An interview with Richard Bobo, creator of the Subcontrabassoon project

I’ve been following with more than a little curiosity an interesting development in the realm of woodwind instruments.  Being a Bassoonist and Contrabassoonist myself, I have a soft spot of the instrument, and their brethren in the nether reaches of the woodwind family.  So when I found out that a Contrabassoonist had seriously designed a working model of a Subcontrabassoon and was working on developing a playing prototype, I had to find out more.

I now present you with a brief interview with Richard Bobo.  The inventor of the Subcontrabassoon

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Richard Bobo.  His Bassoon, Contrabassoon, and a digital image of a Subcontrabassoon.

Q1. Why do you feel there is a need for such an instrument as a Subcontrabassoon?

1. At present, there is really only one instrument capable of playing the entirety of the subcontrabass (or 32’) register; the organ. (That a few superhuman tuba players may be able to reliably play down to C0 only shows how inaccessible this register is for most tuba players.) Furthermore, I feel that one of the greatest strengths of so-called classical music is the enormous diversity of our timbral palette. Even if the organ weren’t enormously expensive and so often unavailable, saying that an entire octave of music should be the exclusive domain of a single instrument makes as much sense to me as saying that we don’t need an oboe because we already have the violin.

Q2. What ensembles do you potentially see using the instrument in?

2. I’m not at all surprised that the first composition featuring the subcontrabassoon (Robert Rønnes’s “Waking Up from the Sleep”) was a chamber piece with bassoons and contrabassoon because I think that bassoon ensembles and double reed choirs will likely be the first places the subcontrabassoon takes root. (I, for one, can’t wait to play bassoon quartet music on three contrabassoons and subcontrabassoon.) Beyond that, it’s very difficult to predict where the subcontrabassoon might find success. After all, the saxophone wasn’t invented for big bands.

Q3. Why do you think no one has ever designed or built such an instrument before?

3. To be honest, I’m surprised no one has. The bassoon family–with its narrowly tapered bore and reedy, harmonic-rich timbre–seems to me the ideal choice for a subcontrabass instrument of not-entirely-unreasonable size.

Personally, I think some of the reluctance comes from the persistent myth that a subcontrabassoon was already built in the 1860s. If you believe that something has already been done–and was seemingly so unsuccessful that it left almost no trace–then you’re going to be understandably hesitant to repeat it. As it turns out, the 1860s “subkontrafagott” was a completely different instrument pitched in the same octave as the contrabassoon.

Q4. Is the 32’ register a worthy untapped resource for the orchestra/wind band?

4. I strongly believe so. There’s a reason why organ makers go to great lengths and expense to build 32’ stops. When used tastefully and judiciously to reinforce the bass the effect is truly awe-inspiring. However, much in the same way that not every chord needs a piccolo playing one of its highest notes on top, not every chord will lend itself to a subcontrabassoon providing a 32’ reinforcement of the bass. To use a painting analogy, just because you don’t use a certain color very often doesn’t mean you’d want to live in a world where that color doesn’t exist.

Q5. Assuming that the instrument is built, do you think composers will jump at the chance to add an octave to the orchestra?

5. Orchestral composers are somewhat conservative with instrumentation, with good reason. Writing a indispensable part for a less common orchestral instrument like contrabass clarinet or bass trumpet could very well make the difference between a work being programmed or not. I imagine that a subcontrabassoon would need to establish itself in more niche settings (see question 2) before being adopted by orchestral composers. Even then, the adoption process would likely be slow; first optional parts, later parts that are simply octave doublings of the contrabassoon or tuba part, and finally fully independent parts. That this process would likely take a while is all the more reason I feel we should get started as soon as possible.

Q6. As a Contrabassoonist myself, the biggest problem I see with the instrument is the use by the player.  Since it is designed using the traditional Contrabassoon shape, do you think there will need to be additional support holding the top and middle of the instrument up to alleviate strain on the player’s hands and arms?

6. Personally, I wouldn’t play a subcontrabassoon in the same manner as I play contrabassoon, i.e. with the weight of the instrument balanced between my hands. I plan on building a playing stand, much like can be seen on other extremely large woodwinds like the subcontrabass saxophone or the double contrabass flute. However, much as there are some intrepid contrabassoonists who chose to play standing with a neckstrap, I imagine some people will give it a go in the normal contrabassoon manner. (But not with the prototype!)

As an aside, I came very close to designing the subcontrabassoon prototype to be played from a standing position. The body would have been the same as the current design but the bocal and keytouches would have been relocated upward and the keywork adjusted accordingly. I ultimately decided against it because standing height varies among people to a greater extent than sitting height does and I didn’t want potential subcontrabassoonists to be excluded due to being too short or too tall.

Q7. I’ve noticed that you’ve included bicycle cables as part of the design.  This is obviously derived from the Wolf-Eppelsheim designs.  Can you elaborate on their use in the Subcontrabassoon?

7. This is certainly the least conventional and most untested aspect of my design. On the contraforte, Bowden cables are used to open one or two very small vents that are sprung closed. On the subcontrabassoon prototype, Bowden cables will be fitted on five keys that would require extremely complex (but not impossibly so) keywork if built traditionally: the low F, low Eb, low D, low Bb and low A keys. Of these, only the low Eb is sprung closed, meaning the other four cables will need to be adjusted precisely so that they close the pads fully. For the prototype I plan on using inline barrel adjusters so that adjustments can be done easily; whether these barrel adjusters will be necessary on a commercial subcontrabassoon and whether a commercial subcontrabassoon would be better off with traditional–albeit complicated–keywork for these notes are questions I hope to answer with the prototype.

Q8.  Since you have the entire instrument built in a CAD program, have you ever thought about 3D printing some of the elements of the instrument?

8. 3D-printing is an amazing tool that I plan to use for a few select components on the subcontrabassoon prototype. The plan is for the conical metal bends at the top of the ascending tube and on the tuning slide to be 3D-printed in wax and then cast into brass. A few of the more complex keytouches (i.e. the underslung left pinky keys) may also be similarly cast into nickel silver from 3D-printed wax.

There are, however, significant limitations to 3D-printing in regards to dimensional accuracy and strength. A deviation that wouldn’t even be noticeable on a statue or piece of jewelry could spell disaster for a woodwind instrument assembled out of well over 500 components. Furthermore, the bore and toneholes of the prototype must be as accurate as possible in order to glean useful information before any desired alterations and improvements could be made to the design.

3D-printed plastic is relatively strong along two axes but is considerably weaker along the third axis. This issue of strength primarily concerns the four conical body bends (which would otherwise be good candidates for 3D-printing due to their complicated shape). Of these, I may 3D-print the two at the top of the instrument as they will only bear their own weight and won’t be under significant force due to the braces separating the joints from one another. In contrast, the two bottom bends will need to support the entire weight of the instrument and will most likely be CNC milled from solid stock in two halves and joined together like a traditional contrabassoon top bend.

Finally, the largest advantage of 3D-printing is that it’s usually less expensive than paying labor for someone else to do the fabrication. In my case, I’ll be doing the overwhelming bulk of the labor myself on equipment I already have access to. As such, 3D-printing would either be roughly the same cost or even more expensive for most of the subcontrabassoon components.

Q9. Having played both Contrabassoon and Contrabass Sarrusophone I know that there is a huge difference in the size of the reeds of the two instruments.  My Sarrusophone reeds are between 1.5 and 2 times larger than my Contrabassoon reeds.  I am going to assume that a Subcontrabassoon reed will be more along the lines of the size of the sarrusophone reed.

9. Yes, subcontrabassoon reeds will be in the same ballpark as contrabass sarrusophone reeds size-wise. Much larger and I would have difficulty finding appropriately sized arundo donax (not to mention appropriately sized homo sapiens). Finding ideal subcontrabassoon reed dimensions will likely be a long process of experimentation but my first prototype reeds will be 27mm at the tip, 80mm long, and use 32-33mm cane.

Q10. Do you foresee other players being interested in playing such a monster of an instrument?

10. Based on my conversations since going public with the project I can unequivocally say “yes.”

Q11. Personally, I would like to see a revival of a Semi-Contrabassoon (I still don’t like that name) between the Bassoon and the Contra.  Do you think such an instrument would fill a gap?

11. I think such an instrument could be great for solo music and chamber works. I’ve always looked to the relationship between the oboe and English horn when conceptualizing my ideal contrabassoon tone in relation to the bassoon; richer and darker, not just lower or buzzier. I could definitely imagine such an instrument striking that balance more effectively.

I do, however, think it could have difficulty establishing itself in larger ensembles where its distinct tone quality would be less apparent. Here, the large overlapping ranges of the bassoon and contrabassoon could very well work against it. (ACS: Alto Clarinet Syndrome)

On recorders, the instrument below the bass is the great bass; maybe such an instrument could be called the “greatbassoon.” This way, if you played one you would be a “greatbassoonist.” 🙂

Q12.  Do you think that the human lungs will be able to produce a sufficient volume to play the bottom notes at fortissimo to support an entire orchestra?

12. That would be a tall order for any instrument, yet alone a woodwind. Even the tuba would have difficulty supporting an entire fortissimo orchestra by itself in the lower contrabass octave. I do, however, believe that the subcontrabassoon could reinforce other contrabass instruments an octave below and add a unique and appreciable color to the sound of a full orchestra.

Q13. Can I come and play it?

13. Absolutely! I’m probably going to want to wait until the entire body is completed before I’d want to invite people to try it, though. If you’ve ever played just the bocal and wing joint of a bassoon you know that it’s not very informative to the sound of the whole instrument.

For more information go to:

www.subcontrabassoon.com

And please, fund his project at:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/subcontrabassoon/x/9621300

I’ve put in my part.  Let’s tap into the 32′ register.

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One thought on “An interview with Richard Bobo, creator of the Subcontrabassoon project

  1. Pingback: 2015 in Review | Bandestration

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