Monday, June 29, 2009

Double Reeds, Sledgehammers, and Sonny & Cher

This post was extremely difficult for me to make. Ummm... compose. In fact, if I hadn't received so many requests from so many of you over such a long period of time, I probably would never have managed to persevere until the finely-crafted masterpiece upon which your eyes are now feasting materialized from the nether regions of my unsettled mind to the virtual paper upon which it now appears for your reading enjoyment.

Even so, it is possible (due to the convoluted nature of the subject matter) that my mind may have wandered off course from time to time in this post and if so please forgive me or at least make adequate allowances; it is simply near-impossible to stay on the subject continuously when the subject is bassoons.

::I have no idea why, but a mental image of that photo of Edgar Allan Poe in his casket just flashed through my frontal lobe. Whoa.::

Let me first say that I have never actually touched a bassoon in my life, and, frankly, never hope to do so. At the same time, I would not want to leave the impression that I am the least bit afraid of bassoons.

A bassoon is of the double reed persuasion. It is sort of a bass version of that other double reed misfit, the oboe. I say "sort of" because the word bass is relative if the bassoon player is under sufficient stress or otherwise tight lipped, as they often are if you get my drift. To my knowledge, these are the only double reed woodwinds unless you allow the definition to drift over into the realm of duck and moose calls, or you find yourself in India in the presence of a snake charmer.

The bassoon makes its ungodly noise when some dolt blows his hot air between two reeds in such a manner as to make them flap rapidly together and, thus modulated, be guided through a crook and into a log-shaped conglomeration which, thus stimulated, begins to moan and carry on like Marley's ghost on Christmas eve. Feel free to substitute the word vibrate for "flap rapidly together" if you wish. Feel free to wonder what a reed is. Feel free to go out and get a Big Mac and fries instead of reading this. Crook. Get it? Never mind.

A reed is a slice of cane whittled to the proper length and thickness which, when made pliable by proper moistening (with the player's saliva) can be made to vibrate in a reliable fashion. When you think "cane" think bamboo, not sugar.

Incidentally, double reeds make fine hors d'oeuvres garnishes in a pinch.
The bassoon is an instrument made primarily for playing classical music in an orchestra and is almost never used in marching bands since the player needs to not be bobbing up and down when he tries to play it, and also it has been known to become wedged between cars if the parade route is heavily trafficked. The Music Man lyrics, notwithstanding.

Incidentally, the odd lyrics of "76 Trombones" indicates there ARE bassoons, plural, present in that great marching band, but disappoints us by merely saying "each bassoon having its big fat say." Well. Could be two, could be 3 million.

And, since I can see the question right on the tip of your tongue, no I cannot recollect the bassoon being used heavily in rock and roll music. Save the use of a bassoon in the introduction of Sonny and Cher's first hit, "I Got You Babe". That song also makes use of an oboe as well in between the two lovebirds' vows of foreverness. Later, Sonny was fated to ski into a tree and die, but Cher had long-since moved on by then and had even divorced others too. Ettarose did a recent post on their sweet little daughter, Chastity, and was very respectful, I thought.

The crook is the part of the bassoon which connects the bassoon proper (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to that double reed thingamajig. Thingamajig being the technical symphonic term. This is to say you stick the double reed part into one end of the crook and the other end of the crook is attached to the belly of the beast itself.

If you ever have occasion to break open a bassoon with a sledge hammer, as Descartes insinuated might be done without any repercussions from fellow passersby, you would discover that the bore inside the cylinder is not uniform in diameter, like it is in, say, a sewer pipe, but is, rather, larger on one end than the other. What all those words in the previous sentence mean is the bore is cone-shaped. The bassoon is never less than 5 feet long and sometimes as long as 8 feet long, depending on how much rosewood is available at the time of creation and the sobriety of the craftsman. It is, of course folded back on itself and not 8 foot long like a two by four, for god's sake. I mean, it isn't played by laying it on the free shoulder of one of the first violinists.

Bassoon craftsmen, one would think, are probably a dying breed, but there is likely enough demand to keep one Romanian family going, I suppose. I do fear they may be going the sad way of the didgeridoo guild. Imagine a world without bassoons. Or at least new bassoons.

When you were a kid, did you like popsicles in the summertime? My favorite flavor was grape. I remember shortcutting down the railroad tracks and through the grain elevator to get to Nickerson's little mom and pop grocery and take the popsicle fresh out of the slide-top freezer and stick my tongue on it so it froze to my tongue. Then I would sit out on the store front porch and lick it in the hot sun as the sticky grape sugar water ran down my arms and dripped off my elbows. I would imagine the passing truck wheels crushing a bassoon I had placed in the street for my viewing enjoyment, and the drivers would wave at me.

Some of this may not have actually happened. When one is doing a bassoon post, one's mind (as I say) sometimes wanders and reality blurs into fantasy. Trying to concentrate for too long on bassoons will do that to you. I invite your own fantasies on this subject in the comments. Surely this post must have induced one or two by now. (Read: "hallucinations.")

Let's see. What else? We've talked about the parts of a bassoon, the bovine-like noises it makes, Romanian Gypsy retirement and, by proxy at least, Australian aboriginal musical contributions. I think that may nearly cover the subject as much as I care to cover it.

It pains me to replace a sweet post like "First Kiss" with garbage like this. It is hard for me to be consistent.


  1. I'm surprised you wrote this about bassoons, though I've never played one, though I've heard it's difficult (i.e. all but impossible to play). I like how they sound when played well.

    For me, this reflects more how I feel about bagpipes - which I have also never played but, significantly in my mind, have no Mozart music dedicated to them.

  2. You are not alone dear, it pained me to read it. I persevered for you are one of my favorite little dogs. My Grand Son plays the clarinet, not to say it is the same as a bassoon other than it also uses a reed. Thanks for the shout out!

  3. Now there's a subject to .... Oh? Bassoons? Oh... Sorry, sorry, I thought the subject was bosoms... Sigh.
    I have no warm feeling for bassoons. They stir not my beating heart.

  4. And Mozart was a closet bagpipe player. You can look that up.

  5. @Stephanie B - Oh, Stephanie! You know I'm joking! I don't mind the way the bassoon sounds. I was just trying to be funny. See what happens when I try to be funny? I choose an off the wall subject that I think no one else will blog about, and ...

    Ah, well. :)

    I agree I should have chosen bagpipes for this vilification. But bagpipes don't care if you jump on them without taking off your shoes, or if a truck runs over them. They will still "play". A bassoon just won't stand up to that kind of treatment. And you can march with bagpipes. So.

    Well, I thought it was funny. If a little odd. Especially the part about the double-reed garnishes. Please don't make me start blogging the truth.

  6. And if you've ever heard bagpipes played in a closet, you know just how arousing that can be. I mean "rousing".

  7. :)

    My sister plays, I think, the oboe. I was hopeless with a single reed and know better than to try something even more challenging.

    I do agree that a bagpipe can take a beating. I'm not sure anyone beats them quite enough :)

  8. There was a brilliant bit of business of Prairie Home Companion one time where Garrison was lamenting the sad lot in life of the bassoon.

    So had the orchestra play The William Tell Overture-with the bassoons playing the lead parts. That was an interesting rendition of the theme to the Lone Ranger.

  9. It was nine o'clock at midnight at a quarter after three
    When a turtle met a bagpipe on the shoreside by the sea,
    And the turtle said, "My dearie,
    May I sit with you? I'm weary."
    And the bagpipe didn't say no.

  10. Like Proust's madeleine (you know I had to use that old cliche) this post brought back memories of having to play the clarinet in 6th grade. And of all the horrid little reeds.

    My ancestral Reeds, on the other hand, were a perfectly nice Scotch-Irish lot from Pennsylvania.

    So that adds up to neutrality, I suppose.

    I don't mind your mind wandering, as mine is always doing so...Um, what was I commenting about again?

  11. @Ettarose - Yes. It uses a reed. Exactly the same as a bassoon, only different. Sorry it pained you to read it. :)

    @Soubriquet - What have you done to the comments on your blog. Don't be afraid.

    @Stephanie - Good for your sister! Oboes are very civilized, I think. And I don't believe you were hopless or that you tried only a single weed.

  12. @Descartes - I don't know if you are into monkeys or street organ grinders, but here is the William Tell played on a 20-note street organ. Different. Not as good as Keeler's bassoons by any means, I'm sure. A bit off topic since it is not bassoons at all. Worth a listen, still.

  13. @A.- You may remember this beginning of one of my long-ago posts on BritishSpeak, about bearing silent testimony:

    Lincolnshire is the fish 'n' chip capital of the world. I once met a chap who said: "Yorkshire has all the best fish and chip shops". With total confidence that no court would convict me, I took half a step back, sprang forward and struck him hard with a clenched fist to his throat. "You sir", says I, "are a confounded liar". He said nothing in reply - the silent testimony of the guilty, I suppose.

    (Apologies and credit to "The Amazing Toad")

  14. @Lidian - No one should be forced to play the clarinet. Or any other instrument. (Although a lot of us were.) Yes, horrid nasty little reeds. But at least only one.

    Did you know if you put the reed of a clarinet (or sax) under your tongue and blow, it will make you shiver uncontrollably and your ears will bleed? Sounds like a wounded duck. Try it sometime if you still have the clarinet. Let me know.

    I never played a clarinet (I played a Sousaphone in Senior year though, so I could still get into the football games for free without actually having to play football that year) but used to beat up on one of the sophomore alto sax players, so I know how to damage reeds.

    Another guy (not me) used to soak the poor kid's reeds in the u****l and sneak them back in his case. God but I feel bad about that now.

  15. "about bearing silent testimony"

    What sort of sheltered life have you been leading? Bagpipes are never silent.

  16. @Sheila - I was only responding to the story about the turtle and the bagpipe that didn't say no. Why do you always have to stir things up?



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