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The Essay
Show #143
Olympic Baton Competition
David Gunn
As the 18th Winter Olympics for Band Instruments in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan enters its final week, all the previous weeks having disqualified themselves on calendaric technicalities, a huge clot of contestants aimlessly circles the scorers' table clutching musical weaponry, still hoping for that first medal which might help them nab a comfy position in an elementary school music program. This year's baton competition has been particularly fierce, with teams from Argentina, Albania, Austria and Andromeda vying for the gold. Team Argentina features the flashy young conductor, Alfredo Zwieback, who, in the Largo movement from Shostakovich's 5th Symphony alone, has been clocked at over 90 mph. Albania has no official conducting program, and is keeping pace with its more hoity-toity counterparts on sheer determination alone -- i.e., determination and certain photographs of the judges in compromising situations the team captain purportedly has in safekeeping. The Andromeda contingent's advantage of multiple appendages which allows precise cuing to individual bandsmen is tempered by an inability to breathe the Canadian atmosphere for longer than five minutes without a respirator, a stimulant recently banned by the Olympic Rules Committee.

The leader of Team Austria is Hans Florida Zwicky, great grand-nephew of Fritz Zwicky, the Bulgarian born physicist who invented the neutron star. Zwicky perfected his baton technique at Ecolß Boulangier, the most prestigious band conducting school in all of Paris. The Ecolß was justifiably renowned for its metric fundamental programs. Its board of directors claimed they could take any old Pierre Gruyere off of the street and transform him into a bona fide baton waver, or, in French, flambeau oriange. Zwicky was living proof of this. When he arrived at the school, he was plagued by a host of nervous tics that threatened to forever corrupt his sense of balance. Most annoying was his habit of tapping his left foot whenever he was awake, so that when he walked, he seemed always to be marching to a different drummer. But, after coursework in remedial pedalgogy and basic ictus probability theory, the formerly tipsy lad grew confident and a mustache.

After dozens of preliminary elimination matches, the four favored teams were neck and neck ... and neck and magnesium prothesis. It all came down to the final event, which was nothing short of a tour de forcips: to conduct Paul Creston's Tune for Band with a live caduceus. In Greek mythology, the caduceus was a winged staff with two serpents twined around it which the god Herpes employed to treat skin inflamations. Originally, the snakes were of a poisonous nature and prone to biting, and their presence drove many contestants to distraction, if not back to their dormitories. The affixed wings, too, gave the batons an unusual aerodynamic, and merely maintaining a crisp downbeat sometimes proved problematic. One conducting theory was simply to "go with the flow," and let the ancillary appendages dictate the ictus, but this led more often than not to out of control tempi and disqualification due to snakebites. No, the only way to "go for the gold," according to surviving wandmeisters, was to grasp the baton firmly with both hands and take utter control of the situation. Of course, a bottle of antivenin didn't hurt, either.

As Zwicky's decisive downbeat began the pas de quatre with the fluttering wings and momentarily placid serpents, the band charged into the tune's jolly rhythmic opening. Quickly, the snakes looked for a way to express their displeasure at having been roused, and they bared fangs at Zwicky's fingertips. But the maestro was prepared and, as the tubas prepared to play, he sent a big cue their way. The snakes sailed along, landed in their bells, and were never seen or heard from again.

But Zwicky was. He finished the piece without further incident and went on to capture the gold medal. Our congratulations to Hans Zwicky who still might return the favor to us, Kalvos & Damian, contemporary trustees of the New Music Bazaar, and this 143rd episode in particular, as we do our own passing of the microphonical baton from that of pluperfect abstractions to those of Kalvos.