A couple of weeks ago my alto saxophone wasn’t working properly. I’d tried adjusting it to make it better, as I always do, it’s a kind of prevarication to delude myself that the instrument is working. I fiddle with the G# mechanism and the long Bb adjustment, and mess around with the front high F. All to no avail. Then I carry on regardless trying to ignore the obvious delay on low notes, the stuffy mid-range D, and the general resistance in the instrument. I was practising and things weren’t going well, expletives were rife.... Sarah left what she was doing in another room, walked into our studio, took my saxophone and tried it. “Your saxophone doesn’t work, you have to get it fixed, I’ll text Tom, use mine”. I played Sarah’s saxophone for a few days, magical, everything just worked.
The trouble is I’m always hesitant about handing my saxophone over to be repaired or adjusted. In fact, even though it’s not the best thing to do, I hardly ever get my instruments serviced. It’s because they never feel the same afterwards, even though the instrument has been ‘set up’ as though it’s just left the factory. I have a very light touch, probably too light, a hang-over from my years as a clarinettist, focusing on a light touch with fingers moving as little as possible. My saxophone always feels ‘clunky’ when I get it back from a repairer; it still doesn’t work, but doesn’t work in a different way to how it didn’t work before I had it repaired. ‘The Princess and the Pea’; that’s what Sarah sometimes calls me.
Quite a few years ago I took my instrument to be repaired (I was playing a Selmer Series 2 then), and decided on a full overhaul. There had been a gap of a few years since it had been looked at and I was promised it would be ‘like new’ when I got it back. It wasn’t, well the new pads, corks, and springs were, but it was incredibly difficult to play. I had to press quite hard to produce notes cleanly. It seemed incredibly sluggish. I went back to the repairer and asked if anything could be done.
“Oh you’re not one of those people that press really lightly are you!??!! Press harder!”.
He might have had a point. Although I remember when my Selmer was new, I didn’t have to go to the gym to be able to get the pads to seal.
Anyway, this week I had a lovely experience.
There is a repairer that makes me feel less anxious; Tom Rodgers. He’s based at Windstruments near Bingley. He’s a Yamaha trained technician (I play Yamaha), and he’s rescued me a few times over the last few years. After the text exchange with Sarah I took my alto to Tom to work his magic. The difference between Tom and quite a few other repairers is that he trained as a classical saxophonist, and Sarah (Markham) was his teacher. He not only knows about the technicalities of the instrument, but has experienced the subtleties of performing at a high level. With Tom, it’s not just mechanics, engineering, and resetting things to the factory defaults.
While he was setting up the key action he offered insights into how he could make my saxophone play as I wanted it to. He had no problem making sure my pads seated with the lightest of pressure, even taking out the slightest annoying movement I could feel when I pressed a particular key down. I am recording works by Ryo Noda which involve trills at very low dynamics, and so Tom made my keys absolutely silent to ensure only the trill is heard not the key movement. He talked about how the saxophone ‘felt’, and that the pads would feel positive and be airtight, but he could create different levels of response from the instrument. The key action could result in a harder response from the pads, or a softer feel. The options Tom offered me moved out of the field of repairs and more towards ensuring that the player had a greater affinity with the instrument. Such a privilege to spend time with someone with the skills and insight to shape my instrument into the saxophone that I want. Thank you Tom.
Oh, in case you don’t get the reference to The Princess and the Pea, it’s a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (1835).
I decided that my (this) website needed something, a change of colour perhaps?
So I took inspiration from Gravitation (also known as Gravity) by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher completed in June 1952. It was first printed as a black-and-white lithograph and then coloured by hand in watercolour.
It depicts a nonconvex regular polyhedron known as the small stellated dodecahedron. Each facet of the figure has a trapezoidal doorway. Out of these doorways protrude the heads and legs of twelve turtles without shells, who are using the object as a common shell. The turtles are in six coloured pairs (red, orange, yellow, magenta, green and indigo) with each turtle directly opposite its counterpart.
I used the six colours in the print on my website, they seem quite relaxing. The hand written styled font for the headings is Rock Salt, imbeded from Google Fonts.
The Quirk quartet performed twice at the Saxophone Day, hosted by the University of Huddersfield and directed by Sarah Markham. The first concert was at 10:15 am in St. Paul's Hall, the second at 6:00 pm. In the later performance we were joined by Richard Ingham playing soprano saxophone, so in effect we became a quintet. We performed one of Richard's compositions; Pieces for five players.
I think it's pretty rare that the same quartet, plays the same composition, in the same performance space, exactly a year apart. The only difference being the guest saxophonists that joined the quartet.
This year; Richard Ingham, last year; Claude Delangle. From the quartet's point of view this was fascinating, Richard and Claude rehearsed and performed in completely different ways.
Claude took more of a solo role, taking time to experiment with the musical line and musical detail. In some ways Claude was working blind; there is little explanation as to the premise of the composition. Claude's interpretation was beautiful, French classical saxophone at its best. As expected, absolutely stunning.
We were surprised at how different Richard's interpretation was. Of course we should have expected it, he is the composer and 'inside' the music. He created the gestalt to be carried forward. His performance (apart from the cadenza solo passages) was less that of a soloist. His sound became part of the ensemble and revealed intricate textures and harmonic spacings, at times the Scottish influence came to the fore.
I recently read an interesting paper by Patricia Holmes discussing timbre as a conveyor of emotion. This year's performance seemed to resonate with that discussion. If you're interested here's the details of the article:
Holmes, P. A. (2012). An Exploration of Musical Communication Through Expressive Use of Timbre: The Performer's Perspective. Psychology of Music, 40(3), 301-323.
Whenever you get a bunch of musicians together, usually someone shares a revelation related to the music. The trombonist Richard Baker told me about an improvisation technique that the tenor saxophonist George Garzone has been working on for decades. He calls it the Triadic Chromatic Approach.
Here's what George says in a master class:
"I took the four groups of triads—major, minor, augmented and diminished—and figured out a way how to improvise with them using random inversions with a half-step coupling in between each triad. By doing that, you borrow from the 12-tone row. If you repeat yourself by playing two first position, two root position or two second inversions, you will cause the triad to shut itself down, and you start to cause repetition."
In its simplest form, if you play a triad on C (C E G) you can then play a semitone up or down from the G. The new note is part of a different triad, but can't be the root note (because the same inversion cannot be repeated). So no Ab or Gb triads allowed. There's more explanation on the JodyJazz website.
Yesterday I did a gig with the Opera Dudes, that's them at the sound check.
The Opera Dudes are Tim Lole and Neil Allen, it’s usually the same line-up in the section; myself on woodwind, Richard Baker on Trombone, Gary Wyatt and Rob Deakin on trumpets. If you’ve never seen the Opera Dudes in action, well, you should…. excellent operatic tenors, with a mix of Frank Spencer impressions and long funny narratives describing their lives and history.
It’s always fun for me, because Tim Lole tends to email parts out a few days before the gig with new arrangements. This week The Pearl Fishers duet (Georges Bizet) long clarinet solo had moved to flute. There was also a new addition; E lucevan le stelle from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca on clarinet. Nessun dorma from the final act of Puccini’s opera Turandot obviously needed a French classical alto saxophone solo as an accompaniment.
This description from their website sums up their classical cabaret evenings:
“Take a bricklayer, a pub and club singer, a highly-experienced operatic tenor, an organ scholar, a cassock-clad chorister, a Cambridge Graduate, an impressionist, a couple of comedians, and a prize-winning conductor with appearances on the TV, mix them together and what do you get? Just a couple of seriously talented guys giving you a great night out. In other words, the Opera Dudes.
Some might say Mik Artistik is an acquired taste, I think he's brilliant.
Plastic Fox is one of my favourites:
All those weekly performance classes trying to encompass everything needed to perform and have presence in front of an audience. Plastic Fox, it’s all there.
...and there’s always Cheap watch, from the market:
Sarah Markham is directing her fifth annual Saxophone Day at the University of Huddersfield on the 8th March. It's quite exciting, Richard Ingham (saxophone) and Pete Stollery (sound diffusion) will be performing Dialogue de l’Ombre Double by Boulez. There will be workshops and also a masterclass featuring University saxophonists. The Quirk saxophone quartet will make an appearance in the opening recital, which will also include Egyptian Wish, a trio for three soprano saxophones composed by Katy Abbott. This particular trio features a fair bit of synchronised glissandi....
The day starts at 10:00 am and finishes about 7:30 pm after the evening concert (6:00pm). There will be exhibitions by Yamaha, Vandoren, Selmer, D’Addario Woodwind, Yanagisawa and Windstruments; always good to try out the latest stuff.
Full details are on Sarah's website.
The Quirk saxophone quartet will be performing at the World Saxophone Congress in Zagreb, Croatia's capital city. We're rehearsing the works in our programme, which include works byRichard Ingham and he's joining us to perform them. We're also performing two works written by members of the quartet; Smudge by Chris Jolly and I didn't get where I was today by myself. Chris's piece is vibrant, rhythmic and exciting. As a quartet we love it. My composition is at the sketching stage. We played through a few sections at our rehearsal on Friday.
Challenging. I blame the rain.
The structure of my quartet is based on rainfall, with the implicit rhythms and complexity. A Messiaen mode (no harmonic resolution), a ten note phrase structure and a layer of accents based on significant events in a rainfall transcription doesn't easily lend itself to 4/4. So a large part of my work is in 7/16. Quite a challenge, as each saxophone part enters at a different time, with differing accents. Those saxophonists in Sibelius seem unfazed by anything. Whereas I found it pretty tricky to play the alto part in my own composition!
It's not all about textures. I have in mind a lyrical melody to rise through and float above the rain, for our amazing soprano player. I realise how fortunate I am to have a professional saxophone quartet to try out my stuff, such lovely people, offering endless support.
Best comment after a few play throughs: "It sounds like Gotkovsky". If only...
Knuston Hall, an Adult Residential College is hosting a course for saxophonists; The Saxophone and its Music. I'll be there as a tutor, it's a very enjoyable week with ensembles ranging from quartets to the large ensemble consisting of twenty-four players. I'll be joined by Sarah Hind (the baritone player in the Quirk saxophone quartet) and also later in the week by the amazing Sarah Markham (that's not me being biased for obvious reasons!). There's a huge library of music; classic repertoire, jazz quartets and arrangements of non saxophone works, and Sarah Markham and myself will be running workshops during the week.
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