Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Oboe honky-tonk

You accepted the gig, but maybe you shouldn't've. You haven't played an oboe bar in a long time. Plus you've been lazy about practicing and not a little angsty about your lip lasting the three-hour set, which last night translated into a dream where you took the stage at Carnegie for a recital and couldn't play the first note because your reed was an ice cream cone. People hollered and screamed and accused you of wiretapping them and blew oboe reeds at you through tubes of giant cane. Which woke you up.

Oboe bars are the saloons of The Great (Again) American Century, but this place you've never been in before. When you enter, the first thing you notice is that they have ReedSoak and SpitSoak on tap, which tells you right off that the only reason people come here is to turn their brains into blank sheetrock and let classic oboe wallpaper them.

You go up to the bar and introduce yourself to the bartender, who looks like the slow movement from the Albinoni C minor concerto transposed down an octave. You exchange hellos, and you ask where to set up. Mr. Slow Movement waves ponderously at a little stage-cum-dart-gallery off to the side.

"Darts?" you ask.

"You must not have been in an oboe bar for a while," rumbles Mr. Slow. "It's the new game sweeping the world of oboe bars. In other words, sweeping the world: Reedarts. People blow oboe reeds through a tube of giant cane. The board lights up when you hit it, kind of like pinball," he says, moving at a molto lento over to show you the board, which has point numbers superimposed over the named pictures of composers: 35 for Bach, 40 for Schumann, 45 for Mozart, 50 for Vivaldi, minus 25 for Beethoven (that waste of a composer, who wrote no oboe concertos).

"Doesn't that ruin a lot of reeds?" you ask.

"Believe me, there's no lack of crap reeds out there. You know what they say: you have to make a barrel of bad reeds before you can make a good one. You wouldn't believe the oboe players that donate their bad reeds and then stick around to watch them be destroyed. There's this sound they make, like a cross between a whimper and a diabolical laugh."

You say you live on the wild side: you only ever have one reed at a time.

"It better not be synthetic." The sound from Mr. Slow is a menacing low b-flat. "This is a classic oboe bar. Tough crowd. Cane reeds are de rigueur. People here will come up and ask to look. They want to see the scrape. And for music: no transcriptions! People want real oboe music, not imitation oboe music. Had a guy come in once and tried to play the Telemann flute Fantasies. It was bad. The crowd went after him with rainbow-colored #FF nylon thread. Trussed him up and smeared him with cork grease, which was probably a blessing because he was able to slip away."

Your fears accelerate like Pan in Britten's Metamorphoses, right before he is transformed into a tube of giant cane. You show Mr. Slow your set list.

"HmmMMMMmmmm." His voice swells and dies away, as if he is opening the Handel C minor sonata. "Looks OK. You got the bases covered: Vivaldi, Mozart, Schumann, Handel, Albinoni, St. Saens, Hindemith--nice; we don't get that very often--Krebs--wow! Something with organ. Well, this should keep people drinking. I just hope your backing tracks aren't offloaded warped-vinyl Music Minus One."

You say your backing tracks are MIDI rolls punched by barefoot friars in Frankfurt, doing it the way it's been done since forever and tomorrow--the latest in 21st century technology for your 19th century-technology instrument playing mostly 18th century music.

"Classic, classic," exhales Mr. Slow in a Mozartean caesura. "Speaking of which, I have to warn you: there's one, er, patron who ... how can I put this ... who chases a few too many ReedSoaks with a few too many SpitSoaks, and he gets kind of rowdy." His words begin to rush like a student playing a Barret etude without a metronome. "We don't want to make him leave because he's a regular who buys a lot of drinks. But he gets drunk and shouts, 'Play Gabriel's Oboe! Play Gabriel's Oboe!' and we tolerate it even though it violates our vibe. That shit is so bro-oboe it makes me want to date a tuning fork. Whatever. Just, you know, waving a baton at you."

As it happens--thankfully for your chops--it's a slow night. But a little weird: A couple comes in for Reedarts, which means you're playing music at the front of the stage, they're playing blowgun at the back of the stage, and the board is blinging and flashing while you perform. But after all you're just wallpapering brains, and at least they're not blowing the reeds at you like in that dream.

By the time you get through the second Handel, the philistine you'd been warned about sets up a racket for Gabriel's Oboe, which you play not once but three times in order to get him to be quiet. After that he staggers out (giving you the "You sheetrock!" sign), and it's just you and the bartender, who kindly lets you spend the rest of your time watching The Great British Oboe Reed-Scraping Show on The Double Reed Channel.

You sit there wondering what it would be like if the electric guitar became popular.

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