A Victor, N.Y. man shares a piece of his homeland by playing the alphorn, and with performances June 2 and June 3.
In Switzerland, they say cows so love the smooth sounds of the alphorn echoing in the mountains that they make more milk. In Victor, the cows behind Bill Zell's house hear his music and march out of the pasture, curious for a closer look.
Once, a practice session was interrupted when the phone rang.
"It was the cows' owner," says Bill. "He said, 'What the heck are you doing? The cows are coming!'"
Curiosity is often the reaction he gets when he plays his 13.5-foot horn, whether it be in Egypt, Kenya or his backyard. It's made with long strips of spruce and has no keys.
"It's exciting because people always think you can't get sound out of it," says Zell. "They've never seen it or heard it."
Not, that is, unless they've seen the breath-mint commercials in which a man clad in lederhosen sings "Ricola!" across the grassy hills on an alphorn. Now, people can listen, and Zell can share his passion for it, Saturday, June 2, and Sunday, June 3. Friends of his from the group Spiritalp are flying in from Europe for a visit and two days of free public performances.
Zell fell in love with the instrument when he visited his native Switzerland for the country's 700th anniversary, in 1991. High in the Alps, he heard hundreds of horn blowers harmonizing.
"I was so impressed ... The sound is very beautiful, very Swiss," says Zell, still with a twinge of his accent after 17 years in Victor. Before Victor, he lived in Pittsford for 10 years and also lived in Hong Kong, France and all over the world managing optic and medical companies.
Since there are no keys on the alphorn, whatever you sing comes out. You are the pitch and tone.
"It's a lot of emotions," says Zell. "The more feelings you have, the more beautiful the sounds are. That's what attracted me."
Instruments similar to the alphorn date back 100,000 years. Early instruments are said to have been used to signal warnings, often for military use. In the Alps, villagers used them to announce daily activities, and cowboys living alone in the mountains used them to call each other to fill the void.
Zell has a decade of alphorn playing under his belt and finesses his tones at the world-renowned Alphorn Academy of Switzerland. He attends sessions every year. He has given performances as part of the school's group in Egypt, Kenya and other international locales. He's the only American of the bunch.
His wife, Joan, joyfully accompanies him on trips, and for after-performance mingling. "We have a good time," she says.
Until now, Zell's concerts locally have been limited to the grass behind his back deck in Hiawatha Hills.
It's like a slice of home for Werner Liniger, a fellow Swiss who often hears Zell play in his backyard.
"It's an instrument we know from back home," says Liniger. "... The echoes on the mountains are very beautiful."
He and his wife, Margrit, were once once awakened by Zell at 1:30 a.m. on the telephone, who gave them a cheery but strong command to "Get up and come over!" Zell said another alphorn player was over and they were inspired for nighttime playing.Bleary eyed, the Lingers, of course, went.
"It was something like that," laughs Werner of the night.
The alphorn is easy to use but difficult to master, says Zell. It's all about using your diaphragm. The more you push it out, the higher the notes you can get. He practices every day and takes lessons from a man in the Buffalo-based band German-American Musicians, which he just joined.
Zell even fashioned a makeshift horn out of 13 and a half feet of plastic tubing, a garden funnel he pilfered from his wife, Joan, and a regular horn mouthpiece, so he can practice in the car. While driving?"I'm not supposed to," says Zell, laughing.
Handmade alphorns can cost $3,000 to $4,000, or less than $1 for the crafty tube concoction if you can find an old funnel.
Abroad, Zell and 20 or so other Academy members play on beaches, in hotels --pretty much anywhere -- for free and sometimes a free drink.
"It's just for fun," says Zell. "The people are so friendly to you because they're seeing something new. We make people smile all over the world. That's great."
In Kenya last February, his sessions were like a cultural round robin. Zell introduced the Kenyans to the alphorn and everyone got to know a bit about each other and their customs.
"Kenya is most amazing! People were friendly and hard working and eager to learn," says Zell. "... For the first time, I met the guy who has nine wives."
The schoolchildren they played for gave them each a flower; Zell brought extra mouthpieces so his new friends could try to play, too. Zell discovered his horn is a pied piper to monkeys, too. A mama monkey stuck its head clear into his horn, its baby poking its head out of her pouch.
"The monkey went into my horn," says Zell. "It was so cute. They wanted to know where the heck the sound was coming from."
Zell said he loves the interaction with people and introducing them to a bit of traditional Switzerland. Next year, he'll go with the Academy group to Jordan, and play for the king.
This weekend, Zell will pick up his friends Friday from the airport. He needs to rent a bus to fit all six and their long horns. The guys can separate them into three parts, but the carrying cases are still an unwieldy 5-feet-or-so long. One of the three men is the renowned Academy teacher. Their wives sing in Swiss garb. Zell will be an honorary Spiritalp for the weekend.
To celebrate, the Zells are hosting a big party Saturday with 40 or 50 friends for food, wine and impromptu playing. They have at least three public shows, and will board a private boat Sunday for an afternoon of alphorn playing around Canandaigua Lake, serenading whoever happens to be along shore.There may be some surprise shows, too.
"We might just stop and play, if we see people," says Zell. "Maybe we'll even stop on the road if we see someone."
Kris Dreessen is outdoors editor for Messenger Post Newspapers. She can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or at email@example.com