Harry Vas Dias

An Interview with Harry Vas Dias

by Nora Post

Oboe maker/player Harry Vas Dias was born in Amsterdam and received his early education in London. He completed his training in New York at the Juilliard School. Vas Dias' professional activities have included membership in the American Ballet Theater, Buffalo Philharmonic, Chautauqua Symphony, and New Orleans Symphony. He began copying eighteenth century oboes in 1974, at which time he ceased playing professionally in order to devote himself to instrument making. Characterized by extraordinarily detailed workmanship and the consequent elegance that has earned them a unique place among wind instruments-Vas Dias'oboes are played in such ensembles as Aston Magna, Concentus Musicus Vienna, the Aulos Ensemble, and Concert Royal.

N.P. As I remember, you started making Baroque oboes in the early seventies. How did you become interested, and why?

H.V.D. I started because I wanted a Baroque oboe for myself. When Concentus Musicus came to the United States on their first tour, around 197O, I was playing oboe in Birmingham. I went to hear them be cause they were a European group, and it was something different to do-nothing ever happens in Birmingham. And I was amazed: there was this guy playing a Baroque oboe.

N.P. Was it Schaeftlein?

H.V.D. Yes. There he was, playing marvelously on this wooden thing with just a couple of brass keys at the bottom, and it was all there, you know. Fascinating. So, I thought, I wanted to do that too.

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

H.V.D. To tell you the truth, I think I discovered myself as a maker rather than as a player.

N.P. Why?

H.V.D. I was a good player, but since I started late, I always felt that it wasn't so easy for me.

N.P. But you started making oboes late, too.

H.V.D. Yes, but that's not a drawback, since you are working with your brain, not 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, I was a better maker. I considered myself then it's a problem.

N.P. What do you think the ideal temperament or personality of an extraordinarily good instrument maker should be?

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

N.P. 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.

H.V.D. Oh yes. That's one of the things you have to have, along with being strongly motivated.

N.P. But someone might be motivated and still not have the same sense of detail that you do. 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.

H.V.D. 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 very badly to do it. And wanting to do it right, 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-you can't make much money at it anyway.

N.P. Looking ahead, how do you see your career, say, in twenty-five or fifty years?

H.V.D. In fifty years I'll be dead!

N.P. Well, let's say you leave your factory to someone you want to carry on the business. The interest in playing historical instruments is recent; it started for the oboe with people like Piguet and Schaeftlein. Do you think this will be a long-term development? Many people say that the current state of contemporary music is so awful that they don't want to play it and, therefore, they are looking backwards. They are learning the Baroque oboe because they really aren't interested in Stockhausen. of course, I'm only offering my opinion of what I think is the case.

H.V.D. I couldn't agree more!

N.P.Do you think 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?

H.V.D.I think there will be a vogue, and it will kind of peak out.

N.P. So it's not as if you are founding Marigaux or Loree, for which there will always be a demand?

H.V.D. I think there will be a continuing demand, because we are starting some, thing. I don't think it will die.

N.P. 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?

H.V.D.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.

N.P. Wouldn't it be more economical to make them in batches?

H.V.D.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.

N.P. Do you ever consider a copy completed, or are you always looking for improvements?

H.V.D.I always look for improvements, yes.

N.P. Is there any one oboe you have made that, more than any other, seems like a truly finished instrument?

H.V.D.It's usually the one I'm playing at the moment!

N.P. Just like composers, who all love their most recent work!

H.V.D. It's also that having the time to spend with an instrument gives me the oppor' tunity to correct all the things I find wrong with it, and, in the end, I get something fairly good.

N.P. Do you ever get to the point where you are totally discouraged with an instrument?

H.V.D.If I'm copying one for the first time and it doesn't seem to be working out, yes. This has happened to me.

N.P. But you are pleased with the instruments you have made up to this point?

H.V.D.Some of them. The ones I'm making now make me happiest. The ones I'm not making-those I tried to make and failed -don't make me happy.

N.P. Which instruments account for the most sales?

H.V.D.The Denner oboes are about a third of sales. The Stanesby Sr. oboes are another third, and the rest are oboes d'amore and other models.

N.P.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?

H.V.D.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 take place over several weeks. And that's why I like 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 one in, they could bring it to you, and you could touch up the bore where it needed it. Even with grenadilla wood, you have to do some of that.

N.P.How important do you think it is to be a good player in order to make a good instrument?

H.V.D. It's important, yet I know a very good maker who is not such a good player.

N.P. How much does being a player help you as a maker?

H.V.D. A lot. Practicing and rehearsing for concerts with a Baroque group in Atlanta, where I now live, makes me very much aware of my equipment, and I find it very, very helpful.

N.P. Most Baroque ensembles play at a= 415. Is it a problem adjusting oboes to play at that pitch?

H.V.D. It's not much of one 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.

N.P. How do you get a museum instrument to play in tune with itself at the right pitch? The octaves?

H.V.D. Yes, exactly. You get the octaves to play in tune. But one never has enough time in a museum. Usually in the space of six or seven hours you've got to measure the instrument and test it completely. Many museums don't like you to play the instruments, or ask you to play them very little. And I agree with that, be cause it's possible to damage them by playing on them too much.

N.P.T here are those who 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 this view, and how close do you think your oboes are to the originals? What are you aiming for?

H.V.D. I'm aiming for an instrument with a characteristic sound and feel. An oboe, just like a violin, should be something beautiful. Not only that: it should sound beautiful. I admit that I'm not as close as I'd like to be. I wish I could make instruments as beautiful as some of those I've played in museums-both in the way they look and in the way they sound.

N.P. In what ways are you not "on the mark"?

H.V.D. First, I should have learned to play the Baroque oboe from childhood. I should also have been apprenticed to a great oboe maker of the eighteenth century; I would have spent years learning the skill. Then I would be better equipped.

N.P. Are you saying it's much more difficult to make a copy because we live in the twentieth century?

H.V.D. No, it's not really difficult to make a copy, but it takes a while before you really become aware of what's going on with these old oboes in order to get close. I think my later instruments are better than my earlier ones. Five or ten years from now I may not like these instru meets; I may like what I'm making then.

N.P. Why are the recent instruments better?

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

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

H.V.D. Of course I would. It's not a question of purism but 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. You have to get into the maker's head.

N.P. How do you do that?

H.V.D. You look at his work.

N.P. And what does it tell you?

H.V.D. What he was thinking about. You look up the bore and see what he did there, if he put in extra reamers-that kind of thing.

N.P. When you make the first copy of an oboe, what percentage of your time is spent on research, specifically into making reeds and staples?

H.V.D. It's on 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 began to think more, and then I made Improve meets.

N.P. So the research is never done before the instrument is completed?

H.V.D. It should be, but it never seems to work out that way. My own feeling is that when people in the eighteenth century picked up an instrument, the reed was right for that instrument. Each maker may have made different reeds, or had reed makers who understood how to make them for those particular oboes. They were probably different for Ger man oboes, or for Stanesbys or Bradburys, or whatever.

N.P. Is this intuitive, or have you researched the question?

H.V.D. It's only a guess, of course. Stanesby Jr.'s chart of fingerings for the tenor oboe is a good example. He intended certain fingerings for that particular instrument. I strongly suspect that they all had charts for their particular oboes, because the instruments don't finger alike.

N.P. People didn't travel the way they do now. The world was not internationalized in the sense that a Loree, for example, can be played by oboists in any country with very few adjustments.

H.V.D. True. They were more isolated.

N.P. Do you think makers of the modern oboe could learn anything from you as a maker of old oboes?

H.V.D. I think it would be presumptuous of me to pass judgment on instrument makers who have been working at it far longer than I have. They really should know.

N.P. Do you think the major makers of the modern oboe are craftsmen in the same sense as, say, Denner or Stanesby were carrying the eighteenth century?

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

N.P. Following your line of reasoning, if the oboe hadn't evolved, if we were playing the same one now as they were during the eighteenth century, there might be a ease for saying the eighteenth century oboe was the superior instrument. What do you think of that idea?

H.V.D. We're laboring under a tremendous disadvantage, as you know. We don't have the reeds that were meant to be played on those oboes. Without them it's hard to know. But what little hints have come down to us from reeds that have been found-one by Michel Piguet, for example, and another that's in the Cincinnati collection-show that they were tremendously sophisticated, far more so than we would have suspected.

N.P. Do you think there are major differences between the timbre of the Baroque oboe and that of the modern one?

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

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

H.V.D. It's interesting that you mention that because, as a former European, and having traveled back there, I think they are no closer than we are.

N.P. Why not?

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

N.P. Sure. But Michel Piguet, for instance, 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 was most likely invented at 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. Consequently, Piguet might be closer to the original sound than we are simply because of his training.

H.V.D. 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 because of the nature of the reed you play on and the nature of the bore. When you play the Baroque oboe, the instrument itself will dictate what you can get out of it.

N.P. How do you see the future of performance of Baroque music on the modern oboe?

H.V.D. 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 obsolete to me to play this music in public on modern instruments. It's not really viable anymore. People shouldn't think that because they sound beautiful playing a Bach aria on the modern oboe that it's valid.

N.P. You don't feel that it is.

H.V.D. No, not really. We know so much now that it's just turning your back on all the knowledge that's come up in the last few years.

N.P. Do you think its possible for a Baroque oboist to play with the same sense of confidence, security, and technique as a modern oboist?

H.V.D. Yes, it's possible. Not only that, it was done. Look at Vivaldi's oboe music, for instance: these works are difficult, particularly the beautiful G minor sonata.

N.P. Yes, that piece is murder on the Baroque oboe-especially that last movement!

H.V.D. But the fact is that eighteenth century virtuoso players were able to take their instrument and play it very, very well. They spent their lives playing it. And who's to tell-someday, someone who really plays well will work hard-for a number of years, and we'll have a virtuoso of the Baroque oboe. We need someone like Heinz Holliger, but who plays the Baroque oboe.

N.P. And who started at the age of ten, and had the right reeds, too.

H.V.D. Yes.

N.P. Of course, we're getting closer to that now. Some players finally feel as confident playing the Baroque oboe-certain things just work better. It sounds better, too.

H.V.D. But that's a matter of opinion. You and I think it sounds better, but others don't. Well, that's their bag. on the other hand, I don't like the idea of people playing old music on an old instrument just because it's old, and playing out of tune and excusing it because it's Mentone tuning. That's not a good enough excuse; there is no excuse. The instrument can be played in tune and sound well, though it may not meet modern standards for tempered tuning. The Baroque oboe is a bit like a fiddle-you have to find the notes.

N.P. How do you go about learning the things you need to know to make a Baroque oboe?

H.V.D. It's a lot easier now than when I began. I didn't have a Baroque oboe, but of course that's what made me start. I think a person who's serious about the Baroque oboe should learn to play as well as they can, and at the same time take technical courses. The important thing is to learn to understand the instrument. It's because you spend the time to study it that you understand it. You can't just pick up the instrument, blow on it for a few months, and expect to make great instruments.

N.P. Do you have any particular instruments that you are interested in making soon?

H.V.D. Yes, I'd like to make an oboe da caccia and another classical oboe. There are always more oboes that I want to make....