Australasian Sax and Clarinet Conference Lecture ~ Oneirology

by Jeremy on July 14, 2013

This presentation formed part of a lecture I gave at the 2013 Australasian Saxophone and Clarinet Conference at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The lecture discusses my suite for Compass Quartet with pianist Jackson Harrison, which was featured in a performance at the conference.

Compass Quartet, as the name suggests, takes the compass as an analogy for choosing unique collaborations with various artists. The group has released three albums, Abrazo Tango, Ode to an Auto Rickshaw and our new album Oneirology. All albums are available from itunes and my store.

The group features Christina Leonard on soprano saxophone, Christina currently teaches at the Conservatorium, performs as part of the Sydney Soloists, Continuum Saxophone Quartet and as part of the SSO and Sydney ballet orchestra. Luke Gilmour is an esteemed educator and a fine baritone saxophonist. Matt joined the group as a true jazzer, with no classical saxophone training at all. Matt comes from New Zealand and studied at the Sydney Conservatorium. He has performed with many of Sydney’s most exciting jazz groups, as well as commercial settings with Guy Sebasitan and starring in a TV series as ‘Mr Saxophone’. The show, called Lah Lah, is set to be the next version of the Wiggles (only a lot better!).

Oneirology, is based on Christopher Nolan’s Inception – a science fiction action thriller starring Leonardo Dicaprio whereby Dicaprio plays the role of a thief who commits corporate espionage, who is offered a chance to regain his old life as payment for a task considered to be impossible: “inception”, the implantation of another person’s idea into a target’s subconscious. The themes from the movie are reflected in the title of the four movements: Daydreamer, Entering the Subconsciousness, Dream within a Dream and Reality Check? (Déjà vu)

I have been studying intersections of jazz with other styles, in particular world music such as Indian, Caribbean and African music, as well as contemporary classical music, as is the case here. As a further twist I have been attempting to investigate jazz composition practices as a function of Sydney jazz culture in order to place Australian jazz identity among questions of authenticity and cultural nationalism. For more reading on this, check out my research paper on my blog.

Let’s discuss how the differences between the two approaches to saxophone, classical and jazz and how they might work in the same group.

For jazz players, we are often trying to achieve a broad tonal pallette that stands on the shoulders of players such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon among many others – a broad, dark tone. Jazz players are also notoriously loud. A good jazz sound generally uses a wide throat opening, a harder reed set up and an open chamber mouthpiece.

As for the blending, it takes a lot of compromise and listening to each other’s sounds to make it work. I ensure that when I play in this group I step back from my usual volume, which is generally quite loud to play under Christina.

Let us discuss the use of improvisation within the work. My goal as a composer for the group is to create a platform for improvisation. What that means is that my aim is to entice the soloist in a certain direction, a certain sonic landscape, a sound world that I have envisioned for that section of the piece. My knowledge of each members performance and improvisational strengths allows me to work towards making the most of these. I set up the improvised sections with a musical environment within which the improviser can work within, enticing the improviser into a certain field of sound.

Movement 1: Daydreamer

The first movement takes the idea that the person is drifting in and out of a daydream. This is reflected by a ‘lethargic’ expressive marking at the start, and a slow melody that is somehow reminds me of an American high school love song. The movement is broken by pauses and chromatic shifts in harmony, signs of things to come later in the piece. After the alto saxophone solo we move into a piano cadenza based on the whole tone scale. A piece based on dreaming would not be complete without the cliché line from so many films – ‘it was just like it happened only yesterday’….. ascending whole tone scale. This serves as a starting point for his solo.

The movement finishes with an alto saxophone and piano duo solo, where we engage in an improvisational dialogue. This movement is inspired by the chromatic and modal harmony of both Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter – check Wayne’s song “Aung San Suu Kyi” from their duo 1:1 –

Movement 2: Entering the Subconsciousness

This piece features Matt using a scale derived from an Ethiopian scale, which was discovered through the recent popularisation of Ethiopian music on the Ethiopiques series, music recorded from the 60’s and 70’s. Matt is also part of an Ethiopian singer’s band Dereb the Ambassador, with which he has performed at major festivals around Australia and took a tour to Ethiopia in 2012. The scale uses a harmonic minor scale with a raised fourth.

The piece uses an ostinato bass pattern in 7/4 that builds over the entire movement. At the end we descend further into the whole tone scale, and depart from a regular tempo, with the players choosing their own rhythms.

Movement 3: Dream within a Dream

If you have seen the film, you will recall final sections where they have to delve deep into the consciousness of the corporate boss to perform the inception, going into not only one dream within a dream, but four dreams (deep?). Within each dream, time slows by an increasing rate, so much so that within the fourth dream, time passes at only incremental rate within reality. Utilising this idea within the music, I have experimented with duration throughout this movement, with increasing time signatures for not only the held notes by the rests.

This piece is most interesting how it slowly dissolves into an improvisation by the alto saxophone and the piano. It initially starts over a repeating set of chords from the saxophones, outlining an C7 (#11). Once the saxophones fade, the improvisation moves into a freer harmonic foundation, utilising chromatics, shifting tonal centres and modal mixture.

This movement is influenced by the music of Morton Feldman (1926-1987), a New York composer that was most prominently a pioneer of indeterminate music, who experimented with extremes of duration, creating rhythms that seem to be free and floating. His music was generally quite and slowly evolving, recurring asymmetric patterns. This characteristics really suited my goal for this movement. Check out Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet (1985).

Movement 4: Reality Check? (Deja Vu)

The characters in the film all carry a totem with which they can test whether they are in reality or a dream. DiCaprio’s character carries a spinning top with which he spins on a table. If the spinning top finally stops and falls to the side he knows that he is in reality. If it continues perpetually spinning however, it means that he is indeed caught within a dream. I won’t spoil the film for you if you haven’t seen it but in the final scene he is caught between looking to see whether the spinning top has stopped spinning, or rejoining with his children, with whom he has longed to be with for the years that he has spent away from them.

I have adapted these ideas in the music through several ways. Firstly, you can hear the melody played by the soprano slowly dissolve within the group, as it fractured into smaller segments and played in various rhythms by the different instruments.

After a solo section featuring the alto and tenor saxophone trading eight bars each, the piece slowly starts to revisit all the material from the past three movements. This is interspersed with a rubato section whereby the saxophones all choose their own rhythms. The tempo and dynamics fluctuate through the various ‘deja vu’s. The music finally arrives back at the introduction of the first movement, whereby the piece dramatically accelerates into a climactic finish


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