The University Record, March 29, 1993

Voices of sacred flutes can be heard in Stearns Collection

According to tradition, when men in some parts of Papua, New Guinea, play their sacred flutes, the music they hear represents the voices of the clan’s ancestral spirits. Now those voices may be heard at the University’s Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments.

One pair of flutes was purchased by Helmut and Candy Stern, supporters of the Stearns Collection, on a visit to New Guinea in 1991 and given to the collection last year. And three more pairs were acquired by the collection from Vida Chenoweth, a musician and scholar at Wheaton College in Illinois.

“They now are catalogued, photographed and studied, but I haven’t gotten a good sound out of them yet,” says music Prof. William P. Malm. “A Ph.D. doesn’t teach you everything.”

The U-M collection has wanted to acquire examples of the New Guinea sacred flutes for decades, Malm notes. “In 1899, the original collection had several excellent New Guinean drums, and Vida Chenoweth gave us a handsome slit gong in 1988, but it was the giant flutes that I most wanted to study.”

Malm had included drawings of the flutes in his textbook, Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East and Asia, but “I still could not find a satisfactory explanation of how the instrument was played,” he says.

Sacred flutes in New Guinea “always reside in the ‘Haus Tambaran,’ or the house reserved for the men’s sacred rites, and only the men are allowed to see them and to play them,” Malm notes.

Ritual and ceremony are important aspects of music in New Guinea, according to Malm. “In most of Oceania, music still pervades many aspects of daily life, not only ceremonials. In New Guinea, there are songs for trading and war as well as for puberty rites and pig killing. Music is also used to establish the relations of individuals to their social matrix.”

The sacred flutes are made from bamboo, carved at the upper ends and always played in tandem, male and female. There are no finger holes in the instruments and the blow hole is very large, Malm says. They are played by placing the index fingers at the sides of the mouth and the blow hole to create a steady air stream so that the fundamental tones and some overtones can be produced on each flute. “By blowing both flutes in different rhythmic patterns, an interlocking, haunting sound is evoked,” Malm says.

The flutes donated by the Sterns are about eight feet long and approximately 10 years old.

“With the cooperation of Dr. Chenoweth, we have acquired three additional pairs of sacred flutes,” Malm says. “One set includes simple practice flutes used by young men before their initiation; another set has exceptionally handsome spirit figurines at the end of the flutes; and the third pair includes rare examples of sacred flutes blown on the end. Thus we have added eight flutes acquired in only one season. We are blessed by friends who understand our needs.”

The Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, established in 1899, includes more than 2,000 items, both ancient and modern, “showing the broadest perspective of world music,” Malm says. Objects from the collection are displayed at the School of Music, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Thursday–Saturday. Group tours can be arranged by calling 763-4389.