Arts and Crafts With Richard Ducros

“Not Amsterdam, not San Sebastián, definitely not Paris,” I repeated over Skype. “I want to work with you guys.” My intentions were clear. Having studied in environments not so well known for saxophone my entire academic life, I wasn’t about to change now. “There will always be plenty of institutionalized saxophone players to fill the educational voids between Europe and the States. I’ve fulfilled my degree duties to the M.M.” For my part, after a master course with Messieurs Lauba and Ducros in Rouffach, France last summer (for me more affectionately known as Christian and Richard), I knew where I wanted to finally polish off my saxophone studies. Bordeaux was calling.

Upon first meeting Richard four months before that time, I had been familiar with his music only through YouTube. I figured he was probably a Lauba spcialist. Of course, that is true. Ducros really is the best interpreter of Christian’s contemporary œuvres, so not surprisingly it’s also true that they work out of the same studio in Bordeaux. I knew there would be no problem getting along with Richard the first time I met him, hanging out at Le Eight pub on the line 3 bus route just at the edge of Bordeaux city limits. Musically, I was all too wary of specialty saxophone players who carried great enthusiasm for one particular style of music and a great deal of ignorance for the rest. So when I finally realized over a beer and game of billiards that we both liked Michael Brecker and had obsessed with playing fusion jazz, I was ready to jump out of my skin. Finally, a hybrid professional saxophonist who embraced Coltrane, Mintzer, Glazunov, Scelsi, and Villa-Lobos alike. In Richard, I found a kindred musical spirit who recognized that ignorance was a ticket to mediocrity. He accepts he may not live to dominate every musical style, but he happily will borrow and utilize diverse influences in his musical personality.

When you walk into his studio, it looks like the typical bachelor pad. There are oranges lying around the occasional empty wine bottle set next to a half-eaten baguette and bar of dark chocolate. The table is filled with odds and ends, mostly knick-knacks. Old concert programs, an Aquitaine color-coded wine region poster, screwdrivers, bottle openers all clutter the table—the occasional CD sent from fellow musicians such as the Birdcatchers and Zzyzx Quartet tend to accumulate here as well. The dishes are always clean for some unfathomable reason. The coffee table is stacked high with MacWorld and Crutchfield magazines and the walls are filled above my head with CD’s.  Brandenburg concertos, Saint-Saëns symphonies, Bill Evans, and Stan Getz are kings of music in this house. Where there is wall-space, I see an enormous promo ad from some early movie music Richard played years ago. In the main room where they work, I find Programming Linux for Dummies, full scores of the Glazunov sax concerto, an occasional music history book, and an ample collection of the Great Adventures of TinTin. At the workstation to my right, I find a couple amplifiers, an E.W.I., a keyboard hooked up to a MacBook station running Logic Pro (Richard likes to write pop music too), and a bunch of reeds with squiggle marks all over them. Clothes in the transition of going from clean to dirty or dirty to clean are draped over armchairs. Two alto saxophones are neatly packed away with one sitting out next to a bass guitar, fax machine, pogoplug web server, and wall piano. In the back room are two dressers filled with saxophone reeds. There must be thousands of them in there, saved over time to ensure the best reed with the best sound is always available—if you can find it.

As a teacher, Richard is focused, almost nervous at all times. He speaks enough English to get by, and little by little I try and employ more of my French to speed the communication. He is sincere and eager, but more than anything he is a fastidious technician in the workplace. He knows the exact sound he wants for himself and for me too for that matter, and he uses his studio to iron the wrinkles out of the music.  He respects the style at hand and of course drives me to do the same. From him, I have developed an obsession for playing with a clear classical sound when required, overall, always in tune. He has helped me realize that my sound is not always consistent, which has interesting implications that extend to all aspects of my life. Working with Richard has taught me that music is not a job, it is an effort in artistry. You breathe this stuff, you obsess about it because you’re passionate for it, and you carry sharp opinions about others who make it. You must listen more than you practice at all times. Classical, jazz, pop, tin pan alley, it all goes in the box to give you a foundation for communication. This is the kind of education I never grasped when I was pursuing degrees, that is to say this emphasis on listening. Musically, they instilled inside of me a passion to hear with more focus and clarity, and without a doubt it accounts for the greatest of debts I owe to both Christian and Richard.

Richard is always respectful. We work in a musical laboratory, and although sometimes he chooses to use the scalpel to make a point, we understand the issue is to fix the music and not degrade a person’s sensibilities. Normally, we eat together afterwards, a simple meal of bread and wine (normally, such a meal is reserved for before the crucifixion), duck and carrots perhaps as well. He is also a generous person. The choices that he makes in helping me include loaning me mouthpieces and reeds, especially at the beginning when I had a great need for settling in and little €. He recognizes the financial price I paid when I came here and jumps at the opportunity to help if he sees a need.

Musically, we have spent more than our fair share of time working on Bach. The evenness of fingers has been a major project, and although I previously regarded this as a strength, I’ve learned to drive myself to technical perfection because of Bach preludes and partitas. Playing Bach has also driven me to improve my tuning. I know of no other music as intonationally delicate due to the fact that each interval requires the utmost of clarity to be within the style. Otherwise, the effect becomes muffled and fuzzy. The implications here are obvious, as playing in tune carries to every style of Western music at varying degrees. Regardless of how well you play in tune, working with Richard has taught me that an acute awareness of it is at all times essential. We have also worked to a lesser degree on the Wiedoeft and Matitia repertoire, which has jazz tendencies with classical sensibilities. It is light. It is fun. It sounds so French to my ears, and it is good for casinos and restaurants. Perhaps surprisingly, we have spent little time on Lauba’s repertoire. I polished Worksong and Balafon, and will meet with them one more time before I return to the United States to play a rough draft version of Bumble Beebop, a new étude Lauba composed in November for me to premiere. For those who are counting, this is the 21st étude of its kind. Within it, I hear Gershwin, Parker, and Coltrane all filtered through a very French sophistication. It swings hard and crooked, and there is no reflective introduction as in most of his études. Finally, we reviewed and rehashed the only great concerto for saxophone written by Alexander Glazunov. Alongside perhaps the Chamber Concertino by Ibert, it is the only classical saxophone work in which you can play it each year and have it worth your time and money as a player. Lauba also wrote an étude dedicated to Richard and intended as a subsitute for that briefly hashed out arpeggio cadenza most people normally play. It has found a degree of success among Russian musicians, and I did take the time to work this up with the two of them as well. It is meant to be spectacular like any good cadenza, but above all, sentimental.

It is a mistake to consider Richard a one-track musician. He is in reality firmly rooted in three styles, able to play the classical saxophone repertoire, early New Orleans jazz charts, and of course contemporary Lauba. He is the only classical saxophonist I am aware of who makes his living almost exclusively off of gigs and the occasional master class—no university or conservatory teaching for him. Like a secretive scientist or even the great Fred Astaire, he works so that noone will know until the time is right and he is ready. If, however, you think his obsession in the studio would lead to boredom on the stage, you might be in for a surprise. From him I have ultimately learned that the stage is the place to let go of yourself and launch your music to the public. Nothing else matters in those moments, it is only you and the music at hand. This is Richard Ducros.

With Love, from Agrabah!

Even today, I remember when Aladdin debuted in theaters in 1992. A fictional Agrabah portrayed through the eyes of Walt Disney captured an entire generation with its quick wit and classic rags-to-riches story. I was fascinated with the entire notion. Magic carpets who played chess, lots of jewels and treasure in caves , and a genie who made good jokes! My 7-year-old imagination ran wild at the idea of having 3 wishes. Of course, the most important part of the plot centered around capturing the heart of Princess Jasmine, something the genie was not allowed to directly manipulate according to the international governing code of genies.

Genie: So what’ll it be, master?

Aladdin: You’re gonna grant me any 3 wishes I want, right?

Genie: [imitating William F. Buckley] Uh, ah, almost. There are a few, uh, provisos. Ah, a couple of quid pro quo.

Aladdin: Like?

Genie: [normally] Uh, rule #1, I can’t kill anybody.

[cuts his head off]

Genie: So don’t ask. A-rule #2!

[fixes his head]

Genie: I can’t make anybody fall in love with anybody else.

[smooches Aladdin]

Genie: You little punim there. RULE #3!

[turns into a slimy Genie, and imitating Peter Lorre]

Genie: I can’t bring people back from the dead. It’s not a pretty picture. I DON’T LIKE DOING IT!

[he returns to normal]

Genie: Other than that, you got it!

Falling in love is quite certainly one of the most bewildering things a human being can subject themself to. There’s a moment where you notice and then a decision to move. Just as in chess, the protagonist makes a gambit of submitting their wit (or lack thereof) for the acceptance of a stranger’s uncontrollable response. It involves a tug-of-war between pretending you don’t care in an effort not to be overbearing (you don’t want to smother the person) and showing just enough that you do care to let matters develop. It’s a dance of euphoria and the script of nightmares. What if things don’t work out? Worse yet, what if they do?

I used to think that love was a task of finding commonalities and shared life goals. It was set-up, won, earned, planned out. Many cultures, even today, observe the tradition of arranged marriages. Even my own Kansan sister has happily married a guy whose meeting was arranged between some intuitive friends. Getting a calculated relationship can be interesting and still holds weight, but it’s a light weight compared to the reality of chemistry. In spite of everything, this is something not even Aladdin’s genie can force. There are simply certain people in life that I am immediately and strongly attracted to. I know when I see them because the hair jumps on the back of my neck. My I.Q. immediately regresses 30 points, and my vocabulary morphs into a series of monkey grunts and awkward smiles. Sometimes I see them on the subway or on the bus, in the supermarket, or even saxophone competitions.

Why is it that some people seem to have magnets inside them? Why do people think about love so much? Aren’t we brought up in Western culture to believe in “the one” and matters of the heart? Why is there just one if there are over 7 billion people in the world? What about the idea of being content with who you are and fulfilled as a single person? After having gone through a forced engagement (totally my bad, see preceding paragraph), I’m quasi-sure that a successful couple is set up by two people who are comfortable in their own skin long before they ever meet each other. If you consider their sense of self-esteem, they are 51% content with themselves yet 49% in need of affirmation. I know it sounds clinical and formulaic, but it’s a solid point of departure. For me, life is full of women I could fall in love with. It’s just a matter of finding one I don’t get bored spending time with. Another way to consider dating could consist of simply saying hello and goodbye to lots of different people until you find someone you can no longer say goodbye to.

So Aladdin, of course, had to turn himself into a prince for Jasmine to even notice him, all the while competing with the evil sorcerer Jafar who was certain Jasmine would fit perfectly in his diabolical plan to steal the kingdom from the sultan:

Princess Jasmine: [to Jafar] At least some good will come of my being forced to marry. When I am Queen, I will have the power to get rid of *you*.

Sultan: Well, now. That’s nice. All settled then. Now, Jasmine, getting back to this suitor business… Jasmine? Jasmine!

[the Sultan notices that Jasmine is running out of the room, and runs after]

Jafar: If only I had gotten that lamp.

Iago: [mocking Jasmine] “I will have the power to get rid of you.” Grrrr. To think we gotta keep kissin’ up to that chump, and his chump daughter, for the rest of our lives…

Jafar: No, Iago. Only until she finds a chump husband. Then she’ll have us banished. Or… beheaded.

Jafar, Iago: Ewwww.

Iago: Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute! Jafar, what if *you* were the chump husband?

Jafar: What?

Iago: Okay, okay. *You* marry the princess, all right? And-and, uh, you- Then *you* become the sultan!

Jafar: Ah. Marry the shrew. I become sultan. The idea has merit.

Iago: Yes, merit. Yes! And then, we drop papa-in-law and the little woman off a cliff… “Yaaaah! Kersplat!”

Jafar: [laughs] I love the way your foul little mind works.

In the end, guy gets the girl and good triumphs over talking parrots and their crazy masters. I think real life should be the same as Aladdin lived. Find what you want, truly desire. Pay attention to your street smarts, sometimes that’s all you have. Get a genie, or at least a good friend (preferably a funny one). Always keep a magic carpet close at hand. Never, ever, ever, give up.

Łódź: Saxophone Face-Off!

Performing music in the 2nd International Saxophone Competition in Lodz was a learning and listening experience. I was the 7th player of 39 in my age group of performers who had come from as far away as Los Angeles and Tokyo. We arrived with hopes to win concerts and prizes. In the end of course, most people won nothing except a lot of fantastic memories and pianist fees.

Musically, I learned the value of playing with excellence, and how playing perfectly can be more important than playing with heart in a competition. I’m not convinced this is a good lesson, but it is the reality of the system. Also, obligatory repertoire is often poor music designed to see if contestants have the stamina to keep up with the rest in a manner as clear as possible. On the other hand, pieces can be chosen to revive lost repertoire or premiere new music. This is reality. After this competition, I’m convinced there are some pieces which may be better lost to history.

Politically, I learned that staff pianists will almost automatically play better for native contestants than foreigners, American or otherwise. It’s unprofessional, but they have the power simply by the fact that we’re on their territory. Also, the most complete player doesn’t always win, especially when saxophone teachers feud—students can get backhanded by matters out of their control. With that in mind, I still happily leave my congratulations to the final winner Xavier Larsson, the kid really played fantastic! The rest of us will get another chance.

Some people say there are competition musicians and concert musicians. You’re amazed by the competitor, but can never get comfortable and enjoy their musical offering. Leonard Bernstein always said he would rather hear an imperfect performance played with heart than a flawless mechanical interpretation. For my part, I want the best of both worlds: a musician who can play clean and also with fullness of depth. For me, this is the most elusive and rare of musicians and my own personal aim.

In spite of having planned the last six months of my life for this saxophone olympics only to have made a quick exit in the first round, I’m reflecting on the best. I met fantastic people, lived like a crazy man, made my personality loud, enjoyed every moment, and left no stone unturned. Travelling to such a contest always leaves room for risk. No matter the result, you must choose to be content with yourself as a musician and person. The very act of trying is a musical upgrade on your abilities. When it’s time, people will start to notice.

Tonight, I close with the words of American comedian and actor Kyle Cease speaking in regards to risk and reward in life. His words, of course, extend way beyond a saxophone competition to life in the normal world. I humbly offer them with the wish that you find the ideas as meaningful as I have.

Seriously, if you want anything, all you have to do is show up. Do what you do, and it will happen. Stop trying to get it. That is cutting corners. That gets in the way. Just do your thing. You keep doing what you do, and you can have anything. Only work on what you can do, and let go. Enjoy doing it in that moment. Stop monitoring while you are doing. Results will show up when its time. Also, the results will be bigger than you can imagine, which is why you should stop deciding how it will go. Want the ultimate career? Become the best in that field. People will notice. Want the ultimate life? Allow. Stop thinking you are in lack without that thing or person. Just create. Don’t know how? Good. Just start. It will answer itself. Just start. That’s it.

Location: Łódź

The more I read about the city of Lodz, the more I discover one could nearly write off the 20th century as a historical gaffe. Yes, Lodz is no stranger to difficulty and development, transformed by industrialists and investors from all over Europe who built factories there throughout the 19th century. By 1914, it served as the most densely populated city in the world at 34,400 people per square mile. The special chemical nature of its water supply allowed it to house the largest textile industry in Europe. It carried the dubious distinction behind Warsaw holding Europe’s second largest ghetto (and most productive) during World War II. As part of the Polish communist state, it saw its private factories nationalized and individual fortunes disintegrate. Finally, in 1990, as the Berlin Wall was falling and the USSR was disintegrating, Lech Walesa became the president of Poland in the country’s first free elections since the end of WW II. Again, life for people in Lodz suddenly got much more complicated. It saw itself restarted by a new regime, and of course, capitalism. Its corner into the Russian market was shattered. Its population was cut down, and its economic stability faltered. Although the country’s overall GDP exceeded pre-communist levels by 1995, 21 years later I still feel like I am walking into the aftermath of a meltdown.

zloty 3,80-€1 was the exchange rate I got at the Lodz airport, the obvious detail I noticed walking out of the international arrivals terminal. For a split second, I felt I had won the lottery. Finally, an exchange rate that plays to the $ instead of taking from it! As my taxi driver took us into the city, I quickly realized why living was so cheap here. I was no longer in the scenic lands of Western Europe, but rather in post-Communist Poland, a hauntingly real image of the not-so-distant-past. Lodz is a scary city at first. You see the run-down buildings, the brick scars on the sides where the concrete has worn away. There are skinheads on the street, mostly passive alone but intimidating in groups. I’m pretty sure most of the tram cars have not been replaced since 1980. When the driver wants to change tracks, he has to stop the tram, get out with a steel rod and push the guide to change his direction. Although the occasional skyscraper pokes its head through the rubble, the ghetto caricature remains—that is, unless you take into account the occasionally neo-gothic architecture. At times covered in grandiose archways and soot-blackened goblins, this city has no lack of striking architecture. It’s something where Jay-Z might walk past Harry Potter on the street—if only there were black people in Lodz. The only non-caucasian people I saw the whole time I was there were the Japanese saxophonists I met at the music competition we had travelled to participate in. Honestly, the beauty of this city never really meets the eye; there isn’t much to see until you start meeting the people. Only then does one begin to discover the richness offered here.

The Polish generally seem to be divided by generations more obviously than many countries I have visited, simply for the fact that most people older than my age don’t seem to speak much English. As a foreigner, that can be quite the challenge as Polish bears 0% resemblance to the Romance languages most Americans grow up studying. Being so dramatically different, Poles somehow manage to speak English with clearer accents than most foreigners I have met. I found it odd sitting in settings where at times nearly everything seemed American-influenced, but with a foreign tongue twist. I found Polish people to be quite friendly, free of grandiosity and excess. They are generally conservative in conversation and lifestlye, probably due to being ±88% Catholic. This is easily the most religious country I have visited in Europe, I could feel it in the air. People will go out of there way to help you, taking time out of their work to make sure your need is met, something I cannot say for many places in the world I’ve been to.

Lodz is rebuilding itself. There are shopping malls and restaurants installed in places formerly holding dilapidated factories such as Manufaktura, one of 19th century Jewish philanthropist Izrael Poznanski’s most notable creations. There is Leon Schiller’s National Higher School of Film and other academies, which foster a burgeoning student population. There is even music, a worthy endeavor in the city the great Artur Rubinstein hails from. I find a cultural renaissance happening in Lodz, in the midst of a global crisis which never really touched Poland in the first place due to its comparatively weak economy (think USA and Eurozone) and in spite of a generally uneducated public. I like this city because I see its citizens working to rebuild anew that which was destroyed by a myriad of obstacles—there is resilience here! Take the time to check it out if you ever get the chance, but take a taxi at night.