PRISM Quartet’s ‘Color Theory, Music for Saxophones, Percussion and Harry Partch Instruments’

Four saxophones, percussion, and the junkyard band

The PRISM Quartet is drawn to challenging collaborations. You might think an ensemble consisting of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones would be content exploring the wide range of music available for their distinct sounds. But considering the sounds on their 2017 album Color Theory, the answer is no.

PRISM Quartet. (Photo by Jacqueline Hanna.)

These musicians — two are based in Philadelphia, the other half from New York City — revel in the sonic possibilities arising from surprising engagements with fellow performers. Astonishingly, they are currently in the midst of a joint venture with early-music ensemble Piffaro, with a new work under way from composer David Ludwig. This should be very interesting; to start with, the instruments are not even pitched alike.           

Sax and percussion go for Baroque

Compared to that musical Frankenstein’s monster (I can’t wait to hear it), the combination of a saxophone quartet and a percussion ensemble seems natural, especially given the longstanding marriage of sax and drums in the jazz world. Princeton-based composer Steven Mackey honors that connection in much of his work “Blue Notes and Other Clashes,” which is often animated by a gently driving syncopated rhythm. But he also explores the vast range of timbral blending afforded by the acclaimed So Percussion group, also a quartet.

We get entrancing duets between steel drum and soprano sax, or the sensual texture of the marimba interacting with blended reeds. The work consists of eight relatively short sections, between to two and five minutes, in the manner of a Baroque suite. It then concludes with a more extended piece called “Prismatic Fantasy.” This finale forms a reflective, accessible soundscape from a composer not known for being soft and cuddly.    

The second collaboration on this CD is with one of the most remarkable collections of instruments in all of music. Harry Partch was one of several West Coast U.S. experimental composers of the 20th century whose music was highly influenced by Asian culture. Partch shared his contemporaries’ frustration with traditional instrumentation (his friend Lou Harrison scoured junkyards for repurposed percussion instruments), leading him to create his own fantastical instruments. He used these creations to explore microtones (think of them as the pitches occurring between adjacent keys on a piano).

One of Harry Partch's cloud-chamber bowls played during a 2016 PRISM Quartet concert. (Photo by Scott Friedlander.)
One of Harry Partch's cloud-chamber bowls played during a 2016 PRISM Quartet concert. (Photo by Scott Friedlander.)

The eponymous “Partch” employs several of Partch’s best-known creations, including the keyboard chromelodeon, the plucked kithara, adapted marimbas and viola, and the beautiful cloud-chamber bowls, consisting of suspended, tuned glass bells.

Playing with Partch

Two composers created new work for the PRISM/Partch combo. Both Ken Ueno and Stratis Minakakis respond to this stunning palette of sound and exotic harmonies with musical drama, or perhaps more accurate, theatricality.

Ueno’s “Future Lilacs” begins aggressively with a chorus of noise led by a distorted electric guitar. The drama gradually unknots and relaxes, concluding with washes of color that take full advantage of the Partch instruments.

Minikakis also opens his work in a dramatic fashion, but at the opposite dynamic range from Ueno. The massive chord that introduces “Skiagrafies” is so quiet it is at first barely audible (an incredible feat on the part of the performers) and, as it wells, it introduces otherworldly images; a dialogue of Martians, perhaps. Yes, this music is quite abstract, but listeners with an open sense of imagination will find it intriguing, even magical.

None of these evocations would be possible without the stellar playing of all three ensembles. Their virtuosity is stunning, but never showy. These intense artists are dedicated to getting out of the way of the music and just allowing the composers to express their vision. This audacious outing is a milestone in the career of PRISM, not to mention saxophone quartet music in general.

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