The Cinderella instrument of classical music – Neil McGovern
When telling people that you studied classical saxophone there is very often a raised eyebrow followed by interrogation along the lines of ‘is that possible?’ With no disrespect to the now venerable jazz tradition of the instrument, it can still feel that the saxophone’s application in Western classical music is assigned to making things sound ‘cool’, or even worse ‘jazzy’. It was with pleasure then that Syzygy recorded David Maslanka’s Songs for the Coming Day, a large scale work for saxophone quartet. This substantial piece is interesting for a number of reasons, not least its scale. Although tamer and more reflective than most of Syzygy’s repertoire, we were fascinated by this piece because of the composer’s strong and specific idea and how comprehensively it was executed. It really feels with Songs for the Coming Day that its central thrust is maintained indefatigably until its conclusion. Part of Syzygy’s initial ethos was to play serious music, to play music that had meaning and substance, depth and gravitas (I’m biting my tongue not to define this negatively in regard to other music). But does such poignancy work well on the saxophone? We want it to, and the search for this is part of the group’s raison d’être.
The saxophone’s youth as an instrument means there is still a searching for a place in the canon. Most of the ‘great’ composers obviously didn’t and/or couldn’t write for the instrument, so we have to look for a way to connect with the rich Western Classical Music tradition, but also with what we have to deal with today in creating and engaging with new music. This connection with the past is really a vast and gripping subject for the group. We’re trying to trace a lineage of the avant-garde and play some great music along the way.
Eight of the nine songs in Maslanka’s work are uncompromisingly paced with vast swathes of space and subtly nuanced developments. The music demands attention and draws the listener into reflection and deep thought. At times there is a peacefulness, at times a restlessness, even in the slowest and softest moments. The emotional scope here is vast, ranging from elation to despair. Though there are no hard facts or clearly delineated views communicated, the music possesses a certain power and force which exerts itself even through the breaks between movements.
But does anyone today really want to sit and listen to a forty-five minute saxophone work? Maybe the latest forty-five second viral video would be more manageable. But the effervescent proclivities of the modern age aren’t creating adequate vehicles for grand ideas and matters of consequence. Maslanka challenges this by writing something different, something profound, something unfamiliar. Michael Kowalski called the overfamiliar, “drive time music for the semi-adept,” which though perhaps a little condescending has a certain ring of truth. Songs for the Coming Day is the antithesis of superficiality and worth a listen if only for that.
It would be a delight if the Cinderella instrument of classical music were written for more often in the involved, painstaking way that Maslanka has. The ideas are expansive and take time to imbue, but the effect is heart-wrenching, meaningful and authentic.
Songs for the Coming Day by Syzygy Quartet was released officially on 14 November 2015. You can buy a copy from Amazon here.