SULLIVAN — “My bag is full of flutes,” writes Hawk Henries, the Sullivan musician and artist, on his CD, “Keeping the Fire.” “Some are long and dark, some wide, some mottled. Still others have been broken, working differently than originally intended. There are light colored, short, bristly voiced and smooth, high-pitched ones. Which is the most important… Each brings an enriching quality that adds fullness to my flute bag.”
The flute is one of the oldest known musical instruments crafted by humans: fragments of flutes crafted from griffon vulture bones and mammoth ivory dating back at least 35,000 years have been found in caves in what is now Germany, and scientists have suggested that making music could have helped knit the earliest modern humans together, maintaining social networks and contributing to the spreading of our species around the globe.
“I think of instruments as important tools that can open doors because I think that they’re alive,” writes Henries. “They do work. They voice certain tones, and combinations of tones, that create vibrations that affect us physically. They create a space of openness or, at least, a willingness to be in that moment and be open. Humor and laughter create these spaces also.”
That physical and social space, Henries writes, is a place “Where we can remember our connections to each other while exploring our differences as resources for new understanding and mutual awareness — instead of using them as weapons of divisiveness.”
Although the Sullivan resident, a member of the Chaubunagungamaug band of Nipmuck, a people native to what is now southern New England, was raised by a jazz musician, music did not come naturally to him.
“I kind of felt like I had no musical ability,” said Henries, sitting by Ellsworth’s Union River on a recent Thursday morning, stopping occasionally to point out a belted kingfisher or pileated woodpecker.
Henries’ first flute was a gift from his family, given “After a number of years of looking and whining.” Not long after receiving it, however, he promptly set about trying to improve the sound. “I thought, if I keep carving, something good is going to happen. I tried all kinds of things,” said Henries, whittling and sanding and shaping the instrument.
“After about five minutes it stopped playing,” he said, smiling. “It took about six months to get it to play again.”
That was about 30 years ago. Henries was working with children with substance abuse and mental health issues, a career he had before, as he puts it, “the flute came into my life.”
By the time he decided to focus on making flutes full time, Henries was married, a father of two daughters, both under the age of four. Leaving a steady job with a stable income to focus on flute-making was a gamble, but his wife was supportive, and so he set off.
“For the first couple years it was really hard,” said Henries, who traveled to festivals and shows, making music and trying to sell his work.
All these years later, Henries has a workshop full of wood and has played his handmade flutes at some of the world’s most iconic institutions: at Harvard, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (on the summer solstice under an atrium made of prisms reflecting rainbows, no less), with the famed London Mozart Players and at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
Henries’ flutes are made of wood that has been aged for years: “A year for every inch of diameter” is the rule of thumb. Cedar and pine, maple and sumac, Japanese knotweed: Many kinds of wood are suitable, said Henries, although he doesn’t care for oak and tries to stay away from wood that’s toxic.
Once the wood has properly aged, Henries shapes it using hand tools, heating them with fire to minimize the cracking of the wood. “There’s something about being able to feel the wood,” he said, steadying the sticks between his knees, using a draw knife to carve away the layers. “It’s kind of more intimate. That’s one of the reasons I continue to do it.”
Finished flutes are rubbed with cold-pressed walnut oil, which protects the wood while letting it breathe.
The end result is an instrument that is plainly and purposefully of nature: crafted from a hand-bored single piece of wood. They have no seams and still largely resemble the sticks from which they came.
“My desire when making a flute is to have it appealing to all of your senses,” said Henries. “I want it to make the person completely happy.” Leaving the knots and grain patterns, said Henries, “helps that person connect with where the wood came from.”
Henries’ flutes have two chambers and six open finger holes. The chambers are connected by an external block, often carved in the shape of a bird or animal, that guides the breath collected in the first chamber up and through to the second chamber. The vibration of air from the player’s breath causes the pressure in the second chamber to resonate, which creates the sound.
For the people of the Eastern Woodlands, a cultural area of indigenous people stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains with whom Henries identifies, the flute was used as an “articulation of prayer,” traditionally played alone.
After decades of practice, it takes Henries between 30 and 40 hours to create a flute, which he sells for an average of $625.
“When I first started there weren’t a whole lot of us making flutes,” said Henries. “I’m one of the old guys now.”
That is, in itself, a little big magic, he said. “For a guy who didn’t think he could play music it has been amazing. If you have a love for something, let it fill your life.”
To learn more, visit hawkhenries.com.