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Instrument maker brings centuries-old woodwinds to life
BY SAM SPOKONY | Many who claim to be passionate about the art of sound express it by jamming out with their iPod, dancing in a crowded bar or obsessing about the next big thing. Some perform, some produce, some even conduct. Very few devote their lives to the painstaking creation of the instruments themselves. Fewer still dedicate themselves to the recreation of the gorgeous instruments that were being played back when Bach was king. Joel Robinson, 64, has been doing just that for nearly 40 years — and shows no signs of slowing down.
Having played the oboe as a teenager, it became natural for Robinson to specialize in woodwinds when he became an instrument maker — wares include oboes, clarinets, bagpipes and shawms (a predecessor of the oboe) — and his various models date back to anywhere between the 16th and 18th centuries. This is certainly not your father’s woodwind…but it may have been your great-great-great-grandfather’s.
“Back then, the creation and development of these instruments was a continuous tradition,” said Robinson, as he sat at the desk of his crowded sixth-floor workshop (at 131 Essex Street). “It all changed with the introduction of modern instruments. Now, we’re trying to revive that legacy.”
Robinson’s woodwinds differ from their modern counterparts in that they generally have simpler designs and fewer keys — but that doesn’t mean they’re made for simpler music. The original models were built for musicians who were performing the extremely fast-paced, technically challenging of work of composers like Bach, Telemann and Zelenka. As the landscape of modern music developed over time, so did the instruments. But those first designs are so perfectly suited for the finger-work needed in the early styles that, for serious performers of period music, they’re still a necessity.
Though vital to the rebirth and continuation of that tradition of performance, the present-day group of historical woodwind-makers is incredibly small. Robinson is one of three in this country — along with another few in Europe. That minuscule presence obviously doesn’t end up creating very much publicity (especially as the number of classical music connoisseurs dwindles), but it has some key niche advantages — one of which is his perpetual ability to find buyers.
“It would probably be easier to name the schools in this country that don’t have my instruments than to try to list those that do,” Robinson noted. “And there’s definitely been some growth in the market in recent years.”
Among the most recognizable names on the list of owners, he added, are Julliard and Yale. It’s exceedingly important for a maker to be able to place his instruments in as many conservatories as possible — since, if students take a liking to your model while honing their chops on the school’s rental, they’re almost certainly going to want to purchase their own upon graduating. And while it’s no surprise that the performance of classical music on historical instruments is not something that many Americans are exposed to, the opportunities for capable students to take part in that tradition are expanding.
Since 2009, Julliard has offered a graduate program in historical performance. While not the first of its kind, Robinson said that, in his experience, it is certainly one of the most well-funded. That effort, since it is taking place within such an important conservatory, may mark the beginning of the new tradition of early music that Robinson has been hoping for. In any case, it has been especially helpful for the office — by providing him with an apprentice.
Brandon Labadie, 23, started out by playing the modern oboe, just as Robinson did. While attending the University of Colorado, he met a teacher who taught early music on modern instruments — but became curious about what it would be like to play an oboe that matched the early style.
“I put an order in for one, and then I just taught myself,” Labadie recalled. “That’s how a lot of people end up having to do it.”
After graduation and a search for graduate school, he decided on the historical performance program at Julliard. The initial visit to New York led him to Robinson’s workshop, where Labadie has been busy learning the trade since May. Along with gaining the skills needed to reproduce the original instruments, he hopes one day to incorporate historical styles into the modern technology of electronic music. But he noted that it will still take time for a movement like that to develop.
“The thing is that, for people like Joel who have made careers out of this, it’s very hard to find people of my generation who want to take part in it,” said Labadie. “It’s obscure.”
Robinson isn’t worried about that obscurity, probably because it’s something he’s lived with throughout entire career. The great challenges of creating new instruments based on designs that are centuries old — and don’t come with instructions — are enough to keep him happy. And as the field slowly grows, drawing more people into its fold, he’ll be the first to remind them why he got into it in the first place.
“You know what it is? I like to be excited by music.”
For more information, visit robinsonwoodwinds.com.