Keene on the Xiao

Serendipity strikes again

Shop Notes Blog

As loyal readers of this blog will know, I’ve lately I’ve been putting a tremendous amount of energy and attention into my xiao flutes. In a recent blog entry from a few months back (Revisiting the Xiao) I shared how this came about, stemming as it did from a chance exchange with one of my collaborators, Ashley Jarmack. Ashley had lent me a flute of hers that changed some of my assumptions about the xiao, and led me to redesign my key of C xiao (one of the more popular tunings).

I was so pleased with this new xiao that I applied the same redesign to my key of D xiao, with equally fabulous results. As fate would have it, shortly thereafter I got these new flutes into the hands of Connor Keene (pictured above).

If you have listened to the sound samples of the xiao on my site, you already know who Connor is. Connor is a bit of a Renaissance man (yes, they still exist!). His background is highly varied, with deep roots in professional theater. He also works in Hollywood (movies, music and screenplays), and he writes novels. But added to all of this, he is a woodwinds player who has specialized in the xiao.

This specialization makes him something quite unusual outside of Asia, since there are not that many players in the West who have really done a deep dive into the xiao, but Connor is one of them. Already having a background in flute playing, about ten years ago he became a student of Winson Liao, a xiao maker and player based in Taiwan. Any xiao enthusiasts who have spent time on YouTube have probably seen Winson in action. He is a remarkably talented xiao player who is also famous for making high-level, professional xiao flutes of different types, and his work is much sought after. As a teacher, he is very selective about who he takes as a student, and Connor is one of the few Americans that Winson has agreed to teach. That mentorship, coupled with Connor’s natural ability as a flute player, has in turn made him into one of the best xiao players that I’ve heard. Just go to the xiao page on this site and listen to the sound samples there. I got to know Connor some years ago when he bought a flute from me. Given his background in woodwinds, coupled with his interest in the flute design process, we found ourselves having a lot of fairly technical conversations spread out over several years. He ended up with some of my previous xiao designs, which he was kind enough to say were very good. And at that time, I was pretty well convinced (erroneously) that I had found the “quality ceiling” with the xiao, and could not improve upon the design that I was offering.

Fast forward to this Summer of 2021 when that exchange with Ashley led to the first redesign. This instigated another conversation with Connor, in the course of which I shared that I was starting to work with bamboo. As a bamboo enthusiast, he requested that he might try a couple of my bamboo xiao, and I sent them along. Well, I was deeply gratified by his response which was very positive. At that time I let him know that I had also just done some wooden versions (which I actually suspected might be better than the bamboo), and needless to say he was interested. So I sent him a C/F and D/G tuning to match the bamboo versions he already had.

If I had been pleased with his reaction to the bamboo, what followed was one of the most satisfying confirmations that I’ve received in my professional career. He was ecstatic about the new designs, and given his background and skill level, this was a stamp of approval that I knew I could take to the bank. This led to some very serious conversation about the possibility of really extending the range of offerings in my xiao line.

I had been trying (unsuccessfully) for some time to come up with an F/Bflat tuning, and Connor had been closely involved in that process, which was happening about a year or so ago. He tried a few prototypes, but neither of us was happy with the result and the project was temporarily shelved.

So now I was determined to try again, and by applying these same design principles, the newly designed F rang the bell. So much so that Connor suggested that I consider adding a low A tuning.

At this point, Connor’s assistance became crucial, because his ability to really push the flutes and unlock their nuances completely transcends that of an intermediate player like myself. It is thanks to him that the low A (and also a low Bflat tuning) became perfected, because a few iterations were necessary, and the A specifically required experiments with three different bore diameters. Left to myself I doubt I would have ever have been able to hone in on the perfect bore size, which is absolutely crucial to making a well-balanced xiao.

In a previous blog I wrote the following paragraph:

“Collaboration: It’s the secret ingredient. I’ve had the good fortune over the years to have been blessed with a number of relationships that have fundamentally advanced my craft, lending creative inspiration and a wider scope to my flute making endeavors. In every case these relationships have simply manifested out of the clear blue sky, growing from a chance conversation or meeting, and then evolving into something quite unexpected.”

This collaboration with Connor is another milestone of the same kind. The right player in the right place at the right time. And Connor has that same quality that all of my collaborators to date have embodied, and it’s what I call professional disinterestedness. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t interested! Quite the opposite. It means that like my other collaborators, his help, insights, and participation manifested completely free of personal gain or agenda—it was offered from a place of genuine enthusiasm for the subject matter. It’s been a spontaneous sharing coming from an obvious pleasure in the process that is very uplifting from my point of view. I already love making flutes, but when I start working with someone whose interest matches my own, and whose insights and input contribute materially to the refinement process of a flute design, it is a powerful amplifier.

It is said that “God is in the details”, and this is emphatically true when it comes to perfecting a flute design. As I’ve said before, getting a flute through the many steps to where it is really good is much easier than going that final step to where it is truly great. That last step is the embodiment of “fussy”, where the focus is placed on seemingly tiny changes that in themselves are not radical, but whose cumulative effect gives that ultimate shine to the process. Connor has an ear and eye for that type of detail, and it makes all the difference.

In this video, Connor gives a complete tour of my new line of xiao–a must see video for any xiao enthusiast!

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Published Monday, January 17, 2022