How do you connect with composers to write new works for you and how does that fit in with your other activities? Larry Ochs, Composer/Saxophonist, Rova Saxophone Quartet

Larry Ochs
Larry Ochs
Photo by Dennis Letbetter, courtesy of the Rova Saxophone Quartet

Rova got going in 1978 … seems like a million years ago …. And our unstated but definite goal was to create a group voice like no one else’s. As a result, we wrote all our own music with the goal of having each piece be totally unique, and certainly excluding anything remotely commercial or user-friendly. It was extremely unrealistic, because, of course, our musical predecessors were everywhere to be heard in our music. A 1981 recording of ours is being re-released by the Chicago label "Atavistic" in February 2001 entitled As Was. The recording – now on CD of course – contains plenty of clues to our influences and is clearly in the flow of "what was going on" at that time in the still-unnamed category of music that melds composition and improvisation.

As Was was probably the best of our earliest period CDs, but not long after it came out, we hit a wall creatively as a group. There were many excellent compositions in the 1982-84 period, but they were the culmination of the experiments of the first 4 or 5 years rather than signs of new ideas. By 1985 we were flat out not happening. Playing strong, sounding good in concert, but running out of gas creatively. So we took a tip from Kronos, went non-profit, and started finding money to pay composers we admired to write music for us. We couldn’t pick certain heroes such as Xenakis, Feldman, Scelsi, etc to write for us because for the most part, they didn’t create works for improvisers, or if they did, that was really in their past work. And we didn’t want straight-up jazz pieces; we didn’t feel that that was our strength. So we had to focus in on a very small circle of people who – for the most part anyway – were willing to write for a relatively idiosyncratic group.

We had great success some of the time and less success other times. But the process of learning all these pieces opened our minds to ways of structuring music, to combinations of sound we might not have thought of ourselves, and maybe most importantly, we realized two critical things: that our approach was part of a larger community; that we weren’t freaks but part of a movement; and two: that it was okay to use any musical devices – even extended melody and conventional harmonies – if those "devices" were the means to a musical end. The other composers gave us the opportunity to grow as players, as thinkers, and as improvisers.

Rova Saxophone Quartet
Photo by Sharon Beals, courtesy of the Rova Saxophone Quartet