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.