The sound of the saxophone
Saxophones blend well with other instruments, but above all they blend well with each other. Just a dozen years after the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax patented the instrument in 1846, his compatriot Jean-Baptiste Singelee composed the first saxophone quartet. After the turn of the century, saxophone ensembles, including classical quartets, were not uncommon, but in popular music and jazz it was just one of the instruments in the band. Towards the end of the century improvising musicians reacted against standard orchestra arrangements, seeking new sounds and instrumental blends. In 1977, in New York, Anthony Braxton recorded a pioneering saxophone quartet album that blended composition and improvisation in the "new jazz" idiom. The same year four young musicians in San Francisco founded the Rova saxophone quartet.
In the course of a third of a century, the core of Rova's musical identity has remained intact, even as its concept and scope have expanded in many directions. This is partly due to the fact that it has had only one change in personnel, but also to the remarkable synergy of its members. Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Bruce Ackley, and Steve Adams are all virtuoso performers as well as active composers who share interests in many different types of music and in the arts in general. Each of them plays multiple saxophones and has complete control of the seemingly limitless tonal palette that these instruments can provide.
Although they all pursue other projects, the quartet has stayed intact because it is more than just a musical ensemble; Rova is an aesthetic vision. Fully anchored in jazz-derived modernity, the group has sought to explore a broad variety of musical territories, from medieval to modern European music, to rock, noise, chance composition, and beyond. It has recorded the new jazz-related music of Braxton and John Zorn, but also the compositions of contemporary classical composer Terry Riley. While continuing to develop new pieces written by its members for the ensemble, it has continually sought to
collaborate with other musicians, visual artists, dancers, and digital manipulators. Last year, in tandem with twelve other saxophonists, they created the Sax Cloud, consisting of four saxophone quartets, arranged around a room so that each listener could hear a different blend, playing compositions by Steve Adams and Jon Raskin.
Rova expanded its sonic explorations this summer with the assistance of two innovative turntablists, DJ Olive and DJ P-Love, who manipulated the sounds of the group as they performed. In conjunction with this event, they posted one of their pieces online and announced a competition, inviting all members of the musical community to electronically remix and rework it. While so many other musicians fear many contemporary developments, Rova, in its fourth decade, has embraced them and seeks innovative ways of exploring the potential of new technologies and forms of interaction. After all these years, Rova continues to be an artistic ensemble for our times: it will appear at Kerrytown Concert House at 10 p.m. on October 22, as the finale of the four-day Edgefest festival.
[Originally published in October, 2011.]