MEET THE COMPOSER
By Christina Ensign
“Slaps correspond, for me, to the pizzicati of the strings: all violinists can play them, so saxophonists have to play them too!” -Christian Lauba
Amidst the many unique voices in modern composition, one would be remiss not to mention Christian Lauba, whose compositions for saxophone have certainly made their distinctive mark in the repertoire. A Lauba composition provides fresh and creative textural ideas, compelling inner melodic lines, and a definitive set of individual challenges for performance and interpretation. Often employing extended techniques, such as slap tongue, multiphonics, circular breathing, and extreme altissimo register, many of Lauba’s compositions are meant for the virtuoso performer. These aforementioned eccentricities should not, however, deter the skilled performer from seeking out these works. On the contrary, such a writing style offers the modern saxophonist an opportunity to explore constantly contrasting textures, experiment with a myriad of colors, and embody familiar characters recontextualized in unfamiliar soundscapes.
Perhaps Lauba’s best known works are those for unaccompanied saxophone, which not only represent a significant portion of Lauba’s output for the instrument but also employ several of the extended techniques which have become a prominent trait in much of his music. It is important to note that Lauba does not intend to use these techniques arbitrarily or for needless gimmicks, rather the composer has a firm grasp on the specific sound he imagines in that particular moment of the work and searches for a way to allow the instrument to support his vision. For Lauba, it seems that the saxophone must be made to fit the music rather than the music being altered or diminished to fit the saxophone. Lauba believes all instruments are and should be capable of producing all sounds. Perhaps it is true that some sounds come easier to specific instruments, but through some work and manipulation, the saxophone can take on characteristics of other instrument families. In this way, we hear circular breathing imitating the sustaining, continuous qualities of non-wind instruments, slap-tongue mirroring pizzicato strings, key-clicks reflecting percussive instruments, and glissandi as smooth as the capabilities of a trombone slide.
“Hard,” for solo tenor saxophone is one such example, featuring juxtapositions of unlike textures and registers. Tying this work together is the masterful development of small motivic cells– most notably the repeated note figure which begins the almost nine-minute piece. Motivic development is similarly at play in Lauba’s Etude No. 15, “Worksong,” in which the listener can experience the clever unfolding of an originally simple minor third motive. “Jungle,” part of the collection of nine etudes, more principally features the percussive capabilities of the saxophone, leading off with a series of key-clicks, staccato passages, and slap-tongue. In contrast, another of these nine etudes, “Balafon,” begins with a lyrical, soft melodic line devoid of extended techniques, which Lauba instead reserves for the climatic moment about two-thirds of the way through the work. The composer’s varied utilization of these techniques support a plethora of opportunities in regards to contour and shape of the pieces as a whole. The extended techniques become a tool for expression, motivic development, and building intensity, rather than as arbitrary skills to increase the difficulty of a particular work.
Further study in Lauba’s use of texture is present in “Reflets” for SATB saxophone quartet. Continual juxtapositions of opposing textures and timbres slither between the ranges of the four instruments, creating a creepy aura reminiscent of the “night music” of the early twentieth century. Other chamber works include duos for two saxophones and duos for saxophone and other non-saxophone instruments (or electronics).
I was particularly captivated by the piece entitled “Stan,” for baritone saxophone and electronics. Notably more homophonic and even “simpler” than many of Lauba’s other modern saxophone works, this music creates and develops a complex kaleidoscopic atmosphere that is constantly tilting and turning. The shifts are ever so subtle, allowing the listener to float in the ambient, almost hypnotic nature of the piece. Even more compelling are the two stark contrasts which materialize from the given texture: one into a contrasting articulated section, which quickly builds to a climax, dissolving into the second contrast: a series of hauntingly beautiful subito sustained chords which conclude the work.
Another interesting and creative work is “Dies Irae” for soprano saxophone and organ. In similar fashion to Lauba’s work with electronics, he utilizes the organ as the paints to fill our audible canvas while the saxophone dances in, out, and around the texture. The piece concludes with a huge, rumbling chord with the saxophone in its low register, leaving the listener with lasting feelings of both resolve and unease.
“Massai,” scored for alto saxophone and tenor saxophone (or bass clarinet) is a compelling example of Lauba’s fondness for North African and jazz-influenced rhythmic patterns. In many ways, the presence of the syncopated rhythms of ragtime surrounded by a modern harmonic palette allows listeners to perceive this piece as a bridge between Christian Lauba and his pseudonym, Jean Matitia.
Matitia, a name “reserved to more popular music,” can be seen printed atop many pieces in vernacular styles, including rags, jazz, and Latin-American or European dance music. Aside from a clear stylistic difference, Matitia’s harmonic language is more traditionally functional than that of Lauba, allowing this set of pieces– like most popular music– to be more accessible to the general public. Feasibly the most celebrated rag written under Matitia’s pen is “Devil’s Rag.” Scored for either solo alto saxophone with piano accompaniment or a full saxophone choir, the piece features a memorable syncopated melody at a blazing tempo, plenty of technical challenges for the performers, while promising to be an immediate crowd-pleaser.
Careful study of Lauba’s works reveals his apparent craftsmanship and attention to detail in the music he creates. An unquestionably admirable trait belonging to Lauba is his refusal to accept limitations for the saxophone as an instrument, empowering the constant progression and development of our repertoire and capabilities. Irrefutably original, exceptionally brilliant, and periodically quirky, Lauba’s contributions to the saxophone repertoire are significant and well worth exploring.
An Interview with Christian Lauba
The Saxophonist: Can you talk a little about your compositional background in regards to your studies, early career, and teachers?
Christian Lauba: I started music very late at the age of 30 years old! One of my friends forced me to enter the Bordeaux Conservatory in 1980. I owe him my career! My composition teacher was Michel Fusté-Lambezat, a student of Darius Milhaud at the Paris conservatory. Fortunately before [my formal study], we were listening to
all styles of music at home which gave me a very strong musical background.
TS: As a composer, which composers are your biggest influences? Non-composer musicians? Non-composers or musicians?
CL: Composers: Mozart, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Varèse, Wagner, Bruckner, Sibelius, Mendelssohn, etc... and today György Ligeti. Interpreters: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arthur Grumiaux, Isaac Stern and today the saxophonist Richard Ducros !!
TS: What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a composer?
CL: Difficult to answer! I think I have a very good harmonic and melodic ear, which is a strength and also a weakness ( you have to forget the habits of your good ear to invent new sounds!)
TS: Within your compositional career, what are you most proud of?
CL: To be proud is maybe too much. I am satisfied with my saxophone pieces,
especially Balafon, Jungle, Worksong, Flamenco, Bebop, etc..., my piano pieces like Brasil Sem Fim, my second string quartet, Morphing, dedicated to György Ligeti, my orchestral piece Bogor, my silent films music and my Devil's Rag written under my pseudonym Jean Matitia!
TS: Speaking of this name you often write under Jean Matitia. Do you feel this a way to keep compositional ideas separate? Do you ever feel these two personas coming together in a single piece? Does the music composed under your true name (Christian Lauba) feel more true to the music you identify yourself with as a composer?
CL: I just wanted to distinguish different styles: Matitia is reserved for more popular music and Lauba to more contemporary music. I am very happy with these two names and feel true in both styles of music!
TS: Your music has many cultural influences- with the French school of music being an obvious contributor. Can you speak about the role of traditional French music, as well as the many other cultures and styles that have influenced your writing?
CL: In France, we don't have genuine popular music like in Russia, Germany, Spain, Hungary etc, so we have to borrow from other cultures– most of the time from Spain like Carmen by Bizet, the Bolero by Ravel, la Havanaise by Saint-Saëns, España by Chabrier etc... I just do the same. I am lucky to be born in Tunisia (North Africa), to [have] live[d] in Morocco, Algeria, Martinique– places which have a very powerful popular music which influenced me a lot. The same with North American and South American music, which are now universal. I try to amplify these strong cultures, transforming them in French music ( [while] hoping not to betray the original sources!!).
TS: What is your favorite and/or most successful piece you have written for the saxophone?
CL: I think HARD for tenor saxophone, but also Balafon and Jungle for alto. Flamenco is also becoming very successful.
TS: What do you find are the challenges in writing for saxophone versus other instruments? What are the exciting aspects of writing for saxophone? Was there a particularly compelling element about the instrument that made you want to keep writing pieces for it?
CL: I want to give the saxophone the same sophistication I reserve for other instruments like the piano or the strings. Saxophonists are not used to it having a repertoire which has the same quality or difficulties of other instruments. Their repertoire consists of concertinos, Petits Concertos, sonatines etc... which cannot compete with a Beethoven sonata which lasts 45 minutes or a violin concerto of 35 minutes.
I do not really invent new techniques, I just amplify parameters which already exist (like circular breathing in so many African musics or slaps that many jazzmen have been mastering from the beginning of jazz). Slaps correspond, for me, to the pizzicati of the strings: all violinists can play them, so saxophonists have to play them too!
My pieces for saxophone are made for the concert. I want to give the saxophonists a repertoire which can allow them to have a career on stage instead of only being teachers, inviting each other, who only play after their masterclasses in university concerts or in congresses. Of course, to be a teacher is not dishonor; it is noble. But a saxophonist can become an international soloist without only depending on his teaching. Many violists and pianists admire the classical saxophonists who play my pieces. For them, it is the right image of this magnificent instrument! Most of them don't teach.
TS: Like many other composers, (notably in some of your more strictly melodic pieces), you have pieces where saxophone can be interchanged for a string instrument, like a cello. Is this due to the fact that the melodic material sits well in both instruments, or do you find that saxophone has a string like quality that mirrors the cello?
CL: Not really! Only a few of my pieces can be transcribed to another instrument!
Do you imagine HARD played by a bass clarinet for example? It's true that ARS for two sopranos can be played by 2 oboes or clarinets, or clarinet and soprano etc… It is easier in my Matitia music to interchange, but not so often.
TS: Certainly, your music can be extraordinarily challenging to even highly accomplished performers. Have you ever found challenges in balancing difficulty and practicality with your artistic and aural vision?
CL: My pieces are virtuoso pieces and all is possible to play! You only need time; this is why, most of the time, only young saxophonists work on my pieces because they have time! They don't teach or keep traveling to give masterclasses. If you listen to my string quartet or my piano pieces, the interpreters are famous artists who don't teach. If they need time to work on my pieces, they do so. Richard Ducros (who does not teach) takes time to mount such difficult music. And he is 44 years old!! He lives on concerts.
TS: How does your mentality change when composing for larger groups vs small chamber groups? (For example, solo saxophone, saxophone, and piano, duos, quartets, or large saxophone ensemble, such as your compositions for twelve players?)
CL: My mentality does not change at all. The compositional challenges remain the same!
TS: Can you talk a bit about your compositional process? What is your process for collecting and sorting through inspiration for pieces, initial ideas, mapping out pieces, and coming to a finished product?
CL: It is quite simple for me: I just sit and compose with a pencil, not with Finale.
I am quite old fashioned! Ideas come naturally (in good days!). No special plans etc...
TS: Something that can be easily said about your music is that you have a unique voice and sound. Your music is undoubtedly your own. I find that often, young composers are afraid to allow themselves to sound completely individual. Having a voice that is unlike anything anyone has heard before can be terrifying but is also necessary to the development and growth of new, creative art. That said, what advice would you give young, learning composers about finding their own unique voices?
CL: It is so difficult to be a composition teacher! I would only check if the composer has a good ear and especially the sense of rhythm and pulsation. And also check if he really knows the tradition, because if you want to invent new things, you have to know the tradition! [This is a] huge paradox!
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