The Welder’s Torch

It is one of those nights where everything was supposed to happen and in spite of your best intents, the evening still turned out dull. The musician’s playing is unconvincing inside of a dank and cavernous auditorium. The director is underwhelming, mounting an impenetrable enthusiasm for a work that deserves no such credit. The audience is lukewarm and dodgy, dressed in their typical after-work street clothes and ready to go home for the night. After the concert the fog in the night can’t even commit, playing as a dark and wispy entertainer who forgot how to be wispy. And then the bullet-shaped blue and white tram in a mostly gun-free society pulls up, so the musicians had might as well get in and go home to cap off such a colorless night.

“Hey Jacob, why did Hitler kill himself?” my Israeli buddy inquires. Pulling out his handy smart phone he rattles off some of the best Jewish jokes he can download. I purse my lips and think about it. I even take jokes too seriously tonight. “Because they sent him a gas bill!” he cackles. Yanir continues to rattle off a few more politically incorrect jabs as the train rolls along. Prochaine arret: carnot-mairie de Cenon . . . Cenon Gare . . . Jean Jaures. A boring electronic message passes across the sign in the front of the tram car—Monter sans titre de transport, c’est frauder! “Merde,” je pense. I smile and acknowledge another musical colleague, the Spaniard across the walkway. “Que opinas del concierto?” I ask with forced enthusiasm.  She doesn’t appear too much more impressed with the evening than I was, but forces a friendly reply.

Prochain arrêt: Thiers-benauge. My friends are now practicing their French together, making fun of the unimaginative night and the conductor who pretended he didn’t drop his glasses off the podium mid-performance even though he really did. As we pull into the station, I see arms flying. A few people standing around watching. Fists clenched. There is an issue here, and two men are about to go public on my boring night. The doors open and their words and sweat and pride and pissed-offness spill into the tram. Their coats swirl around in the dress of a violent black and blue dance as they join the multitude of onlookers in the mostly gun-free society.

When I was a boy in some Jesus Camp Kansas City church, I remember being brought to sit and listen to numerous Sunday School lessons about all the Christian martyrs. The Apostle Peter died upside down on a cross; he insisted he wasn’t worthy to be crucified like his Lord. St. John was banned to an island of seclusion—probably for talking too much. John the Baptist had his head cut off in a jealous mix-up between a king and his step-daughter. Usually the lesson would move to modern times to point out the common people around the world who are killed for their beliefs. The message, however, was always consistent at the end: Would you die for your faith? Would you stand firm and not waver in the moment?

Certainly, this is one of the silliest questions humanity could ever ask, nearly on par with “How do you remove a club soda stain?” and “Why don’t black guys get white tattoos?” Its saving grace, however, comes when we really are placed in those moments of reckoning where a decision must be made and there is no choice in between. That is when an individual’s true colors come out and he shows the content of his chatter.

When Americans travel abroad, it is difficult to keep a low profile. We barely speak English, much less any other language. We tend to talk too loudly in group settings. . . well, any settings. We wear baseball caps and flashy gym shorts in public. Our fate and identity is often sealed before we even realize it. Once recognized, people tend to have opinionated reactions. We are either their new best friend, knighted with the privilege of being their new English teacher (bad idea) and Hollywood connection (worse idea) or their greatest jihad enemy, the central problem to global warming, and a snobbish religiously imperialistic globocop. Nevertheless, living in France is one of those few places in the world where traveling abroad as a Yankee can be a real asset. We share much in common culturally. Americans have burgers and fries. The French have wine and cheese. Life is not so complicated after all. There is a strong economy which promotes creativity and diversity. Americans and French alike insist on speaking the mother tongue and look down their nose at those who cannot or will not. They both export great musical traditions that have influenced and entertained people around the world. Most importantly, both France and America have maintained an openness to foreigners. This cultural diversity has fostered a youthfulness that keeps innovation flowing and avoids stagnation. Blacks, Whites, Arabs, Asians, and Latinos all live under the same flag, and although they might not always like it, they are better together than they are apart.

There are certain kinds of truths learned about one’s own country that only come from time spent traveling abroad. A tourist will vacation for a few weeks a year gawking and photographing their time away in a brazen effort to impress their friends with trinkets and tales upon return. They are happy to sample an exotic flavor and remain in the same breath entrenched in their comfortable lifestyle. The traveler, on the other hand, will hold his culture up to the microscope, take out his scalpel, and wait. He watches to retain only the best of what he sees and relentlessly juxtaposes his country of birth with his location of choice. Little by little, he cuts away the weak qualities of his homeland, embraces the strengths of the new, and grafts in the changes as he sees fit. Eventually with time, the sense of homeland washes away until there is simply a life lived for the richest risks and greatest opportunities it may bring. The traveler loses his responsibility to a land and blind homage to a faith and becomes a nomad. Home becomes his tent, his suitcase, his friends, and his memories.

So there they were, going at it as if Armageddon was at hand in that blue and white bullet tram. Their fury filled the area quickly; the walls pressed in to embrace the violence. A French woman weakly screamed and backed away hastily—her large black leather purse made it hard for her to move nimbly, especially in her pink high heels. People were circling around to watch. There was no time to think, only moments to respond. Just then, the man in the black jacket pinned his arms at his side, grabbed from behind the back. He flew into the crowd and away from his enemy, unceremoniously landing on the floor. My friends parted more or less like the Red Sea for him, gawking at this strangely lackluster night gone wrong and this man squirming his way past them on the floor toward the nearest exit. As he got out to circle around the window and renew his barbaric dance, the doors began to close. Pounding and spitting and swearing filled that ridiculously ammunition-shaped tram in a mostly gun-free society as they said their last goodbyes. An Arab woman with running blue mascara stood by sadly watching the two as they parted into the wispy night.

Arts and Crafts with Christian Lauba

“So let me get this straight,” he said. “You can barely play Bach and you work at some bebop with a dash of Glazunov, and you’ve never even heard Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’? What about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ or maybe ‘Happy Birthday’? Do you know how to play those tunes?” My ears were bright red and my face was hot—I was speechless. Americans are supposed to be the kings of sarcasm, not the French! Here I was making the effort to embrace the best of the classical saxophone aesthetic after having moved halfway around the world and my first lesson was a criticism on what I would play if my mother were listening. Clearly, I had missed something.

Music lessons with Christian Lauba rarely produce a dull moment. They are a roller coaster of experiences from elation to despair to relief, especially when you figure out how to realize his musical demands. Working with him carries a two-fold focus: one on fundamental instrumental abilities such as timbre and tuning and the other on ear-training abilities. That’s not transcribing, but rather the ability to immediately recognize the different Brandenbourg Concertos and Kindertotenlieder by ear, for example. Some noteworthy divergences he took from other teachers were a substitution of Bach studies (normally movements from the cellos sonatas) instead of Londeix and Lecour études as well as a focus on the character of a performance of a piece. You played the work happily, with vigor, or angrily according to your desired interpretation or what the composer might call for. Lauba guided me to control my emotions on stage so that I could say what I wanted to say in my own way, any day.

Each week our work together began with the normal regimen of playing a scale, always slowly. Often, saxophone players practice flashy without focusing on fundamental matters of intonation and finger control; this rebuilding work neatly exposed all of the flaws I had simply blown past for years—I was the kind of guy who played his scales as loud as possible to the rhythms of Paul Van Dyk. With Lauba, I would begin with an A major scale (C concert) because this is the most difficult to maintain in tune. Saxophonists quickly learn this because of the naturally kinky open C# and full D notes in the saxophone’s middle register—they’re tuned opposite of the way a major 3rd and perfect 4th ought to sound. Another important hurdle we corrected concerned the naturalizing of the timbre between registers. No longer was it appropriate to fluff my way through the deep register with a woofy Ben Webster sound only to reappear cutting and overblown like Eric Marienthal in the palm keys. I listened to the evenness of Itzakh Perlman’s timbre on the Paganini caprices and learned to play with an even resonance no matter what note I was playing; according to the style called for, I learned to shape an appropriate sound.

Within this warmup exercise Christian would normally harmonize the scale with me on the piano. There was always an emphasis on fitting inside of the sound to create a homogenized effect instead of one instrument layered on top of another. I stopped blowing so hard and placed that energy into listening for the appropriate pocket fit of the two instruments. It’s kind of like sports when a basketball player cannot miss 3-pointers (case in point—Mike Miller, Miami Heat, Game 5 2012 NBA Finals). There is a groove to be found, and I listened to manipulate the materials at hand to catch the sounds we were looking for. From there I would usually simulate a performance situation of the work I was studying. Christian maintains a degree of intensity when it comes to these moments, and so little by little I worked to develop a performance bubble so that musical instincts would play out when the spotlight was on and people were watching.

Lauba also gave me a crash course list of essential works to know by heart on classical music, which you can access here. Put simply, it is a beginner’s anthology for scratching the surface of Lauba’s listening background or perhaps a workman’s guide for classical music dummies. In absorbing this new music, I learned to appreciate some of the most cherished works of the fine art canon. It serves spectacularly as a point of departure in a world glutted with more music than anyone will ever have time to totally listen to.

However, that’s only half the story. Ultimately, studying music with the composer is a lesson in humility. You realize you are not all that, you are blatantly confronted with your weaknesses, and you are forced to come to terms with your listening acumen. In short, studying with Lauba is a musical roast. He cheerfully laughs at you if you play out of the style at hand and holds you to the highest of standards. Friendship is an important matter, but the music is the most important. No element is left un-confronted. A bad lesson with Lauba is the only time in my life where I quite literally wanted to throw my instrument out of the window!

Working with Lauba installs a new mentality inside your sensibilities, a brand of thinking that reflects his economical approach to music. Because he didn’t begin studying music until he was thirty years old, the man simply had little time for extraneous musical efforts. Being the late bloomer that he was, he inherently placed himself in a position where it was important to make quick decisions about the musical issues immediately at hand. As a result, with Lauba, there is good music and bad music; one finds aesthetics that reflect a healthy finesse or approaches that debase the Western fine art form. A good place of departure for understanding this viewpoint is found in my article Art-in-an-ugly-box, which I wrote after a particularly memorable argument at the beginning of the year. Finally, his musical ideas aim for creating new works that embrace the past while pointing forward. Most of his favorite composers come before the 20th century (a notable exception is Ligeti) and fundamentally, I contend that Lauba is at heart a classical composer. But that is an argument for another day.

When it comes to music, Christian carries strong opinions proposed with a smile and defended with a bullwhip. He is particularly critical of classical saxophone teachers in America and Europe who routinely teach students without really helping them, who collect a salary while perpetuating a mediocre performance level, and fail to champion the quality repertory apart from the inferior. He resists such 20th century devices as indeterminacy, expressionism, minimalism and especially free (spectral) improvisation. He is convinced that most concert saxophone players come from the country or some backwoods culture; but then again, perhaps he was just talking about me! At any rate, the point is being musically broad with a well-rounded listening background.

Working with Lauba, nevertheless, will change your life. He is not the shamelessly self-promoting shark trying to overrun the next composer; he would rather let his music speak for itself. Because of him, I learned to play music with greater expression and live life without fear. I laugh more. I take myself less seriously. I hear more details in conversation and in music. I accept risk as the pathway to my goals. His approach to life and music is a bit elementary. You simply listen, perceive, compare, and adjust accordingly. This is the Lauba way. Observe and respond, develop your talents . . . trust your instincts.