Essays Before a Quartet - Part 1

6 December 2014

I wrote my first Saxophone Quartet in 1980, when I was 26. At the time, I just called it Saxophone Quartet, but when I wrote another one, many years later, it became known as my Saxophone Quartet No. 1. I had been out of college (Manhattan School of Music) for four years, but I was still studying privately with Giampaolo Bracali of the MSM composition faculty. I had written some chamber music, a song cycle,  and a Symphony, and I was starting to get active writing for the theater, having been admitted into the BMI Musical Theater Workshop in 1978 (This august institution was not yet named for Lehman Engel, as he was still alive and kicking and running the Workshop). I had also taken a summer course in Jazz Arranging at the Eastman School of Music in 1978, and techniques and voicings I learned there made their way into my “serious” music. Consequently, this was perhaps the first of my pieces to show the influences of jazz and theater sensibilities as well as my conservatory training. For one thing, it was remarkably terse compared to the rest of my chamber pieces, only 12 minutes long. The last movement was in swing, and it swung. It was premiered in the Spring of 1980 at an MSM Alumni Concert. It was well received, and it started to become popular almost immediately.

Theater writing, both as composer and orchestrator, kept me occupied throughout the 1980s. Starting around 1985, I was beginning to make sketches for what would become my Saxophone Quartet No. 2, but I was not able to finish it until 1998, when I was 44. I’m not sure what prompted me to make the second quartet be in four movements instead of three, but it seems to have been a good decision. This piece has also met with wide acceptance, and has garnered many performances and an excellent recording, (by the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet on their CD “The American Muse”) which I believe is still available.

Eighteen years separate my Sax Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, and - at this writing - Sax Quartet No. 2 was sixteen years ago. I held off writing a third quartet for quite a long time, but I feel ready now to work on Sax Quartet No. 3.

I have the two inner movements (of four) finished, and I’m currently working on the two outer movements. One advantage of writing two movements at once is that if one movement gives you trouble, you can pick up the other one and make progress on it. I often feel as if I’m trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, but I don’t have the picture of what the puzzle’s supposed to look like to guide me. It also seems as if some of the pieces I’m trying to make fit might belong to some other puzzle. All I can do is generate material, and try to determine if it belongs, where it goes, and where it takes me.