About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

September 9, 2014

Bassoons, again

The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

. . . from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner
"Coleridge didn’t know much about the bassoon . . . or he wouldn’t have said it was loud. The bassoon’s liability as an orchestral instrument is that it is quite soft, much softer in volume than its size would suggest. . . . But bassoonists the world over are grateful to Coleridge for including them in his stanza."

I have known many bassoonists. This one, the fictitious Paul Chowder in Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, is a hoot:

"My bassoon was a Heckel bassoon, made of maplewood, stained very dark, almost black, with a nickel-plated ring on top. I loved it because it looked like a strange undersea plant, something that would live in the darkness of the Marianas Trench, near a toxic fumarole. My wonderful grandparents bought it for me, and I performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on it, and Ravel’s Bolero, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and Vivaldi’s A minor bassoon concerto.

People often confuse the words “bassoon” and “oboe….” I think it’s because the word “oboe” sounds sort of like a sound emanating from a bassoon: oboe. But the two instruments look very different. The oboe is small and black and your eyes pop out staringly when you play it, and it’s used all the time in movie soundtracks during plaintive moments, whereas the bassoon is a brown snorkel that pokes up at an angle above the orchestra. You almost feel you could play it underwater while the violists and oboists gasp and splutter.

Hindemith, a composer, outraged me when he wrote that the bassoon, “with its clattering long levers and other obsolete features left in a somewhat fossil condition,” was due for a major overhaul. I had to admit, though, that the keys did make a lot of noise. There’s no way to play a fast passage without some extraneous clacking. Listen to Scheherazade—you’ll hear all kinds of precise metallic noises coming from the bassoonist.

I put in thousands of hours of practice, shredding my lips, permanently pushing my two front teeth apart. And then I decided I wasn’t going to be a musician, because I wasn’t that good, and my jaw was hurting badly and I had headaches from too much blowing. I was going to be a poet instead. I sold my beloved Heckel to Bill, my bassoon teacher, for ten thousand dollars. Suddenly I felt free and very rich. I quit music school and flew to Berkeley, California, and took a poetry class with Robert Hass, who was a good teacher.

Selling my bassoon was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. I’ve regretted it a thousand times since. And here’s the strange thing. I’ve written three books of poems, and I’ve never once written a bassoon poem. I have never used the word “bassoon” in a single poem. Not once. I guess I was saving it up, which is not always a good idea.

1 comment:

  1. The bassoon is one of my favorite
    instruments ... some people crave baseball ... I
    find this unfathomable, but I can easily
    understand why a person could get excited
    about playing the bassoon -- Frank Zappa