A video by Linsey Pollak went somewhat viral a few years back. If you’re not responsible for one of the just under 2 million views to date, watch as he takes an ordinary carrot, drills some holes in it, sticks an alto sax mouthpiece in the end, and plays a better solo than some clarinetists could manage with a $6000 Buffet Prestige R13.
Yeah, it’s a clarinet — in the general sense of a single reed wind instrument with a cylindrical bore. Or probably a better term for it would be chalumeau. That refers to a single reed wind instrument with a cylindrical bore that is played only, or predominantly, in the lower register. Chalumeaux were popular in classical music in the early part of the 18th century, and they slightly preceded the first clarinets, which were made to be played only, or predominantly, in the second register. Getting the two registers in tune with each other was the problem. Eventually that was solved, and instruments — still called clarinets — capable of being used in both registers gradually supplanted the single-register clarinets and chalumeaux. (But clarinetists still call the lower register the chalumeau register sometimes.)
Pollak’s carrot is played only in the low register, presumably for at least three reasons. One, the upper register is probably woefully out of tune with the lower. Two, to overblow into the upper register you need a register hole with associated key, which isn’t present on the carrot. And three, since a stopped cylindrical tube such as a clarinet overblows at the twelfth (rather than the octave, like flutes, oboes, bassoons, and saxophones), there’s a gap between the two registers unless there are enough holes and keys to provide a full twelfth’s worth of scale. And if there are no keys, you’re limited to about eight holes or so, giving you only about an octave plus a note of scale.
But he calls it a clarinet, and my spelling checker complains about “chalumeaux”, so okay, whatever.
So like I said, that video went viral some years ago and I provided a few of those 2 million views. I recall also watching this one in which Linsey Pollak, Ric Halstead, Brendan Hook play a trio on clarinets made out of bicycle seats.
I’ve never made a clarinet out of a carrot, or a bicycle seat, but just under ten years ago — back in my LiveJournal days — I made one out of PVC tubing. And it wasn’t entirely awful — I even used it in a recording. Next I tried making a Bohlen-Pierce clarinet, the first attempt at which was not very satisfactory. And I started experimenting with making a contra-alto chalumeau. The old chalumeaux (oh shut up, spelling checker) came in a family of sizes — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and there may have been a contrabass corresponding approximately to the bassoon in its range. The problem with making low pitched woodwind instruments in those days was figuring out a way to have holes that give the proper notes without having them so far apart your fingers can’t reach them. By the mid 19th century that was no problem, because key and pad technology had advanced to the point where it was feasible to put the holes where they worked best acoustically and provide keys to open and close them with a finger that didn’t need to be anywhere near the hole. But before that other approaches were tried, including this remarkable one by Papalini which bends the bore back and forth to bring the tone holes close enough together for the fingers to reach them. I had an idea to build something similar, out of CPVC tubing and fittings (lots of elbows); no keys, though, so it’d be a chalumeau, and I convinced myself a bass clarinet range instrument (which would be lower than a bass chalumeau) wouldn’t be feasible but a contra-alto clarinet range instrument might. I did some messing around in my shop in the garage until the weather got too cold, and never got back to the project (or the BP clarinet) again. I think the CPVC fittings I was using are around here somewhere, but who knows where.
And then the other day I discovered, about five years after the fact, that Linsey Pollak had made an instrument much like that! It’s apparently more like contrabass clarinet range, and instead of CPVC he used flexible tubing wrapped around a cylinder. He calls it Mr Curly and he plays it here.
And I went and bought some more CPVC fittings…