I met clarinet designer Morrie Backun at the Howarth's London premises in Chiltern Street, round the corner from the Royal Academy of Music. Although Backun lives and works in Vancouver, he had been in Europe to attend the Frankfurt Musikmesse, during the first week of April. His appearance at Howarth's was part of a two-day London visit before returning to Canada. One of Backun's purposes in going to Frankfurt had been to show his new Bliss clarinets, designed for Conn-Selmer.
"The Bliss clarinets just came out," he tells me, as we relax at the pavement cafè next door to Howarth's shop. Shown at the NAMM International Music Products Association show, held in California in January, the new Backun clarinets - named after young British clarinettist Julian Bliss - are now commercially available. "So far they have been a runaway hit for the company," says Backun. "They play beautifully. They are made of a material that hasn't been used before in the industry. The keys are black nickel. They look really intriguing. The material of the body is a trade secret. We worked very diligently to come up with an acoustic material which sounded NOT like a synthetic clarinet."
Backun agrees that synthetics have advantages and disadvantages. "Many of the synthetics that have been produced have given the clarinet a sound that those of us who are more sophisticated players would typically find unsuitable for our purpose," he admits. "I have a number of professional players who, as soon as they have tried this Bliss clarinet, have placed an order, not only to play outdoor concerts, but because there's something very special about the sound. There's also the offer of getting it with a genuine Backun wood barrel, which gives you the sound and the feel of a wooden instrument, but very cost-effectively."
Julian Bliss is an outstanding clarinet virtuoso. However, one is aware that to design a clarinet - or any instrument - requires a profound knowledge of materials, manufacturing techniques and acoustics. Yet instrument makers frequently attach an outstanding player's name to a new instrument. Among professional players the claim that a new instrument has been designed by a well-known performer is met by a certain amount of cynicism. I put this point to Backun.
"Julian's level of knowledge about the instrument - even though he's still young - is actually much greater than most players I've ever met," says Backun, with a commendable absence of seigneurial hauteur. "He's very aware, in terms of all the experimentation that we've done. On key designs, on finishes, even in the mouthpiece design in this particular instrument, we worked for a significant amount or time."
Backun tells me that the Bliss clarinet was in development for 18 months. "We went back and forth on any number of changes," he says. "So, partly because of his ability in pitch, and his technical ability, Julian has very strong opinions on where the pitch ought to be, how the resistance ought to be in terms of the feel, what the sound profile should be like.
"We went through countless considerations to end at a place that has captured the imagination of many people. We have a number of professionals who have bought these as second instruments. When people try them they'll be very surprised."
Our conversation turns to the large amount of international travel that is required of Backun. "Last year I went to Japan four times," he says. "I was impressed by the quality and dedication of the players, who are clearly very focussed and attentive to what they are doing. They pay a lot of attention to equipment and to what the teachers say. The attitude is different in North America. Often I find that American students will almost debate with their teacher.
"In Japan there is a great reverence for the teacher. When the teacher recommends something, the students do it almost without question. Many times I meet high-end Asian players whom I don't know. They open their case. They are playing on Backun barrels, bells, mouthpieces, or even the clarinets. When I check, I'll find that's a customer. They've dealt with Nonaka, who distributes for us in Japan. Nonaka does a wonderful job. Main players in the NHK Symphony, or the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra - world class orchestras - are playing on a variety of Backun equipment. They thank me; I don't know who they are. I feel embarrassed when that happens. So I endeavour to meet them and get to know them.
"Nonaka handle several makes of instruments. John Nonaka, the owner, is also the owner of the Marigaux company, one of the top oboe and English horn makers in the world. He distributes Selmer Paris products, Conn-Selmer products and Backun products - a marvellous distributor. They have one of the most beautiful showrooms I've ever seen in the world. Multi-platform, multi-store, a highly specialised staff with a selection of instruments that is astonishing. Their shop, a wind and brass specialty, is in Tokyo. Their warehouse area is in Yokohama. They have many interesting antique instruments. If you are on oboist, a clarinettist, a bassoonist, a saxophonist or a brass player, the chances are that you are going to find something there that is quite unique.
"Last time I was there I saw hecklephones, and everything from sopranino to bass saxophones - quite astonishing. But when you look at the population of Tokyo, it's an enormous city, and a very close population, quite different from most of the world. The students in Japan tend not to start on student instruments; they tend to start on intermediate or professional instruments. So, proportionately, you see many more professional instruments than you do in most parts of the world. Our focus is on very advanced professional players, and on very serious students, although we do have lines of more affordable products.
Backun went through a varied training. "My training has followed a few paths. At a young age I was trained to be a flute maker. As you probably know, the quality of high-end flutes has always been vastly superior to high-end clarinets. Clarinets have been primarily mass manufactured, quite cost-effectively, where flutes have been built by hand to very precise tolerances, usually at higher cost.
"So, over the years I was working on many clarinets for people, trying to deal with rebuilding mechanisms, and adding keys to do different things. My clientele became more accomplished, higher grade, players. The quest was always to fix fundamental flaws - low Fs that were out of tune; fork Bbs that were problematic; high As, Bs and Cs that were sharp. They were playing Pines of Rome and there was an undertone on the upper A from the beginning; they were playing the opening of the Debussy Première Rhapsodie, having trouble connecting through the registers while keeping the tone quality balanced.
"In refining their instruments it became apparent that we needed to change some parts. When we started experimenting we were a traditionally equipped shop. We had normal milling machines, lathes, and various things. If you come into our shop now, it's much more like a research laboratory. We have nine computer numerically controlled equipment machines, the heaviest of which is 40,000 kilos, about the size of a fairly good-sized London house. We've had machines that will cut all the way into nine axes, or nine angles, simultaneously. We have two rapid-prototyping machines where we can measure your hand by laser scanner, then have the machine manufacture a key to fit your hand specifically. Even with acoustic modelling, we can make a clarinet body in this material to test the acoustics before we ever cut a piece of wood. In our stock right now I think we have enough wood, aged, and of the highest grade, to make around 145,000 clarinets. That's just in our shop in Vancouver.
"With the lathe as big as a house you can do one-off things, but it tends to be slow and cumbersome. It's not the ideal use of the machine. We have a number of engineers and production people who specialise in that kind of automation. But one of the tricks is that even if you design something that's very good, you then need to develop a process which is robust enough to do exactly what you want it to. You want consistency. The only way to get that is by utilising high technology. My entire training was in how to make things by hand. But now I will admit that although I can make virtually anything by hand, duplicating my own work to make a second, third or fourth item is very difficult, and can certainly be accomplished better by machinery which is meant to do that.
"Every machine that we have was originally designed to work in metal. Every tool that you can buy for these machines, from the commercial point of view, is meant to work in metal. One of the people I've had working for me is a specific tooling engineer. He has designed new tooling just to make the kinds of cuts and consistency we need in wood. We've made and thrown away hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of tone-hole tooling, reamers and cutters because they didn't do the kinds of jobs we wanted. It's painful. You also lose the wood that they cut. I can tell you - with no reservation - that I have Canada's most expensive fireplace parties at my home, on a regular basis!
"When you consider the complexity of most instruments, clarinets are relatively modest in cost. While woodwind instruments have gone up over time, as the raw materials, the labour, tooling and equipment have gone up, when you look at a clarinet it's very different. A clarinet has roughly the same number of keys as an oboe. Yet, on average, the oboe is over twice the price.
"If you go further afield, and lower - let's use the bassoon as an example - in rough numbers a professional bassoon is ten times the price of a clarinet. When you think of it, bassoon keys are not harder to make. There's a little more metal in them, but not a lot. There's a lot more wood, but that might be another hundred pounds' worth of wood. So when a clarinet costs three thousand pounds, and the bassoon is, say, thirty thousand pounds, the difference is remarkable. To some extent the explanation may be supply and demand. But a lot of it is because of the handwork utilised in making the bassoon. For most companies it hasn't been financially viable for them to automate the process. On the whole, clarinets are made by the larger makers utilising automated process machinery.
"I recall one day very early on, when I was not nearly as busy as I am now, I picked up the phone and there was a gentleman saying: 'I hear you do very good clarinet work. I'd like to get you to overhaul my clarinets.' I said, 'I'd be delighted.' He asked when would be possible. I said 'Next week.' Which sounds odd now, because these days the waiting line is a little closer to two years. I asked him what he would like done. He said: 'You do what ever you think to make them the best instruments you can.' I said, 'Fine. Let me book you an appointment. What's your name?'
"He said: 'David Shifrin'. David, for any of your readers who don't know, is one of the truly great clarinettists of the world. He followed Robert Marcellus in the Cleveland Orchestra. Since 1987 he has been professor of clarinet (adjunct) at the Yale University School of Music, and from 1992 to 2004 he was Artistic Director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. He's an artist of the highest calibre, and just a wonderful person.
"Feebly, I said: 'David Shifrin?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'I know who you are.' He said, 'Great, saves explanations.' Then he gave me his address, and said he'd send the clarinets next week. He sent them. For the ten days that they were in my shop I didn't sleep. I was so anguish-ridden, doing work for someone of David's calibre.
"I sent them back. A few days later I received an envelope in the mail. In the envelope was a cheque for exactly twice the amount of the bill that I had put in the case. I called David. I thought I must have been unclear in my billing if he thought that was how much I was charging for each instrument! Once again I was having a sleepless night or two, thinking he must have thought I was so expensive. So I called David. I said that I just wanted to check how he liked the clarinets. He was very complimentary. I said: 'David, I have to apologise. I want to talk to you about the bill.' He said: 'Morrie, I sent a cheque. Didn't you get the cheque?'
"I said, 'Yes, but it was for twice as much. Obviously I was unclear. The amount I asked you was for the pair.' David said, 'Oh, no,no,no. I knew that. I just didn't think you charged enough for the quality of your work!' To this day, David and I remain friends. I always consider doing any work for him to be a great privilege.
"From there my reputation seemed to grow. Many of the top players in the world play on Backun products. They come to us for work to be done. The most recent one, who's had some audition success, is Ricardo Morales, who is the principal clarinet in the Philadelphia Orchestra. But he played the audition for the Chicago Orchestra, and won. He's been asked to play for the New York Philharmonic. He just played guest principal with the Berlin Philharmonic. He was playing on a pair of cocobola clarinets I made him. They offered him the job of principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic, which is the first time ever for a Boehm or French system clarinet.
"Morales is a wonderful player. He's changing what people feel that the clarinet can do. He did the Berlin concert under Simon Rattle - whose son, Sacha, is a clarinet player. Sacha has Backun equipment. Simon is very knowledgeable on the clarinet, partly because his son plays, and partly because of his calibre as a musician.
"Recently I was at a concert in Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Orchestra played. Afterwards they often do postlude concerts. The guest conductor was the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, who was principal clarinet of the Helsinki Philharmonic from 1977 to 1982. He played in the postlude concert.
"They did the Mozart Quintet. I thought that the circumstances were very intimidating. They had Ricardo Morales sitting there, with Paul Demers, who is surely one of the best bass-clarinet players on the face of the earth. I was sitting there, along with several other clarinettists. Vänskä had just conducted Ricardo playing in the same hall. I thought that was a difficult position for this man to be in.
"During the inauguration of the new American President last year, in between the two most solemn parts, the swearing in of the Vice President and the actual swearing in of the President, there was a short musical interlude. The last thing you heard before Obama said, 'I swear,' (or whatever it was that they bumbled over when they made a mistake and had to do it again) was Air and Simple Gifts, composed by John Williams, for pianist Gabriela Montero, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and clarinettist Anthony McGill. Anthony was playing on a Leblanc-by-Backun Legacy clarinet, a Morales-Backun cocobola barrel, and Backun mouthpiece. Within half an hour of that I received something like 50 emails and Facebook messages, saying: 'It was unbelievable,' and: 'Did you know?' It was really quite extraordinary.
"Anthony has suddenly become a superstar, and well-deserved, because he's a wonderful musician. He also has the rather formidable task of following Morales, who had played at the Metropolitan Opera. Anthony is the co-principal clarinet (there are two principals) of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He is one of the relatively few clarinettists that I know who has such a depth in the way that he plays, and in his ability to interpret. He would be able to stand his ground well, and put his own stamp on things.
"Both Anthony, and the second clarinet player Jessica Phillips, play on clarinets that I designed. Jessica is also an incredible player. She played with Morales, and went through the changes in the section with the other principal clarinet player, who is Steve Williamson. Top hear them is a rare treat, because there are not many people in the world who specialise in opera. That vocal kind of playing is so expressive, and really beautiful.
Morrie Backun has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's great orchestral clarinettists. "Well, they become friends," he says. "My wife is principal clarinet player in the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, and my youngest son, Joshua, now sixteen, is also a clarinet player. When Joshua was younger, just after he's started at the age of eleven, various people would be coming to Vancouver - David Shifrin, Howard Klug, Julian Bliss. I would say to each of these players, 'How do you feel about getting together for a few minutes, giving him some pointers, some tips?' They were all charming and obliging, and did this.
"One day, Joshua came up to me at home and he said: 'Daddy, can I talk to you?'. I said, 'Of course, Josh.' He said: 'I'm not doing very well on the clarinet, am I?' I said: 'Josh - you're doing great. You hear your mother play, or me, and we have many years of technical development, so we can play faster, and higher, and all of those things...'
"He looked at me in a puzzled way. He said: 'Well, if I'm doing okay, how come all my teachers give me one lesson, and they don't teach me anymore?' He didn't realise that they were flying in from all over the world. So I took him to our shelf of discs, and explained it.
"At that point, as only a young son could, he asked: 'Well, why would they fly all that way, just to see you?' "