Reviving the recorder

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December 1, 2009

1:37 AM

While other students spent their summers working long hours at jobs or internships, Evan Callaway ’12 spent his summer in a woodshop, building a giant contrabass recorder with his Monroe research grant. The project began as a joke when Callaway approached his History of Western Music professor and Early Music Ensemble director, professor Ruth Griffieon, to ask for ideas on how to use his grant, which gives Monroe Scholars $1,000 from the Roy R. Charles Center to pursue a project of their choice after freshman year.

“She jokingly said, ‘Well, I think you should build a contrabass recorder,’” Callaway said. “Now, it was a joke, she didn’t mean it seriously — no one is crazy enough to do that ¬— but I decided to take up her little challenge, and the rest is history, I guess.”

Callaway went on to discuss the different types of recorders, revealing his intimate and burgeoning passion for early music. He highlighted the rarity of the contrabass, which gained popularity in the Renaissance era but it is rarely built today due to the manufacturing difficulties and the lack of models. The finished product stands at about 6’2’’ with the cap, only slightly taller than Callaway. The recorder is made of basswood, with a cedar insert in the mouthpiece.

The scarcity of the contrabass made production tricky, but for Callaway that was all part of the game. He consulted professor Keith Griffieon, head of the physics department, and took detailed measurements of the College’s recorder and bass recorder. Everything had to be scaled up, but practical enough to actually play.
The actual construction of the recorder posed a new challenge, as it was Callaway’s first try at woodworking outside of frame-type carpentry.

“[It’s like] the first jump into the water off the Olympic high dive,” he said.

To counter this, he built a test recorder out of PVC pipe before beginning the real thing. He constructed the contrabass in a friend’s machine shop, which houses metalworking equipment used to produce the titanium pieces in jet engines. The recorder’s complexity comes from the instrument’s conical center and the challenges of drilling large holes. Callaway consistently encountered new obstacles, such as the increasing price of drill bits, and decided to restructure his scheme. His project spanned the many weeks of summer, during which he would work every day for eight to 10 hours.

“It was just a matter of I knew what I wanted the end product to be, but I just didn’t know how to get there, so we were just constantly just making up things along the way,” he said. “It was about 95 percent improvising.”

Callaway first performed with the contrabass in the Early Music Ensemble in November, but he claimed the first rehearsal was still the most daunting.

“The really scary moment was the first time that we played four recorders together in a little concert involving this one, because you don’t know if the tuning is going to be quite right,” he said. “I was pretty sure it was going to be right.”

On its own, the contrabass sounds like a low, deep hum, but in conjunction with other recorders, it is quite powerful, creating a noise that is felt rather than heard.

“[After a performance in the Sir. Christopher Wren Chapel] people came up to me and said that they could feel it through the floor of the Chapel,” he said.

Although he’s completed one project, Callaway said he still wants to keep working with the recorder. He plans to improve the contrabass, which would require work at a recorder workshop in Boston in order to improve the design, and would like to develop a cutter that will cut the contrabass’ cylindrical bore in a single pass. Callaway made it clear that his plans for the recorder extend beyond a summer project. Modern contrabass prices range from $7,000 to $9,000, but in perfecting his mass-producing design, Callaway said he could sell them for much less.

“I’m figuring if I could produce one of these every two and a half weeks once I get production going, and I sold them for, say, five or six thousand [dollars], bottoming out the market, I wouldn’t be doing too bad,” he said. “[I’ll do that] until everyone that wants one has bought one, and I’m left with a bunch of them and wondering to myself why I didn’t learn something useful in college.”

All jokes aside, Callaway turned what was supposed to be a two-week project into a fervent, ambitious and ultimately fun endeavor. He has taken the contrabass, a passionate intellectual curiosity, and made it into something that could actually be marketable.

“What better summer job could you have than building giant recorders?” he said.

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