From The Director's Desk
Editorial Views and Opinions

Early Music, Ecology, and the Environment

What, you may well ask, does early music performance have to do with environmental and ecological matters? On the surface, perhaps, not a great deal. Early music, even more than the other performing arts, would at first glance seem to exist in a somewhat rarefied world of its own making, largely insulated from the mainstream of twentieth century life and culture. That, perhaps, is the very nature of its attraction for some if not many of its ardent enthusiasts here in the United States and across the globe.

It has been my experience that the great majority of our customers during the past twenty-three years we have been in business have been adult amateur musicians rather than professionals, teachers, or students. For many if not most of these adult avocational musicians, early music performance provides a very special and unique sanctuary, a place apart from their busy professional and personal lives where they can, at least for a brief period of time, do something which is totally different than the work they do for a living, an activity which is divorced from the workaday cares and complexities of life in the late twentieth century.

Such escapism, however enticing it may be, is of course by and large illusory. The real world has a way of intruding upon our inner sanctum of early music in myriad ways both obvious and not quite so obvious. Very few of our customers play their recorders in their garages or basements entirely by themselves. As soon as one joins a local early music affinity group, one quickly becomes aware of the personality issues, politics, bickering, and turf wars that can and do afflict early music performance on both the local, national, and international levels, as the editorial in the previous issue of this journal sought to point out. But what does early music have to do with the ecosystem of our planet? A great deal more than one might suspect. This writer has on more than one occasion inveighed, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, against the massive amount of “recorder pollution” that infests our world, by which term I mean the large number of badly-designed, poorly-made instruments still currently in circulation. They are somewhat akin to scud missiles: inaccurate but still highly dangerous.

One of the reasons that so many players of modern instruments refuse to take the recorder and other historical instruments seriously is the fact that they are so often very badly played. At least some of that blame must be shared by those makers who produce poor instruments –- and, I am sorry to admit, those dealers who sell them. My concept of recorder pollution is unfortunately not just a semi-facetious issue of instrument quality. Wooden recorders of whatever quality are at least biodegradable and will at some future point in time deteriorate and return to the earth from whence they came. However, the music instrument industry, particularly in Japan and other Pacific rim countries, is also producing enormous numbers of ABS plastic recorders that, for better and for worse, are virtually indestructible and completely non-biodegradable, while at the same time consuming substantial quantities of our finite global petroleum resources. One might well ponder how many landfills will be required to absorb the hundreds of thousands of $1.59 plastic junk “recorders” that are manufactured and sold around the globe every year.

When I first started our small home workshop in 1973, it was on the premise that there were already enough bad recorders in the world (of which I had already bought more than my fair share), and I was not about to contribute further to the appalling number of substandard instruments already in circulation. This is why we at Antique Sound Workshop have always been adamant –- some might even say fanatical –- about not selling any woodwind instrument until it is properly voiced, tuned, and performing at its fullest potential. To paraphrase Ernest and Julio Gallo, “we sell no recorder before its time.” As arcane as it may sound, our motivation was then and still is both ecological as well as artistic.

While I by no means consider myself a rabid environmentalist, we at ASW have always tried to reduce the amount of rubbish and refuse that our workshop, like any other business enterprise of any size, tends to produce. Long before it was fashionable or politically correct, we were using recycled boxes and packing materials to ship our instruments to our many customers across the country and around the world. Admittedly, a used laser cartridge carton doesn’t look as nice as a brand new box, but over a period of years and decades we have probably saved a fair number of trees by this simple economic measure.

For the past decade or so, we have also been using shredded paper whenever possible as packing material. Back in the early 80’s, one of the mantras that was frequently heard among advocates of then-new personal computers was the concept of the “paperless office.” End users quickly learned, however, that computers and their associated printers in fact don’t save paper; they actually generate far more output and use much more paper then the old manual typewriters that we used before we had computers. I have a pet theory that computers don’t really save time or money, they just allow one to be more verbose.

Be that as it may, we decided long ago that, if in fact we were going to generate a lot more waste paper with our impact, dot matrix, and (most recently) laser printers, we would at least get more use out of the waste paper that we do produce by recycling it as packing material. We genuinely detest those wretched static electricity-infested Styrofoam peanuts and chips that virtually everything seems to come packed in these days, but we do at least take some small comfort in reusing and recycling these non-biodegradable materials as packing materials for items which, for one reason or another, are not suitable for packing in shredded paper. We haven’t had to actually buy any of these packing materials in years; we just reuse those from our incoming shipments. It is my fervent hope that, if folks just recycled these plastic materials continually instead of throwing them out and buying new ones, there would in fact be only a finite amount of the stuff in continual circulation, just like those ubiquitous fruit cakes that friends and relatives are always sending to each other during the holiday season.

Fortunately, we at Antique Sound Workshop are not the only individuals in the early music world to be environmentally concerned. We have been greatly cheered to see that, just in recent years, a number of European recorder makers have also taken positive measures to conserve and reuse natural materials. Chief among them is the German recorder=making workshop of Conrad Mollenhauer, whose present director Bernhard Mollenhauer has been a pioneer in the very recent movement in the German musical instrument industry toward ecological and social responsibility. His firm was the first to supply the inexpensive student recorders in their Chorus series, which constitutes the great bulk of their production for their domestic market, with colorful, attractive cartons made from recycled paper materials and printed with non-toxic inks. It is extremely gratifying to see that several other makers have since followed suit, supplying instrument cases made either from cloth or recycled cardboard. For several years now, Mollenhauer has also been using business stationery and envelopes made from recycled paper products and printed with vegetable-based inks.

Environmentally-friendly packaging is of course not the only avenue of opportunity open to musical instrument makers. The materials of which wooden instruments themselves are made should of course also be a matter of some concern. Recorder makers in particular have a unique problem because of the wide variety of special materials used in the production of their instruments. Whereas student recorders are made from inexpensive, plentiful, and readily available domestic European hardwoods such as pearwood, maple, birch, or cherry, their more expensive models are typically made from a variety of exotic tropical hardwoods such as boxwood, bubinga, palisand er, violetwood or kingwood, tulipwood, ebony, and grenadilla, most of which come from the environmentally fragile and delicate tropical rainforests of South America and Africa.

As is now generally realized, tropical rainforests are very differently functioning ecosystems than the woods and forests of the temperate zones, such as those in Europe and here in North America which are more familiar to most of our readers. Our native forests have a thick layer of humus as a floor which acts as a protective layer to conserve the nutrient sources which support vegetative growth, whereas in the tropical rainforests most of the nutrients (wood, branches, leaves, etc.) are above ground level. The indiscriminate removal of trees damages the delicate ecological balance and is in time lethal to both the remaining trees, other vegetation, and the animals, birds, and human beings who live there.

Responsible wood suppliers and exporters have learned that it is necessary to implement drastic conservation measures if the tropical rainforests and the other vegetation, animals (including our beloved parrots), and human life that they support are not to be destroyed. To cite one aspect out of many, it is now known that it is absolutely necessary to process the wood on location where the tree is harvested, so that the debris which remains (leaves, branches, sawdust, etc.) may be processed and returned to the soil as nutrient matter. In recent years, worldwide attention has been focused on the plight of the tropical rainforests, the flora and fauna that inhabit them, and the humans who live and work in them, with some degree of success. Users of tropical exotic timbers, such as furniture manufacturers and musical instrument makers, have also become part of the sphere of influence in protecting these irreplaceable natural resources.

Some years ago, the western German recorder and flute-making firm of Conrad Mollenhauer assumed a leadership role in the movement to protect the tropical rainforests of the world by refusing to purchase woods from firms which were known to be indiscriminate in the harvesting of tropical hardwoods and/or abusive in their labor practices. This “boycott phase,” as it has been known, has undoubtedly been of some efficacy in coercing both native South American exporters and European wood importers to assume a more responsible role in protecting their natural resources and treating their native employees with human decency and respect. Just recently, however, the Mollenhauer firm has decided to progress from a reactive role to a more proactive one. They have entered into a partnership with another German firm, Espen, which imports and deals exclusively in tropical timbers grown and harvested under the aegis of the Forest Stewardship Council.

The FSC is an umbrella organization which develops criteria for environmentally sound commercial logging practices; among the members of the council are such groups as the World Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace International, and Friends of the Earth, as well as environmental protection groups and woodworking firms. The regulation and control of wood products from the source to the consumer is certified and accredited by the FSC and the endproducts are identified by the FSC logo.

By way of implementing a proactive stance in their own recorder production, Conrad Mollenhauer has just recently announced the availability of two new recorder models, the first musical instruments in the entire world to bear the FSC logo and seal of approval. These “Fair Play” instruments, as they are termed, have now taken their place in this maker’s Denner series of modern recorders. The first instruments in this new program are a soprano and alto recorder made of morado, a tropical hardwood similar in appearance and tone quality to palisander rosewood. The cedar blocks are stabilized by a special process developed in-house which does not require the use of chemical additives. The cases for these instruments are made from leather tanned by nontoxic vegetablebased materials, and are lined with nonchemically processed cotton cloth. Additional Fair Play model recorders are presently being planned for future production as well.

Conrad Mollenhauer has pledged to devote 10% of the wholesale price of these new Fair Play instruments to the WWF for the funding of environmental protection projects. In order to make our own contribution to this most worthy endeavor, Antique Sound Workshop will in turn donate 10% of the retail sale price of these two new Mollenhauer Fair Play models to international organizations that foster environmental and social responsibility. In turn, our customers may deduct 10% of the price of each “Fair Play” instrument as a charitable deduction on their tax returns.

In this way, we are providing those early music performers who are concerned about the social and ecological ramifications of indiscriminate harvesting of tropical hardwoods with a means to vote with their checkbooks for the preservation of our invaluable natural resources. We hope that as many of our customers as possible will avail themselves of this unique opportunity to purchase handsome musical instruments which are not only in and of themselves fine examples of the recorder maker’s art and craft, but at the same time represent an important milestone for the early music community toward a policy of social and environmental responsibility. There remains, of course, much more to be done, but this is a worthwhile and effective first step in the right direction.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1996. All rights reserved.

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