Scrap Oboes and Bassoons

Daniel Bangham – article for the British Double Reed Society

Do I really mean lets scrap oboes and bassoons? No, not at all! I am refering to an unusual phone call I received in early May 2011. It came from a highly persuasive and enthusiastic lady from Love productions on behalf of BBC4 television.

‘Would you be interested in taking part in a television program called Scrapheap orchestra?’

‘um, tell me more?’ I asked.

‘Well, the BBC have commissioned us to make a 90minute documentary, where a small group of established instrument makers are filmed making a complete orchestra of instruments. Only they all have to be made completely out of scrap materials, are you interested?’

I was not convinced. ‘Do you really mean scrap. Who will be playing the instruments? are they to be like modern orchestra instruments and is it just clarinets you want me to make?’

‘Well; the voice said ‘I can’t tell you too much, but you can make them how you like, and it is the BBC concert orchestra who will be playing them, so they can’t be too different. We know you are a clarinet maker, but it has not been decided who is going to make what yet, but I am sure it will be ok….anyway thanks for agreeing to do it, can I come on Friday to do a screen test, good, thanks.’

Apparently, with my stunned silence, I had agreed to meet her on Friday.

Over the following weekend a series of emails flowed and three days later I found myself alongside eight other instrument makers at a recycling centre in the wilds of Lincolnshire. Though my international reputation is as a clarinet maker, I have also been a woodwind repairer for over thirty years and this apparently qualified me to be allocated the task of making the oboes and bassoons for the project. Such is fate.

Only at that first meeting with the film crew, Charles Haselwood and the other makers, the full enormity of the task sank in. We were to make all the instruments, from scrap materials, in 10 weeks and what’s more, they had to be capable of playing the 1812 overture at the BBC proms in July!

Having never made a bassoon or an oboe before, that first night was wakeful. Since I did not own any bassoon reamers and had decided not to use my oboe reamer on scrap materials, my first challenge was to work out how on earth to create the most important part of each instrument; the bore. However, the film crew were coming in a few hours and they did not want to film me looking blankly into space. So I started tackling the more difficult of the two instruments; the oboe. During the hunt at the scrap yard I had only found two conical bored items, the golf clubs and fishing rods. In both cases the taker was too slow, I could not even fill the bore up. It was while I was re-tuning the radio during our tea break that I noticed the telescopic aerial on the radio and I realised my solution. By cutting the fishing rod up into sections, I could fit them together like a telescopic aerial to make a taper with approximately the correct dimensions. Eureka! I remember clearly the elation of creating my first note and better still the first reasonable octave on the simple tube. I was out of panic mode and into maker mode, it might be possible after all.

Making and designing the key-work was a huge amount of fun in fact! With thirty years as a repairer and having lectured on repairing I knew what it should feel like under the fingers. However, with only a few weeks to make four instruments any solution I came up with had to be quick to make, and work first time. As I expect the film will show, some of my first attempts fell short of expectations, but by the end I felt it all came together and indeed some of the key-work is quite amusing.

Comments on the Scrapheap oboe

From oboist Leila Ward

“The other day I visited Tim, my favorite oboe repairer at Wood, Wind & Reed in Russell Street, Cambridge.

Whilst chatting to both Tim and Daniel Bangham, Dan mentioned that he had an oboe for me to try, and always interested in new developments, I agreed to have a go.

What then appeared was a most extraordinary looking piece of art, never mind the fact that it was a working instrument!

The level of skill and ingenuity that had gone into the creation of this marvellously mauve-coloured, re-cycled oboe was astonishing.

Nuts and bolts, bits of old bicycle, all sorts had found their way into, and onto, this instrument.

But aside from the eye-catching design, would it play?

Well indeed, not only did it play, but also the tuning and positioning of the keys gave it the feel of a “proper” oboe.

It was like the first time that any student picks up an instrument and manages to elicit from it a sound.

At the most basic level, there is nothing quite so thrilling as getting a response from an inanimate object, especially one as difficult to master as the oboe.

Daniel has come up with an amazing concept to challenge our perceived notions regarding instrument manufacture, and I’d like to thank him for letting me try his “scrapheap” oboe!”

Leila Ward