MICHAEL SAHL was born in Boston in 1934 and began to play and make up little pieces around the age of five. He began serious musical training when he was eight with teachers including Louise Talma and Israel Citkowitz. By college he had developed an interest in modern music, studying at Tanglewood and receiving his MFA from Princeton. He then went to Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship to study and compose 'modern music'. Sahl writes: "But i. was not to be. My desire to write old-fashioned tonal melodies kept me from really participating in the then reigning style, and from displaying the necessary astringency in my work. Returning to America with a wife and child in 1963, I found 1) that some of my folk-friends had gone into what was becoming "folk-rock", and 2) that my tonal abilities could help me (perhaps) make some kind of living in music. Eventually, after an episode in Buffalo playing avant-garde music for Lukas Foss, I became the pianist and arranger for Judy Collins, and was thrown in with "folkies", who had the same ear that I did, if not the same musical education. As I look back over my work now, it seems to me to be dominated by the hybridization of those two musics that commanded my deepest heart's affection, namely Romantic music, and jazz/rock. "Romantic" melody lines appear in conjunction with "rhythm-section grooves".
Storms (1985), Michael Sahl
"The title Storms refers to storms of passion and anguish. The music is about the turmoil of inner life, as some music used to be a long time ago. The combined two groups are used, therefore, as a kind of "orchestra" and the similarities and blends of strings and saxophones are exploited, rather than their pure colors. The purpose of this is to create a dark, rich background, or "gravy;' which is intended to be sometimes upsetting and sometimes blissful. I feel it is necessary for me to say, because of some sixty years of modernism, that this piece means just what it appears to mean. There isn't a hidden key, or an "aesthetic distance" or a "confounding of traditional iconograph." The style of the music may seem eclectic, but it is deeply unified at the level of the Harmonic language.
"There were ten years of my life (circa 1956-66) when I tried very hard not to write music like this, but ultimately there was no way of repressing it forever. I am not observing other composers who have lived through similar kinds of denial and who are rediscovering their pre-modern or post-modern selves. This is not a process unified around a "basic sound" but an effort to revive all the diverse pantheon of sources forbidden and extinguished in the name of modernism. There is a lot to do, and this is just a piece of it." — Michael Sahl
Two world-premiere compositions written especially for the renowned Amherst Saxophone Quartet make their television debut in this one-hour program filmed live at Rockwell Hall, the State University College at Buffalo. New are Storms, a chamber work by Michael Sahl, and Classical Music by Nils Vigeland. The saxophones are joined by the Chester String Quartet to form an exuberant octet rendition of Eubie Blake's Classical Rag. Allen Williams is producer.
CLASSICAL MUSIC IN CONCERT: The Amherst Saxophone and Chester String Quartets airs Wednesday, June 13, at 10 p.m. (and Thursday, June 14 at 3 p.m.) on Channel 17.
The Buffalo-based Amherst Saxophone Quartet, now in its ninth year of championing the sparse literature for four saxophones, has embarked on an intriguing exploratory mission, treading where no saxophone ensemble has gone before. Through funding from the NEA Consortium Commissioning Program, they have commissioned three major works for combined saxophone quartet and string quartet, the first of which was unveiled last October 21 in the Terrace Theater of Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Collaborating in the debut of Michael Sahl's Storms was the Mendelssohn String Quartet.
The composer says that Storms is about "storms of passion and anguish ... the turmoil of inner life." This aspect is easily distinguishable, but equally prominent are counter-balancing relaxed and genial emotions, heard at the outset when a lyrical tenor saxophone flight emerges from a languorous introduction by the full ensemble. The wedding of saxophones and strings proved felicitous. The lingering after-impression of their sonority is akin to that of a chamber orchestra, but with a somewhat creamier, more homogeneous timbre and texture. Sahl doesn't use the full ensemble all the time, of course, but mixes solos for different instruments with groups of varying makeup, and occasional antiphonal sections for saxes vs. strings. His idiom is rooted in conventional tonality, highly accessible, with resonances of Ravel, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos, jazz and Latin rhythms, but with a distinctive voice of his own dominating.
Still awaiting premieres under the same commission are Classical Music by Nils Vigeland, described as a mini-symphony, and an as-yet unnamed work by Earle Brown. The significance of this experiment lies in the possible new avenues it opens, first to composers who feel the pressure to maximize chances for performance by writing for smaller but innovative ensembles, and second for string quartets looking for ways to expand the horizons of their own literature.