Alfheim part 2 – Composing for instruments that don’t exist… yet

If you’ve followed this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that I have some, let’s say, interesting ideas about how to constitute a wind section.  One of these is the inclusion of complete families of instruments.  This isn’t a new idea – in fact, it’s a very old one that dates back to at least the Renaissance.   At that time, most instruments were constructed to match every voice range: soprano, alto, tenor, bass.  This meant that any instrument could support a choir with a uniform sound.  This practice was abandoned in the Baroque era when complex polyphony gave way to newer styles.  Style started to change by the middle of the Romantic Era (especially in France) where whole families of instruments came into being (Saxophones, Saxhorns, Sarrusophones, etc.).  The pendulum swings back and forth every few generations.  Today, we are undergoing a wind instrument renaissance where makers are once again experimenting with new sounds and new varieties.

Brass instruments have always been the easiest to construct.  A good brass repairman can create a new instrument using the bodies of older instruments.  These “Frankenstein” instruments have long been used to create new sounds otherwise unavailable from traditional manufacturers.  Such instruments as the Contrabass Trumpet and the Bass Horn have been birthed in such a manner.

Woodwinds are a wholly different story.  Their acoustics and keywork can usually only be done by instrument manufacturers (though there are numerous exceptions to this).

Were I to have the money (one day I’ll win the lottery, I swear!), I could easily buy complete families of all the woodwind instruments – except the double reeds.  Double reeds have always been a thorn in the side of manufacturers, bassoons in particular.  The mainstream manufacturers usually do not even attempt to produce a bassoon, and if they do, the instrument is usually of poor quality.  Bassoons, and to some extent oboes, have always been specialty instruments.

There’s something else odd about the double reeds.  The players spend up to 50% of their time making their own reeds, which means that the time put into learning the instrument has to be divided between actually playing the instrument and crafting the device that makes the sound.  No other instrument has this.  You wouldn’t expect a Violin player to make their own bow or a trumpeter to forge their own mouthpiece.  Because of this, double reed players are the least experimental of all musicians.  It’s a rare day when you find oboists or bassoonists playing avant garde music or, heavens forbid, jazz.

All this is a long introduction as to why I want to compose for double reed instruments that don’t exist.

I’m one of those rare double reed players who likes to experiment.  My professors looked at me weirdly when I first picked up the school’s old E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone.  They turned away when I constructed extensions for my Bassoon made of PVC pipe.  They were completely baffled when I bough a real live Tenor Bassoon.  The Tenor Bassoon, which I sadly don’t own any more, was meant to fulfill a curiosity – can the Tenoroon be used as a real instrument in modern music as a voice of its own, as a real viable tone color.  I composed several works for the instrument (sadly, none were ever performed), but I was never able to answer the question completely.  My contention, with caveats is that yes, the Tenoroon can most definitely be used as a viable voice.  I think the biggest validation of this when I showed the instrument to Julliard composer Eric Ewazen.  He loved the instrument and though it was a happy, bubbly sound.  It added more levity to the Bassoon’s mellifluous sound and could make the comical sounds more so.

This leads me to the Semi-Contrabassoon.  I’ve written about this instrument several times (I even wrote the Wikipedia article some years ago).  Back in the days of the dulcian (the predecessor of the bassoon), the second most common size, after the Bass, was the Great Bass pitched a fourth lower in G.  This corresponds to a Semi-Contrabassoon.

The largest instrument in the trio is a Great Bass Dulcian.

We can hear from this clip how well the three instruments sound together.  The lowest sound is warm and rich.  It’s not, however, a true bassoon sound.  A true, modern bassoon sound would be much smoother without the constant buzz that makes the dulcian so charming.

As a bassoonist, I can attest to the perils of playing in the low register.  It is the most difficult register to play on the bassoon.  The keywork is highly awkward and makes quick playing almost impossible.*

*I circumvented some of this by having extra mechanisms added and even invented for my own bassoon that exist on no other instrument.

Once again, I feel that I’m going around the main topic, but I feel some background information has to be laid out.

Here is the nitty gritty.  The distance between the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon is really pretty great.  There are times when the two instruments don’t even feel like they are in the same family.  The Contra is gruff and edgy while the Bassoon is smooth and silky (at least in good hands).  There needs to be a bridge.  This is why I feel there is a need for a Semi-Contrabassoon.

Probably the most difficult question that can be asked is “how can you know what the instrument sounds like?”  Since I know both the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon intimately, it’s fairly easy for me to extrapolate the sound in my head.  I’m not the first person to do this.  Wagner did this when composing the Ring Cycle.  He envisioned in his mind the sound of the Wagner Tuba.  Whether or not the result is close to what he wanted is open to debate.  I’m not trying to compare myself to Wager, that would be terrible, but I am saying that it isn’t unprecedented.  Sadly (or maybe thankfully), I don’t have quite the megalomaniacal tenancies of Herr Wagner, nor do I have the necessary funding or support to make this happen.

Yet, as I’ve begun to compose my symphony, I’ve included a part for a Semi-Contrabassoon.   Here is a sample from my sketches of the opening.  As you can see, I’ve made full use of the instrument’s lower range.  It doesn’t stay in the bottom, but moves around into higher registers.  This passage is untransposed.  The final part would be written a fifth higher.

semi contra sample

This is what the transposed part looks like.  Note how much of the part lies within the bass clef.

semi contra sample UT


Note: this passage is not a finished sample!

With the low concert Gs, this passage cannot be played on a Bassoon.  The technique also makes it difficult, though not impossible, on the Contrabassoon.  It lies perfectly on the Semi-Contra.

I should really start a Kickstarter to get one built…

2 thoughts on “Alfheim part 2 – Composing for instruments that don’t exist… yet

  1. mirko jorgovic

    existed cca 19th century middle – basson : in Germany was kvart-fagott (quart-basson) it is solution for You. Good idea

    1. Sadly, only a handful of those instruments survive. There was a strong French push around 1900 for such an instrument to be built. Widor even includes a section on it in his Treatise.

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