21st Century Oboe
Christopher Redgate
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The Re-designed Oboe!

For the last two years I have been working with the oboe maker Howarth of London on the redesign of some of the key-work of the oboe. The aim has been to develop an oboe which is specifically designed for the performance of contemporary repertoire. The photos here and the description below offer an overview of the new instrument.

In addition to re-designing the oboe I have been able, with AHRC funding, to commission five new works specifically for the new instrument. These new works will form an important part of the research enabling me to work in collaboration with the composers in order to explore the instrument. Full details of this part of the project can be found on the ‘New Music for a New Oboe’ page.

Reasons for re-designing some of the key-work:

A significant number of contemporary compositional practices ask for approaches to performance that challenge the current design of the key-work (not to mention the performers!). When these are used in isolation or in contexts that are not too challenging (for example not in rapid succession) there is not too much difficulty, but, when used in complex passages, or at high speed they can be very difficult indeed.

I have had two specific aims when re-thinking the key-work:

  1. To render some of these technical problems easier through the development of key-work which is specifically adapted to the challenges.
  2. To open up the instrument to a range of new sonic and technical possibilities.

The compositional practices I have been addressing include:

  • The use of microtones – in particular ¼ tones but other options as well.
  • The use of the altissimo range – Top G and above.
  • The use of multiphonics.

Guiding principle:

It was very important to maintain a sense of continuity with the history of the instrument. It would have been possible to completely re-design the key-work, and in some ways there could have been advantages in doing so, however it would be very hard to ask professional performers to re-learn the oboe! I chose therefore to maintain almost all of the traditional key-work (with some small modifications, see below) but to develop enhanced or modified key-work that will meet the challenges of recent contemporary compositional practices and also offer opportunities for future expansion of these resources.

Still in development stages:

As part of this development I have been working on some electronics for the instrument. This work is now in the final stages of development and I will be able to report in the near future on progress and what is available.

More research needed:

It has been my intention to develop a 4th octave key – this has not yet been realized but we are planning, funding permitting, to begin work on this in the near future.

Key-work changes:

The third octave key has been moved to the other side of the thumb-plate. Its more usual position, while causing no real problems for the occasional user, is rather more problematic when it is being used very frequently: tending to cause the performer to squeeze or pinch and so slowing any high-speed use. Placing it on the other side of the thumb-plate causes a much better movement of the thumb.

The left hand index finger key now has two holes in it. The usual hole has been moved over a little and a very small ‘vent’ hole has been placed next to it. This works as a vent for C7.

In addition a ‘multiphonic key’ has been added to this key. Many performers will be aware the effect of un-screwing this key half a turn – it produces quite a range of multiphonics which can be difficult to obtain in the more closed position. There is now a ‘quick turn’ key which opens/closes the key, facilitating a very quick change to the key position.

A significant number of microtones, multiphonics and high range fingerings require the use of the C# and D trill keys. These are well situated for their usual use as trill keys but when used for microtones etc. can be very difficult indeed: the performer frequently has to twist the hand or fingers in order to depress these keys while holding down the G and A keys.

Extensions from the trill keys have been added inside the 2nd octave key. The octave key has been modified in order to accommodate these keys. They are activated by the 1st finger of the left hand, the C# by the tip of the finger and the D by the side of the finger. An additional key has also been added here – this is another ‘vent’ key option which is proving to be an excellent vent for the very top B and C. The three keys, as can be seen on the photo have been stacked on top of each other. Reducing the number of holes in the wood in this area.

The traditional thumb-plate side key Bb key (which is also still available on some German system instruments) has been reinstated. This has been done in part to offer a wider range of options but also because of its potential use as a microtonal key and for other harmonics/multiphonics. 

The right-hand G# -A trill key has been removed, in part to facilitate the positioning of the side Bb key, but also to enable the addition of another key in this position.

Just below the LH1 key is a small tone hole that can be used by sliding the left hand index finger over on to the spatula key. A right hand side key has been added to operate this key. This key is very useful as a B ¼ tone sharp key and in this part of the instrument it facilitates a much faster use of the key.

The F# key has also been modified. The aim was to produce an F# 3/4  by making a hole in this key, but because there are so many double trills that require the closed key we devised a key that looks similar to the cor anglais top plate. By moving the finger to the upper half of this key an F ¾# is available but by using the bottom half of the key all of the double trills, and the normal F# are possible.

A Long C# key has been added and the usual banana key removed (the long C# should be standard on all instruments - in my opinion!).

The holes in the A, G and E keys have been modified. The G and A have smaller holes while the E has a larger hole. These holes have been tuned to ¼ tones so that a half hole will offer a quartertone rise in pitch. The G and A holes also give G ¾ sharp and A ¾ sharp respectively when used in conjunction with the G# key and the Bb fingering.  

We have removed the link from the Bb and B keys at the bottom of the instrument, making the B and Bb keys independent – this enables more multiphonics and more options for microtonal work.

The B-C link - which is common on thumb-plate oboes, has also been removed.  

All oboe photos courtesy of Howarth of London.