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New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘Antiphony’

Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: Antiphony (2010)

This album is “newish” for me as I got it a few month ago, however I wanted to shift away from jazz for this post, and I was recently able to give this album the careful listen it deserves.  In case you’re unfamiliar, PRISM is arguably the premiere classical saxophone quartet in North America.  The ensemble  has not only championed new music for saxophone quartet (largely outside of France), but it has done much to promote the saxophone within the classical community.  Antiphony (2010), the latest release, features PRISM in collaboration with Music From China, a quartet focusing on both traditional and contemporary Chinese music.  This (at times) double quartet features mostly new music blending Eastern and Western styles.

From the liner notes:
“Representing profound contrasts of timbre and culture, this ‘odd couple’ of traditional Chinese instruments and saxophones bridges remarkable distances of space and time.  The instruments of Music From China…have been played for a millennium or more.  The saxophone, in contrast, bears a French patent dating from the Industrial Revolution.” -Alyssa Timlin, p. 5

(While I don’t/won’t make a habit of quoting liner notes, it’s appropriate in this instance.)

Overall, the two ensembles gel nicely within each composition.  There are only a few instances, for me, in which I’m caught off guard a bit.  All but two of the compositions feature a mixed ensemble. (Lang’s Yuan features saxophone quartet only, and Dun’s Shuang Que for Erhu and Yangqin features only members of Music From China.)  The multi-movement works which bookend the album – Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet and Chinatown, respectively – are the most accessible, helping to ease the listener (especially the layperson) into and out of the more abstract selections.  Songs is one of this album’s many highlights, as its ethereal, almost filmic first movement, “Pastorale,” serves as a wonderful introduction to the album’s materials and overall concept.  PRISM and MFC are introduced separately, but quickly combine into a single lyrical soundscape.  Yuan, however, is arguably the collection’s most abstract composition.  (I attended one of the first public performances of this work by PRISM and experiencing the work in context with the rest of the pieces, it made much more sense to me.)  Many extended techniques are featured throughout – this should be of particular interest for saxophonists – such as multiphonics, slap-tonguing, and playing the mouthpiece alone.

Without going into great detail about each composition individually (that’s not the purpose of these entries, but rather a “quick review), suffice it to say that there’s much variety in this album, featuring many different avenues of the general “East meets West” motif.  What I like most about Antiphony is that the music is organic and genuine, as opposed to the forced “third stream-esque” nonsense that is often the result combining disparate styles (a serious pet peeve of mine).  In fact, the successful blending of both instrumentation and styles make one wonder if the album’s title is a misnomer.  This would make a great investment for any serious classical saxophonist, or anyone interested in new/contemporary music.

Innova (record label) link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here