Urban Bird

for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra

Victoria Bond

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Publisher: Theodore Presser Company
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

What are a musician?s worst nightmares? Certainly one of them is like the fear of drowning ? in short, of being engulfed by noise that swallows up sound like a black hole. We have all experienced this, and it is frightening. We spend our lives perfecting nuance and subtlety of shading, working to achieve the breathtaking pianissimo, the pregnant pause, the diminuendo trailing off to silence, and along comes noise that wipes it all away. Concert halls with imperfect acoustics can do this, simply making sounds evaporate. And city noise can do this, to an ever-increasing degree.

One scene, which urbanites frequently experience, expresses the essence of musical death by drowning. A street musician is playing on a subway platform. Her music transforms the dingy cavern into a magic place. People congregate around her and for a moment the tedium of the day vanishes and poetry is integrated into each life. Then, from the distance, comes the faint rumble of a train, gradually becoming more insistent, and the rhythm of its wheels begins to overtake the notes of the musician. Soon, the subway station is engulfed in the screeching, ripping, pounding rhythm of the train as it roars to a stop. The metallic sound explodes, consuming each note of the music as it disintegrates in space. The travelers rush into the train, which tears away into the dark tunnel. When quiet returns, the musician?s notes forlornly drift down around her.

I have often stood through several repetitions of this scene, to experience its full impact. To me it seems a metaphor. It is the ideal scenario for a concerto ? soloist vs. train ? and I have written a piece about it called "Urban Bird". The soloist is an alto saxophone, the quintessential instrument of urban street musicians. The soloist begins with a melody full of optimism and innocence. Interrupting the solo, the ?train,? represented by the orchestra, plays a fugal setting of Charlie Parker?s ?Au Privave.? The rhythm is jagged, asymmetrical, syncopated, full of energy and tension. The tempo of the orchestra is different from that of the soloist, though both are playing simultaneously. The soloist is a dreamer, floating on her ever-unfolding river of sound; the train is in a hurry. These two opposites collide over and over again, as trains continually arrive and depart. In my scenario, the anxiety and aggressiveness of the trains gradually begin to penetrate the soloist?s music, drawing it into the ever-greater complexity and chromaticism, transforming its rhythms into smooth and flowing to frantic. Each new train is experienced as a body-blow to the soloist. She imagines voices mocking her and ridiculing her music. The train becomes an adversary, a predatory animal stocking her. She goes mad, and her mad scene is the cadenza. It wails and shrieks like a wounded animal, full of frustration and wrath. The saxophone, the chosen instrument of jazz, is particularly adept at these sounds ? howls and screeches not normally acceptable in classical music.

Finally, the soloist, her pent-up anger exhausted, winds down and stops. Out of the silence, the voice of the blues begins. The blues are a comfort to those who have lost all hope. The theme of the blues, sung by the train in its new role as comforter, is ?Blue Trane,? a haunting melody by John Coltrane. Its simplicity and honesty revive the soloist, who joins her voice to the others who have wailed their woe before her. Gradually she gains strength from this shared experience and the music changes color from ?blue? to ever-lighter shades. The themes from the opening return, transformed into triumphant reflections of the past, and the solo and the train move towards the light. The coda rises metamorphosed into an affirmation of the opening material.

Playing on a subway platform may be a far cry from playing in a concert hall, but the two are not without similarities. What appears to be an hospitable environment for music, with its opulent surroundings, can in reality prove to be a tomb for sound, swallowing musical notes and driving musicians to despair ? the old nightmare returning. Something of this dilemma is, I hope, expressed in "Urban Bird". JoAnn Falletta and the Women?s Philharmonic commissioned this work, for which I am grateful.

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Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by The Women?s Philharmonic.
Composition Date 1993
Duration 00:21:54
Orchestration Solo A.Sax.; 3 3 3 2 - 2 2 1 0; Timp. 2Perc. Str.
Premiere April, 1993. Cynthia Sikes, Alto Saxophone, The Women?s Philharmonic, conducted by Victoria Bond.

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