Oboe Reed Stories
—Transcribed from an interview on October 10, 2019
Libby Van Cleve: The first story I want to share goes all the way back to my days studying with Allan Vogel at Cal Arts way back in the ’80s. It was during the oboe seminar, and we all sat in a circle, and you’d have your instrument, your reed, your whole set up. You would play some phrase such as Brahms’s 1st Symphony. Then the person sitting next to you, with his reed and his oboe, would just hand you the whole thing, and then you’d play Brahms 1. Then he’d play Brahms 1 with your setup.
Every person sounded more like themselves than they sounded like the reed or the oboe. Everyone just had their own sound. It didn’t matter what oboe they were playing, and it didn’t matter what reed they were playing. That made such a huge impression on me, and yet I still feel like it’s almost impossible not to semi-obsess about reeds if you’re an oboe player. Of course, you need something that’s kind of workable. The reed has to have a decent attack, it has to be moderately stable, and it has to have some kind of flexibility. You should have some kind of okay sound, but I think that we work so hard on the perfect sound, the perfect stability, the perfect everything, but that experience really taught me that I probably sound like me almost regardless of how good or how crappy my reed is. If it’s a terrible reed, then yes, that’s different. But that reed class at Cal Arts liberated me from the sense of really needing to delve deeply into which reed or even which make of oboe I play on. I’m actually playing a rosewood Laubin and I really like the Laubin. I found an instrument that basically works for my needs, and I feel like I don’t really need to try 16 different instruments because I think I’m going to sound like myself.
Maybe I’m really missing something, but I thought about two other similar stories that I also wanted to share. Many years ago, I played in this group called Fifth Species. It was a new music woodwind quintet based in Toronto. It was really groovy, really fun, and really outrageous. It was a wonderful group. Remarkably, the horn player in that group was somebody who was a really super brilliant musician. He had been in the Montreal Symphony as a 19-year-old and hadn’t even gotten through music school, and he got principal in Montreal. Then he decided he wanted to explore other things, and so he moved to Toronto, and he was doing a lot of new music and a lot of early music. This guy, his name is Jamie Sommerville, and he is now the principal in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This guy’s brilliant. We were backstage and I was trying to figure out what the heck reed I was going to play for the concert that we were just about ready to go do, and he told me this story…
He said, “Well, when I was in the Montreal Symphony, I was friends with the oboe player, and she would ask me to go into the back of the hall and listen to her reeds and give her feedback about which was the best reed.” He said, “I’d go back there, and I couldn’t hear the difference between any of these reeds. They all sounded the same to me, except I could tell if she had good response or not. If she had a reed that was not responding it was immediately apparent to me.”
I’ve said a lot of times to my students that the blue-haired lady in the back is not going to hear the difference between some shade of color, but she will hear if you miss an attack. I’ve always thought about that too for my own playing, so I’ve frequently gone for response more than anything else. This notion that you want a reed that’s just going to speak and is just going to be there.
I have yet another story that’s sort of along the same lines. You might or might not know, I’ve been working almost my whole life on transcribing the Bach cello suites for oboe. It’s been this total obsession of mine. One of my rules that I have for myself is that I never publish anything that I haven’t performed publicly, but I’m lucky that I do a regular gig at the church at St. Thomas More at Yale.
I’m good friends with one of the people involved there, his name is Julian Revie and he’s a wonderful composer and brilliant guy. He’s also very interested in Bach. When I play the Bach cello suites he works out a little accompaniment so that I have a little backup, because I feel like I’m just a lone oboe with hundreds of people at this church so it’s nice to have an accompaniment. He too has the very sad situation of having to deal with an oboe player who’s trying to figure out what the heck reed to play. [laughs]
Of course, the Bach cello suites are super-demanding, require super-endurance, and you have to grab breaths of air really fast. I’ll try reeds that I consider to be a little too bright, but are very light and very easy to play—something you can play a cello suite on. He’ll tell me, “They [the reeds] all sound the same to me, but I can hear that you’re more comfortable on that one.” I feel like I’m probably a crazy oboe renegade that I’m trying not to be involved with obsessing over the perfect reed and having the super dark sound and all that stuff. He says that he can’t hear a difference, and I think I don’t believe it, I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe you can’t hear the difference. Julian Revie is a great musician. It’s like Jamie Sommerville, a great musician. They both told me that they don’t hear a difference between reeds and all they hear is the response.”
Tim Feil: I’m guessing that you can sound like yourself more on those lighter and brighter reeds if you can control them better?
LVC: Again, for something like the cello suites, they’re just so difficult to play. They’re hard on every level, but they’re hard in terms of endurance because they’re written for cello so there’s no place to breath. That aspect is hard. To play the double stops, I use grace notes, and again, you have to have a lot of flexibility going from low to high, very fleet playing. That’s also a somewhat unusual demand. It’s just easier to play light reeds if you play a really hard piece where endurance is a challenge.
TF: You were also talking earlier about knowing your threshold for frustration?
LVC: That was, in fact, another one of the things I was thinking about. When I was growing up in the Washington DC area, the principal oboist was Sarah Watkins, also known as Sally Walkins. I think this comment was attributed to her. This quote applies to everything about oboe, not just reeds, so it’s also about practicing things that are difficult, and that is, “know your threshold of frustration and don’t go there.”
TF: I try to keep a rule that if I screw up three reeds in a row, I just need to take a break. [chuckles]
LVC: Good. It’s time. Go for a walk. [laughs]
TF: After three in a row, it’s not the reed’s fault, it’s mine.
LVC: It is not all bad cane. I think it’s good to just to know yourself. Certainly with oboe playing, but I think with music-making in general, you have to be so aware of your own wackiness and your own limitations. It’s great, it’s like being a zen master. [laughs] You have to really be on top of a lot of stuff in order just to play the instruments half decently.
Libby Van Cleve—Described as “expert” by the Washington Post, “dazzling” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and “absolutely exquisite” by Paris Transatlantic, Libby Van Cleve’s most extreme epithet was from the Hartford Courant which dubbed her “the double reed queen of the new music world.” Libby Van Cleve is recognized as one of the foremost interpreters of chamber and contemporary music for the oboe. Her solo playing is featured on the New Albion, CRI, Aerial, and Centrediscs CD labels. Her solo English horn and oboe d’amore performances are featured on the internationally acclaimed CD “Dark Waters,” music by Ingram Marshall. In addition Ms. Van Cleve performs regularly with chamber music groups including the Connecticut Reed Trio and Burning Bush Baroque. Compact discs featuring her chamber playing have been released on the Tzadik, New World, OODisc, Braxton House, What Next?, CRI and Artifacts labels.
Ms. Van Cleve received her DMA from Yale School of Music, her MFA from California Institute of the Arts, and her BA, Magna cum Laude, from Bowdoin College. She is the oboe teacher at Connecticut College and Wesleyan University, and Director of Yale’s Oral History of American Music project. Her former teachers have included Ronald Roseman, Allan Vogel, and Basil Reeve.
For more information about her book on contemporary oboe technique, Oboe Unbound, check out http://libbyvancleve.com/oboe-unbound
Six Suites edited for Solo Oboe is available from Trevco-Varner Music here: Six Suites, BWV 1007–1012
These interviews were made possible thanks to support from The New England Conservatory’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department.