Sounds Like NowA blog by saxophonist Brian Sacawa
Archive for March, 2005
Non-Zero played NYU last night. A fun concert, but what a day. Tim and I left Boston at 7:30am and arrived in NYC at 12:30pm thanks to the rain. A full day of work-shopping new works with the NYU graduate composers, a short recording session, and finally a concert shared with the stellar Janus trio. Tim headed home to Boston right after the concert and I stayed in the city with an old friend in order to catch an 8am flight to North Carolina for some business over the next couple of days. My old friend is Evan Tobias, actually the very first person I met as an undergraduate. He’s a music educator and one of the most serious and creative folks I’ve had the opportunity to know in the discipline. He’s a proponent of alternative teaching models and is working hard to integrate new technological approaches into the classroom, including laptop improvisation. I suspect you won’t find Orff instruments in Evan’s classroom. For those interested in a non-corporate alternative to various web-releated things, he’s also got a web hosting operation. Not to be outdone with my new Sciarrino acquisition, Ken Ueno shows me a CD of Sciarrino’s Studi per l’intonazione del mare (2000) for contralto, four flutes, four saxophones, percussion, orchestra of 100 flutes and 100 saxophones.
The Tower Records in Harvard Square has been singing its siren song to me all week long. It lures me in seductively, flaunting its assets–a good sized section devoted entirely to new music–while simultaneously draining mine. Ever since the Borders in Ann Arbor scaled down its classical music section I haven’t had many opportunities recently to thumb through the bins and discover an interesting and exciting CD. My safaris through Tower these past few days have yielded four trophies: a box set of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano (Wergo); Still Lives (Lovely), a CD featuring three works by Alvin Lucier, including Marilyn Nonken performing Music for Piano with slow sweet pure wave oscillators; Salvatore Sciarrino’s La bocca, i piedi, il suono (Col Legno) for a quartet of alto saxophones with a back-up band of one hundred saxophones; and Vespertine by Bjork.
Great article in today’s New York Times. An interview by Daniel Wakin with James Levine, John Harbison, and Charles Wuorinen. It’s a polite conversation despite Wakin’s attempt to provoke an argument between Harbison and Wuorinen over the latter’s statement in 1979 that tonality has been replaced by the 12-tone system and that no serious composer would write in the tonal idiom. (Alex Ross has more on that exchange.)
In an article filled with lots of great opinions and ideas, James Levine has one of the best:
The best I can do for an audience is give them what I’m sincerely passionate about. If I try to give them something I think they want that I don’t want, we just have a sterile result.
Wiser words could not have been spoken. I firmly believe that you can "sell" any kind of music to any kind of audience. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to like it, but they’ll be able to tell that you certainly do and that means something. It might even effect their perception of the work. One of the nicest comments I’ve received about a performance was from the sometimes controversial David Salvage, who in his review of my New York recital said, "to find a performer who gives both Glass and Wuorinen everything he’s got, is just sensational." David can be a hard man to please and I’d like to think that my passion for those works helped him enjoy them both–even if he might have been inclined to enjoy one less than the other.
The interview gives you a pretty clear sense of each man’s personality and one thing is clear–Mr. Harbison sees the world through rose-colored glasses:
We both went through times where we might have come into a big orchestra, and there’d be quite a chill blowing through the room. Going to any orchestra now, you’re not going to be greeted by that kind of thing.
Now I wouldn’t go that far.
I heard two concerts last week–one by the clarinetist Karl Leister and another by Sir James Galway, the consumate entertainer. Two legendary player and two very different concerts. Mr. Leister, the former principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic, played an exquisite recital that included Brahms’ F minor Sonata, op. 120, no. 1. His tone is pure and stays consistent throughout the entire range of the clarinet. And his intonation was immaculate. These two factors helped me overlook his somewhat conservative music making.
In stark contrast, Sir James was sheer flamboyance. He played a concert of French music to a sold-out Hill Auditorium. Some of my flute friends write off Sir James for one thing or another about his playing, but I went into the concert with an open mind, wanting simply to be moved by a consumate artist. Unfortunately, there was nothing special about the concert, including the music–two Paris Conservatory concours pieces on the same program? In addition, Sir James played severely sharp through the entire concert despite tuning before each work. He sures knows how to work a crowd though.
Extended techniques, as the name implies, requires the performer to play an instrument in a manner outside of what would be considered a traditionally established norm. These techniques include multiphonics, circular breathing, quarter-tones, slap-tonguing, key clicks, muting, playing with the mouthpiece alone, tapping on the instrument’s body, all manners of bowing, and playing on the inside of the piano, to name just a few. Extended techniques as we know them today first appeared in concert music in the early twentieth century–Henry Cowell’s Tides of Manaunaun (1915), Mosolov’s Iron Foundry (1928), Varese’s Ionisation(1929-31)–but experienced a true renaissance in the 1960s.
Because of the growing world of electronic music, composers were now confronted with the task of finding a way to bridge the gap between the seemingly disparate electronic and acoustic sound worlds. Extended techniques provided that link. While the exploration of extended techniques in new music was widespread, many people point to the publication of the Italian theorist/composer Bruno Bartolozzi’s New Sounds for Woodwind in the late 1960s as a codification of these efforts. For Burtner, composers’ exploration of extended techniques in the twentieth century built a foundation and prepared instrumental performance to face new musical challenges in the twenty-first century.
Among the many good points that Mr. Burtner makes in his article is that extended techniques provide a way for the performer to personalize their instrument and draw out its unique qualities, and in the process develop a very personal approach and sonic vocabulary. He also observes, quite correctly, that these techniques more or less ran their course in concert music in the 1960s and 1970s, with the most advances and interesting work with them being done in the 1990s not by composers, but free improvisers and electronic musicians. And finally, he makes an extremely important claim: extended techniques are no longer an “other” in instrumental technique, but rather are an integral part of each instrument’s identity today.
Although most of his article is stellar, I was a bit disappointed with his take on virtuosity. Burtner sees virtuosity as a barrier to the acceptance of extended techniques as a standard component of conservatory instrumental or vocal training. By virtuosity I’m assuming he means the traditional virtuosic model. However, in the late 1960s, in the wake of the explosion of new instrumental and vocal techniques, Eric Salzman coined the term “new virtuosity,” which is certainly alive and well today. I see evidence of this in new music being written for all instruments. And if extended techniques really are no longer an “other,” what’s getting in the way of them being taught? Certainly not traditional virtuoisty. I think it’s an issue of receptivity. The way I see it, some students are choosing a well-worn path and others are choosing to take the road less traveled.
Two errors in Mr. Burtner’s article: Bartolozzi’s New Sounds for Woodwind was originally published in 1967, not 1982; and Berio’s Sequenza VIIb is for soprano saxophone, not alto, something that Burtner, a saxophonist, should be embarrassed to have gotten wrong.
Music has an amazing ability to reconnect you with another time and place. Earth, Wind & Fire, “September,” Emotions, “Best Of My Love,” Foo Fighters, “Up In Arms.”
If you’re in the mood to procrastinate or simply need a new addiction, allow me to recommend Zookeeper, an unassuming but highly addictive little Japanese flash game.
Non-Zero plays New York University’s Kimmel Center next Monday so I’m off to Boston tomorrow for a few days of rehearsing with Tim. The show is part of NYU’s First Performance concert series, and features three new works written for us by members of the graduate composition department. Represented on the program will be Sophocles Papavasilopoulos, Jesse Sklar, and Juliana Trivers, who penned a daunting study for baritone saxophone and snare drum. We’ll also be playing non-NYU composer Hillary Zipper’s beautifully ethereal the time of insects to round out the program.