Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hark! the last banshee!

Once upon a time there was a comedian named Danny Kaye who pinned a lasting definition upon the oboe: "the ill wind that nobody blows good."

Years later, to put my own spin on Kaye's definition, I shot this live demonstration of celtic-style oboe and called it "an uilleann wind." The "uilleann" of the title (pronounced "illy-un"--punning on "ill," right?) refers to the bellows-blown Irish bagpipe that has a distinctive sound and technique that I was trying to imitate with the celtic-style oboe.

Some time afterwards, there was a knock on the front door. I opened it and there on the front porch stood four individuals wearing identical masks and holding oboes.

I should say, "wearing identical death masks." The oboes were something of a minor detail. The only thing distinguishing them was their shirts: one white, one black, one gray (knit), and one Appalachian Trail t-shirt with the legend "and miles to go before I sleep."

"Hola," one of them said. Or all of them said. (I was in something of a state of shock at the sight of the masks.) "Somos los cuatro oboes del Apocalipsis."

"It happened a long time ago; I was filled with the insolence of youth," I said. I don't really understand any spoken language that well (hearing issues) and the masks obscured the lips that I usually rely on to interpret speech. So my apparent non sequitur was just an attempt to read the situation. It's embarrassing to admit, but I was begging mercy for the time I hadn't bought a set of encyclopedias from someone with a broom and lightbulbs trying to convert me to Mormonism.

"No, not that," one or all of them said. Which I understood. (I do have some nodding acquaintance with spoken English.) "We are here to be sure you have it under your fingers."

Have what under my fingers? (broom straws? lightbulb filament? urim and thummim?)

"The uilleann wind."

I looked at them, standing there on my front porch, in their death masks, holding their oboes, veiling a criticism of a Youtube video. These were not your garden variety Mormon missionaries.

"The silence is deafening," they or one of them said. "It will not be that way when The Time comes."

Are you capitalizing both t's in "The Time"? I asked.

"Of course. It is why we are. And until then we have little to do except evaluate the repertoire that we will use for The Ultimate Encore. Which is also capitalized, in the event you will be writing about it."


"And, seeing as in effect we will be The Banshees of The End (capitalized), we've considered the possibility of a Celtic treatment, even though we ourselves are of Iberian extraction."

I asked them how they got the gig.

"We don't really know. We suspect collusion between J. S. Bach and remnants of the Cathar heresy, who felt that they'd been Left Behind way before they were meant to be, but ... yeah, we got nothing. Other than an unpredictable amount of time to prepare our repertoire."

So, where do I come in?

They laughed. One or all of them. Behind their grinning death mascaras.

Okay. I get it. I come in at the beginning. And you, all four of you, come in, meaning "inside."

Before they allowed me to show them the ways of the Celtic oboe, they had to make sure there was no fakery on my part. So I told them to set the metronome at 144 for the dotted quarter, which they did, and I played through the set: Top of Cork Road, Monaghan Jig, Mooncoin Jig.

When they were satisfied that I had it under my fingers, they wanted to get it under theirs. They were quick studies, as well they might be, since according to their own supposition they've been at this for centuries.

They let me get the results on camera on the condition that I not show their faces.

How can I show your faces? I asked. You have masks over them.

"These are our faces," one or all of them said, "and we don't want to give away the secret of how to play an oboe while wearing a mask."

Without ruining a reed.

"Without ruining a reed."

But you're showing me!

"We don't wear these death masks for nothing."


So far, the afterlife is nothing to write home about. But it's only been a couple of days. I just wish I could eat something! And take off this damn mask.

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