The saxophone multiplied

Amanda Cole

The saxophone is a relatively new instrument when compared with its orchestral and classical kin. The saxophone quartet, with its short history, is a rare ensemble with a limited repertoire. Ranging from baritone to soprano, the saxophone quartet has an extensive pitch and dynamic range and the ability to produce a vast array of tonal colours. Different timbral nuances can be heard in its shrill and glistening upper registers, smooth mid ranges and thick and reedy low registers. Extended techniques including harmonics, multiphonics, key clicks and tongue slaps add exotic sounds to its palette. Saxophones can combine to create dense textures of layered material or blended textures of sustained tones. In their latest concert, Continuum Sax collaborated with sound artist Gail Priest in compositions and improvisations, expanding further the sound world of the saxophone quartet.

Priest began the concert with a loop-based soundscape spatialised between a pair of speakers. Apart from an annoying buzz from one of the speakers during the first half of the concert, the sonic texture created through the gradual layering of looped material was hypnotic and engaging. Continuum Sax followed with Gavin Bryars Alaric I or II, which was scored for 2 soprano saxophones plus alto and baritone saxophone, to emulate the range of a string quartet. This lyrical work used extended techniques that included circular breathing, multiphonics and use of extreme registers. Although this work combined a variety of tone colours, sections were a little too close to the musical language of Phillip Glass for my liking.

Each of the 3 collaborations between Continuum and Priest explored distinctive combinations of saxophone quartet and electronic music. In Pocalyptic by Priest and Martin Kay, the artists improvised on prepared material made from improvisations by Kay. In the second, Priest improvised with tuned effects, sculpted feedback and samples whilst Continuum worked with aleatoric sketches. In Pari Intervallo Variation by Arvo Pärt, Priest took live feeds from each saxophone, manipulating their overtones. This work was the highlight of the concert.

After a few minutes of the Pärt performed without processing, the initial sounds—subtly manipulated by Priest—now joined the live playing, creating a stunning, unified wash of ambient, pulsating sound. It was almost impossible to distinguish between the live and the processed sound until, towards the end, the saxophones stopped playing, revealing just how much of the total effect was being produced electronically. The metamorphosis was structurally perfect.

Excellent performances of works for saxophone quartet by Australian composers included Four Winds by Andrew Ford and St Mark's Inflection by Jane Stanley. I particularly enjoyed the spatial aspect of Ford's piece as each saxophonist entered and left the stage from different corners. Continuum Sax closed the concert with a rhythmic and energetic piece by Rolf Gehlhaar.

Priest's palette of sounds added dimension and sonic variety to Continuum Sax's performance, although some of the pieces could have been more compelling with surround sound or if the positioning of the performers in the space had been varied. The compositions and improvisations employed a diverse range of colouristic effects, expanding the repertoire and highlighting the capabilities of this versatile ensemble.

Four by Four, Continuum Sax: Margery Smith, James Nightingale, Martin Kay and Jarrod Whitbourn, sound artist Gail Priest, New Music Network, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Aug 20

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. w

© Amanda Cole; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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