Conquest of melody


Saxophonist Marcus Weiss has accomplished the near impossible with these six 20th century works. That he has interconnected pieces written expressly for the saxophone isn't so strange, but that he has found all the composers who wrote for the saxophone who are connected in one way or another --and perhaps in two or three ways to one another through the character of Stefan Wolpe, who is represented by two works here.

First there is the wonderfully elegiac "Inner Song" by Elliott Carter, dedicated to his friend Wolpe. Written for soprano saxophone, its spare bird-like tones and short lines were transcribed by Weiss for this recording.

This is followed by one of Wolpe's most interesting works, which appeared on Hat 6182, the two-movement "Quartet for Trumpet, Saxophone, Piano and Percussion," from 1950-1954. Here, the influence of jazz on Wolpe’s later work is most evident, not merely in tonality, but in phrasing and texture, and the free play of the vibraphone and tenor saxophone. There is a lilting, languid type of swing inherent that stems from Wolpe’s original exposure to the music in Germany in the '20s and later in the United States in early-'50s New York. This is the piece reported to have been the inspiration for Günter Schuler's attempts at fusing classical music and jazz called "Third Stream Music."

Another Stefan Wolpe elegy appears next in the form of John Cage’s "5," written for two saxophonists and three percussionists. Cage met Wolpe at Black Mountain College where Wolpe  taught for many years before relocating to New York City. "5" is typically one of Cage's indeterminate pieces, where the score only indicates the duration and dynamic of notes to be played. There are specific pitches but they can be played for any duration within the prescribed range.

With Anton Webern‘s "Quartet" for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano, we find more of the influence of the jazz tradition on 20th century serialism and a deeper connection to Wolpe, who studied under him in the 1930s. Webern‘s piece, though brief, showcases the saxophone as the most expressive instrument in the ensemble because of its rich tonal and timbral range.

With Schöenberg's Canons -- cannily arranged for three saxophones by Weiss -- we extend the Wolpe connection as the two met once or twice in California, and Cage studied under him as well. These canons borrow richly for medieval polyphony, and are not normally associated with the saxophone -- in this case the soprano. They are also not a readily considered part of Schöenberg's canon. Composed between 1926 and 1934, they highlight the textural palette of the straight horn and its ability to move fluently from one register to another with minimal effort from the performer, carrying pitches through one another almost microphonically.

Wolpe’s own "Conquest of Melody" would require a book-length essay so wide and deep as its modal and intervallic range. Rhythm, pitch, meter, and dynamic are considered only in secondary terms to counterpoint. Subtitled "Music for Any Instruments - Interval Studies," pitch becomes an element of drama without any more or less importance than anything else. Arranged for viola, violin, and saxophones, Weiss had transcribed the piece to lock intervals into one another, making them inseparable as contrapuntal harmonic considerations flow from one instrument into the other and then are restated without accents in the following measure by another.

The disc closes with Cage’s "Four," written late in his life in 1991. There are no directions given other than a small number of notes accorded as pitches and the fact that they can be played in any order with no time constraints other than the piece must be under 12 minutes and the individual instrumentalists must be responsible for the work's dynamic scope. As in all of Cage’s later pieces, the work is beautifully executed by Weiss because he understands only in anarchy can order emerge naturally and flexibly.

Weiss has woven the threads of Stefan Wolpe's musical contribution through two previous generations to his own and left the ends loose, awaiting another composer who may add to the fabric. His performances are inspired, his arrangements and transpositions are done without excess or unnecessary drama, and his execution is flawless. This is a handy, necessary collection with authoritative readings of some of the last century's greatest works.

Publication : 1997 - Duration 53’01’’ - Label HatART

We recorded 5 of Schönberg’s canons (pieces without specific instrumentation, arranged for 3 or 4 saxophones by Marcus Weiss) and an «ideal» spatialised version of John Cage’s piece  Four5 for this CD dedicated to Stefan Wolpe and fellow composers : Carter, Cage, Schönberg, Webern