Martin Bresnick’s Every Thing Must Go for saxophone quartet
by Susan Fancher

published in the July/August 2009 issue of the Saxophone Journal

The expansion in both quantity and quality of music for saxophone quartet shows no sign of slowing. Martin Bresnick’s Every Thing Must Go, a three-movement work composed in 2007, is a very exciting new addition to the repertoire. It is published by Carl Fischer Music and is available through music stores everywhere. Thanks and congratulations go to the Prism Saxophone Quartet and the New York State Music Fund for their work to commission and premiere this important addition to the repertoire.

One of America’s most celebrated living composers, Martin Bresnick was born in New York City in 1946 and was educated at New York City’s High School of Music and Art, the University of Hartford, Stanford University and the Akademie für Musik in Vienna. His principal teachers of composition include György Ligeti, John Chowning and Gottfried von Einem, all significant figures. He is Professor of Composition and Coordinator of the Composition Department at the Yale School of Music, and has held visiting professorships at many colleges including Duke University, London’s Royal Academy of Music, Eastman and Harvard, just to name a few. He has composed for a wide range of instrumentation, from chamber music to symphonic compositions to computer music. His music has been widely performed internationally by the Chicago Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Münster Philharmonic, Orchestra of the Radio Televisione Italiana, City of London Chamber Orchestra, Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de Sao Paulo, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonika, Izumi Sinfonietta Osaka, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Da Capo Chamber Players, Speculum Musicae, Bang on A Can All Stars and many others. Bresnick’s long list of prestigious prizes includes a Fulbright Fellowship, three NEA Composer Grants, the Rome Prize Fellowship, the Charles Ives Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The three movements of Every Thing Must Go are titled I. Andante, II. G. L. in memoriam and III. Pensoso, con sobrio espressione. The first movement begins quietly and builds to a full, chant-like section of flowing eighth notes. The second movement uses the pure tuning of the natural overtone series and is the longest of the three movements. This glorious movement is in fast 12/8 meter, with full soaring lines in all the saxophones giving way to a joyous dance-like section. The piece ends with an exquisitely beautiful and poignant slow movement in 6/4 meter. This work is playable by professional and college-level groups and has my highest recommendation; it is one of the finest pieces in the quartet repertoire.

Martin Bresnick generously took time to speak with me about this work. He told me he has always loved the saxophone and had been interested in writing a saxophone quartet for many years. He shared that he always regretted not making the move from his instrument, the oboe, to the soprano saxophone and then to tenor and from there to the alto and baritone saxophones. Over the years, he’s heard many saxophone quartets perform, and in his opinion, the saxophone quartet is the only thing that gives the string quartet a run for its money! He observed that the slight difference in tonal quality between the four saxophones, the similarity, but also the contrast, allows for great contrapuntal lines as well as rich ensemble sound. He also noted that the saxophone quartet possesses a very impressive dynamic range from extremely soft “hum tones” to very full sounds. Since saxophone players grow up playing both pop and concert music, from the extensive use of the saxophone in both wind ensembles as well as jazz ensembles, Bresnick finds that the saxophone field produces “musicians of extraordinarily high tradition.” There’s nothing like it, he insists.

I asked Bresnick about the inspiration for this composition. He shared that the title is a wink at the last album by Steely Dan “Everything Must Go,” which he thinks may be a farewell, a kind of a requiem. Bresnick wanted to write a piece that was a kind of farewell. The second movement is dedicated to the memory of his teacher György Ligeti (1923-2006), one way for him to acknowledge his debt to this great musician and teacher. He didn’t wish to go into more depth about the other two movements.

Sometimes composers work extensively with performers during the compositional process, but since Bresnick is a wind player and is very familiar with the saxophone and the saxophone quartet, this was not necessary. Bresnick had a few phone conversations with the Prism Quartet while he was composing the piece, but did not hear them play it until the day before the concert. He is very pleased with Prism’s work and speaks with great admiration of the fine musicianship and high standards of the ensemble.

Bresnick wrote this poem as a program note for the work:

Every Thing Must Go,
And does—
As in these three movements,
Now going, now gone. (—M.B.)

He likes to let the listeners find their own imaginative responses to the music, so prefers not to provide more program notes than this poem.

As mentioned earlier, the second movement of the work uses just intonation. The score includes this note to the performers concerning the tuning system used in this movement: “This movement is written with scales that approximate the intervals found in just intonation. Special chromatic signs are used almost exclusively for the seventh and eleventh partials of the fundamental. In just intonation the seventh partial sounds approximately thirty-one cents lower than the conventional equal temperament pitch, and the eleventh partial sounds approximately forty-nine cents (nearly a true quarter tone) lower than the conventional equal-temperament pitch.”

In our conversation, when I remarked that Ben Johnston uses just intonation and often instructs players to “just” play in tune, Bresnick replied, “This is right,” but he cautioned that “we are very used to the mis-tunings of equal tempered system, so we can’t rely simply on our sense of what is normally in tune.” Bresnick wants the tuning to be as close to “beat free” as possible and notes the remarkably resonant and full sound that results when this is achieved. These pitches are produced on the saxophone using lip pressure and adjustments to fingerings.

I asked Mark Engebretson, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, to share his thoughts about the connection between Bresnick’s second movement and Ligeti. Ligeti’s interest in non-equal-tempered sonorities led him to experiment with overtone effects in a number of important pieces. Bresnick’s use of the overtone series in the second movement of Every Thing Must Go creates a sound-world free from equal-tempered tuning, and is one of the ways he evokes the ideas and achievements of his teacher Ligeti.

Bresnick’s composition is not without its technical challenges. Note that at the end of the second movement the baritone must play up to altissimo F (an octave above the palm keys). The tenor saxophone part ascends to an altissimo C, the alto is written up to altissimo A and the soprano saxophone’s last written note is an F# on the palm keys. Beginning with those pitches, to be played at pianississimo, all four players are then asked to continue up by just intonation to the highest note possible, hold, and fade out to niente (nothing), so all four players need to have delicate control in the altissimo range.

In conclusion, I will simply repeat my enthusiasm about this piece and encourage all saxophone quartets to give it a try. It is a masterpiece.

by Susan Fancher

published in the July/August 2009 issue of the Saxophone Journal