A Foxy New Clarinet
Arthur Benade's legendary NX clarinet has been realized by Stephen Fox.
In January of 2000 I met the Toronto clarinet-maker Stephen Fox to finalize the details of some Reform Boehm instruments he was to make for me. "But before we start," he said to me, "Tell me what you think of this thing I just finished." It looked a little peculiar but Fox told me it used normal fingerings, so I tried a couple of arpeggios. Immediately I told him to forget about the Reform Boehms, to make me a pair of those instead. I had never played anything so sweet and responsive.
When I asked what the instrument was, Fox handed me two loose-leaf binders as an explanation. They were filled with papers and notes of the prominent acoustician Arthur Benade. From them I learned that around 1978 or 1979, Benade decided to try to clean up the acoustics of the clarinet--to make the throat notes resonant, to make the lowest notes prettier, to tame the altissimo, to improve intonation, and to quicken its response. Benade died in 1987, leaving his "NX" clarinet as a Rube Goldberg work in progress. Fox told me that in 1998, he obtained Benade's research notes from his widow and measured the surviving prototype. Since then he had then continued the NX's development and had simplified it into a work-a-day professional instrument. That is what he had given me to try.
I have now been playing on a pair of these clarinets long enough to get over their teething problems and mine. Here are my observations plus recordings of a few short examples, five snippets from performances I have been in that happen to have been recorded, plus a couple of extracts from a commercial CD by Stephen Fox. Although these sound files are highly compressed, when played through a good D/A converter, amplifier and speakers, they are all but indistinguishable from the original recordings, which are professionally competent.
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Tone. It is easy to make the clarinet register of any instrument sound clear and beautiful but with a conventional instrument, the throat tones are usually hollow, the chalumeau register tends to honk, and it is difficult to keep the altissimo from shrieking The Fox/Benade is more uniform from top to bottom. You can hear this in a cadenza from the Khachaturian Trio on two different instruments, the first played by Fox and the second by me:
Here is an excerpt that concentrates on the normally weak throat tones, the first 3-1/2 bars of "Three Poems" by David Taddie. Half of the notes linger on Bb and E. I played these without any resonance fingerings, with just the basic, ordinary fingerings of the left hand:
In the second half of that example note how exceptionally well the clarinet and violin blend. Smooth blending with an ensemble is characteristic of the Fox/Benade. You can hear this more classically in a snippet of the Schubert Octet:
On the other hand, the Fox/Benade readily stands out when it needs to stand out, even in the middle and lower registers that tend to get lost in loud tuttis. Back to the Taddie again. Here are two bars of flute, violin, viola, cello and piano, all playing as loud as they can, with the clarinet coming in from nothing on the throat D.
The Fox/Benade's remarkable ability both to blend and to be heard is an interesting paradox. The clearer a tone is, the better it stands out against a background of unrelated tones. "A 'clear' tone", according to Benade, is one whose "partials are made up on narrowly clustered sinusoidal groups that clearly display the basic musical relationships." If two sets of such partials fit closely together, they can be heard as a single set of partials, as a single sound. Thus, the clearer a tone is, the more likely it is to blend with another clear tone. The Fox/Benade blends especially well into an harmonious ensemble because, in solos, its tone is especially clear.
Intonation and response. Two mundane features of the Fox/Benade help it to play in better tune. The Bb and A use the same barrel, so that the warm barrel can be swapped along with the mouthpiece, and the instrument can be tuned sharper as well as flatter. Fox enables that by incorporating a pair of 1.5mm tuning rings between the joints, a functional one to extend the bore to its proper length and a cosmetic one to fill the gap on the outside. To raise the clarinet's pitch the player just removes the rings and uses a shorter barrel.
Although any note on the clarinet can be put anywhere--that's why it is possible to produce a glissando--the basic resonances of the instrument do have a manifest influence on the ease of playing in tune. Benade's prototype had measurably better-tuned resonances than conventional French or German instruments and, to judge from the way it plays, the Fox/Benade does too. The pitch of a note on the Fox/Benade changes less with loudness.
Because its resonances are in better tune, and because Benade did some subtle engineering to improve the instrument's wave dynamics, the Fox/Benade also speaks faster than other modern clarinets, more like the clarinets of Baermann's time. Quick riffs and tongued passagework can be played faster. Because the Fox/Benade responds more quickly, I have had to clean up some of my fingering. The Fox/Benade will squawk or sound an extra note with disfluencies that slide by on a Buffet.
Other differences. The acoustical improvements of the Fox/Benade come from a different bore, fewer tone holes in slightly different places, separate Bb and register holes (with a simple mechanism that opens the proper hole automatically), and a conical bell perforated by a ring of holes. All of these form such different resonances that you cannot expect simply to pick one up and play it like a Buffet. I was lucky when Fox first showed me the instrument. I did something by accident that gave me an inkling of what it could do. However, learning to achieve this reliably took many hours. I had to recalibrate all the muscles in my abdomen, throat and head. Clarinetists who try it seem to have variable initial success. It does require an open mind and a willingness to adapt.
The Fox/Benade also requires a minor modification to standard mouthpieces. The bore must be enlarged slightly and made cylindrical. [NB: Fox has now developed a version of this clarinet that uses a conventional French mouthpiece.] This in itself is a minor nuisance but it is amplified by the probability of needing a different setup, since the Fox/Benade is so different from a Buffet.
It is not necessary learn new fingerings, however. The fingerings used by the Benade system are the same as those in the Boehm, excepting only the fork Bb. The Benade instrument substitutes L1:L3 for L1:R1. This is the fingering on German clarinets, so it is the fingering for which most of the repertory has been written, which tends to make passagework easier. However, it is the only note on the Benade instrument that is less satisfactory than its equivalent on the Boehm. It is only useful for fast passagework and the Eb equivalent is dreadful, a desperate last resort.
To restore the L1:R1 fingering, Fox has developed a "semi-Benade" upper joint. After using my full Benade instruments for a few months, for a short time I tried Fox's Bb, for which he has both a full- and a semi-Benade upper joint. Although I had learned to do without the L1:R1 fingering, I liked having it available again on the semi-Benade joint, yet overall I preferred how the full Benade played.
The workmanship on these instruments is excellent and almost every clarinetist who has tried them has remarked on how comfortable the keywork feels. I have never tried any other instruments that could allow me to play as well with so little effort. They have quite spoiled me for Buffets. I have sold my Buffet Bb and A, I am replacing my Buffet C, and I have ordered a Fox/Benade Eb as well.
A Comparative Aside
Although the instruments that Fox and I play are generally similar, they differ noticeably in tone. To hear this over the range of the instrument, listen again to the two of us playing the cadenzas from the Khachaturian Trio. Also, for a slower comparison of a narrower range, here is the opening melody:
These comparisons are hardly ideal--different players are using different mouthpieces recorded by different microphones in different halls--yet the difference in tone colour does resemble what I have heard when playing the two instruments myself or when hearing Fox play the two of them. Fox's clarinet is made from traditional grenadilla, mine is made from cocobolo that is lined down to the first tone hole with ebonite.
© 2000 Charles Maurer. All rights reserved.