This collection of works for saxophone and percussion by six Danish composers challenges standard ideas of melody, sonority and harmony. Some of the works are typified by great desperation and pent-up emotions, others by melancholy and reflection. The music snorts, groans, snarls and shouts – or fizzles, whispers and chafes – and is a remarkable display of the almost infinite expressive possibilities of this unusual combination of instruments.
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A BURST OF MUSIC
by Klaus Møller Jørgensen
Niels Marthinsen: Burst (1990)
Niels Marthinsen likes to write visually evocative music, a theme that recurs in many of his titles, for example Monster Symphony or the trombone concerto In The Shadow of the Bat. What actually lies behind the title Burst is uncertain. But we can probably safely say that the title should be taken literally – that is, that something in the music bursts out or shatters – or at least aspires or attempts to do so; as emphasized by the way the voices of the musicians form an element in the piece, as desperate screams.
The piece forms one continuous process with great, fast-changing oscillations along the way: now very powerful, now quite faintly; quick runs regularly interrupted by long holding notes and many short, abrupt pauses. In the end the piece culminates with the saxophone in the high register, on non-specific notes, as non-tonal as possible and with the greatest possible leaps. All this gives the listener the experience of something desperate and wildly flailing. The most stable element is a few recurring figures that most of all recall broken chords – perhaps running on the spot? Whether this evokes associations with the lion pacing restlessly around his cage or with some suppressed, unresolved eroticism – each listener must make up his or her own mind ...
Simon Steen-Andersen: Study for alto saxophone and percussion (1998)
Simon Steen-Andersen is particularly fascinated by the possibility of coaxing brand new, surprising things from sound-emitters of all conceivable kinds. It may be done by scratching or knocking on traditional instruments, or by using sounds from quite different sounding bodies in musical compositions.
In the relatively early Study for alto saxophone and percussion Steen-Andersen focuses on the encounter between the airborne notes of the alto saxophone and the more robust striking sound of the percussion. And the overarching question here is “Can percussion and saxophone play in unison – that is, the same note?” The note-formation of the percussion is after all generally more diffuse than that of the strung, bowed and wind instruments, and is strongly coloured by the actual attack. But “Quasi unisono” is written above the first bar: the whole of the first section is to be played ‘as if in unison’ and that is in fact the feel you get right from the beginning, when a saxophone trill and an item of vibrating percussion – a wood-block – follow each other entirely, even in the subsequent quick festoons of notes.
The whole piece falls into five distinct sections. In the second section the two instrumentalists glide apart and hold a subdued conversation, in some places with a unison character but mostly in the form of a duo over certain fixed phrases. In the third section things pick up speed, and the two try once more to merge together in unison playing without quite succeeding; rather, it become slightly fugue-like as they try to imitate each other’s phrases. In the fourth section they make another attempt, and now they are a little more successful, especially with the pronounced stresses on which they can agree. In the last section, the duo-playing from the second section returns in an abbreviated version in which they insist on meeting at the end – only to pitch into a compressed, mirror-image variation on the first, quasi-unison section. The final bars recall the beginning, but the saxophone plays without trills and the wood-block has been replaced with crotales and brass plates that have more clearly identifiable tones. The tonal fusion has been consummated.
Jexper Holmen: Oil, for alto saxophone and percussion (1996)
A plaintive little melody runs around in the head of the just 14-year-old Jexper Holmen. Eleven years later the melody becomes the starting point for a wistfully conceived duo between the dark, soft bass clarinet and the sensitive vibraphone. The result is a sensitive, tremulous piece that plays with the little melody all the way through – perhaps in a fond look back at early youth. The title refers to the generally dark, soft tone of the piece.
The melody is distinctive in involving a number of high leaps rather than stepwise motion. It looks a little agitated in the written music, but played slowly and quietly the experience is rather one of reflection than agitation. The core of the melody is heard immediately in the first bar: a fourth up, a step down, a fourth down and a sixth up. The core motif is first repeated with a little spun-out tail to it, then it comes back in a varied, more major-sounding version.
The remainder of the piece is a quiet game with the whole melody and especially with a series of variations on the core motif, which is for example inverted with changed intervals, rhythms etc. and more or less all through the piece the percussion follows the melody part like a kind of shadow, as the vibraphone, with few exceptions, closely follows the rhythm of the bass clarinet and adds a little echo to each note in the melody. Just halfway through, the interplay culminates in a fortissimo followed by a small break where the vibraphone alone plays the core motif. After a general pause and another round of duo variations, the piece fades out with a number of phrases derived from the core motif, now as pure shadow, in the vibraphone alone.
Morten Ladehoff (b. 1978): Pyr, ami spy, ram isp yra mis (2003)
“The piece is based on two constructivist concepts, both of which can be decoded in the cryptic title. The word ‘pyramis’ (Latin for pyramid) is written three times and then split into words of three letters. Since ‘pyramis’ consists of seven letters, seven different ‘words’ are formed before the sequence is repeated. This principle is transposed in various ways into musical parameters (pitch, rhythm etc.) and helps to constitute a special musical syntax that runs through the piece. The second concept is inspired by the structure of the pyramid. A pyramid is built from a number of squares that are laid one over the other and progressively reduced in area until the top square only consists of a single unit. This idea can be heard in the piece as a kind of variation type where the ‘theme’ is first played at its full length and is then trimmed/compressed for each of the two variations, such that the last variation is only a very fleeting reminiscence of the original ‘theme’.”
So says the composer himself about the structure of Pyr, ami spy, ram isp yra mis. The piece has an abrupt and ostensibly random character, just like the strange syllables in the title. But along the way one recognizes details as elaborations or derivatives of something heard earlier.
To begin with, there are a number of very fast, ascending note-festoons in the saxophone; they are repeated, but now in slightly shorter phrases and with slightly slower note values. This pattern is repeated twice again: each time shorter and slower. At first the percussion is only momentarily present, but it carves out more space for itself, and for a period quite ousts the saxophone.
In the further development, fragments or derivations of the note-festoons appear in interaction with and also partly in the percussion (temple blocks with five different pitches). Ostinato-like passages appear with particular figures that run in rings and which are either expanded or contracted; the individual elements of the material are separated and re-assembled in new ways, in new orders.
After just under five minutes the very fast note-festoons from the beginning return, but now they run in rings – there is no dilution as at the start. The score calls it a “gathering-up of distorted associations”, and now comes a much compacted rendering of all the foregoing over exactly 42 (6 times 7) bars; followed by a “Reminiscence of gathering – Distorted associations of preceding associations”, an even more compacted version over exactly 21 (3 times 7) bars – the top layer of the pyramid.
Niels Rønsholdt (b. 1978): Drink me, make me real (2002)
At times it can be hard to get through to your partner, your child or your boss, or in other situations where you feel neglected or misunderstood, or want attention. And the desperate struggle to break through this wall often has an element of repetition: we keep hammering harder on the door to force a way through, but it only gets worse – like the stuck car that simply digs its way deeper into the snow when we try to drive it free.
Rønsholdt’s piece is a highly physical account of such a feeling of constraint. For a good six minutes we experience the vain struggle of two musicians to break through with their notes. The resistance is quite concretely physical; the wood-blocks are wrapped up and have to be struck with soft ‘whiskers’, and the saxophonist has to blow with a loose embouchure so that nothing but air comes out of the instrument. All the same you can clearly hear the violent energy that is applied to the attempt to produce sounding notes.
In the course of the piece, small new elements or figures pop up regularly, but there is no true development. On the contrary, the many small figures are simply repeated in ever-expanding form; it is as if they never leave the spot, only sink deeper in the mud. There is also en element of repetition in the way the two musicians play together with an electronic soundtrack of the same character, which they themselves have recorded – they are so to speak struggling with themselves. When the saxophone finally succeeds in producing proper notes, they are distorted howls, not beautiful sounds. In the end the piece dies out to the sound of an extended series of echoes of these howls. Resignation.
Kasper Jarnum (1971-2011): Der Totenschläger und der Rattenfänger (2001)
The titles refers to the gruesome folk tale, told by the Brothers Grimm, of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose piping delivers the town from a plague of rats; but when the townsmen refuse to pay the promised reward, he uses his musical magic to lure all the children of the town to their death. Jarnum writes directly in the score that the saxophone first plays the rat-catcher (the liberator) but is then transformed into the murderer, and vice versa with the percussion.
This is thus a kind of transformation music where the instruments exchange roles along the way. To begin with the percussion is highly agitated and aggressive, with banging bass drum, metallic sounds and an apparently random hammering right and left – as against the almost inaudible soprano saxophone with a very slow, quiet melody. Only after a few minutes does the saxophone grow stronger and is in time given higher melodic leaps and quicker note values. Slowly it conquers more terrain, while at the same time the percussion becomes increasing subdued and little by little is restricted to wood-blocks.
A roll on the tom-toms marks the transition to a middle section where percussion and saxophone enter into a dialogue; they play small phrases against each other in a kind of call-and-response, or join each other in a kind of monophony. But after a while the saxophone becomes more aggressive and snarling, and the duet is changed into a duel. The percussion withdraws and shifts into a pure, ethereal, beautiful vibraphone sound, while the saxophone snarls away for a while yet, with powerful eruptions of great, abrupt tonal leaps. In the end, though, the saxophone is left completely out of breath and reverts to the quiet character from the beginning, now over the vibraphone sound.
Klaus Møller-Jørgensen is a music journalist and freelance programme producer for DR. He also works as an information officer for the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus.