Neil McGovern of the Syzygy Saxophone Quartet introduces a significant new work
David Maslanka’s Songs for the Coming Day is a large-scale work for SATB saxophone quartet comprising of nine movements spanning over 45 minutes. The piece is a series of songs without words, although having said that, a number of the movements are based upon actual songs, or rather hymns that have been reset and adapted to the saxophone. Often reflective, and always focused, the work takes one on an expansive journey through meditative sonorities. The blend demanded of the ensemble has more than a passing resemblance to sacred music, though there are a number of unusual protrusions and diversions as the piece develops. The penultimate movement in particular, ‘The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy’, escapes into exuberance before leading into the last tear-jerker.
Syzygy chose to play this work for a number of reasons, not least of which is that as a group we really try to focus on new music and be part of generating the saxophone canon, more on that later. Maslanka’s work appealed because the musical ideas have this inexorable quality that mean they always work themselves out thoroughly and comprehensively. Nothing is truncated, flippant or glib in Songs for the Coming Day, and we like to try and find pieces that have some substance and gravitas to them. The first piece we played as a quartet was Andriessen’s Facing Death, which at 20 minutes running time is actually quite long for a saxophone quartet. Maslanka’s work is double that and it’s just fascinating and so rewarding to work on a piece that requires so much technically, musically and emotionally from each player and from the group as a whole. I think with a slow piece like this it’s natural to worry whether the music will hold the audience’s attention for such a prolonged amount of time, or whether they’ll be tweeting and checking Facebook on their phones by the time the fifth movement rolls round. But actually in performance, we found that people genuinely seemed gripped by the music and you could often hear a pin drop in those fragile, silent moments between movements. To let you into a secret, I do recall trying to perform only single movements from this piece rather than the whole thing, but it didn’t have the same impact at all, the work really needs treating as an entity in itself. In a world in which we are ‘amusing ourselves to death’, to quote Neil Postman, Songs for the Coming Day provides something more thought-provoking and hopefully more enriching.
Syzygy was part of a syndicate of quartets who were granted performing and recording rights for the piece, and we were the only European quartet to have this opportunity. The recording is now available and we hope it adds to the repertoire in a positive way. The saxophone is still sometimes a Cinderella instrument, a stranger to the orchestra, not taken up often by ‘famous’ composers. It is in pieces like David Maslanka’s that we find a real interest and delight in the instrument and its possibilities. The flexibility, the nuance and the power of the saxophone are all explored so well here. More pieces that take up weightier issues like this are what Syzygy are ever on the lookout for.