Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Claw hammers and flutes

click photo to enlarge
I can vividly remember the first time I saw a claw hammer being used properly. I was in my teens, and a friend and I were struggling, using pliers to pull nails out of a piece of wood. Seeing our travails, my friend's father said, "Here, have a go with with this!" Then he quickly used his claw hammer to effortlessly remove three nails, and passed it to me. I slid the tapered slot of the claw under the nail head, and when I felt it jam, rotated the hammer head using the handle as a lever. Watching the nail being drawn easily from the wood in a smooth curve was deeply satisfying. That experience put two thoughts into my mind that have never gone away: namely that mankind has an infinite capacity for invention and improvement, and, that people who can come up with designs like the claw hammer are worthy of the title "genius".

A little while ago I borrowed a flute to see if I could play it. I can read music reasonably well, and play a few instruments - badly, but with enjoyment! However, whether it's my age or my lack of skill, I was easily defeated by the flute. Just getting a sound out of it was hard enough. And all those keys! Give me the penny whistle any day - only six holes. Or a recorder - at least it has a fipple so sounds are easy to make. When I spoke to an accomplished flautist he told me about the development of the flute from the keyless wooden instrument to the present day nickel-silver concert model, Boehm fingering and all. It seems that, as with the claw hammer, this musical tool has been subject to evolution and improvement (though on a grander scale), and has arrived at its present form in order to meet the demands that composers place on it. To one who plays it well the mouthpiece and the myriad keys make it a model of ergonomics - another case of form following function.

But, whilst I've given up trying to play the flute, its construction is interesting, and so I have been motivated to try to get a photograph out it. I tried shots against a white background and against light wood, but eventually settled on this dark wood. Its richness provides a better foil for the highlights of the shiny metal. I used a macro lens to focus on a small part of the instrument, placed diagonally for interest, and filled the frame with those infernal keys!
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen