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Saxes & Electronics Propound on Environment


In Jamaica Plain Saxophone Quartet’s virtually tendered “Digital Environments,” oil spills and sun flares, geometric configurations, data, and climate models admixed with real-time graphical programming. With conspicuous keenness the JPSQ mostly modernized Adolph Sax’s 1840’s invention, Scott Chamberlin, Sean Mix, David Stevens, and Andy Wilds personating soprano, alto, tenor and “bari” respectively.

How music can be made fascinates, beguiles and more. No surprise the Council for the Arts at MIT and Cambridge Science Festival engaged in funding and hosting respectively.

On the music front, comic saxes’ juxtaposition with chants of “Drill, baby, drill” seemed made for TV. Wither Away might have served as amplifying Stanford University’s “Singing Sun” posted on the Internet years ago. Mandala’s immersive sound design might have gotten lost through lesser quality headphones than mine. Postnuclear Winterscenario No. 10 made a human touchdown with its funereal footsteps and real saxes.

On the video front, saxes in virtual darkness surrounded the sun; a small, stark lit-up red EXIT took us to Stevens’s basement, while one by one, saxophonists appeared in their own environs. Watershed revealed a laptop performer reacting physically in contrast to a decidedly focused quartet of laptop performers remaining stoic.

The one-hour concert would remind of John Cage’s going to star maps and a myriad of other data and processes in reimagining music.

Ian Dicke’s Drill, Baby, Drill for saxophone trio and fixed media “reflects on the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 through sounds of industry and political speeches.”   Percussion and some lyrical writing colored jaunty fragments. Unadulterated saxes and spoken words evened out, suggesting appealing documentary.

Ian Wiese’s Wither Away for saxophone quartet and fixed electronics (world premiere) “incorporates NASA recordings of sun flares, solar waves, and whistling helium to create an eerie texture.” Microtonal composition reexplored. Its keying in on the intricacies of pitch left an undifferentiated time-rhythm field. Atmospheric and calming.

Jonathan Nangle’s Mandala for alto sax and electronic delay (world premiere of the arrangement) is about “Expanding circles of iridescence, a mandala is a geometric configuration of symbols.” Minimalistic like riffs turned subjects, as in fugue or canon, stretch to imitations and mockups. These circles concentrate on “spatial sound design” while omitting electronics. To end, fadeout.

Jacob TV writes about his Postnuclear Winterscenario No. 10 for saxophone quartet, “shortly after the Gulf War broke out, I felt speechless and unable to compose. In the media, meteorologists predicted apocalyptic consequences for the climate and the environment, similar to the effects of a nuclear war.” Neat visuals coordinated effectively with the slow moving, motivically conceived work. A more familiar and attractive harmonic netting, along with a dynamic performance by the JPSQ, evinced feeling. Sax cries, sighs, and, finally, thick, isolated chords bearing down as in a funeral procession addressed wanted humanity.

Introducing Watershed for solo saxophone and live electronics (world premiere), David Stevens writes, my “work stems from researching climate models, environment data, and necessary adaptations specific to the New England area.” Elements of notated and improvised music and digital processing by laptop performer Ian Hattwick resulted in musings somehow relating to a watershed map displayed as a partial score. Hattwick amazed. With his wired control box in hand, his gyrations attached to musical, humanoid gestures.

David Stevens and Ian Hattwick, together, presented Digital Environments for saxophone quartet and laptop performers (world premiere). JPSQ joined with the MIT Laptop Ensemble with Grace Smith, Jerry Zhang, Josh Verdejo, Qiantan Hong, directed by Hattwick. Stevens writes that this work is “based on climate data from the four hometowns of our quartet members.” The visuals, eight performers together with computer graphics, only bewildered, leaving this listener wondering how learning more of the inside story might have proved instructive.

Streams HERE for some time to come.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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