Four Brothers

The saxophone has been playing classical music longer than jazz, but that’s a fairly well kept secret. Patrons at classical concerts are still charmed by the novelty of seeing a musician, wearing a tuxedo, with a shining ax on their lap amidst the symphony orchestra, even in such well-known pieces as Bolero. Yes, it belongs there!

The saxophone quartet is a more recent innovation, and here I think it owes something to jazz, to the sax section found in the big bands starting in the twenties. That warm, mellow blend of the reeds is an attractive sound, and there was also the historical attention paid to the Four Brothers group-within-a-group in the Woody Herman big band, perhaps the first unofficial saxophone quartet. Since then there have been notable ones in jazz, The World Saxophone Quartet; in the avant-garde, Rova; and in new music, The Apollo Quartet. Both the instrument and the ensemble are recent enough that the body of music expressly for them is mostly new, and in the case of the PRISM Quartet that body of work is new, large, expanding and written expressly for them.

PRISM is in the midst of celebrating their 25th anniversary, and that’s a gift to music lovers. The ensemble has commissioned more than 120 original works in that period and is now producing recordings at an impressive pace. Five new CDs in the past two years have now culminated in the release and companion concerts to the new recordings “Breath Beneath” (available now) and “Antiphony” (coming out next month). In total it’s an unusual and impressive volume of work, and one of the rare cases where the quantity is part of the quality, and the quality itself is as fine as can be.

The Quartet has the chops to play everything exceedingly well, meaning every piece of music no matter concept or style sounds great. But beyond their instrumental and performing prowess, they have that most important of all musical qualities, good taste. They are simultaneously creating and performing a repertoire of new music and the great value in what they are doing is that they are creating and performing consistently good, interesting new music. Unlike Rova, where everything be it improvisation or commissioned work tends to sound the same, i.e. like Rova, with PRISM everything sounds like PRISM is playing the hell out of a fascinating and satisfying variety of music. This is invaluable.

The new releases demonstrate this in full. “Breath Beneath” is a showcase for both new music and saxophone writing. The pieces draw together a variety of ideas and are consistent in their idiomatic use of the instruments and in their quality. It starts with Roshanne Etezady’s Keen, a piece meant to evoke the flavor of Middle Eastern music and to serve as a lament for the dead. The title also has something to do with the particular vocal quality possible in the saxophone and inherent in the writing. It is a lovely, truly mournful piece with burst of great, un-assuaged passions. Zack Browning’s Funk Assault is revealed by the composer to have been structured around a Magic Square, but the ears don’t need to know that to enjoy the sharp attacks of the short, driving phrases and the expansive intervals. It’s a nice balance of the intellectual and the hip.

Sound on the sax is made with breath, and the way the horn produces notes makes it, in the words of Steve Lacy, an “interval machine.” Kati Agócs’ beautiful Coloratura incorporates both the vocal and intervallic strengths of the saxophone. It’s made up of six short motets that are modeled after choral music; a sighing “Introit,” a pensive “Laud,” a nervous “Hoquetus,” a “Lamentation” that features quiet chattering, a poised, eruptive “Fuging Tune” and a gorgeous “Hymn” that begins with the warmth of Das Rheingold. This emphasis on the breath of the instrument continues through the last three pieces, which explore more abstract territory. Ross Feller’s Nomadology has philosophical inspiration and in sound jumps energetically and engagingly from brief ideas that explore the capabilities of the ensemble, as raucous and coherent as a high-quality debate. The CD title piece from Kristin Kuster, and Rand Steiger’s closing Maxine, are each centered on the act of taking in air and focusing breath out across the reed, into the horn. Breath Beneath has phrases that literally are engaged in the act of breathing and then pass into silence, each differentiated by the moment when the musicians must again take in air. The horns play quietly, touching on sub-tones, building quiet consonant and dissonant intervals. It’s spellbinding. Maxine is another work involved around mourning, this for the composer’s mother. Here the breath comes out in hard attacks and agitated figures, before a sense of quiet and even enervation gradually takes over the music. The notes becoming soft, their duration lengthens. The sense of agitation returns briefly, before the music again falls back into a quiet, steady state. It’s a work of activity and contemplation.

In concert at Le Poisson Rouge, PRSIM expanded on the variety and possibilities of new music. They played a sampling of William Albright’s virtuoso Fantasy Etudes, Stephen Mackey’s energetic and winning Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, two fascinating pieces accompanied by sampled sounds by Jacob TV and Lei Liang’s Yuan. That same composer’s Verge was one of the highlights of the first New York Philharmonic “CONTACT!” concert, and is also featured on PRISM’s “Antiphony” release. The subtitle of this CD is “music from China,” and is example of the burgeoning cultural influence of that country and the changing face of immigration in America. Chinese composers are meeting Western instruments and forms in all sorts of ways, some kitschy and others rewarding. The music on this CD is the latter, it’s not East vs. West nor cultural slumming of any kind, it’s a collection of works that seek to synthesize different traditions into new ideas.

The recording opens with Wang Guowei’s gorgeous Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet, with the composer playing the erhu, zhobghu and banhu, each different sized bowed fiddles. The music is intensely vocalized in the manner of traditional, microtonal singing for the fiddle and in diatonic, minor-key harmony for the saxes. The music is achingly mournful in the opening Pastorale and jaunty in Crescent Moon at Dawn, and the blend of reeds and reedy string instrument is fantastically pleasing. The title of the CD comes from Antiphony for Erhu, Daruan, Percussion and Saxophone Quartet by Zhou Long, a simple arch form with a complex and compelling sound. The traditional Chinese instruments are deeply, mysteriously expressive, and placing them both against the saxophones and into readily identifiable rhythmic patterns and phrases produces music that is rich and new, reminiscent of the evocative balance between East and West that Toru Takemitsu pioneered.

Liang’s piece is a ghost story in sound, based on a tragic tale from the Cultural Revolution. It is also reminiscent of Takemitsu, of that composer’s ability to evoke vivid atmospheres through sound and silence. Liang’s voice has a more familiar flavor, his score is only for the Quartet, and the effect is of hearing a strange, involving tale that still reveals apprehensible feelings. The remaining pieces again add Chinese instruments to the ensemble. There are two familiar names on the disc, those of Chen Yi and Tan Dun, important figures in this generation’s ongoing meeting of cultures. Tan’s work, oddly, has nothing to do with PRISM, it’s written solely for Chinese instruments and is a blend of the idiomatic sounds and phrases of those instruments set inside a fairly rigorous, more Western structure. This is Tan’s strength as a composer, and even without the saxophones the balance and clarity of the music fits well into the overall recording. Chen’s piece is pictorial and dramatic, set in formal sections that feature the Quartet, accompanied and embellished by ehru, pipa and percussion. It’s full of dynamism and intensity.

The recording concludes with Chinatown for Yangqin, Pipa, Percussion and Saxophone Quartet, by Ming-Hsiu Yen. Here, PRISM plays music that hints at bits of Ravel and Le Sace du Printemps, and the Chinese instruments respond in sympathetic agreement, playing related material but in their own voices. It’s an apt culmination to a collection of music that is about finding fruitful points to meet; this piece has all the musicians beginning at a point of agreement and exploring together. The overall sound of the entire CD is beautiful and stimulating, the intense reediness from all the instruments sparks the aural appetite. It’s from this meeting point that PRISM is carving out new territory in 21st century music.

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