A little over two months ago the PRISM Quartet released its latest album on its own XAS Records label. The group consists of four saxophonists covering the four registers of the instrument: Timothy McAllister on soprano, Zachary Shemon on alto, Matthew Levy on tenor, and Taimur Sullivan on baritone. Shemon also plays a “hookah” saxophone, which connects the mouthpiece to the instrument by seven feet of rubber hose, somewhat in the manner of the water pipe for which it is named. Based on the commissioning of new works built around the idea of musical colors, the title of the new album is Color Theory:
The result of this project is an offering of three compositions, the eight-movement suite Blue Notes and Other Clashes by Steven Mackey, “Future Lilacs” by Ken Ueno, and Stratis Minakakis’ Skiagrafies, consisting of two sections, “Traces” and “Shadow Memories,” played without interruption. The performance of each of these pieces requires the participation of additional musicians. Mackey’s piece complements the quartet of saxophonists with the four members of So Percussion, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Eric Cha-Beach. The remaining two tracks include Partch, an ensemble originally founded by Music Director John Schneider to perform the music of Harry Partch. As a result of his interest in the natural harmonic series, Partch built a large family of instruments all based on dividing the octave into 43 unequal tones; and Ueno and Minakakis are two composers that have pursued the use of Partch’s instruments for their own compositions. Minakakis also serves as conductor for both of these pieces; and Ueno’s work also requires an electric version of a guitar that Partch originally designed, played by Derek Johnson.
The accompanying booklet includes an extended essay by John Schaefer. In the interest of full disclosure, Schaefer’s New Sounds program on National Public Radio was my favorite source for listening when I spent the better part of the Eighties living in Stamford, Connecticut. Like Schaefer-the-announcer, Schaefer-the-writer provides excellent background that will guide the curious listener through the tracks on this album. My personal technical background, on the other hand, raises any number of questions as to whether any of these pieces have any connection to color that goes beyond choices of titles; but, quite honestly, I do not think that matters very much.
Just as Partch pursued upper harmonics in search of new sonorities, the real value of this album lies in how its three composers each pursue a similar quest for such sonorities. Ironically, they all come from a time when the received wisdom was that composers would discover such sonorities by exploring the affordances of electronic hardware and computer software. There is thus something at least slightly ironic about the back-to-instruments aesthetic behind his album. Beyond the irony, however, is a vast landscape of new ways to approach listening; and I, for one, would be happy to see other composers stake out other areas in that landscape on the basis of what Mackey, Ueno, and Minakakis have achieved.
From a personal point of view, however, I would have to say that I was particularly drawn to “Future Lilacs.” To be fair, however, I should add that I have had the good fortune to listen to Ueno as a performer, in addition to listening to performances of his music. As a performer he has been particularly interested in the exploration of upper harmonics through different Asian throat singing techniques. As a result, I warmed very quickly to “Future Lilacs” when I realized that the melodic contour of upper harmonics coming out of Johnson’s guitar work amounted to an instrumental version of those throat singing techniques.
I was also impressed by how the PRISM players could control their own intonation to align with the tones produced by Partch’s instruments. After all, if a saxophone is capable of rich vibrato, there is no reason why the central axis of that vibrato should be confined to the frequencies of equal-tempered tuning. The members of PRISM clearly appreciated that acute listening was rigorously necessary when playing with Partch instruments. I have no idea how much rehearsal time this required; but the resulting sonorities in both the Ueno and Minakakis pieces were instrumental (pun intended) in guiding the listener through each of their respective logical paths.
Mackey’s piece, on the other hand, was a series of short takes. All of them involve PRISM working within the context of different landscapes of percussion sonorities. Most of these were grounded in a playful wit, most evident when the “Mottled March” veers off in the direction of the march at the beginning of Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du soldat.” Still, brevity is at the soul of that wit. Mackey had spot-on intuition for when the listener would arrive at the I-get-it moment, meaning that he knew when it was time to move on to the next piece in his suite.