In February of 2011, the saxophone prof at my school, Allen Cordingley, asked me to play on a recital with him at NASA.  I know!  Pretty cool, right?  Well, to him and eventually me, this actually meant driving to Chicago and playing at the North American Saxophone Alliance conference.  Not as many space ships as I was hoping for but there WERE a few more similarities than you might initially expect.

The Conferences

The saxophone alliance is similar to ITG in that it is a club, a source for community and information.  It is also similar in that the conferences are geared heavily toward the classical side of the instrument.  I would say that 80% of the presentations and concerts at a trumpet conference are classically-oriented.  Whereas, the sax conference I attended had only ONE jazz presentation the entire weekend.  Where they differ in structure is the Saxophone Alliance is broken up into nine regions, with each region hosting their own 2- or 3-day conferences.  ITG is one international group and holds one major week-long conference a year someplace throughout the world.  (For more information about this years’ conference check this out.) I can see benefits to both conference configurations.  There will be more sax events throughout the year and in predictable locations.  However, when the trumpet conference happens they pull out all the stops and it’s almost always very special.

Musical Astronauts

While there were no astronauts at this particular NASA there were PLENTY of incredibly smart techno-geeks.  I mean that in the nicest way!  Classical saxophonists as a rule are terrifically dedicated to their art; obsessive and/or compulsive even.  I suppose one could say that if they were to attend a trumpet conference for the first time all they would think trumpeters are interested in is playing high notes as loudly as possible.  Well, my first-time initial reaction of a sax conference is there seem to be two main points of focus; what new virtuosic, technical effect can be played on the horn, and, what studio does so-and-so come from.  I heard more extended techniques played on a saxophone this weekend than in my entire life!  (And I’ve hung out with sax players my entire musical life!)  This may be too simplistic of a generalization, but it seems to me that saxes are more caught up in the pedagogical lineage of their instrument than brass players.  Perhaps a decade or two ago brass players would talk about “the Chicago sound” or Cleveland and Boston “schools” of playing but I haven’t that much in the way of “what studio do you come from” from brass players any more.  Apparently, if you were to study from one of the “three pillars” of saxophone you could trace your lineage back to the inventor of the saxophone Adolphe Sax, in two or three generations.  Perhaps studio pride is evolutionary and subsides the longer the instrument has been around.  I’ll have to check with some violin/piano friends about this.

In any event, saxophonists remind me of engineers in their pursuit of always trying to find new ways of making the instrument work and their general complexity of approach.

Musical Outer-space

I wrote an article comparing trumpet and tuba conferences and said that trumpet conferences tended to showcase new or contemporary music more than the tuba.  Well, the literature presented at the NASA conference made the trumpet conferences seem like Renaissance festivals!  There was some very interesting and some bizarre stuff happening there.  I have to say much of the compositional content seemed to focus on a particular extended technique whether it was multi-phonic, slap-tongue, altissimo playing or countless other techniques.  In one particular two-hour evening showcase concert the very last work of the almost completely aleatoric evening was a transcription of a Mahler song and not only was it played breathtakingly beautiful by James Umble, but the music itself was such a sublime way to cleanse the palate and restore my faith in the art of turning a phrase in a beautiful melody.  (During the after-concert bar hang, it was kind of funny to listen to the young sax protégés “poo-poo” that particular moment of the concert as dated and passe.)  I suppose now I’m showing my age…