A few years ago I attended the annual Clarinet Festival, a huge multi-national event for clarinetists, by clarinetists and attended by thousands of clarinetists. It springs up in a different city and country late each summer. That year it was in Atlanta.
Over 5 days, events such as recitals, lectures and concerts take place at all hours from 8 AM to 10 PM. And 100s of businesses ploy their trade in a huge hall lined with tables and booths. The air is cacaphonous with clarinets, reeds, barrels and bells being tested.
It was in one of these booths that I caught Backun Fever.
When I passed the Bakcun table, which took up a whole row where 5-6 smaller business booths might have fit, the huge closeup photos of gorgeous Cocobolo wood barrels and bells took my breath away.
I had an A clarinet which didn't match the tone of my Bb. (actually the instrument was not worth keeping) So I stopped at the table to try a few.
Dozens of barrels and bells waited in wobbly lines to be tried and taken home. A sign behind the table said "No Mozart K622 on Bb!", a sort of inside joke, since the Concerto (K622) was written for A clarinet. There were colorful blue barrels and pink barrels and orange barrels.
Bakun parts come in several different types of wood, each of which has different resonance properties based on the density of the wood. The lightest, in color and relative density, is boxwood, a blond wood from the boxwood bushes of Europe. It's actually quite a hard wood, harder than oak, for example, but nothing as dense as the tropical hardwoods of Grenadilla or Cocobolo. Rosewood is another choice with density between boxwood and Cocobolo.
The vast majority of clarinets are made of Grenadilla, which is also called blackwood for its dark brown/black color. The black color of commercial clarinets is also enhanced by dying the dark wood to even out its color. (I prefer seeing the natural grain of wood)
The barrels which caught my eye, and ear that day, are the Cocobolo, which is a bit less dense than Grenadilla but still quite hard. And it comes in a beautiful variety of orange/red colors!
I originally wanted to try only barrels, since they cost less, and being near the top of the clarinet (and atop the vibrating column of sound), should affect the sound the most. Bells, being at the end of the instrument, must not affect the sound much, right? I found out otherwise.
The brightly colored parts lit up my black dyed clarinet, both in color and sound. The barrels and bells seemed to work in tandem to lightly veil any harshness in the sound. The bells came with an optional "voicing groove", a small cutout groove inside the top of the bell's bore, which helped to "voice" (meaning find the sweet spot) of the famously stuffy long "B". But the bells changed the tone of the whole instrument, making the scale more even in tone.
I was hooked! I bought a set of barrels and bells, chosen from the "sale" table, where slightly damaged but otherwise perfect parts were sold.
To make a long story short, I ended up selling that beautiful set, not because they didn't sound good, but because I felt they didn't project in our stuffy (acoustics) and cavernous (size) Ohio Theater. But the Backuns were only partly the cause. I was also playing on a new mouthpiece which, though it had a lovely sound, didn't project well. (It was a Behn C, which he doesn't sell anymore) The combination of veiled barrel and bell sound plus a small toned mouthpiece didn't work.
For a few years I was content to have recovered successfully from Backun Fever, but I was mistaken. This past January, during the inauguration of President Obama, I caught the fever again. Photos of Anthony McGill, the clarinetist who played at the event, showed him playing Backuns. (Backuns are hard to hide, especially if you have the Cocobolos.)
I remembered the velvety tone I was able to get with those lovely parts, and I couldn't resist trying them again. So I phoned Backun, in Vancouver, Canada, and ordered a bunch to try.
My experiences trying them and deciding how to choose the best is worthy of another post, so I'll stop here for now. In the next post I'll detail my opinions of the pros and cons of various parts I tried.