Sax on the Streets
Chapter 9:
Stockholm, Sweden

With More

© Dan Gordon, 2003

Sweden! Eek! That’s a long way from Spain!

We awoke to the welcome sight of brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies as our train pulled into Stockholm early the next morning. We had now traversed over half a continent from Barcelona and had reached our final destination alive, well, and unscathed. Stockholm was the last stop on our voyage; we were due a couple of days later at the workcamp in Norway. A triumphant feeling accompanied our arrival after such a successful month’s travel getting there.

“Are we really in Stockholm?” Gary asked, looking around as we walked out of the station into the clean, crisp morning air. “We couldn’t have come this far. I can hardly believe it. Sweden.”

“With more,” I added.


“ ‘Sweden with more.’ Don’t you remember? Now it’s true.”

A wide grin appeared on Gary’s face. “So it is. I guess with the few Danish kroner we have left over from Copenhagen, we actually arrived in ‘Sweden with more.’ What do you know!”

“But now that we’ve made it to ‘Sweden with more,’ let’s earn some money so that we can also leave ‘Sweden with more.’ ”

We wandered about the city, orienting ourselves while keeping an eye out for a possible pitch. Stockholm comes across as clean, unpretentious, and orderly, much like the Swedes themselves. The city consists of several islands, offering vistas of water, boats, and open skies at every turn. Although winters at that northern latitude are probably brutal, as far as summertime in Stockholm goes, the only disagreeable aspect to the place is its price tag. The Scandinavian countries are expensive.

Gamla Stan, the old quarter of town and the original city of Stockholm, stands on one of the city’s central islands. It consists of narrow cobblestone streets and connected rows of stone buildings. This is the most romantic area of the city to busk, but doing so often creates problems. Gamla Stan is largely residential, and the residents don’t appreciate strangers constantly coming along and disturbing their peace. Buskers caused such a disturbance that an ordinance was passed forbidding street performing in the old quarter any time except between the hours of 2 and 6pm. A passer-by politely informed us of this as we played there in the morning.

So many rules, so much to take into consideration! A busker comes into a completely unfamiliar town and immediately faces a whole array of issues. He’s got to find the best places to play. He’s got to consider the local regulations. He’s got to figure out which are the most profitable busking hours. He’s got to make sure he’s not invading anybody’s territory. It takes a couple of days for a busker to work all this out in each city, and just when he does, it’s time to move on again. All those buskers who stay in one city permanently make this process still more difficult. The regulars have their whole lives to learn the ropes; us transient types have just a matter of days to figure it all out.

Since the Gamla Stan was off limits for the time being, Gary and I went to the only other reasonable place in the city to play, Stockholm’s semblance of a pedestrian zone. Normally the pedestrian zone would have been our first choice, but this one didn’t have much life to it. We had little choice but to give it a try.

A magician was finishing up his act in a relatively populated section of the zone, so we took his spot as he left. He had to know at least as much about where to pitch in Stockholm as we did, so this spot was as good as any. We unleashed the duets and reeled them off with a sheen developed over hundreds of performances. Our tones blended. Dynamics balanced. We tossed melodic lines back and forth and supported each other with accompaniment.

By and by, a little old man with wild gray hair stopped to listen. He stood for some time without saying a word. After a few minutes, he came up and talked to us. “Splendid, simply splendid,” he declared in English as we rested between selections. “Are those saxophones you’re playing?”

“Yes, soprano saxophones,” Gary replied for the umpteenth time.

“I see. And that is baroque music you are playing, is it not?”

“Yes, Telemann flute duets,” Gary replied again.

“Ah yes, Telemann, of course. Lovely, really.” The slightly hunched-over old man examined the cover and first few pages of our music. “I believe you would do much better for yourselves if you played in the old part of town, about a ten minute walk in that direction,” he said, pointing to where we had just come from. “The surroundings there are much better suited to this kind of music.”

“You must mean the Gamla Stan,” I said. “We were there a few minutes ago, but someone told us that playing was only allowed there in the afternoon.”

The man’s face puckered. “Bloody Swedes and their regulations!” he hissed. “I tell you, the Swedes make rules about everything. They probably couldn’t identify this as good music even if they allowed themselves to hear it. This is too good for them. They don’t appreciate it. It’s like offering a pearl to pigs!”

“I, uh, I take it you’re not Swedish yourself,” I said.

“No, I’m not. I’m Czech. My name is Lasch. Kary Lasch. Do you recognize that name? Here, let me write it down for you.” He pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and scribbled his name on the inside cover of our duet book. “You may have seen the name before—I’m an internationally renowned photographer. Yes, you can address a postcard from anywhere in Europe with just ‘Kary Lasch, Sweden’ and I’ll have it the next day.”

Gary and I eyed each other and tried to keep from laughing.

“Where are you two from?” he asked.

“The United States,” we said, and introduced ourselves.

“I suppose you’ve played in other places as well as Stockholm,” he said.

“Oh yes, we’ve been all over Europe,” I responded.

“That’s good. You really shouldn’t waste too much of your time here in Sweden. These people don’t know what’s good. I’ve lived here for over 50 years, and believe me, I know. The Swedes have no appreciation for the finer things in life. They are simply dull.”

“We find them friendly, actually,” Gary said, a bit defensively.

“Yes, the Swedes are civilized, but not much more than that. They don’t bother anyone, and nobody bothers them. It is an entirely colorless existence.” He punctuated his statements with resolute nods of the head. “How can I explain it,” he mused, stroking his chin. “There is a lot of civilization in Sweden, but no culture. Yes, yes, that’s it—the Swedes have much civilization but no culture.”

I cleared my throat but couldn’t find anything appropriate to say.

“Surely you’ve gotten a better reception to your music in other places, haven’t you? I’m certain that in places like France and Germany people responded well to this fine music,” he said, again pawing at our books. “Ah, edited by Jean-Pierre Rampal, I see. Yes, I have photographed him. Charming man. Simply charming.”

The old man went on like this for at least fifteen minutes. He offered his opinions on everything, gave us addresses of his supposedly important colleagues throughout Europe, and name-dropped about all the famous people he had photographed. Hell if I know if he really was the internationally renowned photographer he boldly proclaimed himself to be. Neither Gary nor I had ever heard of him. If he was, it was quite flattering that he took notice of us and stopped to talk for so long. And if he wasn’t, well, listening to this guy’s prattle was still amusing. It isn’t always the busker who provides the entertainment—sometimes it’s the other way around.

The Gamla Stan during legal hours that afternoon proved too crowded with other buskers, so we avoided it. Being legal in Sweden is tough. Playing for short stints at various sites around the city got us through the afternoon, but the following day Scandinavian weather caught up with us. More rain, all day long. That left us with little to do before our evening train. About the only thing we wanted to accomplish before leaving was to find some music. I had the address of a place called STIM, a composer-founded organization that distributes unpublished music by Swedish composers. We found our way there in the rain and asked to see what kind of music they had for saxophones.

“Music for saxophones you want?” the very kind gentleman who worked there asked. “Very well. Wait here just a moment.” He disappeared into the back of the office and came back a few minutes later with a wad of computer print-out about an inch thick. “Here’s our list of saxophone music.”

Our jaws hit the floor. “That’s just the listing!?” Gary stammered.

“Why, yes,” the man said. “Feel free to look it over. If anything interests you, let me know and I’ll bring you a copy to look at.”

We were dumbfounded. This was saxophonists’ heaven. For more than two hours we pored over the list. We found music for saxophones in every imaginable setting, with every conceivable instrumentation, mostly by composers we had never heard of. We went crazy piling on all the music we wanted to buy. Then reality hit.

“Uh, Gary, if we’re gonna buy all of this stuff you know what we’re gonna have to do.”

A look of sudden shock came across Gary’s face. “Oh, no…”

“Oh yes. C-c-c—”

“No, no, don’t say it!” he cried melodramatically. “My ears can’t bear it!” He looked at the ground and sighed. “Yes, it looks like the time has come. But let’s just do it—I can’t bear to hear the accursed words spoken.”

“You’re right. We must make this as painless as possible.”

We called for the man to find out how much our stacks of music would come to.

“Is there a b-b-bank near here?” I stuttered.

“Right around the corner.”

“We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Quietly and somberly, Gary and I made our way to the bank. We exchanged no words. The mist falling from the gray Swedish sky was a telling sign indeed.

Inside the bank, we couldn’t quite recall the proper demeanor for such an alien environment. “You remember how to do this, Gary?”

“I think so,” he said. “If I try really hard, I think I can remember.”

“Who’s gonna go first?” I asked as we approached the teller’s window.

“Please, Dan, you do it. Those extra few seconds will mean a lot to me.”

“Okay. Here goes.” I grimaced as I pulled the traveler’s cheque out of my wallet. My hands trembled as I lay it on the teller’s counter. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I lifted the pen, signed my name to the cheque, and slowly pushed it across the counter. The teller had a puzzled look on his face; I am sure he wondered why I made such a fuss over cashing one lousy traveler’s cheque. Little did he know!

At the next window, Gary did the same. Moments later, we had our money.

“Well, it’s done,” I said with a sigh. I even managed to crack a smile.

“I guess that wasn’t too awful after all,” Gary replied with a smirk. “Just think, last month in San Sebastián we hoped to get through the day without cashing a cheque.”

“And in Barcelona you worried about running out of money before the end of the summer!”

Our hearty laughter resounded throughout the bank. Indeed, we had plenty to laugh about: one entire month of travel living exclusively off our music, plenty of friends visited, no waiting on lines in banks, instant money whenever we wanted, and all those unexpected adventures. What more could we have possibly asked for? We didn’t know what we were doing when we started out, and a month later, as seasoned buskers, we realized we couldn’t have done it much better if we had planned it for years.

That evening, we hefted up our gear and dragged it to the station for our last train. “I guess it’s really over,” Gary said as we boarded and found our seats. “But that was one helluva good time.” We sat back as the train lurched forward and started on its way. “Gary, I feel like we’ve discovered the secret to eternal travels. A couple of soprano saxophones, a little Telemann, and we can go forever. Why don’t we do this forever?”

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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