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PRISM Quartet Color Theory: Sō Percussion and PARTCH

Two evenings, the culmination of several years planning and collaboration, of thrilling contemporary music for saxophone and chamber orchestra.

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PRISM Quartet and PARTCH (Photo credit: Scott Friedlander)

PRISM Quartet and PARTCH (Photo credit: Scott Friedlander)

[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic[/avatar]PRISM Saxophone Quartet, founded more than 30 years ago and originally based at the University of Michigan, is a chamber music group of considerable elegance: so technically secure that virtuosity is not a goal but a vocabulary, these four musicians – Timothy McAllister/soprano sax, Zachary Shemon/ alto sax, Matthew Levy/tenor sax and Taimur Sullivan/baritone sax – present the music they commit to with unabashed but unsentimental passion, vibrant daring and generous tenderness. PRISM pushes the saxophones to unexpected modern edges without ever abandoning the instruments’ historical origins: even when playing music composed just months ago, the PRISM players never suppress the layered memories of aristocratic Baroque salons, nineteenth century concert halls and smoky twentieth century jazz clubs.

Over the last several years, PRISM and two colleague chamber groups,  Sō Percussion on the one hand and PARTCH on the other, have been engaged in the “Color Theory” project, and presented two separate concerts. Taking as their model early modern visual artists’ examination of pigment mixes through the insights of Isaac Newton’s discovery of color theory and prisms, the four saxophonists and composers with whom they collaborate have been using “color theory as a framework to explore the spectra that make up instrumental sound.” The results were exhilarating.

As though to locate their audiences in the “regular” context of saxophone music, PRISM began both their Sō Percussion concert and their PARTCH concert with works for four saxophones alone. The New York premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’ 2014 Saxophone Quartet set the subject of microtonality as the language of all the works in the Color Theory project. Shapes, as well as colors are evoked, especially by Haas’ Quartet which, in addition to presenting sound in a full range from fortissimo to the most whispered – barely even breathed – pianissimo, called up images of fluidity and liquids’ movements.

Similarly, in the second piece of the second concert, Iannis Xenakis’ devilishly difficult 1987 XAS, the second oldest piece in these two concerts, multiphonic tones as well as what might have seemed, three decades ago, like wildly exotic allusions – saxophones echoing Javanese gamelans, for instance – served two functions. First, the saxophone-alone works placed in the ear of the audience the “first partner” of the Sō Percussion and PARTCH collaborations; second, they provided historical location for both the rootedness and the daring of the collaborative works.

In a programmatic decision at once sensible and felicitous, Sō Percussion and PARTCH each performed pieces for their own ensemble.

In the first concert, Sō Percussion presented Bruce Dressner’s 2013 Music for Wood and Strings, a ten minute excerpt of a larger work, a work that calls for both traditional and specially made instruments and that operated on a constantly shifting and vibrant continuum between unstoppable pulse and ravishing melody.

PRISM Quartet and Sō Percussion (Photo credit: Scott Friedlander)

PRISM Quartet and Sō Percussion (Photo credit: Scott Friedlander)

In the second concert, PARTCH presented Castor and Pollux, the first piece in a trilogy of works, Plectra and Percussion Dances, dating from the early 1950s. Harry Partch (1901-1974), one of America’s most unusual twentieth century musicians, was a composer, performer, formal philosopher and parapatetic. He was also a perfectly astonishing instrument builder: his “Instrumentarium,” totaling more than 25 beautifully hand-made instruments of wood, organic elements, metals and glass, is serenely elegant and innovative.

The instruments belonging to PARTCH, a group of seven musicians, making their East Coast debut, are among the very few extant authentic Harry Partch instruments and are exquisite works of craftsmanship. Partch created these instruments because the standard instruments were inadequate transmitters of the musical sound universe carried in his creative mind.

With names as evocative as diamond marimba, chromelodeon and cloud chamber bowls, these instruments are reminiscent of the instruments we all know, but are simultaneously quite other-worldly: they transport us, removing us from our regular locations, and requiring us to listen to music as if from other places, with only a distant memory of traditional musical proportions, harmonies and scales.

Castor and Pollux is, in Partch’s words, “infectious dance music … Atonal-dynamic dithyramb. A ritualistic ecstasy.” As the seven musicians move in pairs, triads and quartets around and among the instruments, they presented two sets of mirror movements – twins to each other – called Insemination, Conception, Incubation and Delivery. It is wonderful, lively and unexpected music, at once cerebral and physical: you find yourself careening from thought to thought and question to question even as you find it hard to sit decorously still.

On both evenings, the set-up for the newly composed collaborative works – PRISM-and- Sō and PRISM-and-PARTCH – took place during the first half of the concert, and the new works were presented after the intermission.

Steve Mackey’s eight-movement Blue Notes and Other Clashes is splendid: it is accessible and warm, an homage to song genres and dance steps by means of Mackey’s first musical experiences as a blues guitar player. The blues trope of things that “hurt so good” provided Mackey with an ironic perspective through which to consider musical color theory;  Blue Notes, however, is a fundamentally sunny piece, concluding with a huge last moment so substantive as to be able to stand almost on its own.

Donnacha Dennehy’s The Pale, first written in 2003 and set in a new instrumentation for this project, was conceived by the composer as a response to global wars and an invocation of the fourteenth century British Pale around Dublin. This is a piece about boundaries and borders, and about both life’s and creativity’s insistence on their own illimitable energies; it has moments of genuine revelation.

PRISM Quartet and PARTCH (Photo credit: Scott Friedlander)

PRISM Quartet and PARTCH (Photo credit: Scott Friedlander)

The two quartets – four saxophonists and four percussionists on multiple traditional and non-traditional instruments – made a densely multifaceted sound; at some moments, images of large Romantic symphony orchestras were conjured up and at others, an entirely new aesthetic of versatile orchestral sound seemed to be establishing itself.

The first of the two new PRISM-and-PARTCH collaborations was Skiagrafies by Stratis Minakakis, a work that, as the composer himself said in his brief comments to the audience, is about minute gradations of shadow and light, imagined etchings’ traces and relationships of line and space. For Minakakis, who conducted, color theory is not about hues, but about light. Infused with the Partch intimate strangeness, this music began with tendril-like delicacy, gradually expanded to great sound masses of simultaneous divergences and convergences, and then ended with a fade into distance.

The concluding work of the PRISM-and-PARTCH collaboration – and of the Color Theory project concerts – was Ken Ueno’s Future Lilacs, a world premiere, like Skiagrafies. Future Lilacs is a fascinating work, luminous in places, about what Ueno calls microtonal explorations and the imagination of “counterfactual histories.” Ueno creates a world of unexpected urgencies: the electric guitar sounds insistently and hypnotically Asian, and the combined saxophones and Partch instrumentarium create a world in which we, the audience, are visitors. The final sung note of a cloud chamber bowl functioned as both valediction and invitation to memory.

The PRISM-and-PARTCH instrumental sound is rich and multilayered; even more than the saxophone-percussion sound, it is sensuous, organic and earthy, resonantly suggestive and capable of great power. Because the instruments are so unusual, the exceptionally close collaboration between composer and musicians is necessary. Both Minakakis and Ueno were profuse in their thanks to PRISM and PARTCH; indeed, thanks abounded, between composers and musicians, musicians and audience, friends, colleagues and Roulette regulars.

And thanks were well deserved all around. Superb musicianship, artistic vision, collaborative daring and splendid imagination on the part of all involved in the production of PRISM’s Color Theory project made for two wonderful evenings of thrilling music.

PRISM Quartet Color Theory: Sō Percussion and PARTCH (June 7 and 12, 2016)

Sō Percussion co-presented with Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia

Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, in Brooklyn

For more information, visit,,,

Running time for both June 7 and June 12: two hours with one intermission

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