Sunday, September 4, 2011

Buffoon Bassoon No More!

Who knows what a bassoon looks like? Okay, okay. Now, who can tell me the last time they heard a bassoon played outside an orchestra? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Despite being super-hard to play and pretty cool looking (8 feet of wooden tubing all coiled up on itself is pretty neat, in my opinion... or maybe that's just me) the bassoon has been the proverbial clown of the orchestra for literally hundreds of years. How'd that happen, you ask? Well given that it was so hard to tune (especially in ye olde days) and that it was very difficult to master, composers didn't write solos for it early on. Then the likes of Hyden, Grieg and Beethoven began to characterize the sound of the instrument as comical, featuring it as the "baffoon" of the piece, the indication that something had gone comically awry. This precedent was quickly adopted and has hung on for ages. Think Mickey Mouse dancing with broomsticks in Fantasia. Yeah, that's the bumbling role that the bassoon has been playing for forever.

Well, tired of having their instrument typecast, players of the bassoon have decided to fight back and to rebel against the stereotype of the bassoon as solely comic relief. Ever heard a bassoon play jazz? Country? Pop? Rock? No, you haven't... until now.

Mark Eubanks, teacher of bassoon at Lewis & Clark College, jams in a group called the Bassoon Brothers. 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. And yes, it's as cool as the idea sounds.

Ben Wendel is another musician giving the bassoon a makeover. He also plays the saxophone, but lately he's been jazzing it up on the bassoon. He says the instruments limitations make improvisation that much more interesting.

And last year, a quartet of classically trained bassoonists, who call themselves The Breaking Winds (not helping the bassoon's reputation with a name like that, in my opinion), donned wigs and outrageous costumes to perform a Lady Gaga tribute — the video of which quickly went viral on YouTube.

These musicians aren't in any way trying to change the sound of the instrument, as each of their ventures appear to use the bassoon to its full potential, to revel in its "bassoon-ness." Yet they are making it very clear that the "double-reeded bedpost" is much more versitile than it has been given credit for.

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