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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000157.txt from 1993/12

From: Cary Karp <nrm-karp@-----.SE>
Subj: Re: The wooden clarinet
Date: Fri, 10 Dec 1993 05:35:08 -0500

On Dec. 9 Dan Leeson wrote:

> About 6 months ago on Nova, there was a show entitled "The Tree of
> Music." I loved it so much, I waited for a rerun and taped it. It dealt
> with the problem of the inexorable disappearance of African blackwood
> from the clarinet scene.
> It is the ecology. The land is producing less, the trees are being dug
> up smaller and smaller, they are not being replanted at anything like the
> rate that they are being used to make clarinets (and other instruments,
> too).
> Buffet is said to have a 20 years supply of African blackwood on hand and,
> after that, who knows?

African blackwood is the English trade name for what is called grenadilla
in the U.S. I was involved in major purchases of the stuff in the late
60's at which time nobody in the trade seemed to feel that supplies were
likely to diminish in the foreseeable future. Wood dealers said that it
"grew like weeds". One would expect clarinet makers to keep stocks for
about 20 years, since that is the traditional open-air seasoning time for
the wood. I have no idea what the current state of the ecological dilemma
might be, but would instinctively wonder if the situation is truly
irreversible. I'll ask my specialist buddies about this and report back.

> Three questions come to mind:
> (1) Will the price of blackwood clarinets go up as the supply of
> wood runs out?

There have been several very genuine "wood availability crises" in the
musical instrument manufacturing industry. They have been solved largely by
the introduction of alternative materials. Very obviously though, when this
starts happening, instruments made of "the real thing" start to command
premium prices.

> (2) Is there a substitute wood that is useful and that will be a
> viable alternative?
> (3) Is wood really, really important to the sound of the clarinet?
> Does blackwood produce a "better" sound than say, glass, hard rubber,
> bamboo, rosewood, crocus wood, cheese box wood, metal, etc.

I think, very fortunately for us, that clarinets are less sensitive to
their material of construction than are many other instruments. Metal
clarinets of soloist quality were made during the 1930's (I'll gladly
elaborate on this if it triggers any interest) and I suspect that
satisfactory instruments of this material could be made again. The cost of
tooling up would be substantial, though. Glass is too fragile for serious
consideration. I would also suspect that there is substantial room for
improvement in the quality of plastic instruments. Vito/Leblanc have sworn
that they will develop a plastic instrument of artist caliber. Let's hope
that they're right. There are several other tropical hardwoods which both
have and can be used in the production of quality clarinets. Rosewood is
already being used for large instruments. The problem is that most tropical
hardwoods are subject to restricted availability, if legally tradable at
all. Many are also highly allergenic. There is also a lot of work which
could be done with impregnating maple and various fruit woods.

> Save your money!! Save your old clarinets. They may be worth a fortune
> soon.

This may or may not be true. In the short term prices will certainly
increase, but if substitute materials are found and accepted, that should
be that for the value of grenadilla instruments. Nor is there any reason to
assume that the alternate materials will be less expensive than grenadilla
is, or may become. This whole thing has happened at least once before. The
clarinetists of Mozart's day would have regarded boxwood as the only
material truly useful for manufacturing clarinets. Problem was that
supplies of boxwood, which for centuries had been THE material of choice in
woodwind manufacture, were quickly drying up. Ebony, which had previously
been a rather snobbish substitute, was of necessity being accepted as the
standard alternative. This, in fact, was the upbeat to the transition to
"blackwoods". Although older instruments can cost a whopping lot more than
do modern ones, the fact that one has found a boxwood instrument counts for
virtually nothing in the price tag.

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