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Cutting Remarks

Transcription of Stephen Malinowski's Radio Interview
of Deena Grossman's Electric Razor Ensemble,
The Cutting Edge (1988jun22)

Stephen:  This is Stephen Malinowski; with me today are Deena
          Grossman and the members of her electric razor ensemble,
          The Cutting Edge.  Deena, and Cutting Edge, welcome!

Deena:    Thanks for inviting us.

Stephen:  I guess my first question has got to be: how did you 
          ever get the idea for a razor band?

Deena:    When I first knew Larry (that's my husband) he shaved 
          every day.  I didn't realize it, but I had gotten 
          really used to the sound of him shaving in the morning.  
          When he started growing his beard, I missed that sound.  
          One day, I came across his old razor in a drawer, and I 
          plugged it in, just to listen to it.  A few months 
          later, a friend of Larry's, Ron, was visiting us from 
          Japan.  One morning, while he and Larry were out at a 
          rehearsal, I was in the bathroom, and I noticed Ron's 
          razor.  I felt a little wicked when I plugged it in to 
          listen to it.  It was a completely different sound, a 
          different pitch, a different timbre than Larry's.  The 
          idea occurred to me: "what's the interval between 
          them?"  so I looked around for Larry's razor so that I 
          could compare the pitches.  The interval was almost 
          exactly a perfect fifth! and it sounded really neat, 
          you know, really rich, sort of like a bagpipe.  And uh, 
          I knew some bagpipe tunes, so I started singing one of 
          them, with the razors as a drone (sings the first few 
          notes of the tune)... you know the one.

Stephen:  Uh, The Rose Among the Heather.

Deena:    No, The Pretty Apron.

Stephen:  Oh, right.

Deena:    Anyway, I didn't hear Larry and Ron come in over the 
          sound of the razors, so they really caught me off guard 
          when they came into the bathroom.  They started 
          laughing at me, and I cracked up, too.  But they had to 
          admit that the sound of the two razors together was 
          pretty incredible.  We joked around about it for a 
          while; I think it was Ron who said something about a 
          razor orchestra.

Stephen:  And so how did you get to the point where you actually 
          had a razor orchestra?

Deena:    Well, Ron went back to Japan, and, as a joke, he 
          started sending us electric razors.  In Japan, people 
          like new things; new appliances, new cars... whatever; 
          so, when you walk down the street, next to people's 
          garbage cans you see these piles of used furniture, old 
          TVs, kitchen utensils; some of this stuff is in fine 
          condition, just a little out of date.  Anyway, Ron 
          walked a couple of miles to work every day through a 
          residential section on the outskirts of Tokyo, and 
          whenever he spotted an electric razor, he'd take it and 
          send it to us.  After a year of this, he had sent us 
          nine or ten.

Stephen:  And how did you get people to play them?

Deena:    Larry and I had arranged all the razors on our 
          mantelpiece.  When we moved, about a year and a half 
          ago, we had a housewarming party; had fifteen or twenty 
          people, and they asked about the razors, and we ended 
          up playing around with them and realized we could do 
          some great things with them.

Stephen:  So when was it that you first played a razor piece in 

Deena:    In public...huh...I guess that would be the opening of 
          an art show of a friend of mine.

Stephen:  Uh-huh.  Yeah, I remember seeing the newspaper review 
          of that, with the headline: "RAZORS SHARP, ART FLAT."

Deena:    Yeah, she was pretty ticked off at that, since we got a 
          better review than she did.

Stephen:  And the rest is history.  

Deena:    I guess.

Stephen:  Before you play your first piece, would you like to 
          introduce the players?

Deena:    Yes.  Barbara Merrill plays the razors from our lowest 
          one, C zero, through to D 3; Leslie Roberts...

Stephen:  (interrupts) Excuse me, before you go on, could we hear 
          that lowest razor?

Deena:    Sure; Barbara?

Barbara:  (plays C zero).

Stephen:  Whoa!  Sorry to interrupt.

Deena:    No problem.   So, as I was saying, Leslie Roberts 
          covers E flat 3 through G 4, Bryan Higgins plays A 
          flat 4 through C 5, Jim Carmichael plays C sharp 5
          through F 6, and I play from F sharp 6 up.

Stephen:  What will we be hearing first?

Deena:    We're going to warm up with something easy, a Bach 
          chorale, number eighty, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

Stephen:  (under) Schnitt er sich beim Rasiermesser?

Deena:    (off) Huh?

Group:    (they play O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden)

Stephen:  Don't you feel it's a little...uh, sacrilegious to play 
          Bach on electric razors?  I mean, some purists 
          disapprove of playing Bach on any modern instrument, 
          like the piano...

Deena:    (interrupts, with mock serious paraphrase) "If Bach had 
          had the electric razor, he would have written for it."

Barbara:  (off) ...or shaved with it.

Deena:    But seriously: the razors have such a rich sound, if 
          you try to play something with really dense harmonies, 
          it's pretty hard to hear what's going on.  Like, we 
          tried some jazz pieces, some jazz vocal pieces... 
          (pause) maybe we can give you an idea.  (off) Do we 
          have the parts for "Round Midnight?"

Group:    (sounds of rustling through part books, opening and 
          closing music cases, briefcases, binders) yes.  Only 
          the first page...that's okay, we're just playing the 
          opening...yeah...  no, oh, here it is; yeah.  (Sounds 
          of stands, one or two razors on and off at random.)

Deena:    (To group, with "director voice") Okay, from the top to 
          Letter A...two, three, four.

Group:    (A few incomprehensible measures of jazz song, sounding 
          vaguely like Round Midnight.)

Stephen:  (pause)  Yeah, I see what you mean.

Deena:    Compared to that, early music has a lot of simple 
          harmonies and pure chords.  The really early stuff, 
          early Renaissance and Medieval, sounds good as a 
          texture, but none of us are really into it, musically.  
          Bach and other late Renaissance and Baroque music works 
          really well.

          The other way to go that works, the other end of the 
          spectrum, is to write music especially for razors.  
          I've written a few pieces, and so has Hyo-shin Na, and 
          some other local composers...

Stephen:  And there's the piece I wrote.

Deena:    (slight hesitation)  Oh, right.

Stephen:  Is the group still willing to play it?

(member): (off, mumbles something.)

Deena:    Okay, we'll play it.

Group:    (Resigned breathing, then a they play A Stone's Throw.  Score is here.)

Stephen:  ...hmmmm, I  guess it could use some work still. Could we  hear 
          one of your pieces?
Deena:    Sure.  This is  a piece I composed for Larry, who plays the musical 
          saw. It's for  razors and saw, titled Cutting Edge Waltz.
Group:    (plays piece).

Stephen:  That was  wonderful. Real smooth  saw playing, Larry. How do  
          you get the razors to be different pitches; I mean, when 
          you get them, they must be pretty much all the same 
          pitch...is that true?
Deena:    Not necessarily; it's more like each brand is the same pitch. But 
          there's  three ways we change the pitch. Some razors  
          vibrate at the exact frequency of the house current, so 
          there's not a whole lot you can do with them, unless 
          you make a deal with PG & E. But you  can get them 
          to vibrate at overtones of the house current. So we  
          use that; there are about eight razors that are all exact 
          multiples of 60 cycles, which turns out to be half way 
          between an B flat and a B natural. So we  aren't playing 
          at A440 at all, but B480!
Stephen:  Sort of  a 'New Pitch' ... and I guess it's pretty obvious 
          that you get the low notes by using big razors and high 
          notes by using little ones... Where did you get those big 
          razors, anyway?

Deena:    (expecting the question)  Right.  After we had gotten 
          our first group together, group of razors I mean, it 
          was about ten or eleven, we realized that if we were 
          going to do anything except simple little songs, we 
          would need some bigger and smaller razors.  So we wrote 
          to a lot of companies that make razors, and Remington 
          came through.  Do you remember their ad campaign, 

Stephen:  No ...

Deena:    Well, neither did I ... I don't think they were very 
          successful with it ... anyway, the idea was: 

               (radio announcer voice) Are you still using that 
               BIG, HEAVY, old-fashioned razor?  Why not shave 
               Smaller--Faster--Closer--Smoother ...

          and the ads showed one poor guy after another, 
          struggling under the weight of these bigger and bigger 
          MONSTER RAZORS!  Then, they cut to a shot of the 
          Remington user, with a teeny razor ... you can hardly 
          see that he's holding anything.  So for a few years 
          back there, they were making littler razors, plus, they 
          had gotten somebody to make up a few of these really 
          huge razors, for the ads.  Of course, the big ones 
          don't really cut, they just buzz, but who cares!  In 
          the end, they agreed to loan them to us indefinitely if 
          we will record a commercial for them ...

(member): ... if they can ever get their act together!

Deena:    So far, the commercial thing's going pretty slowly.  
          Uh, John Simons wrote one piece dedicated to Remington, 
          but they didn't think it was something they wanted.

Stephen:  Can we hear that?

Deena:    Sure.

Group:    (plays piece)
Stephen:  Thank you; that was really neat.  Uh, I noticed that 
          there were a couple of notes that were out of tune in 
          there ... do you have many problems with tuning?

Deena:    (under, off)  Could you try to fix that one, Leslie?  
          (on, in answer to question)  No; regulating the 
          dynamics is pretty difficult, though.

Stephen:  Why is that?

Deena:    The biggest razor weighs almost 15 pounds, and the 
          smallest one is only 3 ounces, so you can imagine 
          there's going to be more sound coming out of the big 

Stephen:  So what do you do about the difference?

Deena:    There's only so much we CAN do.  We put the bigger 
          razors at the back, the same way you put the brass 
          instruments in the back with an orchestra.  For some of 
          the biggest ones, we've made foam rubber baffles for 
          them, but that cuts down on the resonance and makes 
          them hard to pick up quickly, so we only use it for the 
          razors that are way too loud.  We also turn around so 
          that we're facing away from the audience; we do this to 
          get a quiet section.  And when we're recording, there 
          are a lot of tricks...

Stephen:  But back to the tuning question: what are the other two 
          ways of tuning them?

Deena:    Have you ever looked inside a music box?

Stephen:  You mean, uh, the longer tines for the lower notes?

Deena:    They're longer, but that's not what I'm talking about.  
          If you look on the underside of the lower tines of a 
          big music box, you'll see little weights at the ends.  
          And that's what we do to lower the pitch, weld little 
          brass weights onto the shuttle (that's what they call 
          the vibrating part) of the razor.

Stephen:  Would you play us another piece?

Deena:    Sure.  This is a pretty zippy one; it's a battle piece 
          by William Byrd, called 'The March Before The Battell.'  
          We've nicknamed it 'Shave, Before I Shoot You.'

Group:    (plays The March Before The Battell, a piece with a lot of trills in it)

Stephen:  Now, tell us how do you do those trills.

Deena:    It's really hard to trill between two razors, one in 
          each hand, which is what we tried at first.  And it's 
          impossible if two different people are holding the two 
          different notes of the trill.  But then, we figured out 
          something: they make razors with a voltage switch, you 
          know, for use in Europe?

Stephen:  Uh-huh.

Deena:    We hadn't paid a lot of attention to that, 'cause if 
          you switch that switch to the 220 volt setting, the 
          razor doesn't work at all; it just gets hot and smells 
          funny.  But then we tried wiring a different size 
          resistor in, and sure enough, we made a razor with a 
          trill switch.  You can make it any interval, up to 
          about a fifth, before the tone wavers, but we mostly 
          use major and minor seconds, 'cause that's what the 
          music has in it.

Stephen:  You must have a lot of money invested in this.

Deena:    More time than money.  We paid retail price for a few 
          of these razors, but most of them we got free or for 
          almost nothing.  Remember, these razors don't have to 
          shave very well.  I go to the thrift stores around San 
          Francisco, and there are always a lot of them.  There 
          are a lot of certain brands, like Philco---they must 
          not stay sharp...

Leslie:   (interrupts, with mock indignance) None of our razors 
          are sharp; they're perfectly in tune! (laughs)

Deena:    (who's obviously heard this joke a lot of times) 
          ...the Philcos must not stay sharp very long at all... 
          but they sound just as good as any of them.  Now that 
          we're giving regular concerts, we put a little note in 
          our publicity and in our printed program: "Any working 
          razor will be taken in lieu of a ticket."  So now we 
          have more razors coming in than we know what to do with.

Stephen:  Where does your group perform?

Deena:    First, we did a few single concerts, at churches, 
          mostly.  But now we have a regular gig every Tuesday 
          night at Yoshi's.  Oh, and a... a New Age church 
          in Berkeley, Sincere Light, has asked us to play 
          chorales at their Sunday services, so we'll be starting 
          that next month.

Stephen:  Have you ever had any strange reactions to your 

Deena:    Well, sometimes people laugh, which is great, because 
          it means they're enjoying themselves.  (pauses, trying 
          to think of something)...

Barbara:  (off) There was that drunk guy...

Deena:    Yeah, once some guy came in off the street, drunk or 
          high or something, and started singing along with us.  
          But I don't know if that was really a reaction to our 
          performance... at the club, there are electric outlets
          on the floor where the customers sit, and for a while,
          people would sometimes bring their own razors and turn
          them on.  It was annoying, so we had them turn those
          sockets off.

Stephen:  We have time for one more piece.  Would you?

Deena:    Yes.  (to group)  Let's do Hyo-shin Na's piece, Lament.

Group:    (plays piece)

Stephen:  (closing remarks)  Deena, thanks to you and The Cutting 
          Edge for coming.

Deena:    Our pleasure.