Arlen Fast is the highly regarded contrabassoonist and bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the husband of Anne Ediger, an applied linguist and professor at Hunter College. He is also a pioneer in instrument design who has introduced a dramatic evolution to his deep-voiced instrument that now enriches ensembles around the world, including The Cleveland and Metropolitan Opera Orchestras.
Arlen’s path to the Philharmonic (of which he has been a member for 24 years) and the frontiers of musical technology began on a Kansas farm and has been paved by persistence and a singular love for his instrument. Here's his Q & A, followed by the speech he would have given the night the Orchestra would have celebrated this year’s retirees.
Q: Would you tell us about your childhood?
AF: I grew up on a farm outside Moundridge, Kansas, that has been in my family since my great-grandfather’s time — I’m in the first generation not to have taken up farming, though we still own it. My grandparents and parents were instrumentalists and church singers, all of my siblings are musicians, and everyone could sing four-part harmony very well. Music was as essential as learning to read and write.
Q: What instruments did you first study?
AF: I first started on the piano. In fifth grade, my mother took me to a local music contest to hear the instruments in the band; I came home saying I wanted to play the bassoon. I was drawn by the sound, and was fascinated by it. I also noticed that the bassoonists got red in the face when they played and I wanted to know what that was about!
But my three-room country school didn’t offer instrumental music, so it wasn’t until eighth grade, when the country schools consolidated, that I went to a school with a band. I still didn’t get to play the bassoon; instead, I took clarinet and violin lessons.
Q: When did you finally get to study the bassoon?
AF: In high school, I was given the school’s plastic bassoon, a plastic reed, and a fingering chart. Through my high-school years I had all of six weeks of lessons from a real bassoon teacher, but for my last two years I was in the Wichita Youth Symphony. After starting at Bethel College nearby, I took a semester off, working in a factory.
I then enrolled at the University of Kansas (KU) to study philosophy and early music. I was the archetypal “starving student.” Someone who had heard that I’d played bassoon in high school told me I could get a scholarship if I picked it up again. My parents bought me an instrument, and I asked the bassoon teacher at KU to give me lessons. The first two times I played for him, he said he couldn’t help me — I should go home and practice. On my third time, he agreed to give me lessons, but he died after only two lessons. KU arranged for me to continue lessons with Rodney Boyd at Washburn University in Topeka. He was the first teacher to introduce me to a methodical approach to reeds and helped me develop a solid technical base.
The next semester I transferred to Wichita State University, knowing that the Wichita Symphony would have an opening for second bassoon the next season. I won that audition! Thus, I had a professional job in an orchestra almost immediately after finally launching into serious bassoon study.
Q: What a circuitous path! Where did you work before coming to the New York Philharmonic?
AF: I played in the San Diego Symphony beginning in 1979, and a year later I also joined the San Diego Opera orchestra. While I was on the West Coast, I studied with Norman Herzberg, who himself had studied with New York Philharmonic bassoonist Simon Kovar. I joined the Philharmonic in April 1996.
Q: Do any particular performances or other moments from your Philharmonic tenure stand out in your memory?
AF: There were so many, it’s hard to focus on only one. I was honored to play Mahler Nine in the Musikverein in Vienna. I felt, “Wow, here I am playing this masterpiece in the hall where it was premiered, and Mahler was a Music Director of this orchestra.” Having played all ten Mahler symphonies with this orchestra is something that I am really happy to have done.
Q: Your involvement with the contrabassoon during your time here has gone beyond performance. Can you tell us about your design innovations?
AF: When I got to New York, I immediately felt that the contrabassoon was inadequate for a modern orchestra. The contrabassoon hadn’t changed for more than a century, while all the other wind instruments had since been modernized. I applied myself to understanding what produced the inadequacies in order to fix them.
My initial research led me to put one new register key on my instrument to fix the response, intonation, and tone problems of the worst offending note, but then I immediately wanted to fix other notes. However, the next new key was going to be much more expensive to build, and I could end up with an inadequate old system with a lot of band-aids. I decided to abandon the old register-key system altogether, testing out new key locations by drilling holes in my own instrument and covering them with tape when it was time to perform. The Fox Bassoon Company agreed to work with me on carrying forward my research, and we ended up with an entirely new register key system that brought one hundred years of evolution to the instrument all at once.
But a better instrument calls for better reeds, so that led me to modify my reedmaking machines, and to develop a new shape of reed for the performance characteristics I needed. That, along with three other traditional shapes I use, gave me the flexibility I needed for the wide variety of repertoire this orchestra plays.
The Fox Company and I continued to refine the Fast System contrabassoon. We experimented with wood from a different source to improve the resonance in the tone. This wood, in combination with a more rigid material in the straight metal pipe (the result of more experiments), finally gave me the tone I had long been looking for.
The Philharmonic provided an incredible test track. When I brought something new into rehearsal, I could almost immediately tell if it was a success or not. Plus, trusted colleagues in the orchestra gave me honest feedback. I always figured I needed two years’ worth of repertoire to really evaluate a new instrument or a new feature. I have now had my latest instrument in the orchestra for three years — plenty of time for me to feel confident that we have arrived at a new standard of excellence.
Q: I suspect that you are not done with your contrabassoon innovations. Does further work in this area feature in your plans for the future?
AF: I am not done with my development of the contrabassoon. The instrument needs a longer bell to take it down another half step to a low A. Mahler and some other composers wrote low As in their pieces, and now some contemporary composers are writing them again. I want to figure out how to add the extra length to the instrument without disturbing the good intonation and tone color in the rest of the instrument.
I also want to create support materials for my contrabassoon: a good fingering chart, and excerpts with the fingerings that I know are successful. This will mean building a website.
Retirement will hopefully allow me to find a new and better balance of life, continue my work with instruments and reed machines, and have more time for outdoor pursuits and photography.
Arlen Fast’s Farewell Remarks
I want to say a big thank-you to all of the Philharmonic audience, to my colleagues in the Orchestra, and to the New York Philharmonic for the most amazing 24 years of my musical career. Being a member of this orchestra has been the greatest honor of my life.
When we play music, magic happens. The magic is in the air, even though we can’t see it or hold it in our hands. It happens in time and is gone as soon as it stops. Yet it touches our souls and its effects linger in our memories long after it has ended. It pulls up memories and feelings from the past and takes us places we have never been before. It enlivens our imaginations, soothes our souls, and sparks creativity in other directions and in intangible ways. Each person’s listening experience is unique. It is their own personal musical journey, influenced by their present circumstances, their mood, and the atmosphere at the moment.
The instruments that make this magic are made from materials common in our everyday world: wood, metal, catgut, leather, and animal skins. Sound waves are set in motion with yet more mundane materials and methods: horsehair, reed cane, vibrating lips, blowing across holes, plucking strings, and striking all manner of objects. The ability to harness the sound waves into something that can so profoundly touch our souls comes through the artistry of musicians enticing the sounds from our instruments and shaping them together into one whole. We become one instrument made up of many; the New York Philharmonic exemplifies this at the highest level.
Creating the vibrations in the air with our instruments is one thing, but the perception of them by the ear and the brain are the other half of the magic. The anatomy of the ear is something to behold, and how the myriad vibrations get transmitted from the ear to the brain and then are transformed into a musical journey is a wonder of nature. We can analyze it with theory and with a computer, yet those things can’t quantify the deep meaning and significance that music provides in our lives.
The members of the New York Philharmonic sitting onstage are not just 106 musicians assembled and playing together. We represent hundreds and hundreds of lifetimes-worth of human endeavor in playing these instruments, in a continuum of shared artistry and tradition, passed on through time. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us — our teachers and, especially, fellow members of the Orchestra and its conductors.
I want to say a big thank-you to all of the administration and staff who organize and make our concerts happen. Concerts do not just happen spontaneously. It takes a vast amount of organization and coordination to facilitate this. It is the accumulated history, experience, and wisdom of the administration and staff of this historic organization stretching back to 1842 that enables it to function at such a high level. It is only with their work that we are able to put our full attention into playing our instruments and being at the right place at the right time.
I want to thank you, our audience and all of our supporters, for sharing these musical journeys with us. We wouldn’t be here without you, as the events of the last few months have made clear to us. While I am turning the page to continue musical pursuits behind the scenes, the New York Philharmonic looks forward to playing live concerts for you again as soon as possible.