Ask Philadelphians what Mummery is about, and they might mention the clowns, or the Fancies, or 500 banjos strumming "Golden Slippers."
But for Chris Farr, musical arranger for three of the string bands planning to strut up Broad Street on Saturday, the Mummers Parade is about one thing: wringing 4 1/2 minutes of dazzling music out of "a combination of instruments you won't find anywhere else on the planet."
"I wouldn't call it weird, exactly," Farr said Tuesday evening, sitting in the basement studio of his home in Laurel Springs, Camden County. "But it is unique."
A Mummers string band typically includes "saxophones, banjos, accordions, upright acoustic basses, all kinds of percussion, and a glockenspiel," Farr, 39, explained last week.
And those are just the core instruments.
For five years Farr has also been writing kazoos, wood blocks, sirens, washboards, slide whistles, cowbells, and much more into the remarkably deft medleys that some of the 14 string bands perform each year.
This is no ordinary parade.
For the string bands it's also a serious competition, many months in preparation, for a first prize of $10,000 and a year's worth of bragging rights, performed by amateurs in cold and noise and wind that would make John Philip Sousa weep.
And so, over the last five years, five bands have turned to Farr, a professional saxophonist who has toured and recorded with such musical giants as Maynard Ferguson and Grammy Award-winner John Legend, to assemble and score the sequence of tunes they will perform before the judges and TV cameras on New Year's Day.
"They all say, 'Oh, make it as hard as you can,' " said Farr, who as a teenager played saxophone briefly for Fralinger String Band, alongside his father and two older brothers.
"But that would be frustrating. Each band has a different skill level. So I try to write music that gives each band its best opportunity."
He wears a forward-brushed crew cut, sideburns, and hipster glasses, but he is not ashamed of his blue-collar roots. His basement walls are lined with photos of the Phillies and Eagles, and in the corner stands a 62-inch projection screen TV for watching their games.
"I'm a sports-head," he admits, and laughs. He is also an assistant professor of music at the University of the Arts on Broad Street, where he teaches saxophone.
This year Quaker City, Polish American, and Woodland string bands will step up Broad Street with one of Farr's arrangements. Upon arriving at City Hall, each will deliver dozens of tunes and tempo changes in just 270 seconds, all the time dancing around one another and somehow setting up props.
Quaker City, which has taken second place behind its archrival Fralinger in seven of the last eight years, is doing a clown theme for 2011, Farr said.
And with Woodland doing a "New Orleans-Bayou" theme and Polish American a pirate theme, "you wind up pulling in music from all over the place," Farr said.
"Ninety-five percent of it is arranging music that already exists," stitched together with quick transitional pieces he writes himself.
For Woodland, he has pulled together "a lot of Dixieland and zydeco tunes," and for Polish American he has drawn from such sources as the film Pirates of the Caribbean and the operetta Pirates of Penzance.
Nowadays he leaves the choice of theme to the leaders of each band. There's "less blame" on him that way if a performance scores below expectation.
"It's fun," he said. "But they're shooting to win." Farr, himself, gets paid for his services.
Once a band chooses its theme, typically by February, he then asks their members to "drown me with tunes. I tell them to send me CDs, or point me to websites" that he might draw from. "In four and a half minutes I might reference 30 tunes."
Around March he presents a first draft of the medley to a band's music director and choreographer, and after tweaks and revisions worked out at home or on the road, he sits down at his laptop to write out in musical notation a score for each instrument.
Two years ago, for Quaker City's "Viking" theme, that included a quickening tempo and a "cranking sound" as the band wound up a mock catapult, then a timpani plonk as the "boulder" landed.
"So on the one hand I'm pacing the theme," he explained, "but I'm also creating musical effects."
Opening his Apple laptop Tuesday evening, he called up a music-writing program to show what he had put together for Quaker City - one of the parade's most competitive string bands.
"Here's the whole score," he said, pointing to parchment-colored screen of sheet music, dotted with bass and treble clefs and marked "alto sax," "bass sax," "accordion," "snare drum," "crash cymbal," and, of course, "kazoo."
With the press of a key, Farr then started the computer playing a synthesized version of Quaker City's score for New Year's Day.
"OK, that's 'Be a Clown,' " he said, pointing to the first page as it glided by. "Now that's 'When You're Smiling.' Ummm . . . 'Come on, Get Happy,' " followed by bursts and fragments of "Comedians' Gallop" and "Too Much Mustard," a bit of the Looney Tunes theme, then "Send in the Clowns," "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," and more, including a "stuck record" shtick.
Farr will be "disappointed, slightly," if any of the bands scores below expectation.
"But I don't get too wrapped up in the scores," he said. "I try to give each of them their best opportunity."