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Monday, June 4, 2007

Reading List: The Devil's Horn

Segell, Michael. The Devil's Horn. New York: Picador, 2005. ISBN 0-312-42557-0.
When Napoléon III seized power and proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1851, his very first decree did not have to do with any of the social, economic, or political crises the country faced, but rather reinstating the saxophone in French military bands, reversing a ban on the instrument imposed by the Second Republic (p. 220). There is something about the saxophone—its lascivious curves and seductive sound, perhaps, or its association with avant garde and not entirely respectable music—which has made it the object of attacks by prudes, puritans, and musical elitists almost from the time of its invention in the early 1840s by Belgian Adolphe Sax. Nazi Germany banned the sax as “decadent”; Stalin considered it a “dangerous capitalist instrument” and had saxophonists shot or sent to Siberia; the League of Catholic Decency in the United States objected not to the steamy images on the screen in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, but rather the sultry saxophone music which accompanied it, and signed off on the scene when it was re-scored for French horn and strings; and in Kansas City, Missouri, it was once against the law to play a saxophone outside a nightclub from ten-thirty at night until six in the morning (which seems awfully early to me to be playing a saxophone unless you've been at it all night).

Despite its detractors, political proscribers, somewhat disreputable image, and failure to find a place in symphony orchestras, this relative newcomer has infiltrated almost all genres of music, sparked the home music and school band crazes in the United States, and became central to the twentieth century evolution of jazz, big band, rhythm and blues, and soul music. A large and rapidly expanding literature of serious and experimental music for the instrument exists, and many conservatories which once derided the “vulgar horn” now teach it.

This fascinating book tells the story of Sax, the saxophone, saxophonists, and the music and culture they have engendered. Even to folks like myself who cannot coax music from anything more complicated than an iPod (I studied saxophone for two years in grade school before concluding, with the enthusiastic concurrence of my aurally assaulted parents, that my talents lay elsewhere) will find many a curious and delightful detail to savour, such as the monstrous contrabass saxophone (which sounds something like a foghorn), and the fact that Adolphe Sax, something of a mad scientist, also invented (but, thankfully, never built) an organ powered by a locomotive engine which could “play the music of Meyerbeer for all of Paris” and the “Saxocannon”, a mortar which would fire a half-kiloton bullet 11 yards wide, which “could level an entire city” (pp. 27–28)—and people complain about the saxophone! This book will make you want to re-listen to a lot of music, which you're likely to understand much better knowing the story of how it, and those who made it, came to be.

Posted at June 4, 2007 00:16