Sounds Like Now
A blog by saxophonist Brian Sacawa
Archive for January, 2005
Anybody that dismisses Philip Glass’ music has probably never tried to play one of his pieces.
I say this not as a reaction to David’s review of the Anechoic Chamber Ensemble’s concert of early Glass works last night—which certainly isn’t dismissive—but rather in response to my own preparation of Mr. Glass’ Piece in the Shape of a Square (1968), the first half closer on my February 16th Miller Theater recital.
Originally scored for two flutes, I decided to make a version for alto saxophone after being taken by a performance of the work on an album by Alter Ego. In concert I play the second part against a recording of myself performing the first part.
The work presents two major challenges to me as a performer. First, minimalist music takes an extremely high—almost superhuman—level of concertration. If my mind wanders for a split second, I risk loosing my place and being thrown off rhythm. Second, and more important to my health, is figuring out where to breathe. The music simply doesn’t stop to allow me to do this. I’ve already struggled through two performances of the piece on the brink of asphyxiation by the end. Circular breathing, a possible solution in situations where taking a normal breath is impossible, is not an option in this piece. The constant syncopations and articulations leave no room for the technique.
So why torture myself? Well, it’s not really torture. The piece is exciting and deserves to be heard. And the work’s inherent difficulties only add to its excitement in performance.
A few musical aphorisms by E. M. Cioran (1911-1995):
What music appeals to in us it is difficult to know; what we do know is that music reaches a zone so deep that madness itself cannot penetrate there.
A passion for music is in itself an avowal. We know more about a stranger who yields himself up to it than about someone who is deaf to music and whom we see every day.
Musical Offering, Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations: I love in music, as in philosophy and in everything, what pains by insistence, by recurrence, by that interminable return which reaches the ultimate depths of being and provokes there a barely endurable delectation.
The first two are from The Trouble with Being Born, the last one from Drawn and Quartered. Both volumes are translated from the French by Richard Howard and published by Arcade.
There was bad news for Eric Owen Moss on Wednesday. The Los Angeles architect, who in 2001 won a competition to redesign the Queens Museum of Art, found out that he was out of a job. While we may never know exactly why the museum chose to cancel Mr. Moss’ project–already three years in the works—it probably had something to do with the change in the museum’s administration. The new suits came in with a different set of priorities than their predescesors, didn’t see eye to eye Mr. Moss’ original plan, and instead of attempting to rectify the situation with the architect—who was more than willing to compromise on the aspects of design in question—decided to seek a new architectural direction from a preapproved list of eight firms.
It’s too bad that the Queens Museum of Art won’t be able to boast the work of a true architectural visionary, a man whose importance is often discussed in the company of names like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Richard Meier, and Frank Gehry. Instead, just like Daniel Libeskind and the World Trade Center site, artistic vision is supplanted by a political agenda. At least that never happens in music.
I mentioned in a previous post that I’ll be presenting American Voices, a New York debut recital on February 16 at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. As the date nears, I thought I’d give periodic updates on my progress and also provide some insights on the planning and thought process that went into the show.
First, why play a New York Debut? I’ve heard some people refer to the tradition as a dinosaur. Well, I think that for many of us, a New York debut is still an important rite of passage. It’s a way of saying, “Here I am and this is what I do.”
Even if the tradition is somewhat archaic, I’ve tried to choose a program that is fresh and adventurous. The music I play is the most important component of the recital. My choice of repertoire could mean the difference between piquing a critic’s interest or simply having them toss my letter of invitation, press release, and months of planning and work into an anonymous pile. There’s a lot of music that saxophonists like to perform and understand the difficulty of that probably wouldn’t attract anyone else’s attention but the saxophone cognoscenti. I didn’t want to fall into that trap.
So what am I playing? I picked music by American composers whose voices have helped define and shape America’s new music landscape. The composers are: Michael Gordon, Lee Hyla, Alvin Lucier, Charles Wuorinen, Philip Glass, Martin Bresnick, Chris Theofanidis, and Derek Hurst. In addition to being dynamic musical voices, a number of them have been featured in recent years as part of the Miller Theater’s “Composer Portrait” series. The music runs the sonic gamut from the traditional saxophone and piano duo to saxophone alone, with electronics, pre-recorded saxophones, and even amplified electric light. You can find more information about the program here.
My goal is for the recital to represent both the vibrancy and diversity of new American music for saxophone.
This quote from an article by Anne Midgette in Sunday’s New York Times raised my eyebrows:
Kathryn Gould, a venture capitalist who lives in the Menlo Park area in California, had a different motivation: having heard a lot of new music that she didn’t like, she wanted to help create a repertory that she could enjoy. She plunged into commissioning with a vengeance.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that people with the financial resources to do so want to spend their money commissioning new works. And certainly it’s their decision on who to commission. But to do it simply to try and “clean up” and reform the new music repertory so that they can enjoy it more? That both bothers and scares me.
Today I returned from Miami and the warm 70 degree tempertures to the bitter freezing cold of Ann Arbor. It could be worse though—I could be stranded at the Fort Lauderdale airport like so many unfortunate travelers trying to get home to New York, Boston, or anyplace around New England. In addition to leaving behind a more desirable climate, I also left Miami after having put in 125 pre-season miles on the bike and a wonderful week of rehearsing with H.K. Gruber and the New World Symphony. As promised, here’s the report from last night’s concert.
The show was part of the NWS “Sounds of the Times” new music series. The theme of this program was “A Night in New Vienna” and featured an eclectic mix of four composers all associated with the Second Viennese musical tradition. First up was the U.S. Premiere of Johannes Maria Staud’s (b. 1974) A map is not the territory (2001) an intense and uncompromising three-movement work based loosely on Alfred Habdank Korzybski’s (1880-1950) premises of “General Sematics,” a theory that exists somewhere between linguistics and sociology. Transformation Music (1983) by Kurt Schwertsik (b. 1935), an example of his MOB ART, was next and couldn’t have provided a more stark contrast to the Staud. It’s a smaller chamber piece with ten compact movemtents and is really quite charming. Violinist Piotr Szewczyk’s playing was wonderfully sensitive. Unfortunately I was in the green room during the U.S. Premiere of Friedrich Cerha’s Impulses (1992-93) and only happened to catch the final bombastic chord as the orchestra manager opened the door to let those of us waiting in the wings know that we were on next.
I played on H.K. Gruber’s Aerial (1999), a concerto written for the Swedish trumpet virtuoso Hakan Hardenberger, who was simply amazing. His range, flexibility, and sensitivity were stunning. The piece opens with the soloist playing and singing at the same time—a perfect fifth in this case, which then sounds the resultant major third above. There’s something very intimate and introspective about this technique. You become one with the instrument–the voice and the machine. It creates such a wonderful atmosphere, which I had never experienced while performing this technique myself. Hearing Hakan do it made me reconsider the technique and the effect it can have, something I’ll take to heart as I continue digging into Martin Bresnick’s Tent of Miracles (1984) for baritone saxophone and 3 pre-recorded saxophones.
There was a decent crowd in the modestly sized Lincoln Theater—an audience that was definitely up for the evening’s challenge. As far as I could tell not one person abandoned after the first half.
Ironically, on the way home from the Detroit airport today, there was a report by Ari Shapiro on NPR’s Weekend Edition about the New World Symphony. The report focuses on the training, both musical and extra-musical, that NWS fellows receive during their tenure, emphasizing the importance of the entrepreneurial, outreach, and music business skills that they are encouraged to develop. I think this is a great thing. And an area often neglected by teachers and music schools in the United States. There are two sides to music-making, the artistic side and the business side. But that’s a topic for another day.
The following is a typical exchange that occurs when a stranger gets curious about what I’m carrying around in the case strapped to my back:
Curious Stranger: Is that a violin (or trumpet, or trombone)?
Brian Sacawa: No, it’s a saxophone.
CS: Oh, you must play jazz.
BS: No, I play classical music.
CS: Oh, you mean like Mozart and Beethoven?
BS: Well, not exactly. I play new music.
CS: What’s new music?
Hmmm, what is new music anyway? Jason Eckardt and Milton Babbitt write new music. So do John Adams and Michael Daugherty. Edgard Varese and Charles Ives are still programmed on “new music” concerts and they’re dead. So how new is new?
And what does it sound like? Well, new music is really dissonant, right? Sometimes it repeats itself over and over and over and over again. It’s amplified and uses computers. New music is only for “serious” and learned listeners. Is it?
I think you can see where I’m going. It’s really difficult to explain the kind of music I play to someone not familiar with the world of contemporary classical music, or new music. Maybe it might be easier for a composer, who could claim, “Well, I’m a modernist composer,” or serialist, or post-minimalist, and so on. Maybe it’s not that simple. Certainly as a new music performer you can’t label yourself like that. Nobody just plays New Complexity, or spectral music, for example. Perhaps you could earn a reputation for being a specialist at a certain style, but surely that’s not all you would play. At any rate, I’m not sure I’ll ever have a solid answer for that curious stranger.
Jerry’s post about the violinist Nicola Benedetti, who might sell more albums based on sex appeal rather than her talent as a musician, raises an important question: What is our goal as musicians? To sell albums or to make art?
The answer to this question would probably vary depending on who was asked. Posed to the artist, I’m pretty sure the answer would be the latter. But directed at the president of a big-name record company, I bet the answer might be different. And probably at odds with his or her artists’ aims.
To her credit, Ms. Benedetti seems to understand the possible ramifications of her recent deal–her spokesman Ian Roberts issued the following statement: “Nicola wants to keep to her core of classical music, but modernise without losing standards.” And just what would happen if she began to lose her standards? Well, she’d run the risk of being branded a “sellout” by both peers and critics, if they haven’t already made that judgement.
The music business has it’s fair share of these artists, and each instrument can most likely claim at least one. Among saxophonists, Kenny G as long been the bearer of this burden (all the way to the bank, I might add!). The truth is that many of these so-called “sellouts” are fine musicians, Mr. Gorlick included. They’ve simply chosen a path in music that might be a bit more lucrative than the path that you or I have chosen.
But the issue then becomes the hype or overhype surrounding the artists. This is precisely why Anthony Tommasini wrote such a scathing review of Lang Lang’s Carnegie Hall recital in The New York Times. Because Deutsche Grammophon had built up such expectations about the event, who can fault Mr. Tommasini for his reaction when, to his ears, the performance didn’t live up to the hype?
Performers and composers want to make music and share their art with the public. Record companies want to sell albums. In a way, these two goals are quite simila—at their core they both are about allowing people to enjoy music. Yet they couldn’t be more different. Is there a way to bridge the gap between these competing aims or perhaps just create more common ground?
I flew from Detroit to Miami today for a week of rehearsals and a Saturday concert with the New World Symphony. H.K. Gruber is conducting a program that includes his own work Aerial, which is the piece I play on. I’ll be sure to post my impressions as the week goes on.
The time before my flight is always a whirlwind. As usual there were too many loose ends to tie up, too many things to do, and too many items to remember to pack. And true to form, I waited until the last minute to do everything. I managed to finish it all though, including boxing my bike up for flight in the parking lot of a drug store just two hours prior to takeoff. (By the way, I’m an avid cyclist and the thought of taking a week off was too much to bear, especially with the prospect of warm weather—the bike had to come.)
Once the mad dash to the gate was complete and I boarded the plane, I was calm. I’m always like that on flights—relaxed, my head clear, and very productive. Sometimes I read, sometimes I listen to music, sometimes I make lists and prioritize what I need to accomplish and what’s coming up next—emails, give so-and-so a call, remember the deadline for this or that grant, brainstorm to try and assemble some interesting recital programs for next season. On this occasion I used the time to study the score to Charles Wuorinen’s Divertimento (1982) for alto saxophone and piano, a work I’m playing next month on my New York Debut Recital at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. It’s an exciting work full of intricate counterpoint and plenty of visceral energy.
I often wonder why thoughts and ideas seem to flow so freely when I’m on a plane. Maybe because there’s nothing else to do but sit and think to myself. Back on the ground it’s very easy to get pulled in so many directions at once while when you’re flying, you’re moving gracefully toward one single point. Since I know that I have a tendency to be brimming with ideas in flight, I always make sure to bring a pad of paper and something to write with. Otherwise all of those great ideas might get lost somewhere up in the air. If I hadn’t brought my pen this time, you probably wouldn’t have read this post.