Tips for Writing for a Saxophone Quartet

with Jeff Driskill and Steve Slagle

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov

Interview conducted by Michael Skinner

I have had the privilege of getting to know saxophonists Steve Slagle and Jeff Driskill. Both are incredibly talented performers and composers and both have composed saxophone quartets and then recorded all the parts. It got me thinking about how they go about that. Here’s what they said.

Michael Skinner: When you write a sax quartet you know you will perform by yourself, do you think any differently than when you're writing for a group?

Jeff Driskill: Not really. I tend to be a little bit lazy about articulations and dynamics when I'm writing them, but I always end up coming back and fixing those later so it isn't a very good strategy! I try to write them so that they will be fun to play, so that each part is important but not so physically taxing that it is a chore to perform.

Steve Slagle: That’s an easy one to answer because I’ve never pre-conceived writing any sax quartet to perform by myself. I have recorded all the parts but I never designed them to be recorded that way, and most of the time I’ve had four players work them out (often me being one of them!)

MS: In either case, you playing all the parts or the conventional way, how do you develop your idea? Is it melody first, harmony first, song form?

SS: The reason I first started writing and arranging for sax quartet – really my very first orchestrations – was as I came up playing all of the different saxes and listening to so many influential players and recordings, it was natural to HEAR the parts in my head before I even started a piece. Even with alto being my main voice, I seem to be able to hear all of the saxes in my mind before going to paper and now to computer Sibelius 6 software.

Now I might not hear the whole arrangement of a given composition in my imagination, but a clear beginning and all the parts from baritone to soprano sax in my head first really makes a difference. I think the best symphonic composers for sure heard the strings and woodwinds and brass they were writing for before it was put on paper, and certainly before it was ever played. It’s like in the string quartet writing of Beethoven.  He heard his later quartets in his head while he was bedridden, and then wrote them without the help of a piano.

The biggest difference I see in my writing is that I allow for the element of improvisation to happen somewhere in the song and the arrangement. So whether it is a collective improvisation or a solo (or any combination from 1 to 4) the part with improvisation makes for big differences in the arrangement from performance to performance. It also requires coming up with good background parts to a solo or an arrangement idea that incorporates improvising at certain places in the piece.

Collective improvisation with four saxes can be just as astounding as any contrapuntal writing—it’s all a matter of how musically it’s done. Each piece takes on its own shape as a quartet, but certain ideas definitely work out better than others. Some things musically lend themselves more easily to 4 part sax writing. I learned this by trial and error…..with a lot of good errors!

JD: Some of all of those. Some are based on standards, so obviously the harmony came first there. I tend to improvise on the tune until I start to have a few melodic fragments that I like and go from there. Often the tunes come out of an idea for a rhythmic vamp that comes into my head, and then I start fleshing it out. The ballad Dear Moon was definitely a harmony first tune. I haven't given a lot of thought to how I come up with the tunes, but it does help me to actually write them if I have a goal or a deadline. I had set a goal to finish eight quartets and then another goal after writing three to get the rest done before a set date. If I don't do that other things tend to keep me from working on them....I probably need to set some new goals and deadlines!

"Collective improvisation with four saxes can be just as astounding as any contrapuntal writing—it’s all a matter of how musically it’s done." Steve Slagle

MS: When you record your quartets do you start with the Bari part first and work up?

JD: Yes, after trying some other approaches Bari first seems to work best for me. The Bari part usually takes me as long to put down as the other parts combined. It's the hardest part to play because it tends to jump from a bass note up to something to fill out a harmony. It also really helps pitch-wise, it's always best to tune from the bottom up.

SS: Yes, the interesting way I found that works best when recording all the parts is to start with the baritone part as the first track followed by the top or soprano voice. After those two are recorded I play back both while recording either the alto or tenor parts next. Improvised solo parts, of course, are the last to be recorded and often are the most fun after the somewhat tedious multi-tracking.

It is definitely preferable to have four players and record all of the parts as a group.  It makes for the best musical interpretation on a piece but it is a challenge to record it as a ‘one man band.’ You learn a lot by doing it by yourself.  Also, of course, doing it by yourself reflects just one personality in 4-parts which is unusual for the listener.

"It is definitely preferable to have four players and record all of the parts as a group. It makes for the best musical interpretation..." - Jeff Driskill 

MS: Do you use any other aid other than click track during recording?

JD: I do use a midi file that I extract from Finale® when I'm putting the first part on, mostly as a pitch reference and to make it a little easier to know where I am in the tune. I typically have the tuner on, but I definitely don't stare at it the whole time or anything.

SS: No---just good reeds! (Thanks Vandoren) Two things I have learned, however, by doing this is that time is played as a group and that a click track is never needed when you have four good players. By recording all parts yourself there is no group sense of time so you really have to rely on a click track. Secondly, intonation is similar in that a good group automatically adjusts, usually to the lead voice, for intonation. Recording all parts by yourself means your intonation has to be a real focus because there is no automatic adjustment made by a part that is already recorded. You just have to listen and go with the tracks you are playing and concentrate to make sure the intonation is good! 

For me, I found that it helps to have similar set-ups on my four saxophones and for me playing Vandoren reeds on all of them (Blue Box) keeps the feel of the four different saxes similar. It helps me, of course, to be working with a good engineer---the only other human element in this kind of multitrack recording.

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