By Ricky O’Bannon

Richard Bobo hopes to see two things in his lifetime. The first is a manned mission to Mars. The second is a subcontrabassoon.

“Sadly, I am not a rocket scientist, an astronaut or a trillionaire, and Mars remains out of my reach,” Bobo writes in a mission statement on his website.

What he is, however, is a contrabassoonist with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas and has a background in industrial fabrication and computer-aided design. Therefore he is well suited to build the first subcontrabassoon and has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for materials and tools (many of which have to be custom built) to create a prototype.

Computer model of the subcontrabassoon prototype
Subcontrabass Register

The subcontrabass register
*lowest note on piano
**lowest note on organ with 32-foot stop

Subcontrabassoon Range
Range of the subcontrabassoon

The subcontrabass register in music is low. It’s so low in fact that the pipe organ is the only classical instrument that can comfortably play in that range. Bobo hopes that the subcontrabassoon that he is designing would have a range a full octave lower than a contrabassoon and add another musical possibility for the extremely low register.

“I always felt like one of the biggest advantages we have in the classical music world is the breadth of the [instrument timbres] we have at our disposal, but when you get to the subcontrabass register, there is only one that can play in that range well,” Bobo said. “I feel like composers should have the option for an instrument that's down in that range other than the organ.”

Bobo also feels that if that option was on the table for composers, they would take advantage of it. He points to a composer like Gustav Holst who as an organist was very familiar with the range of the organ and used it in orchestral works like the Saturn movement of The Planets.

“He wrote all the way down to the lowest note of the subcontrabass octave because he understood the ability of the organ to play down there and how effective it can be when used sparingly and well,” Bobo said. “I'm under no delusions that 50 years from now that you'll go to your niece's band concert and there is going to be a subcontrabassoon, but I think it's something that should be available.”

As a contrabassoonist, Bobo admitted that he might be a bit biased when he decided that a bassoon was the right instrument to conquer that extremely low register, but there are pragmatic reasons as well.

“For brass instruments in the extremely low register, you're really running into the limitations of human lips,” he said. “They can only vibrate so slowly with the intensity you need in order to produce an audible sound.”

Woodwinds tend to be more forgiving, and often the stops an organ uses to play in that extreme low register are reed stops meaning it functions like a woodwind instrument to reach that subcontrabass register.

For Bobo, the fascination with the idea of a subcontrabassoon started in grade school when he was browsing the Guinness Book of World Records. An entry for lowest instruments included mention of a “subkontrafagott” (German for subcontrabasson), which was showcased by a Czech instrument maker in 1867. However, Bobo said he later found out that the instrument’s name was a misnomer. It wasn’t an octave below the contrabassoon and by modern standards it wouldn’t be classified as a bassoon.

“To me the most surprising thing about this project is that it hasn't been done before,” he said. “The myth of this subcontrabassoon has been around so long I figure someone would have done it.”

So far, Bobo said the reaction has been positive even though there has been a dash of skepticism. However, one of the biggest questions — what would you play with this? — is starting to be answered. A Norwegian composer and bassoonist named Robert Rønnes sent Bobo a piece he wrote for solo subcontrabassoon and bassoon quartet.

To learn more about the subcontrabasson, check out Richard Bobo’s website or Indiegogo campaign.