What do saxophones make you think of? Do they conjure images of street-corner buskers? Horrifying dentist's-office memories of Kenny G? Fond recollection of the confrontational squawking on Fear's classic "New York's Alright if You Like Saxophones"? Fevered thoughts of John Zorn's unremitting, ear-abrading intensity? Though it initially seems like a straightforward jazz tool, the sax is capable of a startlingly broad range of sound and expression.
For Caroline Kraabel and her Mass Producers, one saxophone is simply not enough. As the title implies, Performances for Large Saxophone Ensemble features Kraabel heading a twenty-woman assemblage. Think of it as a musical form of large-scale processing -- a Beowulf cluster made up of musical instruments, all hooting and squealing their way through a terrabyte of sonic data.
With twenty saxophones going at once, you're right to expect a lot of music. "PLSE1" clocks in at a massive forty-three minutes, while "PLSE2" confines itself to a comparatively modest twenty-four (and trims the ensemble down to eighteen players). To get the most from these pieces, you should listen to them on a good stereo system -- a surround sound system, if possible. In the live incarnation of Performances, the audience sits at the center of the performance space and is gradually surrounded by the outlandishly costumed players; clearly, it's an intense and immersive experience in which time passes quickly.
"PLSE1" can be divided into several subsections. The initial approach is low and mournful, building gradually to a pair of low alternating notes, rendered so vividly by the ganged saxophones that they sound more like a small group of bowed instruments. The second piece is a conversation between tenor and baritone sax, its back-and-forth dynamic reminiscent of a particularly disjointed and violent piece of Carl Stalling animation music. A pair of alto saxophones join the fray, after which there follows a sequence of numerical progressions based upon the players' preassigned numbers (1-20) within the ensemble. This flows easily into a series of twenty solos, with each ensemble member taking a brief turn in numerical order. Most of these brief bursts are light-hearted in tone, carrying disjointed, sometimes Zorn-ish figures through a repeating array.
At around the twenty-minute mark, things become even more interesting. The players' voices begin to show up in the mix -- at first muttering, then singing quietly, and finally exploding into a huge, otherwordly choral note. Ironically, though it doesn't come from saxophones, this is one of "PLSE1"'s most transitional moments, as the twenty voices sustain a disquieting disharmony that's half Holst, half sci-fi soundtrack. The chorus ebbs and flows, and eventually gains accompaniment, while the players switch positions. The drone of voice and saxophone gives way to the piece's most "musical" sequence (by traditional standards), which seems to echo Monk as it flirts with dischord. Dissonance takes free reign shortly thereafter, blossoming across the sonic canvas in a series of swollen, rolling waves. When you hit the "home stretch" -- a braying alto sax solo -- you'll probably be relieved in spite of yourself. You can relax; the muted ambience of the conclusion holds no surprises other than the applause of a live audience (recorded at a live performance of the piece and included here to reinforce the experience).
"PLSE2" comes across as a lesser work; not only is it half the length of "PLSE1", but Kraabel affords it only a single paragraph in the liner notes. Apparently intended to induce a degree of hypnosis, "PLSE2" depends heavily upon circular breathing to sustain the intensity of its central, multilayered maelstrom. Circular breathing, a dual-flow respiratory technique essential to didgeridoo playing, is somewhat hypnotic in itself; frequently associated with trance-inducing music, it requires a degree of bodily equilibrium that can be as mesmeric to the player as the music is to the listeners. Ironically, technology wins out over age-old technique; Kraabel opts to employ a studio-created loop rather than recreating the sequence in toto. Perhaps knowledge of this "cheat" contributes to "PLSE2"'s status as a secondary work; while it would stand out on most records, the piece functions less as a complement to "PLSE1", which requires no assistance, than as padding for the disc, its artistic credibility compromised by sampling. Don't get the wrong idea, though -- "PLSE2" is a striking, exciting piece. It gets to its meat faster than "PLSE1", and for that reason may seem more immediate and satisfying to listeners.
Is "listenable avant-garde" a contradiction in terms? Performances for Large Saxophone Ensemble offers refreshing evidence to the contrary. As saxophone music goes, this may well be the most intriguing, challenging and above all listenable sixty-six minutes you've ever spent. Of course, if you'd prefer to suffer for art's sake, please feel free to dig out a Kenny G. record.