Local master of bassoon repair among best in world (continued)
Among the best in the world
The local bassoon community numbers more than 200, but Bowen's reputation is farther reaching. Bassoons come to him from Orlando and Fresno and Oslo, purchased in varied condition and then passed into Bowen's hand for maintenance, repair, customizing or restoration.
"I basically repair all the bassoons in Norway," he says. For two weeks every year, he takes up residence there, and bassoonists descend upon him as though he were some woodwind messiah.
In all, he'll handle about 500 bassoons a year, from $120 annual maintenance jobs to six-week restoration projects running more than $3,000. Bassoons are notoriously fussy; you can't blow warm, moist air into a wooden, U-shaped vessel without ill effect.
His popularity, primarily word of mouth, is padded by ads in a national newsletter for double-reed musicians. He also has a comfortingly mannered Web site that gives you the impression that bassoonists are somewhat skittish about their instruments.
"His reputation couldn't be better among bassoonists," says University of Washington music professor Arthur Grossman, whose bassoon has graced the Israel Philharmonic, Indianapolis Symphony and more than 30 commercial recordings. "He's one of the best repair people in the world. We're very fortunate to have him here in the Northwest."
Keith Bowen, in Bergen, hanging out with Norwegian composer and pianist, Edvard Grieg, considered one of the leading Romantic era composers of the standard classical repertoire worldwide.
(Woodwind) family clown
Bowen is 40. He looks like the guy who took honors at the high-school science fair — bespectacled and bookwormish, with short-cropped, pepper-blond hair a little heavier and scruffier on top. But he is a practiced carpenter, and he can be droll. What's the bassoon's role in an orchestra? "To give three people jobs," he quips.
But of course the bassoon is much more than that. Like the oboe, flute and clarinet, it's a member of the woodwind family — the baritone of the group, held obliquely, like a saxophone, only much bigger. It looks like a tall squash dressed as a drum majorette.
It does what Bowzer did for Sha Na Na, rounding out the composer's palette of sound. "It's a very beautiful, pretty instrument," Bowen says.
On the other hand, because the bassoon vaults between low and high notes more easily than other woodwinds, it's often called "the clown of the orchestra." Composers avail themselves of its deftness for comic relief. "Instead of going in a scale, it can take big leaps," Bowen says. "Composers like to use that — and when they do it sounds humorous."
Some even believe the words "bassoon" and "buffoon" are etymologically linked, though luckily there is no definitive proof of such.
Bassoonists shun the spotlight, he says: "They're not the ones who enjoy wearing the tuxes onstage." They also are witty, he says, and enjoy wordplay. (George Zukerman, a British-Columbia-based bassoonist, has a Web site called "Bassoon As You Are Ready.") And because they are responsible for making their own reeds — the wiry part of the bassoon inserted into their mouths — "they tend to be very handy people, who aren't afraid to take apart their sink trap and unclog their drains or work on their cars."
That's good for him, because bassoonists often attempt to fix or modify their own gear long before they come crying to Bowen for help. "It often increases the price of their repairs," he says.
Techniques of other artisans
In the basement of his Seattle home, bassoon joints rise in stalagmite formations around two wooden worktables. Ongoing projects are clamped in place below handy rows of assorted files for hole-shaping. His work with such tools, though relatively safe, has nonetheless inflicted him with more injury than the rock climbing he does as a hobby.
Bowen hated his first job. After he'd quit, he traded the task of building a music library for a prominent bassoonist in exchange for private lessons. That bassoonist — John Miller of the Minnesota Orchestra — then hooked him up with Fox Bassoon Co., a leading manufacturer, where Bowen learned the ins and outs of his craft.
His work encompasses skills used by metalworkers, machinists and jewelry makers. It is, in some ways, a dying art, reliant on techniques and materials increasingly harder to find.
Here's a bassoon he finished last night; here's another in for annual maintenance. A little shine, a little polish, clean it all up. Check this out: This fancy little machine measures airflow. You don't want any leaks in the bassoon. Unfortunately, this bassoon is completely leaking. His job will be to determine where.
"This is the very tedious part of bassoon repair," he says. "To replace all the pads that make it airtight is about a seven- or eight-hour job, and what I spend most of my time doing."
Some bassoons arrive with shriveled, junkyard-dirty keys; they leave looking shiny and new.
A short hallway leads to the garage, which Bowen has turned into a metal shop. There is a lathe for shaping, a mill for adding custom keyholes, and a dust-spewing buffer kept in a closet-sized room behind see-through plastic. On shelves and in cabinets, an array of usable parts and materials lodged in boxes and tiny tea and breath-mint tins. The air breathes with the scent of French wood polish.
A bassoon joint rests in the lathe, one function he says he doesn't let customers watch. "It makes them nervous to see their instruments spinning at high rpm," he says. He raises his voice above the grinding whir of the machine as it refits a bassoon's brass cap using a silversmith's spinning technique once used to make candlesticks.
He turns it off, wiping the affixed cap with an old shirt. "Almost nobody knows how to do this anymore," he says. "The more I learn and the better I get, the more I'm up against this brick wall of getting materials that I need."
Still, he manages to find a way around everything. Says UW professor Grossman: "A lot of people will fix things, but Keith will imagine things, how something can be made to work." And that, Grossman points out, is why it's a mark of honor to say Keith Bowen has handled your bassoon.