Sunday, 9 June 2013

Saxophone Suites and Bagpipes in the Library

Campbell is the gent carrying the organ
Whilst this blog is generally about my ‘True Imaginary Friends’ – the late 18th and 19th century Scottish song collectors who were the subject of my doctoral research – the occasion of my recent book launch was a good excuse for making two sets of saxophone arrangements, using one particular old collection.  Alexander Campbell’s Albyn’s Anthology has always been lauded and condemned in equal measure.  Lauded, because of the extraordinary lengths he went to, collecting his tunes from the Hebrides to the Scottish Borders.  Condemned, because his settings of these lovely old tunes were, frankly, not very good.

Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the beautiful repertoire he preserved was well-worth saving.  So, I thought, why not try setting them for a small ensemble?  The challenge was to preserve the modality of the tunes, and also somehow to retain the sometimes naïve accompaniments, whilst at the same time removing some of the infelicities of Campbell’s harmonisation.  I’d like to stress that I’m not just missing the point of a clever approach to modality.  Campbell’s chord structures and progressions aren’t that clever, and sometimes they flagrantly break the rules.

I made a set of arrangements for flute, viola and cello, but I couldn’t find an ensemble to play them.  Enquiries on Twitter solicited a response from Sax Exosse (@Saxecosse), so I hastily rearranged a couple of tunes for sax trio, and waylaid the father of one of the saxophonists when they were doing a gig in Buchanan Bus Station last September.  Success!  The girls liked them.

I rearranged the other two pieces from my original mixed trio, and there it was – Alexander Campbell’s Hebridean Suite.  By this time I had realised that Sax Ecosse was actually a quartet.  Over Christmas, I made a second suite – Alexander Campbell’s Saxophone Quartet.

The whole lot was performed by the Royal Conservatoire Saxophone Quartet for my book launch in April 2013.  And I now have two recordings, because the whole book-launch was recorded by a colleague – although the open windows led to a bit of traffic noise – and it was also recorded for me by Saxual Healing, a saxophone quartet from the University of Cambridge.   
It’s the Cambridge recordings that I’m sharing with you here – I might share the whole Conservatoire book-launch event on a different blogpost at a later date.*

Alexander Campbell’s Hebridean Suite (Sax Trio) 

 Alexander Campbell’s Saxophone Quartet
1.    Georgy agam

2.    Cradle Song

4.    Una of Ulva

I love rearranging vocal melodies for instrumental ensembles.  These sax settings had their own challenges because, although the instruments have different ranges, the timbre is fairly uniform, and this means a tune can easily disappear if it’s submerged under other harmonising notes.  (However, the challenge became in one sense greater when I turned to write cello quartets, where the timbre and range are the same for all four instruments.)

Other challenges lie in choosing the harmonisation, and in ensuring there are breaks in the texture, whether for the instrumentalist or the tune itself to breathe!  And that’s quite apart from finding suitable material to arrange; thankfully, using very old songbooks avoids any copyright problems - a considerable relief!

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