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The Veneklasen Horn

by Walter Hecht


v1a
The Veneklasen "V1"
Mark Veneklasen had a dream of building a better horn. His father, the late Paul Veneklasen, was an eminent acoustician and amateur hornist and Mark was a dedicated young student of the horn. Playing the horn, for him, became very frustrating because of a peculiar esophageal reflux action which took place whenever he attempted to attack a note and a lifelong desire to overcome the design limits of the traditional patterns of horn construction. The first problem was never solved, however the second problem, although not financially rewarding or glamorous, was achieved. He not only built a better horn, he built two. For the purposes of this narrative I will call them V1 and V2. In reality, V2 was completely modular and could be, and was, assembled into several different horns, in different key combinations, therefore can be considered several distinct horns.

I have known Mark since we were kids together in West Los Angeles. He was always designing and building complex machines. I bought a motorized bicycle from him which caused more than one hair-raising incident. It is a wonder I am alive today to tell this story.

Mark always had a dream of designing a horn that's design started with a blank piece of paper. His drawings, many of which are still in my possession, show how his designs evolved. Both Mark and I went into the armed forces in 1965, I as 1st horn for the 7th Army Symphony (just before it disbanded) and The Army Woodwind Quintet, and he went to Vietnam with a division band. We were reunited in 1970 when I was visiting Jim Decker and Mark happened to telephone Jim's house. From that day on, Mark spent more time at my home in West Los Angeles than anywhere else. He set up a workshop in my garage and would bang and tinker far into the night, every night. He lived in an apartment about four miles away and, obviously, that sort of behavior is frowned upon with apartment dwellers. My immediate neighbors didn't appreciate it much either.

v2
Walter Hecht, ca. 1982, with the "V2"

Mark already had a first prototype horn built using conventional parts, valves and tube bending techniques. We used to joke about how just the solder weighed as much as my single Bb Alexander. This horn was built to prove the principle of the airflow path and was quite satisfactory to play, except for the excessive weight. It had far too many joints (because of very limited access to tube bending equipment at the time) and a cold-rolled steel key mechanism! This horn was so good in fact that I cannot recall anyone who tried it not urging Mark to just go into production of this horn and put aside his extremely futuristic horn plans. Mark had his sights set far past this first prototype though and was quite bothered by certain players that he felt were trying to brow-beat him toward mass producing this first prototype. The V1 was, by and large, the best horn anyone had ever played. Unfortunately, when inquiries were made to purchase rotary valves, no manufacturer would supply any at a realistic cost. One American who could have mass produced quality valves told us that we were, in effect, too late, he was retiring. This is why Mark went ahead with V2, which did not use any existing horn design, fabrication or parts.

The second generation horn(s) (V2) was quite a different matter and bears absolutely no resemblance to horns as they were traditionally constructed. Many parts had to be injection molded (lost wax process) and Mark made almost all the molds himself. He designed and built all the tube bending equipment so the new horn wouldn't have to have so many joints. He got to be quite an expert machinist and even I spent every spare minute for many years working alongside him. This V2 prototype horn would feature, in part:

  • Horizontal valves
  • Light aluminum tubing, a triple configuration weighed about the same as my single 5 valve Bb Alexander.
  • Damped rubber o-ring joints
  • F, Bb, High F (Triple Configuration) - Each was completely modular. Separate horns (modules) could be detached and reattached at will by the player according to his or her needs. There was a photo session where the V2 was assembled, photographed front and back and reassembled into all possible key (horn) permutations and photographed, front and back. These rare, red velvet background photograph sets have found their way into many hornist's collections and I have been asked many times about them.
  • Water automatically drained from the horn at specific sites without the loss of tonality, volume or the need to remove and replace tuning slides.
  • The key mechanism was truly what we call today ergonomic and it had a extremely complex geometry following the arcs of the tendons of a human hand.
v2bits
All the little bits of the "V2"

On a conventional horn, as the airstream passes through valves, normally there would be a sharp bend with an accompanying deleterious effect on the musical note. As we all know, when activating several valves in combination this decay of the musical voice is compounded. In the Veneklasen horn, the activation of each valve actually straightened the airstream slightly and the ports through the valves were not round, they were shaped for least resistant airflow (as in wind tunnel tests), without changing the "cross-sectional area" of the column of air itself. Imagine having all valves actuated and there be no perceivable deterioration of your tone or added resistance caused by combinations of sudden 90 degree bends! Both the V1 and the V2 featured an "extra valve" actuated by the little finger of the left hand that would be used in combination with other valves to correct the intonation of chronically sharp harmonics. For instance, you would use 1st and 4th when 1st and 2nd wasn't satisfactory. As anyone who has studied intonation on a horn can tell you, the first valve (full step), second valve (half-step) and third valve (one and a half step) principle is insufficient to center many of the harmonics that exist within the useful range of the instrument. An additional helper valve is required to correct the flaws. Keep in mind that adding the extra valve did not cause the quality of the note to deteriorate as with conventional valves.

At about the time when both building the prototype and going out to try to raise money for the project got too much for the two of us, we were fortunate enough to get another volunteer. John Freeman was an excellent young hornist from Ohio who "fell-in" with Mark and I and with enthusiasm and good cheer, helping us do whatever needed to be done. This addition to our crew also added another body around my house to play with my dogs and eat my wife's spaghetti dinners. It seemed that the only thing that was cheap and in sufficient volume to feed everyone was spaghetti. I add this to emphasize that money was extremely tight and everything that was solicited, donated, panhandled, or sold went into paying metallurgists, machinists, tool makers, heat treaters, chemists and a host of other industrial suppliers. Many of the times when there was no money coming in from "contributors" I somehow managed to add more of my own personal funds. When Mark ate out, he would eat one gigantic meal at a local smorgasbord diner per day to save money. We called this "the poverty syndrome." Unfortunately, this habit cost him dearly by giving him a serious hypoglycemic health problem which lasts to this day.

v2triple
Mark Veneklasen holding V2 in triple configuration. Other hybrids on table.

"Contributors" are what we called people who gave us money for future delivery of the first batch of finished horns. For $500 the first people who contributed would eventually get a finished horn. As the project rolled along new contributors were added at a higher fee because as the project advanced it became less and less speculative. Mark took trips around the USA and to Europe (super economy fare) in his pursuit to get contributors into the project. Unfortunately, although well intentioned, this philosophy turned out to be the seed of the project's and Mark's financial undoing.

As the second prototype (V2) reached completion and began a period of refinement and debugging, it became quite clear that it would take a huge influx of cash to bring the project to actual fruition. Certain things happened that idealists and artists could scarcely plan for. For example, after Mark visited Europe and showed his horns to prominent horn players and merchandisers, no sooner had Mark returned that word came from a noted German horn manufacturer (not Alexander) that they had a new model triple horn that incorporated one of Mark's easiest to replicate features. This was like a hammer blow to the solar plexus of the project because the lesson learned was that you can invent something, apply for patents (which drained valuable construction money) but unless you have thousands of additional dollars to spend on attorneys to protect your patents and challenge others, there is little you can do. Obviously this manufacturer knew that there wasn't and never would be enough money to challenge their invasion, so they went for it.

As more of the leading hornists of the world were solicited for the project there were also sociologic lessons to be learned. It became quite obvious early on that each and every associate that joined our ranks also brought quite a lot of psychological baggage and, for a few, obvious wishes of secondary gain. I became quite skilled at mentally classifying people as they became involved in our project.

  • There were volunteers who primarily wanted to be part of this historic change and getting a finished horn was great, but not their prime motivation. John Freeman, Nancy Fisch and I am good examples of this category as was Wendell Hoss, who was long retired and really didn't need a horn.
  • There were some who felt that they should get their horn immediately, with priority over others who contributed before them. Most also thought that they would instantly play better than anyone else and would become overnight sensations.
  • There were some that kept asking over and over who has played on the horns, who has seen them and generally seemed to be motivated by keeping up with the Jones' than anything else.
  • There were some that were all for our project when things were humming along but at the first signs of faltering, wanted their money back. Of course their money had long been spent. A curious thing about this class of contributor is that they were usually late-comers and couldn't understand that others came before them. Mark insisted that the first people, the people who took the most risk, would be the first to get their horns or any other consequences of the venture. I can even remember on more than one occasion comments being made by a helpful player about getting a "deep-pockets contributor" and forget about all the others who had originally funded the project. Strangely, this idea never seemed to exclude delivery of the horn earmarked for them!
  • Various trades and lay people who donated their shop time, expertise, and resources who didn't want a horn and would pale every time I would test a horn in their shop.
  • Other, non-musical people who just believed in this particular project and in Mark. His mother, Louise, and a couple of her closest friends worked tirelessly to help the project in any way they could and donated money and time each and every month.

There were times when we worked all night, from just a box of parts, to ready a prototype horn for a special occasion such as a single visiting artist or the Horn Workshop at Claremont. A couple of years later I presented a pair of my custom photographs of the horns to Barry Tuckwell for his wall at home He was very supportive and never tried to impose his will or influence on the project unduly. I should also mention one of the most courageous acts ever recorded in horndom. On one of the promotional trips, a non-contributor, Howard Hillyer, actually played a concert on this totally unfamiliar instrument. I remember Mark telling me something about Mr. Hillyer fiddling with slides, not knowing what any of them did and making the conductor very nervous indeed. That is the only time that I know of that anyone other than myself ever actually played the instruments for legitimate musical purposes. I had a distinct advantage, I knew what the slides were supposed to do and had dozens of hours of practice with both horns.

The players around the world did not all greet this project with open arms and in fact, if it weren't for the west coast players, like Vince de Rosa, Jim Decker and others, the project would never really have gotten off the ground. Their continued support and influence over others proved to be the mortar of our foundation.

As the years of the project went on, it was apparent that something was wrong, fundamentally. The V1 was, by and large, the best horn anyone had ever played. There was a blind test done at MGM, where de Rosa, Duke and two or three others took V1 behind a screen and alternately played their own horns, then the V1. All praised the V1 as the most uniform, best playing horn, and all (blind spectators) could not tell when the change was being made. When Duke played 8D, he sounded like Duke, When Duke played V1, he sounded like Duke! Again, from the players point of view, the V1 was the preferred instrument.

The kiss of death to the project, in my opinion, is that there was a fundamental flaw in the design of V2, brought directly about by a "scientific study" done at a major US university where the first published conclusions of this acoustics study were (as we realized later) wrongly interpreted. John (Barrows), another player-contributor, urged us to utilize science and we were likely to adapt or incorporate scientific research by others into this new design. Fatal mistake. The whole V2 horn design was integral with a "rubber bushing" mounting for the "works" and that was 180 degrees wrong, because of the first published conclusion of the above mentioned studies. To redesign the horn, from scratch, would not have been financially possible.

I have been trying to get Mark to put a modem in his computer, which he now uses only for Computer Aided Drafting and get on-line with everyone. He no longer lives in California and, believe it or not, still is paying creditors and the IRS for losses incurred with the horn project, a brief marriage and a huge real estate swindle (with his mother) so common in southern California. We gave this project our best effort and although he is in poor health and he still has a huge feeling of failing the horn playing community, only a couple of people (Mark, his mother, me and maybe one or two tradespeople) lost any large sums of money. The funds lost to each "contributor", in today's terms, would only pay for two or three nights at a good hotel. All this being said, I am sure that of the 70+ contributors in 34 cities in 8 countries, very few still have bad feelings and may feel that they were cheated. I have known Mark Veneklasen for forty years and I know that if he were financially able, he would settle with these people, even though they were fully aware of the speculation involved and had assumed the risks.

Letter to Walter Hecht from Dennis Jones

Wendell [Hoss] and Barry Tuckwell were...contributors not just financially, but emotionally as well. They saw the incredible possibilities as well as the revolution it would cause in instrument design and manufacture. I remember, probably around 1974 or 75, when Tuckwell was in town and Mark had finally gotten all the parts from the place that cast them, they were an aluminum alloy of some sort and were also anodized. He had spent who knows how many hours straight finishing the parts, getting the casting flaws out, trying to get a horn together so that Tuckwell could try it before he left LA. Barry had a flight to catch and Mark was feverishly putting the horn together even in the car as they were driving to LAX. Finally, in the airport, just minutes before the plane left, Mark got the horn together enough so that Barry could play a few notes on it before he had to board. Mark told me that Barry just beamed as he got on the plane.

I was really sorry that the project didn't go through. This being the totally new concept that it was, a number of unexpected problems surfaced. The main one, as I remember, had to so with a kind of sludge that developed in the valves due to some chemical reaction between the saliva and the alloy causing them to get very sluggish. I believe that one of the positive consequences of the technology was that very minute tolerances were possible in the valves and that somehow this contributed to the problem.

As I understood, Mark was running out of money and no new contributors came forward. (We aren't talking about much money either.) Mark went back to work to try to get together more money but the project just seemed to die. It was very unfortunate, he really had a beautiful dream..., I have a photograph of a finished Veneklasen horn. It really did exist.

Dennis Jones

Mr. Hecht's reply

Thank you for your comments on the Vhorn. You have a very good memory. I can remember several such last-minute rushes such as you describe. You would be interested to know that I have comments on tape recordings of both Tuckwell and Barrows playing and commenting on the Vhorn in my home during those wonder years.

As an aside, a chemical analysis showed he sludge you mention was caused mostly by the use of anhydrous lanolin on the slides initially. Some of the tubing was not properly anodized and added to the problem. Properly anodized aluminum does not chemically react to saliva at all. The chemical analysis of the sludge turned out to be a semi-nasty (excuse the scientific term) bacterial culture growing in the lanolin. Aluminum brazing points are especially dangerous when it comes to "holding" the anodize treatment, as I remember.

Barry Tuckwell and the Veneklasen horn

Tuckwell was one of the original contributors and therefore got into the project at the lowest financial cost to him. I introduced Barry to Mark as I had met/known Barry since 8/66, from LSO season spent in Daytona Florida. Tuckwell saw great promise, as we all did, and his testing the V1 and his continued support, though not financial, was comprised of moral support, introductions to possible financial and PR liaisons, and advice as to technical and aesthetics aspects of the instrument. Barry was a much valued and interested participant in the project for many years. The story about last minute assembly of horn prototypes for him to play for five minutes had been repeated several times over the years. Mark and I were up all night on more than one occasion in a mad effort to give him "something" to play and critique. My most vivid memory of an occasion is when I briefly lived in a ramshackle triplex in a lousy part of town (during a divorce), Barry drove his rental car to my place on the way to the airport and spent a little while playing on V2, which was in my care. The most valuable effort of Barry's over the years was his introductions to influential and/or well moneyed people. He sent Mark to see just about everyone he knew who could have helped in some way. The problem is that Mark did not want control to leave the players and "original" contributors, who had been the first to believe in him and the project.

Mark believed that he did not want to produce the V1 as it was just fabricated out of conventional parts to prove a basic principle, which it did. The V2 was pursued as the production horn and soon the players all began to protest. Tuckwell, me, Vince, Jim, virtually everyone wanted the V1 to be the production horn but Mark refused, thinking the V2 would be "state of the art." One by one, the important players around the world started believing Mark was kind of a crackpot (with a good idea) and that he was on the wrong course. For the most part, the west coast players remained loyal as did Tuckwell (they had no choice) and prospective contributors and contacts all wanted to take over control and lose the "player-contributors."

Tuckwell, in the last days in the project, went on a cross-country drive, along with Mark where they were stuck in the vehicle with each other and shared philosophies about the project, which now clashed dramatically. Mark is really not the kind to give up on his ideas, and has sort of an unrealistic flair and Barry must have been quite disgusted. The way Mark tells the story, at a hotel, or motel stop, there was an additional mix-up of room assignments and Tuckwell just told Mark "there is nothing musically useful now [to be gained with his horn project]." That was the parting of the ways and rather a crushing blow to Mark.

This is a thumbnail sketch, without any real detail, as I remember it. Tuckwell, to his credit, stuck with Mark far longer than most others. He did more than his share of well intentioned introductions with influential people. He arranged for a house full of hornists in London to meet Mark (Ifor James, Alan Civil and others) and was very active in promotional, door opening. He even continued to do this well after he was displeased at the course Mark chose to take, on blind faith. The two personalities, locked in close proximity seemed to be the last straw.

All images © Walter Hecht. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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