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A Conversation with Mark Engebretson


Mark Engebretson, composer and saxophonist, is on the faculty of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. April 2012 brought an international premiere of his new concerto for soprano saxophone and orchestra in São Paulo, Brazil, with soloist Susan Fancher.
We spoke in person in Durham, North Carolina on June 11, 2012.

©Mark Engebretson

©Mark Engebretson

Tom Moore: Please talk about your recent trip to Brazil – the genesis of the piece you premiered, your invitation to go down there….
Mark Engebretson: The piece is a concerto for soprano saxophone and orchestra, and it was written for Susan Fancher, soprano saxophonist. Ligia Amadio, among other things, conducts the Symphonic Orchestra of the University of São Paulo. It was some time ago now that we had the idea to write this piece for Susan, so I applied for a fellowship to the North Carolina Arts Council, which has a rotating, every-other-year fellowship for composition. I applied for that, and got the fellowship, which provided a really good start for the whole project. As part of that, Ligia committed to doing the premiere of the piece in São Paulo. It was in 2011 that I got notification, so it was a little over a year ago that I learned that the project would be funded. I worked on the piece for about a year, and finally finished it on February 15, 2011. The premiere was April 15, in the spectacular Sala São Paulo, which is an old train station that was converted to a concert hall in a beautiful and spectacular way.

TM: Some saxophonists have a preference for a particular size of saxophone. Would that be soprano for Susan?
ME: Yes, that’s right. Over the course of her career she has been one of the leading soprano saxophonists in the world. She has sat in the soprano saxophone chair for a number of the prominent saxophone quartets, including the Rollin’ Phones in Sweden, the Vienna Saxophone Quartet in Austria, the Amherst Saxophone Quartet in western New York, and now the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet in North Carolina. That’s been her chamber music experience. Over that time she has developed a very distinctive sound – it’s really unsurpassed in terms of its beauty and color. She also plays all of the saxophones, and more often than others the alto as well, but she has really been focusing on the soprano.

TM: If I think of the saxophone in terms of jazz, I think of the tenor saxophone as the real workhorse, and in terms of classical music for saxophone, I think of the French school. What, in addition to Susan, do you think of when you think of the soprano saxophone?
ME: Susan is a classical saxophonist with a high-level conservatory training, and my own experience is with classical music and new music, rather than as a jazz player. To back up a little, it’s interesting to think about the relationship of the saxophone with jazz, and how that might relate to the way at least some players think about the saxophone as a classical instrument. One way to think about it is to look at musical expression in terms of diction. If you think of it that way, you can immediately grasp that jazz, as it’s performed on most instruments, is influenced very strongly by saxophone diction. The way that the tenor saxophone produces sound, almost of its own volition, shapes the expressive idiom of the genre. We both studied in France with Jean-Marie Londeix. Londeix was a real proponent of developing “musique de saxophone” meaning “music of the saxophone”. You could think of jazz as being music “of” the saxophone in the sense that it emanates in some respects from the instrument itself. He wanted to see something like that happen in contemporary music expression.
That kind of thinking has strongly influenced my compositional stance vis-à-vis the saxophone, not that I want to use it as a jazz instrument per se, but I do want to create a musical diction that is natural to the instrument. I would extend that to any instrument that I am writing for – to try to understand its natural diction, and find a way to capture that authentically in a composition.

TM: What seems indigenous to the saxophone, in comparison to many other instruments, is the ability to modulate the sound in terms of what overtones you are getting, whether the sound is pure, or whether it has a certain “dirty” quality to it, the possibility to modulate the tone within a single note or phrase – in a way that I don’t think of the clarinet as functioning, for example. The clarinet always seems to have a very straight sound…
ME: …although there are many players who have played it with vibrato – Benny Goodman and Richard Stoltzman being two examples.

TM: But the sort of standard-issue sound is this laser-beam tone, which is not at all what I think of as being characteristic of the saxophone.
ME: Here’s the way I think of it: there is a diction which is proper to all of the different instruments. If you think of the string instruments, for example, they create a very clear diction just with the direction of the bow. You get an anacrusis with an up-bow and a downbeat, a thesis, with a down-bow. It’s very easy to imagine how Mozart’s way of thinking and musical expression is really shaped by the up-bow and down-bow, or Haydn’s or Beethoven’s. For the strings the attack is very clear and precise, and the flute, for example, is probably more like that than it is like the saxophone. To move along the continuum, the clarinet might be next – it still favors a very clear attack, and might be a more Apollonian type of instrument, but with more flexibility inherent in the instrument itself. To put it another, it’s really hard to play the saxophone with a clear attack and a steady tone, and the people who can do it are really good! (Laughter)
You can do multiphonics on the saxophone, and you can also do them on the clarinet, but on the saxophone they can be loud, raunchy – they are very expressive. You can play with all manner of attacks. You can play with a wide range of microtonal expression which usually goes along with some kind of timbral variation.

TM: To go back to the concerto, please describe the expressive resources you were drawing on. The last movement is “Burn”, for example. Were there models you were thinking of while writing?
ME: The concerto is in three movements, which are Groove, Grace and Burn. I was thinking about a lot of things that I wanted to get done in the piece. One is that I wanted to create a piece that was geared particularly for the expressive and technical talents of the original soloist, so this is a piece that is really for her. There are things that she was looking for in a concerto that I tried to address. Number one: she wanted a soprano saxophone concerto. There are a few soprano saxophone concertos out there, but so far there hasn’t been a soprano saxophone concerto that has been able to capture the imagination of a broad public, something with a lot of flashy, show-off appeal, with a beautiful sense of lyricism….We are in a post-modernist age where no one feels that they can write a concerto where it is soloist and orchestra going head-to-head, that we have been there and done that, and I suppose that’s true, but therefore no one will write a concerto that’s like that. The saxophone being an instrument that is just coming of age, and the soprano saxophone even more so, there have not been a lot of champions of that instrument, and there has not been that “marquee” kind of piece. She was looking for a piece that would allow her to be a concerto soloist, as if she were going to walk out and play Tchaikovsky. Not that I would dream of comparing myself to Tchaikovsky, but a piece with those qualities of excitement, virtuosity, lyricism, fun stuff for the orchestra…

TM: And that makes the audience stand up and cheer.
ME: We hope! Indeed….so that was one of the things that I was trying to achieve. I wanted to write a concerto that an American orchestra could perform. It is very hard to get any piece written in the last fifty years performed by an American orchestra, because they are under such enormous financial, cultural, administrative constraints. The piece had to be long enough – you can’t have a concerto that is five minutes – this is a twenty-minute concerto. I wanted to use a fairly large orchestra, so that the players who might be there for a symphonic concert would be employed. At the same time, I wanted to create a really good balance between the soloist and the orchestra. I wanted to have at least one movement that was extractable, and playable by a smaller orchestra, so therefore the middle movement is just for strings and two percussionists…

TM: …your Barber Adagio….
ME: Something like that. I wrote that movement at the piano, so the very first thing I did was compose a movement for saxophone and piano, and then orchestrated that. So there is even a saxophone and piano version that is performable as a chamber piece. That has already been played twice.

TM: What did you learn having listened to the premiere?
ME: I was fortunate that they did five rehearsals for the concert, and I was able to be there for the last four. In composing the piece, I tried, for a whole year, to focus very single-mindedly on the piece, to seriously consider every decision that I had to make. I am obsessive enough by nature that I tried to really push it to the farthest extreme that I could. The payoff was that it was really worth it! There were no problems in the orchestra. Honestly, the piece sounded exactly like I thought it would. As one gains experience in writing for those larger forces, it is a learning process. There are other pieces that I have been happy with, and others that I was not so happy with, but I have no regrets about anything that I did with this piece.

TM: Here you have a piece that is for a fairly loud woodwind instrument, and a body of strings, and the wind band within the orchestra. How do you see the combination of those forces? How do you combine those radically different kinds of voices?
ME: The second movement is for just the strings, because I wanted a chance for the strings to just be the strings, and to play something lush and beautiful and gorgeous that they would really enjoy. The first movement was conceived very differently, with more of that wind sound in mind. It’s kind of a massive sonority that drives that movement. In the third movement, I did a couple of things. There is pizzicato in the strings, which creates rhythmic propulsion and opens a lot of space for other sounds and colors to come forward. I wanted to be sure in the third movement that I would have a proper balance. I also wanted to write some licks for the strings that they would probably have to practice, and they really tore them up, with no complaints. There’s a colorized string answer to the soloist’s melody as well. I wanted the strings to have a chance to open up and really play. That’s in the third movement.

TM: From the outside we look at Brazil as a radically exotic musical culture, while it is still part of the Western tradition. Did you have a sense of what your Brazilian performers felt while looking in the opposite direction? Was your music intensely American for them?  What was it like having your American music from North Carolina played by a Brazilian ensemble?
ME: The musicians in the orchestra were extremely positive and almost giddy about the piece. At every break people would be thanking me – “I just love your music” – that kind of thing – and after the performance the reception that I got from the players was humbling, actually. In thinking about whether the piece was American – Ligia Amadio paired this piece with Bernstein’s West Side Story, Estancias, by Ginastera, and a couple of Brazilian pieces.

©Mark Engebretson

©Mark Engebretson

TM: Those two pieces are immediately accessible pieces that really go after the audience with rhythm and energy.
ME: They are spectacular. For Americanism, I certainly can’t compete with Bernstein, and wasn’t trying to do that. The first movement has a number of different sections, but it has a section that has a hip-hop groove played by a drum-set, and another section that is a rock ballad. So there is an Americana aspect to the first movement.
The second movement is conceived as a jazz ballad form, but you only go through the form once, and I have taken chords that probably should go one after the other, and piled them on top of each other. It’s a lyrical thing that some people have called impressionist, especially in the piano version. One person called me an unforgivable romantic, which he meant in a complimentary way – take it as you will. It’s all written out, but I meant it as a ballad.
The third movement has less of that. If people know my music, it’s an Engebretson piece.

TM: Like the Energy Drinks.
ME: There’s the Energy Drinks, the Duo Concertante, Sharpie…which are not connected to any exterior source music.
To go into more detail about the first movement, in addition to the grooves that I mentioned, I was thinking about how music presents itself in electronic music. The melody is based on listening to a lot of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, and thinking about the effervescent energy and simplicity of the musical materials. That music will often have electronic elements. The rock ballad groove has a backbeat where the emphasis is on 3, and that is something that has always fascinated me.
The opening gesture is an ostinato riff, and what I wanted to do was see if I could orchestrate the sound of a square wave, one of the fundamental wave forms that was frequently used in electronic synthesis. I did that by putting heavier, overtone-rich sounds at the bottom, and orchestrating upwards from there.
The other thing is that in a lot of pop music you will hear people using loopers, where you can play a short phrase, loop that phrase, play another short phrase, and loop it on top of that. There is a cadenza in that movement where that is basically the process that happens – the soloist sets up short fragments that are looped by the orchestra. Then she blows a written-out solo over the top of that.

TM: Tell me about the projects you have on the stove right now.
ME: There are a couple of things. I was in Chicago, and as it happens am making a piece for a group that may or may not call itself Sinister Resonance. They are based in Madison – Mark Hetzler is a trombonist on the faculty at UW Madison, and he is the leader of a gang of four – trombone, piano, bass, and percussion. They commissioned me, through the University of Wisconsin, to write a piece for a current recording project, which they will also tour in the fall. I met all four of them, and started collecting material to use in the piece. This infusing the dedicatees’ musicality into the piece is fundamental to the way that I think about music. So to make this piece – there is a writer in Greensboro, a friend of mine, Brian Lampkin, and we has already worked together this spring, and following that he sent me another poem, called “I, They, and Abu Ghraib”. It’s a dark program – fragments of statements made by prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The poem reads (paraphrasing): “I went – they gave – I remember – I do not remember – they raped – I spat – I vomited”. I thought “this is a resonance from that experience”, and the group in Madison is calling itself Sinister Resonance, which is after a piano piece by Henry Cowell. I got the music for Sinister Resonance, and brought that and the poem up to Madison. I had all four of the players read this poem, and recorded them reading it, which will serve as material for the piece. I had all of them trying, on their instruments, to simulate the sounds from the Cowell piece. So I have a resonance from Sinister Resonance, I have a resonance in this poem from Abu Ghraib – the piece will be for the quartet and live electronics.

TM: Do you feel that there is a level of personal danger for you in dealing with this politically charged material?
ME: Do you think it is politically charged any more?

TM: I do.
ME: I think it is horrific, and I haven’t found anyone to say otherwise. I don’t know that it is actually even controversial – it shouldn’t have happened; those prisoners should not have been abused.

TM: To put it another way, the number of pieces at this point in time that have any political resonance seems to be tiny in comparison to forty or fifty years ago.
ME: That’s true. My work is not typically political. In the eighties, it seemed like you had to adopt some political or social cause to get funding, but I felt like that was not my calling.
Let me put it this way: as artists we are forced to ask ourselves what the basis is, what the rationale is, for any artistic decision that we make. How do we create art that is meaningful? One of the ways that I have found to bring meaning to my work is to draw inspiration from the people who around me, and allow friends, family, colleagues to have an input into the creative process. I feel driven more by that then the whole debacle in Iraq. The poem does have a lot of commentary and criticism inherent in it, but for me, my friend, a writer gave me this poem, and it is a very good poem. I see that it has this resonance, and the group that I want to write for calls itself Sinister Resonance…these influences around me is what drives me, rather than a political agenda. It will be a piece that has a political message, that’s unavoidable, but that’s not what is driving it.

TM: Please talk about the other current project.
ME: I am writing another concerto, also for saxophone, this time for saxophone quartet and wind ensemble.

TM: Which quartet?
ME: The Oasis Quartet.

TM: Where are they based?
ME: The four members are at Drake, Cincinnati Conservatory, Simpson College, and Stephen F. Austin. This piece was supposed to have been written a year ago, and it didn’t happen, but I wrote them a small piece for saxophone quartet with percussion. As I finished that piece I realized it could be expanded to be a bigger piece. That piece is called “Compression”, so this will be a “Decompression”. It’s about eight minutes, but should be about twenty minutes, in four movements, maybe five. And I should mention that I am working with one of my undergraduate students to make an arrangement of the soprano saxophone concerto for saxophone and wind ensemble.
(N.B. After the interview, I changed the concept, so that the piece will be for saxophone quartet with electronic playback, with the option of replacing the playback, or parts thereof, with live rhythm section).

TM: When is the premiere?
ME: I have a research leave this fall, so I intend to finish it by January 1.

TM: With all this writing are you still playing?
ME: I am playing a little bit – I have a rehearsal this Thursday with the Red Clay, and we have some concerts lined up for this year.

TM: Would you like to say something about what it means to your work to be both a player and composer?
ME: I started out as a player, with studies in performance, and a short career in Europe with the Vienna Saxophone Quartet. When I started in composition, it was difficult to do both things at the same time. Now that I have had a long career as a composer, which is my primary activity, I can do both at the same time, since I practice enough to do my concerts, but my primary focus is composing. My interest in my own ability to play challenging and virtuosic music inspires me as a composer, since I want to write music that people are going to have to practice, because I am excited by the amazing things people can do when they put their minds to it.

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