No Strings Attached: A Prism on the Saxophone Quartet
With over 200 commissions and many times that number of premieres to its credit, PRISM has presided over what future music history textbooks might just look back on as a golden era for the sax quartet medium.
The 2014-15 concert season has marked the thirtieth anniversary of the PRISM Quartet, arguably the preeminent saxophone ensemble of its kind currently active in the United States. With over 200 commissions and many times that number of premieres to its credit, PRISM has presided over what future music history textbooks might just look back on as a golden era for the sax quartet medium. After all, three decades ago, when tenor player Matthew Levy founded the group alongside a trio of like-minded University of Michigan student colleagues, prevailing conditions were very different: not only was the repertoire scantier, spottier, and considerably less diverse, but as most observers would probably agree, the genre was still looking for its artistic footing. For much of its relatively brief lifetime, the saxophone quartet’s primary reason for being had been to offer chamber music experience to an instrumental demographic traditionally starved of it—a perfectly noble enterprise, but not one likely to arouse much enthusiasm outside circles of Vandoren and Rico brand reed partisans. This is something Levy, an astute observer of trends in the field, recognized early on, and these days his candid assessment is that “the pool of music that existed when PRISM was founded simply could not sustain the group, and would not have enabled us to achieve artistic or commercial success.”
The Kronos Quartet was initially a horizon-expanding point of reference—aptly so, given Levy and Co.’s interest in keeping lines of dialogue open with non-European musical traditions. Today, of course, when the very notion of genre seems passé, no one so much as bats an eyelid at the word “fusion.” But projects like PRISM’s Heritage/Evolution, an ongoing collaboration with some of the outstanding luminaries of the jazz saxophone world, have the inside track in comparison with your average multiculti venture: the saxophone, lest we forget, is the original fusion instrument, first designed for buttoned-up use in the conservatory and marching band, but subsequently assuming pride of place in the American vernacular, from vaudeville and jazz to rhythm and blues and 1980s adult contemporary. Perhaps the most important step taken by PRISM and similarly aligned ensembles, then, has been to at long last embrace the instrument’s polyglot, mixed-breed character, without, of course, jettisoning any of the virtues of the chamber music ethos. It isn’t a question saxophone insiders take lightly, since the contretemps over the instrument’s soul has been simmering for over a century, with equally strong opinions voiced by the proponents and opponents of classical domestication (in a linguistic inversion typical of jazz argot, still tellingly referred to by some players as “legit” style). Such was the intensity of the saxophone debate during the 1920s, PRISM soprano player Timothy McAllister recounts, that “there was a coup to stop its infiltration” into symphony orchestras—“infiltration” having been a very real prospect in the days of Gershwin and Weill.
But the point at issue also transcends style, since the saxophone really owes its genre-hopping adaptability to its technical properties, and not the other way around. This is particularly evident when it comes to quartet commissions on the gnarlier end of the aesthetic spectrum, altissimo and multiphonics being only the tip of the iceberg of distinctive sonic resources readily obtainable on the instrument. PRISM baritone player Taimur Sullivan explains:
I would lobby that the saxophone is the instrument most suited for contemporary composers. From the brilliant power of the instrument, to the softest sotto voce playing, to the visceral, raw quality of its extended techniques, the flexibility of timbre, dynamics, and articulation is enormous, and is incredibly surprising to newcomers to the classical side of the instrument.
The vastness of the saxophone palette is such that PRISM thinks nothing of tailoring their approach to timbre, vibrato, phrasing, and all the other interpretive parameters to each individual piece (for proof, listen to their recent collaborations with Music from China back to back with the Heritage/Evolution recordings). As a medium still very much trying to win converts over to its cause, you might say the saxophone quartet simply can’t afford anything less than total commitment. In this sense, at least, it easily outdoes its stringed-instrument cousin: while new and untested repertoire remains the exception for all but a handful of string quartets, it is the very lifeblood of the until-recently canon-less sax quartet. Consequently, saxophone music has been, and continues to be, one of the contemporary scene’s principal growth sectors.
It wasn’t always like that, as one of PRISM’s favorite war stories indicates. Levy recalls Michigan faculty composer William Albright catching one of the Quartet’s earliest shows and commenting, “You guys sound great, but you have to stop playing that French shit!” By “French shit” Albright was not so tactfully referring to the corpus of music commissioned by the first modern saxophone ensemble, the Quatuor de la Garde Républicaine, founded in 1928 by Marcel Mule, one of the twin titans of 20th-century classical sax playing. (Sigurd Raschèr was the other.) Mule’s innovation was to look beyond the operatic transcriptions that had been earlier quartets’ bread and butter, and to lobby local composers like Eugène Bozza, Alfred Desenclos, Jean Françaix, Joseph Jongen, Gabriel Piernè, and Florent Schmitt. As fate would have it, though, the foundational work in the genre didn’t come from a Frenchman at all, but from an old world Russian on the run from Stalin—Alexander Glazunov. Given his dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, Glazunov’s interest in Mule’s then-relatively untested formation is hard to account for, but all the same his 1932 quartet quickly established itself as the yardstick for all self-respecting saxophone foursomes. (The Glazunov remains a keystone of PRISM’s repertoire, for all their programming innovations.) While it’s easy to be snarky about this music—one latter-day reviewer aptly likened it to “a meeting between Tchaikovsky and Guy Lombardo”—it does effectively exploit the organ-like qualities of massed saxophones and hence, as Glazunov proudly observed, “just would not sound right” on other instruments. This is not something that can be said of most of Mule’s other commissions, and for better or worse these works would probably lose little if performed by a string quartet. More problematic still is that for all their breezy harmony and neoclassical wit, the fruits of Mule’s labor were not universally memorable.
Even so, Albright’s brusque remark is probably more apropos of the pre-Mule quartet literature, a little-known slice of 19th-century chamber music created largely on the initiative of Adolphe Sax himself. Sax, who was no mean businessman, was conscious that his eponymous invention would need repertoire, and appealed to his Conservatoire and Paris Opéra colleagues for contributions, particularly those in emulation of that most “edifying” of chamber genres, the string quartet. In his dissertation on the subject, Timothy Ruedeman estimates that at least eighteen quartets predated Mule, almost all by French or Belgian composers, with two-thirds of these written at Sax’s direct behest. Few of the composers in the Sax stable are remembered today, let alone held in any particular esteem; most were purveyors of light, quasi-operatic fare in the Donizetti, Halévy, and Offenbach vein. For example, an informal survey of music by Jean-Baptiste Singelée, the writer of what is thought to be the first-ever sax quartet, reveals that only those pieces of his including a saxophone are currently available on recordings. That this repertoire was all but forgotten even by Mule’s time is hardly surprising, as most of it was conceived in the spirit of a promotional vehicle for Sax’s new product line. For that matter, the same goes for the music produced for the quartets of Sousa associate Edward Lefèbre, the foremost saxophonist in Gilded Age America. (Lefèbre too was a keen promoter; one of his publicity booklets made the bold claim that “the Saxophone quartet with its mellow or soft and beautifully blending parts appeal [sic] to the heart like a divine choir of voices accompanied by a skillfully played grand organ.”) If there is one thing that offerings like Singelée’s Premier Quatuor make clear, it is that so long as four-part functional tonality was the dominant musical language, there would be no intrinsic (as opposed to taste-based) reason to opt for a quartet of saxophones over a quartet of strings, the latter being able by their very nature to more fluidly and effectively render such harmony.
It took a pair of 20th-century developments to bring the saxophone quartet into its own. One was the breakdown of tonality and concomitant splintering of the mainstream into micro-languages, many of which no longer took the string ensemble as its normative sounding body. Already, some of the Mule commissions had tentatively broached the issue; their overall style found a receptive ear in the United States, where French-inspired neoclassicism had become something of a lingua franca. (Nor did Raschèr’s presence in America after the start of the Second World War hurt matters.) Warren Benson, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, and Alec Wilder are among the notable figures who enriched this conservatory-oriented tradition after midcentury. Arguably more significant, however, was the second major development, the slow but steady penetration of massed saxophone sonorities into the sonic panorama of American popular culture. In particular, the era of the “saxophone craze,” the late 1910s and 1920s, was the heyday of the Six Brown Brothers, an all-saxophone ensemble that got its start in the Ringling Bros. circus. Peddling music hall and frothy “novelty” numbers, supplemented with a generous helping of pantomime and sight gags, the Brown Brothers did much to raise the saxophone’s profile, if not to legitimize it in the eyes of the highbrow.
In the jazz field, interest in instrumental multiples all but went dormant during the small-group 1950s and 1960s, making what happened next—a unprecedented boomlet of unaccompanied saxophone groups—all the more unexpected. Formed in 1976, the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) has been without doubt the most well known such formation. Comprised in its prime of four bona fide virtuosos (Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Hamiet Bluiett), WSQ had the audacity—and the chops—to go without a rhythm section, and yet they often swung harder and grooved deeper than many of their accompanied peers. This was due in no small measure to baritone player Bluiett, who variously takes up some of the responsibilities of an upright bass, a drum set, a tuba, a talking drum, a fretted electric bass, and many more besides.
Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Günther Huesmann in Das Jazzbuch perceptively write:
The development of pure saxophone groups particularly demands new ways of playing the low instruments. The baritone saxophone serves, often as harmony instrument, to carry the ensemble, and yet it must satisfy the requirement of being a fully functional and equal member of the group.
On October 5, 2006, WSQ in a lineup featuring Bluiett and Lake with James Carter and Greg Osby performed at Lovejoy High School which Bluiett had attended six decades before.
As might be expected, recent decades have seen a healthy number of quartets written by composers in the “new music” tradition engaging with the rhythms, harmonies, and timbres of jazz. As Levy granted, “when writing for the sax, a composer who never wrote a lick of jazz might be inspired to try his or her hand at it.” Yet the more successful examples are probably by those composers who tend to draw on popular modes of expression even when saxophones aren’t involved. Particularly effective have been works by Richard Rodney Bennett (Saxophone Quartet), Moritz Eggert (Skelter), Graham Fitkin (Stub), Lee Hyla (Paradigm Lost), Martijn Padding (Ritorno), and Michael Torke (May, June, July), all of which call for a harder-edged saxophone sonority worlds away from the demure Glazunov.
By contrast, an equal, if not greater, proportion of composers seem inclined to tune out the instrument’s popular associations altogether, instead treating the powerfully homogenous sound of four saxophones as abstract clay waiting to be sculpted. This tendency has been fostered especially by the commissions of the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet—unlike Mule’s ensemble, not founded until 1969—and subsequently by European groups XASAX and Quatuor Habanera. It began particularly to gain steam in the mid-1980s, when a succession of accomplished mostly-modernists such as John Cage, Friedrich Cerha, Franco Donatoni, Hugues Dufourt, Michael Finnissy, Lukas Foss, Philippe Leroux, Paul Méfano, Per Nørgård, Bent Sørensen, Erkki-Sven Tüür, and—yes, finally—Iannis Xenakis threw their hats in the ring, crafting ambitious, challenging quartet statements without making any negative accommodations to the medium. That Xenakis, for example, could work his ear bleeding, hyper-abrasive magic in XAS, his piece for the Raschèrs, spoke volumes for the genre’s viability, and by implication for the existence of untapped, saxophone-specific expressions of even the most “difficult” compositional ideas. Beyond that, what appears to link many of these offerings is their shared approach to instrumental interaction. Instead of melody-and-accompaniment or even a four-way conversational principle, they “use the saxophone quartet as a continuum,” PRISM alto player Zach Shemon observes, “that spans uninterrupted from soprano down to baritone saxophone.” While ensembles of like instrumental families (or in purer form, instrumental multiples) have attracted considerable attention from composers in recent years, the near-uniformity of timbre the saxophone quartet has in the hands of its best practitioners makes it particularly well suited to such investigations.
Yet paradoxically, some of the most fascinating efforts from the past quarter century have effectively rendered the classic saxophone sonority unrecognizable. Olga Neuwirth’s Ondate I, from 1998, is emblematic. It begins with the arresting, totally unplaceable sound of the soprano and alto saxophones entering quietly on their highest possible notes—potentially very high indeed, given how far altissimo playing can extend the instrument’s range. Neuwirth goes on to exploit these strange strains in ways that actually suggest the tricks of an avant-garde string quartet, with extreme vibrato evoking Ligetian cluster tremolandi, color (fingering) trills the likes of unison bariolage, and growling and overblowing akin to molto sul ponticello. Of course, this is only the starting point, and Ondate I achieves its uncanny effect just as well when the listener isn’t making mental cross-reference to string technique. And though very different in idiom, related in effect is the piece Albright eventually composed for PRISM, his Fantasy Etudes, a group of sharply drawn character pieces shrewdly designed around the notion of instrumental “breath.” To this end, Albright casts the quartet “against type,” as he put it, variously reimagining it as a giant set of Highland bagpipes, a wheezing harmonium, and a quirky miscellany of car horns, train whistles, and (even) Canada geese.
Electronic Manipulations & Concerti
Electronics are another means of “disguising” the saxophone quartet. The locus classicus is Alvin Curran’s sprawling Electric Rags II, conceived for Rova, which sees the ensemble pitted against a virtual encyclopedia of sampled sounds activated in real time. Ochs ventures that this kooky patchwork of a piece “might be an American classic some day.” For the purposes of illustration, however, we can take two more modest works from opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum: Daniel Wohl’s Microfluctuations in Plainchant (2012) and Franck Bedrossian’s Propaganda (2008). Prompted by the amplified saxophone sonorities of the 1970s-era Philip Glass Ensemble, Wohl seamlessly integrates his quartet with a flickering, pulsing patina of Day-Glo pre-recorded sound, the reeds sizzling with electricity, as if passed through a vocoder.
The saxophone quartet has always aroused my curiosity because it constitutes a quasi-electronic instrument in itself. The homogeneity of timbres, their elasticity and the capacity for merging are such that one might, at times, believe that the saxophones are naturally the object of electro-acoustical transformations. Consequently, the idea of combining this group with the elaboration of synthesized sounds enabled me to develop this impression of flexibility.
The “processed” timbre of massed saxophones, their adeptness in mediating between various sound states, the ease with which they can take on attributes from other instruments: these factors make the classical sax quartet an exemplary arena for electronic research.
What impressed me the most, however, was the monumentality of the project. There is so much light music for saxophone, music that can’t make up its mind if it should be classical or jazz, if it should be serious or funny, restrained or aggressive. A lot of this music is truly enjoyable—I don’t mean to say anything bad about it. This Bach project, however, is on an entirely new level—it is asking to have the saxophone taken seriously, for all that it can do.
Happily, more new quartet music than ever seems to be doing just that. Composers are increasingly mindful of the chameleon-like versatility that is the stock-in-trade of elite quartets like PRISM, and as a result statements like this one from Sax’s biographer—“next to the string quartet, a quartet of saxophones provides what is perhaps the most satisfying blend of kindred instruments”—read as oddly quaint today. The last few decades have proven that the saxophone quartet can easily stand on its own two feet, and damning it with faint praise has fortunately become a thing of the past. Instead, interest in the genre shows no signs of flagging, and new quartets have been written during the last year alone by distinguished figures as diverse as Michael Daugherty, Peter Eötvös, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Julia Wolfe. And although PRISM doesn’t look as though they’re ready to hang it up anytime soon, adventurous, rule-breaking new saxophone groups in their image such as the Anubis Quartet, h2 quartet, and New Thread Quartet seem to crop up almost every day. Levy spoke of a “collective hunger for new music” in the saxophone community: suffice it to say that they’re still nowhere near stuffed.
1. Tim McAllister, quoted in Michael Segell, The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool (New York: Picador, 2005), p. 258.
3. Alexander Glazunov, quoted in André Sobchenko, “Letters from Glazunov: ‘The Saxophone Concerto Years’,” Saxophone Journal 22.1 (Sep.-Oct. 1997), 67. Given his subsequent use of the saxophone in Romeo and Juliet, Lieutenant Kijé, and (most bizarrely) the Ode to the End of the War, Sergei Prokofiev’s appraisal of the Glazunov is worth quoting: “It was entirely obvious that with a stronger contrapuntal structure and with a greater attention to color and certain other devices, a saxophone ensemble has every right to exist and can even stand up quite well in a serious piece of music.” Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, ed. Harlow Robinson (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), p. 309.
4. Timothy J. Ruedeman, “Lyric-Form Archetype and the Early Works for Saxophone Quartet, 1844-1928: An Analytical and Historical Context for Saxophone Quartet Performance” (PhD diss., New York University, 2009), p. 22.
7. Louis Andriessen, Program note for Facing Death (1990).
8. Larry Ochs, “How Do You Connect with Composers to Write New Works for You and How Does That Fit in with Your Other Activities?,” NewMusicBox (February 1, 2001).
10. Martin Bresnick, quoted in Susan Fancher, “Martin Bresnick’s Every Thing Must Go for Saxophone Quartet,” Saxophone Journal 33.6 (Jul.-Aug. 2009). Ingram Marshall’s response to Every Thing Must Go is intriguing: “Saxophones are not my favorite instruments and the idea of a sax quartet is not a good one in my view, but Martin’s Every Thing Must Go slow movement just kills me, every time I hear it, and has changed my mind about those hopelessly hybrid instruments”; “Ingram Marshall’s Quiet Music for a New England Summer,” WQXR (July 2, 2014).
12. Franck Bedrossian, Program note for Propaganda (2008).
13. Michael Nyman, Program note for Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (2001).
15. David Lang, Program note for Revolutionary Etudes (2006).
Matt Mendez is a New York-based critic and composer. He is active as a musicologist, and has published scholarly articles on John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Peter Ablinger. Matt also writes program and liner notes.