I remember listening to Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2 in 2011 and being stunned. At the time I was familiar with many of the techniques he used to create his compositions but I had never imagined that the saxophone could be played with the kind of sonic language and context that he was utilizing. The music that I was hearing in that album was, as a genre, far and beyond what you would hear from a saxophonist playing in a classical or jazz style, but instead seemed to be a wildly imaginative, wholly unique, and idiomatic way of playing the saxophone. I have since learned that this style of solo composition for saxophone has more than a few originators, all with their own personal style; among them Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Peter Broztmann, and Ryo Noda.
It was seeing Stetson perform live in 2013 that inspired me learn how to play the saxophone in that style, with those musical idioms, and find my own voice through my own compositions. When I heard him play I imagined myself in a different world, where all of the laws of physics were the same as our own, but where landscape and evolution had proceeded in a wildly different direction. The soundscape of this music was wild and provocative, filled with swiftly repeating arpeggiated textures, pealing timbres, and unrelenting energy. It could also be gentle, flowing, melodic, and lovely; like a sound metaphor for a rushing stream. Eventually this need to find expression through this genre of saxophone music culminated with my first project Fierce, released in 2015, and would eventually lead to my first full length album of music Into the Day in 2019.
So why all the noise? Why write music for saxophone in this style with all of its timbral peculiarities and tonal differences? Why play the saxophone so much differently than the norm? The answer is beauty.
The idea of beauty in music is often applied to a very limited spectrum of sounds and musical principles. Beautiful melodies are supposed to sound a certain way, beautiful chords are supposed to sound a certain way. Many concepts of tone, timbre, composition, and style all have certain arbitrary expectations placed upon the composer and performer that limit the capacity of music to express emotions within the totality of human capability. Human emotion and its endless expressive capabilities are beautiful, so the question to answer is: can we write beautiful and expressive music for saxophone using tones and timbres that might be considered unusual? The answer is easier than the execution: of course we can.
The music I write for saxophone is (through extreme variances in tone and timbre, with use of rhythmic ostinato, improvisation, multiphonics, harmonics, circular breathing, and singing into the saxophone) to create beauty from what in other contexts might be considered ugly. These songs are, at their core, intended to be highly emotional and spiritual, to shake the listener awake from any preconceived ideas and prejudices of what music is supposed to sound like. This album, Into the Day, is a stylistic and compositional expression of many personal, spiritual, and philosophical journeys that I was making at the time. It is also my creative offering to any soul that yearns to experience something different or unusual. And if this style of music is beyond what you normally associate with the saxophone, I encourage you, do not be afraid of the unusual, the wild, and the extreme.
For Coming Forth into the Day is the title of an ancient Egyptian prayer asking for the safe passage of the soul in their journey to the underworld. This prayer is the first of a large collection of prayers that are now known as the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, meant to prepare and guard the soul as the search for a peaceful afterlife begins.
Running on Water is a nod to Colin Stetson’s saxophone composition A Dream of Water. It uses a similar harmonic form but with a slower, more flowing rhythmic execution. It is also a metaphor for the risks one takes in life, how in order to survive the river you’re crossing it is often best to look forward instead of down. Often simply getting through life day by day is a miracle.
~The Veil of Stillness~
I often intend for my compositions to be musical metaphors of a spiritual or mental process. The Veil of Stillness refers to an individual’s struggle against ignorance, and how so much of the time this struggle is like pushing against a wall made of fog. Sometimes, if we struggle hard enough, we can push through, only to find ourselves lost again.
Another prayer from the Book of the Dead, For Being Transformed into a Swallow was a prayer designed to give the soul the power of flight in their journey to the afterlife to avoid danger. The extreme changes in volume, and fast repetitive melody are designed to evoke the emotions of soaring through the air as if in flight.
~The Amber Cage~
The Amber Cage is a metaphor for time and the human condition. Often I feel that people are fascinated by the visual of the insect trapped and struggling in tree sap because we can so easily empathize. Our lives are often defined by our existential struggle to do something to defeat an inescapable end.
Promethea is a rhythmic reduction for tenor saxophone of a song called Ghosts Made of Smoke that I wrote and recorded on alto from my EP Fierce. I imagine this song as a retelling of the story of mythological Prometheus, but as a semi-historical narrative of an unyielding and intense woman who discovers fire in nature, tames it, and uses it to nourish and sustain her community, ensuring the survival of her people and humanity.
Memphis was the first ancient capital of the country that we currently know as Egypt. The ancient pronunciation of the word is believed to be Men-nefer, Men meaning “Enduring” and nefer meaning “beauty”. The song itself is composed of three sections: an improvisation on a pentatonic melody, a minimalist whirlwind, and a work song. The three elements can seem at odds, but are part of a larger and more important whole, much like the elements of an urban society. And these elements are core concepts in musical expression; they endure, like the ideas of ancient Egyptian culture.
Often a journey ends where it begins, but differently.