A Visit to Borgani
by John Robert Brown

It was in 1872 that Augusto Borgani set up a small workshop to produce musical instruments. Wisely, he sent his son Arturo to work at the Conn Company in Indiana. In this way, advanced methods of production and manufacturing were adopted early in the Borgani company history. During the long life of the company a variety of wind instruments has been manufactured. A vintage catalogue - undated but probably post-first-world-war - shows oboes, clarinets, cornets, brass and percussion, and even sarrusophones and a contrabass saxophone.

In 1985 the present proprietor, Orfeo Borgani, great grandson of the founder, took over. Under Orfeo the companyís structure and manufacturing systems have been revised. Production now focusses entirely on saxophones. Today they make only sopranos, altos and tenors.

In November I traveled to Italy to visit the Borgani factory. I arrive at the small airport of Ancona, which has a direct daily service to and from London Stanstead Airport. Orfeo has kindly offered to meet me.

"Heíll be carrying a saxophone," Iím told when I enquire how Orfeo and I will find each other. Fortunately Orfeo, dark-haired and well dressed, recognises me. Thereís no need to resort to such theatrical methods of identification.

On the way Orfeo tells me about his company, while simultaneously pointing out landscape features and deftly negotiating autostrada traffic and the Telepass toll system. He explains that there are twelve employees, all local men and women, all trained on the job. Some have stayed with the company a long time. One, Ruggero Poloni, has given fifty years service to Borgani. In a town where most of the civic buildings and churches date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even a saxophone factory should enjoy an historic tradition. "I was born in that room there," says Orfeo, pointing to the window of a flat above the factory. Today the factory has the words ĎOrfeo Borganií prominently silhouetted on the roof.

First I meet Orfeoís charming personal assistant, Cristiana Dezi, who acts as translator during my stay. She has helped negotiate the logistics of my visit, planned with the kind help of Roger W. Baycock of Allegro Oxford.


(Orfeo Borgani, Cristiana Dezi & Marco Collazzoni)

The three of us, Orfeo, Cristiana and me, chat in Orfeoís spacious office, beneath photographs of Gerry Mulligan, Joe Lovano (both Borgani players), and Art Kaneís 1958 classic Esquire picture, A Great Day in Harlem. Orfeo is commendably candid about his own commercial secrets and in his recognition of the excellence of other makerís saxophones. To my surprise our conversation begins by discussing the former dominance of the saxophone world by the Selmer Mark VI. Not every commercial businessman would be prepared publicly to discuss the great success of another company in the same industry. He observes that after their Mark VI, Selmer had no rivals. There was no challenge. Its success, mythical at times, stopped further improvement and evolution. After the introduction of the Mark VI in 1956 everything was focussed on that model. It was a fixed point. Other makers didnít find something new. Instead, they used Selmer as a basis for their designs.

Orfeo wished to make something new, but to keep the tradition. He aimed not to make a merely commercial judgement but to pursue an ideal saxophone. The starting point for this was a deep knowledge of the secrets of the old instruments, to take the saxophone playerís viewpoint. "What are your dreams?" he asks, expressing the idea that his company can create the saxophone that has hitherto only existed in oneís fantasies.

He admits that with three generations relying on him, he took a chance, and risked being considered mad for seeking the ideal saxophone - such a crazy idea!

I asked how one designed a new wind instrument. Was it from a mathematical beginning, or computer-aided design (CAD), or the cut-and-try of good old-fashioned horse sense? All of these and more, is the answer. I might have guessed. There is no simple answer, no single way. The design is always player-orientated. Itís never abstract. The whole experience is used.

At this point we are joined by Marco Collazoni, the companyís chief technician. Marco is wearing a white laboratory coat with the blue Borgani badge on the pocket. He carries an engineerís vernier caliper gauge. I wonder what wonderful piece of new saxophony he has left to come and talk to me. I donít ask. Soon we are discussing fine details. Marco produces a straight soprano saxophone with a removable bell. Ribs are moulded onto the outside of the flare. He assures me that replacing this small bell with one of another material alters the tone of the instrument. Even the position and number of the tiny ribs has an influence on the sound.

"Why donít you ordinarily offer a top F sharp key?" I ask.

Orfeo remarks upon the criticality of the first few centimetres of the bore below the mouthpiece.

"The fewer holes the better," he says. "It would be good if altos and tenors didnít have a join, an interruption, between neck and body," he adds. We joke about the difficult shape of instrument and case that would be created, and the problems of transporting such a horn. This leads Orfeo to express surprise at the paradoxical nature of so many saxophonists. They may be gadget freaks, use the web, cell phone and the Internet, DVD, mini disc and much else that is twenty-first century, but can still sometimes be conservative in their attitude to the horns they play. "Players are usually open and curious," he says. "They can be probing about the music they play. But they arenít always so when it comes to their instruments."

The great challenge to the open-mindedness of the client is probably the Borgani attitude to not lacquering the new saxophone. Almost all musical instruments made of brass are polished and then coated in a clear lacquer to protect the finish. Yet itís long been acknowledged that the coating of lacquer inhibits the vibration. There are stories from factor testers of how well a new saxophone sounds when it is naked, before lacquering. Various well-known players - Zoot Sims, for instance - have been notorious for the tattered look of their saxophones as the lacquer has peeled and not been replaced. This is the explanation. It sounds better that way. The Borgani sound is further enhanced by the different alloys offered. The Borgani Vintage Model offers the novel look - and sound - of a new saxophone with an unlacquered body, giving the sound and look of the old instruments through an artificial ageing process. Only the keys are coated. Other alloys and finishes offered by Borgani are 24 carat Gold, Silver, Pearl Gold, Pearl Silver, and Black. This choice is the crucial point, wherein lies the innovative nature of the Borgani saxophones. Itís what makes them new and different, and presumably what draws the distinguished roster of prominent saxophonists who now play Borgani: Bob Berg, Emanuele Cisi, Tim Garland, FranÁois Louis, Joe Lovano, Tim Price and Pietro Tonolo.

I learn that the company produces around 350 saxophones per year. As more enquiries about a Borgani baritone are being received, Orfeo is seriously considering adding a baritone to the catalogue. Itís a big step. It involves research and design and - more critically - investment in a new batch of tools and machines with which to make the larger horn. Everything is made here in the factory except for key posts and pads. These are made locally by a contractor and bought in. The standard of these subcontracted items is closely monitored. For the pads, special felt is specified. Plastic, gold, copper and silver reflectors can be chosen.

Now Iím taken on a conducted tour of the factory. I see the conical tubes of crooks and bodies being beaten into shape on a mandrel, then extruded through a lead collar and hand finished. Necks begin as a straight, conical, tube. They are loaded by flowing in warm pitch (distillation of tar). At room temperature the pitch becomes rigid, brittle. The neck is then bent by hand in one movement. A special-purpose pipe bending tool of the sort used by pipe-fitters is used. The pitch inside prevents the tube collapsing and can easily be broken up and removed from the curved neck. Tone holes are extruded hydraulically. Then follows more polishing and finishing of the bare bodies and bells.

We pause to stroke Jimmy, the factory cat. Heís working on his tan in the warm midday sun and is not too keen to be interrupted. So we leave him and move on quickly to view the assembly. Jigs and braces hold pillars and straps in place for brazing and silver soldering, all done by hand. Itís instructive to see the brass stencil which guides the engraving tool used to add the bell decoration. This is one aspect of saxophone construction that seems to vary from company to company.

The visit to the Borgani factory was nothing less than a revelation, and a very enjoyable experience. Much more remains untold, about the beauty of the Marche region (the area where Macerta is located), about the historic beauty of the walled town of Macerta itself, and about the warmth and kindness of Orfeo, Cristiana and Marco. Even Jimmy eventually consented to spare a moment to have his ears scratched.

But above all the visit taught me something about my own saxophone requirements, the sort of experience I wish I could have enjoyed at the beginning of my playing career.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Dec/Jan issue of Crescendo Magazine and CASS Magazine
© John Robert Brown