RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

How to compose an instrument

img  Tobias Fischer

Jacques Oger's formidable Potlatch-imprint has a longstanding tradition with solo saxophone recordings. From Michel Doneda's raw and visceral Anatomie des clefs via Stéphane Rives' psychological security shake-up Fibres and up to Bertrand Denzler's methodical re-conceptualisation on the drily titled Tenor, the label has presented a fascinating spectrum of approaches and artists, each of which has pushed the borders of the sax just a little more towards the improbable and fantastical. And yet, in terms of radicalness, none of their achievements even comes close to the quantum leap of Sergio Merce's Microtonal Saxophone. The name simultaneously denotes an album and an instrument. The latter looks as though it had been excavated from an abandoned, fog-covered alien planet. The former sounds as though Merce had pulled it out of the soil himself and recorded these four pieces, clocking in between six and fourteen minutes, right there on the spot in his space suit. The term 'music' can only serve as an approximation here, two layers of sound first attracting each other like magnets and aligning their wavelengths, then, seemingly out of the blue, causing ever so delicate ripples on the surface of an atmospheric ocean and shifting the improvisation towards new and unexpected shores. There's a pleasant sense of not quite understanding what is happening here, of drifting, a notion of being led into a quiet space by ghostly hands. Which is just the way Merce wanted it to be. The construction of the microtonal saxophone, as he reveals in this interview, may have been a case of careful planning and intent. Playing it, however, was not.

When listening back to Casa, which you recorded 2008 with Lucio Capece for the Organised Music from Thessaloniki label, it would seem there are some similarities in terms of approach and sound with the microtonal saxophone. What was your path towards the new album like?
I hadn't thought of the similarities with Casa, but it's true, the sound of the microtonal saxophone is similar to the second track on the album, "Vieja Casa Nueva", probably because of the multiphonics drone. It's just a coincidence, though. I started playing in a kind of school band when I was 14, then studied classical saxophone at the consevatory. At the same time, I also studied jazz with private teachers. Still, my main 'school', if you want to call it that, was a band called Avion Negro, which I played in for more than ten years. It was a big field allowing me to test and try out many things ...
If I had to name influential saxophone players in the order I listened to them I'd say: John Coltrane, Jan Garbarek, Tim Berne, Evan Parker and John Butcher. I shouldn't forget Wayne Shorter either. And of course, there are a lot of music and musicians that influenced me besides saxophone players.

What were some of the triggers that led you to develop your own instrument?
I think that you have to go where the music leads you. You can play the
same instrument for your entire life and that's okay, of course. And yet, after many years of playing my tenor with extended techniques, there was a moment when I was playing multiphonics and I suddenly had the idea that if I could open and close each hole of the saxophone gradually, then I could play a different kind of multiphonics. From my perspective, to develop a new instrument and to search for new things in order to achieve a different sound, is very important. To sound different, to say something new or in a new way is essential to keep music alive.

What was the process of building the microtonal saxophone like?
It's important to note that I constructed the instrument not as a luthier, but as a composer. So, to me, the microtonal saxophone is a composition in its own right. I do like technology a lot, but in music, I only use it if I need it to realise something I want to do.
After I had the idea, the initial step was to find a suitable saxophone body. I decided to go with an alto, simply because that's what I found. It could just as well have been a tenor or soprano. First, I tested welding a few keys myself, buying parts in a hardware store. The only problem was to find the pieces that fit into each hole. My friend Juan Manuel helped me find the keys I required for each of the different hole diameters. It would have been pretty difficult without his help. He is an architect and knows were to find these things. He also welded the whole thing together, using tin. Later, we had to include some adapters to make it comfortable to play.
The whole process of putting it together took around one month. Right now, there is only a single copy of the saxophone and there are many things which can still be improved. It would be really nice, for example, to work with keys designed especially for the instrument … the ones I used for this version are very heavy and take away some of the vibration, which is transmitted to the body of the sax.

How do you play the microtonal sax?
The taps (keys) work by gradually opening and closing the holes. The technique for playing the instrument is a bit different from performing on a traditional one. You could perhaps say that it's like playing a regular saxophone that doesn't quite work well, like a sax that is losing air. I have to be very careful not to play sounds that I don't like. The album is very droney, but it is technically possible to play shorter notes. It's just that it's difficult to make a transition from one note to another quickly.
On the album, I used a sustain pedal during the recordings. When I play live, I actually use two of them. This is how I can play different layers and the beatings that you hear in the record - essentially, I use the pedal to sustain a sound while I play another sound on top of it. I play a multiphonic and then I move the pitch slightly while I sustain the first layer. So there are no electronic sounds, but the performance process is electronic.
I did many tests to find the best way to capture the sound like I'm hearing it during the recording stages of Microtonal Saxophone. Another point to consider is that the sax sounds very soft, it has around 50 percent less volume than a regular alto. Finally, I decided to amplify it with a guitar amp and record the sound with two microphones. I just played, without thinking. To me, the record is like a river of sound, which you can swim in. That, at least, is what I'm feeling while I'm playing.

How often do you get the chance to perform gigs with it?
I play a few gigs a year, usually not more than five. I would like to play more, but it's difficult to find suitable places to play here in Buenos Aires. People are usually pretty surprised when they see it, and generally approach me after concerts to ask some questions and take pictures.

The closer we're involved with something, the stronger our relationship with it. In which way has the construction of your own instrument changed the process of making music for you?
It's very nice to construct something and then to see that it works the way you imagined it. Especially so, if you don't usually build things yourself. Musically, it's like building a new set. You have an idea, you search for the objects you need to make it a reality and then you learn how to play with that. That's how I did it when I began to play with a portastudio without cassettes thirteen years ago. And it's the same with the microtonal saxophone. Fundamentally, it hasn't changed the way I make music.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Potlatch Recordings