Mouthpiece Deprivation, and the Saxo-fooooon, and Making Good Art

UPDATE (6 July 2013): Woohoo! My Barone mouthpiece arrived in time to be carried back to me by my friends! Here’s the snap my friend sent me:


I’m excited to get it on the horn and start getting a feel for it!

Original Post: So, a week or so ago I screwed up my tenor sax mouthpiece. I was having some problems, and there was a persistent, weird problem I was seeing–my reeds weren’t really sealing, and I was seeing a weird moisture buildup on the table of the mouthpiece, where no moisture should have been going. It was happening with multiple reeds, too.

And like an idiot, instead of sending it to someone to have it looked at, I got myself some sandpaper, and… screwed up the piece. In doing so, I learned a lesson about letting some things be handled by people who know what they’re doing, and also about how fragile some things are. (I’ve had that mouthpiece since college, and the story of how it came into my possession is long and weird:basically, it was the replacement for a mouthpiece essentially stolen by another saxophonist, but after ineptly ruining the one that had seen me through the last couple of decades with only a couple of sheets of very fine sandpaper and a little elbow grease, it’s hard to hold too much of a grudge over the (slightly superior) piece a guy took from me decades ago.)

Anyway, the problem should be resolved soon: I have a new mouthpiece on order from Phil Barone (who I may yet ask to try repair the old one), and by all accounts the one I have coming is a very good one that, with a bit of luck, will get delivered on time to be brought to me in Vietnam this weekend, by my generous and kind friends who are flying back soon.

Not My Piece: This and the feature image for this post, on the main blog page, are just random image of a Barone Jazz tenor mouthpiece from 2002, which I found on a forum where one was for sale. (Image links to source.)

In the meantime, mouthpiece (and saxophone) deprivation have had some interesting effects on me. For one thing, I’ve had a few weird “sax dreams.” The weirdest so far was one in which I joined the local community wind band here in Ho Chi Minh City. I don’t know if there is any such official group here, but if it does exist, it’s very unlikely to look like the group in my dream. That group (much like Saigon’s amateur jazz big band) had a bewildering abundance of alto and tenor saxophonists, so when I showed up with my tenor sax, it seemed unlikely they would have a need for me to join those legions. When I offered to play soprano or baritone–like I did years ago for the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan community concert band led by my old band teacher, Mike Scholfield, and for my school band when a baritone sax was needed–the director just laughed at me, as if to say, “You think I have one of those on hand?” By the way, the director looked like a screenwriter friend of mine who lives in L.A.

And, weirdly, the figure who approached me next in the dream looked like another friend involved in the film industry, a Westerner I know in Seoul. That guy’s lookalike approached me with a manic expression, and offered me an alternative. “Why don’t you try the saxo-foon!” he suggested, eyes wide with glee, and he led me across the room to the most puzzling musical contraption I’ve ever managed to think up.

What did a saxo-fooon look like? I know that’s what you are probably thinking…

Well, the thing was basically the top half of a saxophone, except with no keys, just a long brass tube attached to… other stuff, which I’ll describe in a moment. One wore it strapped to one’s chest, so that it could be held in place and blown into while one’s hands were busy doing other things. Like holding up the long leather connecting… pipe? bladder? It was more like a faux-leatherette intestine, I guess, through which air passed into a bladder at the end. The bladder was contained in a leather-bound box, from which a string with a handle emerged, along with a little keyboard on the side of it. To play the saxofoon, one had to blow into the mouthpiece, so that air went down the tube, through the suddenly-inflated, ballon-like intestine, and into the bladder, while pulling on the string. The reed on the mouthpiece seemed to have no effect on the sound, except maybe the nasty drone in the background; to choose a pitch, one used the keyboard, and the sound from the bladder seemed to be more like a bagpipe chanter, some hidden double reed somewhere inside the bladder-containment-box being activated by the whole.

It was, essentially, the platypus of the music world.

Also, it sounded downright horrible, but I was so desperate to play music, I was almost willing to say, “Okay, I’ll play the saxo-foooon.”

But just then, the band director clapped me on the back and said, “Wait, I have the perfect instrument for you!” He led me out of the band room–which incidentally looked a lot like that community band room in Prince Albert, in the basement of the city hall–and into the parking lot outside, which was much more like Saigon. He opened the trunk of his car, and pulled out something that should not have been able to fit inside it: one of those electric double basses you see sometimes, like this:


Except, the body was nothing but a fretboard and a tiny clump of wood to hold the bridge in place, it had no bow, and only two strings.

(Now, as a matter of fact, I did play double bass as a kid. Not very well, but I studied for a couple of years, and played in a kiddie orchestra and so on. But I’d never seen anything as pathetic as that.)

“But it only has two strings!” I said, horrified at the prospect.

“That’s all you need,” said the band director with a laugh, and slapped me on the back, and I remember the horrible sinking feeling that passed over me. I was stuck with this… thing.

As for that story about the stolen mouthpiece, the other day I wrote a long blog post about it, when the heat of the anger was still fresh–I’d forgotten about the theft, and when I remembered it the rage was all white-hot and fresh again. I wrote it all out, including some really snarky but funny mockery of the guy who did it. (Irony big time: he used to mock my interest in free jazz, now he’s a huge free-jazzer himself; he used to be a rude, crass, insensitive jackass, now he’s all quoting Deleuze and Guattari and extolling the virtues of all the meditation he did in Japan.)

I thought a bit, and then softened my stance, tried to imagine why he’d stolen it.

Okay, maybe stolen is the wrong word, though it’s the one a friend of mine used when I toled him the story recently. “That guy stole your shit!”

It was more like, a temporary trade that he refused to honor in the end, leaving me with a very bad, cheap ebonite rubber mouthpiece, and simultaneously leaving him with the first metal mouthpiece I ever got, a birthday present that by dumb luck had happened to be an outstanding piece. Maybe he’d been broke or desperate at the time. Maybe he’d experienced the same maltreatment from someone else. It was hard to imagine, since he’d continued being a jerk after that, and the temptation to link his site and out him as a mouthpiece thief–to shame him–was only barely overcome by the feeling that, like, maybe twenty years later, I should be a little less attached to my own anger? Don’t get me wrong, even now I still want to shame him a little. Sadly, the experiences I’ve had online with other people from way back in my past have reinforced the sense that people who were assholes twenty or thirty years ago mostly can be expected to be the same now. You never know… but I find people tend to change a lot less in real life than in the fictional stories we tell about people.

But then, I can think back to one or two things I did twenty-five years ago that I wouldn’t want someone to post about online. Mean things. Things I did because I was in a bad state, or messed up. So I try to sympathize.

And in sympathizing, I got an idea for a story, or, rather, for a transrealist twist on the story I’ve just told, with way more detail, about why what happened might have happened. Or how it could have happened, with a little SFnal nip here, and a little fantastical tuck there. It’s about the most sympathetic reading I could come up with for why someone would refuse to trade back a saxophone mouthpiece after promising the trade was only temporary, and I’ve had a ball writing it, too.

I’m not a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, for reasons I’ll probably try articulate eventually around here, but when I told my friend Nick about all this, he quoted Gaiman to me, and it was appropriate. This was the passage he paraphrased (which I found online at brainpickings):

When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician–make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor–make good art. IRS on your trail–make good art. Cat exploded–make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before–make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.

Of course, it’s easy when you talk about the silly scenarios: nobody’s cat explodes, and mutated boa constrictors are easy to contemplate because they’re not real. Internet trolls are not cancer, though they sometimes resemble it in their behaviour and ineradicability; they’re not childhood leukemia, they’re not your wife being struck by a hit-and-run driver, or some bully stealing your mouthpiece from you through deceit that leaves you scraping for months to replace it, and ever afterward always vaguely distrustful of fellow musicians. It sounds like an easy thing for a white, apparently straight man living in the richest country in the world, and without apparent  financial worries, to say with regard to life’s problems.

But then, he may nonetheless have a general point, when it comes to what to do with the general shit life sometimes hands us. I can imagine any number of jazz musicians, living in relatively (and absolutely) more difficult circumstances than Gaiman saying essentially the same thing (though in far different, and less cutesy, words). Maybe making good art is the best response.

So why do I feel tempted to leave the character name the same as the real name of the real guy? And why do I feel tempted to sent him a copy, when it’s eventually published, inscribed to him and everything?


2 thoughts on “Mouthpiece Deprivation, and the Saxo-fooooon, and Making Good Art

  1. Huh. I was about to write a post of why I don’t like Neil Gaiman all that much either, or at the very least overrated. I much prefer Terry Pratchett actually, and I suspect the main difference is that Mr. Pratchett doesn’t take himself too seriously. Gaiman’s ego seems to take over everything he does, which is a shame, as he’s done a lot of work that could otherwise be really good.

  2. I should admit, I haven’t read that much of his work… but then again, I have started reading a fair amount of it. The not-reading is kind of the reaction to trying, rather than to not bothering, in other words.

    But I would probably need to read something all the way through in order to really critique.

    From the bits I have read, it just sort of always struck me that Gaiman was the softer, gentler Clive Barker… and Barker was much more my speed, at least during a certain moment in my youth–through The Great and Secret Show and Weaveworld. (Never did get around to Imajica, though I finally let go of a hardback of it in Seoul, and I am still curious to read Everville, though at the moment I have so many paper books that I’m holding off till I get through them before I dive into it.) Barker had his flaws, and they were apparent to me even by the time I got to Weaveworld, but his stuff was just so bananas that I was willing to shrug and go with him anyway.

    Actually, funnily enough, the longer project I’m working on now could probably use a dose of Barkerian influence. I see now that the “secret” nature of the occult wars and such that he wrote about have been cropping up in my own writing too. That’s a genre-wide thing, of course, but I suspect I get it from such heavy exposure to Barker (even before Lovecraft) when I was just getting into genre fiction.

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