In Search of Stillnses
By Jordan VanHeimert
It is no secret that the saxophone has found a home in the vast realm of new music. Offering limitless timbral and expressive capabilities and a plethora of saxophonists and ensembles with an ever-climbing level of virtuosity and depth of commitment, the saxophone allows composers a blank slate on which to realize their musical visions. Several such visions came to life in Assembly Quartet’s latest album In Search of Stillness.
In Search of Stillness is the sophomore release of the Assembly Quartet, which is a self-described “new music chamber ensemble.” Therefore, it is no surprise to find that four of the five works on this album were composed for this ensemble. Assembly Quartet is comprised of Jeffrey Heisler (Oakland University), soprano saxophone; Ian Jeffress (Western Carolina University), alto saxophone; Matthew Younglove (Wayne State University) tenor saxophone; and Adam Estes (University of Mississippi), baritone saxophone.
The album opens with Benjamin Taylor’s Digital Goldfish. Written in 2014, Digital Goldfish is based on a news report that confirmed that the average human attention span is now nine seconds. True to its namesake, the piece flits from idea to idea in a myriad of styles. Through the piece, the quartet displays not only their cohesive ensemble playing but also their versatility as they navigate styles from funk to jazz to avant-garde music. Through many of the style changes, the presence and power of Estes’ baritone saxophone playing anchors the group into a solid groove. Just as a thought vanishes, the piece’s ending evaporates into thin air.
The album continues with Marilyn Shrude’s energy flows nervously….in search of stillness. This piece was written for the Assembly Quartet and premiered at the 17th World Saxophone Congress. From the composer’s program note, “The piece begins with dense intensity as quietly as possible. The tension gradually increases as the dynamic level rises and eventually reaches fff. At this point, with the harmonic language at its loudest and most dissonant moment, the search for stillness begins and ultimately finds its destination in calmness and silence.” The ensemble’s dynamic range is incredible, and I appreciated their ability to allow the texture to morph quickly. The searching nature of the piece is clear by the composer’s unsettled harmonic choices throughout, which create a very compelling drive toward the stillness of the piece’s ending.
Kurt Issacson’s Flickering Species was another piece written for the Assembly Quartet’s performance at the 17th World Saxophone Congress in Strasbourg, France. Flickering Speciesshowcases the ensemble’s ability to play with subtle multiphonics and bisbigliando. In the beginning of the piece, the ensemble emits a dim glow, flickering as a wind effect created in the low saxophones attempts to blow it out. The ensemble’s timbral range and blend are highlighted as the various voices of the group float into one another as they flow in and out of a unison concert G, gently bending and altering the pitch and allowing for chordal interjections from other voices.
Mic Check was written by Simon Fink in 2012 for the Assembly Quartet and premiered at the World Saxophone Congress in St. Andrews Scotland. It is based on the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and the “human microphone” technique that resulted from the prohibition on bullhorns. The piece is built on echoes from one voice to another, a literal depiction of the human microphone technique. The uniformity of phrasing from one voice to the next is perfectly executed such that it sounds like the same voice is repeating something in a different pitch. In the middle section of the piece, the soprano and alto voices echo one another displaced by half of a beat. Both voices delightfully weave in and out of the foreground in a swath of long tones punctuated by precise march-like figures in the baritone and tenor voices.
Prodigal Child by John Fitz Rogers is the only piece that was not composed for the Assembly Quartet. Prodigal Child was composed in 2004 for a consortium consisting of the Capitol Quartet, New Century Quartet, and the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet. It is the perfect close to this energetic album of new music. The inspiration for Prodigal Child is drawn from the Christian biblical passage Psalm 43. By now, this work has become a staple of the saxophone quartet repertoire, and this performance of the piece is particularly compelling due to Younglove’s tenor saxophone playing. In the passages with tenor and baritone playing in tandem, Younglove’s tone adds an attractive ring to the baritone sound’s depth. Younglove is also featured in the tenor solo, which presents the vocal quality of our instrument in the best possible light.
Overall, this release by the Assembly Quartet is presented in such a way that one may forget the ambition of programming such a heavy compilation of works. The Assembly Quartet navigates these works with relative ease, and the depth of the quartet’s interpretations yields an album worthy of several listenings for the analytical lister to absorb all of the many subtleties of this seasoned ensemble.