July/August 2011
Eileen Reynolds

The Farting Bedpost

A Cultural History of the Bassoon

Discussed: The Clown of the Orchestra, Dopey Pet-Food Commercials, Larry David’s Most Awkward Conversations, Conditions of the Bassooniest Scene in Cinema, A Modicum of Scorn, Haydn’s Musical Jokes, The Rodney Dangerfield Instrument, Sonic Clip-Art, An Unavoidable Discussion, A “Medieval Aroma,” Analogies Involving Gorgonzola, The Human Voice, The Shadowy World of the Dead, A Hard-to-Describe Tickly Quality

There was a lot I didn’t know about bassoons when I first took one home from sixth-grade band class. I didn’t know that the bassoon would earn me a college scholarship, or that I’d spend the first ten minutes of every subsequent job interview explaining what the instrument is. (Yes, it’s related to the oboe, but it’s not the same thing. No, it’s not quite as tall as I am, ha-ha.) I had no idea that the bassoon is known as the “clown of the orchestra,” or that there was anything funny about it at all. I didn’t know that in German it’s called the Fagott, that stoners think it looks like a giant bong, or that dads and uncles claim it sounds like a fart.

But the bassoon is funny, or so I’m told. Go to a children’s concert at any orchestra hall in the country, and when the instruments are introduced, the bassoonist will play the bouncy theme from Paul Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the conductor will talk about Mickey Mouse. If you’re lucky, the bassoonist will even use his instrument to blow up a balloon fitted to the end of the bell. (The same trick performed with condoms is a sure hit at music-school parties.)

You might think that you don’t know what a bassoon sounds like, but chances are that you’ve heard it on televisionin dopey commercials for pet food and paper towels, and in laugh-track sitcoms, when someone is spying on his next-door neighbor or sneaking into his girlfriend’s apartment.

Most recently, the bassoon has made some wry cameo appearances in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, usually to punctuate Larry David’s most awkward and ill-advised conversations. In the Christmas episode from season three, Larry fears that he has accidentally tipped his waiter at the golf club twice, and decides to confront him about it. A relentlessly cheerful version of “Deck the Halls,” heavy on the flute, plays on a loop in the background as the waiter politely tries to explain that he has been tipped only once. Larry, of course, presses him: “So you’re saying I only tipped you once?” he asks, long after he should have walked away. “Yes,” says the waiter, very quietly. “Do you want your first tip back?” “No,” says Larry. Then, after a beat, “I’d like my second tip back.” As the waiter deadpans, “There was no second tip,” the “Deck the Halls” music finally stops. Close-up on Larry as he nods suspiciously. Cue new music: solo clarinet, a slow, tentative, slinking melody. Dum de dum de DAH dum DAH dum. Larry squints one eye and stares at the waiter. The waiter stares back. Alternating close-ups of the two faces. Finally, when we think we can’t stand it any longer, the bassoon enters, interrupting the clarinet with four bright, reedy toots. Byah byah byah byah. Whereas the clarinet was sneaky, mischievous, the bassoon is tactless, buffoonish. It’s the sound of a guy slipping on a banana peel.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Eileen Reynolds is a freelance writer and bassoonist living in New York. She frequently contributes to the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog and has also written for publications including Symphony, the Forward, and Fourth Genre.

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