The Questions People Ask a Whistlemaker
Misha Somerville answers questions often asked about an unusual and incredible profession.
Where does 'mk' come from?
When I was a child a musical instrument was a musical instrument. Like a guitar was a guitar, a violin a violin, a flute a flute - there wasn't any kind of sense that these instruments had come from anywhere or were going anywhere. It was once like this with humans also - we thought we had just been put here by God or whoever. It wasn't actually until later that we worked out that we came from apes and if you go far back enough we were actually fish! Where I grew up in the Highlands we saw various bands and musicians come and play - Wolstone, Peatbog Phaeries, Martyn Bennett amongst others. A band called Shooglenifty turned up and one of them - Garry Finlayson - had a weird instrument called a Banjax. You can hear it on their track 'Hopsoi' which for me was a very formative track and album - both musically and in terms of instrument making. This wasn't an instrument I'd come across before and for the first time I got the sense of the fact it was possible to change what was there already and build in new ideas. Later I'd understand musical instruments as living breathing things that are in their own process of evolution and that that process is driven by ideas and inventions, which then drives ideas and creativity in music itself and that's how all musical genres came about. All musical instruments and genres started as an idea.
When I started making instruments I had all that in the back of my mind. Sometimes when we have an evolution of the design of an object, with sequential versions, we use the term 'mark' - so the initial design would be the mark i, which would then be superseded by the mark ii and so on. This is often abbreviated to 'mk' so mki, mkii, mkiii. And so it turned out that all the first whistles I made to get the first version - the mk i. It turned into a workshop full of whistle with mk written on them, so it only seemed sensible to name them mk! Now it's 25 years later and we're still at the mki! I couldn't have imagined it would take so long to make an mki in all the various keys of whistles... I guess we could have lowered our standards and it might have sped things up! The mkii will come along some day for sure, and those after.
Do you start with tube or drill out a piece of bar?
We have tried both methods and now use both.
Early on, and for several years we experimented with the same drills used to drill out the bore of guns! ...known as 'gundrills'. The experiments didn't go well! But then other experiments did. Part of the process is about exploring all avenues. Despite these early experiments not quite going to plan, with the result being that the techniques were 'shelved' for over a decade, we actually now use many of these very methods but just with different parts.
When we started buying tube it came from a local stockist down the road from the workshop in Glasgow. But as we refined the process in search of 'world-class', we realised that meant every part of the process has to be world-class, including the material you use. You might be lucky and have one or two world-class resources near you, but more generally it means you have to cast a wide net and look to the world to find each part of the jigsaw puzzle to make sure every part is as good as it possibly can be; so as a small example, we use tube made in Holland, cnc machines from Switzerland and tooling made in Brazil and USA - these places just happen to make the best there is in their respective fields.
Do you sell many whistles?
We are really lucky to be part of a huge rise in popularity of low and high whistles. The number of players and makers around the world has grown exponentially in recent years. We are also very lucky in that whistles are light and travel well - every week we have packages leaving to go all over the world.
What is your approach to making whistles?
The long and awkward approach! You know making instruments is difficult. Any instrument has a fourth dimension to it. It's not a tin opener or a fashion accessory or even a car to take you from A to B. It's a tool of emotion - which transports people to another dimension. Yes it has to work in practical way like a tin opener, but it has to do other things also.
We make the instrument but it does nothing until it's in the hands of someone else, except for perhaps look nice, which is hardly the point. Because you are honing the instruments ability to transport people to another dimension, it's more difficult to measure compared to other objects - a kettle, for example, could be cordless and can boil a litre of water in x seconds. Specifications for a musical instrument are more difficult to define. This is one reason why it's like a black art and there's a magic and mysticism that surrounds it. It's difficult to fathom and so the starting point for many makers is to use a blueprint that exists already, like a cook might follow a recipe. Sometimes the whole process can be taught and a maker can adopt that blueprint completely. This is entirely reasonable, but working from the ground up is where you harness imagination and creativity and hone intuition to develop understanding, therefore producing something more authentic and original. In my opinion this is where the good stuff happens! I think you need to make the mistakes because actually the mistakes often aren't mistakes.
What motivates you to keep going?
I worked over ten years on the mk project on my own - long hours - and it was exhausting because everything was so difficult to do. Over time you find better ways of doing things - sometimes it's something so simple that you didn't spot, and had you realised earlier it could have saved years of unnecessary toil. That's the nature of forming a new path though! Sometimes it's in the wrong direction and you have to pick yourself up, retrace your steps and start in a new direction. I'm not going to say 'no pain, no gain' because actually you have to learn to not be hurt by setbacks, and relish the challenge of the process. 'The pain' that turns many away is where greatness is made.
But now, more than anything, it's working with others that keeps me going. Of course I'm passing on my hard-earned knowledge and skills to my colleagues, but I'm also learning from them, every day. There is nothing in this world like a group of people working to solve problems, improve processes, hone skills, develop knowledge, learn from each other, trust each other and break down barriers and progress into new territory. Sometimes progress is slow, sometimes it's fast, but we get to do that everyday in the workshop.
What's in store for the future?
We're really just getting to the point where the excitement begins in many ways. I mean the last few decades have been about getting the basics right and now we can apply that and really start to experiment. At some point we're going to go large - like really large, like house-sized instruments that we can wheel into a city - and in the meantime there are some interesting concepts about to be unleashed. Some might be too far out there, but that's fine, what will fly, will fly.