The Right to Sing?

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.

2 thoughts on “The Right to Sing?”

  1. There are several issues at play here. The theory of saxophonists only pursuing new music in order to advance the instrument is simply that, one possible theory. I am not saying that saxophonists should only do transcriptions but I do feel that it must be balanced appropriately. One important note to make about ESP’s performance of Rite of Spring is that during that same concert, ESP also performed a brand new work for sax ensemble (also memorized and sans conductor), Brooklyn Hymn-Variations by Chris Castro.

    This past concert was the most attended ESP concert in the group’s history and I believe it is due to the fact that everyone knew we were going to be performing Rite of Spring. That work helped us build our audience and build our fan base which allowed for Castro’s piece(brand new saxophone ensemble music) to also get exposure. Unfortunately my experience in the United States is that new music does not fill the seats.

    Another aspect about ESP doing transcriptions is that it allows the saxophonists involved to perform and learn music that we would otherwise never have the opportunity to play. There is so much to learn from the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, etc etc. If we do not at least study this music for our own musical growth than I cannot see how we can maturely interpret the new works for saxophone.

    Another issue with new music is funding. I won’t even get into that but it certainly gets in the way.

    In my opinion, while transcriptions may leave you yearning for the original, it also helps provide a certain perspective as to the capabilities of the saxophone. Basically, there is more than one way to skin a cat and showcase all of the amazing abilities our wonderful instrument has. It is also my hope that composers will use this in order to inspire their next creation for this genre. No matter what, us saxophonists are looking for one big thing: acceptance.

    I thank you for the wonderful comments you made of our performance and of my arrangement. I hope I do not come across as argumentative but rather offering my point of view. I am speaking for myself and not as a representative of the ensemble or of my (now former) studio.

    1. Hello Dannel,

      Thank you for your comments! I’ve spent the past two years living in Bordeaux, where the concert saxophone terrain consists almost exclusively of works written for the instrument. From time to time, I will see my concert saxophone friends playing transcriptions in practice rooms. I get the impression they do it to to clear their minds. No doubt about it—Maribé Charrier and her contemporary music aesthetic proposes a narrow trajectory of repertoire here.

      I didn’t know the ESP group also played music by Chris Castro—my comments were specifically directed towards the Stravinsky performance within the YouTube medium. At any rate, I plan to listen to Castro more in the coming days now that I’ve discovered his music. Since writing that first critique, I have also noted that ESP has an extensive repertory of transcriptions ranging from Shostakovich to Bach and Debussy, as well as some originals by Deason and Matitia. I can appreciate your viewpoint that the Stravinsky served as a gateway for the audience to taste something new.

      I agree with your comment at the end of paragraph two—New music and filling seats is a global issue in classical music. The public wants to hear standards when going to hear concerts. I believe that’s the challenge of our generation—a relentless search for quality composers and clever engagement of their talents that will allow for other saxophonists to someday have a body of work to hang their hat on! To do so, we must have clever ears, impeccable intuition, and strong social skills.

      Funding in any genre of music in general is a narrow plastic hallway with corporate hooks constantly ripping at our pocketbooks. Enough said.

      We have so much to agree on, there are heaps of useful things to learn from the music of you mentioned—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky. One concept I strongly disagree with is this comment about our wonderful instrument, the saxophone. I hear this a lot among concert sax players, this great desire to esteem and promote the history of the instrument. Perhaps, this is our greatest divide. I don’t care about the unique capabilities of the saxophone. I find nothing inherently interesting about the saxophone. I do, however, care very much about finding musicians who play well and are musical with the saxophone.

      Adolphe Sax is not a god to be worshipped. If I have any musical god to worship, it is the bloody specter of those legendary composers who whisper in my ear, “how does this measure up to our work?” That is the standard upon which I will define the music of tomorrow!


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