New recorder models: vision or fiction?

A few years ago I would have never thought that modern recorder models would become such an important topic in my daily life. Especially since I am one of those professional recorder players, who love the purity of this instrument, which is made just from a piece of wood. And to be honest, I cannot think of anything more beautiful than a baroque alto recorder sounding from a room far back in a long hallway – yes, very romantic indeed and you can already feel it coming: but…

…don’t you think it is time for a change? Especially in a time, where human beings are so much relying on machines and, when it comes to music, ask for dynamic flexibility, a big range and volume of tone and motoric equality? Of course one can say, that this is exactly what we don’t want for the recorder – there certainly is no “right” or “wrong” way to go. At the end, we won’t be able to control the future anyway and just will have to go with the flow and either be part of something, or be part of another something. Fact is, every something will lead us somewhere and I am very curious where “my something” is going to lead me!

As professional recorder players, we feel comfortable playing different models for different epochs, and it is surely interesting to experiment with early music models on new music. But why do we still mainly stick to the highly developed early music instruments while playing contemporary music? At the end we will always be confronted with their limitation when it comes to expression, dynamics and range. There is a reason why instruments develop and it is important for us to accept this challenge and be part of this development! At least this means that we can also influence this development and create instruments we want to have on the market.

From 6th till 8th of November I took part at the conference of the European Recorder Teacher Association in Trossingen which was about “Alte und neue Klänge wagen” (means “Take a chance on old and new sounds”). Next to workshops, concerts, a sale market and open discussion rounds, there was a quite interesting lecture by Prof. Karel van Steenhoven on developing a new, modern standard recorder. Music from today asks for totally different requirements than 200 years ago and this means that we already have to start with our recorder students and educate them with a corresponding instrument. It doesn’t really make sense to perform the repertoire from today’s music schools – a mix from middle age to pop music – on an instrument which is far away from the standards from today.

One of the main reasons “against” modern recorder models, which is mentioned by recorder colleagues quite often, is their new sound colour, which is too different from what we are used to hear and I can kind of sympathize with this. Especially the higher instruments really do sound a lot different – although a few recorder firms like e.g. Mollenhauer do offer a baroque or modern voicing for their modern Sopranos and Altos. However, this doesn’t mean we should banish these instruments and never look at them again. Of course it will take time to get used to these modern recorders, their new way of playing and their new possibilities. But in my opinion we should take the chance and help recorder makers to make them even better!

If we take a look at a truly contemporary recorder like the Paetzold basses, squared bass recorders, which were developed during the 1970s by Joachim and Herbert Paetzold and still actually are developed further, now by Jo Kunath, you will see that it took 30 to 40 years to their establishment and now everybody wants to play them. So I guess this means a few more years to go for Helder.

Well, I am very curious to hear your thoughts about this topic and kindly ask for an open discussion. Looking forward to hear from you!

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4 Comments

  1. It is interesting that modern makers haven’t explored the modern recorder in addition to making replicas.

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    1. Oh, they do Mr. Baumann! It just takes time for new visions to sink in, I guess! e.g. the Helder Tenor recorder is on the market since the mid 1990s. The modern Soprano, Alto and Tenor recorders by Ehlert/Moeck and Mollenhauer since end of the 1990s. And there have been many ideas before, starting even in the late 1920s! I would recommend you the book by Peter Thalheimer “Forgotten and rediscovered: The Recorder”.

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  2. I sometimes feel there is something quite good about an instrument that is restricted in certain ways. For instance, to be good on the recorder requires the ability to produce a range of different kinds of articulation, master a range of alternate fingerings to change tone colour and increase dynamic range. In a sense, it makes you work harder and develop ones’ musicality if you want to be expressive in a way that might come easier for other (orchestral) instruments. Thus even if you eventually move onto a modern recorder with a broader dynamic range, learning the instrument using recorders without that range is good. Consider, for instance, all the crap performances or, say, Telemann Fantasias by flute players where they bash through without much dynamic variation. their instrument has better range and dynamic control than a recorder but if the player hasn’t got used to deploying these aspects then it’s no better than a plastic yamaha…

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    1. This is a very good point, but you know – everything what you do on a baroque alto, like e.g. using alternative fingerings, shadowing finger wholes, different articulation etc., you can also use on a modern recorder. It is not about forgetting all these things, but adding something on top of that.

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