in the style of a hideous man

Shuttling up and down the metal, his fingers played on valves and keys, push-rods and joints welded in a maze.

“Because the air column, this part here, that determines the pitch. So to raise an octave, you have to stop it—here. That’s what this key is for. But the octave is slightly different for every note, and once you get to G there is a completely separate stop. It’s a little kludgy, yeah…”

Uh-huh. It was the Industrial Revolution, and some engineer type with an extra welder decides he is a fucking genius, he can make a new musical instrument. And it is the most complicated, bizarrely constructed—and I would use the word ‘Byzantine’ here, but I’m sure the Byzantines had much better-designed musical instruments and the comparison would not be flattering to them—as if they improvised with a malleable bronze sheet, a punch, and a file, themselves instruments in a trio of manufacture, as if they drew lots, or were steered by inauspicious signs in the flight of geese, or went at it by iterations. After they snaked the first layer of levers and buttons and their interconnecting lines of force, they would have to repair their inevitable deficiencies, the pushes and pulls would need adjustments, hence the bolting and screwing and duct-taping on of a second layer of dull, golden knobs, bumps, doodads, tchotchkes, hood ornaments. And this layer of repairs would also be so abstruse, so convoluted, that it would require another wave of error correction. It probably dispensed PEZ also, I never checked.

“And Blackman, he had this completely crazy new idea, an octave key for every note. So that it’d be exactly an octave see, you don’t have to fix it up by shaping your mouth differently or blah blah, embouchure, blah, spit-valve, blah, this one time in band camp.”

Well, that was the gist of it anyway. I remembered the words that affected me the most, and he was always on about that fucking embouchure. But he would say it like a French word, “am-boo-SHOOR” with a hacking noise at the end as he imagined they would say it at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King’s marching band or Versaille jazz ensemble.

“Completely essential, though, if you start a modern jazz ensemble. Essential tone color, indispensable. Sine qua non.”

But who invents like this anymore? Who freezes any new features at 75%, standardizes it, and then goes to mass production? And when the standard model is not enough to satisfy the market for this labyrinthine aesthetic, to release different models to cover the entire, imperfectly-stopped octave range, the alto, the baritone, the bass, the soprano, who the hell knows how many there are.

“Once you know how to play one, you can pretty much play them all. I mean, you wouldn’t normally, you never see these stranger cousins outside of some serious brass geeks. Those guys are show-offs.”

At some point we draw a dividing line after which new instruments can only be old instruments hooked up to an amp, maybe with some wah-wah, a little distortion here, a little saturation there, or they are your MacBooks running Reason with a USB mixer. More knobs, more sliders, diamond tips on vinyl which recorded the originals, CDJs in digital imitation of same. Because we had discovered them all, there were no more to be had, like alien artifacts planted during pan-spermia, or constructed by our enslaved ancestors via stargate. Henceforth, it will only be samples, played on a Casio keyboard, and remixed. Endless copies of facsimiles of varying degrees of verisimilitude and THX remastered special editions, new characters, changed endings, half-hearted post-facto attempts to improve on something whose very charm was its imperfection.

“Yeah, I guess you could put an electric pickup in there, but why would you? What is this, copycatting stringed instruments? No way, I would never do it.”

Truly, a feud to last the ages, on par with Sox v. Yankees, Roe v. Wade: band kids versus orchestra kids. Strings stopped evolving long ago, when crude noise-makers were carved out of wood and stretched with cat-gut, and made to whine and screech with horse-hair rubbed with pine resin, and other disgusting plant/animal byproducts. Pfft. Barely more advanced than banging stones together. Consider the banjo, the viola, I rest my case. But those quaint mandolin and ukeleles have no innovation such as our little monster, our jeweled and plated beast.

In the future, they will keep the original in Paris, in a vacuum along with the platinum-iridium cylinder that weighed our cattle and metric monster trucks during the Middle Ages. Take your kids to see it. They will demand what evidence remains of Bill Clinton’s musical talent, they will want to know what mourned the passing of hard-boiled detective noir, they will ask what if H.R. Giger dreamed in brass. The last musical instrument made by the race of man, that’s what.


~ by Paul Pham on 22 March 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: