Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
Night Music (2014) by Emma O’Halloran (b. 1985)
Red Pine (2014) by Kristin Kuster (b. 1973)
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2004) by Steven Mackey (b. 1956)
Vamp (2016) by Anna Weesner (b. 1965)
Cha (2015) by Julia Wolfe (b. 1958)
Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone
Zachary Shemon, alto saxophone
Matthew Levy, tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan, baritone saxophone
Novermber 26, 2019
Record Label / Catalogue Number:
December 06, 2019
Notes by John Schaefer
PRISM’s ambitious program of commissioning and championing new works for saxophone quartet has produced some wonderful, unexpected connections between pieces and composers. The opening work on this album, Emma O’Halloran’s “Night Music,” and the closing piece, “Cha” by Julia Wolfe, come from composers of different generations and different countries. But both, in their own ways, were inspired by the rhythms of Latin music. O’Halloran’s piece and Kristin Kuster’s “Red Pine” are both examples of tone painting; Wolfe’s “Cha” and Anna Weesner’s “Vamp” both have family stories behind them. Only Steven Mackey’s piece, which gives this collection its title, appears to stand alone. But since Mackey is a serial collaborator with PRISM, it’s not hard to connect his work to the entire project.
Irish composer Emma O’Halloran’s “Night Music” was the result of a year spent living in Miami – an experience she describes as “sensory overload.” The piece begins with short, almost quizzical phrases, responding to each other, hesitantly at first before coalescing into a jaunty rhythm inspired by the Cuban music heard in Miami’s nightclubs. The melody begins to wobble after a bit, like a clubgoer who needs to get out into the fresh air. Sure enough, the texture clears and becomes darker, nocturnal – and a remarkable moment occurs where the musicians breathe through their horns, evoking the sound of the surf lapping the shore at night. After a pause, the world awakens to a musical sunrise reminiscent of the one in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. “Night Music,” now revealed to be a piece not about “night” in general but one night in particular, ends with the hurly-burly of a new day in a bustling city.
“Red Pine,” by Kristin Kuster, is another example of tone painting: a sonic depiction of the simple beauty of the pine forests of Ontario. The ever-shifting combination of very soft, sustained tones among the four instruments seems to evoke the sun poking through branches as they sway in the breeze. The striking finale is a study in changing tone-colors, even when the actual notes remain mostly the same. Though it may not be obvious, the piece is surprisingly virtuosic, requiring pinpoint control of pitch and ensemble playing. Sax players, approach with caution; for the rest of us, just listen and enjoy.
The challenges are different but no less plentiful in Steven Mackey’s piece. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral was inspired by the composer’s love of skiing – but not the “ski lift first, hot cocoa after” variety. Mackey says that so-called “steep and deep” skiing provided the original stimulus for the piece: “It is a sensual and exhilarating sport,” he says, “with dire consequences for missteps.” And so parts of AVM are built around rapidly descending musical figures – the equivalent of the skier trying to balance the sheer joy of hell-for-leather speed with the desire to not horribly maim himself. But as so often happens in creative endeavors, and occasionally in skiing, the piece began to follow its own path. The falling figures in the opening movement highlight the different sounds of the saxophones’ upper and lower registers, and after a while, hearing those instruments descend from squeaky top notes to lung-busting low notes began to remind the composer of the braying of a donkey. Thus the title, “Jackass.”
The second movement is harmonically related to the first, but with its skirling grace notes, drones, and 6/8 rhythm, it occupies its own place. That place would be Scotland, as Mackey uses the multiple reeds of the sax quartet to evoke the wooden chanters of the highland bagpipes.
The final movement’s title, “Machine,” might suggest an inexorable, motoric rhythm, but instead, Mackey plays with irregular combinations of short and long notes. The result is more likely to recall the sight of Paul Klee’s well-known painting “Twittering Machine” than the fluid motion of an assembly line. After a brief pause in the headlong motion midway through the movement, the machine lurches into action again, even more off-kilter than before, but seemingly enjoying its work. So much so that when the four horns reach the final cadence, one continues on – like a gear that keeps spinning, until the other three circle back and gently bring it all home.
“Vamp” is a lyrical, almost song-like work from Anna Weesner, a composer who has written a lot of vocal music. At several points in the piece, she sets up short repeating riffs – a rising two-chord sequence near the beginning, a single repeating note about two-thirds of the way through – over which one or more of the saxes can indeed vamp. But Weesner admits there is a second meaning to the title: when she was 19, she wanted to take up the saxophone, but was warned off by her father, who told her it was “a vulgar instrument.” In describing the work, she explains why there is very little “vampy” in “Vamp”: “though while it includes brushes with the brash, getting loud and a little rude, it is more often soft and lyrical, capitalizing on the delicacy and clarity of the saxophone, perhaps suggesting that I have not yet have come to terms with that old conversation with my father.”
A composer and her father are also at the heart of the story of “Cha,” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe. After her father’s death, she found herself recalling the times she had danced the cha-cha-cha with him while she was growing up. Only later did she find out that the authentic, Cuban cha-cha-cha was a very different affair from the sedate gentility of the American suburbs. Her “Cha” begins with a fair amount of huffing and puffing (literally) before settling into a steady, restrained rhythm, over which a nostalgic series of chords play. But halfway through, a repeating riff appears, and the piece heads south. What follows is an interplay of rhythmic patterns, long trills, and the suggestion that if they didn’t have Wolfe’s score in front of them, the musicians would be launching into “El Watusi” (Ray Barretto’s 1963 classic) at any moment. The final section of “Cha” has a freewheeling, improvisatory sense of abandon – a fine way to show off the talents of both the composer and PRISM, and a proven crowd-pleaser live.
This album was made possible with generous support from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia.
*Animal, Vegetable, Mineral* by Steven Mackey was commissioned by the PRISM Quartet with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Presser Foundation, and as part of the national series of works from Meet the Composer/Arts Endowment Commissioning Music/USA, which is made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, the Catherine Filene Shouse Foundation, and the Dayton Hudson Foundation. “Vamp” by Anna Weesner was commissioned by the PRISM Quartet with support from The Presser Foundation. “Cha” was commissioned by the PRISM Quartet with support from The Presser Foundation and the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund. “Red Pine” was commissioned by the Donald Sinta Quartet.