Composer Aaron Einbond sits down to answer a few questions about his new work for saxophone quartet and electronics, Sonic Postcards. The premiere of this stunning piece will be at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ on February 24.
Anubis Quartet: What was it about the locations after which the movements are named (Portland, Lausanne, Paris, Freiburg, Tokyo) that inspired you to include them in your music? How did you fit the saxophones into these soundscapes?
Aaron Einbond: The locations are places I have travelled in the last few years, and I made each audio recording without a specific use in mind. Some even appear in multiple works. In each case I recorded a sonic environment or situation that I found interesting or memorable, so one could say that the locations chose me, rather than me choosing them. The recordings are an archive, a documentary record of what I heard where.
The saxophones are my subjective transcription of these experiences, bringing the locations at which they were recorded into the present of the live performance. … [T]he particular details of playing technique and instrumentation (going beyond the traditional saxophone quartet to include whistles and bottles) highlight or ignore details of each soundscape, like the note on the back of a postcard. As Walter Benjamin writes: “What has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”
AQ: Sonic Postcards also incorporates a lot of electronics. In fact, some of the movements are for electronics alone. How do the saxophones and electronics interact with each other? Are there elements of certain soundscapes that speak more to the use of the saxophone as opposed to electronics?
AE: Unlike previous works of mine, the electronics for Sonic Postcards comprise only recorded sound files, all of which are field recordings that have been edited only by cutting — returning to the idea of “documentary.” One reason I did not need to add more fancy electronics on top is all of that information is included in the saxophone parts: they are woven together in a kind of “instrumental synthesis,” which … may take on a literal form … where the saxophones imitate the squeak of seagulls or … the chirp of crickets, or it can be more figurative, as in the fifth postcard where the … solo baritone saxophone echoes a recorded saxophone in the background of a Tokyo cafe… . That is why I ask the players to extend their sound palette beyond traditional playing techniques, in effect asking them to synthesize new sounds with their instruments the way an electronic composer might with spliced tape or a computer.
AQ: It’s interesting that you ask the saxophones to synthesize new sounds, perhaps a sort of “acoustic processing” of live instruments. The part for soprano saxophone is written with the mouthpiece disconnected from the body and has techniques such as blowing across the keys. How did you come up with these kinds of playing techniques? Did your personal relationship with members of Anubis have any influence on such ideas or on the piece itself?
AE: That is an insightful question, because indeed this kind of “instrumental synthesis” would not be possible with[out] intensive work with the performers. I had the pleasure to work with one of Anubis’ members, David Wegehaupt, to experiment and record unorthodox performance techniques on different members of the saxophone family. This means that David’s creative personality and his unique sound sense necessarily became an ingredient in the piece. This brings in yet another “past” to the “now” of the piece: the moment that David improvised these playing techniques is archived as a sample bank on my computer. I come into a collaborative dialogue with these samples while I compose, and they are again brought to life in performance by the members of the quartet including David himself.