Color Theory

Music for Saxophones, Percussion and Harry Partch Instruments

Blue Notes and Other Clashes (2016) by Steven Mackey (b. 1956)
PRISM Quartet and Sō Percussion

Future Lilacs (2016) by Ken Ueno (b. 1970)
PRISM Quartet, Partch, Derek Johnson, Stratis Minakakis

Skiagrafies (2016) by Stratis Minakakis (b. 1979)
PRISM Quartet, Partch, Stratis Minakakis

Read/download the iTunes booklet

Read/download the one sheet

Behind-the scenes photos

Header photo by Scott Friedlander

Guest Artists:
Sō Percussion; Partch; Derek Johnson, adapted electric guitar; Stratis Minakakis, conductor

Record Label / Catalogue Number:
XAS 102

Release Date:
April 14, 2017


One Sheet

We have developed some pretty sophisticated ways of using language to describe music. But music remains such a slippery, elusive thing that we often find ourselves approaching it sideways—through a kind of linguistic sleight of hand. We use the language of the eye to describe this language of the ear: the names of major musical movements were taken from the visual arts (Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Minimalism). And the metaphor of color has been used, to great effect, to talk about music for centuries, at least. In fact, the ancient classical music traditions of India are built on this metaphor: the word “raga” literally means “color.”

When the PRISM Quartet decided to commission a body of work built around the idea of musical colors, it seemed a natural next step for a group that has already created a substantial and diverse repertoire of music built around the almost infinitely variable sounds of the saxophone family. The sax has a long tradition in classical music, and rock, and even South Indian music; but its most famous players have been jazz musicians—from Coleman Hawkins to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane—whose sound was built around the so-called “blue” notes that are part of the fabric of jazz. So the members of the quartet had a deep connection with the idea of tone colors. But that wasn’t the Color Theory moment of genius. No, that came when PRISM decided to ask composers Steven Mackey, Ken Ueno, and Stratis Minakakis to write for the combination of saxophone quartet and percussion. There is no more kaleidoscopic palette in the instrumental world than in the percussion section—where over the years composers have placed such sonic oddities as bird calls, a record player, automobile parts, and the piano.

Color Theory pairs PRISM with two percussion-based ensembles: Sō Percussion, the New York-based quartet whose definition of “percussion” is liberal enough to include teacups, twigs, and fuzz; and Partch, the California-based ensemble that plays mid-20th century instruments designed by Harry Partch, whose 42-note-to-the-octave tuning system operates with a completely different sonic palette.

—John Schaefer


Funding Acknowledgement

Major support for Color Theory has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from The Presser Foundation, the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, and New Music USA, made possible by annual program support and/or endowment gifts from Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Anonymous.


  • ""an enviable combination of integrity, individuality, and instant appeal – no mean feat, given some of the more rigorous creative modes PRISM has investigated...Instant verdict: Mission accomplished. The PRISM players not only produce a positively beguiling range of tonal colors and shadings on their own, but also mix and mingle with their percussive cohorts in consistently rich and imaginative ways." Read the full review at :"

    - Steve Smith, The Log Journal