BASSOON

MUSICAL INSTRUMENT AS CULTURAL OBJECT

by Jason Gibbs

  • Making music can be done with or without instrument, tools, or apparatus. Vocal music is universal and communicative. There are many forms of 'body' music.
  • The tools for music may be simple and reflect materials at hand.
    • Some societies make instruments on a spur of the moment fancy, for instance the flute devised in 15 minutes by the woman in the rice field of Laos (documented on the recording The La hu_ nyi- of Thailand, track A12: Musicaphon BM 30 SL 2572 (1985)). Such an instrument may be abandoned as easily as it picked up.
    • A didjeridu is made with the help of termites that hollow out a log, crucial in preparing it to become an instrument.
    • Such instruments may not even require people to play them. Indigenous peoples have devised wooden devices that make sounds through wind and water power. Closer to home there are wind chimes, but of course there is music in the sound of wind in the leaves or a bubbling brook, both requiring no instruments. Or perhaps listen to the rhythm of the falling rain?
  • Modern, western music has evolved into musical technology that is more complex, mechanical. It requires parts made of several kinds of raw material extracted from many locations. These instruments are produced by master artisans, or are possibly mass produced.

    The raw materials of the bassoon are diverse; its construction is complex.

    • The bassoon uses two kinds of wood - one kind for the outside veneer, another for the interior.
    • It requires a couple different kinds of metal alloys for the bocal, keys, for the butt of the instrument and for springs
    • A crucial component, of course, is the reed (preferably made of Arundo Donax from the Mediterrean region).
    • Cork is necessary to smooth the key action and minimize its noise
    • Some kind of animal skin is needed for the pads (although this may be done with artificial material these days).
    • Finally, oil is need for the bore and cork grease to lubricate the joints for the bassoon's assembly.

Fundamentally we have to ask, what need does the bassoon fill in our musical society? what itch does it scratch? Why go to some much trouble to design, manufacture, learn and master this object? What ordained this mishaped collection of tubes?

The bassoon was developed in a culture that places value in

  1. fixed, definite pitch
  2. equal temperament
  3. even volume, and
  4. smooth attack

It's used in ensembles that may include a variety of other instruments, bowed, blown into, struck, scratched, etc... Importantly the bassoon was developed and came into prominence at a time that the bass in western music was changing from a fixed drone to a moving ground or root within a multi-voiced contrapuntal web. Non-western musics do employ bass instruments (or voices) primarily as an overtone generator (for instance, Tibetan monks, didjeridoo, or musical bow), but they aren't usually melodic instruments.

In culture marches through time the move is toward technical precision. The bassoon is precise, at least to a point. Maybe the march is continuing with electronic and computer instruments. There are really good bass sounds there.

The frequently heard suggestion that the symphony orchestra has become a museum does not dismay Witold Lutoslawski, arguably the foremost symphonist of the late 20th century. When an interviewer proposes that the symphony orchestra might presently be obsolete, he responds:

"I say the same! But do you have to replace it? Electronics is a new art, a different art, but not replacing (traditional) music," he says.

"I love traditional instruments, though of course they are anachronisms. Satellites run around our planet, but we still play bassoons. It's ridiculous," he concedes cheerfully."

Henken, John. "Witold Lutoslawski: Still Discovering," Los Angeles Times February 4, 1993, F1.

Why would people play an instrument such as a bassoon? Arguably to participate in the social/musical institutions/situations that require the instrument; to participate in a culture they feel a part of, aspire to, or covet?

What kind of music is indigenous to the bassoon? This was sort of answered above - music with definite pitch, equal temperament, music with independent monophonic lines played alone or in tune and blended with other instruments. Of the bassoon may be the root of chords. Music where an individual usually of historic significance but almost always thought to possess competence in composition, orchestration and instrumentation dictates through notation a well regulated pattern in combination with other instruments of western culture.

What sort of people play this music? Symphonic and chamber musicians who play a repertoire of music notated between the 17th and 19th centuries in the main. There are presently a variety of studio musicians for movies and popular music. Here and there are rock and rollers or jazzers among the bassoon tribe. Bassoon are to be found in every country that has an orchestra or a marching band, which might be every country in the world.

Here is the problem that the Bassoon seems to be the answer to: how to be an agile instrument and play low pitches. The cello and contrabass also do this, but for certain leaps they have a pretty long fingering distance. The long distance is mitigated on the bassoon through all of the keys and through cheating by placing the keys at an angle. The bass has a relatively slow response time. Solo strings all in all lack the volume of a wind instrument.

The Bassoon is not in the least bit limited to the music described and doesn't necessarily do some of these things well. Playing equal tempered scales in tune and blended with other instruments is difficut and it requires a great deal of training and practice to accomplish. Making music with the bassoon requires some struggle. It also requires unlearning some other sounds that the bassoon can make.


The three open finger-holes beneath the second, third and fourth fingers of the left hand have bores at oblique angles in order to keep the fingers close enough together to move nimbly, yet provide adequate spacing for the whole tone distance along the tube. Likewise the first two open finger-holes beneath the right hand have such angles - the fourth finger must play a key that extends its reach, because at this lower pitch, the whole tone distance is too great even to compensate with an oblique bore. Pinkies and thumbs work the metal mechanisms - keys, springs, cork, pads - that cover the larger holes in the lowest register of the bassoon. These keys work down to the foot of the instrument (played by the right hand thumb and pinky), then upwards to the bell (all mastered by the left hand thumb and pinky).

These collected irregularities of angle, direction, and size make for an irregular instrument. They produce an unevenness of tone quality and pitch that the bassoonist diligently practices to overcome. The bassoon has a range of more than three octaves and each register is timbrally distinct. Like other wind instruments, the timbre is coupled with the pitch. As this bent, flaring column of air is covered by fingertips and padded keys, the formant character of the instrument likewise changes.

The lowest octave is more or less duplicated an octave higher with assistance of the whisper key. The highest octave is produced through a number of artificial fingerings that have their own unusual formant characteristics, and without proper breath support and a firm embouchure easily lapse into broken tones or multiphonics.

I contend that what makes the Bassoon such a valuable instrument is that it is not entirely successful - even within its culture. It is a bottomless well of timbral delights and multiphonic variety. Whatever improvements are made, the bassoon will continue to play a role in the a large repertoire of music, and the continuation of these genres and ensembles. They've now synthesized and sampled bassoons. But why should an electronic instrument aspire to be a bassoon. The bassoon can make sounds that put electronic sounds to shame. There are limitless varieties of reeds, embouchures, instruments, and fingerings that individuate in sounds that computer programs cannot begin to predict.


There once was a brainy baboon
Who always breathed down a bassoon,
for he said, "It appears - that in billions of years
I shall certainly hit on a tune

New Pathways in Sciences
Sir Arthur Eddington (also attributed to Ezra Pound).

A limerick will poke its fun in a variety of directions. One obvious target, symbolized by our fellow simian, is the notion of evolution. This goes along with the claim that enough monkeys, given enough time, and enough typewriters will eventually produce Shakespeare. (I think of the cover of the Mekons record album: The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen.) Likewise given enough time, enough baboons, enough bassoons, et voila ... music.

This of course places man, and one of his masterpieces, the bassoon, on Parnassan heights looking down the baboon. Man knows what to do with that bassoon. But there is implied here, a certain ridulousness on the part of man and his bassoon. How could you look at that thing and expect to get music out of it? If we sent a bassoon on a raft to a South Sea Island, what kind of cargo cult would evolve around it? What if a bassoon were sent to the far reaches of the universe - would our extra-terrestial neighbors know it was for music? If so would they use it as we do?

This limerick also hits upon the ideal of the bassoon as a clownish instrument.

"Tears of a clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1967 - #1 on the charts in the fall of 1970) might be the most heard Bassoon in history. I've long wondered who played that bassoon. What does he or she think hearing that song played so many times? Because it's mass produced the bassoon is just part of a larger recorded web, it may not enter the popular consciousness too deeply. Presumably the arranger chose the bassoon because of its the "clown" of the orchestra. There are other mass moments for the bassoon: the carefree "59th Street Bridge Song" (Simon and Garfunkel's "Feeling Groovy") as performed by Harper's Bazaar (#13 in the Spring of 1967); the oompah bassoon of the New Vaudeville Band's "Winchester Cathedral" (#1 in the Fall of 1966).


A contemporary rock band Better Than Ezra took their name from three words supposedly chosen at random from Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Those three words continue:

... better than Ezra learning how to play the bassoon
This being Hemingway, then naturally the Ezra here is Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound was for a time a composer and music critic, but I do not know of him playing the bassoon. The context of this quotation is Hemingway sitting in Paris cafe perserving with his writing despite the incessant question of some wanna-be writer. Hemingway here wants to demonstrate his ability to concentrate on his writing labors despite the attempts of this hanger-on to engage him in meaningless conversation. After listening to this man prattle on is "better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon." The meaning here is not absolutely clear but may be an indictment of Pound's musicianship or the bassoon, or, more likely, the jarring result of their combination.

There is also that famous painting, L'orchestre l'Opera by Edgar Degas, of the mustachioed bassoonist in the front row of the pit orchestra. He seems misplaced at the front of the pit. We bassoonist are generally tucked in the back. But here, the bassoon and its player do provide a compelling image.


Coleridge - from "Rime of the Ancient Mariner""
The Wedding-guest here beat his breast
For he heard the loud bassoon'
Wordsworth - from "The Female Vagrant"
The lanes I sought, and as the sun retired,
Came, where beneath the trees a faggot blazed,
The Travellers saw me weep, my fate inquired,
And gave me food, - and rest, more welcomed, more desired
Tennyson - from "Maud"
All night have the roses heard
The flute, violin, bassoon;
All night has the casement jessamine stirr'd
To the dancers fell with the waking bird,
Till a silence with with the waking bird; And a hush with the setting moon.

The bassoon of romantic poetry is an instrument of nature. Of course the outer appearance of polished, grained, brown wood leads one to that view. The family name woodwind helps these associations. The bassoon's place in pop songs like "Jennifer Juniper" by Donovan (#26 on the charts in Spring 1968), and "Fly Away" by John Denver (#13 on the charts in the Winter of 1975) show this attribute continuing to modern times.

But, on the contrary, could the bassoon be an instrument of menace? One stupid bassoon prank is to place the instrument over the shoulder in imitation of a bazooka.

(A musician in the army of Frederick the Great was) caught in the open by a cossack, who hunted him across a meadow.... At the last moment the musician turned about in desperation and presented the monstrous muzzle of his bassoon at the cossack, who promptly fled in terror
The Army of Frederick the Great, p. 142

In Thackeray's Vanity Fair a disgruntled bassoonist smashes his instrument over a conductor head.

On a more sinister note our seemingly innocent bassoon provides the name for a thermonuclear weapon.

The first three state U.S. test, and probably the first three stage weapon test ever, was the Bassoon device detonated in the Redwing Zuni test (27 May 1956 GMT, Bikini Atoll, 3.5 Mt). ... A version of Bassoon called Bassoon Prime was tested in the dirty Tewa test... A dirty device derived from the Bassoon was weaponized to create the highest yield weapon the U.S. ever fielded, the 25 megaton Mk-41.
Carey Sublette - from Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions, Version 2.15 (now a dead link)

The bassoon blast took place 17:56:00.3 27 May 1956 (GMT) / 05:56.00.3 28 May 1956 (local) on Eninman (Tare) Island, Bikini Atoll

The Bassoon device fired in Zuni was the first test ever of a three stage thermonuclear design. Surprisingly, this substantial innovation was also the first successful thermonuclear device design ever fired by Lawrence Livermore (then known as UCRL, now LLNL). ... The Bassoon device was 39 inches in diameter, and 135.5 inches long. It weighed 12,158 lb. Crater dimensions were 2330 feet wide, 113 feet deep.
Operation Redwing

What warped mind at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory associated bassoons with world annihilation?


People continue playing bassoons. They do so largely because of the inertia of European classical and semi-classical music that has spread its reach across the globe. Factories continue manufacturing them. In some marsh, as you read this, someone is snipping some Arundo Donax. An nature's bounty will continue to produce Arundo Donax, at least we bassoonists hope thus. There is also a trans-national educational system that will recruit, train, and employ bassoonists. But there's more to the bassoon than they learn in school, or on the job. It's a wonderful repository for a variety of cultural associations and sonic possibilities.

Langwill, Lyndesay G. The Bassoon and the Contrabassoon. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965.

pp. 3-4

It will be obvious that with a tube of some 8 feet in length, the intervals between even the primary six holes are too great for the first three fingers of each hand to cover the holes. This is overcome by boring the holes obliquely / and \, and expedient which was adopted / in the earliest types of bassoon's tone is largely due. The finger-holes are relatively small and the passage of the air from the bore continues through a measurable thickness of the wood as shown in the cross-section. This does not occur in any other modern wind instrument. It would, of course, be quite possible to place the finger-holes at their rational position allowing the air to emerge freely and closing the holes by a system of keys and rods as used for the other notes on the instrument.

p. 29 Weigl, Johann Christoff. Musikalisches Theatrum. [1698]

When the organ, the regal, and the harpsichord are inadequate, and even the lowest notes of the double bass, then for the best reasons my preference is for the bassoon; such notes are produced from it, by steadily expelled breath and deft hand, that they rouse the listener to wonder and instil joy in his spirit, hitherto unmoved.

p. 34 Mattheson, Johann. Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre. (Hamburg, 1713), Pt.III, para. 9.

The stately bassoon is the usual bass, the foundation or accompaniment of the Hautbois. It should, of course, be easier to play than the oboe because it does not require the same finesse or manipulation . . . . He who would distinguish himself on the bassoon will find that elegance and speed especially in the high register tax his powers to the full.

p. 38 Schubart, C. F. D. Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkünst. (Vienna, 1806).

It demands the fullest breath and such a sound and masculine embouchure that only few people are fit physically to play it in a masterly manner. . . . The tone of the instrument is so companionable, so delightfully talkative, so attuned for every pure soul, that until the Day of Judgment the bassoon can never be dispensed with. It assumes all roles: it accompanies martial music with manly dignity; it is heard majestically in church; it sustains the opera: it reasons with wisdom in the concert hall, gives a swing to the dance and fulfils every requirement.

p. 145 Langwill

The player must acquire artistic virtuosity and adaptablility to the multifarious possibilities of breath-control and skill of fingers. Bassoon-playing demands unerring mastery of a chromatic sequence in temperament over three and a half octaves. In other words, some forty-two notes must be produced from a single wooden pipe and to do so eight fingers and two thumbs have to control eighteen tone or semi-tone holes as well as three harmonic holes.

p. 148 Langwill

It is therefore obvious that the tone-colour of the bassoon is actually different in the three octaves. It is precisely to this difference in tone-colour in the separate registers that the artist within living memory has accustomed himself and it has become the characteristic of bassoon-tone and constitutes its chief charm.

pp. 148-149 Professor Hague: Proceedings of Royal Music Assoc., LXXIII, pp. 67-83.

In his comments on the spectrum, Professor Hague describes the bassoon as "an acoustical phenomenon of great complexity, chiefly because of the form of its resonator which is long, slowly tapered and of narrow "scale". The oblique holes are not simple openings as in the case of the flute, oboe or clarinet, but are auxiliary tubes branching from the main resonator." [Taylor, J.B. "Broken tone from reed instruments" Physical Review, Vol. 17, 534-5 (1921). "Their influence on the resonance properties of the air-column is very marked and they are largely responsible for the exceedingly uneven character of the timbre at different parts of the compass. . . . The air column is confined within an almost rigid wall of wood" which has "certain natural frequencies of its own and to some extent of damping". With lateral holes, in which the air "has mass, 'elastance', and is in close dynamical connection both with the air column within the tube and with the atmosphere outside the tube, the bassoon possess certain selective frequency characteristics and behaves as an 'acoustic filter'". These factors of construction and configuration are constant and "harmonics falling within one or more ranges of pitch" become specially prominent and independent of the particular fundamental being generated. "Those fixed-pitch ranges of harmonics constitute a 'formant', a characteristic feature of a particular instrument and a determining factor of its timbre."

pp. 150-151 Langwill

[T]he following anecdote is recorded of Darwin, who, when studying earthworms, put them to a curious use. Earthworms are devoid of the sense of hearing, yet they move away from the footfall of birds and other enemies, and especially at the approach of their arch enemy, the mole.

Like the blind, they are intensely sensitive to vibrations. One day a physician called to see Charles Darwin. The great naturalist was in the library with an iron tray containing earthworms. The worms took no notice of the jingling of keys, the shrill note of a whistle, or similar sounds, but when Darwin's son played to them on a bassoon they the vibration and immediately began to wriggle.

Bland-Sutton, Sir John. Selected Lectures and Essays (London, 1920), p. 270.
p. 164-5

Measurements of sound levels made with the help of the Laboratory of Acoustics of the Netherlands Radio Union at Hilversum "allow a calculation of the sound output of the instruments in terms of energy produced." "Simultaneous measurements of mouth pressure and volume expired through the instrument" make it possible to extimate the approximate energy which the player expends on his instrument. "Such calculations allow an estimate of the efficiency of playing a wind instrument, i.e. of the ratio of the sound energy output and the input of mechanical energy. The mechanical efficiency varied from about 0.005 per cent to about 1 per cent in one professional bassoon-player, which means that for each 100 energy units the player expends on his instrument, the return in sound energy is less than 1 unit . . . . Of the total amount of energy generated by the player, less than 0,2 per cent is finally emitted as sound waves by the instrument . . . . Wind instrument playing is wasteful in terms of energy. . . . "

"Musicians may fell distressed to learn that their instruments are so inefficient as measured in prosaic mechanical terms, but they need to / be reminded that the spiritual joy of music cannot be measured quantitatively. Perhaps one should look upon the low mechanical efficiency of wind instrument playing as a physical and physiological expression of the sacrific the artist has to make, throught his life, to bring the joys of music to his fellow-man.

Bouhuys, Arend "Breathing and Blowing in Wind Instruments." Sonorum Speculum (12/1/1962).

In a subsequent letter to the author, Dr. Bouhuys remarked that he found no extremes of pressure in bassoon-players. A point which emerged from measurements of air-flow rate and pressure in a bassoonist was that when playing a note (at high or low pitch) first pp and then ff the pressures differed but little, which is contrary to findings in most other instruments.

Naylor, E. W. The Poets and Music. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1928.

We can pass over his [Coleridge's] curious mention, in the Ancient Mariner, of the "loud bassoon." It is possible he may have known the word "buzain," from which "posaun" (trombone) derives.

It is just as likely that he knew the word "bassoon," and connected it with "buccina," one of the Roman army trumpets.


Bassoon music for your listening pleasure: