Tour, part 2

Today was a busy day, which is why I am now sitting around my hotel room like a vegetable. I rehearsed a piece with Meridian, then rehearsed a Mozart concerto (for 4 wind soloists, including me, with orchestra), then performed the Mozart, then the Meridian piece. All went well. We were required then to attend a meeting of the entire festival population. Bear in mind that we are in Mexico. Meaning we waited about 45 minutes for the meeting to start, and then of course it was in Spanish. There is not much enjoyment to be mined out of a half hour meeting when you understand 1 out of 5 words.

At any rate, after a late (4:30PM, after all was said and done) lunch, I stumbled back to the hotel to do nothing. Which brings me (at last) to the point of today’s entry, but alas I must flash back first.

I used to live in Jackson Heights, Queens. It is one of the most diverse square miles in the world, and it features a large and thriving Indian community. If you like Indian food, you are in business in JH. Anyway, one day I wandered into a store that sells Indian products of all kinds. You can get a sari, gold jewelry, CDs, spices, whatever. Downstairs, I found a shehnai for about $30. You don’t know the shehnai? It is an Indian double reed instrument, like an oboe but way less complicated. I absolutely love the sound of all kinds of oboe-like instruments, let’s call them shawms, that come from anywhere on the Silk Road. There are Arabic versions, North African versions, probably Afghani versions that became illegal to own under the Taliban. They are extremely nasal, and – to my ear, if not to yours – very expressive.

One problem: I have no idea how to play a double reed instrument. First of all, you need a reed. My many musician readers will know that classical oboe players spend about 3-4 hours a day making reeds, a few hours in rehearsal or practice, and the rest of the 24 talking about reeds (yes, even in their sleep). I’m not about to get into reed making, so I bought some reeds online. I got some kind of unplayable (by me) flaky nasty bits of wood in the mail that weren’t worth the $3.59 I paid for them. The shehnai sat on a shelf in my apartment, then on a shelf in my house in Croton, then on a shelf in my other house in Croton, and was finally and triumphantly moved to the top of a file cabinet in my office in Madison.

End of flashback. A few days ago, I had a crazy dream that I found a wooden instrument shaped like an animal horn with a hole in the side of the narrow end. On this instrument, in the dream, I could play the most amazing Arabic/African sounding music (I know that Arabic and African music are very different, but this was a dream). I woke up and had the thought to stick a horn mouthpiece in the business end of the shehnai and play the same kind of amazing stuff on it. When I got to work, I stuck a horn mouthpiece in and it wobbled around and didn’t fit at all. I built the mouthpiece up with masking tape to make a tight fit, stuck it in, got it fitting, and started playing.

Punch line: I can play some pretty cool stuff on this hybrid. It actually sounds a lot like a shehnai, and I can bend the notes all over the place. I can make the kind of Jewish music sounds that my ancestral cantors whisper in my ear, and I can imitate lots of the world music that I have listened to for the last 25 years. It is very exciting (to me). My colleagues’ responses have run from “I’m going to throw that thing out” to “Let me try to fit my trumpet mouthpiece in” (too big, sorry).

I have a computer program called Ableton Live. You use it to create electronic music out of any kind of sounds. On my last tour (Buffalo!), I messed around quite a bit with Ableton, recording snatches of music from people warming up, people practicing, whatever. It was pretty easy to turn these clips into vaguely Silk-Road-sounding loops. So I’ve been sitting around in my hotel room, playing these loops on the computer, and improvising on the shehnai. It’s a total blast (for me). My neighbors at the hotel undoubtedly wish they had chosen Cancun instead of Oaxaca.

What should I call this instrument? I’m using shawmhorn for the moment, but it lacks panache. I’m open to suggestion. I think, though, that the next step will be to generate some real music for this instrument, to get good at it, and to start performing. At any rate, it is always fun to have a project.

If you want to hear the shehnai played properly (the real shehnai, that is), search for Ustad Bismallah Khan on youtube.

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