In many senses Double is a concerto for saxophone and piano in a chamber music setting. The soloists certainly lie at the centre of the structure and the music follows their lead, so to speak. But I find the traditional concerto format a very tired one, compositionally speaking. So I took the ‘glorified’ role of soloist and looked at it from a different perspective: self-glorification and arrogance. (Incidentally, this isn’t my view of soloists!) I enjoyed the idea of retaining the glory-based focus of the traditional concerto and replacing the ‘hero’ with something disingenuous, self-interested and hypocritical.
The stage is set with the soloists in the middle. Directly in front of them sit the ensemble reed instruments, who share their reedy quality with the solo saxophone. The rest of the ensemble comprises two flutes and two trombones, which share no such similarity with the soloists. In fact, they’re marked by their collective difference: all are held horizontally when played. The basic premise of the piece is to give the soloists the ‘power’ to organise and influence musical material throughout the ensemble. In an ideal world each ensemble member would express their individuality without disrupting the coherence of the collective whole. In an ideal world those with power would make every effort to include the marginalised. In an ideal world the powerful would respond actively and positively to petitions from less powerful individuals who rely on them to exercise their power with due care. In an ideal world…
Over the course of seven movements there’s a rigorously democratic distribution of labour. We hear every combination of soloist and ensemble only once: solo sax; solo sax + ensemble; solo piano + ensemble; solo piano; ensemble alone; everybody together; solo sax + solo piano. What happens within those movement and across the whole piece, however, is less well balanced.
The only points of rest in the first half of Double are during the solo movements. The ensemble only gets to speak over the course of a minute or so between two lengthy solo statements. Here lots of voices speak at once – the texture’s knotty, untidy and fraught. When we reach the solo piano movement there are frenzied attempts to pull everything together, organise it and spin it back out as something more manageable (interspersed with false impressions of calm repose). The piano’s ideal for this job: it’s the only instrument onstage able to play lots of intricate parts simultaneously. Mind you, it’s also the true odd-one-out (despite its ‘power’) – it shares no characteristics with any other instrument, unlike the solo saxophone. Having no sonic or technical relationship with the other instruments, the piano clutches at musical materials ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere, lifted out of context and cynically contorted. Once it’s finished ‘organising’ it slips gently into silence.
As the piano solo dies out and the second half begins the ensemble has chance to speak on its own. Everyone gets heard and everyone speaks with individuality. But there’s soon a battle for attention. The ensemble begins to split into factions: those at the outside (flutes and trombones) and those on the inside (the reeds). One of the trombones moves over to the soloists and makes a protest. What follows is a rigorous chorale in which every instrument is assigned a single repeating pattern equal in scope and quality to all others. Is this a relief? Is it progress? Is it banal? The outcast flutes and trombones break from the scheme as one entity. The pianist stands up and silences everything, leaving only the soloists to pick over the remains. At the end of the piece nothing new has been achieved, no tensions are resolved. The whole cycle could very easily start again.
Read into this what you will.
IV – “…a good memory…” (homage to Michael Finnissy)
VI – Chorale
Movement IV – “…a good memory…” – can be played as a separate piece
April 2007: Jenny Hird (saxophone), Benedict McGowan (piano), Adam Fergler (conductor), LS Two, University of Leeds Contemporary Music Showcase
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