Nürnberger clarinet family

Having returned from yet another Vogtland journey I have written a short account on my most recent clarinet aha-erlebnis. If you haven’t read anything about my previous Vogtland journeys you might want to do so (Part I and part II) before reading on, but I’m sure you’ll get the following just the same.

During my last Vogtland journey I finally played a clarinet made by Nico Sämann, the current owner and 4th generation master clarinet builder of Fa. W.O. Nürnberger in Markneukirchen (since 1895), Sachsen, Germany. Setting aside my shame for not having played one of his instruments earlier, the moment was finally there. And what a moment it was… absolutely mind blowing.

We planned a longer trip to the Vogtland this year, so we could have a bit more time catching up with Nico and his family and reserve an entire afternoon just playing and talking clarinets. The studio visit started with looking at the new clarinets Nico is making, some of his new design ideas and playing my very own clarinet made by Winfried Nürnberger, Nico’s grandfather. There’s always a great sense of coming home when visiting the Vogtland and the Nürnberger studio, but I always suffer the same performance anxiety playing for the Nürnberger family. I always try to play at my very best showing the full potential of their instruments. But of course that is all me, and there couldn’t be a more warm, patient and welcoming enthousiasm for my playing than that of Nico’s.

Those of you who know me already know that I always try to have a moment with the one remaining bass clarinet made by Winfried. And it usually takes me a while to find the courage to ask Nico if it’s still there. Nico then apologises for the state in which it is in (it was made in ’72 and has been played by many clarinettists as a sort of demo instrument), and I try my best to tame this huge, wild and – to me at least – a respectfully stubborn bass. My playing then consists of many, at times microtonal, short moments and movements in which I discover new and unspoken of worlds of clarinet music making, air-, flow and creativeness. It’s a jaunt every time.

This time after playing the bass, Nico asked if I wanted to play a clarinet made by himself. And I suddenly realised that I never played a clarinet made by Nico before! Somehow every time I visited after he took over Fa. W.O. Nürnberger, there never was a clarinet made by Nico available. They were either taking part in an instrument building contest or already sold. So this was to be a postponed moment of truth for the both of us. Quite exiting and in a way very intimate – although I only realised this after I played.

So I played, and played, and played some more. As stated above it was mind blowing. The instrument had a unique and complete character. A definite and gentle ease. It adapted to me and even corrected and lead me. It’s hard to accurately describe how well it adjusted to my playing, without it being soft or too easy. Just right.

And whilst playing I realised that my clarinet was one single instrument of a long lineage of clarinets, and I was playing the next generation manifesting the cumulative evolution of all its predecessors.

I was definitely playing a Nürnberger, but just like the pre-turned grenadilla clarinet joints which have been apparently lying there since 1958 (photo above) – and fascinated me for years, all my previous observations were suddenly placed in this new frame of reference. The technological advancements in clarinet manufacture, for instance the addition of improvement keys, the sense and nonsense of bore diameter adjustments, the different ways in which the wood is dried, the secrecy in the individual art of clarinet making, but most and above all the different characters of the instruments I’ve played resonating those of their makers.

Now I’m not sure how important you find your instrument, or how much you’re into finding your instrument, but I can’t help but wish every single clarinet player out there could share my experience. Because apart from finding the best reeds, ligatures and care for your clarinet, there are complete and undiscovered constellations of new experiences to be had trying real hand made instruments. And the Vogtland still has some of the best craftsmen in Europe, or perhaps even worldwide. So if you wondering what to do on your next holiday?! If you need information on where to find a list of addresses of studios to visit, looking for a place to stay or even want me to come along and show you around, just drop me a line and I’ll be glad to be of assistance.

Vogtland Journeys, from Boehm to Oehler – Part II

Before our third trip to the Vogtland in 2002, I contemplated quite a lot on whether a switch from Boehm to Oehler system clarinets would be a wise thing to do. But until I actually would switch it was basically back to the Dupré after failing to revive the Gottsmann (as explained in Vogtland Journeys, from Boehm to Oehler – Part I). So I spent a lot of time in a nearby monastery, were I was allowed to use the chapel for practice, improvising solo and ultimately recording ‘Ocean Wave‘. And then I suddenly realized why the Boehm system had become so popular and replaced the Oehler / Albert system in the Netherlands and beyond; playing it feels easy, at least in the beginning. And with a set of Bb and A clarinets you can play just about everything. The Boehm system just has a certain logic feel to it, unlike the Oehler system.

My biggest problem with the Boehm system was my own tendency of choosing the path of the least resistance, consequently repeating the same riffs and tricks when I got stuck in an improvisation. It felt like playing a piano without the black keys, like answering every question with the same answer.

I then started to expect the Nürnberger to relieve me of all this stuckness, surprise me again and act more as a counterpart in making music. When I played it in 2001 almost everything about it felt pleasantly challenging. Also I thought the Oehler system is much more balanced, with an almost mathematical precision. Not seducing me in any way to always play the easy key.

By the time I got back to the Vogtland and Fa. W.O. Nürnberger I was convinced I was making the right choice switching systems. And after a warm welcome by Herr und Frau Nürnberger I explained I would very much like Herr Nürnberger to build me a soloist A clarinet. Herr Nürngberger then glanced at Frau Nürnberger and went into the back of his workshop. He returned holding the very same A clarinet he let me play the year before and explained they had kept it safe for my return. Without any request from me whatsoever, or any indication when, Herr Nürnberger had decided this would be my clarinet the moment I first played it – perhaps now you understand why I say I am honoured to play a Nürnberger, a lot.

So instead of having to wait for months until my new clarinet would be finished I walked out the door that same day with my one and only Nürnberger soloist A clarinet. And many visits to the Nürnberger and Sämann family in just as many years later I am still very honoured to play a completely handmade Nürnberger clarinet, celebrating over three generations, knowledge and experience of master clarinet craftsmanship.

The real work started when I got back home. It took me most of 2003 – 2004 to regain the level of technique I had playing the Boehm system, which was much longer than I had anticipated. The pure tone of the Nürnberger made it worthwhile though. And the instrument proved more than a worthy and challenging counterpart in making music. In 2005 I played my first performance with the Nürnberger during ‘Avondvaart’, an homage to Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, together with Sander Bolk. In 2006 the first solo popped out, ‘Armahdus‘ which means grace in Finnish. After that the first two Rainbow sessions were recorded together with Paul van Gogh, which will be featured on ‘Narziß und Goldmund’.

In hindsight perhaps switching systems was not the best move, viewing it from sort of a “quantity-over-quality” and “don’t-try-to-reinvent-the-wheel” perspective. Let alone the being a “professional” musician perspective. If I would have had to pay my way through life with music, not playing, performing or recording anything for two years would not have been possible on my budget. Then again I do not like quantity over quality and have been known to be stubborn enough to try to reinvent the wheel, or at least find an alternative path to learn how to play clarinet. As far as being a professional goes, I do hope there is more to being a professional than making money.

Concluding all thoughts above I am just very grateful. Grateful to have found such a wonderful instrument – I wish every serious musician out there to find his or hers – grateful for finding the Nürnberger family and my home away from home in the Vogtland. Grateful for being able to live my life the way I am living it now and having made the choices I made to search for my music or more specifically my part in music. And I am certain the Nürnberger clarinet plays the most important role in playing music.

Vogtland Journeys, from Boehm to Oehler – Part I

I fell in love with the clarinet quite late (’97) when I borrowed a plastic Bundy from Paul Klotz. Instantly I was captured by the wayward instrument and when I managed to produce a tone of some sort, I went out to get some lessons. Rik Meesters, my classically schooled but adventurous teacher, introduced me to the conventional method of learning how to play clarinet with books like “A Tune a Day”. But being as undisciplined and untamable as my instrument we had much better fun just playing together, so the lessons soon turned into improvisation sessions (more about the Grondtoon sessions in a future post!).

At the time Rik co-owned a wind instrument repair shop and as we both became more and more interested in the history of the clarinet, we planned our first trip to the Vogtland in Saxony, Germany in 2000. The Vogtland has a unique heritage of European instrument manufacture and the last Master Instrument Makers still reside in its picturesque villages.

One of the nice things about Germans is that they take cultural heritage quite seriously. So apart from several museums, an international school for instrument making and all kinds of musical festivities there also is a research institute for instruments made in the Vogtland, the IfM in Zwota. The IfM has a very nice library, does acoustical and psycho-acoustical measurements, wood value analysis and much more – very interesting stuff! It was at the IfM that Rik and I obtained a list of registered clarinet makers in the region on our second trip.

Our first mission in 2000 however was to learn about the differences between Boehm (French) and Oehler (German) clarinets, apart from the obvious system variations. And to try to find Rudolf Gottsmann in Wohlhausen, the maker of the Reform Boehm clarinet I acquired after trading my Noblet bass clarinet.

The Gottsmann (B-clarinet) had an exceptionally dense and rich tone. Nothing like my first and very own Parisian Paul Dupré, nicknamed the Tank, which sounded much more extrovert. In hindsight I do regret the trade-in of my bass clarinet, but at the time I felt I had to choose my specialty. Also, I would have never found the Vogtland – my home away from home –, my present clarinet and most important its makers Winfried Otto Nürnberger and Nico Sämann at Fa. W.O. Nürnberger.

Something was wrong with the Gottsmann though. Somehow its tone was restricted and its flow reduced. Rik and I suspected the original barrel joint was replaced and decided to find Rodulf Gottsmann from Wohlhausen to request him to make a new one. Unfortunately Herr Gottsmann had past away, and the man answering the door at his workshop thought we were a couple of vague and not to be trusted Czechoslovakians. So we had to find someone else to make a new barrel.

When the new barrel was sent to the Netherlands some weeks later, I hoped I would be able to capture the full potential of the Gottsmann. It was months, numerous other alterations and mouthpieces later that I finally gave up trying to revive the Gottsmann.
A second trip was planned for 2001. This time we decided to visit as many Master Clarinet Makers as possible, guided by the list we got from the IFM. I got to play the very best soloist clarinet models made in the Vogtland. Würlitzers, Adlers, you name them. It was an eye-opener to actually meet the makers of all these magnificent instruments and be invited into their homes to play on their clarinets. At the second day of our stay we drove by Fa. W.O. Nürnberger. Somehow, they were not on our list. But we decided to ring the doorbell anyway.

At first Herr Nürnberger was a bit confused with my visit. I explained that I was searching my future clarinet and he asked me whether I was a soloist or an orchestral member. When I replied I was neither, he gave it one more shot by asking if I was a jazz musician. In all honesty I did not think of myself as being a jazz clarinet player either, and in a last attempt to assess me and my interest, he asked what I would be willing to spend on an instrument? I replied that if the instrument was right, the price would not matter.

About fifteen minutes later I had a life changing experience. Laying before me was pure gold. I instantly knew, without even having played the clarinet, this was the one. My clarinet. And playing it was an epiphany. Never before had a clarinet been so willing in my hands – and I did not even know how to play Oehler system clarinets!

I went back the next day to make sure that what I experienced was real and promised to return as soon as possible to order a clarinet built by Herr Nürnberger. But more on the Nürnberger in Part II!

Only the second track, ‘Tyven’ – meaning calm but also abate, die down and fade away in Finnish – of ‘Solo‘ remains of all the hours I played the Gottsmann – in case you want to hear what it sounded like. The Paul Dupré is featured on ‘Ocean Wave‘, ‘NEBO SESSIONS‘, ‘Offret‘ and the third and forth track of ‘Solo‘ and the Noblet bass clarinet in ‘To BE-AT‘. All other online recordings of me playing clarinet are with the Nürnberger clarinet.