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with Greg Osby
Among those who feel that contemporary culture is nose-diving to its demise, the death of the long form is a common reason cited. People, they contend, no longer possess the attention spans needed to process anything that requires an investment of more than a few moments of one’s precious time. Our minds think in terms of search engine queries, and 140 characters has shifted from being not nearly enough to much too long. For those people, Dedication, the latest release by the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, might be just another sad example of our culture’s downfall.
That’s not to say that the short form can’t also be virtuous and meaningful. Take the example of haiku, in which brevity and concision is not simply an aspiration, but a requirement. You don’t hear people arguing that Matsuo Bashô, Yosa Buson, or Kobayashi Issa were eroding Japanese culture with their 17-syllable verses. Quite the contrary. Their work is the embodiment of the less-is-more pathos. And if ever there was an art form that could sometimes use a reminder of that maxim, it is contemporary classical music.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the PRISM Quartet issued a call to more than 20 composers, asking them to write short works to mark this milestone. The majority of these micro-compositions last between one and two minutes, each providing a fascinating window into its composer’s unique approach to the ensemble. While a few contributors appear to have either been uninspired by the task or simply unable to cram a grand idea into a compact form, a handful embraced the challenge, delivering compelling results.
Among the CD’s most intriguing compositions are those that take advantage of the saxophone’s full expressive range and sonic potential. Both Gregory Wanamaker and Keno Ueno possess a substantial knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities and use a range of multiphonics to elicit very different outcomes. Wanamaker’s Speed Metal Organum Blues uses the technique to invoke the chaos and feedback-driven energy of a sweaty mosh pit at a heavy metal concert while Ueno’s July 23, from sunrise to sunset, the summer of the S.E.P.S.A. bus rides destra e sinistra around Ischia just to get tomorrow’s scatolame, makes the acoustic ensemble sound like a remarkable, high-end synthesizer. Often pigeonholed as a “new complexity” composer, in A Fractured Silence Jason Eckardt demonstrates a sharp sense of timing, applying silence liberally between short bursts of captivating sounds and textures previously unknown in the saxophone quartet literature.
Other standout tracks include Donnacha Dennehy’s dizzying Mild, Medium-Lasting, Artificial Happiness and Dennis DeSantis’s Hive Mind, which overcomes the lure of counterpoint to produce a gritty and aggressive single-voice anthem.
Throughout the album the PRISM Quartet plays with remarkable tightness, demonstrating a precision that would likely make a robot envious. They not only handle the demands of the modern works with ease, but also exhibit a keen flexibility, making more traditional compositions such as Adam Silverman’s simple and exquisite Just a Minute, Chopin sound equally as convincing. Yet despite their obvious command of what, for lack of a better term, is “concert music,” the ensemble, perhaps unwilling or unable to shed the saxophone’s historical baggage as a jazz instrument, still feels compelled to wade into those waters. In these instances, even guest artist Greg Osby can’t help the group swing.
Brian Sacawa serves as saxophonist with The U.S. Army Field Band from Washington, D.C., curates Baltimore’s Mobtown Modern Music Series, and races his bicycle at the elite level. You can find him on the internet.