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Saxophones and Computers: Who Knew?

by Karen Moorman

September 12, 2006, Raleigh, NC: It is a non-traditional marriage. Until recent times, the saxophone was relegated to minor roles in the world of classical music.  Even more remote was sharing the stage with a computer.  But on this opening night of the tenth season of the Arts Now Series director and Professor Rodney Waschka points out, “great art happens now,” and these include works incorporating modern technology. Held in the NCSU Tally Student Center Ballroom, this concert featured guest artists Susan Fancher and Mark Engebretson performing Mark Engebretson’s compositions, and three recorded pieces with varying degrees of electronic media. The evening’s contemporary works were inventive, evocative, and yes, accessible.

Fancher opened the concert with Engebreton’s She Sings, She Screams (1994) for solo saxophone and recorded computer music.  Playing from a written score and with a fixed recording, the performer plays wearing headphones to synchronize with the electronic partner.  With a warm, clear tone, Fanchon stretches rhythmic motifs with the skill of best jazz players. Melodic lines reminiscent of Faure and Debussy, infuse the work with a human element in stark contrast to the ‘other-worldly’ sounds of the computer.  Yet there is a collaborative beauty.  Engebreton’s composition works not only because of good writing, but extraordinary collaboration by the performer.

Energy Drink I (2000) by Engebretson, opens with a burst of sound; a stark and wonderful contrast to the lyric soprano style played by Fancher (She Sings . . .).  Aptly titled, the composer draws upon the tradition of J.S. Bach producing a vocal-sounding counterpoint. In the same way Archie Shepp pushes the envelope, Engebretson creates innovative sounds and shapes incorporating high velocity perpetual motion and multi-phonics. The low pitches reminded me of Central Asian throat-singing, providing a fascinating juxtaposition of the old and the new. Energy Drink I is an example of how the acoustic instrument influences the makers of computer-generated sounds.

Waschka programmed three recorded pieces explaining to the audience that the tradition of applause is an appropriate means of thanking the absent composer!  Two of the presentations, compositions by Jon Appleton:  Homenaje a Milanes (1987) and Sheremetyevo Airport Rock (2002) represent well, the evolutionary development of electronic music rooted in “musique concrete.” Both grow out of organic material of the human voice, acoustic instruments, and environmental sounds.  In Brad Garton’s Approximate Rhythms (1989) the composer uses the “computer to create his own drum machine.”  Morphing from familiar-sounding percussive sounds to sometimes ominous-sounding material, Garton’s piece is complex and evocative.  All three pieces succeed in the concert setting by means of the octophonic sound system and skilled mixing by Waschka. 

The final piece, SaxMax (2006) for saxophone (Fancher) and computer (Engbretson) is a delightfully witty piece which engages both players as intellectual and artistic partners.  Calling upon the improvisational prowess of the saxophonist, the composer creates a means of ‘taming the computer,’ not in the way that Kubrick or Spielberg would imagine but by handicapping the machine with a human operator.  In the program notes Engebretson suggests the artistic problem is “the computer’s ability to be perfectly predictable, and its capability to generate complete randomness.”   In this composition both computer and human player interact on an even playing field, and like chess players who played with “Deep Blue,” one gets the feeling that the enjoyment is mutual.


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