Death by oboe.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 8 2008 3:01 PM

Death by Oboe

How acoustic instruments torment their players.

An acoustic guitar
An acoustic guitar

Years ago, I heard a lovely evening of South Indian music that involved a double-headed drum called a mridangam. Afterward, somebody asked its player what the stuff he'd been smearing on one of his drum heads throughout the performance was.

"Cream of Rice," he replied.

"You mean, like in the supermarket?"

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"Indeed, yes."

Turns out, breakfast cereal is just the thing to keep the head of your mridangamsmooth and supple. While pop musicians and classical composers alike are always going on about computer software, acoustic instruments and the people who play them are a far more cultish affair. They're still doing things by hand in traditional, sometimes outlandish, sometimes messy ways.

I spent some years of supposedly being a musician, but the beginning of my education in the low-tech and faintly mystical endeavor of creating acoustic instruments came when I interviewed a well-known stringed-instrument maker. When he told me his instruments were based on close study of Strads, I asked, Why not use modern technology to duplicate every millimeter of, say, a Stradivarius violin, chemically analyze the varnish and duplicate it, et voilà: great violin. He sighed, having heard that one before. "You know, every piece of wood is different," he said. Every piece of the six kinds of aged wood in a violin has to be shaped according to its particular resonance, elasticity, and function. And the varnish? "Don't get me started," he said.

Violin makers do a lot of tapping and flexing as they create an instrument. The overall shape and proportions are traditional, but to find the unique texture and resonance of a particular assembly of wood, especially for the front and back plates, you gouge it, measure it, plane it, tap it, plane it, tap it some more, flex it, plane it, scrape it, tap it, and so on for hours, if not days. An ordinary person would go insane. Many makers have a private formula for the varnish, and rumors about what goes into it have Macbethian overtones: eye of newt, toe of frog? At the end comes the mystical part. An instrument takes years of playing to break in. So when the maker first bows the strings of a new violin, what the maker is listening for is not what it sounds like now but what it's going to sound like five years from now.

Look into the rearing and feeding of any acoustic instrument and you'll find its own frustrations, its own weirdness, its singular history and artistry. Behold the ubiquitous cymbal: the flash of marching bands, glitter of rock acts, clanging rhythm of jazz drummers, sparkle on the climax of a thousand classical pieces. Worldwide, any number of companies make cymbals according to myriad traditions. Percussionists, who are typically fanatics, each have their kit of favorites: This one has a set of Chinese cymbals, that one loves Javanese gongs. All of them love brake drums, which have to be secured from an auto junkyard where they are kept in rusty piles. Says a percussionist: "You go to the junkyard and hit brake drums for three or four hours till you find ones you like."

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