Category Archives: Saxophone

New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘The Curtis Project’

prism quartet curtis project

 

Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: The Curtis Project (2016)

PRISM Quartet‘s April 2016 release The Curtis Project is a collection of strong, mostly recent additions to the medium’s repertoire that explore many aesthetic avenues. The album is the product of PRISM’s 2012 residency with The Curtis Institute‘s composition department. All seven compositions are from Curtis-affiliated composers: two from faculty members (and Pulitzer Prize recipient) Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig, and five from then-student composers Kat Souponetsky, Daniel Temkin, Gabriella Smith, Thomas Oltarzewski, and Tim Woos. All works were performed during the residency, at which time all but Higdon’s were premieres. The Curtis Project is PRISM’s debut release on XAS Records, the ensemble’s new record label.

Here, PRISM Quartet’s personnel is slightly amended:
Timothy McAllister – soprano saxophone
Zachary Shemon – alto saxophone
Matthew Levy – tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan – soprano (track 1 only) and baritone saxophones
Robert Young – tenor saxophone; substituting for Levy on tracks 12-19 (works by Souponetsky, Temkin, Smith, Oltarzewski, Woos)

These seven pieces are stylistically distinct from one another, all of which branch in different directions. And with three of the works having multiple movements, none of the album’s nineteen tracks are overly long. (Of course, multi-movement works are larger collectively. That said, the longest individual selection or movement is just over seven minutes, and it’s an outlier.) The musical diversity and brevity is noteworthy, as it can often seem that (speaking from experience) “New Music” recordings are geared towards like practitioners — new saxophone music is largely for other composers and saxophonists, etc. The Curtis Project, however, would be equally suitable as a performance program on a university campus, a concert hall for a general audience, or as part of a community engagement or school outreach setting.

The album begins with Higdon’s Short Stories, a collections of six programmatic movements lacking a defined order, which serves as a nice microcosm of the album as a whole. From the calm “Summer’s Eve” and serene “Lullaby” to the frenetic “Chase” and Pollock-inspired “Splashing the Canvas,” the quartet shines in the movements’ more traditional writing. Also, like much of the album, all four voices are given their time to shine both individually and as part of PRISM’s organ-esque blend, such as in the haunting “Coyote Nights,” or the energetic “Stomp And Dance,” featuring key-clicks and slap-tongue.

Ludwig’s Josquin Microludes offers a clever and sonically-intriguing reworking of Josquin’s Mille Regretz, with each of the five differing, near-schizophrenic movements being based on subsequent lines of text and melody. Listening in order, one eventually goes through the (barely recognizable) original. The sixteenth-century source material is interpreted through a twenty-first-century vocabulary, and in doing so Ludwig honors the stylings of both time periods. The fourth movement “Quon Me Verra Brief Mes Jours” highlights this juxtaposition, with hard-driving rhythmic sections alternating with a dream-like processional, giving way to the calmly soaring and dissonant finale.

Although the faculty’s larger works constitute half of the album, the students are by no means also-rans here — each of the pieces have something different to say and chart territory theretofore unheard. Named for a river in the composer’s hometown of Moldova, Souponetsky’s The Dniester Flow depicts the rushing rapids through hard-driving rhythms in the piece’s first half. These give way to more lyrical fare in the second half, during which the tenor, alto, and soprano seamlessly pass the ascending melody to one another until the rapids return at the end. As a matter of programming, this gives way nicely to Temkin’s Blossoming, for which the sound really does blossom out of silence. A full minute of blowing air gradually gives way to soft saxophone tones that build to full ensemble chords and cries of both woe and hope, eventually fading back to nothingness. The use of both “dead” air and semi-tones are tasteful throughout, giving Blossoming a fluidity that’s not often highlighted in keyed instruments.

Smith’s Spring/Neap programmatically engages the “extremities of tidal ranges”1, beginning with cacophonous runs and glissandi, likely depicting the competing gravitational forces between the sun and moon. This later gives way to deep, rich chords and blowing air, giving one the impression of calm night tides before the gravity pulls the levels higher once more. Olterzewski’s Toccata is somewhat reminiscent of its centuries-old keyboard namesake, at least in character, although the composer likens it to the twentieth century works for wind ensemble. The aggressive and accented mixed-meter “left hand” of the tenor and baritone saxophones provide a nimble motor atop which the “right hand” of the alto and soprano saxophones playfully melodize. It’s not completely segregated, however, as the tenor saxophone occasionally tags into the melodic fun. Woos’s whimsical 4 Miniatures closes the album. Though concise as the title suggests, the four brief movements are full statements in and of themselves, covering much terrain. The first movement is full of swelling phrases and restful chorales, while the second miniature features beautiful “glass-like”2 harmonies that I could put on repeat for hours. (Selfishly, I would love to hear a larger work from Woos in this style.) The aggressive bomb-like glissandi of the third movement jolt the listener out of the second movement’s placidity, giving way to the jocular closing polka of the fourth movement. Here, over the course of just a few dozen seconds, the saxophones seemingly grow annoyed with one another, stumbling along until closing in what amounts to a tantrum. Humor can be difficult to notate and execute, and both are tastefully done here.

The Curtis Project continues PRISM Quartet’s proud tradition of amassing new works for both the ensemble and the instrument’s repertoire at large. It includes a number of musically interesting and accessible works that display a range of styles and compositional approaches, offering both breadth and depth. The Curtis Project is an excellent first step for XAS Records, and I’m already looking forward to what’s next.

PRISM album link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

 


1. [Smith, Gabriella. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 7]
2. [Woos, Tim. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 8]

(Other PRISM Quartet reviews here.)

Sax at 200

Time for another bicentennial post. First Wagner and now today’s honoree: Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. I briefly considered some long-winded ode to the instrument but 1) I don’t have the time for something so comprehensive and 2) how can I sum that up in one blog post? I’ve written a fair amount about the sax over this blog’s last five years (more on that below) and will continue to do so. Instead, for the time being, just a gripe…

NPR’s All Songs Considered put together a saxophone listening quiz for today’s birthday boy: eleven examples from a variety of styles. (I scored 10/11, btw — I actually knew the missed answer but overshot with my mouse. Oh well; I don’t think that’ll keep me from any future job interviews.) Some of the examples were impressive surprises, but the string of pop selections left me wanting. For an outlet that seemingly prides itself on being hip and clever, the Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, and Lady Gaga (feat. Clarence Clemons) triumvirate couldn’t have been more cliché. All they do is perpetuate the saxophone-as-honky-rhythm-and-blues-novelty-cameo stereotype, which is of course alive and well without NPR’s help. I concede that this is a sizable and personal crusade that I carry with me at all times, but it was present nonetheless. (This is surely amplified by my focusing on styles that don’t normally include sax…) And no mention of Dave Matthews Band, the attendance, airplay, and financial titan of the last two decades that features a saxophone (and violin) instead of lead guitar? (Again, yes, I’m a DMB fanboy, but still. I have a point here.) I guess that doesn’t drive the click-throughs as much on NPR. But you don’t have to go the DMB route. The folks at All Songs Considered LOVE (and rightly so) Bon Iver, so why not include a little Colin Stetson? Curious. No, instead they touch on jazz and classical (of course) and non-Western styles. Shorter’s solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja” was a good inclusion, but that’s of course more jazz than rock in that instance. Why not throw in a wild card like Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, or Mats Gustafsson? To its credit, All Songs‘s Borbetomagus feature did go in that territory, but it seemed partitioned (e.g., “sorry, birthday boy…“).

[Is All Songs Considered now officially a nuisance for me? Earlier complaints here and here.]

It just annoys me because the saxophone is such a versatile instrument, and yet even on a noteworthy date its given a relatively narrow presentation. Bummer. So, to counter this in my humble corner of cyberspace, below are links to various sax-centric posts from over the last few years.

• Saxophone and style: here, here, here, here
• Why I’m not a gear-head here
• Dave Liebman archive here
• Reviews of PRISM Quartet’s Antiphony and The Singing Gobi Desert
• Reviews of albums by Chris Potter, Dave Liebman (here and here), Tore Brunborg, and Stan Getz
• Posts on saxophonists LeRoi Moore (here and here), Jeff Coffin, Michael Brecker, James Carter, Bob Berg, Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Mats Gustafsson (with The Thing), and Jan Garbarek
• Some good-to-great sax solos alongside Miles, Fagen, Jack, Joni, Warren, Elwood, Tord, Manu, and more Miles
• Shameless plug: I talk a *little* sax and style on the Jan. 9, 2014 episode of the PRI: Echoes Interviews podcast

Thank you, Mr. Sax. I’m still trying to figure out your invention…

New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘The Singing Gobi Desert’

singinggobi

Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: The Singing Gobi Desert (2014)

The recently-released The Singing Gobi Desert showcases PRISM Quartet in collaboration with Music from China. Here they are also joined by guests conductor Nové Deypalan and sheng soloist Hu Jianbing. Don’t be fooled by the billing of Music from China as “Guest Ensemble” – this is a true musical partnership. It’s better to think of this recording as performed by a chamber ensemble comprised of saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments as opposed to a binary orchestra. The album is a follow-up to 2010’s Antiphony (my review here), PRISM’s first outing with Music from China.

The Singing Gobi Desert is a natural successor to and evolution from Antiphony. The first album had somewhat of an “East Meets West” ethos, and was even billed as such to a certain degree – e.g., the album title itself. (Thankfully, it was tastefully executed and avoided Third Stream traps.) Here, however, this sophomore release displays a true “fusion” – in the best sense of the word – of styles and cultures. While Chinese and Western influences no doubt reign supreme here, the end result transcends both sources, resulting in a new stylistic language that speaks to all listeners of that catch-all category known as “contemporary music.”

On the whole, Gobi features fewer but meatier works than its predecessor: four compositions ranging from 14 to 20 minutes each. They are, in album order:
Bright Sheng‘s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012) for erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion
Lei Liang‘s Messages of White (2011) for saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and percussion
Fang Man‘s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011) for saxophone quartet and four Chinese instruments
Huang Ruo‘s The Three Tenses (2005) for pipa and saxophone quartet

All four pieces have an orchestral quality that blend PRISM and Music from China into a unified whole that sounds much larger than the sum of its parts. One way in which this is achieved right off the bat is by the title track’s heavy use of the sheng, a mouth organ. That, coupled with myriad percussion as well as long, flowing melodies, gives the piece a thick, lush texture. Extended techniques abound here and throughout, but they are written and implemented tastefully and with purpose. Messages of White, on the other hand, employs a similar instrumentation but to strikingly different effect. Instead of lyrical passages, Liang’s emphasizes rhythm and harmony, focusing on stark, repetitive staccatos juxtaposed with subtle, often nebulous harmonies.  Dream of a Hundred Flowers takes the listener back toward a vocal space, but one quite different than Gobi. Here, Fang Man guides the musicians to “imitate Peking opera speaking voices.”1 The drama unfolds in manners both cacophonous and whispered, with the coda taking on an almost electro-acoustic quality. (It’s no surprise that Man studied at IRCAM-Paris.) Rounding out the set is Ruo’s The Three Tenses. Even though it is for a pared-down ensemble, it again transcends “saxophone literature.” (Because of its minimal instrumentation, it perhaps helps that it’s last on the album and sonically buoyed by the first three pieces.) The pipa’s extensive presence and the multitude of extended techniques also lend an orchestral quality to this quintet composition – a tribute to the composer.

Arguably the album’s greatest triumph is that the compositions take center stage, not simply the blending of instruments and styles. Antiphony was a valiant and substantive first step for such artistic exploration. The Singing Gobi Desert, however, opens up a wider and more comprehensive world of sonic and aesthetic possibilities, making this “novelty” instrumentation seem like anything but. I highly recommended this album.

Innova link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here


1. [Schaefer, John. The Singing Gobi Desert. Liner notes, p. 7]

One Foot Out

One of this blog’s tropes is stylistic diversity. This is for myriad reasons, with the biggest being:
• I’ve loved and listened to a wide array of music my whole life.
• As a performer, I participate in a variety of styles and environments.
• I believe that the best music/art is often that which crosses or transcends style and genre.

The second point above makes for interesting misconceptions in conversation with many other musicians, oddly enough. More often than not, it seems that, according to many musicians, having one foot planted in a style and another outside of it is roughly the same as having both feet planted outside of the style in question. I’m sure it partly stems from the fact that I play saxophone, classical music’s bastard instrument par excellence. Academically, on paper, I’m a classical saxophonist by trade, but that only scratches the surface. I also studied and perform jazz, and there’s of course rock, ambient, and many others. (While I didn’t “formally study” rock music – a funny thought – I’ve enjoyed a lifelong education “on the streets,” as it were.) And yet, whenever I’m in a seemingly like group, there’s often a subtle implication – perhaps subconsciously so – that I’m “from” or “represent” another style. I’m not at all offended by it, but it’s noteworthy and, to me, rather odd. Actually, its consistency is rather entertaining.

I suppose part of it has to do with my instrument, as it’s so strongly identified with jazz. Consequently, that seems to be everyone’s initial impulse, which I can understand. However, you’d think that after performing for or with folks that they’d have a different opinion. And it’s far from just a “jazz thing.” Some examples:
• In rock circles, I’m the jazz guy
• In jazz circles, I’m the classical guy
• In classical circles, I’m the rock and/or jazz guy
• In ambient circles, I’m the jazz and/or classical guy
• In non-ambient circles, any mention of ambient music is met with a furrowed brow

I don’t really begrudge anyone for it, particularly if we’re just meeting. However, it’s fascinating when, much of the time, the aforementioned “circles” including those with whom I perform. If we’re on the same stage doing the same thing, is there not a musical bond taking place? Why continue with the “other” labeling? And there’s nothing wrong with a musician staying largely within one style of music. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

Interestingly enough, this extends beyond performing and somewhat into blogging. I’ve submitted this blog to the The Big List of Classical Music Blogs a couple times over the last year and it’s not been included. I’m sure it’s because this blog isn’t only about classical music, and that’s fine. It’s also noteworthy that saxophonists’ blogs are poorly represented on the site. The Big List… is a great resource if you’re looking for classical music-oriented blogs from a variety of perspectives. I regularly skim through the listings to add new blogs to my RSS reader that I may have missed. However, it’s curious that a number of those listed have been dormant for years, and others occasionally veer off into topics other than classical music: politics, history, culture, jazz, gender studies, etc. Apparently writing about music outside of the Western Classical Tradition is a bridge too far. Funnily enough, some of the posts that have driven the most traffic and/or new subscribers to this blog – as well as receiving noteworthy plugs – have been on classical music: Richard WagnerEinstein on the Beach, my PRISM Quartet album review, and more.

There are, of course, a number of musicians who do “get it,” and that’s often because they’re also chameleons of sorts. The thing is is that even though we feel at home in a number of differing styles, we’re aesthetic nomads – homeless and always on the move. In that case, it’s good to have both feet out of the box and ready to get moving…

(For other related posts on style, see here, here, and here.)

Borghi & Teager on this week’s ‘Hearts of Space’

As a heads-up, Matt Borghi & Michael Teager are featured on this week’s episode of Hearts of Space. The episode, titled “SAXOPHONIC,” looks at the saxophone’s use in ambient music. It’s a tremendous honor for Matt and myself to have been featured on the holy trinity of ambient music programs – Star’s End, Echoes, and now Hearts of Space – these last few months. More info here.

[NOTE: This post replaces a previous iteration of the same, which has since been deleted.]