Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Month of Extremes

The repertoire I'm performing this month dwells in the extremes of bassoon playing. 90% of what bassoonists do consists of starting and stopping notes predictably at the proper dynamic, etc. Very little of orchestral repertoire consists of solo work and most of it is part of something else -- a bass line to a melody, a note in a chord, etc.

For this month, very little of what I'm playing contains the everyday, mundane job of playing the bassoon in an ensemble!  Here's a short list of the pieces I'm playing:

Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande, Bsn3
Miguel del Aguila: Nostalgica and Malambo -- both pieces I commissioned for bassoon and string quartet
Ligeti Piano Concerto
Bernstein: West Side Story soundtrack with film

The Cleveland Orchestra began May with 3 staged performances of Debussy's opera, Pelleas et Melisande. There are 3 bassoon parts, so I was assigned to play the 3rd bassoon part. The opera starts like this:

The first measure is Bassoon 3 alone with lower strings. Much of the opera is written at "pp" and "p". This is particularly true of the 2nd and 3rd bassoon parts. Oddly enough there are many passages in which the two bassoonists double a single soft low note. Not sure what Debussy was thinking when he wrote this kind of thing!

Anyway, in order to play the D (and other passages later in the opera) in tune and soft enough with a predictable start, I made some modifications to reeds and my bassoon.

Bassoon mods:

1. Play D with low Bb key down. This stabilizes the pitch of the D and keeps it from rising up, all the while muting the tone somewhat.

2. Here's another modification to Low D that just may change your life for this note.

3. I used a mute in the bell to further dampen the sound. I played with this mute in for much of the opera! This is a stronger mute than the cone shaped ones with holes cut in. Warning: it cannot be used for playing low Bb!


It's made from packing material foam. I put a rubber band through the center to give me something to grab onto when removing. About an inch thick. A set of instructions for making one can be found here.

4.Other general modifications I made to my bassoon to achieve a soft, mellow timbre: Remove all lefreQues, change bocals, place a few layers of tape on the top band of the boot joint under the low E to whisper bridge key. This lowers the E pad and takes some of the brilliance out of the sound.

Reed mods:

1. Cut back collar. My reeds have a 1/8" collar normally. I reduced the collars on a couple of my reeds for this opera to 1/16". Cane can also be removed from the area of the blade just in front of the collar.

2. Carefully slide 1st wire with fingernails back towards 2nd wire one wire's width (about .025"). This has the affect of lengthening the vibrating surface of the reed. It eases the response and weakens the reed. Do not expect easy high notes or even an E2 that doesn't sag! I like this adjustment because you can always slide the wire up back into its original position if you like.

3. Thin the last millimeter of the tip. Putting a micro bevel on the tip of the reed improves response. The tips of the reeds modified for the opera measured about .005" at the very tip. Usual for me is .008-.010".

 All of these modifications helped lower my blood pressure when playing this exposed, low part over a 3 hour time span each night!

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