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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
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condition, just a little out of date.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
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
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
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?
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?
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
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.