Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Saxophones, soundscapes and slap tongue, oh my! Shockingly Modern Saxophone Festival celebrates experimental music

Giang Do
Kyle Hutchins, assistant professor of practice and saxophone at Virginia Tech, teaches junior Nicole Grafon some Saxophone contemporary techniques during his Masterclass on Feb 24.

As this year’s Shockingly Modern Saxophone Festival began, sweeping changes in sound from moody to hopeful and outbursts of musical energy turned Larson Hall into an entirely new space. Saxophones and soundboards filled the room not with smooth jazz improvisation but with an exciting interplay between electronic and analog sounds and the strange percussive beauty of unorthodox techniques.

The free and open festival, which began at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 24 and ended with a performance at 7:30 p.m., showcased the hard work of students, faculty and the guest musician and educator Kyle Hutchins. Hutchins performed music composed by himself and others and contributed his expertise through three student masterclasses. Hutchins said that his approach to these time-limited sessions is similar to that of any other teaching opportunity.

“My general goal as an educator is to meet the student where they’re at and take them as far as I can in the time we have, whether that’s 30 minutes, a semester or a degree,” Hutchins said. “If it’s a 20 minute masterclass, I pick one thing that we can focus on; one idea that they may be able to take away.”

This approach was on full display during the festival’s masterclass sessions. Hutchins described the physical properties of the instrument, speaking to both audience and performer through easily understood analogies. Changing the speed of air flowing over the reed was like depressing the gas pedal on a car. Restricting the airflow was akin to placing a thumb over the end of a garden hose. There were moments of nervousness, which Hutchins was not shy to describe as normal, but also moments of magic, during which students produced new and controlled sounds.

In line with the “shockingly modern” theme, those sounds were not restricted by tradition. Instead, the experimental music utilized extended techniques, in which players use the physical body of the instrument to produce clicks, slaps, rushing air and multiple notes at the same time. Randall Hall, professor of saxophone at Augustana and founder and director of the festival, said that these techniques allow players to expand their musical range.

“We can play multiphonics, which is the simultaneous production of two or more pitches,” Hall said. “Slap tongue has the effect of making percussive sounds instead of lyrical sounds. [We can make] all kinds of growls and flutter tones and key clicks. Basically, the saxophone can make a whole lot of interesting sound effects.” 

Since its inception in 2018, the annual event has seen guest artists from around the world, with public interest extending past the college and into the Quad Cities area. Hall said that showcasing diverse talent brings attention to the wide world of norm-breaking music the event was founded to support.

“We’ve been very fortunate to bring some really outstanding performers. Hutchins is coming from Virginia Tech. We’ve had a performer from New York City. We’ve had a performer from Mexico City. We’ve been able to attract really first-rate players from around the world, which is exciting,” Hall said.

The wide-reaching appeal of experimental music is evident from Hutchins’ history of performance, which has taken him around the United States and even across the ocean to Spain and Portugal. Hall said that promoting diverse experimental music supports the Augustana tradition of criticality.

“All you have to do is walk in [to Larson Hall] and you can explore the music. I think this is completely in keeping with our liberal arts mission, because an essential element is the questioning of assumptions,” Hall said. “We have certain expectations based on our culture, but what are other possibilities? When you hear something that really is outside of your frame of reference, it starts the process of reflecting on, ‘why did we do it that way in the first place?’”

Beyond extended techniques, the festival also incorporated elements of electronic music and visual effects. 

Seniors John Flannery and Colin Stapleton performed a self-composed piece titled “Echo Chamber,”  by joining their respective talents of electronic audio manipulation and live performance. Together, they accomplished an ethereal droning ambience, the room ringing as if made of liquid metal. For the performers, the piece was an exercise in live musical communication. For the audience, an exercise in imagination and anticipation, waiting for each musical idea to expand. In the tradition of much experimental music, the composition was nearly entirely improvised.

“[Colin] has some set ideas of what he’s going to play, and I have some set ideas of how the piece will run electronically,” Flannery said. “However, we are both going into it freely improvising. About 25 or 30% of it is prepared, but what comes out of it is a unique piece. Every recording that we’ve done, it’s changed every single time.”

Flannery and Stapleton didn’t record and rehearse alone, though. Both students had the opportunity of a rehearsal with Hutchins before the festival began. Flannery said that Hutchins’ participation was more than just a sit-in.

“He joined my free improvisation rehearsal, so we had two saxophones instead of one,” Flannery said.“He also acted as a teacher in some regard because he was talking about ideas or thoughts he was having and actually contributing to things. These guest artists are not just here for another concert, but they’re here as active participants in Augustana music ensembles.”

The exploratory process of improvisation, especially guided by experts like Hutchins, is reminiscent of our most innate musical impulses. Hall said that practicing to play in this way can be more like un-learning the habits of more traditional performance.

“If you think about how little kids interact with music, they get the pots out and they bang on them; they find something to pluck, tap and scrape, experimenting with sound,” Hall said. “They come up with really interesting things until music teachers get a hold of them and tell them not to do it like that. What we’re doing is going back to that innate human curiosity.”

By actively engaging students and the audience in the process of music creation, Hutchins invites everybody to once again participate in experimental music. Whether performing, teaching or actively listening, Hutchins said that musicians all share mutual goals.

“At the end of the day, it’s music, right?” Hutchins said. “The style may change and the techniques may be different, but I think at the end of the day, we still have very similar goals to be artistically expressive and communicate something even if it’s different.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Augustana Observer Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *