I bought four plastic oboe reeds the other day (see The Artificial and the Natural). They’re insubstantial but they cost a lot more than plastic bags. I won’t say how much because you’d wonder why anyone would buy them. But every oboist in his or her heart hopes that these plastic reeds will solve the nightmare problem that impedes our playing of the instrument. We’ve been waiting for them for decades and their arrival is nearly as exciting as the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence might be (see Out There).
They’re made in Canada, presumably by machines, and they all look alike, and all utterly different from the cane reeds we make ourselves and agonise over. They look more like ampules or syringes, something with a medical purpose rather than a musical one. But the most extraordinary fact is that they feel and play just like the ‘real’ thing.
I made the two on my left. The second has been on life-support for months. We oboists do anything to keep a good reed going, but organic substances don’t survive the mouth indefinitely.
But, strangely, these plastic reeds aren’t peas in a pod. Each one, though apparently identical, plays differently. Oboists all over the world have been buzzing with excitement since they were launched by Legere a few months ago, and we’re all wondering and discussing what we can and should do with them. They’re marketed as playable straight out of the box, but none of the four I’ve bought could possibly qualify even as a practice reed, let alone as a concert reed. But I knew that when I bought them.
So, all over the world there are oboists ‘scraping’ them, taking out the set of tools they use for cane reeds and adjusting them from the fixed profile they’re manufactured with to a profile that they’re used to, in my case an old-fashioned French scrape that produces a reedier tone than is currently fashionable.
Scraping is done with a reed-knife, mine a lovely implement made of Japanese steel strengthened with tungsten from the Hemerdon Mine in Devon. But scraping minute quantities of resinous plastic is a very different task from scraping cane. The blade seems sometimes to bite into the plastic. And I’m not yet sure whether my instincts about where exactly to reduce the thickness of the cane can be applied to plastic.
But I’ve had good results, more or less, and I’m hoping to use one of these four at a family concert on Saturday (see Being at your own Pre-Funeral). My hope is that if I can make two or three of these plastic reeds good enough then they will last for months rather than days and I will have years of happiness before me. The nightmares about oboe reeds (I have about ten a year) will be a thing of the past. I’m quite sure that within a few years plastic will predominate and there will be many different kinds to suit the tastes of all the different oboe ‘schools’.
I haven’t yet understood why all four of these new reeds are so much shorter than the two I made myself. Short should mean sharp, but we will know soon enough.
As a lazy person who has no experience of playing, reluctantly, some piano works of Bach at the tender age of 10, I am perhaps not qualified to dip my toe in the water of musical debate.
But…is the sound from a musical instrument in the eye of the beholder or is it written in stone?
By that I mean will the convenience of an oboe player of the future matter more than the perception the sound makes?
For seasoned players getting the sound right to his/her ear is more important than using a plastic reed, but will an audience adapt to the sound it makes and thus save the player the trouble of reed making?
After all, there are orchestras and quartets which travel the world using instruments that were used when the composer ….er…composed.
The implications of that is what we hear now of say a Bach composition is not what Bach heard when it was first played.
Will the purist survive the convenience of an adapted plastic reed or will the audience survive yet another adjustment to the music presented to them?
As a lover of classic ballet I was enraptured by Swan Lake at a very early age.
When I was eventually persuaded to see the all male company dance it, I was prepared for disappointment. Instead I found it thrilling.
Since then I became less of a purist. If it sounds good and looks good, should we demand that the oboe be always created the same way?
That’s a good question. Oboe sound is hotly debated (well, warmly perhaps!). the French, the American, the Austrian, the German and the English sounds are all slightly different, and the different sound is a result of the style of ‘scrape’. Fashions also evolve. When I listen to the famous English oboist Leon Goosens on old recordings I find his sound unpleasantly ‘reedy’ and no one plays that way nowadays.
But, surprisingly, it is not the material but the scrape that matters. The plastic reed feels and performs very much in the same way as the cane one.
And in answer to your question, no, oboists won’t compromise sound for convenience, at least not the best ones. The remarkable thing is that these plastic reeds can probably be adapted to make a sound that is just as good by the prevailing standards.
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