PENOBSCOT, Maine — When Leslie Ross and her partner, writer Zeke Finkelstein, first got a look at the interior of a former vegetable and blueberry cannery on Southern Bay Road, something struck a chord.
Ross, who has been making bassoons for 30-plus years, had been facing steadily increasing rent for her sixth-floor studio space in New York City and knew it was just a matter of time before she would be priced out. Moving out of the city entirely, they thought, might be the right thing for them to do.
The couple had been regular summer visitors to midcoast Maine for more than a decade when, in 2013, a friend who lives in Sedgwick told them about the cannery being for sale. The property had been owned since the early 1970s by artist David Larson and his wife, Carole Larson, who converted the former industrial building into their home, studios and gallery.
“[My friend] kind of twisted my arm and had me come visit it, and I was in love with it right away,” Ross, 56, said during a recent interview on an upper back deck of the sprawling building,
The listed price was out of their range, she said, but she and Finkelstein looked at it together when they returned on a real estate scouting trip the following January.
“We already had this nice little short list of farm houses on the [Blue Hill] peninsula, and [the cannery] was literally the last place we came to,” Ross said. “We walked in, and it was like, ‘Well, this is what we want.’”
After some negotiation, they were able to get the price reduced. So in June 2014, after nearly 30 years in New York City, Ross packed up her belongings and equipment — including cats and canaries, a large lathe, a sizeable drill press and scores of other tools — and moved to coastal Maine, where Finkelstein lives with her when he is not in New York.
The move has enabled Ross to continue a career that started in 1985, when she moved from Montreal to New York City to begin work for an instrument maker in New Jersey. Born in Germany, Ross spent the first decade of her life in Turkey before she and her parents moved in 1970 to Montreal, where she learned how to play the piano. By the time she got to high school, where she played in the school’s wind ensemble, she had made the switch to bassoon.
“I was always a tinkerer. I always took things apart. I always built things,” Ross said. “So, of course, when I get my bassoon home, what am I going to do except take it apart.”
The ability to disassemble her bassoon, examine its components and quickly grasp the function of its design elements came naturally to her, she said, and she started doing repairs at a Montreal musical instrument shop while still in high school.
She made her first bassoon 31 years ago soon after moving to New York City. Since that time, she started her own instrument-making business — initially with a partner and later on her own — and by her estimate has made nearly 300 bassoons from scratch. Each one takes weeks, she said, limiting her to an average of about eight instruments per year.
If there is such a thing as a typical person who makes bassoons from scratch, Ross would not be it. She does not make modern bassoons, which first were developed in the late 19th century, are made strictly from maple, and have an interior lining of hard rubber. Ross makes replicas of historical bassoons of older baroque, renaissance and classical design, using maple, boxwood and fruit woods for her instruments.
She enjoys the work, everything from cutting blocks of wood into rough bassoon shapes and then letting them sit for weeks to give the wood time to shrink, to the detailed work of fitting them with handmade metal keys and polishing the wood. She also makes different sizes of bassoon, including alto and soprano, refurbishes old instruments, and makes bocals — the curved, tapered metal tubes players blow through — for both replica and modern bassoons.
“It’s great fun. You start with this beam of wood, and you make it into bassoon size, and then you stack them and you’re like, ‘Look at that, there are eight bassoons sitting there,’ but of course there’s two years work [left] before it’s done,” Ross said. “There’s a great pleasure in doing a lot of the rough work, doing the drilling and rough shaping because it goes quickly and you kind of have [fast] results. You end up with this neanderthal-looking bassoon, but there it is.”
Not surprisingly, Ross’ interest in music goes beyond making bassoons. She has never been a professional musician but has had many as her clients and as friends whom she enjoys playing with. So, when she and Finkelstein decided to move to Maine, they wanted to do more than just have enough space to live and work. They thought they might find a property with a barn where they could stage live music.
They found the space they imagined in the cannery that, in a word, is huge — as in 14,000 square feet. The building includes a cathedral-ceilinged apartment, Ross’ bassoon workshop, a study for Finkelstein and numerous other rooms, corridors and gallery spaces. It also includes a weaving loom and a grand (but out of tune) piano left behind by the previous owners.
One of the major aspirations they have for all the extra space (aside from installing a second toilet and putting in extra insulation) is to host events — be it live performances of visiting artists or sound installations that Ross or others might have on display. They already have hosted some installations and performances, starting the fall after they moved in.
Ross’ sound installation pieces, she said, help free her creative urges from the limitations she’s faced with in making bassoons. She enjoys making instruments to traditional specifications, she said, but also enjoys discovering new sounds and sensations.
“With sound installation work, I start with the idea of something I’d like to do and I start messing with it,” Ross said. “Almost always the sound I get back is nothing like the sound I imagined. It doesn’t have to be anything. I can just try and mess with the sound it is giving me and try to make it do more of what it is giving me, regardless of whether it’s completely different from what I thought I wanted.
“I enjoy making sure that the bassoon sounds like a bassoon and plays like a bassoon,” she said, “but I really enjoy exploring sound without the constraints of having to be something in particular.”
Sound installations Ross has created in the past include a bicycle that cranks the bellows of an attached pipe organ as it is pedaled down the street; a block of ice suspended in the air by a harpsichord string that drips water and drops pennies into a bucket as it melts; and a tin can with a flapping lid that is attached to a harpsichord string and placed in a stream of running water, the flow of which affects the tension and tone of the string as it is struck by the flapping lid.
Ross said she hopes to recreate some of these installations at the cannery and to make them accessible to the public, either by appointment or in conjunction with live performances by visiting artists.
To that end Ross and Finkelstein, along with Brooksville poet Beatrix Gates, formally have established an entity known as The Cannery at South Penobscot. The aim of the organization is to host artists in residencies at the cannery, giving them their own temporary space in the building to live and work, and to have scheduled times when the public is invited in to hear and see what they create.
One such event is Sunday, Aug. 21, when Ross and Finkelstein plan to host a two-day mini festival of invited musicians playing improvised sound and music at the cannery, detailed information of which is posted on the cannery’s Facebook page.
When the couple decided to move to Maine, Ross said, she and Finkelstein did not want to become isolated from the artistic community in New York and other places that they’ve become part of over the years. The cannery, she said, should help them stay connected to the people and pursuits they’ve come to enjoy, but also help make new connections for them and others in Maine.
“We really want it to be a place for the community to gather,” Ross said.