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Name: Nay or ney
What is it: A musical instrument
Tessitura: About an octave
Material: Reed, wood or metal
Dimensions: Can vary but generally between 58 and 69 cm in length
Classification: Wind instrument; a sound is produced through a vibrating column of air.
The nay is a very popular flute in the Middle East, the Maghreb
and Central Asia and has existed since time immemorial. Its use
by the Egyptians dates Back to the third century B.C. The Eastern
recorder (of Arabic, Iranian and Turkish origin) is a very old
musical instrument, its name coming from the Persian word "ney"
meaning reed. The nayıs development is linked to that of Islamic
civilization itself in which it was both a popular as well as
a serious and sacred traditional instrument. It is also very expressive
not only of the daydreams of shepherds but also of classical aesthetic
refinement or the mystical inspiration of the dervishes, Sufis
and initiates of various Islamic denominations, including the
"whirling dervishes" of Turkey. The Sufi and Dervish
Islamic denominations in Turkey and Iran have used the nay to
induce trance-like states of ecstasy since the 11th century.
The nay is made of bronze and brass and has a medium-sized simple cylindrical tube shape, with seven holes drilled in one of its surfaces and two on the other. There is a kind of bulge on side A that is used as a lip support and a second bulge on side B. The sides are fairly thin (no more than 1 mm). The underside of the instrument is a little thicker. Side A has a very short second tube that can be seen fitted into the main tube of the flute. The sides are decorated with four metal rings and concentric circles in groups of three. The holes that are found to the right of one of the rings are drilled after the rings have been attached. There is a small extra hole near the last ring on the lower side (on side B). The significance of this hole is not clear and it may simply be to tune the instrument or hang it up.
The Arab nay is made of a single reed, open at both ends with no notches and consistent characteristics regardless of the dimensions, tone or register. The reed should be made preferably in nine segments, with six upper holes divided into two similar groups of three each placed in the sixth, seventh and eighth segments.
The Turkish nay includes an ivory, bone or shell mouthpiece and several decorative bands.
The Iranian nay often includes a metal mouthpiece that makes playing easier.
Playing the nay
The upper end of the nay is placed against the lower lip (sometimes against the teeth in Iran) and the head and the reed are bent at different angles. The breath brushes against the top of the nay to produce the sound.
The nay is held vertically like a recorder but the playing technique is much more complicated because the mouthpiece is always open and the lips barely cover the edge. Only virtuosi can play all three octaves of some nay. To do this, musicians often resort to a number of different-sized flutes. Eastern flutists generally use a dozen or so nay, each with different fundamental notes and registers, to avoid having to transpose fingering. They can thus transpose keys but keep the same fingering and play together with different instruments and singers.
The fundamental note and various degrees (three octaves less a note) are obtained by positioning the fingers and strengthening the breath to produce fifths and the two octaves of bass notes. The intervals depend on the angle of the head relative to the reed and the partial closing of the holes. A nay master is thus the product of long experience. The nay has a husky and mournful tone that has to be treated with respect as it symbolizes the breath of life. Its modulations are harmonically rich and create effects that go beyond traditional music-making, thus contributing to the current success of the nay.
Larousse de la musique, Vol. 2 (1982). Nancy: Librairie Larousse, Imprimerie Berger-Lerault, p. 1085
Canadian Museum of Civilization. Article on the nay. CD-ROM.
Baines, Anthony. (1992) The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.118 and 219-220.