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PRISM Quartet – Saxophone Buffet

Well, they’re loud. Saxophones definitely have volume going for them. Other attractive qualities of the instrument are debatable, but last week’s PRISM Quartet 20th Anniversary Concert served as a valuable forum for those of differing minds on the subject. To celebrate the ensemble’s (impressive) milestone, the sax quartet programmed 20 short “dedications” (they were about 1-2 minutes long each), all commissioned by the ensemble for the occasion, as well as a premiere of a new 3-movement work entitled Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Steven Mackey. It was Friday night at the “Leonard Nimoy Thalia” performance hall at the “Peter Norton Symphony Space” (by far the best-named endowments in town, proving once and for all that DOS books, virus software, and Star Trek can happily coexist side by side with Art) and saxophones were on everyone’s mind.

I’ll have to refrain from discussing any specific piece in detail, as there were just too many friends, acquaintances, and colleages (a complete list of the commisioned composers, many of them young and “emerging,” can be found here) on the program that night. That abstention now out of the way … Whither Saxophone? An evening of 21 different answers to this can be pretty revealing, and yet, probably not quite as much as you’d like it to be. There were 21 composers, but were there 21 different pieces? Mmmm, Yes, but perhaps there weren’t 21 different Musics. What’s worth discussing is that 21 composers, whether they mean to or not, are forced into an aural consensus of sorts: We have only a minute or two to present our material, which is barely enough time to articulate a coherent musical thought, let alone a rounded and complete work, so the compilation of our efforts ends up being a compendium of “here’s what absolutely works on this ensemble, because it’s all we have time for…”

One-minute pieces do have a certain advantage, of course. Certainly we’ve all been plagued by the irrepressible “Will this ever end?” thought at New Music concerts, but with the miniature bon-bons PRISM presented, you never had to think that, so if the voice in your head did join the party it was only to think good thoughts, like “I wish this was longer…” A nice change.But Postcard Music, excuse the ad-hoc label, isn’t exactly Music, it’s more like, a Gesture. A concert presentation of 20 miniatures is the musical equivalent of walking onstage, nodding your head, and walking off. Walking back on, and shrugging your shoulders. Etc. Out of necessity, only one musical idea can (should!) be expressed, and interestingly, the expressions were of only a few types. That is, there were pieces where the saxes were asked to sound “good”, and pieces where they were asked to, basically, make noises. Guess which pieces worked best.

Saxophone can be a truly expressive instrument (I wholeheartedly point to almost a century of American Jazz), but its expressivity is not born out of the beauty of it’s sound. What it does have going for it is its noisemaker versatility: these hunks of metal and plastic are fantastic at making pops, buzzes, growls, clicks, hoots, hisses, squeals, screams, and multiphonic screeches. They just don’t sound very good playing actual notes, is all. I mean, we’re talking about an instrument where as it plays, you hear the keys clicking along with the fingering. There are limits to its aural beauty. (ie. after 2 hours of nonstop saxophones, I began to visualize a drill bit slowly approaching my temple. The concert fortunately completed before any drastic side-effects commenced…)

When a beautiful sound is attempted for the ensemble, the result is specifically French. And for good reason. For many of the composers, that sound fit their personal styles and harmonic languages very well. But since many of the commissions in this category were essentially concentrated studies of motion—streams of notes whipping around like a serpent, back and forth and up and down (gestures that work great on that ensemble, as no one really wants to hear them holding pitches for very long), the inevitable result was something akin to what I would imagine French cartoon music would sound like— scurrying little creatures and fantastic animals defying gravity in scenes of 1920′s Parisian bliss. Look! Milhaud has finally stopped looking like a cartoon and has actually morphed into one! He’s turned into a little saxophone with a Provençal accent…

As attractive as that sound can be, it loses it’s effectiveness with repetition. About half of the commissioned “dedications” aimed for this mark, and it quickly turned into some predictable stuff (at least two of them started out by laying down a bass line with the Bari, and other clichés followed close behind). So for me, the better works were the outright extra-musical sound-pieces (When it comes to the effectiveness on the ensemble of pieces like this, I’m probably not objective. For evidence, see my own, youthful saxophone quartet). If the little studies in French baguette crumbs seemed to be limited to banalities and predictable gestures, the Noisemakers looked to be much more free in their music-making. With no specific harmonic language or sound world to constrain them, and armed with the rich palette of cacophony the saxophone offers, those composers were able stretch out and make some interesting and fun little pieces.

As performers, PRISM is a fantastic ensemble—as good as a sax quartet can sound. Timothy McAllister, Michael Whitcomble, Matthew Levy, and Taimur Sullivan are all fabulous musicians. I heard no (accidental) squeak or hoot —they were a smoothly operating machine, feverishly dedicated to every note they were playing. And their history of commissions and championing composers is enough to take one’s breath away. 20 years is a great run for any quartet, let alone a rare animal like a professional saxophone quartet. And 20 years of supporting new music—that is an anniversary worthy of separate and significant celebration. But the excellent impression this ensemble made was less about their undeniable musicianship, and more about how they approached their performing tasks. That is, the biggest mistake most sax quartets make is one of self-perception, and PRISM doesn’t fall for it: they never try to sound like a string quartet. And that kind of self-awareness not only makes an impression with the audience, but serves the music very well. It’s not unlike looking in the mirror and coming to terms with the fact that you’re never going to be the dashing leading man, so instead you blow them all away as the brilliant but odd-looking character actor, and steal the show.

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