Taming the Beast is a work in three brief movements for baritone saxophone and piano. It was my intention to cast the baritone saxophone differently from its typical role as a bass instrument in a band or saxophone quartet.
In the first movement, one should imagine a ‘beast’ of sorts trying to resist capture. Here the instrument is in its higher register, and seems to be straining to set itself free. After a while the instrument returns to its lower, forceful nature, as if it had freed itself for a time.
The second movement is a song in which the saxophone is seeking to replicate a human baritone voice singing an art song or lied. One would think that the saxophone has finally been contained yet…
In the third movement, the baritone sax breaks free again and is on a rampage. It catches its breath now and again with a couple of cadenzas ,until the beast seems to be tamed, at least for now!
A PDF score and part is available on request. Taming the Beast is awaiting its first performance so you might be the first to Tame the Beast! Listen to the midi version below:
Those are opening verses of a poem by Emily Dickinson. I remember them from Junior High School and remember discussing them in class, line by line. At that moment in time, there seemed to be no one in class more detached from the subject matter at hand than I. As a ninth grader, my life consisted mostly in the pursuit of my musical studies. I thought,” What good would analyzing a stupid little poem do for an aspiring musician?”
A handful of years later, I was a composition major at the Eastman. Among the many skills needed to write original music, one needed to learn the idiosyncrasies of all sorts of musical instruments; among them, the human voice. I was, and always have been, taken by the quality of the voice.
As a composition major, besides just writing music, I was required to get these pieces performed. This included rounding up the musicians to perform them.
Since my minor was in saxophone, I had a number of friends in the woodwind and brass departments. So it was often no big deal to get them to perform a new piece. But, being that I was a shy guy, it was difficult to make friends outside my coterie of wind players. So, when by some stroke of luck, I was able to snag a voice major to perform, it was a major event for me.
When I wrote for the voice, part of my decision process was to choose poems to set. In the early going, the poems I chose were not very impressive unless some knowledgeable person chose them for me.There were occasions where I was passed over for performances and competitions because of my poor choice of poetry. I remember spending hours leafing through several volumes searching for verses that simply ‘flowed’ rather than those with heart, with some depth of meaning or ones speaking to the human condition.
Years later, I finally realized it might be a time for me to learn how to properly analyze poetry.
I read a few chapters in a book or two. My wife suggested we read a poem a day and talk about it. My slow transformation continued. I was becoming a more discriminating poetry lover.
I would thumb through page after page before arriving at a verse I deemed reasonably suitable.
I went through a phase where I favored lyrical poems; pretty poems, and, looking back, I realized these verses really didn’t have much substance.
Finally, there was a period when I avoided poetry altogether. I was at a dead end .
It wasn’t until the last few years I that began to realize that Emily Dickinson’s poetry had something to offer. What struck me about her poems were how economical they were. With relatively few words Dickinson’s poems could say so much. From the sights, sounds and feelings associated with a summer’s morning to one’s innermost thoughts of death…I was smitten!
She could, in my view, say more in a hyphen than many of her contemporary’s could say in a couplet. And ,at the same time, the poems had a certain flow to them.
An so, recently, I have set a half dozen of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a work entitled FindingEmily. It was one for the most satisfying composition projects I’ve ever been involved with. Finding Emily is available on request.
I am delighted to share with you my recently completed chamber opera, Mrs. Manstey’s View. The work is based on a short story by Edith Wharton. In the opera, we meet a lonely old women who spends much of her time gazing out her third floor window. She soon learns that a nearby property owner plans to build an extension which would block her precious view…The opera’s themes of loneliness and isolation should have some relevance with today’s audiences in this time of COVD! Attached you will find a portion of a perusal score. A link to a sound file of the opening section of the piece is also attached.The libretto, synopsis and piano score and full score are available on request.
I was in third grade and was more than rarin' to go and start playing the saxophone.My parents were well aware of this, and so right around Chanukah of 1956, they alerted my grandparents as tothe perfect gift for me.
That gift was a saxophone, well, not a real saxophone, a toy saxophone. The company that made them was calledEmenee.They made a number of fake wind instruments like trumpets and clarinets.. They all sounded like cheap harmonicas. So I just unwrapped my gift and played away. It had levers for keys and I ‘mastered’ the instrument right away. I just had to use my imagination and I was sort of playing the saxophone.But soon I was bored of the thing.
I had to wait another year, untilfourth grade when kids were allowed to choose their musical instrument for the school band.The day before our first band class my mother and a I went to the music store to get the saxophone. As soon as we got home, my mom and I somehow figured out how to put it together, reed and all. I spent much of the remainder of that day exploring the instrument and discovering a number of pitches.
The next day was our first band class and the Mr. Perrel, the music teacher spent the beginning of class examining each kids instrument. When he got to me, he stared at my instrument and said “You have a C melody sax there. They haven’t played those old things in years.You need to exchange it for an Eb alto sax.” I found that very disturbing. Since the school year had already started, what it they ran out of saxophones at the music store?
The next day we went back to the music store and the clerk was able to dig out an old clunker of an alto saxophone. It was very tarnished and smelly and they keys clanked when I played it.
But it was good enough for me. So, I was on my way…
For the suburban Long Island homeowner in the 1950’s, one of the key status symbols was a finished basement. My father finished ours entirely himself. There were knotty pine wood walls carefully varnished with sleek wood trim. In addition, he built his own speaker cabinets and record turn table all with the same knotty pine features. One afternoon he said he wanted to share something ‘downstairs’ .There, he had me stand about five feet from the two evenly spaced floor speakers and other state of the art equipment. He picked out a 33 rpm record from the shelve ,took it out of its sleeve and carefully placed it on the turntable. He placed his right forefinger under the tone arm and gently lowered it onto the turning LP. When I heard the sound of a few instruments, I knew two things: 1. It was jazz, and 2. It wasn’t hi-fi quality like the recording Swan Lake recordingmy uncle Marty picked up from ‘the city’.
Moments into the recording, I was struck by the mellow tone, andthe smooth effortless sounding pitches rapidly sliding up and down the instrument. It had me transfixed! “That’s Johnny Hodges”, my father said, and I thought, “ I’d like to do that too”. More specifically, I’d like to play the instrument I’m hearing, the saxophone. Hodges was playing the soprano saxophone, but kidswe’re supposed to start on the alto sax which was OK by me.
I owe it to that recording ofBlue Reverie performed by members of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, who were guests of Benny Goodman at his famous 1938 concert. A few years later I learned to, play other instruments, and took up composition. I point to that day in our finished basement as my awakening; my realization that music was the direction in which I’d take the rest of my life. This was the beginning of my musical journey, a journeywhich continues to this day.
Our neighbors from across the street and a few doors down invited my sister and I for an afternoon at the beach.Their ‘56 Desotoconvertible stood, parked in front of their house,it’s front end sloping down the driveway. Our neighbors, the Boardman’s, wanted to avoid the crowds at Jones Beach and chose a place called Zack’s Bay. We piled into the Desoto. It’s wide vinylseats left plenty of room for the four of us. Despite the threat of rain, we decided to take our chances and hit the road.
My sister and I weren’t the greatest swimmers, neither were our neighbor’s daughter,Carolann and her mom, Ann. So we were glad to romp in the calm waters of the bay where we didn’t have to worry about jellyfish or a strong undertow.We justbobbed up in down in the water while Mrs. Boardman watched from her beach chair in the distance.
After a while, the clouds darkened to the point that Mrs. Boardman decided togathered us up and head back to town. As we drove back home in the Desoto convertible, we felt the cool, moist air brush against our checks Then it began to drizzle. But it didn’t rain hard enough for us to have to put the top back up.
Idon’t recall what we were talking about on the return trip. We were probably dozing off at that point from all the fresh air and exercise. But then, for whatever reason , Ann Boardman decided to turn on the radio. And ,asif on cue, I heard a pulsing bass line. A piano was playing chords in repeated triplet figures. And then...”Doowop-doowop”. I thought,’What’s that, some kind of bird 🎶 singing?’ No ,it was a trio ofmen singing falsetto.I never heard anything quite like that! Andthen, suddenly, Iburst out in uncontrolled, full- throttled laughter. I saw.Mrs. Boardman smiling in the rear view mirror. Then, there was a sort of lull in the music. This was during the chorus of the song when the ‘bird’ wasn’t chirpingbut someone was singing a regular sounding melody. This gave me a chance to catch my breath.Then the ‘doowops’ returned and my laughter suddenly switched on again. I recall a feeling of pure joy as I rolled aroundand around in the backseat of the Desoto while the tune played on.
Years later, I would discuss this song in my Popular Music in America course as a fine example of the Doowop style. It was the Cadillac’s one hit wonder,’ I Only Have Eyes for You’, a cover ofthe old Harry Warren and Al Dubin song.
Whenever I hear it or even hear other versions of it, I think of that glorious, carefree moment years ago from my childhood back on Long Island!
A couple of weeks ago I got my second COVID shot. I rolled up my left sleeve and turned my head to the right. “Relax” said the young woman administering the vaccine. That’s usually the way it goes when I get a
shot or get blood drawn.
As I sat in the car waiting the requisite 15 minutes, my mind flashed back to that day 55 years ago:
I was sitting with the rest of the high school band at the front of the stage with my piccolo in my lap. A senior anxious to move on to music school from Oceanside High on Long Island.
As is customary before an assembly, the band is required to play for the student body as they march in anorderly fashion taking their seats in the auditorium.
A government issued film was shown that day; kind of a watered down version of ‘Reefer Madness’,bad acting and all.
The plot is straightforward: A young woman wanting to be accepted by the ‘in crowd’ is coaxed into smoking a joint. This first joint leads to more and more addictive drugs until finally the film’s not so surprising climax. Now we see the crowd is rowdier than ever.There is wild dancing and other seductive behavior.The peer pressure on our young protagonist is intense. Now the focus is on the young lady whohas the rubber tubestretched tightly around her arm. One of her pals is aiming the needle full of heroine into her arm and...
The next thing I see is a thumb and forefinger circling around my face holding smelling salts. I realize that I’m flat on my back on the cold cement floor. The band is playing all around me and students are filing out of the auditorium. At this point, I’m too dazed and confused to feel embarrassed and humiliated.
Fortunately, most students avoided me anyway and I heard nothing about the incident from that point on..
Back at the healthcare center, my 15 minute wait time isup. Another young lady checks in on me. No adverse side affects, so shewipes off the time stamp frommy windshield and I’m on my way!
What to do now. Waiting is very frustrating. I just don’t have the patience for this kind of thing. I could be home writing music. But at least I can do this.
There is hokey pop music in the background ....
Waiting by again. Can you guess where I am? Here are a few hints:
I’m in a parking lot.
To my left is a a fairly long building in a strip mall.
The building has red letters above the entrance.
It forms two words: The first word has 6 letters and the second word has four.
Anyway... here I am.
This morning I intend to work on my cello/ piano piece.
Evan though it’s just two instruments, I find it a challenge.
The cello seems to be an instrument with unlimited possibilities.
The challenge is to choose those possibilities that are both idiomatic and compelling.
The piano has remained for me more of a challenge to write for.
So many pianists with a piano background have a distinct advantage over those of us who started out learning non keyboard instruments like the saxophone and flute.
Anyway, here I am in the parking lot and here are a couple of more hints: Since I arrived several older folk walked in and out of the building.
I hear the sound
of shopping carts...
So, I am about seven minutes into this a cello and piano piece. I think I’m finally making headway. Lines seem to be melding; to be integrating. Total. Top down.
(the next day)Waiting again- closer to home. The sun is rising, but along with that, a lot of noise. It’s cooler this morning after an evening rain. Other than that- too much noise...
Today, along with the cello/ piano piece, I’ll be working on a solo flute piece. This will be the second in my Solitudes series. I targeting the piece to lonely flutists during the pandemic. Not having the advantage of a mouthpiece and other chambers to trap the aerosol, the lonely flute has to spray its sound over a head joint into thin air in order to produce a sound. So I figure the flutists will keeping their distance in order to keep people in the vicinity safe.
I’m thinking of writing a series of contemplative studies for the instrument.
Now that I’m in the editing stage of the chamber opera, I decided to begin a new chamber opera. This one is based on a short story calledMrs. Manstey’s view by Edith Wharton. It’s a quaint, straight forward story with a dose of pathos. It only has a few characters and should be short in length. From what I can tell, it should not call for any close contact from any of the performers. It calls for a soprano, 2 altos and a baritone voice along with a chamber ensemble comprised of a clarinet, violin, cello and piano...
(next day)Waiting, waiting.... The hum of the refrigerator, the hiss of food simmering on the pot. It’s six in the morning and I’m waiting to go for a walk. I don’t whine or pace around the house like a dog. I try to keep busy by fixing breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, sweeping the floors, cleaning the kitty liter and writing this blog..
The solo flute piece seems to be on track. A spinning, arpeggiated tune that slowly evolves into something whacky perhaps?
The cello/ piano piece seems to be well into its development section.
The new opera is oh so slowly beginning . AndMelba the cat rubs against my leg. Time to go for a walk!
Am I relevant ? That’ s the question I’ve been asking myself for the past few years. And now, in thisage of Coronavirus,this question takes on aneven greater significance.
Upuntil a month or so ago, I had put my self in the category, older white composer oftraditional ‘classical’ music. The relevant composers seemed to be: younger in age,genders other than males , ethnicities their than white, winnersof awards; recipients of lucrative commissions. This all makes sense. I got it. The age white male dominance is over.
But to give myself credit, just about at the point COVID 19 reared its ugly head, I had a number of performances on the schedule for the foreseeable future. A few rehearsals went as planned ( only about 4 or 5 people in a room. Then maybe rehearsal via Skype.. then ..‘we’ll let’s put things off for a few weeks. then nada.)
But now. a whole swath of humanity is.. irrelevant. Everyone who performs dancer actor musician. politician.
But , we are in the 21sr century. We can Zoom our ensemble. We can play our bass clarinetversion of a Bach Partita on Facebook. We can play orchestral excerpts on Instagram.
I always thought that a piece of music comes to fruition when it is performed for an audience. But all the concert halls and performance venues are mute.
So now, I have my virtual music played on my computer for me, my wife and my cats to hear.Or I can send it around to my virtual friends.