Michael Torke's saxophone quartet July

published in the Saxophone Journal Volume 25, Number 5 May/June 2001 (ASQ website posting permission granted by the Saxophone Journal) Michael Torke's July is one of the most popular recent pieces for saxophone quartet. It gets performed often, because in addition to being an excellent composition, it fits well into the repertoire of many different kinds of saxophone quartets. It is a most welcome addition to the growing repertoire for the ensemble. Michael Torke composed July in 1995 for the Apollo Saxophone Quartet. It is published by Boosey & Hawkes, and can be heard in an excellent recording by the Apollo Saxophone Quartet on Argo's recording entitled "Michael Torke: Overnight Mail." Other groups have recorded the piece as well, including a recent release on Elf records by the Chicago Saxophone Quartet. Michael Torke has used the saxophone in many of his pieces. He composed a concerto for soprano saxophone in 1993, and the saxophone is also prominently featured in several of his other compositions, including Flint, Overnight Mail, and Change of Address from his opera for television entitled King of Hearts. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1961, Michael Torke's biography proves he is an exceptionally talented and successful young composer. He won competitions in both composition and piano as a youth, and also as a student at the Eastman School of Music. He then did graduate studies at Yale, where he studied composition with Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick. He has been based in New York City since 1985. At only 39 years of age, he has already won many prestigious composition awards, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and commissions from the New York City Ballet, Orkest de Volharding, and the New York Philharmonic, just to name a few. He has an exclusive recording contract with Argo records and his music is published by Boosey & Hawkes. It is always difficult to describe music with words, but that said, Michael Torke's webpage suggests that his music, especially his early music, might be called post-minimalist. Post-minimalism can be described as music that uses the repetitive structures of composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, and includes musical techniques from both the classical tradition and the contemporary pop world. Influences from the popular music world are common in Torke's music. His saxophone quartet July was inspired by a rhythmic groove overheard in a pop song. According to Torke's program notes for the piece, he took a small part of the drum track and then assigned it to the saxophones. 1 When I asked him whether there was some specific source for the rhythmic "riff" the piece was based on, he replied, "There was some R&B song that was a model... am sure of that...but I purposefully forgot...My interest lies in the transformation of some random pop groove into a more concert setting...you gain something at the same time you lose something."2 Torke further states, "when writing this piece, keeping in mind the incredible agility of the saxophone, I wrote a series of rapid notes which form a foundation, or a kind of 'directory' from which I pulled out pitches to assign to those original rhythms...What fascinates me is that this act of translation seems to completely remove the original reference from my music; sometimes I can't even remember what the original song was that inspired me and, if I do, it's hard to even hear the connection. But what remains is a kind of energy...I'm trying to incorporate contrasting themes and moods together in a single movement work. To me this evokes a wider range of impressions. Instead of single-mindedly exploring one color, as in earlier pieces of mine, the music now corresponds to an experience of time." 3 Let's take a look at the piece itself. I'll start by discussing the overall form. In order to give a convincing performance, I always like to know where I am in a piece. It helps me to pace myself and thus the listener. July begins with a four-bar introduction, followed by an opening section with the baritone and soprano saxophones introducing the rhythmic riff on which the piece is based. The alto and tenor saxophone parts accompany this with continuous streams of sixteenth notes, providing a rich and active texture. At rehearsal letter A, the soprano and baritone saxophones deliver the riff again, set this time to more melodic pitch material. The riff and the sixteenth runs get passed back and forth, shared between the soprano/baritone and alto/tenor saxophone pairings, until the baritone has a solo line that is a variation on the riff, with the soprano joining the alto and tenor with running sixteenths. The baritone's solo line moves to slower, simpler rhythms, with the dynamic swells leading this first main section to a climax six bars before letter E, the end of the first section. The second main section of the piece begins at letter E with the first bars in the piece in which there are no sixteenth runs. The tempo does not change, but the music is slower, the dynamic is piano and the composer has indicated it should be played "pensively." This section continues through letter F. The third section of the piece begins at G and lasts through letter I. In this part, the soprano and tenor saxophones present another quiet musical idea, marked "tranquil," which is related to the slow theme of the second section, but also uses some rhythms from the opening riff. Then the alto and baritone join in with the same music set off one bar from the soprano/tenor statements, followed by the alto and baritone playing the same theme alone first, joined eight bars later by the soprano and tenor. Beginning ten bars before J, there is a transitional section that leads to music that recalls the opening material, with the pitches altered. Music like the opening music continues through rehearsal letter L. This section from J through K and L could be thought of as a short development or variation on the music of the opening section. I like to think of it as a sort of fake recapitulation. Then 16 bars before M, we get 8 bars of music that feels like another transition, with the sixteenth note runs and dynamic swells, followed by more transitional material marked "with anticipation," a clue that we are leading up to something important! And voilá, at letter M we return to music very similar to the opening music of the piece. At letters N and O, we have the same music that was heard at letters A and B, just in a different key. At P and Q, we have almost exactly the same music as at C and D. At R, the music is the same as at E, and at S, the first seven bars continue on like the first seven bars of letter F. Finally, the material in T and U lead the piece to a close. Thus, the piece can be charted out using letters to describe sections of music: Introduction A (the opening and the material at rehearsal letters A-D) B (the "pensively" music at letters E-F) C (the "tranquil" music at rehearsal letters G-I) Transition back to opening material Development of material from A section, or "fake recapitulation" of A, at letters J-L Transition to opening material, again A (repeat of the A section, with some parts in different key, letters M-Q) B (repeat of B section, in different key, rehearsal letters R-S) Closing (the last half of rehearsal S-end) Having a clear picture of the form of a piece helps the performer to give a clearer interpretation, affecting in particular how we move from one main section to the next. For example, we know we need to build the dynamic level and excitement to the climax of the first main section, and then do a molto diminuendo, calming things down into the "pensively" section that follows. When I asked the composer for his thoughts on the use of ritardando and accelerando in the piece, he replied, "It all has to do with the performers and the context...I am inclined to say NO TEMPO CHANGE, but who knows? I even think the Argo recording has liberties, and it's one of the most severe and literal of the interpretations I have heard." A noticeable tempo change would be out of place anywhere in this piece, but I would suggest that perhaps a subtle, ever so slight relaxing of the tempo before this section might help set up the "pensive" character. An understanding of the form also affects how we handle larger transitional passages. The transition beginning 16 bars before M is a good example of this. Letter M is a very important point in the piece. It is one of the loudest points in the piece and the point where the A section returns. The performers need to drop to piano before that point, make the crescendo to the fortissimo nine bars before M, but save something so that M will be even bigger. The eight bars before M are marked "with anticipation" as I mentioned earlier, giving a clear indication to the performers that this music is used to set up the high point of the piece. I think the biggest single challenge to the successful performance of this piece is balance. It is crucial that the sixteenth notes runs are not played too loudly. Most of the time, they are neither the most important nor the most interesting part. Generally speaking, the sixteenths provide a background for the other figures, as well as the pitches for the other parts, creating a high degree of inter-relatedness between the voices. In the first four bars, the alto and tenor start right off with the sweeping sixteenth note runs marked forte. They should be played with a good full sound to get the piece off to an exciting start, but they do not need to be fortissimo. In the fifth bar, the soprano and baritone enter with the important funk riff. At this point, without losing energy, the alto and tenor need to make sure they don't cover up the soprano and baritone line. Another example of this balance issue with the sixteenths is at letter C, where the soprano joins the alto and tenor with the sixteenth runs. The baritone player has to really play out on the mf to f dynamics and the other three players have to underplay their mp with swells, so that they do not cover up the important part. The sixteenths continue through a large part of the piece, providing a rich texture, but if not balanced properly, they can become tiresome. An especially effective way to rehearse this piece is to break into duos. There are many places where the soprano and baritone play together, for example. It's very helpful to rehearse those spots without the sixteenth runs clouding things, working to match articulation and adjusting the balance to get a good sound from the instrument combination. Rehearse the alto and tenor alone, too, to find a good balance between the two instruments throughout the sixteenth runs. Then put the four voices together and listen carefully for the balance between the sixteenth runs and the riff in the soprano and baritone. You might be surprised by how loud those runs sound even when you think you're playing softly. Michael Torke's July is an excellent piece that is fun to play and a hit with audiences, too. I highly recommend it to all college and professional saxophone quartets not already playing it. It will be an effective addition to the repertoire of most quartets, whether they concentrate on jazz, classical, or contemporary music. —Susan Fancher