Instrument maker Leslie Ross, who lived and worked in New York City for 30 years, recently purchased an old vegetable cannery in Penobscot and now constructs bassoons in the space. PHOTO BY CHARLES EICHACKER

Fine bassoons being crafted in old cannery



PENOBSCOT — Passing by, you wouldn’t know the big, white building on Southern Bay Road is the home and workspace of an accomplished bassoon maker, who crafts everything from Baroque-style woodwinds to bicycles rigged with organs to play music when pedaled.

A sign calls the structure “The Cannery,” because for many years, fruit and vegetables were brought there to be preserved. But eventually it ceased serving as a factory, and artists opened a gallery in the space.

Leslie Ross bought the shuttered Cannery after hearing about it from friends who live in Penobscot. The 55-year-old bassoon maker had lived and worked in Manhattan for 30 years, but the rent for her commercial studio on the Lower East Side was spiking, and a move to rural Maine increasingly appealed. She began settling in last year.

Leslie Ross plays the bassoon. LESLIE ROSS PHOTO BY STEPHEN MALAGODI

Leslie Ross plays the bassoon.
LESLIE ROSS PHOTO BY STEPHEN MALAGODI

Now, she makes her instruments in a basement room on the backside of the Cannery. It’s reached through a labyrinth of rooms, corridors and doorways, most of them without insulation, heat or veneer.

“It’s endless, totally raw space,” Ross said, after shepherding a visitor through.

“I didn’t leave New York City to be facing a street,” she added, when asked why her workshop wasn’t closer to the front of the building.

Considerably further along than the rest of the rooms, her studio is filled with instruments, tools and workbenches. Two large cages hang from the ceiling, housing birds that sing and sleep. After gesturing out the window to a greenhouse she installed during the summer, Ross made a mental note to let her chickens in.

In early December, Ross was preparing to add keys to a bassoon she’s fashioning for a British musician living in Berlin. When completed, the bassoon will be a replica of one made in the 1700s by German instrument maker Johann Eichentopf.

The original now resides in a museum in Nuremberg, Ross explained, and might have been played in one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s orchestras.

But while she’s using the dimensions of the original bassoon, getting its sound right will take considerably more effort. In part, that’s because makers like Eichentopf based the pitch of their instruments on the sound produced by organs in the villages where they worked.

Another challenge is that wood warps over time, affecting an instrument’s sound. So Ross usually leaves her slabs of North American maple — a wood of choice for bassoon makers — unattended for years, to allow expansions and contractions to take place.

Ross said she’s replicated that particular bassoon more than 100 times, and estimated each one takes about 100 hours of work. Such a piece may sell for $5,000.

She also encourages customers to return instruments after a year to be checked and adjusted. That was easier in New York, where musicians frequently passed through.

One of Ross’s more experimental instruments was this “organ bike,” which pipes tunes as the rider pedals. Ross made it when she was living in New York City, but it sustained some damage during the 500-mile trip to her new home in south Penobscot.  COURTESY OF LESLIE ROSS

One of Ross’s more experimental instruments was this “organ bike,” which pipes tunes as the rider pedals. Ross made it when she was living in New York City, but it sustained some damage during the 500-mile trip to her new home in south Penobscot.
COURTESY OF LESLIE ROSS

But Ross also made more experimental instruments and sound installations while living there, and it seems she’s doing a similar bit of improvisation in her Penobscot Cannery.

Some of the evidence of her musical experimentation is on display in another of the Cannery’s rooms, though worse for wear after the 500-mile trip from lower Manhattan.

The aforementioned “organ bike,” which recalls the Frankenstein cars and motorcycles that ride across the desert in Mad Max films, needs some work after getting considerably dented in the moving truck.

Another of Ross’s artistic innovations is a lightweight cage shaped like the bustle on an old French dress. When worn, it allows you to herd around small songbirds.

That creative spirit underlies Ross’s broader goals for the Cannery and the attached gallery, in which she has already hosted several sound installations and gatherings. In August, she held a two-day festival for sound artists, which she intends to repeat next year.

That any sound at all is coming from the Cannery may be a welcome development for those who frequent the quiet coastal village.

According to Ross, some of people she’s met have told her of times when they visited the building in its old canning days, bringing squash and other vegetables to be preserved.

It may not involve the sealing of produce for winter, but with Ross living there now, a new type of preservation does seem to be under way.

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]