The quena (pronounced kay-nah) is a traditional flute of the Andes. It is typically in the key of G, has six holes and a thumb hole and plays the diatonic major (do re mi) scale. It is known for it’s distinct timber and strong voice.
Taditional quena designs are often plagued by issues with tuning accuracy and limited dynamic range. Meaning that they are difficult to play in the second octave, requiring a very powerful embouchure (and consequently being nearly impossible to play softly), and depending upon the design, having a tendency to be either flat in the second octave, or (in the case of tapered bore quena) sharp in the second octave. These idiosyncracies are generally accepted among quena players and compensated for in degree.
Over the years I have have approached quena making from a more traditional direction, doing both cylindrical bored quena and tapered bore quena, but always attempting a visual aesthetic that is consistent with what players expect quena to look like. But this adherence to a visual idea also put some limits on the design that prevented some of these tuning issues from being corrected.
Some years back I had an idea for improving the tuning of the quena, but it would require a fundamental change in the appearance of the instrument. My experiments were very successful, but I did not pursue them because I felt that players would not be interested in something that looked too different. Therefore I stuck with tradition and made some tapered bore versions that everyone seemed to like. But I was never really pleased with the compromise.
Recent collaboration with a professional winds player (Ashley Jarmack, my collaborator on the new kaval line) galvanized me to do what I wanted to do years ago, which was to change the design. Ashley got hired to do the flute music on a new Netflix series, needing to make a lot of recordings with the quena, but she complained that all of her traditional quena (of which she had many) were not in very good tune and made recording a bit frustrating. So I offered to let her try one of the new designs, and her enthusiatic response to the prototype that I sent her told me that I was on the right track.
The new quena features a cylindrical bore and very thin walls where the finger holes are located. This design alteration profoundly affects the tuning balance between the octaves. I had noticed years ago that the North Indian bansuri, which features very thin walls and large finger holes, had a naturally superior tuning balance compared with most other types of cylindrical bore flutes. I applied this design feature to the quena with excellent results.
There are challenges to creating such flutes, because manufacturing wooden flutes with extremely thin walls is a delicate business. Also, I needed to keep the girth of the flute larger at the blowing end in order to have the blowing notch behave like a traditional quena, keeping the classic voice. In order to create a balanced look I added a “flare” at the distal end of the flute. The result does not look very much like a traditional quena, but I believe the tuning accuracy is going to be far more important to musicians who need to use a quena in an ensemble setting.
Ashley Jarmack demonstrates the quena in G!
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