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Student Builds Contrabass Recorder

When Music Professor Ruth Griffioen suggested to Evan Callaway ‘12 that he spend his scholarship money building a six-foot-tall instrument that lost popularity after the 17th Century she was joking. However, the computer science major and music minor said he "took it more as a challenge than as a joke."


Evan Callaway '12 (far right) spent most of his summer constructing a contrabass recorder. The instrument will make its public debut during the William & Mary Early Music Ensemble's fall concert on Saturday, Nov. 7 Callaway spent most of his summer building a contrabass recorder, with the finished product being only slightly shorter than he is. His creation will make its public debut during the William & Mary Early Music Ensemble's fall concert on Saturday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. in the Wren Great Hall. Admission is free.

Callaway was first introduced to the contrabass recorder when he took Griffioen's history of western music class last year. From that class, Callaway learned that the recorder had its heyday during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, a point Griffioen illustrated one day with a print from a 400-year-old music encyclopedia.

"She took one of the images from it and put it on a projector so that the instruments were to life scale... and you [could] see some of the instruments were truly big." Callaway said in recalling his first impressions of the contrabass recorder. "I'm a tuba player. I'm interested in the larger more unusual instruments, so that one instantly caught my eye. Then I thought ‘That's a very interesting instrument, I'd like to take a look at that some time.'"

Callaway didn't give that interesting instrument much thought for the next few months, until the deadline rolled around to apply for a freshman Monroe project, a program run by the Roy R. Charles Center which gives Monroe Scholars $1,000 grants to pursue a project following their freshman year.

"I was up in the air about what I wanted to do with this [project], and I was talking to Professor Griffioen, and she mentioned off-hand that it'd be great if I built a contrabass recorder," Callaway recalled "I came [back] to her a couple days later after I had considered how I would go about doing it and I said ‘Okay, I'll take your challenge, I'll try to build one of these things.'"

Building the contrabass
In many ways, Callaway had been developing the skills he would need for this project years before he arrived at William & Mary. He had spent one summer working in a machine shop while still in high school, and the summer before going to college had held a job with the engineering department of an Alcoa Titanium Foundry. While he no longer plans on pursuing a career in engineering Callaway said he is glad to have the experience, adding "luckily I still have those skills and can transfer them over to doing things like this [project]."

As with his mechanical know-how, Callaway's understanding of antique musical instruments was well-established by the time he finished high school. He contacted Griffioen who runs and conducts the Early Music Ensemble and asked about joining the group months before he arrived at William & Mary. He stated in his email that he was interested in playing the ophicleide, a predecessor to the modern tuba, and the serpent, an S-shaped instrument that was notoriously difficult, prompting one Baroque composer to compare its sound with a mewing calf.

The one skill set that Callaway was lacking for the project however, was woodworking. The college sophomore had never undertaken any big project in that vein before, so to make sure he had everything right he decided to build a test recorder out of PVC pipe. With that accomplished, he decided he was ready to move on to the real deal.

"I already knew it was going to work," he said "It was just a matter of can I make one in wood and not kill myself along the way."
The musician also had help from a fairly accessible source. Callaway's father is a mechanical engineer, which, according to the college sophomore, was enormously helpful. "He and I could talk about things, discuss them, and try to come up with a way to do this or do that." Callaway said. "Because the way the project worked is, we get going, we've got something we can do, we go go go go go, oh stop, we've hit something that we can't quite get past, you keep going, stop, we've hit something, and so on. It was kind of a series of jumps and stops."

Starts and stops aside, the sophomore is endlessly precise and meticulous in describing the complex process of building a contrabass recorder. He goes into exquisite detail when discussing the sonic physics used to determine where the fingerholes should go, and he talks at length about the "long and painful process" of getting a perfectly cylindrical bore through the exact center of the instrument. He even talks lovingly about the tools that got him to a finished product, including a Shopsmith Mark V -- the "Swiss Army Knife of power tools" -- which he bought at an estate sale from a gentleman who "mostly just futzed around in the shop to stay away from his wife." Callaway even occasionally went as far as to build the tools needed to build the instrument, crafting useful yet expensive pieces known as spoon bits out of other, less costly materials.

When all is said and done, the musician says he thinks of the work process "not in terms of hours but in terms of weeks." He says that for a while the work was patchy, but toward the end of the summer it was "solid seven days a week and eight to ten hours a day."

And, overall, the college musician thinks the project turned out rather well, despite his sparse woodworking knowledge going in.

"It was very interesting," he said.

"There wasn't really time to make mistakes so when you know you can't make a mistake you tend to do it right the first time. And so I did." he remarked, quickly adding "I mean, for most things."

Playing the contrabass

The instrument was completed two days before Callaway's return to campus, and even with the project officially finished the musician still decided to fashion a box for it. The case, which is pleasantly evocative of a treasure chest, was completed one day before the sophomore left home, and is described by its creator as "kind of a rush job, but it really completes the effect of the instrument."
In the end, Callaway keeps the finished product of his weeks of work in Ewell Hall, secured by a lock he occasionally forgets the combination to, saying he has so many items squirreled away in the music department that he sometimes forgets how to access them.

The recorder only came out of its hiding place late last month for its debut with the Early Music Ensemble. The instrument's unveiling was the one aspect of the project about which Callaway seemed the most hesitant, not only because Griffioen is "very picky about tuning" but because "with an instrument pitched this low, you're not going to be able to hear it in concert, you're going to feel it."

"We really didn't know what to expect" Callaway said of his first time playing the instrument. "We half expected that it would be so quiet that nobody would be able to tell the difference between when I was playing and when I wasn't."

But such doubts were quickly put to rest when the musician tested the product of his work for the first time.

"It was just that little low voice in there that was able to be used as the bottom of the chord to build the large chord on top of, and so its voice was almost magnified through that." Callaway said. "When I was playing with a group of recorders you really could feel the difference. It was as though the entire group became stronger."

For video of a recorder performance and portions of the interview with Callaway click here.