Contra-versial Insights into ArtScience
Reviewed by Richard Kade
Stanford, CA 94305-6004 USA
Often the optimal means to that serendipitous
find is the circuitous route. With that
stipulated at the outset, what earthly
relevance could such a specialized page
about contrabassoons on an obscure websiteseemingly
from the most "Siberian sector of Cyberia"have
to our nearly four-decade pursuit of matters
relating to ArtScience?
Just about everything!
Consider all the exhaustive studies over
the past half-century on a nearly subatomic
level employing every new technology available
to attempt measurement of whether such-and-such
variance of "x microns" within "area y"
of this or that Amati, Guarneri, or Stradivarius
proves conclusively that the contours
of this set of curves, rather than the
type of wood, method of seasoning or,
even, application of varnish explains
the superiority of tone produced by the
instrument. Such study would no doubt
have intrigued if not amused our oracular
namesake half a millennium after his death.
But what, then, does the violin maker
have to do with the Heckel contrabassoon?
On 10 October 2002 the San Francisco Symphony
Orchestra gave the premiere performance
of Urban Legends by Michael Tilson
Thomas with the composer conducting. Alas,
I only learned of the radio broadcast
nearly two years later. Not to worry .
. . our old family friend, the self-proclaimed
"Edouardo d'Ancona, Kontrafagottspieler"
seemed the most logical person to contact.
His reply reflected the deepest understanding
of all aesthetic considerations as well
as the vast expertise amassed over many
years at RCA and NBC that earned him an
Emmy Award in 1965 for his pioneering
research resulting in what to this day
remains standardized color on television.
"I'm happy, nay, eager to respond
to your note on Urban Legends. It so happens
that KUSC here broadcasts some of the
San Francisco concerts and I heard the
performance of the contrabassoon work
by MTT. And, having advance notice of
the broadcast with the piece, I was able
to record it onto the hard disk in my
computer. So If you'd like I can burn
a CD for you!"
But, I have a probably controversial (or
should I say, "contra-versial"?) comment
on contrabassoons: They have no pitch!
I say this with some anguish in view of
my historymy one and only
year as a professional musician was that
year in the Rochester Philharmonic where
I played third and contrabassoon. So I
know much of the orchestral literature
where it appears, and I'm intimately familiar
with the beast and its sound.
But it has no pitch! That is to say, for
the lower half of its register, the sound
is more of a rattle without much of the
fundamental tone present.
A Fourier analysis would show the fundamental
as being there, but there is a raft of
harmonics in what is essentially a pulsed
waveform bouncing around in that sixteen
foot pipe. When coupled with the regular
bassoon in octaves, it is a rich enforcement
of the bass for the woodwind section.
Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music, for example,
ends with a slow progression of chords,
culminating with a poignantly beautiful,
rich, C major chord. There, the contra's
lowest C adds a wonderful fullness to
the sound of the winds. But as a solo
instrument in a concerto, particularly
in faster passages, it is simply, for
me, a sequence of pitchless rattles.
And in its upper register where there
is a pitch to it, it has this peculiar
throaty and somewhat unattractive sound.
There are many effective appearances of
the instrument in the standard orchestral
Ma mère l'Oye, and as the
bass in the opening chorale in Brahms
1st [Symphony], last movement, etc. Most
effective in those.
The San Fran performance was fine. Soloist
was the orchestra's contra person, Stephen
Braunstein. The score has, in addition
to the strings and electric bass, lots
of percussion, celesta and a piano. Very
complex composition with many wild effects
and passages. A fascinating work."
Within a few days the snail-mail brought
the promised CD along with another, Contradiction,
by Allen Savedoff, including the most
magnificent arrangement by Kim Scharnberg
of Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do
I Can Do Better," featuring dueling contrabassoons.
Curiously, none of the inherent problems
described by Ancona were apparent in any
of Savedoff's playing.
A quick web search yielded savedoff.com
, replete with the page on retrofitting
contrabassoons. Perhaps someday, Braunstein,
Savedoff or some other artist will perform
Urban Legends on an upgraded instrument
capable of the fullest expression of the
music as conceived. In the meantime, Professor
Savedoff has put out a sequel to Contradiction
titled Savoir Faire. Both are available
through Capstone Records, amazon.com or
any number of other providers.
With profound sadness, one notes the passing
of Ed Ancona on 8 November 2005, age 84,
in Los Angeles, California.