KETR

The Clown Of The Orchestra Takes Its Revenge

Sep 3, 2011
Originally published on September 4, 2011 10:24 pm

You might think you haven't heard the bassoon outside a concert hall before, but you have: The woodwind instrument features prominently in the theme music of Leave It To Beaver, represents the grandfather character in Peter and the Wolf, and scores Mickey Mouse's misadventure with the dancing broomsticks in Fantasia. Notice a trend there?

" 'Uh oh — things are going comically awry!' That's the way I think it is most often used in television and movies," says Eileen Reynolds, who has played the bassoon since elementary school. "When I started playing it, I started getting these really strange comments from people. My dad said it looked like a plumber had gotten drunk, because there's all this tubing and keys."

The bassoon is one of the most difficult instruments in the orchestra to play, but people just don't take it seriously. That's not surprising when you get a glimpse of the thing: It's a double-reed instrument that looks like someone turned a bong into a saxophone. The reeds are connected to the instrument by a metal mouthpiece.

"And then it's attached to almost 8 feet of wooden tubing that's been fashioned with a bend in the bottom of it, so it's folded in half and the top part sticks up," Mark Eubanks says. "It looks like a bedpost."

Eubanks teaches bassoon at Lewis & Clark College. He says that, to understand how the instrument became the butt of jokes, one must look back to its birth in the 17th century.

'Bassoon playing was very bad in those days, because they had bad instruments," he says. "The wood warped. ... There probably weren't that many good bassoon players, so it probably took on the role as this quirky, nasty-sounding thing."

The muffled, dark-sounding bassoon of the baroque era was so hard to play in tune that composers didn't write solos for it. But a century later, with better reeds and more keys, they began to take notice of its comic potential. Reynolds says Haydn's Symphony No. 93 and Beethoven's Sixth were some of the earliest to feature the bassoon as buffoon.

In this century, we've heard the bassoon in dopey pet-food commercials, in movie soundtracks and on sitcoms such as Curb Your Enthusiasm — where music supervisors often pick out the strangest bassoon sounds to make odd moments seem even more awkward. Eubanks says he is tired of the bassoon being typecast as the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments.

"Why can't a bassoon play Irish music?" he asks. "Why can't a bassoon do any kind of ensemble — jazz, rock, whatever?"

So Eubanks jams out with a group of other "oonists" — that's bassoonists, contrabassoonists, tenaroonists, and so on — who call themselves the Bassoon Brothers. (One of them is a sister.) Based in Oregon, the group has released three albums with some less traditional bassoon songs — including Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," featuring a bassoon with a pickup and an amp.

Ben Wendel is another musician giving the bassoon a makeover. When he's not playing the sax, he's jazzing it up on the bassoon.

"There are very few bassoonists out there that deal in the world of jazz or improvising. We're the Illuminati of the jazz world or something," Wendel says, chuckling. "There's sort of a beauty of the limitations of that instrument: the fact that I actually can't do all the things I can do on the saxophone. I can't go 150 miles per hour."

The bassoon has also broken into the world of pop. Last year, a quartet of classically trained bassoonists, who call themselves The Breaking Winds, donned wigs and costumes to perform a Lady Gaga medley — the video of which quickly went viral. Even hip-hop isn't immune: In January, Kanye West bragged on Twitter about putting bassoon on a track.

Modern-day bassoonists aren't trying to change the sound of the instrument. They just want you to know that, while the bassoon can be bouncy and silly, it can also be jazzy, romantic and altogether serious.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAURA SULLIVAN, Host:

Can you name this instrument?

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SULLIVAN: Oboe? No. Trombone? Uh-uh. It's a bassoon. This instrument is often called the clown of the orchestra. And the truth is, the bassoon has a bit of an identity problem. Producer Lauren Silverman explains.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: You might think you haven't heard a bassoon outside a symphony before, but you actually have.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FLINTSTONES")

JEAN VANDER PYL: (as Wilma Flintstone) Why is it men refuse to close doors? Even the closet door is open.

SILVERMAN: There's often a bassoon or a contrabassoon in the background of "The Flintstones." And remember Grandpapa from "Peter and the Wolf"?

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: How about "Leave It to Beaver's" theme song?

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: And of course, there's Mickey Mouse dancing with the broomstick in "Fantasia."

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: Yep, there's a trend here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EILEEN REYNOLDS: Uh-oh, things are going comically awry - and that's the way I think it's often used in television and movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: That's Eileen Reynolds. She's played the bassoon since elementary school.

REYNOLDS: When I started playing it, I started getting these really strange comments from people. My dad said it looked like a plumber had gotten drunk - because there's all this tubing and all these keys on it, everywhere. And then I talked to my great-uncle, who'd been a professional trombonist, and he said, you know, we used to call it the farting bedpost.

SILVERMAN: There. She said it. Eileen admits when you hear those really low notes, it's hard to think of anything else other than...

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: You see, despite the fact that the bassoon is actually one of the most difficult instruments in the orchestra to play, people just don't take it seriously - which isn't surprising when you get a glimpse of the thing. There's this metal mouthpiece that's curved. And it sort of goes down, and it looks almost like a straw. You know what? Let's just consult a professional.

MARK EUBANKS: And then it's attached to almost eight feet of wooden tubing that's been fashioned with a bend in the bottom of it. So it's folded in half and the top part sticks up, and it looks like a bedpost.

SILVERMAN: That's Mark Eubanks. He teaches bassoon at Lewis Clark College in Oregon. And he says the bassoon has been the butt of the joke since its early days back in the 17th century.

EUBANKS: Bassoon playing was very bad in those days, because they had bad instruments. The wood warped, the reeds changed from minute to minute, and there probably weren't that many good bassoon players. So it kind of took on a role as this quirky, nasty-sounding thing.

SILVERMAN: A century later, with better reeds and more keys, composers began to take notice. Again, Eileen Reynolds.

REYNOLDS: Haydn may have been the person who started this bassoon-is-funny-idea because he would have a part where the full orchestra was playing, and then it would get quieter and quieter and quieter, and everything would be very serene.

SILVERMAN: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: Whether Haydn was making a joke or just trying to wake people up, he started a trend that Beethoven picked up a century later, when he featured the bassoon as buffoon in his "Sixth Symphony."

REYNOLDS: People have compared it to the drunken peasant who stumbles into the party and is just like bom, bom, bom.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SIXTH SYMPHONY")

SILVERMAN: If you missed it, here it comes again.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SIXTH SYMPHONY")

SILVERMAN: This century, you've probably heard the bassoon on sitcoms, such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: Mark Eubanks has had enough of the bassoon being typecast as the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments.

EUBANKS: Why can't it play Irish music? Why can't a bassoon do, you know, any kind of ensemble: jazz, rock, whatever?

SILVERMAN: So Mark jams out with a group of other oonists - that's bassoonist, contrabassoonist, tenaroonists and so on. They call themselves the Bassoon Brothers, only one of them is a sister. They released three CDs. And this isn't Beethoven's bassoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

SILVERMAN: Don't like The Temptations? How about Hendrix?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE HAZE")

SILVERMAN: That's actually an electric bassoon. Mark attaches a small pickup mic to the mouthpiece, and then connects guitar pedal effects and an amplifier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE HAZE")

SILVERMAN: And then there's Ben Wendel. When he's not playing the sax, he's jazzing it up on the bassoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEN WENDEL: There are very few bassoonists out there that specifically deal in the world of jazz or improvising. We're like the Illuminati of the jazz world or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: The bassoon has also made a move into the world of pop. There's a quartet of classically trained bassoonists that covered Lady Gaga's greatest hits. They call themselves the Breaking Winds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKER FACE")

BRITTANY HARRINGTON: And we're in full Lady Gaga regalia. We have the wigs. We have funky costumes and kind of all the stops let out.

SILVERMAN: That's quartet member Brittany Harrington. She says their video went viral and before they knew it, they were on MTV. That's right: bassoon on MTV.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKER FACE")

SILVERMAN: The bottom line is modern-day bassoonists aren't trying to change the sound of the instrument. They just want you to know that while it can be bouncy and silly...

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: ...it can also be romantic, serious, even jazzy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: Lauren Silverman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.