While I don’t remember the exact date I drew those double bars, which is something I used to do before actually copying my scores into some sort of notation software, it was twenty years ago this month that I finished composing Sonata deus sax machina for my friend and colleague, Timothy McAllister.
I vaguely remember a discussion with Tim at The Crane School of Music, where we both taught at the time, about a set of pieces he wanted to record for an album that would be tentatively titled The Greasy Machine. He asked me if I would be interested in participating, so I began work on this three movement piece on mechanical themes. (I should add here that the title deus sax machina really has nothing to do with the literary device – it’s really just a simple pun linking saxophones and machines as concepts…)
While Sonata deus sax machina was not my first work with saxophone, it was my first significant foray into exploring the saxophone thoroughly. Looking back, I really struggled with this one for a bunch of reasons. I wanted to create a fairly compact piece that might have the same impact of a traditional dramatic sonata. I also wanted, at Tim’s request, to find a way to incorporate a bunch of saxophone extended techniques from multiphonics to slap tonguing to altissimo without making them sound like gratuitous additions, rather to integrate them into the expressive fabric of the music without taking away from the traditional expression found in the expanded tonal language I enjoyed writing at the time. I was lucky to have Tim close by to demonstrate several effects and techniques unique to the saxophone, and I took a lot of time to learn about how he actually played so that I could tailor the work for him.
Tim premiered deus with pianist David Heinick at the 2000 World Saxophone Congress in Montreal the following July (which means that there will be yet another 20th Anniversary post this summer), and I am fortunate that Tim’s performance generated some excitement from several members of the saxophone community. Deus marked a new phase of my career as a composer, not only because of the success of the piece, but because of the collaborative nature of its creation and manner in which I approached timbral effects as an integral part of harmony and formal structure: something I continue to try to do with each work I compose.
Tim played deus several times over the next few years with various pianists, but the definitive performances were always those with Kathryn Goodson. The two of them recorded the work in Potsdam in the summer of 2005 for their Innova Records release In Transit which also featured Mischa Zupko’s incredible title work and Roshanne Etezady’s brilliant Streetlegal.
I have been incredibly fortunate that the work has been championed over the years by several saxophonists from around the world, and credit Tim’s and Kathryn’s recording with its longevity. In truth, I really did very little to promote the work myself. Great performances often beget other wonderful performances, and their recitals and recordings led to several more by other wonderful players, and eventually led to the Sonata’s inclusion as a repertoire choice for the semi-finalists of the 6th Adolphe Sax International Competition in 2014 and the upcoming 2020 Pushechnikov Foundation International Competition for Wind Instruments in Moscow.
I am very grateful to all saxophonists who have performed this work, and welcomed my subsequent efforts into the saxophone repertoire.
More information about Sonata deus machina and available recordings can be found here.