Brian Sacawa, Saxophone
1. Piece in the Shape of a Square (11:58)
2. Pre-Amnesia (2:15)
3. pastlife laptops and attic instruments (13:46)
4. I. astream of pulses, labored, intense (6:06)
5. II. brutal; swirling, out of focus (5:02)
6. Bacchanalia Skiapodorum (9:06)
7. Voice Within Voice (8:53)
8. The Low Quartet (8:19)
Total time: 65:25
Most instruments battle their share ofstereotyping, but the saxophone suffers especially in this regard. The instrument carries around with it awhole suitcase of complex and contradictory associations—soundtrackingboth our most dramatic seductions and our most painful root canals.
Setting aside for a moment the music produced bythe jazz and improv scenes and focusing only on work written for the concertstage, the weight of the typecasting may shift, but it doesn’t exactly get anylighter. There’s a whole world ofrepertoire, but it lives a largely insular existence among aficionados. It’srare that a composition draws the saxophone out of its ghetto and asks that itengage in a meaningful dialogue with the wider musical world. So when a player has put in the yearsof study required and feels ready to start speaking in his own voice, he isforced to take the instrument out of his mouth for a moment and consider someserious questions: Who am I as an artist? How do I want to contribute? What doI expect to accomplish? Or atleast these are the questions Brian Sacawa found himself asking when he set towork recording this album, his first solo effort. “I had reached that point,” he explains. “I felt ready. I needed to make a statement about who I was—andam.”
Though he’s mastered the flashy pyrotechnicstypical of the instrument’s showpieces, he struggles to find work that projectsthe genuine passion and intensity he’s seeking. “I don’t care if it’ll dazzle with technique,” heconfesses. “I’m looking for thekind of things that really warrant the violinist or cellist taking that hugelyaudible breath before they play something. The kind of stuff that makes you get goosebumps and want toscream, ‘Yes!’ “
Sacawa went looking for music that captures thatbrand of complex energy to create this album, and in doing so has clarifiedwhat defines him as a musician. Tostart, he has focused on getting his instrument out of the sand trap it oftenfinds itself in by selecting work by living American composers who reach abroad audience base. He did soeven if it meant—as it did in the cases of both the Philip Glass and theMichael Gordon works included on the disc—taking existing pieces scoredfor other instruments and arranging them for the saxophone himself. Together with the extraordinary workspenned specifically for the instrument by Lee Hyla and Chris Theofanidis,Sacawa manages to stack his deck.
Into this mix, however, he has added anotherelement to keep things interesting: composers his own age who tackle writingfor the saxophone with fresh ears. In that vein, Sacawa includes an intense live recording of a work byErik Spangler during which the player is cajoled and taunted by all manner ofsonic detritus. Derek Hurst playsthe game a bit differently, asking Sacawa to deliver virtuosic instrumentallines in a more nuanced tango with electronic sounds. Keeril Makan (who learned to play the saxophone, in his ownway, just to write this piece) sidesteps the technological gadgetry altogetherand focuses on the intricacies of organic breath. It is a process that seems to drag Sacawa’s very soul outthrough his mouth for us to have a look at.
Ultimately what Sacawa has done with thiscollection of pieces is take a running jump at the instrument in a move toknock it clear of its concert hall stereotypes. As these sorts of experiments tend to go, he very well mighthave fallen on his ass. Butinstead he has assembled a collection of music so infused with emotional energythat listeners might even find themselves getting goosebumps and thinking,“Yes, that’s it exactly.”
– Molly Sheridan
Piece in the Shape ofa Square
Saxophonists are thieves. From Bach to Berio, andeverything in between, we enjoy co-opting works written for other instrumentsand shamelessly passing them off as our own. Philip Glass has written his fairshare for the saxophone so there really was no good reason for me to steal oneof his pieces other than my own selfishness. But when I heard a recording ofthe flute version of Piece in the Shape of a Square all bets were off.“That would sound great on saxophone,” I thought. (Actually, what I really thoughtwas: “That would sound much better on the saxophone.”) The piece is vintage minimalism. Theopening motive gradually gets displaced to the point where its originalstraightforward catchiness changes into a mesmerizing rhythmic duel betweenboth voices. What follows is a process in which melodic fragments transforminto a canon at the eighth note before the voices cross, swap roles, andcontinue on their way. – B.S.
When deciding what to include on this disc, I knewthat I desperately wanted to record something by Lee Hyla. I’m a big fan of hisgestures and the absolute unfettered rawness in his writing, which no doubtstems from his roots in rock and roll. While his most well known piece forsaxophone is We Speak Etruscan, a raucous duo for baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, Iwondered whether he’d written anything else for the instrument. That’s when Iunearthed this little gem. It’s an aggressive piece that displays a sort ofunconventional virtuosity with its wide register leaps, unapologetic outbursts,extreme dynamic shifts, and manic mood changes. And all that in a work thatclocks in at just over two minutes. –B.S.
pastlife laptops andattic instruments
The laptop on which I am writing recently had astroke. I have no idea when itwill die from its internal electrical burns, but my dependence on it allows melittle time to take it in for repair.
The tools at our disposal are so ephemeral, everynew piece of technology so ripe for obsolescence. I was able to salvage onelast sound file off of my previous laptop before it crapped out. That sound made it into the mix you areabout to hear (or are listening to currently). Something of this situation was in my mind from thebeginning of the composition process.
Digitalcreations have something of the impermanence of a Tibetan sand mandala. While I am caught in the web ofBabylonian technology, I also aim to work in the spirit of detachment fromobject-grasping, using the tools at my disposal with the intention to upliftand make heads nod.
This piece owes its existenceto an ephemeral piece of digital technology called Final Scratch. This is a program/device that allowsthe user to manipulate sound files, stored on a computer, through the physicalinterface of two turntables and a mixer. Using specially grooved vinyl, the computer can recognize exactly wherethe needle is on the record and instantly responds to any changes in speed ordirection. A sound file can thusbe mapped onto each turntable and controlled by normal DJ techniques, cuttingthe channels with the mixer.
This technological circumstancesuggested a creative path as follows:
1. Compose drum patterns and bass line (assembledin Reason program), with some found-sounds mixed in.
2. Write out exposition of melodic material foralto saxophone, to be played over electronic mix.
3. Record Brian playing the written out expositionplus an improvisation on the material.
4. Cut up the recorded phrases, filtering andtriggering them polyphonically over the drum patterns, bass line, etc., in theReason program.
5. Record additional layers by scratching withBrian’s phrases on the turntable, and additional scratch layers usingfreshly-recorded sounds (such as individual strata from the mix) as well as oldrecords of John Cage, World Saxophone Quartet, etc., thus completing theplayback electronic part.
6. Compose the full saxophone part, developedthrough cutting-up/rearranging/extending/linking ideas from the exposition,interpolated with some material notated from Brian’s recorded improvisation(somewhat transformed). An elementof live improvisation is also called for in sections of the score. Contour lines are introduced to suggesttransformations of material “in the fingers” from other parts of the score, indialogue with the electronic mix.
7. Performance: piece may be played withelectronic part as is, or, with live turntables scratching/mixing an additionalimprovisatory layer. — Erik Spangler
Both movements are very intense and demand a greatdeal of focus and energy from the soloist. The first movement, “a stream ofpulses; labored, intense,” places the lyrical, freely flowing writing of thesaxophone against a very rigorous piano part. The tension comes primarily fromthe piano, which although is basically rooted in a quarter-note pulse, ofteninterrupts itself with momentary pulses at other speeds.
The second movement, “brutal; swirling, out offocus” is quite fast and dizzyingly chromatic, placing the saxophonist in a seaof running notes with a very tenuous center of gravity. The general feeling isfrenetic and out of control, and this intensity pushes to the very last note ofthe piece, which is almost like a scream of desperation. The combative natureof the dialogue between the saxophonist and the pianist further exacerbates thechaos of this movement.
Bacchanalia Skiapodorum (for alto sax andelectronic sound) was written for Brian Sacawa in an attempt to highlight thequalities of the alto saxophone as well as his virtuosity on the instrument.The electronic component is written so as to provide a mutable cohort to thelive instrument by weaving through musical textures that fluctuate betweenepisodes of implied timbral extension of the sax and slithery freneticcounterpoint, in a manner which may conjure images of anthropoidalmegamonopods* doing what comes naturally when gathered in largenumbers—that is skiapods of a certain age. The electronic part wasrealized using samples, digital synthesis in Csound (with modifications made toHorner’s Csound wind instrument algorithm) and Pro Tools.
*Skiapodes(shadowfooted man: a.k.a. Antipodes / Sciapods / Monocoli) are first referredto by Herodotus as creatures with one massive leg at whose end appeared an evengreater (webbed) foot, which when lying on its back, shades the skiapod fromthe intense afternoon sun. Initial accounts were connected with travels intowhat were the far-off reaches of the interior African continent. An engravingthat appears in John de Mandeville’s “Travels” (ca. 1357) depicts a baskingskiapod on his back pulling the single leg towards his head. The simplestylized lines of the image oddly suggest a saxophonist who is tiltedbackwards, poised to play the musical deathblow.
Voice Within Voice
In Voice Within Voice, the saxophone istreated as a megaphone for the performer’s singing and breathing. The piecestarts exclusively with inhalation. As the work proceeds, two changes emerge.First, the voice inhalations are balanced by voiced exhalation. The teeth andlips of the saxophonist come into play, so that the piece moves from singing toa complex combination of singing, playing, and wailing. The end of the workfocuses on exhalation and the timbres that arise from the player’s teeth on thereed of the instrument. We witness a journey from the inside of the performer’sbody to its very extremities.
The Low Quartet
The Low Quartet is a celebration of therich, low, reedy register of the bass instruments—the register thatusually carries the flow line that holds up the busier stuff on top. I thoughtit was time to give them some action—a clumsy, fast-moving, hard-drivingdance, like fat cows grooving. I wrote The Low Quartet for the low instrumentsof the world.
Praised by The NewYork Timesas “an inventive musician,” “fresh and surprising,” and “vividly lyrical,”saxophonist Brian Sacawa has firmly established himself as an importantcontemporary voice for his instrument. Active internationally as a soloist,recitalist, and chamber musician, his versatile career has led to appearancesranging from the concert hall to club settings as well as the premieres of over50 new works for saxophone by both established and emerging composers. Mr.Sacawa’s critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning recordings can be heard on theNaxos, Innova, Equilibrium, and BiBimBop record labels. He holds degrees fromthe University of Michigan, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University ofMassachusetts—Amherst and is the co-founder of the new music duosNon-Zero with percussionist Tim Feeney and Hybrid Groove Project withcomposer/turntablist DJ Dubble8. Mr. Sacawa currently resides in Baltimore andserves on the faculty of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
DJ Dubble8 (a.k.a. ErikSpangler) is a composer and turntablist whose hybrid soundscapes thrive on aunique blend of experimental and popular influences. Samples from old vinylrecords, programmed drum patterns, newly composed acoustic layers, andsynthetic sound elements are all subject to live time-bending through digitalturntable manipulation. Dubble8’s acoustic compositions have been performedacross the United States and Canada by ensembles including the Atlantic BrassQuintet, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, International Contemporary Ensemble,Calithumpian Consort, and the yesaroun’ duo. He has performed his own music insolo DJ sets across the United States, at venues as diverse as clubs,galleries, and university concert halls.
A native of Chengdu,China, pianist Wenli Zhou began her early musical training at the SichuanConservatory. Since coming to the United States, she has garnered numerousprizes and awards from international competitions and has performed in manyimportant venues, including Carnegie Hall, Columbia University’s MillerTheater, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Liszt Academy of Budapest,and in cities throughout Japan, Poland, Canada, China, and the United States.Ms. Zhou holds degrees from the University of Michigan, Western MichiganUniversity and is currently pursuing the Doctoral of Musical Arts at RiceUniversity under the guidance of Robert Roux.
Producer: Brian Sacawa
Engineer: Robert Martens
Recorded, edited, andmixed at Solid Sound Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich.
Mastered at World ClassTapes, Ann Arbor, Mich.
pastlife laptops andattic instruments was recorded live at the Duderstadt Center Video andPerformance Studio in Ann Arbor, Mich. on October 20, 2004 by Tom Bray (board)and Dave Schall (room) and mixed more than exceptionally by Eric Wojahn atSolid Sound.
Recorded July 16, 2004(Glass & Gordon), May 31, 2005 (Theofanidis, Hyla & Hurst), June 15,2005 (Makan)
Coverand tray photography: Youngna Park
Still image from pastlifelaptopsperformance video by Tom Bray
Innovais supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.
PhilipBlackburn: innova Director, layout
ChrisCampbell: Operations Manager
Supportedin part by a grant from the New York State Music Fund, established by the NewYork State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
Veryspecial thanks to Rob (for his ears), Eric (for his skill), Wenli (for herartistry), Dubble8 (for his vision) and Molly (for her words).
Alongthe way we meet people with whom we collaborate and who continually inspire us(Ken, Hillary, Beata, Keeril, Derek, DeKam, Feeney) and mentor us and teach useverything they know and more (Donald Sinta, Gary Louie, Lynn Klock, WayneTice) and offer friendship, advice, and help along the way (Loran McClung, AndyMead, Jerry Bowles, S21, LTSQ (Chris, Bobby & Erik), Kelland, RichardCrawford, Steve, Chief, and the rest of TDS, Ten Eyck) and who are generousbecause they believe in what we do (Mrs. Mary Teal, Doris Bargen and AllenGuttmann, Mrs. Madeline Hartnett and Family, Joe and Julie Kilcullen, JosephLam and Amy Stillman, the Peabody Institute, and the Rislov Foundation). Andthen there are those people for whom no words can express the gratitude onefeels (see below).