Wood. My serpents are made of two wooden half pipes, cut in miror. I use hard wood that is easier to shape, such as maple, pear, walnut or cherry. Those woods have a very few pores, and therefore have a naturally smooth finish on their inside surface, wich are interesting qualities for the manufacturing of the serpent.
First, the gross parts (~850*450*57 mm) are carved rough to realise the inside pierces; the finish is made by hand with gouges and scrapers adjusted to the different curves. Then the external side is sketched and the half pipes temporary assembled in order to proceed to the checking and correction of the tuning of the instrument, before the definitive gluing.
After that, I began with the fine settings, especially the holes. During that step, I play, I listen and I adjust until I eventually get to a balanced instrument. Because the serpent is a very flexible instrument, I need to fully explore each note and its relation with the others. A very important part that will still continue after the laying of the leather.
After the finishing of the external shape and the last oil impregnation, the serpent will still rest a few weeks before it receives its skin.
Leather. Traditionally, the serpent is black, but depending on the chosen leather, the color before tincture can vary from light beige to dark brown. I choose the skins for their flexibility and the aspect they will have after the sheathing : tanned with vegetal tannins, not stained or varnished by the tanner.
The wet leather is formed on the instrument making use of hot glues and natural resins in solution. The gelatin contained in the glue, the humidity and the right working temperature help to mold the leather as the glue ensures an intimate relation between wood and leather.
To the pace of the progress, the covering joints are cut and pared : to pare the joints, I diminish the thikness in order to make them bevelled on both pieces, then I stitch them down and glue them. The used glue type permits a very strong link between the elements : a joint is quickly difficult to unstick and its quality secures the continued sheathing around the serpent.
The tension of the leather after drying enhances the homogeneity of the instrument body…and of the tone. It is a surprising to discover the sound of the same instrument after it has been sheathed : it becomes clearer and more steady on all the notes, more powerfull too, but keeping its roundness.
Brass. To make the leadpipe, a trapezoidal sheet of brass is rolled around a conic mandril ; it is hammered, welded and filled with molten lead : the cold lead has then the right rigidity to follow the brass cone while bending it on the template.
The conicity is subject to a very careful attention for the accuracy of the instrument in the different proposed forks : 415, 440, 430. Same for the shape while bending in order to ensure a pleasant position of the instrument.
I designed the keys of my serpens following the model of the historical serpent #, mesured at the MIM of Brussels. They are forged and wrought in solid brass bars. The cap that will receive the pad is welded and fitted to the curve of the instrument. The pads are made of lamb felt , following a specific tanning process that gives an extremely flexible leather, less to moisture.
Horn and wood of the mouthpieces. For the turning of the mouthpieces, I use very hard and smooth woods : European boxwood, ebony, rose wood,…and horn.
Working on the mouthpieces is always in progress. It is the result of historical measurements but also long experiments on acoustic and musical level. The mouthpiece is a determining element in the relation the musician has with his or her instrument and it wouldn’t make sense to think of only one model with a unique vision of the sound. The serpent has been through several centuries and musical environments. And if the instrument itself doesn’t seem to have been modified a lot, it isn’t so for the mouthpiece since it had to offer different voices depending on the accompaniment in the plainsong or the orchestra.
- the family with hemispherical half pipe, rich in bass frequencies, “spectral” sound, with a windy sound in order to get along with the voices, inside reverbful acoustics, or among snare instruments for the continuo, for instance for playing XVIIth and XVIIIth c. repertoire.
- the family with a rather conic half pipe with more timbre, more centred sound, richer in medium frequencies more fitted for playing solo and for orchestra in a more recent repertoire.