Monday, April 7, 2014

Composers ♥ Saxophonists

With the Mosaic Quartet after their impromptu
performance of my Flight of Icarus
Amidst the many centuries’ worth of string quartets, piano works, and orchestral symphonies, there is a particular instrument family whose repertoire pales in comparison: the saxophone. Adolph Sax invented the saxophone family in the early 1840s. The saxophone rose to prominence in the 1920s with the advent of jazz; since then, more and more composers (both jazz and classical) are adding to the repertoire.  Still, the saxophone repertoire as we currently know it is young when measured against repertoire already written for other instrumental genres.  

This should make composers salivate. Not only is there a smaller body of repertoire for saxophonists to peruse, they also typically welcome new works. This was clearly evident to me when I attended the 2014 North American Saxophone Alliance (NASA) Conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana in late March. University of Illinois saxophone faculty members Debra Richtmeyer and J. Michael Holmes put together a three-and-a-half day extravaganza that presented more than 350 saxophonists (!) as well as a wide range of musicians (pianists, clarinetists, percussionists, singers, harpists, etc.) and composers, with performances featuring a little of everything imaginable: solo saxophone works, duos for saxophone plus another instrument, saxophone and electronics, saxophone quartets and octets, and large saxophone ensembles. Everyone had opportunities to shine, from college-age students and mid-career professionals to the most established musicians in the field. I flipped through the convention program book and counted an astounding 80 world premieres of new works over the course of the convention. A few were arrangements of pre-existing pieces, but the majority were completely new compositions. Dominating the rest of the programmed repertoire was music by living or recent composers as well. New music is alive and kicking among saxophonists, and composers everywhere should take note!

I was there to peddle my new saxophone quartet Flight of Icarus, commissioned by the Capitol Quartet. I suspect a lot of composers were there to promote their works too. And why not? How often can you find hundreds of saxophones in a single geographic location, hear them play their hearts out, and meet them face-to-face? Genre-specific conventions like NASA are a composer’s heaven, and I strongly advocate for attending any conventions that a composer can, whether they have a piece scheduled for performance or not. I also find it advantageous to wander freely throughout the conference instead of renting a table in the exhibition area. If you’re manning a table, you are dependent on performers finding you (and you’ll need to pay to be an exhibitor), whereas if you roam, you can hear performances, introduce yourself to performers, and hand out business cards, scores, and CDs. As it turned out, my roaming method paid off: Mosaic Quartet, a student group from Arizona State University at Tempe, had been working on my Flight of Icarus. One of the quartet members spotted me at the conference and asked if I’d listen to the group play my piece. A few hours later, Mosaic Quartet gave an impromptu performance of my piece in one of the rehearsal spaces, which we followed up with a coaching session. This was a wonderful bonus for both the quartet members as well as myself, and perfectly played into a day of networking and music-making.

Besides NASA, many other musical organizations hold conventions as well. A quick web search turned up conventions offered by the National Flute Association, International Society of Bassists, Midwest Band Clinic, American Choral Directors Association, National Association of Teachers of Singing, Chorus America, International Double Reed Society, and the League of American Orchestras (I bet there's more). Additionally, Chamber Music America is an excellent service organization for chamber ensembles of all shapes and sizes; they have an annual conference every January in New York City that highlights both ensembles and living composers. Composers, check out what conferences are coming to your town or close by, see what repertoire you have that is suitable for the conference, register, and get ready to unabashedly promote yourself!