Blogging from NASA (North American Saxophone Alliance): Final Day

Sedona

The trails around Sedona

I always try to schedule some down-time when attending conferences to help keep my ears and mind from turning to putty. Arizona is a beautiful place for down-time, and a day on trails near Sedona was the perfect restorative. I returned to the 2012 Biennial Conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance eager to see how things wrapped up.

One of the most important facets of a conference like this is that it presents opportunities for students to perform and compete. Since I hadn’t seen this side of things yet, I decided to spend my morning listening to recitals by student soloists and quartets. Amid the admirable performances of pieces by Martin Bresnick, Francis Poulenc, and Ernest Bloch, one new piece stood out for its theatrical presentation and unusual score. I was immediately intrigued by The Kokila Quartet’s premiere of Patrick Peringer’s Inter(re)actions II: Created when I saw ten or twelve stands spread out around the stage and an obviously graphic score on the front one. The piece began with one player coming onto the stage alone, and then the others following one by one as the music grew. They progressed their way around the stage—sometimes at different stands, other times all at one—as the timbral materials evolved. Traditional tones were intermixed with pitch-bending, multiphonics, and wind effects in an engaging tapestry. Finally, all the players converged on the front stand and circled it with slow steps until one led them off the stage. I took the opportunity to talk to them shortly after the performance and ask them a few questions.

The next few hours became very “hands-on” for me as I helped prepare, rehearse, and present a lecture recital with the XPlorium Ensemble. I’ve been really fortunate to work with these exceptional musicians on a number of occasions recently, and today’s recital included my own work Mount Rainier Search and Rescue as well as Mark Engebretson’s Compression and Michael Young’s inventive reimagining of Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals. By combining saxophones (the Oasis Quartet) with percussion, XPlorium not only represents a new instrumentation in contemporary music, but joins the two instrument groups that are most active in expanding their repertoire. It was gratifying to see how exceptionally the group played, and how well the pieces were received.

With that behind me, I found myself reflecting on what I have learned here. I’ve used this blog to highlight those that were outstanding, promising, or memorable in some way, but there were also quite a few pieces about which I was ambivalent. A conference such as this must, by its very nature, involve a good bit of showcasing a player’s technique. It sometimes has the subtle feel of a gathering of body-builders all flexing for one another. This being the case, there is a built-in tendency for the works presented to lean toward the technical and showy side. While this is sometimes done extremely effectively, these successes are more the exception than the rule. Many of the pieces served as little more than vehicles for the players—very challenging and impressive, but forgettable or (in the worst cases) vacuous. I also found myself wondering exactly how many of these world premieres will enjoy second, third, and fourth performances. Once the prestige of being first is gone, will the players continue to champion them? Or will they immediately turn their attention to the next premiere? Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the latter.

These are not new questions. Certainly Weber and Liszt wrote some pieces that, while mostly bling, still hold the stage. Likewise, music history is littered with kleinmeisters whose new pieces were eagerly premiered and then disappeared into the ether. So, taken in perspective, this conference is simply a microcosm of a perennial process that is endemic to our discipline. The bottom line is that I’d far rather see lots of new music and have some poorer pieces mixed in, than the alternative. Just before the conference ended, I had a chance to pull conference host Timothy McAllister aside for a quick chat.

Thanks again to NASA, ASU, and Tim for his great conference! It was such a pleasure to watch, listen, and learn from. I have a feeling this will not be my last saxophone conference.

9 thoughts on “Blogging from NASA (North American Saxophone Alliance): Final Day

  1. Philipp Blume

    “There is a built-in tendency for the works presented to lean toward the technical and showy side. While this is sometimes done extremely effectively, these successes are more the exception than the rule. Many of the pieces served as little more than vehicles for the players—very challenging and impressive, but forgettable or (in the worst cases) vacuous.”

    Mediocre music will always be with us. That is not news. So who among your readers is meant to benefit from this vaguely worded broadside against all the performers and composers you declined to mention by name in your reports?

    Reply
    1. Stephen Lias

      Thanks for your comment, Philipp. I struggled with how to present this and it is certainly a delicate issue. I felt that it would be disingenuous to review the entire conference without acknowledging that not all the pieces were strong. The vagueness in my wording was deliberate. You were kind enough to refer to me as “generous” in a previous comment (thanks), and my intent here was to be balanced, but not discouraging. Your statement above seems to imply that I should either have left this out, or named names. I was shooting for something in between those.

      Reply
      1. Philipp Blume

        Well, by a happy bit of irony I see that the very next poster praised you for the very words which I found disappointing, rendering my question of “Who benefits?” pretty much moot.

        I would have thought that the dizzying variety of approaches (some innovative, others with a longer history) to be one of the main draws of these conferences, but I guess I haven’t been to enough of them to get jaded about it.

        Reply
        1. Stephen Lias

          You’re absolutely right that there were lots of different approaches and that was certainly a draw for me. Ouch to the “jaded” comment.

          Reply
          1. Philipp Blume

            Sorry – didn’t mean to say you sounded jaded. But when someone labels music as “self-congratulatory and masturbatory” then that can only come from a place of hurt. I know some of Brian Sacawa’s work and admire it, so his pretty scathing comments come as a surprise to me. I’d like to tell him that the music that he finds esoteric couldn’t possibly, by its mere existence, and by its minimal exposure at specialist conferences, actually hold the saxophone community back from being relevant. Can it? I’m certainly prepared to be wrong, and defer to his greater amount of personal experience. I mean, is the sax more marginalized than the bassoon or the harpsichord? And is it more or less marginalized than it was 50 years ago compared to other ‘classical’ instruments? These are not rhetorical questions.

            Reply
  2. Brian

    A conference such as this must, by its very nature, involve a good bit of showcasing a player’s technique. It sometimes has the subtle feel of a gathering of body-builders all flexing for one another. This being the case, there is a built-in tendency for the works presented to lean toward the technical and showy side. While this is sometimes done extremely effectively, these successes are more the exception than the rule. Many of the pieces served as little more than vehicles for the players—very challenging and impressive, but forgettable or (in the worst cases) vacuous.

    Bravo for writing one of the most accurate statements I have ever read about the academic saxophone world. This sort of self-congratulating and masturbatory mentality is exactly the reason I do not participate in these events anymore. And it is largely why the instrument, in its classical iteration, continues to languish in its own isolated niche within a niche within a niche. That this problem was identified and articulated by someone outside of the club should serve as a wake up call for those intent on going deeper down the rabbit hole.

    Reply
    1. Stephen Lias

      Brian:

      I appreciate your enthusiasm. I want to emphasize, however, that my entire experience at NASA was a positive one and that the comment you quote was certainly not intended as an indictment. That technique is valued and showcased at these events is not – in my opinion – a bad thing. It is simply a fact… and one that has ramifications for the composers whose works are presented. I found the “flexing” to be more entertaining than annoying. I can, however, imagine feeling differently if I were a saxophonist.

      Reply
  3. Brian

    It’s definitely not entertaining when your colleagues are constantly lamenting how the saxophone is poorly regarded (or simply written off) within the broader musical community, while still perpetuating this type of playing.

    Reply
  4. Jonathan

    You must remember that it is the composers that write the music, not the performers. If living composers always want to write insanely difficult showy, or vacuous music for the saxophone, well you can’t disparage the performers.

    If composers want their work to be championed, then they need to write good music. When I perform music at a NASA conference, I deliberately choose works that I think more people should perform. Maybe they are works that have received few performances, but are very well crafted, deserving more attention. Or maybe I request a commission from a composer who has already written some good music. Despite what some disgruntled folks may proclaim, these conferences are not “a gathering of body-builders all flexing for one another.” NASA conferences are about THE MUSIC: sharing new music, reacquainting ourselves with some old chestnuts in the repertoire, exploring new performance techniques, and reveling in a variety of musical experiences.

    Sure, every piece is not brilliant. The mediocre pieces may indeed only be performed once. But the good pieces will soon become part of the repertoire. The saxophone is one of the few instruments with a continuously developing repertoire.

    One thing you might have mentioned again is that you only heard a small fraction of the music presented at this conference. There were almost always several concurrent events programed. All the music was not technically difficult. Some was even tonal. Jazz performances were also featured at the conference.

    Our goal as performers is to find great music and perform it for our audiences. NASA conferences provide us with the opportunity to shop for new repertoire. They also can provide composers the chance to see what the instrument can do.

    Those of us involved in contemporary music performance and composition should spend more time sharing ideas, playing music, and working to add significant 21st-Century works–music of and inspired by our time–to the repertoire of our instrument.

    Reply

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