By Marcus Ballard, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
In the late 1930s, American avant-garde composer John Cage began composing works for prepared piano. By inserting objects like screws, wooden pegs, and rubber tubing (to name a few) between pre-determined strings of the piano, Cage was able to sonically transform the instrument into an ensemble of exotic percussion instruments. Since then, many performers and composers have experimented with the idea of “preparing” wind instruments. This has typically consisted of inserting lengths of PVC and even road cones into the bell of the instrument in order to extend the low range and alter the sound.
Extended techniques and preparations mimic percussive and animal sounds
Soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome takes this concept to another level on his recent release, Sonic Journey: Live at the Red Room. The performance consists of five “Sonic Journeys” along with solo improvisations on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso and Monk’s Dream. Throughout the set, Newsome makes use of traditional extended saxophone techniques and his arsenal of preparations to mimic the sounds of everything from percussion ensembles to animals. For anyone not familiar with Sam Newsome’s techniques, a quick internet search will yield tons of video examples of him playing the soprano saxophone with balloons attached to his fingers, chimes hanging from the neck strap ring, and a length of tubing attached between the mouthpiece and the neck of the instrument. When he combines these with extended techniques like percussive tonguing and multiphonics, he indeed takes us on a sonic journey.
Sonic Journey No. 1: Monster Talk is a masterful exploration of two very different soundscapes. At first, we hear the saxophone transformed into something reminiscent of a Javanese gamelan ensemble through the use of percussive tonguing, multiphonics, and micro-tones. Anyone familiar with John Cage’s prepared piano works will immediately recognize these sounds. The soprano saxophone then becomes somewhat of a “monster” as the title suggests. Tubing is used to lengthen the instrument, plunging it into an impossibly low register. This monster “talks” – sometimes oscillating, sometimes warbling, sometimes growling – over a steady pulse of some sort of chimes or metallic jingles.
Interesting sequences and patterns showcase Newsome’s virtuosity
Newsome then dives into a playful improvisation on motives from Coltrane’s iconic Giant Steps. While he does incorporate some of the percussive tonguing and multiphonics from before, they are used very sparingly for contrast and tension. Newsome’s interpretation is full of interesting sequences and patterns, and the virtuosity on display here is extraordinary. The two improvisations on Thelonious Monk tunes that appear later in the set follow much the same pattern, with each one seeming to “bleed” into the next sonic journey. I found his take on Monk’s Dream to be particularly beautiful, especially his use of multiphonics to harmonize the last notes of certain phrases.
Sonic Journey No. 2: Peace and War begins almost as a continuation of the Giant Steps improvisation, with some of the same intervals and motives being presented over a set of chimes. There are brief bursts of improvisation in which Newsome develops several short melodic and rhythmic ideas. Suddenly the music becomes much more chaotic, almost returning to the Cage-like prepared piano sounds, before becoming downright violent in the drive to the end. Here, Newsome establishes rapid ostinato passages interrupted by multiphonic outbursts. Newsome beautifully alternates between stable, consonant-sounding multiphonics and more jarring dissonant ones in capturing the two opposing concepts of Peace and War.
Altering the instrument’s sound creates a variety of soundscapes
In Sonic Journey No. 3: Amazon Nuances, Newsome takes the listener on a walk through the Amazon rain forest. What sounds like the drumming of some yet undiscovered Amazon tribe gives way to the chattering calls of the various rain forest wildlife. It actually made me forget that I was listening to a solo soprano saxophone. As a saxophonist, I have experimented with many different methods of altering the instrument’s sound (extended techniques, preparations, effects pedals, etc.). This performance made me immediately take my soprano saxophone out and try (so far unsuccessfully) to replicate the sounds I heard. I found this performance utterly fascinating and inspiring.
Another incredible highlight of this live performance was Sonic Journey No. 4: The Echo of Wood. This time Newsome uses wooden chimes of varying pitch as the basis of his soundscape. He then improvises within the various pitches sounded by the chimes, building to a rapid flourish before finally winding down.
The final work on the album, Sonic Journey No. 5: Low Frequencies, harkens back to the sounds heard in Monster Talk. This time Newsome starts with the tube extending the low range of the saxophone. The growling, warbling tones are back. This section gives way to a steady pulse of chimes again, much like before. This time, however, Newsome again makes the listener forget what instrument they are hearing. Utilizing multiphonics and percussive tonguing, he creates a groove that sounds like it is being played on a combination of hand drums and pitched percussion instruments.
Sonic Journey: Live at the Red Room is a wonderful exploration in sound, and the use of unconventional means of producing it. It is at times calm and chaotic, peaceful and violent, beautiful and ugly, but never unmusical. Every aspect of the music is approached at all times with the highest level of skill, musicianship, and control.
Marcus Ballard is a saxophonist and educator based in New Orleans, Louisiana. His work covers a wide range of musical styles from contemporary classical saxophone to jazz, funk, and pop music. He is currently Assistant Professor of Woodwinds and Music History at Xavier University of Louisiana.