Sunday, September 11, 2005


Where Do They Make Bassoons?

Only in Britain could a newspaper article be titled, in all seriousness, Let's Save This Noble Instrument of Mirth -- or end with the question:

How can we make the bassoon more popular?
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In fact, I think Britain is the only country in which the words "bassoon" and "debate" could even conceivably appear in the same paragraph. As it turns out, Alexander McCall Smith has a great fondness for the instrument -- as do I. My fondness lessened slightly when I saw how much the damn things cost. But Smith got a crashing bargain on his from answering a classified ad:

Although he had obviously very recently returned from a party, he was articulate enough, and he explained to me that he had bought the entire contents of somebody’s garage, and the instruments were part of that. “That,” he said, pointing to a rather sad-looking oboe, “is a clarinet.” I realised then that this man was an amateur, but was happy enough to get rid of things at a profit. There was a bassoon. Old instruments are sometimes described as distressed. This bassoon was in an advanced state of distress; in fact it was abused. I picked it up and asked the seller what he wanted for it. He said: “Now those things cost quite a lot. So . . . 45 dollars.” I bought it, as well as the clarinet/oboe, which he sold me for 15 dollars (it being about one third the length of the bassoon)....

I now had a bassoon, but no idea how to play it.
The Times goes on to describe the bassoon as an "endangered instrument" -- wait, let me check my calendar. Ok, it's not April 1st.... anyway, they go on to describe it as endangered, with very few children playing it, no doubt due to its atrocious expense -- a cheap one goes for $2000. But I think the best explanation of the bassoon's plight was by Frank Zappa, whose 1990 autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book is a suprisingly great read. "Some people crave baseball -- I find this unfathomable," he explained, "-- but I can easily understand why a person could get excited about playing a bassoon. It's a great noise." Still, it may be doomed:

I don't think there are too many cases where parents have demanded that their children learn to play percussion. The same thing with the bassoon. Not too many parents dream of the day when little Waldo will enthrall the neighbors by blowing on a brown thing with a little metal doodad poking out the side of it.
Maybe if they redesigned them with translucent plastic? Made the reeds taste like bubble gum?

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