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In pursuit of rare pipes

Bagpipers and wind players have an obsession with the arundo reed. The state has a plan to eradicate it.

December 24, 2006|Blair Tindall | Special to The Times

AFTER a good practice session, Tomales, Calif., bagpiper Ted Anderson loves sloshing through swamps in search of the perfect tone. But he isn't stalking the inspiration of sunsets or rare birdsong; he's after the giant reed that makes his instrument sing.

"Irish piping is considered an almost lunatic fringe, but we have our needs," said Anderson, who takes home the plant species Arundo donax to cure for two years in his garage rafters, then scrapes the bamboo-like tubes into reeds to place inside his uilleann and highland pipes.

Anderson hunts with passion, squishing through muck, dangling over rapids as the sharp weed slices his hands and looking out for the California canebrake rattlesnake. But a good stalk is hard to find these days, because arundo is considered a botanical pest to nearly everyone but certain musicians. The flammable, nonnative plant spreads prodigiously, destroying ecosystems, redirecting river flows, igniting fires, causing flooding and creating expensive beach cleanup projects once it washes out to sea.

A statewide consortium of environmental and government organizations dubbed Team Arundo methodically kills off the species, which also consumes three times the water of other plants. The state has spent over $25 million to raze cane, but a handful of musical aficionados are raising cane -- at least among themselves -- over eradication of their beloved reed.

"Team Arundo wiped out some of the best stuff on the Sonoma River," said Anderson, who also said he understood the plant's destructive reputation.

Two bridges in San Diego County collapsed in recent years when pushed off their pylons by mats of arundo washing downstream. High in wax content, the weed also poses an extreme fire hazard, flaring up like dynamite explosions within a wildfire. "Everybody from firefighters to environmentalists hates it," said Daniel Cozad, president of Integrated Planning Management, a Redlands water-consulting firm.

Arundo is bad seed, all right. Yet the Europeans importing it during the 1820s prized the reed for windbreaks, roofing, basket weaving, fencing, wicker furniture and animal fodder. For a time, the Army Corps of Engineers planted it for erosion control, later learning its root network can instead rip away riverbanks.

"People have sent me nasty letters asking how I could plant such an invasive thing," said Marsha Taylor, a Eugene, Ore., oboist who wrote her 1971 master's thesis on arundo while studying at the California Institute of the Arts. However, Taylor carefully isolates her tiny crop, which she uses to make the softer reeds needed to play Baroque oboe.

For musical use, however, nothing compares with arundo, which was used to make the syrinx, or panpipe, of Greek mythology. It also serves folk and historical instruments like the shawm and crumhorn, and classical woodwind players worldwide use it.

But there's no shortcut on the road from raw cane to musical reed. Whereas violists and trumpeters may buy strings and mouthpieces at music shops, musicians playing oboe and bassoon toil to make their "double" reeds one at a time. For example, the Boston Symphony's principal oboist, John Ferrillo, spends 10 to 20 hours weekly at the reed desk in addition to his practice, rehearsal, teaching and performance schedule.

Double reeds must be made by hand because of the complexity of their construction and the unique nature of each piece of cane. The size, quality and fiber regularity of each tube determine subtle choices in each step of the process.

An oboist selects tube cane based on diameter, then splits the stalk lengthwise and hollows out a channel using gouging machines calibrated to hundredths of millimeters. The cane is then folded in half, tied over a tube inserted in the instrument, its folded tip clipped, and scraped thin enough to vibrate when blown.

Any child squeaking air through a blade of grass between his thumbs understands reed physics, but performers often obsess over sound. After all, a fine bassoon reed helps produce the haunting solo opening Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and a bad one transforms the virtuoso into a honking goose.

Clarinet and saxophone players have it easier. Their reeds can be machine-manufactured because of the simpler design of a single, flat blade of cane. Bagpipers, who use multiple reeds for the chanter, regulator and drones on each instrument, either make their own or buy from others specializing in the craft.

And the reed quest never ends. Cane's paper-thin organic material -- easily weakened by vibrations and saliva -- wears out quickly. A professional oboist might exhaust four or more in a week and keeps a kilo of cane on hand, usually purchased from foreign growers.

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