Soft and melodic notes familiar as a bird song drifted through the forest bordering the Flathead Indian Reservation near Bigfork recently as flutemaker and musician Niko Keys played one of his handmade instruments.
Though not a tribe member himself, Keys was drawn to both the culture and sounds surrounding the Native American flute when he purchased his property near the northern border of the reservation.
He spends much of his free time trekking through the woods in search of the perfect stick to craft into a musical instrument.
Keys said making flutes started as a hobby about four years ago, but has since evolved into Cedar Cabin Music, a business venture that has taught Keys about the land he inhabits — the names of different trees, where they like to grow and their individual qualities.
While wandering through the woods or digging through slash piles near his property on the east shore of Flathead Lake, Keys searches for branches of hardwood, like elderberry, alder or maple — straight, long, no cracks or splits and preferably dead and dry.
Using a dead piece cuts the drying time out of the process, which typically takes around one year for every inch of thickness, allowing Keys to get to the fun part sooner.
The first few steps take practice, a careful hand and a lot of math, according to Keys — skills which he learned from a background in organ making and playing.
Keys, the son of a Czechoslovakian music teacher, began taking music lessons at a young age, over time combining his desire to create with his hands with his love for music.
Organ making, however, took a lot of work, a lot of people and a lot of time, Keys said. He picked up flute making following the same methods on a smaller scale, developing a hobby he found more soothing and simple that allowed him to turn out a finished piece within about three days.
Turning a stick or a horn into a playable instrument still takes patience and persistence.
Keys said he throws out around half as many pieces as he completes, either due to a split in the wood or a flaw that would make it unsellable.
He first strips the bark off the branch, inspects it and makes sure it is dry enough to use.
The math comes in when boring out the center of the branch. Using a bore ratio, which is the ratio of the inside diameter of the tube to how long it is, Keys can manipulate the sound the flute will produce. A little too much torque during the boring process, however, can split the wood. A pile of discarded, partially finished flutes has collected on his property, waiting to be used for a barbecue. Pieces that survive the rough part get sanded before a test run.
When Keys carves the voicing, or the lip that splits the air blown over it to create the sound, he listens for the lowest sound it can make.
Based on that note, he decides the scale that flute will play and drills the other holes to size before burning them into their final shape, tuning it accordingly as he goes up the scale.
Keys finishes with a coat of oils and waxes instead of chemical based varnishes, sometimes adding leather wrapping or charring to give the piece an artistic flare.
Horn flutes undergo a simpler yet elongated process. The broad end of a raw horn must be carefully cut off and a wooden block with a carved lip attached with a special cement.
The horn flutes require more polish to create a smooth finish but typically do not crack like wood.
Most of the materials Keys uses for his instruments he finds locally, getting horns from butchers or trading posts, and branches from slash piles and regional forests.
His favorite flute, which he refuses to sell, he made from a long piece of caragana wood he found in a slash pile. The end is charred from being dropped near a blowtorch and the natural worm and beetle trails still run along the length of the flute.
When played, the instrument produces a simple yet solemn sound that Keys treasures as it mixes with the natural sounds of the forest around him.
He says Western music “is a little too complicated in how serious it takes itself.”
“These are musical instruments, but direct from the flutemaker, it’s a stick with six holes in it. They are much easier for someone who has themselves convinced that they have no musical ability or intuition at all.”
That he said is one of the major draws of his flutes, both for himself and his customers.
“Most people can pick one up and make a decent sound out of it in just a few minutes. That’s one of the reasons I really like making them is because it makes being able to just play a tune that sounds nice accessible to more people,” Keys said.
Though he does the occasional commission piece, Keys said he usually makes flutes without a particular buyer in mind.
“I make them because I like it, not because I intend to make money immediately off them,” he said. “They’re simple and easy to play, and they let you just kind of chill out and listen to the wind in the trees and the sound of the birds.”
Keys’ instruments range in price from around $100 to over $500.
For more information about Keys or his work, visit http://www.montanaflutes.com/.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.