Tag Archives: unusual instrument

A rackett– low sound packed small

7 May

Like other double reeds, the rackett produced by this instrument probably decreases as the player’s skill increases.

When I was working on my article about carbon fiber instruments, I traded emails with a researcher  in musical acoustics in Australia. He saw my blog post about Papalini’s bass clarinet and said: If you’re interested in low instruments in a small package, you should take a look at the rackett.

Baroque Rackett (image source, Godfrey, Wikipedia, 2009)

Baroque Rackett (image source, Godfrey, Wikipedia, 2009)

So, here it is. It’s a Renaissance bassoon-ish instrument, and there are 9 parallel bores packed into that instrument to create the length for a low pitch. However, it looks like the fingering is pretty strange, even for a bassoon. (My band director in middle school tried to convince me to switch from the flute to the modern bassoon. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea- more opportunities for bassoon players. But two days of playing an instrument that sounded like a dying cow in my hands was probably all my family could take. Double reeds and a dizzying array of thumb keys– 8 for the left and 4 for the right, were more than I had patience for. My sister had more patience than I did in that respect, but played the oboe). But I do love the low sound of a bassoon played well, and this one could fit in your pocket.

The rackett apparently fell out of favor, possibly for practical and rather disgusting reasons. If this description from Diabolus in Musica is accurate, I can completely see why.

If you’re currently eating your lunch, stop reading now. The rackett survived as a useful pocket bass instrument until the eighteenth century. Heaven forbid that any musical instrument should retain any semblance of guts, so when the great and glorious shawm and curtal were “refined” into the emasculated oboe and bassoon, they tried it with the rackett as well, but came unstuck. To get a “polite” tone, they had to narrow the bore, which was already narrow. That would be fine, except that they tended to play the things after dinner, and bits of semi-chewed food would find their way down the reed and into the narrow bits, eventually clogging the instrument solid. Now, unclogging a rackett is a technician’s job, so the beast would be put on a shelf until the local instrument maker could look at it. If that shelf happened to be in the sun, or above a fireplace, ideal breeding conditions for bacteria would ensue, and pressure would build up in the clogged tubes. There are a supposedly a number of attested cases of shelved racketts exploding without warning, emitting splinters and noxious odours in equal quantity.

Blech!! I’d like to hear one, but only before dinner.

Curvy clarinet

20 Jan

Watching the Inauguration on TV today, this former chamber musician and band geek had to give a shout out for the John Williams piece performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill. I performed in chamber groups on both flute and piano during my high school piano recitals. Beethoven’s clarinet trio (I was on piano) remains a highlight.

Clarinets came to my mind again last Friday as I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a friend. I’d never explored the collection of musical instruments before, and I snapped a photo of this unusual clarinet with my camera phone.

This bass clarinet was made by Nicola Papalini in the early 19th century. The curvy design helped them scrunch the spacing that was needed between the keys for the low register of this instrument. Papalini carved the instrument in halves and then assembled the finished instrument. It’s a pretty nifty art object, but I’d love to hear it played.

Clarinet acoustics are based on a closed pipe—the reed and mouthpiece on one end mean that the sound waves encounter that end of the pipe as effectively closed off compared to my favorite woodwind, the flute. That structure effectively doubles the length of the bore, which allows the clarinet to achieve those rich low tones.

Just like the chamber music, I hope that the history made today will permeate, rebound and echo in the days, weeks and years to come.