Wanted for low-down playing and bass behavior, the Bassoon Brothers are on a mission to save the ” .. oons” from extinction by exposing you to a body of new sounds and music for the instrument including the world premiere recording of Professor Peter Schickele’s Blue Set for Four Bassoons.
There have been only a handful of players who have taken the bassoon beyond its usual role. Since 1985 three men (and their sole sister) who call themselves the Bassoon Brothers have shown that a small band of these instruments is capable of doing a variety of musical styles from the Renaissance to modern jazz; not just cute ditties or the “clown of the orchestra” bit (an approach that they do exploit on occasion). They have been able to keep their mission alive, because Northwest audiences have discovered them and always want to hear more. This recording is a realization that the Brothers is not your average woodwind group.
A band of like instruments is something that has been popular since way back when. In Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner it is written “hear the wedding guest beat his breast for he heard the loud bassoon”, showing that our predecessors have been doing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other similar functions for many years. (This refrain is heard in David Carroll’s Wedding Guest.) But of this double reed consort, all thats left of the family that included the sopranoon, altoon and tcnoroon (the latter is making a minor comeback) are the bassoon and the big daddy contrabassoon. It is safe to say that these low-down family members are fairly secure as long as symphony orchestras are still around. Even though the bassoons have always been major players in cartoon and movie soundtracks, synthesizers are often replacing their versatile voices.
Considered by many to be the “Rodney Dangerfield” of musical instruments, the bassoon has been given ” little respect.” Most people don ‘t even know what it is–calling it the “big oboe.” The bassoon’s name in German actually means a “bundle of sticks”– a fagott. Some detractors have called these “stickists” belching bedposts, while the contrabassoon has been called “an ill wind that nobody blows good.” No composers have given the bassoon the “crown” of the orchestra treatment since Vivaldi wrote 37 solo concertos 300 years ago. It ‘s been downhill ever since, but the Brothers are fighting back.
When the Bassoon Brothers “creeped” into existence on Halloween 1985 they didn’t have to go far to find some classical themes to play. Most of Halloween’s favorite symphony tunes feature the bassoon, so they have started every concert since then with Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette (which was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock Presents as a theme song). Grieg provided the ghoulish Hall of the Mountain King (which they jazz up a little).
The Brothers often like to recycle classical themes to accompany a popular tune, and they give a Mozartian slant to Bewitched like he might have written it for an opera overture to the Magic Contrabassoon. This cheeky approach is part of the joy of the Bassoon Brothers experience. The Brothers who play in a symphony orchestra day in and day out (and you’d better play what’s written-or lose your job) like to take classical themes that are familiar and improvise a fresh new way through the music. They’ve been called irreverent, but as a popular chamber group they have realized that their audiences enjoy occasional musical humor and hearing familiar tunes that are classically crossed over rather than “straight” or classical woodwind literature.
For example, the Entr’act Dragoons from Bizet’s Carmen is a solo that they’ve played “straight” a zillion times, so why not have some fun with it? They throw in a few improvised quotes from symphony repertoire that musical insiders will recognize from Nielsen, Ravel , Stravinsky, and Strauss for good measure. They also let the “beauty of the beast” come out through a contrabassoon improv’ and lead.
They don ‘t limit themselves to twisting classical themes. Much of their repertoire is “deranged” from the original–be it a jazz or blues approach, or something else altogether. They have taken their mentor Peter Schickele’s Last Tango in Bayreuth (with his quotes from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Lohengrin) and given it a new slant. The trouble with living composers is that they usually have something to say about such sacrilege. Peter Schickele’s response: “Last Tango in Bayreuth has been around for a quarter of a century now, and it’s definitely one of my Greatest Hits~it’s been played all over the world, and the royalties that have rolled in from those performances and sales of the music must be about ready to hit three figures. When a piece is out on its own to that extent, it has a certain distance from you, as if your kids had moved to Australia and Albania, and it is with bemused wonder that I listen to [this] arrangement of the tango, with its
heightened gestures, changed notes here and there, and added drum part. It’s enough to make a proud father weep.”
It was on the occasion of the Bassoon Brothers’ 10th anniversary in 1995 that they talked to Peter Schickele about writing a new bassoon quartet that would highlight the Brothers’ style and approach. Blue Set No. 2 is the result. The professor explains: “It’s not every composer who gets a commission to write a set of blues for four bassoons, but, hey, that’s the kind of charmed life
I lead. I’m not sure if I had this in mind when I started out, but the Blue Set series seems to be made up of blues written for instruments not primarily associated with jazz and the blues. Illinois Jacquet and a few others have played jazz on the bassoon, but in general blues bassoonists are rarer than bald 1960’s rock’n’ roll musicians. Waiting in the wings, or at least in my
sketchbooks, are sets for four cellos and woodwind quintet.
“Being a reformed bassoonist myself, I was delighted to tackle this project, especially since the commission came from musicians with whom l have enjoyed working in past concerts.
“Bassooner or Later is a hard, driving bop tune, the opening and closing statements of which surround a series of choruses featuring web-like chordal textures. The Portlandia of Portlandia in Cerulean is a statue in, well, I’ll let you guess the name of the city; if you don ‘t know what “cerulean” means, look it up in the dictionary (looking things up in the dictionary is good for you).
“Finally, my own history as a putative bassoonist made me feel that I really ought to draw a couple of references to the composer of the most often played concerto in the bassoon repertoire; this feeling led to the final number, Gang of Wolves.” (Unfortunately none of Mr. Schickele’s great performances as a bassoonist are recorded. Once known as “Fargo’s only bassoonist”, he has performed bassoon and piano simultaneously in his Abassoonata and with symphony PDQ Bach’s Concerto for Bassoon vs. Orchestra prior to PDQ’s retirement.)
In this premiere recording of Blue Set the Brothers have endeavored to play exactly what Schickele wrote, and this presented them with a great challenge. Several other selections on this recording arc also played as originally written: the jazzy Scherzo by Pierre Max Dubois, Lowell Shaw’s Frippery #2 and Frippery #19 (originally for horn quartet) and Jack Gale’s trombone arrangement of Alexander’s Ragtime Band by Irving Berlin.
Fantasy #1 may sound familiar to bassoonists who have struggled with the original 3/8 meter in Weber’s second movement in his Concerto in F. It was inspired by and dedicated to Milan Turkovic in a new Bassoon Brothers arrangement. The Brothers can’t get away from their classical roots in Georgia which opens with the two bassoon solo from Wagner’s opera Siegfried and shows off some other Wagner licks. Delibes wrote his familiar Pizzicati from the Sylvia Ballet score for plucked strings. The Brothers’ version feature ” spits-iccato” articulation and some added shtick. Leroy Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday could have been written for a trio of bassoon soloists and called ” Bassoonist’s Holiday.” This arrangement was created with multiple bassoon tracks in the studio. Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk gives the contrabassoon a good work out, takes the bassoon to soaring heights and trades some solo excerpts in a bassoonist’s blues.
The old swing tune Night Train features an instrument which PDQ Bach discovered and led to the Brothers’ performance of the “tromboon” as the lead. (According to Professor Schickele the tromboon distinguishes itself by combining the more undesirable and unfortunate characteristics of both the trombone and bassoon into one instrument.) Here the Bassoon Brothers leave you with a sound that is as far removed from your typical bassoon quartet sound as possible. The hysterical improvised tromboon/reed solo came as such a shock to the Brothers that during the
recording they collapsed in helpless laughter. This, the final piece recorded (at a very late hour), was a fitting end to the recording sessions.
The last track for solo bassoon, Red River Valley, is dedicated to the memory of lrvin Mann. It was written for Irvin, a cattleman, and performed at his funeral.
Program Notes by Mark Eubanks
Copyright 1998, Crystal Records Inc.
Cast of Characters
Mark Eubanks, bassoon, tromboon, synthesizer tracks, alto sax, vocals and percussion.
Robert Naglee, bassoon, fart whistle, reed.
Juan de Gomar, bassoon, contrabassoon and vocals.
Bonnie Fillmore Cox, bassoon
Carlton Jackson, drums and percussion (tracks 1, 9, 12, and 19).