It’s autumn again! Where did the year go? Last fall, I covered husband Mike’s and my thorough celebration of harvest time in Portland. This year, we live in the shadow of the Wallowa Mountains, known as the “Alps of North America.” So it makes sense that the celebration here is Alpenfest—a celebration of Swiss-German culture.
The weekend’s events kicked off on Friday evening at Terminal Gravity pub, in Enterprise. A band in tracht played polka music as the proprietor tapped a keg of ale brewed especially for the occasion. The featured meal was a bratwurst with sauerkraut, all made locally.
The highlight for me was a man named Bruce Coutant. As a young man, he had a career as a professional French horn player in Los Angeles. After a while, he moved to the Wallowa County town of Lostine and began a new career as a carpenter. A few years ago, he put the two together to become one of North America’s few alphorn builders.
I’ve seen photos of alphorns and have always assumed they produce one long tone, like a conch shell. I couldn’t be more wrong. Bruce squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and launched into a sorrowful, short tune. Then another, a little perkier. Then another, jaunty and sweet. The range of notes he could hit was astonishing. The instrument has no keys, just a mouthpiece and an 11-foot sloping horn with a bell at the end. He created notes as one does on a bugle, simply with embouchure.
Between songs, Bruce explained the history of the instrument. Each family had an alphorn, and each son got one once he was old enough to escort the cows as they roamed up and down the valleys.
“They were the cell phones of the day!” said Bruce. A shepherd would play his signature ditty as a way of telling his family he was okay, and the family would respond in kind. A little research indicates that they were also used to welcome people to church, call cows in for milking, and communicate between villages.
I sipped my Alpenfest ale and hoped that the alphorn’s rich tones would carry across the Wallowa River valley, across the United States, all the way to Switzerland.