Sometimes I feel I am cursed being a saxophonist. I can never get it right. My core repertoire traditionally consists mainly of French music by composers who never quite made it to the bigger audiences. And for a reason. Although my former teacher Arno Bornkamp used to say that as a rule the a-pieces in our repertoire are often written by b-composers.
The Creston Sonata for example. Creston is a reasonably good composer but his Sonata is a diamond in our repertoire. The same goes for the Denisow Sonata, which I consider one of the best pieces for saxophone. Oddly enough, a-composers often wrote b-pieces for saxophone. Debussy wrote a great Rapsody for us, but it cannot be compared to the clarinet Rapsody or the string quartet. Although the Glazounow Concerto is interesting music for many reasons, the formal experiments he conducted when he started to write for saxophone didn’t turn out to be among his best pieces. In the end, the Desenclos’, Bozza’s, Maurice’s etcetera are not quite as fulfilling when played by itself as the more important violin sonatas by Brahms or the piano music by Ravel.
That’s why I and my musical companions are always on the look out for new repertoire, in whatever form it may come: new music, undiscovered music, infrequently played compositions and pieces that could be adapted for any formation with saxophone (in my case saxophone solo, saxophone and piano and saxophone quartet) and of course I try to find interesting composers who might be willing to write for me.
By doing this I put myself at risk. A violinist can almost never get it wrong. He/She could even play relatively unknown pieces by composers like or his sons and still play great music. I could play the same pieces, leaving out some double-stops and changing a few minor things and be subject to a lot of criticism. Although a lot of colleagues don’t mind there is of course some truth to the criticism. Instrumentation is a part of the composition and many times the instrument for which the piece was written is too important to leave out of the interpretation. But sometimes a new instrumentation can shine a new light on the notes. Furthermore, as an artist I feel the need to play more music from different style periods and moreover, to play excellent notes. Some will say that I shouldn’t have chosen the saxophone because of this. But I feel in love with the instrument hearing and playing original pieces and transcriptions and arrangements. It’s in my system. By choosing the pieces I adapt carefully by really trying to understand the notes, what they mean on saxophone and by making clever adaptations of the notes to suit the instrument I try to show respect to the music and its composer.
I like to play new music as well. I especially like to find interesting composers and ask them to write notes for me. By doing this I actually feel I am creating something myself, not only repertoire, but I am shaping the contemporary music culture by giving attention to composers who I think are or could be important. Again, this puts myself at risk. I might pick composers that do not fit in the current style of contemporary music or composers that only I like, the audience might not be used to these kinds of notes yet. Also chances are that I will not get a piece with the quality of Brahms or Bach. But that’s not what it’s about in this case. I want to play music that I feel strongly about for some reason. I have that connection with some composers around me. I don’t think about whether their music will stand the test of time. It is great to play notes that that have a direct meaning because people that I know wrote them in this time. Notes that can have a connection with the world around us.
I also try to be aware that a concert is a composition in itself, with a structure and rhythm. Compositions can comment on each other in a concert, they can have influence on each other, on how the audience experiences the music. That also changes the context of pieces, it changes them. This can give extra meaning to all music, traditional music, adaptations or new music.
I think that in many ways the fact that I play the saxophone is an artistic blessing. I have to explore, look around me, think about programs, take risks. That is the challenge that saxophonists face.
(copyright 2007, Ties Mellema)