The Hawaiian Oboe Legacy Project began as an idea to create something unique to benefit and inspire future audiences and students in a place where I’d spent the majority of my professional life. I had always had the idea in the back of my head to have an oboe manufactured out of an indigenous Hawaiian wood—an oboe that would be of this place and be inextricably linked to it. Once we managed to obtain a supply of an extremely rare and culturally significant wood, kauila, this project got its wings.
Kauila was highly respected in the pre-contact Hawaiian culture for its hardness, durability, beauty, and versatility. Everything from spears and clubs to small medicinal items and ceremonial staffs (kahili) were made from this resource. Honoring the wood’s place in Hawaiʻi’s history is a key aspect of the project. We also wanted to bridge the past to the present day with a contemporary use of this 300-year old reclaimed resource, as well as create awareness of the importance of preserving and protecting our natural resources for future generations.
The kauila wood that was used is from the island of Kauai, and was harvested more than 25 years ago by a local Hawaiian Kumu (cultural practitioner), Ed Kaiwi, in a rural area near the Waimea Canyon. His longtime friend, noted luthier Michael Sussman, was given a big chunk of this kauila and asked to make a ukulele out of it, as well as an ark for the torah at a synagogue in Lihue, Kauai. He made these special objects many years ago, but the rest of the kauila wood remained under Michael’s house.
Once Michael learned of the Hawaiian Oboe Legacy Project, he agreed to gift the remaining wood to the project and milled two billets from this tree trunk, one measuring 4” x 4” x 12”, the other 4” x 4” x 24”. Because of the density of the wood, the milling took Michael around 11 hours. These billets were taken to the Worthing factory of Howarth’s of London, where they completed the instrument in just shy of two years. The wood, according to the craftsmen at the shop, behaved remarkably well during the manufacturing, most likely due to the wood’s age and long period of seasoning.
We displayed the instrument at the International Double Reed Society conference last August, and drew a lot of attention. No one there (with the exception of myself and a former teacher, Elaine Douvas) was allowed to play it; a long ‘break-in’ period is warranted because an oboe has never before been made from this type of wood. It sounds lovely, but differs somewhat from the sound of the typical grenadilla wood usually used for oboes. One could characterize the sound as slightly mellower, which is quite interesting considering the density of the material.
Another component of the project is the creation of a piece of music to feature this one-of-a-kind oboe. We commissioned a nationally known and respected composer, Dr. Jon Magnussen, to write the work, which will be in seven or eight short movements, each highlighting, in musical form, the role and uses of the wood. He will compose two versions of the piece: a chamber version for string quartet, piano, percussion, Hawaiian instruments, and solo oboe will debut in the spring of 2019 at several venues, including Chamber Music Hawaii’s concert series in May 2019; and a full symphonic concerto version of the same work will be premiered the following fall on the Hawaiʻi Symphony’s Master Works series. Both versions, as well as the instrument, will be donated to the community at the end of the initial project year, entrusted to the care of a local non-profit, Live Music Awareness*, and be made available to local artists and presenters for future concerts and projects.
It is my hope, as its director, that the growing interest generated so far in this project will propel it well into the future, so that generations to come can learn from and be inspired by this unique effort. The public has already stepped forward in support of the project with several thousand dollars in private contributions. The City and County of Honolulu also awarded the project a grant of $10,000, which will go, in part, to fund performances of the chamber version of the new commission in Honolulu and in rural areas of Oahu and Kauai. We will capture a recording of the Honolulu premiere and also create a documentary that will chronicle the inception of the project through the final symphonic premiere in the fall of 2019.
Anyone wishing to learn more about this project, or wanting to help support it, may visit the Live Music Awareness website.
Note: The author is the principal oboist in the Hawaiʻi Symphony and the director of the Hawaiian Oboe Legacy Project. Live Music Awareness is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by officers of the Musicians’ Association of Hawaiʻi, Local 677 AFM, and is managed by former Senza Sordino editor Marsha Schweitzer.