Wednesday, February 09, 2005


In the current New Yorker, there’s a Talk of the Town item by Adam Gopnik about how the old city street signs on corners in Manhattan are being overshadowed by big green signs. The piece itself is apparently meant to be whimsical, and the prose almost herniates as Gopnik pushes his wan observations toward humor. One sentence particularly caught my eye, however: “The two smaller signs are still there, but they are now drowned out by the highway signage, two jazz piccolos trying to be heard above an electrified kazoo.”

Two jazz piccolos? It’s not a common instrument in jazz, and off the top of my head I can only recall one jazz piccolo performance, by Joe Farrell with the Elvin Jones Trio on “Keiko’s Birthday March” from Puttin’ It Together (the credits only list flute, but it's definitely a piccolo). As for the electrified kazoo, there are actually a number of such things. Most are homemade, such as the “giant electric kazoo” invented by Ontario’s own Nihilist Spasm Band. Those disinclined to build their own may opt for mass produced “instruments” like the Saxxy, a hi-tech toy that bills itself as a synthesizer kazoo. Naturally, there are plenty of kazoo recordings to be found, perhaps the most famous being the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, whose novelty recordings helped launch the mighty Rhino Records. But the kazoo doesn’t just exist as morning zoo joke fodder, and those interested in hearing how the instrument can be applied seriously should check out the Flat Earth Society album ISMS.

Gopnik, of course, is not being literal here, and I rather doubt the fabled fact-checkers at the New Yorker pestered him for actual musical examples. The older signs are cast as piccolos probably because they’re small (that’s what “piccolo” means in Italian), and dubbed jazzy in deference to their jazz-era typography. As for the electrified kazoo, well that’s just meant to make the new signs seem garish and ridiculous.

But what bugged me about the analogy is that in my experience piccolos never have any trouble being heard. Above anything. They may be tiny, but their tone is piercing in the extreme, and it rarely takes more than one to cut through the largest ensemble — think of the famous counter-melody in Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” march. I’m tempted to call the whole thing overblown, but I suspect only flute and piccolo players would appreciate the pun.

A piccolo played in its lower register is not piercing or loud. Perhaps Gopnik had that in mind, since the old street signs are lower than the new garish kazoos.
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