“Some real things have happened lately. I've come to hear my saxophone overtones as a whispering voice, more and more eager to tell me something.” (sketchbook note - August 18th - 2014)
The main question I have been asking myself during this three-year research project has been:
What happens if the raw musical material, in the creation of a set of solo saxophone works, is based on the multiphonics only and what this material in itself suggest - possibly independent by any stylistic affiliation?
My main objective was to examine why the saxophone’s multiphonics have such a captivating effect on me. How could I possibly explore their intrinsic qualities and unfold the poetic potential in them? By the same token, my ambition was to find a suitable artistic context for this enamored relationship that so heavily has stirred the waves of my imagination.
Later in this reflection text, I’ll disclose how some unexpected paths during this pursuit revealed themselves. From sprouting interest toward underwater soundscapes, to the making of a hybrid instrument called reed-trumpet; and how my personal catalogue of multiple sounds found its place, not in a public pdf-document or book release, but in a German wooden archive box. I will relay in what way I began to take on the intrinsic qualities of themultiphonics and the reason why an oscillation between artistic intention and action is so pivotal for an improviser. Furthermore, I will argue, why I think it is not artistically justified to suggest that such sonorities should be learned from books rather than developed by taking the time and effort to make a personal catalogue (e.g. having faith in the ideas that originally lead one towards these sonics and to subsequently personalize them according to your preferences, perspectives and instrument set-up). Hence I will disclose why I decided not to make use of the existing literature on saxophone multiphonics myself (e.g. Daniel Kientzy’s Les sons multiples aux saxophones and Giorgio Netti/Marcus Weiss The techniques of saxophone playing). And finally I will show how I have come to think philosophically about the project in terms of the ‘dialogue axis’ that the important tracks in the research opened up. It is my ambition that the applied methods will resonate with the reader and be an inspiring tool and contribution to the field in question
Print is silent. It makes the task of writing about music challenging. Consequently, the writings presented here should be read only as part of a practice-based artistic research project; a research conducted by practicing artists and manifested in artworks. My writing will largely reflect upon the music produced during the three-year project period and is to be considered as a supplement to the solo album trilogy The Poetics of a Multiphonic Landscape. The trilogy consists of three albums: Plateau (solo saxophone album), Winds of Mouth (solo saxophone/reed-trumpet/clarinet album with multi-tracked “ensemble” pieces) and The Reed Trumpet (solo album with a set of improvisations using the hybrid instrument – the reed-trumpet).
It is my (optimistic) hope that this music flows through the reader of this text.
With this document, I offer some insights into the working process and methods leading up to the trilogy. It has been my ambition that it represents an investigation through art (closeness) and not necessarily so much on art (distance). Therefore, the text places emphasis on my experiences, visions, problems, choices, questions and artistic development during the research period. (Also with a lurking danger that I’ll contradict myself in the process.) The project is to be understood as an open-ended search – a personal canon in the making, not to be confused with an investigation starting with a departure and ending with an arrival. The purpose of the text presented here is not about constructing a theory around the making of music. Instead, I have created a vast amount of music and shared the underlying methods being used in the process. Ideally they can contribute to the field’s critical discourse on multiphonics, saxophone in particular, and the use of unconventional instrumental techniques in general. Perhaps even a contribution to a move away from the rigor of writing instrumental or composition theory, to the musician articulating the inside experience of his or her art – sharing the experience, knowledge, and insights of an art project. It has been my ambition to strive for integrity and sincerity in my contribution to the field.
Note that the findings and reflections presented here are only one component of a research on saxophone multiphonics that can probably (and hopefully) never be carried to a conclusive end. As a performer and composer, I am grateful that this ultimate end is out of reach of the theory, as the terrain of creation thus remains open, and the musical reality will always continue to be a source of amazement, curiosity and adventure.
Finding and developing a personal musical vocabulary is what I have always understood to be a central impulse and a basic responsibility of the creative musician. An orientation towards improvisation, a classification of new sound resources for my instruments along with fundamental musicianship has been paramount to my progress as a player and composer. Extended techniques, or more precisely: Unconventional techniques for my instruments, have for a long period been fascinating to me as a tool to broaden my range of musical expression and to help feed new structural and textural possibilities into my music. Most notably, the saxophone multiphonic has become a special technical and sonic focal point.
The term multiphonic is used to describe a sound where two or more pitches can be heard simultaneously – produced by an instrument that is constructed and considered to be a monophonic instrument (e.g. woodwinds and brass). To describe what sort of sound colors the saxophone multiphonic suggests to a performer, let’s turn our focus to the piano. Imagining a pianist, rather than playing the piano in a conventional way, she opens up the lid and directly touches the strings and investigate the piano’s sonic architecture. Then the inner workings and guts of the piano will be exposed. That’s approximately the feeling and sound investigation I’m trying to articulate. Now, the saxophone is more physically connected with our body’s lungs and mouth than the piano. But nevertheless, the example could function as a simple analog to what happens when exploring the multiple sounds opportunities of the saxophone: We ‘lift the lid’ of the saxophone and search for the ‘hidden sound’ in the tube; ‘Touching’ them with air columns, showing them a way to speak out. Perhaps also manipulating them – trying to force them in a certain direction. Or we might let them lead us.
In its most radical consequences, this questions what the true nature of a saxophone sound is. A move towards a fresh orientation of our ears and into unknown acoustic experiences.
To be able to do that is not merely a question of ‘lifting the lid’. It asks for a timeconsuming study of the whole embouchure apparatus (air stream, larynx, oral cavity, and lips). Experimentations with the material (saxophone type, mouthpiece and reeds); an intense ear training to be able to hear and control the tonal possibilities; and a careful investigation of a possible personalized fingering-chart methodology. Spending time with multiphonics in this way, highlights the importance of developing musical ears, memory, instincts, sensitivity, embodiment and imagination.
In this research program I saw an opportunity for a more disciplined and structured artistic practice on this subject; to be able to focus on the complex techniques and the sonic panorama they offer, and to explore the implications fully, so that they might begin to form a personal, yet flexible vocabulary for me as an improviser. Ideally I wanted to let the multiphonic sonics function as a synthesis of all the different tracks in my music.
I have been working across an extensive range of musical idioms. I’m a classically trained musician, who has worked with numerous composers within the contemporary classical field. I also have a background in free improvised music and jazz, working in many ensembles as a leader or co-leader and writing my own music in multiple contexts. Today, I’m primarily involved in the latter, with improvisation as the predominant guideline in my artistic practice. Drawing on the different aesthetics of the music I have been engaged in, and feeling liberated doing it, has always been a stimulating practice for me. I hesitate to separate my understanding of different musical styles. Instead, I prefer to view my music as a sum of my collective musical experiences, assembled into one sonic-world. A tradition is not a static set of principles in which conformity creates the essence. It’s a living relationship where a personal dialogue in which a not too respectful attitude towards the past informs the future. I don’t consciously counteract any specific tradition. Rather, I try to expand it to create an, to me, authentic musical situation. As the distinguished German composer Helmut Lachenmann puts it: “There is a big difference between to look back which is sometimes necessary and to go back which I never did.”1
I realized early on in the process that I was particularly attracted toward finding a new path for my acoustic solo saxophone playing. I wanted to give it a more stringent focus and at the same time be able to work with the format in a many faceted manner – in order to enrich and enlarge my vocabulary. Ultimately, I also wanted to stipulate contexts for a new perception of this music activity. Playing solo highlights the instrument’s possibilities and limits – alone and naked. I find freedom in this solitude, and I believe it’s a challenging palette for communicating an experience of singular intensity. Every sound and gesture becomes important and leaves space for all the detailed frequencies and the whole dynamics parameters of the instrument to be heard. It furthermore feels especially suitable for the complex forces of sonics – traversing the spectrum from noise to silence. For these reasons I chose not to include ensemble activity in my project, but to focus solely on playing solo.
The ignition of disappointment
For years I’ve had a growing sensation that there was so much more still to be done in the field of saxophone multiphonics. I believe that musical visions and inspirations often can be understood as a product of disappointment. A perception the English philosopher Simon Critchley considers to ignite most philosophical questions. “There are lots of stories about how philosophy begins. Some people claim it begins in wonder; some people claim it begins in worry. I claim it begins in disappointment.”2 For instance the kind of disappointment one can have experiencing a reflective and fascinating music performance, but one that still doesn’t satisfy entirely. There’s something lacking.
In my case, a disappointment with the use of multiphonics emerged equally from experiencing improvisers in my field and from classical contemporary composer’s treatment of the multiphonics in their scores. I certainly also must admit a disappointment with my personal lack of a deeper understanding and involvement with them. There is no escaping the interconnectedness of musical experience, even if you try to barricade yourself to the outer world. Obviously, I’m not alone in this field, but I think I have tried to work my way into the multiphonic material through the gaps (of disappointments) that were left by my peers in the field.
To be able to better understand this disappointment, I had to start from a Tabula Rasa; namely building my own ‘library of saxophone multiphonics’. A cartography that tabulates all of my multiphonic findings, arrived at by hours of experimentations with the instruments and careful listening.
My focus was to be particularly sensitive to the sound’s intrinsic quality, possibly unconcerned by what I wanted the material to do for me in a musical setting. Asking questions like: What is it that these fascinating sonics try to tell me as a musician aiming to work with flexible improvising textures, shapes, and structures? Can the technique become transparent in the pursuit of musical meaning? Would it radically change my relationship with the instruments?
From this perspective, I don’t see myself as a musician inventing new saxophone sounds but rather revealing what’s already there, more or less hidden in the tube. Correspondingly, I have tried to let my artistic intuition and my listening capacity function as the final authority.
To improvise is to build an instrument
Right from the start of the project my ambition was to uncover, tabulate and create, in considerable detail, a cartography for the poetic landscape of (saxophone) multiphonics; being precise about both a historical body of work (i.e. ‘past multiphonics’) and the creation of a possible multiphonic future.
While this might suggest a research that emphasizes a more theoretically orientated position the main concern in the project has been on the creative, pragmatic and embodied aspect of working with the multiphonic technique, focusing on the fact that these sounds in nature reveal a compelling textural materiality. It’s an acoustic solo saxophone project with an emphasis on the creative ways of using these sounds as the energy center in musical settings.
My primary interest lies in the spatial dimension of the multiphonics timbre – a material filled with so much unpredictability and resistance. Trying to balance it, on the very edge of stability, creates an energy in the music’s flow – opens up new paths and sometimes also leaves the music with a welcomed fragile expression of instability. The energy of trying to control an unstable music material feels fruitful – especially working with them as an improviser. Furthermore, in the effort of trying to stabilize a material with so much resistance, the question is also to what extent one should strive to have control? When does that possible or impossible perfect command over the technique close the possibility of the unforeseen, the unheard, the gratifying surprise?
Examining sound resources solely in terms of technique tends to reduce the musical issues to merely embouchure, fingerings, giving an incomplete picture of the total musical context. Multiphonics are often reduced to a hyper-specific technical description of an instrumental performance practice. This way of thinking is of course particularly problematic for the improviser whose personal sound vocabulary may be inseparably linked to rhythmic and pitch considerations as well as issues of physical continuity, energy dynamics, and total attitude. This inherent complexity has motivated me to understand the components of sound on the saxophone – to listen carefully to what these sounds in themselves suggest, what naturally can emerge from them. Not confusing this with the traps of virtuosity or unconscious use of them merely as sonic effects in composed (notated) pieces. Nonetheless, it is useful to isolate the sonic buildings blocks, so long as we appreciate the extent to which they can later be musically transformed by improvisation and composition. Having considered this, it is tempting to think of this process by rewriting (yet another) Helmut Lachenmann quote: “To compose is to build an instrument”3 into: To improvise is to build an instrument.
Toward a Dogma
Evidently, conducting a practice-based research with a deep focus on saxophone multiphonics, sonics so full of textural diversity and structural opportunities, was intriguing and enticing. The project gave me a chance to create a solid context for experiments, exploration, and discovery of my music and ‘musicking’4.
In short, my main concern in this journey have been on communicating
- the material/techniques intrinsic worth
- the embodiment of mind and body,
- close dialogue with my instruments (man-machine),
- idiosyncratic and heuristic learning, experience and thinking
- communicate the artistic outcome of the project in a personal way.
To make sure that the project had this focus at all time, I sat up a dogma that contains a list of eight fundamental criteria that manifest the intentions and structure as well as sharpen the working methods. Instead of reading these rules in a rigid way (as the term dogma for some might suggest) it should be understood that they have helped me immensely to stay true to the nature of the project and to form a strategy in a direction that felt right, rather than curbing my freedom. Hence, one could say that I have chosen not to pay attention to all the possible things I could do, but rather on what I should not do. Some of the dogma represents a quite strict idiosyncratic attitude, for instance I have not allowed myself to use existing multiphonic catalogues/literature, but only make use of my own findings. This might suggest that I ignore the work that has been done before me and further more that I might never have had contact with it. Contrary, in the past I have been working with this literature to some degree (e.g. Kientzty) and are well aware of what they can offer. In this project though, I have, as mentioned earlier, focused on building my own catalogue of multiple sounds that works for me and inform my musical thinking. I will provide further arguments for each of the criteria in the coming chapters.