Saxophone Quartet Repertoire

published in the Saxophone Journal Volume 24, Number 6 July/August 2000 (ASQ website posting permission granted by the Saxophone Journal) These are very exciting times for saxophone quartets. It is becoming more and more common to find saxophone quartets featured on important concert series internationally, and, in the past twenty years, there has been an explosion in the number and quality of new original works for the ensemble. Many well-respected, established composers have written music for saxophone quartet, and there has been a huge contribution of music by young, up-and-coming composers. I have been invited to write a column dealing with topics of interest to musicians in saxophone quartets. This column presents some of my thoughts on repertoire. Today, there are many excellent saxophone quartets performing a wide variety of music, ranging from classically-trained saxophonists performing a mixture of 20th century original music and transcriptions of older classical music, to jazz quartets performing original compositions and/or arrangements of jazz standards, to quartets devoted primarily to commissioning and performing new music. Certainly, most quartets are some mixture of these three types. My enthusiasm for saxophone quartet began during high school, when my saxophone teacher, two fellow students and I performed for a local cable TV channel. Saxophone Quartet was also an integral part of my saxophone studies at both Northwestern University and the Conservatory of Music in Bordeaux, France. During the past ten years, I have performed all over the world as the soprano saxophonist of three professional saxophone quartets. These quartets took three very different artistic directions. The Swedish Saxophone Quartet Rollin' Phones presented concerts with a classical first half, consisting primarily of what we term standard repertoire and classical transcriptions, and a Showtime second half. The Showtime act featured show tunes and jazz standards, played from memory with some choreography. It was an extremely successful act for gigs such as company parties, the bread and butter of the group during my two years with them. The Vienna Saxophone Quartet based its repertoire on new music, primarily by Austrian composers. This work was very rewarding artistically. During the six years I was a member of that ensemble, the group established itself internationally as an important interpreter of new music for saxophone quartet. I am currently the soprano saxophonist of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, now in its twenty-second season of performing music ranging from brand new compositions, to standard repertoire, to classical transcriptions, as well as arrangements and original compositions of jazz and ragtime. The saxophone is an exceptionally versatile and popular instrument. The wide variety of repertoire performed by saxophone quartets is astounding. A new quartet's first task is to determine what portion of this wide variety to claim for its repertoire. Some groups do a little of everything, while others choose a smaller range of styles. I do not recommend focusing on what we now call the standard repertoire, because so much of it is, in my view, of poor quality. It may be useful music to work on as you develop your ensemble playing, but perhaps it is better to play transcriptions of older music masterpieces than second-rate original works. The disparaging remarks commonly heard about the repertoire of classical saxophonists are not unfounded. Select a handful of the best of that repertoire and then move on to better music! My plea to quartets of all types is to try your best to play truly good music. Luckily, there has been an enormous amount of good music written for quartets in a wide variety of styles during the past twenty years. Since my experience is primarily in classical music (standard repertoire, transcriptions, and especially contemporary music), the specific repertoire suggestions I give below will be of most use to classical saxophone quartets. The following two paragraphs list my favorite recently-composed works for saxophone quartet. I highly recommend learning and performing these pieces. Advanced college-level saxophone quartets should take a look at July by Michael Torke, published by Boosey & Hawkes, a very enjoyable, post-minimalist funk-inspired work. Another work certainly playable by college-level quartets is Chanting the Light of Foresight by Terry Riley, a monumental 40-minute work for saxophone quartet. Selected movements could probably also be performed separately. Duke Meets Mort by Robert Carl, published by Apoll-Edition, Vienna, is a real tuning challenge, but its beauty makes it well worth the work. It is conceived of as a meeting in heaven of Duke Ellington and Morton Feldman. Night Light by M. William Karlins, published by Peters is a very fine work in four movements. The third movement is written in a style reminiscent of a Stan Kenton big band saxophone section. Four5 by John Cage, published by Peters, for any multiple of SATB quartet, was premiered at the World Saxophone Congress in Pesaro, Italy. It is especially effective with a large group, and is a great way to introduce students to the music of this important composer. Drastic Measures by Russell Peck is a fun, jazz/funk-inspired piece. Canonic Suite by Elliott Carter, another first-rate composer, published by G. Schirmer, is for four alto saxophones. This is a very fine piece, which I believe every college saxophone student should know. Stand Apart by David Macbride, available from the composer, requires a large stage and 32 music stands. It's a jazz-influenced work that is very effective visually, too. Second Saxophone Quartet by Wolfram Wagner, published by Apoll-Edition is made up of five relatively short movements. This piece should definitely be included in the new standard repertoire for saxophone quartet. The following works are more difficult, substantial new works for saxophone quartet. Alaric I or II by Gavin Bryars, published by Schott Editions, is a beautiful post-minimalist work for two soprano saxophones, alto and baritone. Quartet by Lukas Foss, published by Roncorp, is a fine work already established in the standard repertoire for classical saxophone quartets. Tell No More of Enchanted Days by Mark Engebretson, available from the composer, is a passionate 20-minute work using some extended techniques. Mosaics by C.P. First, published by Apoll-Edition, is an excellent, difficult work well-worth taking a place in the standard repertoire. The first of the two movements uses two soprano saxophones, alto and tenor. XAS by Iannis Xenakis, published by Salabert, is a masterpiece requiring excellent altissimo technique. Saxophone Quartet by Charles Wuorinen, published by C.F. Peters, is an excellent, contrapuntal work that should become standard repertoire, as should Rasch by Franco Donatoni, published by Ricordi. These are just a few suggestions from the huge number of new pieces written for saxophone quartet in the past twenty years. You will need other music to play as well. There are, for example, many excellent recent works for jazz saxophone quartets, not to mention hundreds of excellent transcriptions of older masterpieces. If you play in a quartet and are looking for good music to play, just start digging in and do a lot of reading. Look for the pieces mentioned above. Find local composers interested in writing for you and create some new music of your own. Playing in a saxophone quartet is challenging and rewarding. Unlike playing in a large wind ensemble, your every note is heard. You also control, and are responsible for, the choice of repertoire and its interpretation. There is good reason for optimism. The repertoire for saxophone quartet has improved dramatically in the past 20 years. In addition to its very rich tradition as a jazz instrument and regular use in many styles of popular music, the saxophone continues to gain recognition as an important classical instrument. Saxophone quartets have been remarkably active in encouraging local composers to compose for them, breathing new life into music. Adventuresome ensembles have commissioned composers at all career levels to write for the ensemble, creating a wealth of excellent new music. The groundwork is now in place on which to build a truly first-rate repertoire for the saxophone quartets of the 21st century. —Susan Fancher