Bad Theology is a work for alto saxophone and piano composed by Michael. E Anderson.
Whether it’s hot and sizzling or languid and consuming, musical inspiration usually comes from some sort of prolonged focus. It might be a person, the memory of a place in time, or perhaps another great piece.
I met Michael Anderson in 2008 at the University of Missouri while we were studying music together. I had the Romanticism of Glazunov in my ears coupled with the complex and brooding vocabulary of John Anthony Lennon and even some of the polytonality of Charles Ives. It was all packaged into the sound and fury of Leo Saguiguit’s saxophone studio, a group of mostly country kids striving to make fine art music.
Ives once commented that he didn’t want his children to go hungry just because he wanted to compose music. His career as an insurance salesman solved that problem and kept him close to people, which helped make him feel more human. At the time I asked Anderson to consider writing me a piece, I found myself hooked on listening to Ives’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano. The violin starts out with this mournful version of the hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour.” I knew Michael had to hear it, and this music served as the point of departure for the attitude I wanted to bring to this piece.
To suggest that the music of Anderson resembles Ives would be a mistake. Anderson’s works stand as veritable compositions in their own right. They somehow appear out of the Bible Belt, decisive and drawn from a host of inspirations like neoclassical Igor Stravinsky (Jaunt) and the shifting soundscapes of Samuel Barber (Wisdom’s Voice). Bad Theology is an indictment of the pre-fabricated solutions pilfered by preachers and politicians in a rapidly changing world. The answers that worked yesterday are no longer enough; people require new ways by which to make their voices heard amidst a digital cacophony of cat videos and hipster selfies.
The music of Bad Theology is jarring in some places; it is at once angry and resolute, vicious, yet pleading. There are moments that seem as if a piano is falling out of the sky onto people picnicking in the middle of a sunny park (1:00). At other points, there is a voice of longing and a desire for reconciliation with some unseen force (8:22). Whatever the mental imagery invoked, Anderson succeeds by bringing a blend of emotions and challenges to perceive music in a new and deeper way.
One recent performance by the Eastman Saxophone Project (ESP), a transcription by Dannel Espinoza of the Rite of Spring, has recently gone viral on YouTube with over 11,000 views in two days.* Thirteen saxophonists along with five percussionists join together to interpret this Stravinsky masterpiece in a riveting performance dedicated to making century-old music in a new way à la timbre of the saxophone. The execution is compelling, the memorization shocking, the interpretation rampant and unrestrained. No longer a ballet nor orchestral work, Espinoza has effectively transformed the Rite of Spring into chamber music. Such a charismatically executed performance speaks volumes concerning the state of the modern affairs of the saxophone—an adaptable instrument demonstrating a capability for authentic recognition in most Western musical settings.
Perhaps today, the response to this rendition remains comparable to the premiere of the work and the uproar caused by the Parisian audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. In that commotion, the tradition-embracing aristocratic elite found much to differ with in the enthusiastic position of the bohemian revolutionaries also in attendance (paraphrase of the Wikipedia entry on the subject). The conflict between the groups eventually directed its way towards the stage and while Steven Walsh contends that such outbursts were “targeted as much at Nizhinsky (whose choreography of Debussy’s Jeux two weeks earlier had been disliked),” (quote found in the Grove Music Stravinsky bio) the music made a primordial exhibition of the angular accent placed over ostinato phrasing.
One hundred years later I find myself pitted against a posh musical milieu interested in revering the past by performing chic saxophone arrangements of Bach, Handel, Khachaturian, and Stravinsky; ESP is certainly not the first to do this although they may be among the most talented to realize it. In my experience such concerts often receive enthusiastic audience approval, but what does such a performance truly accomplish? Rather than proposing original repertoire that builds on the standards of great musical predecessors, these musicians choose to bask alongside those same whitewashed cadavers and blinding legacies of tradition. History will not remember such parasitic endeavors! The reward for such a performance finds its full and fleeting weight in thumbs-up YouTube votes and friendly backslaps found in a far too often innocent and undemanding public.
No, the solution for the concert saxophonist cannot nestle in the repertoire and history of other instruments, but rather must embrace its own reality and potential in classical music. Saxophonists accomplish nothing by ogling at outlying performance settings and glorifying the history of a genre not their own; an inherently versatile instrument does not necessarily merit its exploitation into every possible performance situation. Such musical masturbation may be useful as a learning tool as I imagine ESP saxophonists now know the Rite of Spring better than most orchestral musicians, but the end result still leaves me yearning for the real thing.
*Since the publication of this article, Boosey & Hawkes music publishers has eliminated the video from YouTube on grounds of copyright infraction.