Tag Archives: Saxophone

Bad Theology

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.

Arts and Crafts with Christian Lauba

“So let me get this straight,” he said. “You can barely play Bach and you work at some bebop with a dash of Glazunov, and you’ve never even heard Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’? What about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ or maybe ‘Happy Birthday’? Do you know how to play those tunes?” My ears were bright red and my face was hot—I was speechless. Americans are supposed to be the kings of sarcasm, not the French! Here I was making the effort to embrace the best of the classical saxophone aesthetic after having moved halfway around the world and my first lesson was a criticism on what I would play if my mother were listening. Clearly, I had missed something.

Music lessons with Christian Lauba rarely produce a dull moment. They are a roller coaster of experiences from elation to despair to relief, especially when you figure out how to realize his musical demands. Working with him carries a two-fold focus: one on fundamental instrumental abilities such as timbre and tuning and the other on ear-training abilities. That’s not transcribing, but rather the ability to immediately recognize the different Brandenbourg Concertos and Kindertotenlieder by ear, for example. Some noteworthy divergences he took from other teachers were a substitution of Bach studies (normally movements from the cellos sonatas) instead of Londeix and Lecour études as well as a focus on the character of a performance of a piece. You played the work happily, with vigor, or angrily according to your desired interpretation or what the composer might call for. Lauba guided me to control my emotions on stage so that I could say what I wanted to say in my own way, any day.

Each week our work together began with the normal regimen of playing a scale, always slowly. Often, saxophone players practice flashy without focusing on fundamental matters of intonation and finger control; this rebuilding work neatly exposed all of the flaws I had simply blown past for years—I was the kind of guy who played his scales as loud as possible to the rhythms of Paul Van Dyk. With Lauba, I would begin with an A major scale (C concert) because this is the most difficult to maintain in tune. Saxophonists quickly learn this because of the naturally kinky open C# and full D notes in the saxophone’s middle register—they’re tuned opposite of the way a major 3rd and perfect 4th ought to sound. Another important hurdle we corrected concerned the naturalizing of the timbre between registers. No longer was it appropriate to fluff my way through the deep register with a woofy Ben Webster sound only to reappear cutting and overblown like Eric Marienthal in the palm keys. I listened to the evenness of Itzakh Perlman’s timbre on the Paganini caprices and learned to play with an even resonance no matter what note I was playing; according to the style called for, I learned to shape an appropriate sound.

Within this warmup exercise Christian would normally harmonize the scale with me on the piano. There was always an emphasis on fitting inside of the sound to create a homogenized effect instead of one instrument layered on top of another. I stopped blowing so hard and placed that energy into listening for the appropriate pocket fit of the two instruments. It’s kind of like sports when a basketball player cannot miss 3-pointers (case in point—Mike Miller, Miami Heat, Game 5 2012 NBA Finals). There is a groove to be found, and I listened to manipulate the materials at hand to catch the sounds we were looking for. From there I would usually simulate a performance situation of the work I was studying. Christian maintains a degree of intensity when it comes to these moments, and so little by little I worked to develop a performance bubble so that musical instincts would play out when the spotlight was on and people were watching.

Lauba also gave me a crash course list of essential works to know by heart on classical music, which you can access here. Put simply, it is a beginner’s anthology for scratching the surface of Lauba’s listening background or perhaps a workman’s guide for classical music dummies. In absorbing this new music, I learned to appreciate some of the most cherished works of the fine art canon. It serves spectacularly as a point of departure in a world glutted with more music than anyone will ever have time to totally listen to.

However, that’s only half the story. Ultimately, studying music with the composer is a lesson in humility. You realize you are not all that, you are blatantly confronted with your weaknesses, and you are forced to come to terms with your listening acumen. In short, studying with Lauba is a musical roast. He cheerfully laughs at you if you play out of the style at hand and holds you to the highest of standards. Friendship is an important matter, but the music is the most important. No element is left un-confronted. A bad lesson with Lauba is the only time in my life where I quite literally wanted to throw my instrument out of the window!

Working with Lauba installs a new mentality inside your sensibilities, a brand of thinking that reflects his economical approach to music. Because he didn’t begin studying music until he was thirty years old, the man simply had little time for extraneous musical efforts. Being the late bloomer that he was, he inherently placed himself in a position where it was important to make quick decisions about the musical issues immediately at hand. As a result, with Lauba, there is good music and bad music; one finds aesthetics that reflect a healthy finesse or approaches that debase the Western fine art form. A good place of departure for understanding this viewpoint is found in my article Art-in-an-ugly-box, which I wrote after a particularly memorable argument at the beginning of the year. Finally, his musical ideas aim for creating new works that embrace the past while pointing forward. Most of his favorite composers come before the 20th century (a notable exception is Ligeti) and fundamentally, I contend that Lauba is at heart a classical composer. But that is an argument for another day.

When it comes to music, Christian carries strong opinions proposed with a smile and defended with a bullwhip. He is particularly critical of classical saxophone teachers in America and Europe who routinely teach students without really helping them, who collect a salary while perpetuating a mediocre performance level, and fail to champion the quality repertory apart from the inferior. He resists such 20th century devices as indeterminacy, expressionism, minimalism and especially free (spectral) improvisation. He is convinced that most concert saxophone players come from the country or some backwoods culture; but then again, perhaps he was just talking about me! At any rate, the point is being musically broad with a well-rounded listening background.

Working with Lauba, nevertheless, will change your life. He is not the shamelessly self-promoting shark trying to overrun the next composer; he would rather let his music speak for itself. Because of him, I learned to play music with greater expression and live life without fear. I laugh more. I take myself less seriously. I hear more details in conversation and in music. I accept risk as the pathway to my goals. His approach to life and music is a bit elementary. You simply listen, perceive, compare, and adjust accordingly. This is the Lauba way. Observe and respond, develop your talents . . . trust your instincts.

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.

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.