Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Month of Extremes, Pt.3 -- Ligeti's Piano Concerto

Bassoonists reading this may want to print the above image. This is the opening of the second movement of Ligeti's Piano Concerto. A close look reveals writing for the bassoon in the extreme. Very soft attacks on high Eb and high E in a passage that constitutes a duet with the piccolo. The texture is very light and every note you play up to Letter F is a solo.

The rest of the piece is extremely difficult as well, but we'll just deal with the high register issues confronted by anyone playing the bassoon part.

Many bassoonists have a special bocal for high notes. Here is mine:

It's a Fox #2CVX bocal. The black band is a piece of aquarium tubing. In the second photo you can see a pinhole drilled into the bocal just below the band. The band can be slid over the hole or beside it depending upon whether or not you want the hole to be available. In the third photo you can see a black line I scribed on the bocal so you can look to see if the hole is covered while counting rests. Important when you have rests between passages that contain high notes and those that don't (see "A major drawback below).

The hole is drilled at 1" from the tip of the bocal to a diameter of .020". I've seen a few other dimensions for this hole, but this one works well for me. Do not attempt drilling yourself. Take the bocal to a repair technician!

When the hole is open, high E's, Eb's and even F's pop out much easier and at "pp". I don't even have to use a specialty reed!

A major drawback:

This hole drastically weakens the ability of the bassoon/reed to produce tones in the third harmonic (Eb3 up to Bb4)! Notes in that range may speak as a multi phonic or not at all! Therefore, having the slider on the bocal is important. Closing the hole restores security to notes in this range.

High F's!!

The Ligeti contains two high F's.

Note his instructions at the bottom of the page: "In this register, even if the note doesn't speak correctly!"

Here's the other:

I love the indication, "It's possible, don't transpose!"

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Month of Extremes, Part 2 -- Miguel's colorful music

After finishing our run of performances of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande on Saturday night, the very next day I played a concert with the MOSA String Quartet.

On the program were two pieces I commissioned 19 years apart from Miguel del Aguila.

Malambo is a one-movement piece I will be performing with orchestra at the International Double Reed Society Conference on June 20th in Appleton, Wisconsin. This will be my third performance of the work. In April, I performed the bassoon and piano version at the University of Arkansas, at the beginning of the month (mentioned above) I performed the version for bassoon and string quartet, and at the Conference, I'll perform the version with orchestra. I will have played all three versions over a two month span!

Nostalgica is a piece I commissioned in 1998. I recorded it, along with two other works and Miguel's Sunset Song on this CD. Play a clip by going here (Scroll to the bottom and click on the arrow in the CD art cover to play the "Blues" movement.)


The extremes were to be found that week on my bassoon and in my reed case.

Reed case:

On one side I had two soft low reeds, on the other were my solo reeds. These reeds had a full sound, with lots of color possibilities. It took many hours at the reed desk in the month prior to come up with viable candidates for both categories!


During the week before my performances, I went back and forth between two different configurations of bocals, lefreQues, and pad heights on my bassoon depending upon what I was playing that hour. My solo #1cc prewar Heckel bocal, lefreQues and open pad for del Aguila, my #2cc prewar Heckel bocal, no lefreQues and lowered E pad height for Debussy.

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!