Harry Partch’s Yankee Doodle, and my tin oboe doodlings

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Tony Dixon cylindrical bore aluminum whistle

Harry Partch’s Yankee Doodle Fantasy is scored for soprano, flex-a-tones, tin flute(s), tin oboe and chromelodeon. The tin flutes were easy enough to aquire, thanks to the folks at www.tinwhistle.de.  For the tin flute, I played a Tony Dixon in E (transposing the part). For the two whistles part, I added a Clarke in D, pulled out to where it almost reached a C#. This gave me the needed minor third between the whistles.

Clarke tin whistle with a conical bore

For the tin oboe I found no good solution and ended up playing the part on chalumeau (an early single reed instrument), borrowed from my esteemed colleague Carl Rosman.  My research and asking around didn’t come up with anyone living who had heard or performed the piece with an actual tin oboe. Henry Brant, who played the premiere with Partch, passed away in 2008 and to my knowledge did not leave a recording. After the premiere Yankee Doodle was recorded with oboe ordinario.

Therefore I began my experiments with tin whistles in order to make a tin oboe. You need a whistle with a removable mouthpiece. Then I used a soft oboe reed with a plug of beeswax that I softened, formed onto the whistle and allowed to harden. Then the quacking started. Given the conical nature of the oboe, it is no surprise that I had no luck with the cylindrical  Dixon whistles, so I then attempted the conical-bored Clarkes. However, they are conical the wrong way around, so I put the oboe reed on the “wrong” end and did manage to get some interesting notes. However, I couldn’t manage to get the actual pitches or the range needed for the piece (d-minor pentatonic scale, one octave). At least that gave me the hint as to how Henry Brant may have built his tin oboe. Had I the time and funds to buy and try out numerous conical whistles, or if I were handy working with metal, this is the direction I which I would have gone. Still, how one can achieve an entire octave on such an instrument is a mystery to me, but maybe it is my lack of skills that held me back.

I also tried a large duduk that we had lying around the musikFabrik from Benedict Mason’s the Neurons…, but the range was not covered. I also considered modifying one of Wolf’s Kinderoboes. K1 is basically a conical-bored recorder with an oboe reed, but pitched too high. K2/2 was too expensive. Had I the funds and wherewithal to work with wood, I perhaps could have modified K1.

The chalumeau presented the easiest solution, it covered the range, it is still a reed instrument albeit a single reed, and to our tastes, it gave the right sort of “exotic” sound that fit the music and text.

A word on the microtonality. I admit to playing the tin whistles and the chalumeau tempered, and not making any adjustments with putty or tape over the holes in order to exactly match the chromelodeon notes. Doing so  would have given me a “good” first octave, but would have wreaked (unwanted) havoc on  the second and third octaves. Since the part is so virtuosic and requires a range of 2 and a half octaves, I decided to leave it.  I did do quite a lot of hole-taping when I put the two tin whistles together to make Partch’s so-called Bolivian Double Flute for Delusion of the Fury. That will be the subject of a later entry!




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