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The Music Man: Etai Rahmil

PHOTOS courtesy Etail Rahmil

In The Magazine

The Music Man: Etai Rahmil

Portland-based artist Etai Rahmil uses fantastical, smokable glass instruments to connect with his love of music.

Flows drop degrees, all my clothes got the scent of trees 

I lay back and blow sax like Kenny G

—“Heavenly Devine,” Jus Allah, Jedi Mind Tricks

Musical instruments exist on an ever-shifting cool continuum: Electric guitars are cool as hell—not as cool as they were at “peak electric guitar” in 1984[*]—but still undeniably cool; tubas are objectively lame, and scientists confirm they always have been[†]. Then there’s the saxophone, which defies cool categorization: It rides the razor’s edge between cool and cringe, like Pee Wee Herman dancing across a bar top to the roaring, guttural groove of a crunchy baritone sax riff—Tequila, anyone?

With its iridescent, shimmering gold body and obsidian-hued keys to match the tar-black interior of its perfectly flared bell, it may not look like any other saxophone you’ve ever seen, but Etai Rahmil’s latest glass creation absolutely does look like a saxophone. That’s no accident: It’s a two-foot-tall scale replica of an actual saxophone that Rahmil meticulously diagrammed before painstakingly hand fabricating each piece of its arabesque anatomy over a 5,300-degree torch flame.

“I always purchase the instrument I’m replicating—I had a real saxophone sitting in front of me,” Rahmil says. “I took out a sharpie and started numbering the order pieces had to go on over each other…that saxophone I made was such a puzzle.”

Smokeable Creations

From the unmistakable sweeping curvature of the bell and elbow to the mechanical intricacies—including the ligature holding the reed into the mouthpiece—each glittering glass component represents a victory of the artist’s vision over the obstacles presented by his notoriously frail and fickle chosen medium; the sum is a glimmering triumph of imagination exceeding the limitations of Newtonian physics.

Also—and I really can’t stress this enough—you can smoke weed out of it.

Go watch the 1987 film The Lost Boys, specifically the scene with an oily, shirtless Tim Cappello belting out sexually charged saxophone pyrotechnics to the backdrop of teenage vampires embroiled in high-stakes romantic rivalry on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Until recently, there was broad scientific consensus that it was mathematically impossible for that scene to be any cooler.

Rahmil’s research has revealed that if Cappello had ended that scene by taking a massive rip of chronic from the bell of his sax, it would have made the whole film roughly ten billion times cooler.

“You can’t play them, but you can smoke out of them,” Rahmil says. “Hopefully, that’ll help you hear music more clearly. I feel like I’m trying to change the function—not just making something out of glass just to make it out of glass.”

That fusion of form and function doesn’t occur naturally; it’s the product of countless hours spent honing the foundational techniques of your craft.

“It took a few good years for me to be where I had the confidence to create what’s in my head with my hands—there’s a steep learning curve at first,” Rahmil says. “When I started, I was making marbles, little pendants and stuff like that. As soon as you start to learn more technique, it very quickly gets way more frustrating because you have all these ideas that your hands can’t quite do yet.”

Honing the Craft

Listen to John Coltrane’s saxophone work on Giant Steps; it’s impossible not to be stunned by the effortless sounding grace and expressivity of each note, the way the music seems to just burble forth from the bell of that sax. But there’s no just to it at all; it’s the result of a process known as woodshedding, which Coltrane was a fervent practitioner of. It’s not just practicing your instrument for hours and hours and hours—although that’s the central tenant of it—it’s the deeply humbling, vaguely monastic process of isolating yourself into the confines of your craft, confronting your artistic weaknesses and hammering them into strengths through sheer force of creative will and commitment.

Fellow artists can always tell when a “cat’s been shedding,” and like a sax player religiously drilling riffs and scales for hours on end, Rahmil has honed his craft, cocooned in the inspired isolation of the obsessed artist—it shows at every level of his masterful work.

“Glass has become a language I know as well as English,” he says. “Planning out a pipe for success always starts with me, in my mind, going through every one of the thousands of steps.”

Rahmil is deeply passionate about music—he says he believes it’s the universal language—and he channels that passion into a fascinatingly fastidious celebration of the unique physical form of whatever instrument he’s trying to capture in glass.

“I’ve always had music in my family,” Rahmil says. “My mom is a singer-songwriter, my grandparents are jazz musicians and my brother was a drummer. Growing up, I tried to find an instrument I could play and be good at, but it never happened. So, making instruments with glass was the way I could connect with people through music, even if I’m not making music myself.”

Some artists might find satisfaction in discovering a niche as Rahmil has, but he says he’s always striving to expand the scope and vision of his work. He doesn’t want to feel confined by the replica work that’s earned him so much recognition.  

“The trumpet is probably what I’m most known for—I’ve made 11 of them so far. I was getting tired of doing the replication thing, making everything to the millimeter,” he says. “I have a really good time making up re-imagined instruments—combining multiple instruments into one piece. I’ve also started to explore stringed instruments, which has been really cool.”

Rahmil isn’t done chasing his vision, he says, and he’s got some genuinely ambitious ideas waiting in the wings. Chief among them, a full-scale grand piano replica which, of course, will also be a functional pipe. The idea of milking and clearing a grand piano sized pipe is tantalizing, but many would agree—it’s all about the sax.

All other considerations aside, the saxophone already resembles a huge, mutant “Sherlock” pipe to begin with. Rahmil seems to confirm this sentiment. “The brass always comes back,” he says. “Their shapes are just so translatable to glass. All the tubes and valves—I look at them and I’m like, ‘that needs to be a pipe.’”

He’s right of course—the brass always comes back. From enduring jazz standards to the vaguely ironic cultural resurgence of Steely Dan, all the way to the timeless siren song allure of pure cheese, like the unmistakable wailing riffs at the heart of “Careless Whisper” or “Baker Street”—sax addiction endures, and with Rahmil’s latest creation, it just got a little harder to say no.

[*] In 1984, Van Halen released the album, 1984, which featured singles “Hot for Teacher” and “Panama” representing some of the gnarliest riffage ever recorded on planet Earth. However, it also marked Eddie Van Halen’s discovery of the synthesizer, which broadened the band’s appeal with hits such as “Jump,” but also deemphasized his guitar virtuosity as the sonic tent pole of the band’s sound, creating a high water mark for the cool factor of electric guitars, but also signaling the beginning of the end for guitars cultural hegemony as the musical cool superpower.

[†] Thought experiment: Imagine a drummer. Now imagine a tuba player. Which one are you asking to find weed for you if you can only ask one? This is basic science.

This story was originally published in issue 50 of the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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