Listeners come to watch saxophone music

Works reviewed: 
Chamber Symphony (1983), Andrew Stiller
Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Enchainment (1981), Robert Mols
Quartet, David Deason
Buffalo News
Buffalo, NY
Feb 25 1991
By: 
Herman Trotter

Seven artists respond graphically to Amherst Quartet's performance
The idea behind this collaboration, called "Music at an Exhibition," was rather accurately described as the reverse of the process which produced Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

In 1862 Mussorgsky composed a suite of 10 pieces with connecting "promenade" passages evoking in tones the flavors of drawings and watercolors by Victor Hartmann.

And in 1991, at the suggestion of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, Director Anthony Bannon of the Burchfield Art Center invited seven artists to listen to tapes of the music to be performed by the quartet and respond graphically to their perceptions of the sounds.

It's significant that four of the seven artists chose to respond to Andrew Stiller's Chamber Symphony. But it's not all that surprising, because of the four works played by the quartet Stiller's had decidedly the most distinctive and memorable profile.

Its first-movement excursion into dissonant quarter tones seemed to impair the progress of the music rather painfully, but the warmly harmonized plaint of the slow movement, the jabbering and punchy textures of the Menuetto and the tight, precipitous runs and devilishly sinuous lines of the Presto were exceptionally well played.

Upstairs in the Burchfield Art Center, Ann Koziol Stevens' collage "White on White" caught the feeling of some of Stiller's tight, homogeneous textures quite well and Sue Katz's "Sonata Form ABA," three white, cubic, jungle gym-like constructions of stoneware, wooden sticks and string showed sensitivity to its form.

Beforehand, Alfonso Volo's acrylic caricatures of four instruments with outlandish human features seemed pointless, but after hearing the whimsical-to-bitter character of Stiller's Menuetto, Volo's perception seemed apt.

Only one other musical work was singled out by an artist. Belgian composer Jean Absil's "Quatuor pour Saxophones" moved Carol Townsend to produce freely suspended, rotating cornucopia-like constructions whose misshapen bodies looked like caterpillar larvae, while their horn-bell openings suggested the angular contours and rich sonorities which emerged from the saxophone bells during Absil's work.

In Buffalo composer Robert Mols' "Enchainment" the tight passage work, elemental gestures and the seeming struggle between sustaining tones and energetic flights were played by the quartet with excellent ensemble.

And David Deason's Saxophone Quartet, an enigmatic mix of endearing and offputting passages, was also extremely well played, from what I could tell on first hearing.

But none of the artists chose to interpret any impressions gleaned from these two works.

In response to "all the music," James Pappas provided nine paper panels of abstract scratchings, some of which vaguely suggested musical notation in various stages of disarray.

Rosemarie Bauer-Sroka took a similar overview, and produced "Musical Gardens," an oil on foam painting whose thin-lined geometric shapes and vivid colors spoke of great organizational ability but didn't seem to evoke any feelings I got from the music.

The other artist who felt a message in Stiller's music was photographer Mark Dellas, whose untitled black and white photo of a dominant shoulder and partial torso wearing a tank top was fine as a life study but had no connection to the music that I could determine.

In the end, I'd rather applaud the idea of "Music at an Exhibition" than linger over the less than complete success achieved. Perhaps if the artists had been turned loose on a program with more familiar music such as the Bach, Gershwin and Eubie Blake which are in the quartet's repertoire, the artistic results might have had more obvious connections with the musical process.

Listeners come to watch saxophone music