Bruce Coutant shows the similarities of a French horn and the alphorns he makes. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)
At his workshop in the Lostine Canyon, horn player, carpenter tackles the complex process of making instrument synonymous with Swiss mountain dwellers
by KATY NESBITT / The Observer
If the Eagle Cap Mountains are considered Oregon’s Little Alps, then where better for alphorns to be built than Wallowa County.
Beginning in medieval times, alphorns were played by shepherds in the Alps, primarily Switzerland and France, to send messages to the people in the valley. Likewise, valley dwellers would play tunes as messages for the shepherds.
Alphorn maker Bruce Coutant said, “It was a communication tool, like text messaging, not about music as it is today.”
In the evening, messages would be passed, uphill and down, and the village and surrounding hillsides would catch up on the daily news.
Coutant said alphorns were first made out of pistol-butted trees, usually spruce. The tree would be split in half and hollowed out to make a horn.
There’s no standard length, said Coutant, but most are about two times the height of its player. Modern alphorns are carved into five sections from blocks of wood, which fit together, making them more manageable to disassemble and transport.
Coutant’s method is to use 70 3/16 square strips of wood and assemble them into a cone shape on a lathe form. His reasoning is three-fold. He’s in the prototype development stage and has a lot of wood on hand. Constructing them this way he thinks they will better withstand humidity changes and keep a more consistent shape. Finally, he said he believes this method will lend itself to more consistency among models.
Coutant grew up working in his father’s wood shop and restoration business. He went on to music at the University of Oregon and played the French horn. For many years he was part-owner of a construction company, so when it closed last year he continued doing carpentry, but saw he had an opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream to build horns, and he had most of the tools to do it.
As a horn player, Coutant understands the musicality of the instrument, a wooden horn played like a bugle. In America, they are tuned to the key of F; in Europe, the key of F sharp.
“Anyone who’s played brass can play one of these,” said Coutant, and often brass musicians buy them. He said symphony orchestra musicians expect their alphorns to play like a concert instrument so he’s designing them with that in mind.
An accomplished musician friend of his loaned him an alphorn so he’s been able to practice playing as he learns to craft them.
Last summer he went to a retreat outside of Salt Lake City. He said he saw quite a few instruments and met with both horn makers and players. There are just a handful of alphorn makers in the world, and Coutant said two of them are backing out of the business, including one in Canada, the only one in North America. However, these guys go to the graves with their secrets, said Coutant. Reverse engineering, or buying an alphorn to use a model to make a new one, is frowned upon.
So far he’s made 10 horns in his workshop up the Lostine Canyon and said he had some “horrible travesties.”
“I was doing construction for so long that at the beginning of the day I knew what to expect at the end of the day. Making horns, I quickly began to realize I knew nothing. I thought it was a woodworking project, but I’m learning the physics of sound.”
The sound of the horn is dependent on the bore hole. Roundness is crucial so he rolls marbles down the pipes to test them.
The mouthpiece and first 16 inches of the horn and the last 24 inches, including the bell, need to agree with each other, said Coutant. The other 9 feet are connecting tissue that needs to be as round as possible to create a clean sound.
Integral to perfecting the sound is working out the math and building the horn according to the math. He said he put together seven pages of Excel spreadsheet calculations to determine how big the bore hole is every inch of the way.
He said the math follows a logarithm, like compounding interest, to create a curve. It’s weeks into a project before he can tell if a horn’s sound is going to work or not.
“It can’t be two thousandths of an inch off. You get pretty far along in the process before you know if you’ve made firewood,” said Coutant.
As an alphornist working thousands of miles from another, he said he’s talking to a couple of people to beta test his horns and get feedback.
“I’d like to have access to information on the early horns to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to,” said Coutant.
Now he said he is ready to talk sales. He said the biggest market is in Europe followed by Korea and Japan, but there’s growing interest in North America. He’d also like to get a group of people in the region together who may be interested in playing horns. With the county’s Alpenfest heartily revived, there’s an available venue.