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Los Angeles Times

In pursuit of rare pipes
Bagpipers and wind players have an obsession with the arundo reed. The state has a plan to eradicate it.
By Blair Tindall
Special to The Times

December 24, 2006

AFTER a good practice session, Tomales, Calif., bagpiper Ted Anderson loves sloshing through swamps in search of the perfect tone. But he isn't stalking the inspiration of sunsets or rare birdsong; he's after the giant reed that makes his instrument sing.

"Irish piping is considered an almost lunatic fringe, but we have our needs," said Anderson, who takes home the plant species Arundo donax to cure for two years in his garage rafters, then scrapes the bamboo-like tubes into reeds to place inside his uilleann and highland pipes.

Anderson hunts with passion, squishing through muck, dangling over rapids as the sharp weed slices his hands and looking out for the California canebrake rattlesnake. But a good stalk is hard to find these days, because arundo is considered a botanical pest to nearly everyone but certain musicians. The flammable, nonnative plant spreads prodigiously, destroying ecosystems, redirecting river flows, igniting fires, causing flooding and creating expensive beach cleanup projects once it washes out to sea.

A statewide consortium of environmental and government organizations dubbed Team Arundo methodically kills off the species, which also consumes three times the water of other plants. The state has spent over $25 million to raze cane, but a handful of musical aficionados are raising cane — at least among themselves — over eradication of their beloved reed.

"Team Arundo wiped out some of the best stuff on the Sonoma River," said Anderson, who also said he understood the plant's destructive reputation.

Two bridges in San Diego County collapsed in recent years when pushed off their pylons by mats of arundo washing downstream. High in wax content, the weed also poses an extreme fire hazard, flaring up like dynamite explosions within a wildfire. "Everybody from firefighters to environmentalists hates it," said Daniel Cozad, president of Integrated Planning Management, a Redlands water-consulting firm.

Arundo is bad seed, all right. Yet the Europeans importing it during the 1820s prized the reed for windbreaks, roofing, basket weaving, fencing, wicker furniture and animal fodder. For a time, the Army Corps of Engineers planted it for erosion control, later learning its root network can instead rip away riverbanks.

"People have sent me nasty letters asking how I could plant such an invasive thing," said Marsha Taylor, a Eugene, Ore., oboist who wrote her 1971 master's thesis on arundo while studying at the California Institute of the Arts. However, Taylor carefully isolates her tiny crop, which she uses to make the softer reeds needed to play Baroque oboe.

For musical use, however, nothing compares with arundo, which was used to make the syrinx, or panpipe, of Greek mythology. It also serves folk and historical instruments like the shawm and crumhorn, and classical woodwind players worldwide use it.

But there's no shortcut on the road from raw cane to musical reed. Whereas violists and trumpeters may buy strings and mouthpieces at music shops, musicians playing oboe and bassoon toil to make their "double" reeds one at a time. For example, the Boston Symphony's principal oboist, John Ferrillo, spends 10 to 20 hours weekly at the reed desk in addition to his practice, rehearsal, teaching and performance schedule.

Double reeds must be made by hand because of the complexity of their construction and the unique nature of each piece of cane. The size, quality and fiber regularity of each tube determine subtle choices in each step of the process.

An oboist selects tube cane based on diameter, then splits the stalk lengthwise and hollows out a channel using gouging machines calibrated to hundredths of millimeters. The cane is then folded in half, tied over a tube inserted in the instrument, its folded tip clipped, and scraped thin enough to vibrate when blown.

Any child squeaking air through a blade of grass between his thumbs understands reed physics, but performers often obsess over sound. After all, a fine bassoon reed helps produce the haunting solo opening Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and a bad one transforms the virtuoso into a honking goose.

Clarinet and saxophone players have it easier. Their reeds can be machine-manufactured because of the simpler design of a single, flat blade of cane. Bagpipers, who use multiple reeds for the chanter, regulator and drones on each instrument, either make their own or buy from others specializing in the craft.

And the reed quest never ends. Cane's paper-thin organic material — easily weakened by vibrations and saliva — wears out quickly. A professional oboist might exhaust four or more in a week and keeps a kilo of cane on hand, usually purchased from foreign growers.

Abundant in the Mediterranean, arundo thrives in the same soil and environment as wine grapes, with most commercial cane grown in southern France and Mendoza, Argentina. But California also offers ideal conditions for cultivation, with 40-foot-high clumps of giant reed visible around the state.

For some 15 years, Rico International, the world's largest manufacturer of woodwind reeds, maintained a 30-acre plantation in the Alexander Valley, and independent bassoonist and reed maker Bob Stevens grew his own near Cloverdale. But California real estate took over. Three years ago, Rico, whose agronomist oversees some 270 acres of cane farms abroad, sold its California land, and Stevens switched his crop to grapes.

"I'm in the middle of wine country with million-dollar acreage," said Stevens, 87, who's sold cane and reeds commercially for 65 years. "I got 46 tons of merlot last year, and my grapes made a nice cabernet for Blackstone too."

Stevens now uses local cane he's stockpiled or cane he's bought for $29 to $32 per kilo from French producers. Yet like Anderson, he still loves the hunt, whether it's worthwhile or not.

"By the time you get through that jungle, find the right pole, get someone to drag it out, it's nip and tuck whether it's worth it or not," said Stevens, who admitted smuggling Mexican cane in his younger years.

Bagpipers, with reeds that must vibrate without being moistened by saliva, prefer dead arundo for these "dry-blown" reeds. However, Stevens favors the goldenbark of 2-year-old shoots, which top orchestral players value for its density, seeking unwarped stalks among clumps bent by the wind.

"When you found a straight piece, you really had something," said Ferrillo, who liked Stevens' cane for its hard texture. Stephen Paulson, principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Symphony, said California cane performed just as well as any from France.

Still, with most research centered on eradication rather than cultivation, it's not always clear which tube will make the best reed. The ability to evaluate quality by sight eludes many reed makers, who try anything to find a sweet-sounding piece.

Taylor, the Oregon oboist, rolls tubes across a glass surface to detect warping. Others listen to its clink when dropped on the floor, measure how long it takes to sink while soaking, agonize over the proper color or, in frustration, analyze its trajectory when hurled across the reed studio.

Manufacturing music

IDENTIFYING good cane involves art and science, said Carlos Mejia, director of product development for Rico, whose Sun Valley headquarters nestles between sheet metal shops and a turkey-packing plant. Displaying a 10-foot cane stalk, Mejia described how the company cares for the crop on its plantation in Hyeres, France.

Rico has developed farming techniques to grow high-density arundo — producing consistent reeds that last longer than average, according to the company. "Cane is the soul of the instrument," said Mejia, an acoustical engineer who plays alto sax.

Manufacturing 25 million reeds annually, Rico continues its research and development using $10 million invested by the company's owner, the Italian guitar-string manufacturer J. D'Addario & Co. In its Sun Valley factory, Rico workers feed selected cane into proprietary machines from the 1940s, while engineers tweak a laser-driven prototype for making clarinet and sax reeds.

Arundo offers other commercial applications in green energy and landscaping.

In Florida, Biomass Investment Group may own the only active North American arundo plantation, growing 15,000 acres to be burned as clean fuel for power plants, said Allen Sharpe, chief executive of the Pensacola-area company. Because arundo cultivation is so rare, Sharpe studied containment practices by visiting Rico's former California plantation.

"If you're planting in an agricultural setting and using good management, the possibility of problems is zero," said Sharpe. "But plant it beside a stream and guess what? It spreads."

The plant is also choice foliage in poor soil, and it's one of the few things that will grow around sulfurous hot springs. "It provides a privacy screen so people can take their clothes off and jump in," said Tom Dudley, a biologist specializing in invasive weeds at UC Santa Barbara.