Sax recital unites music, visual arts

“This is a saxophone,” said guest artist John Sampen with a playfully derisive tone, holding up his alto sax for the whole audience to see, as he began the fifth piece of his daring and innovative recital in Brooks-Rogers on Sept. 17. The introduction to William Bolcom’s “Short Lecture on the Saxophone” seemed especially germane, addressing directly the issue likely to confront any audience of the saxophone: how to listen exclusively to and understand such a highly unconventional classical performance instrument.

Yet Sampen, a distinguished researcher, performer and professor of the saxophone – along with colleague Mark Bunce, a composer, recording engineer and electronics technician for the Mid-American Center for Contemporary Music – delivered an unforgettable performance that essentially redefined and reinvented the saxophone for his audience, grinding and screeching his way through an energetic and intense avant-garde program that left no question in anyone’s mind just what the saxophone is capable of.

Sampen’s recital comes as the first of many unique guest performances hosted by the Music Department this fall, and as part of an initiative by the music faculty to call attention to and generate interest for the classical saxophone. For the past two years, Williams has employed Ph.D. student and University of Massachusetts woodwind instructor Steven Dennis Bodner as the director of the symphonic winds ensemble and teacher of classical saxophone. Also, department chair David Kechley, professor of music, has gained much acclaim in the contemporary classical circuit for his various saxophone ensemble compositions.

A saxophonist myself, even I had no idea what to expect from such a curiously conceived program, filled with pieces Sampen commissioned and premiered during the course of his career. It did not take long for Sampen and Bunce to catch the audience off guard, however, for they established the mood for the evening before Sampen played a single note. As the audience walked into Brooks-Rogers, they were met instantly with a hypnotic, ambient slow-moving tonal sequence, complemented by an already dimly lit hall.

For their pre-concert music, Sampen and Bunce had chosen John Cage’s “Four 5,” one of the composer’s last works, premiered by Sampen and the Bowling Green State University saxophone ensemble in 1992. It proved to be a perfect way to begin the night. An exploration of musical texture, the recorded piece showed off the range of the instrument, as the various saxophone voices alternated between more resonant vibrato tones played several different intervals apart and brasher forte-pianos that cut right through the amorphous surface.

As the piece swelled back and forth, a dry, robotic voice chimed in repeatedly and left us with a clever quip ostensibly mocking an unreceptive audience: “eventually one discovers it’s not boring at all, but actually very interesting.” The lights gradually dimmed to blackness as the piece faded out – it was time for Sampen to begin.

With a harsh staccato opening note and a flash of musical notation on an overhead screen, Sampen emerged from the darkness and made his presence felt.

His first piece, Italian composer Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza VIIb,” was a dazzling mix of technical acumen and musical sensitivity and subtlety, as he frenetically jumped around a steady tonal center laid down by a computer recording controlled by Bunce. This was Sampen’s first opportunity to display his virtuosity on the instrument, squealing and squawking with rhythmic intensity, and then creating small note clusters of his own by manipulating a series of saxophone overtones.

In between the Berio and his next piece, the room went completely dark again while Bunce played a recording of anonymous poetry that established the theme of what came next: Marilyn Shrude’s “Visions in Metaphor.” Sampen immediately established another, more lyrical and mellifluous side of his playing. His alto glided through a series of intervallic patterns, complex arpeggios and colorful leaps and trills while the piece culminated in a lush and moving vibrato climax.

Along with Sampen the whole time were a series of abstract, vibrant images, all of which were written into the score by Shrude. This technique of complementing the musical performance with a visual backdrop was a common theme running throughout the evening; no longer just writers of musical notation, some contemporary composers are now controlling more facets of the concert experience with a variety of multimedia tools.

As the lights dimmed once again, another computer-generated voice introduced himself as Ambrose Bierce, a 19th century American author whose works were renowned for their cynical and often gruesome nature. An excerpt from the modern opera “Saint Ambrose,” in which the author purportedly returns to the concert hall to deliver a lecture, Rodney Wascha II’s “Definitions Aria” proved to be a lively, amusing, and totally unique complement to the first two pieces.

Unlike the Berio or Shrude, which were largely arrhythmic, the Wascha aria created a steady driving, energetic, multi-layered groove with a variety of percussion sounds, ranging from African drums to vibes. Throughout the piece, Sampen alternated between digging into repetitive loud, bluesy passages and reading wryly a series of definitions from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

At times uproariously funny, Sampen proved to be an extremely effective performer, making the most of his facial expressions and hand gestures, exercising impeccable timing when answering one of Brose’s sarcastic definitions of class, race and gender (god, gold, slave, marriage, husband, wife) with another rowdy catcall on his sax.

After a short pause, Sampen continued with James Mobberly’s “Spontaneous Combustion,” another virtuosic piece that showed off a variety of Sampen’s talents. Although perhaps the least memorable composition of the evening, the audience enjoyed the call-and-response writing and Sampen’s impassioned altissimo voice towards the end.

Next came the Bolcom “Lecture,” surely the silliest and perhaps the most engaging work of the recital. Once again, Sampen demonstrated a wonderful stage ability and worked a variety of sax passages – famous quotations, gaudy lampoons, even a flamboyant marching band number – into a biting satire of the history of the saxophone and its sordid public reception in the music world. Aside from Sampen’s charisma, this piece was boosted by the juxtaposition of outrageous screen images that Bolcom wrote into his piece, highlighting the satire and driving key points even further towards the extreme.

For his final piece, Sampen played amidst a dim ambience Bunce’s “Waterwings,” a slow, emotive fantasy played on top of a computer-generated backdrop of electric reverb and cymbal crashes. Steadily building in volume in intensity, adding layers to a rich modal framework, the introspective and dream-like “Waterwings” left me sublimely content and eager for more.

A full multimedia extravaganza, filled with poetry and lyricism, artistic style and grace, provocative visual imagery and musical creativity, the concert invited us to move past our preconceptions of not only the saxophone but new music in general, and enjoy a complete and rich sensory experience, truly representative of the 21st century and what lies ahead in the unforeseen realm of art music.