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Familiar to most listeners as a voice from the world of jazz or easy listening, the saxophone performs in a ‘classical’ field with astounding ease, richness, and virtually devilish capacity for reinvention. Classical here is put in quotes, because the music you find on this record belongs to a large, exciting and only loosely charted stylistic area, where it is especially difficult to draw a line between ‘classical’ and ‘non-classical’. Its boundless palette of tone colour, a plethora of extended playing techniques, a refreshing sound, not too heavy with 19-century associations, a superb gift for sound imitation, – everything makes it the medium for compositional experiment. The saxophone grants a composer virtually unparalleled freedom – especially when combined with electronics.
Familiar to most listeners as a voice from the world of jazz or easy listening, the saxophone performs in a ‘classical’ field with astounding ease, richness and virtually devilish capacity for reinvention. Classical here is put in quotes, because the music you find on this record belongs to a large, exciting and only loosely charted stylistic area, where it is especially difficult to draw a line between ‘classical’ and ‘non-classical’. Difficult – and also pointless: how ‘classical’ is Steve Reich’s Counterpoint, which calls for a soloist who performs alongside his own recording, digitally multiplied? Can we readily designate Jacob ter Veldhuis’s works, where the saxophone’s voice is mingled with recited poems and electronic mishmash of pre-recorded speech samples, to ‘classical’ music? Can we – or, better, do we need to – classify Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, a renowned electronic music duo whose work spans from trip-hop to pop, as a composer of Beethovenian kind?
Complex, multi-faceted musical languages emerge in these border zones. They gravitate towards a number of styles at a time, and it is here that the saxophone shines at its brightest. Its boundless palette of tone colour, a plethora of extended playing techniques, a refreshing sound, not too heavy with 19-century associations, a superb gift for sound imitation, – everything makes it the medium for compositional experiment. The saxophone grants a composer virtually unparalleled freedom – especially when combined with electronics.
Of those presented on this disc, two composers have built their creative personas on an ongoing stylistic dialogue. Will Gregory (b. 1959), a British composer and producer, oboist and saxophonist, is a classically trained musician who has made an impressive career in electronic and pop-music. He has collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Portishead and is best known as keyboardist and composer in Goldfrapp – an electronic music duo that has worked profoundly and interestingly in a number of musical styles. His work Interference dwells in a subtle, bleak electronic soundscape of faint breathing, hissing and whispering noises that vary from hardly audible to almost imagined. In this colourless world, the saxophone wanders and vanishes, very much like a radio signal that emerges
Another big name in the stylistic ‘no man’s land’ between the classical and electronic realm is Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhius, also known as Jacob TV (b. 1951). A musical maverick, an enfant terrible of contemporary classical music, he started his career in rock music and then went on to become a classically educated composer. Ter Veldhuis is known for his radical and exquisitely kitschy musical works, where comedy meets profound drama. A major role is assigned to a combination of musical sounds with pre-recorded samples. These include scraps from television talk-show monologues, baby babble, poetry and field recordings made on New York streets with bits of conversation, shouting and street preaching. The disc features two works by the composer: a piece called Garden of love written for saxophone and ghetto blaster and Grab it – arguably, the composer’s calling card. The former samples a recital of the poem by the great British Romantic William Blake (1757–1827), which the saxophonist musically responds to. The latter is a tough, aggressive work of disturbing social background. The piece is based on excerpts from a 1978 documentary ‘Scared Straight!’ by the American television producer Arnold Shapiro. This famous film is set in a prison in California and revolves around a group of young delinquents. Shapiro’s idea was to bring together wayward teenagers and hardened criminals. By prior arrangement, they had to scare the youths with a vivid and naturalistic demonstration of their possible future, to see if it changes their further choices. A stream of insults and invectives, shouts and threats in ter Veldhuis’s music is masterfully stripped of meaning through looping and electronic collaging. What was once spoken word forms an abstract, dry sonic ornament, lined with the saxophone’s short retorts.
It is, of course, Steve Reich (b. 1936) who brought the technique of manipulating samples into the world of classical music. His seminal works of the ‘60s – It’s gonna rain and especially Come out, which also falls into a dark social context (the work deals with a group of black youths unjustly beaten by the police), became a sensational experience of including human speech into musical fabric. The interaction of electronic and acoustic sound has been another field of Reich’s interest. However, unlike the other composers in this record, he was more attracted by the rhythmical and temporal opportunities of this union, rather than the colourful ones.
The record features two emblematic compositions by Reich, both written in his signature phasing technique. Reich is widely known as one of the founding fathers of American minimalism. Indeed, a radical reduction of creative means, a democratic musical language which is stripped to the bare minimum of basic patterns that become the driving force of Reich’s musical forms, his use of repeated musical cells, – all these features are unmistakably minimalist. However, Reich’s music does not form a meditative trance-like stream that can be experienced in the music of his fellow minimalist composers. He is more of a musical architect and engineer, brilliantly creating complex, well-ordered sonic formations. In that, Reich gravitates towards a classical European, or rather German compositional mindset.
The title Counterpoint also alludes to the classical German tradition, namely, the music of J.S. Bach (1685–1750): his late masterpiece The Art of Fugue, a cycle of counterpoints. Like Bach, Steve Reich explores polyphonic techniques. His polyphony, however, is of electronic nature: it emerges between a live saxophone and its digital ‘copies’. These are musical tracks, pre-recorded by the saxophonist and superimposed, played together in a carefully constructed rhythmical canon. This is what ‘phase music’ is: a compositional technique, where relatively simple musical processes are placed out of sync, creating beautiful polymetric patterns.
Finally, Night Bird, a piece by a Japanese composer Karen Tanaka (b. 1961), is a marvelous ambient-impressionist nocturne. The saxophone floats in an almost eventless electronic mirage, punctuated by cold tinkling noises and distant vibrations, heard as if underwater. A native of Tokyo, Karen Tanaka came to Paris as a 25-year-old. She was an intern at ICRAM – Europe’s pioneering electro-acoustical music laboratory founded by Pierre Boulez – and, most importantly, studied with Tristan Murail (b. 1947), the famous originator of spectral music. Both experiences can be clearly heard in this little work, which focuses on creating a fluid, spatial sonority rather than a traditional melodic line.
© Lyalya Kandaurova