was around 1975. But the first cylindrical bore wooden flute came in 1980. The first conical bore flute in 1981. Craft shows were a market to sell first products. Flutes number 1, 2, and 3 had to be sold immediately for the money.
Q: How did you do your research? How did you learn how to make a flute. Or putting it simply: how do you know where to put the holes?
A: There were the old flutes, the antique models which I studied. But there was a lot of confusion about these old flutes, because all the antique flutes available were out of tune to the ear and to the strobe tuner. So I asked myself: were they out of tune on purpose? Or due to mediocre makers? Did players have a different idea of blowing? There were lots of questions and I was looking for answers.
I spent hours and days in the Library of the University of Virginia studying books. I found the “Galpin Society of England,” a quarterly publication of scholarly journals about musicology of early music, before 1800. And in there were detailed descriptions of Renaissance flutes from 1562, 1574 and 1585. They had a cylindrical bore, small fingerholes and a small mouthhole.
So I made a reproduction of one of the Renaissance flutes. The measurements were exactly documented in Galpin publication. And that first flute was good enough that Chris Norman played it on an album and gave me credit.
I also made reproductions of the baroque flute (1650 to 1680). Those flutes were made in pieces with a conical bore instead of a cylindrical bore. Still small fingerholes and a small mouthhole. But I started out on a major research. I did lots of measuring of antique instruments, measurements out of articles, did a lot of talking to other makers. When I started out, the first step was to get as many drawings as I could from these scholarly journals and the Dayton Miller Collection at the Library of Congress. Measuring is one thing, but it is also important to be able to blow and play them.
So, playing, measuring and studying Renaissance flutes, Baroque flutes and Classical flutes the immediate predecessors of the Irish flute contributed to my understanding of the history of the flutes. The way of tuning and the custom of accomodating different requirements of different musical periods and styles. I was reading everything I could about the history of the flutes and contemporary players of the 1820s and 1830s. I was really trying to piece everything together, instead of “kicking up” a Rudall & Rose flute, and making an exact copy, and copying all its deficiencies.
Q:That sounds like “optmizing the best of the old.” How did the “modern” approach get into your work and how did you actually get these old models in tune for our ears of the 21st century?
A: I got really interested in the tuning solutions of the late 18th century. Around 1790 the classical concert flute of the Mozart days came with three different middle pieces for playing in three different pitches. And I copied that method too. Just to see how accurate it was. When they invented the tuning slide, they stopped making three or six different mid-sections. After that, the player was supposed to be able to accomodate different pitches almost all the way from D to E-flat and blow the flute into tune, just by changing the tuning slide. But as you move the mouth-hole in and out, you change the scale, which screws up the tuning. The three different pieces where fingerholes are in different places were more accurate. That was an important discovery and it was leading me to all kinds of new theories. One theory, for example, why Clementi-flutes were so out of tune was that they took the old scale they left the right finger hole side as it was and shortened the upper left hand section. The flute makers were often not flute-players, so they didn’t notice.
So the question about the antique flute was: what pitch is this flute supposed to be played at? I wasn’t aware of how sharp English pitch was at that time at about 452 (456 is the modern E-flat). The tuning on the continent was 435 Germans and the French stayed flat. The relative pitch of the antique flutes is different. Pulling out the tuning slide means changing the scale along the length of the flute. So the question for me was: the best flutes were made on the British Isles, and I was copying lots of their features, but what part of the flute should I make flatter, what part of the flute should I stretch out, in order to compensate for the 452 pitch way above modern concert pitch of 440?
I measured flutes made by Chris Wilkes (England), Hammy Hamilton (Ireland) and Sam Murray (Belfast). All had longer headjoints. They were basically copying the body of the old flute and stretching out the headjoint part. Then they changed the size of the fingerholes to change their relative pitches. But because I have worked with the Baroque flutes, and the early classical flutes and I knew about the three upper middle sections, I thought what I should REALLY be changing was the scale of the flute, which means the body of the flute and not the headjoints. I also knew all the earlier flutes that I measured had shorter headjoints than the ones in the 1830s, when the so-called Irish flute was taking shape. By then, they had already extended the headjoint. The story was: when they reproduced the three middle-pieces, they reproduced the shortest one. And then they corrected by stretching out the headjoint. That was not, what I wanted to do. Instead of extending the cylindrical part of the flute, I wanted to extend the conical part of the flute, which is much trickier to do. You have to decide how you alter the position of the finger holes. But studying the old flutes gave me an idea how to do that.
The English flutes of the mid 19th century usually had a flat pitch bottom D and a sharp A and B. They were designed to be blown really hard. Again: stretch out the body and leave the (already extended) headjoint alone. Also, the headjoints were not really great. Mostly too thin. (For instance: the “Golden Era” Nicholson Flutes made by Charles Nicholson in Great Britan just before Rudall & Rose. He engineered his flutes basically out of nothing and blew his flute really hard. The characteristics were a thin headjoint, over-enlarged mouthhole with razor-sharp edges). I found out, that I could play a flute with a thicker headjoint much more easily. American flutes have a totally different measurement which is a unique blend of German, French and English (Examples: Baack, NY Palowbay many of those makers were sons of flutemakers from Germany and France). They weren’t influenced by Charles Nicholson, their flutes played in tune.
Q: What’s the role the Irish flute (and your flutes) is playing today during the the revitalization of the old tradition?
A: The flute always enjoyed enormous popularity as an amateur instrument. Before the age of stereos, people played music together. Traditional and dance music were played. The music is accessible to all kinds of non-trained musician. In the 1820 and 1840 there was a non-threatening tradition of playing music. In 1816 Edward Reilly’s book of melodies for the flute was published and the tunes were played. And today almost 200 years later there is an outbreak of Irish Music everywhere. This music is not intimidating and it keeps traditional music alive and accessible for everybody.
And regarding my flutes, take Mike Rafferty for example. In his own words he said, “his playing took off, and he could play the old tunes that he could not play on the old German or silver flute.” My flute helped him, getting back into the music of his home country. The tradition doesn’t come from me, but I have worked with people like Rafferty and crafted instruments for them that make them foster the tradition in a way they could not have done without [the instrument]. If musicians are unhappy with their instruments, they stop playing. With my instruments they can make recordings, perform, reach audiences and pass the tradition on to other people. I also work with people on their special requirements and needs. Changing response, fingerholes etc.
After I make a flute, I might spend three weeks playing it and making slight adjustments before I’m satisfied. The voicing done on the mouth hole involves very subtle shaping to give the instrument its voice, or the way it’s going to speak. One person might prefer something with a hard edge, while another person wants a flute with a softer, more ethereal voice. But basically, other flute players are looking for the same things I am tone, response, ease of playing, and accuracy of tuning.
The six open holes has been the design of the flute for at least 10,000 years. Maybe even 30,000 or 40,000 years. Being played by the human breath you can feel the air under your fingertips. Material comes from nature (wood, bone, bamboo). Relationship with nature has something to do with it. There a not a lot of fancy chromatics, and you don’t need keys. The flute (silver flute 1850) evolved because the classical music evolved but the simple system flute acommodates the tradition, where you don’t need the fancy stuff. There is no point that traditional musicians should be stuck with instruments that were made for the more and more chromatic and complicated classical music. Today’s flutemakers are making flutes only for Irish music and in that sense they are serving the tradition. Most of the makers (Hamilton, Wilkes) are making flutes that are superior to 99% of the antique flutes. No longer are players stuck with flutes, that were made to be played at a different pitch, that are out of tune and are falling apart.