Shawm Design

September 4, 2018

The Shawm is a double reed wind instrument, not unlike an Oboe or English Horn. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a precursor to modern double reed end-blown horns. 

 

NELL GWYNN at Chicago Shakespeare has been produced 3 times by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK. They premiered it in the Globe Theatre, took it to the West End, and then toured it across the country (and I think through Europe as well?) In each of those performances they had the benefit of deep bench of musicians familiar with period instruments like the Baroque Bassoon, Recorder, and the Shawm. Chicago, on the other hand, has almost no Baroque Bassoonists, and I think two shawm players, only one of which was available for the full run of the show.

 

The music director Jermaine Hill and I had a lot of meetings about this, some involving transatlantic phone calls with the show's composer Nigel Hess, because the lack of understudies and players had serious implications for the music in the show. The charts sometimes have 4 parts for Shawm playing simultaneously - we have one player. What happens if our musician falls ill during the run? She already has one conflict with the calendar. It's not like we can call the Lyric Opera pit orchestra and order up a replacement Shawm player at the last minute. Oh yeah, and the musicians in the show are onstage the whole time, in a featured balcony location, underscoring every scene, scoring each transition, and sometimes playing diagetically within the action of the scene.

The only solution I could come up with was the
EXS24 Sampler.

 

EXS24 plays natively in Mainstage, which at this point is a tool almost every pit musician and music director is familiar with. So much so that Northwestern they teach their musical theatre students how to program it. Furthermore, since our mixing console was the lovely Yamaha CL5, I knew we could snap mix sends for the Mainstage channel to "follow" our live Shawm player so the sampler at least source from the vicinity of the real instrument. Hopefully nobody in the audience notices there's only one of those actually in the balcony at any given time. The team agreed this was the way forward, so we booked a session at Experimental Sound Studio and set to recording every it could make.

 

We captured both the Alto and Soprano Shawm, but in the end we decided to combine the two into a "combined Shawm" keyboard. Even though this cuts against the intended realism of the sampler, the keyboard player realizing the part doesn't need to switch patches to cover the part, and the pitch overlap between the two instruments is minimal. When we started the project I was certain that we were going to need to map a lot of variables to expression pedals to make this work. During the recording session it became clear there are little to no dynamics on the Shawm. It's either "on" or "off".

 

To be clear, there's still a lot more work to be done to make this work for the show. I'm expecting that when we get into tech that I'm going to have to print a whole new set of samples once we hear it in the space with the acoustic instrument to compare. Now that our performer has spent three weeks practicing the Shawm, they might even ask me to do another recording session. This is still the best solution to the understudy problem, though, because Mainstage and EXS24 are going to let us dial in EQ, Verb, Gain, Attack, Sustain, Resonance, and even fine pitch tuning onstage as needed through tech.

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