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Interview with Harry Vas Dias



Nora Post

Editor's Note: This interview appeared originally in The Double Reed, the journal of the International Double Reed Society, Volume 3, Number 3 (1980). It was slightly edited for accuracy by David Schonfeld (2014)

Oboe maker/player Harry vas Dias was born in Amsterdam, Holland, and received his early education in London. He completed his education in New York, at The Juilliard School. Vas Dias's professional activities have included membership in the American Ballet Theatre, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Chautauqua Symphony, and the New Orleans Symphony. He began making copies of eighteenth century oboes in 1974, at which time Mr. Vas Dias ceased playing professionally in order to devote himself to instrument making. Characterized by extraordinarily detailed workmanship--and the consequent elegance which has earned his oboes a unique place among wind instruments--Vas Dias' oboes are currently used by baroque oboists in the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Holland, Germany and New Zealand. His instruments are played in baroque ensembles including Aston Magna, Concentus Musicus Vienna, the Aulos Ensemble, and Concerts Royale. Mr. Vas Dias resides at 2519 McCurdy Way, Decatur, Georgia 30033.

NP: As I remember, you started making baroque oboes in the early seventies. How did you get interested, and why did you get interested?

HVD: Well, I started because I wanted a baroque oboe for myself. I heard Concentus Musicus when they came on their first tour of the United States, probably in 1970. Anyway, I was playing oboe in Birmingham, and we used to have rehearsals in the early evening. When we finished rehearsal, we drove over to this place where they were having the concert because we knew it was a European group and it was something different to do, since it was terribly boring in Birmingham--nothing ever happens in Birmingham. And I was amazed. There was this guy playing on a baroque oboe.

NP: Was it Schaeftlein?

HVD: Yes. And there he was, playing on this wooden thing with just a couple of brass keys on the bottom, and he was playing marvelously--and it was all there, you know. Fascinating. So, I thought, I wanted to do that, too.

NP: When did you go into making oboes as a business?

HVD: That was the year after the last season I played English Horn in Orlando.

NP: 1974? I met you in New York in 1974 when you returned from Oberlin, and you had an oboe that you had made, that you'd brought out to Oberlin.

HVD: Yes, that was the beginning.

NP: Harry, did you ever have any regrets about going into oboe making as a full-time occupation, as opposed to being a player, since before making baroque oboes, you were a professional oboist for more than twenty years?

HVD: Actually, to tell you the truth, I think I discovered myself as a maker rather than as a player.

NP: Why?

HVD: In other words, I was a better maker than a player. I always considered myself a good player, but since I started late, I always felt that it wasn't so easy for me.

NP: But you started making oboes late, too.

HVD: Yes, but that's not a drawback, since you are working with your brain, not with your reflexes. When you are working with your reflexes you have to be young in order to develop them. And if you start too late, then it's a problem.

NP: What do you think the ideal temperament or personality of an extraordinarily good instrument maker should be?

HVD: It's like anything else, isn't it? You have to have a very good ear. If you are an artist and you paint a picture, you have to have a very high standard. In other words, your conception has to be very far-reaching. It's not a question of temperament. People with different temperaments can make good oboes. So it is somebody who's dedicated, and has the mental and physical equipment, and somebody who has the drive.

NP: Yes, but in the case of making an oboe, I would think that the kind of person who has a great deal of patience and can spend a lot of time with detail would have a great advantage.

HVD: Oh, yes. That's one of the things you have to have when you are a person with a lot of drive, or are very strongly motivated.

NP: Yes, but someone might be motivated, but still not have the same sense of detail that you have. The work might always be sloppy compared to yours. You have the ability to stick with it, an ability with detail that makes you a great oboe maker.

HVD: Yes, but you play beautifully. Why? It's not only that you want to play beautifully because you can play beautifully, but it's easy for you. It's easy for me. I don't work very hard. I have the equipment and I can just do it. It's partly being able to do it, and partly wanting to do it very badly. And wanting to do it right, and knowing what's at stake. It's a serious thing, making oboes. It isn't just a pastime, or a quick way to make money, or something like that--you can't make much money at it, anyway.

NP: Looking ahead, how do you see the rest of your career, say in twenty-five or fifty years?

HVD: In fifty years I'll be dead!

NP: Well, let's say you leave your factory to a good friend, and you want someone to carry on the business. The interest in playing historical instruments is recent. It started (for the oboe) with people like Piguet and Schaeftlein, and now there are many people doing it. Do you think this will be a long-term development? Many people would say that the current state of contemporary music is so awful that they don't want to play contemporary music and, therefore, they are looking backwards. And so they are learning the baroque oboe. There are people who will argue this is why they are doing it--that they really aren't interested in Stockhausen. Of course, I'm only offering my own opinion of what I think is the case.

HVD: I couldn't agree more!

NP: Well, do you think the interest in old music and old instruments is going to continue, or do you see it as a ten to twenty year development, which will peak out and then move on to something else?

HVD: Yes, I think there will be a vogue, and it will kind of peak out.

NP: So it's not like you are starting Marigaux or Loree, for which there will always be a demand?

HVD: But I think there will be a continuing demand, because we're starting something. I don't think it will die.

NP: Let's talk about something else: how long does it take you to make an oboe, and do you make them one at a time or in batches?

HVD: I make them one at a time, and it takes me two weeks. I should say at least two weeks--with the aging of the wood, it can take a lot longer.

NP: Wouldn't it be more economical to make them in batches?

HVD: Yes it would, but it's not always practical, particularly if I'm making improvements. I wouldn't be able to carry improvements from one to the next.

NP: Do you ever consider a copy completed, or are you always looking for improvements?

HVD: I always look for improvements, yes.

NP: Is there any one oboe you have made which, more than any other, seems like a truly finished instrument?

HVD: It's usually the one I'm playing at the moment!

NP: Just like composers, who all love their most recent work!

HVD: It's also that having the time to spend with an instrument gives me the opportunity to correct all the things that I find wrong with it and, in the end, I get something fairly good.

NP: Do you ever get to the point with an instrument where you are totally discouraged with it?

HVD: If I'm copying an instrument for the first time and it doesn't seem to be working out, yes. This has happened to me.

NP: But are you pleased with the success of the instruments you have made up to this point?

HVD: Some of them. The ones I'm making now make me happiest. The ones I 'm not making don't make me happy--the ones I tried to make, and failed!

NP: Financially speaking, which instruments have accounted for the most sales?

HVD: The Denner oboes have been two thirds, or three fifths, of sales. The rest have been oboe d'amores, and Stanesby baroque.

NP: Let me ask you a technical question: when you are testing a new oboe, how do you know whether the problems are the fault of the instrument, the staple, or the reed?

HVD: Well, even a reed that's not so good will show problems with the instrument. You blow differently when you are testing. It's nice to have an easy reed to show you things right away, but then to play on a resistant reed to feel how it reacts as well. So I do that. I play on different reeds. I never play on just one reed to make an oboe. And I never tune an oboe in two hours and sell it. You can't do that because it's going to change. Finishing an oboe should really occur over several weeks. And that's why I want to try to keep my oboes longer, and spend more time with them, catching them while they're changing. Of course, ideally, if you had someone breaking it in, they could bring it to you and you could touch up the bore where it needed it. Even with grenadine wood, you have to do some of that.

NP: How important do you think it is to be a good player in order to make a good instrument?

HVD: I think it's important, yet I know a very good maker who is not such a good player.

NP: How much does being a player help you as a maker?

HVD: A lot. I find that practicing and rehearsing for concerts with a baroque group in Atlanta makes me very much aware of my equipment, and I find it very, very helpful.

NP: Since most baroque ensembles play at A=415, do you find that it's a problem adjusting oboes to play at that pitch?

HVD: No. Really, it's not that much of a problem because of the large bore and large reed. I think that the baroque oboe is a much more forgiving instrument than the modern oboe. You can play higher or lower according to the way you fix your equipment. There are limits, of course.

NP: How do you get a museum oboe to play in tune with itself at the right pitch? The octaves?

HVD: Yes, exactly. You get the octaves to play in tune. But the thing is that one never has enough time in a museum. You've got to measure the instrument and, usually in the space of six or seven hours, you've also got to test it completely, and many museums don't like you to play the instruments, or ask you to play them very little. And I agree with that, because it is possible to damage them by playing on them too much.

NP: There are those that say there is no such thing as a true copy, that any copy is different enough from the original that it's not a real copy. How do you feel about that, and how close do you think your oboes are to the originals? What are you aiming for?

HVD: What we're aiming for here is a characteristic sound and feel of an instrument. I think an oboe, just like a violin, should be something beautiful. Not only that, but it should sound beautiful. I admit that I'm not as close to it as I'd like to be, but I wish I could make instruments as beautiful as some of the instruments I've played in museums, both the way they look and the way they sound .

NP: In what ways are you not "on the mark? "

HVD: First, I should have learned to play the baroque oboe from childhood. I should have been apprenticed to a great oboe maker of the eighteenth century for many years, and then I would be better equipped; it would have been a skill I would have spent years of my life learning.

NP: Are you saying that it's much more difficult to make a copy because we live in the twentieth century?

HVD: No, it's not really difficult to make a copy, but in order to get close, it takes a while before you really become aware of what's going on with these old oboes. And when I think of my earlier instruments, I think my later instruments are better. Five or ten years from now, I may not like these instruments, and I may like what I'm making then.

NP: Why are the recent instruments better?

HVD: I get closer. Closer to my conception. As far as the original is concerned, you know, the only way you can really make a very close copy is to have the instrument with you in the shop and play it next to the instrument you are making.

NP: What if you knew there were things you could do to a copy to make it play substantially better than the original? Would you do it? Let's say there were a couple of bad notes on an oboe--would you fix them?

HVD: Of course I'd do it. I don't think it's a question of purism, I think it's a question of artistic values. You want to make a kind of sound that you have inferred from your experience--how you think the music was intended to be played. Same thing with the oboes--you have to get into the maker's head.

NP: How do you do that?

HVD: You look at his work.

NP: And what does it tell you?

HVD: It tells you what he was thinking about. You look up the bore and you see what he did in there, if he put in extra reamers-- that kind of thing.

NP: When you make a copy of an oboe for the first time, what percentage of your time is spent on research, specifically, making reeds and staples?

HVD: Well, it's an ongoing thing. Once you start making instruments, you think about these things all the time. When I started, I just made an oboe. But then I started to think about these things, and then I made improvements.

NP: So it's never research done before the instrument is completed?

HVD: It should be, but it never seems to work out that way. My own feeling is that people in the eighteenth century who played these instruments picked up an instrument, and the reed was right for that instrument. Now each maker may have made different reeds, or had reed makers who understood how to make reeds for those particular oboes, and they were probably different for German oboes, or English oboes, or for Stanesbys, or for Bradburys, or whatever.

NP: Is this intuitive, or have you researched the question?

HVD: This is only a guess; we don't know for sure, of course. But Stanesby Jr.'s chart of fingerings for the tenor oboe is a good example. It is a chart by the maker, who intended certain fingerings for that particular oboe. Now I strongly suspect that they all had a chart for their particular oboes, because the instruments don't finger alike.

NP: Of course people didn't travel the way we do now. The world was not internationalized in the sense that a Loree, for instance, can be played by oboists in every country in the world--no adjustment at all.

HVD: True, they were more isolated.

NP: Do you think makers of the modern oboe could learn anything from the kinds of things you know as a maker of old oboes?

HVD: Well, I think it would be presumptuous of me to pass judgment on makers of instruments who have been working at it far longer than I have. They should really know.

NP: Do you think that the major makers of the modern oboe are craftsmen in the same sense as, say, Denner or Stanesby were during the eighteenth century?

HVD: Yes, I do, but with one reservation. And that's this: since the methods were more primitive during the eighteenth century, people had more chance to give individual attention to each instrument. Now the art of violin making hasn't changed since the time of the Cremona makers, and they made better violins then than they ever made before or after. So, how can we possibly say that today's makers are better? They simply have different requirements, a different conception.

NP: Following your line of reason, if the oboe hadn't evolved, and if we were playing the same oboe now as they were during the eighteenth century, there might be a case for saying that the eighteenth century oboe might have been the superior instrument, as in the case of Stradivarius or Guarnari--what do you think of that idea?

HVD: Well, we're laboring under a tremendous disadvantage, as you know. We don't have the reeds. So, without the reeds that were made to be played on those oboes, it's very hard to know. But what little hints have come down to us from reeds which have been found--a reed that has been found by Michel Piguet, for example--we get hints that these were tremendously sophisticated reeds, far more than we would have suspected. In fact, Paul Hailperin said the same thing about the reed in the Cincinnati collection.

NP: When you say a reed is sophisticated, what, specifically, are you talking about?

HVD: That's what Paul said. As far as Michel's reed is concerned, the way he described it to me, it sounded like a very sophisticated reed: he said it played very easily, and that it was not thin. It was a full-sounding reed, and a lot was taken out of the back. It was quite a heavy reed.

NP: Heavy gouge?

HVD: Yes, but very easy blowing.

NP: What do you think the advantage of the heavier gouge for the eighteenth century reed was?

HVD: I can't really say. I absorb all this information like a sponge and I try to use it in what I'm doing. But I can 't make judgments because we really don't know that much about them. Making reeds work on these instruments--we don't know. That's really it, isn't it?

NP: Do you think there's major differences between the timbre of the baroque oboe and the modern oboe?

HVD: Oh, yes. The nature of the instrument is different, as well as the kind of reeds that play comfortably on the baroque oboe. These are the guides that we have. You will find that the baroque oboe is not so penetrating as the modern oboe, not as loud more mellow, perhaps a bit more reedy, and you have to remember that there were literally dozens of works written for oboe and recorder, and the recorder was never very loud.

NP: As Americans trying to play the baroque oboe, it has occurred to me that we may be after a concept of sound which, because of our twentieth century "Americanness," never existed in the eighteenth century. What do you think?

HVD: It's interesting that you mention that because, as a former European, and having traveled back to Europe, I think they are no closer than we are.

NP: Why not?

HVD: They can't be, because they are living in the twentieth century just like us. Ever stop to think about that?

NP: Sure. But, for instance, Michel Piguet sounds essentially the same on the modern oboe as he does on the baroque oboe. Since he was trained as a French oboist, and since the oboe most likely was invented in the French court, we could make a case that the French sound--whatever it was at the time was the sound of the baroque oboe. And, consequently, Piguet might be closer to the original sound of the baroque oboe than we are, simply because of his training. In the back of my mind is the idea that in Eastern Europe, for instance, where the sound is so different, that even though the instrument has changed, the concept of sound might be hereditary in the sense of a prevailing concept. As Americans; we certainly inherited a certain concept of what the oboe sounds like from the "Tabuteau School."

HVD: Yes, I know what you are saying and I understand, but I still come back to the fact that there are very binding limitations on what you can do with an instrument by the nature of the kind of reed you play on and the nature of the bore of the instrument. Take, for instance, the Indian shannai. They play on a rush reed. It's a very conical little shawm and it's beautiful. But it has a characteristic tone, and if you play the thing right, it will sound just like that. You will sound a certain way. When you play the baroque oboe, the oboe itself will dictate to you what you can get out of it.

NP: How do you see the future of performance of baroque music on the modern oboe?

HVD: Well, it's better to play baroque music on the modern oboe than not to play it at all. But, since we now have and know old instruments, and know of early performance practice, it seems to me that to play baroque music in public on modern instruments is obsolete. You know, it's not really a viable thing anymore. I think that people who make recordings of baroque music shouldn't make them on modern instruments, or think that because they sound beautiful playing a Bach aria on the modern oboe that it's valid.

NP: You don't feel that it is.

HVD: No, not really. We know so much now that it's just turning your back on all this new knowledge that's come up in the last years.

NP: Do you think it's possible for a baroque oboist to play baroque music with the same sense of confidence, security, and technique which the same piece might be played on the modern oboe?

HVD: Yes, it's possible. Not only that, but it was done. If you look at Vivaldi's oboe music, for instance, these works are difficult, particularly the beautiful G minor sonata.

NP: Yes, that piece is murder on the baroque oboe--especially the last movement!

HVD: But the fact is that the eighteenth century virtuoso players were able to take their instrument and play it very, very well. And they spent their lives playing it. And who's to tell that someday, someone who really plays well will work hard on the baroque oboe for a number of years, and we'll have a virtuoso of the baroque oboe. What we need is someone like Heinz Holliger, but who plays the baroque oboe.

NP: And who started at the age of ten, and had the right reeds, too.

HVD: Yes.

NP: Of course, we're getting much closer to that now. Some players finally feel as confident playing the baroque oboe as the modern oboe. Some of it's easier on the baroque oboe--certain things just work better. It sounds better, too.

HVD: But that's a matter of opinion. You and I think it sounds better, but people who prejudge the baroque oboe, well, for them, they like the modern oboe. Well, that's their bag. But, on the other hand, I don't like the idea of people playing old music on an old instrument just because it's an old instrument, and playing out of tune and excusing it because it's mean-tone tuning. I don't think that's a good enough excuse. There is no excuse. The instrument can be played in tune and it can sound well. Now by modern standards for tempered tuning, well, it's not going to sound that way. The baroque oboe is a little bit like the fiddle--you have to find the notes.

NP: How do you go about learning the things you need to know to make a baroque oboe?

HVD: Well, I think it's a lot easier now than when I started--I didn't have a baroque oboe. Of course, that's what made me start. I think that a person who's serious about baroque oboe should learn to play as well as they can and, at the same time, take technical courses. But I think the important thing is to learn to understand the instrument first. The rest is technical. It's because you spend the time to study it that you understand it. You just can't pick up the instrument, blow on it for a few months and expect to make great instruments. You can't.

NP: Do you have any particular instrument which you are interested in making soon?

HVD: Yes. I'd like to make an oboe da caccia. And another classical oboe. There are always more oboes that I want to make . . .

Editor's note: Miss Post and Mr. Vas Dias are beginning a collaborative project making copies of a late 18th century classical Grenser oboe.

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