The Return of the Whetted Knife

As I am sure you will know, this was John Masefield’s description of the wind in Sea Fever – a poem memorably parodied by Weekending in a critique of Sellafield way back in the sea frets of time (which you will recall gust with plutonium dust in that Cumbrian town).

Wind has been much on my mind over the last few days, and not as a result of any gastric infelicities on my part.

In my last couple of days in Wales I experienced – and in large part enjoyed – some really serious wind speeds when at altitude (so probably wouldn’t count if the wind has its own Stout-sponsored book of records).  I decided that this wind, in my then role as a hiker, should be classified as “bracing” – though in my role as cyclist, my views would have been rather earthier (and could lose this blog its family-friendly rating).  This did cause me to wonder where “bracing” might fit on the Beaufort Scale – I’m thinking somewhere in the force 8 to 9 range (at least for relatively modest temporal exposure). Certainly, the wind was sufficient to render a middle-aged man entirely cobweb free.

The wind seems to have followed me home, as it has been rather breezy of late in South Cambs – and today, rather excitingly, really quite wet (though my green plastic rainwater depository does not quite runneth over, it’s close).  Last evening involved both wind of the outdoorsy, fresh air variety and that of the instrumental (wood and brass).  Cycle rides bracketed a fun time with CUWO (the Cambridge University Wind Orchestra) introducing me (within a range of delights) to a whole new side of Shostakovich – the wholly unexpected cheerful one.  The wind orchestra (or band) is much under-rated – or at least was by me, until I went to a previous CUWO gig on the sole basis that it was very cheap – and perhaps slightly mis-named as it included percussion (one item of which was a grand piano) and a double bass.  As a result, I fear the pieces would be beyond all but the strongest of marching bands – luckily CUWO had a stage and chairs, only the percussionists were required to move.  Very enjoyable and uplifting it was, or it was until the second half when the more conventional (or at least, string-heavy) orchestra which is CUMS II (sharing many of the forces of CUWO) gave us Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead which is a very fine piece, but not exactly cheerful.

I have decided that I ought to take up a wind instrument (and not just the descant recorder), they are much more portable (as well as much cheaper) than a harpsichord.  I’m leaning towards the woodwind as they are more neighbour-friendly for those of us living a semi-detached existence – and don’t appear to need such frequent draining of the player’s saliva (or perhaps their wielders are more subtle about it?).  The piccolo seems too small for my hands (and pitched rather too close to the aforementioned descant recorder), and whilst a wonderful-looking and sonorous device the bassoon (or worse, the contrabassoon) seems to have a somewhat limited repertoire.  The cor anglais does have an amusing name, but I’ve only seen it buried in a very full orchestra, so it seems to be oboe, clarinet or flute (very much the Cetacean of the woodwind world) for me.  The big question is thus what sort of reed (if any) should I opt for?  Am I too old to master the double reed?

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4 thoughts on “The Return of the Whetted Knife

  1. matathew says:

    Not sure whether your question re oboe/clarinet/flute is posed (juxtaposed?) as pure rhetoric or not, but here is an answer, albeit one from the point of view of a flautist. I certainly wouldn’t attempt the oboe as (a) I expect it would take years of practice and mouth muscle development to make a decent sound and (b) the solo repertoire is a bit limited. Either the clarinet or the flute would make an excellent choice. The clarinet is exceptionally versatile (classical, jazz, etc), and opens a door leading to the saxaphone family. Maybe its drawback is that it transposes (eg from A or B-flat) which is a pain. The flute, which mercifully works at concert pitch, is also highly versatile, and my only misgiving would be that its range is quite high and some additional lower notes (borrowed from the clarinet) would endow it with yet more appeal.

  2. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    Whilst I’m clearly not beyond the rhetorical flourish, I was quite serious about taking up a wind instrument. The only advantage I could see with the oboe is that it seems to be an older instrument than the others (hence, has had more time to acquire repertoire) – but I seem to have only limited muscle control over most of my body, and have no reason to believe that my mouth will be an exception to the general state of affairs.

    I suspect it may be a while before I am playing in a concert environment and as a small boy had a transposition clock for my guitar, so (probably erroneously) have few fears on this front – ignorance truly is bliss. Further, as you suggest the clarinet probably has more jammin’ possibilities for the relative novice and is a gateway instrument to sax – so I think we have a winner!

    Your advice has, as ever, been invaluable.

  3. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    Whilst I’m quite happy to read a second-hand book, I’m less keen on pre-owned woodwind (the whole saliva survival issue). As a result, your instrument is safe from my depredations.

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