Mark S. Veneklasen - Horn Visionary

8/21/1944 - 1/22/2013

Mark VeneklasenThe importance of Mark’s contributions to the Horn and his dedication to hornists is not widely known today. As far back as the 1960’s, Mark was designing and building from miscellaneous parts and a revolutionary new type of horn. Mark totally abandoned the popular “wraps” that virtually every brand of horn, whether hand-made or commercially produced was married to. His horn design from the 1960’s, which I call the V1, proved some general principles that he was formulating in his head regarding the acoustical properties of the Horn. Mark’s psychological makeup was formed from being the son of one of the world’s premier architectural/acoustical engineers, Paul S. Veneklasen. His mother was a hematologist and his step-mother, a concert pianist. Paul was a horn enthusiast also, and owned a Holton Farkas (77) instrument. I must admit I never heard him play it though, but he owned it. I used to play it with his step-mother accompanying for social gatherings. I recently found out from Mark that my father, an engineer, secretly helped Mark get engineering instruction as a young teen as Mark’s own father did not fully support Mark and he ended up living with his birth mother.

In the early days Mark and I would sneak into his father’s Santa Monica acoustics laboratory after working hours and use his quantitative and qualitative measuring equipment to test Marks acoustical ideas. I was in no part one of the innovators or creator of horn design ideas. All I was really good for was to serve as a good, strong, embouchure and set of lips. Mark would mix-and-match bits, assemble, disassemble and change things and have me play whilst he was listening carefully and reading instruments.

Walter HechtAfter youthful participation in his design schemes, we went off into the armed forces. I to a class A band and orchestra and he to Viet-Nam with a post band. It was there that a life changing discovery was made. Mark knew horns inside and out, but, he couldn’t actually play one. He had an involuntary throat tic that would cut off the air right after a TA attack was made. He was never able to overcome this, which is why he relied on others to evaluate playing qualities. When the band director discovered that Mark couldn’t play he was enraged and Mark was shipped out to the worst duty possible. It was believed that Mark was a deliberate troublemaker and it never occurred to the Army that it was simply a case of inability. This horrid punishment duty is what exposed Mark to extremely toxic materials which later handicapped him and eventually killed him.

Mark’s acoustical theories, many of which were revised and even reversed after thorough evaluation, were the backbone to what he called the “next generation” of horn, the V2. While V1 was one horn made of conventional parts, V2 is actually many horns made of parts manufactured from scratch by Mark himself.

With the creation of the V2 generation, money was needed to develop the idea. Mark went far and wide soliciting prominent players to assist him by coming together in a group of contributors (not investors) who, at the end, were promised they would receive V2 horns from the first production run. Mark would go out of the way to approach everyone who he thought would be interested and got every type of response from enthusiasm to an instant brush-off.

I cannot think of anyone who test played the V1 who didn’t urge Mark to manufacture that instrument, however, Mark believed that a horn made of basically conventional components could not be made to play to the level of a completely new design, and he stuck to his V2 plan. This is when it was learned that good design and good playing characteristics, no matter how good, did not ensure success, demand and money. It is here that I offer my opinion. Unforeseen obstacles started to manifest themselves in direct opposition to his efforts.

  1. When it comes to musical instruments, tradition is extremely important. Would Menuhin play a violin built with space age technology, or would he choose the oldest, historically correct instrument possible regardless of quality of performance?
  1. Mark was against individually hand-made instruments. Everything he did, he designed and built “hard tooling” for vast production runs for the different parts. This proved to be costly when the design was changed and the tooling had to be modified or become scrap.
  1. Top players, who would do their best to, on one hand, encourage Mark, were increasingly hobbled by contractual obligations of endorsement to traditional manufacturers.                  

In the last few years of Mark’s life, his paralysis grew worse and his medications (provided mostly by the VA accepting responsibility for causing his Parkinson’s Disease) grew less effective. Mark was asking everyone with horn/engineering/production skills if they could apprentice for him and carry on the physical tasks under his direction. Nobody could be found.

I visited Mark in late November and after I left, I was told by his local friends that his condition deteriorated immediately and profoundly. He was transported to the Cheyenne Wyoming VA Hospital and then to Hospice in Ft. Collins where he passed away after just a short time. He will be missed and I hope his tireless work will be appreciated by the horn community at large.

The purpose of this article is to bring further detail of the Veneklasen Horn Project (AKA New Order of Wind Instruments or NOWI) to those who have showed renewed interest in Mark’s work

V1 Horn

This horn was built using conventional parts in Mark’s and my garage without the aid of any specialized tube modifying equipment. Mark was still a teenager when he designed it. The key mechanism was fabricated from heavy cold-rolled steel and there were solder joints every few inches. The leadpipe, first branch and bell were conventional in manufacture as were the valve assemblies. That is where conventionality ended as the rest of the horn, and the tasks of each valve, differed from any previous horn wrap.   Today, the horn is just as it was in 1966. Mark didn’t fiddle with it mechanically as its only purpose was to validate his basic acoustic ideas for his futuristic horn, the V2. I cannot think of anyone who played on the V1 who didn’t urge Mark to manufacture it (sans all that unnecessary solder and minus the cold-rolled steel) as it played extremely well. I estimate that it would weigh slightly more than a conventional double horn but less than a modern full triple. Not much more can be said about it. It was a superior player and overly heavy in weight. Mark had absolutely no interest in manufacturing it as he felt that conventional parts were, in many cases, acoustically counter-productive.1

V2 Series

The V2 series of horns was Mark’s passion for the remainder of his life. In general, the plan was to build a horn utilizing interchangeable modules for the body of the horn, designed and fabricated by Mark. The leadpipe (later this changed) and bell/first branch were supplied by each player. In the beginning Mark had no proper tooling to fabricate leadpipes and never acquired the tooling to manufacture bells. He believed that little or nothing could be done to evolve the bell further and everybody that I know of was happy with this arrangement. The interchangeable Modules were as follows:

F Single

Bb Single

High F Single

Bb with F valve Single

Bb-F Full Double2

Bb-high F Full Double

Five valve Bb High F Full Double

F-high F Full Double

F-high F five valve Full Double (Mark called this a “composite” horn. I’m not sure why.)

The modules were fully interchangeable and could be taken down and refitted in another configuration in about fifteen minutes

The funding scheme and initiation of the V2 program was presented to local Los Angeles players as a “trial balloon.” Participation papers were drawn up and if and when the player wanted to speculate on Mark’s venture, a paper was signed when the money changed hands. Here is the primary bone of contention in the previous unauthorized edits of my articles and I cannot stress this fact more emphatically, there were NO INVESTORS in Marks venture. In all presentations and in the paperwork signed by everyone (see agreement attached) they were called either a depositor or later a contributor. Only once, that I can remember, an eastern US horn player soon asked for his money back. Some discussion took place and it was decided that it was not a matter of routinely refunding an investment and there are no refunds of contributions. The matter self resolved as the player in question changed his mind and never did pursue the matter.

The V1 prototype performance was a powerful persuader and all indications was that the venture should continue. The intonation of the V1 and V2 were almost astonishing good.  There were no “wolf notes” and there was nothing in the design to assault important node points. You will obviously note on the V1 the fourth valve on the pinky finger. This feature is also on the V2 but, you will not be able to visually sort that out. Mark was not shy about sharing photos of the V2 as he always said that few, if anyone, would be able to determine the air path. The function of this pinky valve was to correct intonation where combination of valves which utilized the third valve was habitually sharp. For instance, you would finger valves one and four instead of one and three. For those bewildered by the necessity of this, I will remind you of the later boon in four valve trumpets and the almost universal use of a “pinky ring” slide extension in conventional trumpets for exactly the same purpose.

Immediately, problems, false observations and wrong conclusions started to crop up. From my old testing notes, I will present a few big ones:

Mark wanted to cast small complex sections of pipe and two problems developed. Casting aluminum hollow pipe in extremely thin wall had never been done before anywhere. Would cast aluminum (slightly porous) pipe be durable enough to withstand the environment on the inside of a horn or immediately start breaking down with corrosion? Initial castings were put to rigorous testing and after many chemical treatments were tried, it was determined that absolutely no corrosion developed, even at the braised joints. From that point Mark continually adjusted the molds and was finally successful in casting thin wall aluminum pipe! As a bonus, heat treated cast or drawn aluminum tubing was very resistant to denting. In an accident you could fold a brass horn but the cast and treated horn would not be dented at all.

The V2 valves were cast, precision (centerless) ground and hard anodized from aluminum, not Teflon, as some have stated on the internet. Hard anodized aluminum rotors were so durable that they couldn’t even be scratched or scored with a pin. The valve bushing sleeves were made of Delrin, another slippery fluorocarbon plastic, similar to Teflon but hard enough to be precision machined. More about this Delrin and Teflon below.

See attached photo of my mouthpiece with rims made from Delrin, and a brass sleeved rim made from Teflon. Mark used my experience with those plastics from my mouthpieces to choose materials. Included in the mouthpiece photos you will find what we called my “skeletonized” mouthpiece. All excess metal had been machined away and this mouthpiece was tested thoroughly at Mark’s father’s acoustic lab. Think of it as a sheet metal mouthpiece. Mark did not have that much interest at first but at my urging we explored far more than mouthpiece stem tapers and stem depths. As a teenager, I had a Delrin rimmed mouthpiece, a Teflon rimmed mouthpiece and a skeletonized mouthpiece available to study. He had the equipment at his disposal to quantify results, so we did. A few years later, I had the privilege of discussing mouthpiece mass with Neil Sanders. His opinion was that the more mass and thicker the rim, the better. Of course I listened. At the time there were no other manufacturers building massive mouthpieces like there are today, only Neil. Neil Sanders wide rimmed mouthpieces are truly a collector’s item today. To make a long story short, I came to the following conclusion: More mass is an advantage over less mass (to a point of diminishing returns, of course) and bulky mouthpieces can be excellent ones. I must admit though that I personally was never comfortable with a wide rim. A few years ago, I gave my massive Denis Wick mouthpiece to a student of mine (Brain Biography co-author Dr. Stephen Gamble) in the UK who seemed to better suited to it.

Five major problems still needed to be addressed:

  1. Mark insisted that the “watch-like” springs be inside the valve body. Engineers know that the spring should be located as close as possible to the reciprocating mass, as he put it. In those days, it was common for horn teachers to recommend hydrous or anhydrous lanolin to lubricate horn slides. Lanolin stopped the V2 in its tracks. Lanolin migrates throughout the horn and with the V2 valves being ten times tighter than a conventional horn it was a nightmare.       Additionally, lanolin was organic and, thanks to Marks mother’s medical laboratory facilities, was found to be literally a Petri dish for nasty bacteria. If that wasn’t enough, lanolin residue was almost impossible to clean out of the horn, no matter what “chemistry” was used. I can’t tell you how many times the horn had to be disassembled and micro cleaned before things were set right.       Lesson learned was to use only synthetic, non-organic lube on your horn. Back then synthetics were not as available as they are now. I cautioned Mark that when horns are distributed, someone will eventually use lanolin and seriously screw things up.       That would certainly be a serious and costly mistake.
  1. When the valves were actuated there was a noticeable bump or pop in the air column which was quite upsetting for virtually any embouchure. Bottom line, the valves were too tight and the rotors had to be ground again and re-anodized. Briefly, when valves are fitted too tight, that can cause what is known as “compression/vacuum phenomena” which is extremely disturbing to the initial formation of the musical note and, in turn, the embouchure. Horns with “sculpted or hollow” valves are not as prone to this problem due sufficient bypass of air from their much smaller sealing area. As a result you needed the strength of King Kong to pull a slide if you didn’t first depress the valve. You risked an audible pop that would be loud enough to be heard throughout any concert hall. Keep in mind there was an extra “vent” in the valve casing to facilitate the auto-condensation draining. As the valve cycled there was a very faint “thsssp” or bubble sound as the water drops drained. This was not loud enough to be heard or be bothersome, however, some discussion regarding water spotted clothing and dirt incursion occurred.       Nowadays, a really elegant solution for draining water from slides, at least the leadpipe, is being marketed by esteemed hornist Andrew Joy at www.thejoykey.com.
  1. I’m afraid that I am at least partially to blame for this false direction. I apologize in advance. In hindsight, I wish that I had known and consulted closely with physics obsessed hornophiles like Malcolm Henderson, Chris Earnest and Burt Hardin. Not only did we do our own detailed testing with the best possible equipment available for the day, I also was well versed on films of related acoustic studies done elsewhere.

In the 1960’s Northwestern University did the following experiment on film: A “horn” (straight, like a herald trumpet) was installed through a specially made glass water tank (aquarium) with only the mouthpiece and the bell exposed at either end. The “horn” then was first played with the tank empty and then full of water, immersing the length of the “horn.” What do you think was the result? I showed the film to Mark several times. Bottom line is that when there was no water surrounding the body of the instrument, it played normally. When they filled the tank covering the instrument completely with water, the player struggled and struggled to produce an acceptable result! What happened as a result almost brings me to tears. Mark decided that the V2 should be “flexible” and allowed to reverberate and connecting hardware be made to facilitate this via rubber O-rings. Well, as we eventually found out, this was not the smart thing to do and money ran out trying to correct the design of the module connections to allow for rigidity, not vibration. As an extension to the “skeletonized” and “flexible” research paths, word soon got out. Soon mouthpiece makers were going heavy. Metal weights were made for fitting over popular mouthpieces and trumpets that looked like they were hewn from solid blocks of brass were developed and were becoming popular. I am in agreement that they all played very well.

  1. It was obvious early on that corporate sponsorship and a great deal of money would be necessary to enable the project to go forward. One such introduction was arranged with CBS Musical Instruments through the loyal and tireless work of Barry Tuckwell. He did everything a person of influence could do to help introduce Mark to the right people with potentially deep pockets. The process for each of these inquiries for corporate sponsorship actually progressed in the same fashion so I will describe only this encounter. Barry would introduce Mark and an appointment or series of appointments would be made for Mark to meet with executives to discuss a mutually advantageous deal. The meetings with the executives were always cordial, notes were taken, and possible plans were outlined. Mark was first and foremost loyal to his contributors and the promises he was obligated to and made this clear to everyone at each level. When the meeting or meetings with the executives were concluded they elevated their recommendations to the highest management levels who, according to Mark, almost immediately went into hyper-corporate,/screw the players, mode and made it clear that if they got involved, Mark’s philosophy would be scrapped almost completely and the necessary decisions would be, for all intents and purposes, out of Mark’s hands.       Mark would get little more than a salary as a consultant. Mark would never throw his contributors “under the bus” and the talks broke down.
  1. The V2 key mechanism was a problem and unsatisfactory all through the project. In those days, there were limited possibilities of how to control a remote mechanism and still maintain a good “feel” for the valve action. In his last eight years or so, Mark’s illness accelerated and he slowly lost both physical and mental endurance. He used to tell me that lucid and productive hours per day were getting less and less and he had no control over when they would occur.       Although Mark was never a punctual person, now he seemed to be unaware of whether it was day or night and would telephone me fairly regularly between 1am and 4am in the morning when he could function conversationally. During the last couple of calls, Mark told me that he had finally “solved” the V2 key mechanism problems that had been with the project from the earliest days. I believe that he had documented his new design but can’t be certain. By this time though, he was essentially bedridden and unable to do the actual fabrication so the improved module was never built. In every conversation he always asked me if I knew anyone who could apprentice for him and help complete the project. Nobody could be found.

Many things went well with the design also.

The water draining for the valve areas worked well.

The V2 valve channels were not round. The best way I can explain the air path through the body of the valve would be like a slightly twisted “fluke parasite” shape. Mark’s theory was that the cross-sectional area of the channel had to be exact, no matter what rotor position.   Tests to optimize this went on for years. Different horn lengths were enhanced with less or more precise curves or bends so that when you changed from the F horn to the Bb horn or to the high F horn, the quality of the sound at the transition would not be noticeable. In plain English, every attempt was made to make long horns straighter and short horns with carefully metered bends to adjust the overtones to closely match the other horn. Conventional horns have a characteristic that as more valves are depressed the embouchure is slightly disturbed and note quality deteriorates. To prove this, just play a note and descend gradually through the “seven” positions on a three-valved horn. No such deterioration was apparent on the V2..

The V2 horns were astonishing light weight. A full triple configuration weighed no more than my Alexander Bb Single. Mark did not have the proper equipment to make bells and was concerned that he would have to have a prohibitively large collection of leadpipe mandrels to satisfy everyone so everyone was to supply their own bell. In time, his resources improved (what he called his “Technical Group”) who were his machinists, grinders, metallurgists, brazing experts, horn artisans, casting professionals, etc. He had approached only people whom he thought professional and trustworthy and wanted very much to make an alliance with one or more of them. This was true for the Walter Lawson/Kendall Betts shop as well as Robert Patterson, whom he desired an agreement to supply bells and perhaps leadpipes. There were many others, literally a who’s who of horn artisans however I cannot list all of them here. He had a great deal of respect and trust for all of them. All in all, they are a fine group of people.

On a personal note, Mark was mindful of funds. I can’t remember him ever taking a formal vacation.  He ate only one “buffet style” meal per day which we jokingly called the “poverty syndrome.” When no money came in earmarked for the horn project he took in “job shop aerospace work” where he could have flexibility of hours and days. He also designed, fabricated and sold relatively simple inventions for motorcycles, Corvair autos, and SLR cameras. He would keep contributors updated from time to time via impossibly verbose form letters. I had many calls throughout the years from people who had received the letters and called me to hear a condensed version of the news. In every conversation I was sure to mention to them that it was lucky they didn’t receive “napkin letters from Mark that were written on in every direction and every possible fold and surface” I have these letters, greatly deteriorated, today in protective envelopes.

Many contributors saw the potential of the design and wanted to just be part of it. They gave Mark the money and little was heard from them again. Technically minded people got more involved. Mark asked everyone for their opinions on things that were “WIP” (Work in Progress) and their recommendations always got due discussion. Some people sent me letters from time to time as they wanted a more routine and technical update on things and did not want to wait for Mark to do his mass, general news, mailings. Two players come to mind as being very eager to participate and communicate, Chris Leuba and Bob Bell. Bob Bell even suggested that Mark move his whole operation to Mexico

Much has been said about Mark’s lack of computerization. Every time I upgraded my personal computer, from 286 processor to 386, from 386 to 486, from 486 to Pentium, I always shipped him my old machine. In the end I learned that the Cad-Cam program that he preferred to use would only run only on legacy DOS. He had someone in Denver to help him adapt. Note though that he did have computers at his disposal and chose to use a legacy DOS instead of learning more modern software.

Well, I hope this almost three thousand word narrative has been interesting and informative. If more questions arise, I will be happy to look through my old notes and respond accordingly. If you wish to also post any of the information provided, I ask that you do so without “creative editing.” Use of the attached photographs are a courtesy and should be credited.

1                Some explanation of my term “acoustically counter-productive” is called for. When referring to acoustical advantages I usually mean from the perspective of the player, not the audience. It has been proven to me some decades ago that a player sounds (to the audience) essentially the same no matter what horn he or she is playing. The stresses and adaptations the player has to go through to produce the musical sound is quite another thing. Specifically, it is the struggle the player has to do to overcome the idiosyncrasies of his, hopefully familiar, instrument that I am referring to. To students who may read this and to whom this concept is new, the following series of quotes is offered:

“The overriding result (of the blindfold test) was that a player sounds the same no matter what horn he is playing…” Barry Tuckwell – Horn Call May 1972

“(Regarding Tuckwell statement above) “This confirms many years of observation at close hand in the orchestra world…” Harold Meek – Horn Call May 1972

“Most important of all, do not listen to anyone who tries to tell you that such and such a horn makes a wonderful sound. Horns don’t make sounds; players do.” Michael Thompson – The Horn, Winter 1996

Now, the obvious question to serious horn aficionados would have to be: Why then do some orchestras insist that the whole horn section play the same make and model of horn? I respectfully answer that I don’t have a clue based in logic. You could make an argument that the orchestra in question usually owns the matched set of horns, not the individual players.

2                I use the term “full double” to mean that the each component of a double has independent tuning and not originally designed as a “compensating” horn where slides are repurposed to aid in not production of notes in both keys. Yes, that means that I do not consider horns copying the old “Philadelphia wraps” as being “full” doubles. This is not meant to lessen the legacy of the Kruspe’s, Conns, etc., just to state that in my mind, they are not “full” doubles. To those who want to argue this point, I will remind you that after 1950 or so, when it became expedient to again have prominent players design and endorse their own horns, they immediately included independent Bb tuning slides (Farkas (originally with Conn), Merker, Tuckwell, DeRosa/Todd, etc.).