Sound of Music
By David Kattenburg
The seductive voice of a clarinet. The wild wail of a tenor sax. The whimsical tones of a bassoon or oboe. Each of these musical sounds is produced by blowing air over a thinly shaved reed sliced from a cane stalk. Most commercial cane is grown in the Var region of southern France, between St. Tropez and Toulon.
Thomas Donati is the third generation of Var cane producers. Back in 1932, Thomas’ grandfather turned cane into flower baskets. One fateful day in 1940, an American showed up, in search of reeds for his clarinet. The Donatis have specialized in music reeds ever since. For years, they delivered their cane to reed producer Steuer, in Germany. The Donatis purchased Steuer in 2010, moving the factory to the village of Carquieranne.
Listen to Thomas taking me on a tour of the family’s cane plantation outside the village of Pierrefeu, where cane stalks grow sky high. A forest of raw material for lots and lots of music reeds.
Giant cane – Arundo donax – grows all around the Mediterranean, as well as in Argentina, Australia and South Africa. In the southern US it’s considered an invasive species. Here in the Var, giant cane is perfectly suited for clarinet and sax reeds.
Cane stalks are harvested in their second year, once photosynthetic pigments have faded away and hard lignins have accumulated. Thomas points out a perfect specimen.
“You can potentially find tubes for any woodwind instruments in one cane, and find a tube for baritone, tenor, alto sax, soprano clarinet, bassoon; and potentially oboe,” Thomas says.
What makes the Var such a special place to grow cane reeds? Its famous west wind.
“We have the Mistral, which is a strong wind, that give it muscles, strength and flexibility,” says Thomas. Clay-rich soil and high humidity generate cane of all sizes. Skinny ones for oboes and bassoons; thicker ones for clarinets and saxes. Donati family cane is grown organically.
“At Steuer we were one of the first not to use pesticides. Because the reed goes in the mouth of the musician,” says Donati. “So the cane has to be cultivated 100% organically. So as you can see there are a lot of plants, grass; and they feed the cane.”
Fifteen kilometers south of Pierrefeu, in a little factory in the village of Carqueiranne, giant cane stalks are sliced into carefully measured tubes, then sent off in bags for machining into clarinet, sax and woodwind reeds. Marc Charpentier is Steuer’s master reed craftsman.
Manufacturing reeds is a painstaking process. A steel mold must first be machined to fine precision. Prototype reeds produced from this are tested under ‘extreme playing conditions’. The mold complete, cane tubes are then split into four pieces, which are then sawed to length, flattened, sliced conically, and bevelled on their ends. Thinness is key, says Charpentier. The ultimate aim: reeds that are easy to play and sound beautiful.
In the end, it’s French musician Thierry Maison’s job to find out how easy reeds are to play and how nice they sound. In a sound-proof room, surrounded by clarinets and saxes – and dozens of boxes of reeds – Maison slips one reed after another into the mouthpiece of his clarinet (just a handful in each testing session, which are then disposed of). These reeds have come a long way from the windswept cane fields where they were born. They’ll be making music for many years to come.