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.