• The Cult of Altissimo (A Mini-Polemic)

    From rockleyhome@gmail.com@21:1/5 to Joe Ramirez on Sat Sep 21 03:03:56 2019
    On Wednesday, May 13, 1998 at 8:00:00 AM UTC+1, Joe Ramirez wrote:
    Why do questions about altissimo appear to outnumber those about any
    other topic related to saxophone performance? Is it only because
    altissimo is difficult, or is part of the explanation our musically
    unhealthy obsession with the ultra-high register? Before answering
    that question, think about how many times you have seen posts like
    this: "Hello -- I've been playing the sax for three months and would
    like to know some good fingerings for altissimo G."

    I recognize that elaborate overtone exercises can be beneficial for
    general tone production and control. Reliance on such training should
    be distinguished, however, from the view that mastery of an octave's
    worth (or more) of altissimo notes for performance purposes is an
    essential part of every saxophonist's bag of tricks. How did it
    happen that the relatively easily accessible "standard" range of the
    sax (low Bb to high F or F#) came to be regarded as so inadequate that
    it required supplementation with an extreme upper register born of
    iron chops, throat yoga, and tortured, trial-and-error fingerings?
    Perhaps only the historians among you can answer this question satisfactorily. My own guess is that there were two principal

    1. The saxophone has achieved its greatest success in jazz, a music
    which places a premium on improvisational ingenuity, personal
    expression, and stylistic originality. The "composers" are the
    performers themselves, diminishing the "tyranny" of the written note
    and establishing what comes out of the horn as the music. Not
    surprisingly, therefore, the creative imperative becomes hard to
    distinguish from the urge to "do more" with the horn. If altissimo is possible, it becomes necessary to try it, and where one player leads,
    others must follow or risk obsolescence. A similar dynamic is at work
    in rock (saxophone altissimo has become popular in rock and funk
    styles as well). Indeed, the most extreme example of the phenomenon
    is probably the "guitarism" of some forms of rock, where sheer
    technique is worshipped for its own sake.

    2. Sigurd Rascher was a (perhaps *the*) master of classical
    saxophone, and was a master of altissimo as well, with his famous
    four-octave range. Confusion between these two types of mastery,
    combined as they were in the person of Rascher and a few other
    legendary classical players, has resulted in the formation of a
    consensus that mind-boggling altissimo technique is a legitimate --
    no, *necessary* -- part of classical saxophony. Composers, probably
    few of whom have independent experience with the saxophone, tend to
    defer to the players regarding the feasibility and desirability of incorporating altissimo into their works. In his *Top Tones for the Saxophone* instructional book, Rascher put it this way: "[E]asily the
    most famous work for saxophone is Jacques Ibert's *Concertino da
    Camera*, composed for and dedicated to me in 1935. It was only
    because of the composer's friendship with me and the resulting special knowledge of the saxophone that he dared ask for a range of almost
    four octaves. ... In regard to most other works dedicated to me since
    1931, the situation is identical; that is, the composer heard more
    than two and one-half octaves from my saxophone and, therefore, wrote
    for more!"

    To reiterate, the problem is not the existence or occasional use of
    the altissimo register, but rather too many saxophonists' virtual
    deification of it. (That may be too strong a word, but this is a
    polemic, after all. <g>) The biography of Rascher that appears in the
    *Top Tones* book notes that he "has shown that the seeming upper limit
    of the saxophone's range is due to lack of ability on the performer's
    part, and is the fault of neither the instrument nor its inventor."
    This crazed assertion is a perfect example of the cult of altissimo.
    The premise, of course, is that the standard range of the saxophone is somehow self-evidently "bad," such that we must look around for a
    scapegoat to saddle with the "fault" for this sad state of affairs.
    And who is at fault? Why, the pathetic, ability-lacking saxophonist
    who has not mastered Rascher's extra octaves. Humbug!

    One of the wonderful things about the saxophone is that it is not just
    one instrument, but an entire family of horns that complement each
    other magnificently. Would it be too bold to suggest that a tenor
    player who is determined to add an octave or two to the top of his
    range might be better off simply picking up an alto or a soprano
    instead, and spending his practice time mastering the smaller horn?
    At the least the musical result would preserve the beauty and
    distinctiveness of the sound of the saxophone. The clarinet has a
    more easily achieved altissimo register than that that of the sax,
    with much more stable and standardized fingerings. Nevertheless,
    notes above high F or G are rather uncommon in clarinet music, and
    notes above high A are decidedly rare. Why? Because they don't sound
    like a clarinet! Most of the fine qualities of the timbre are lost as
    the tone is reduced to the thinnest of shrieks. The saxophone is much
    the same. The upper atmosphere is high indeed, but there's not enough
    air up there to sustain life for very long.

    Hey, I get goosebumps like everyone else when I hear a titan like
    Michael Brecker squealing up to the ceiling, and staying in tune to
    boot. But goosebumps don't tell the whole story. For most of us,
    altissimo is best used sparingly, if at all.

    Joe Ramirez

    That is an interesting overview.
    I suppose just like trupet players (who will spend all their time in the Green room before a gig busting the ears of everyone else with attempts at excruciating high notes, yet when asked to produce them in a chart on the gig will complain)higher and
    faster is a competitive sport.
    I aagree developing altissimo means controlling your chops in a way that regular playing doesn't benefits regular playing.
    Also, there are countless examples (in Jazz, Brecker being just one) of Altissimo being used to really exciting effect. Altissimo DOESN'T sound like a smaller horn's regular range, it IS different and in the hands of a good player can be really effective.
    Most classical saxophone writing is IMO terrible. The Ibert is a good example. Whether he and Rascher collaborated or not, neither of them had the benefit of hearing Bird. Any single bar from Parker's Mood is worth more than the entire Ibert. Most
    classical saxophone writing is pre bebop and compared to its contemporaries very conservative. Why? Because the classical writers are writing notes, not meaningful expression and when classical players play sax they just play the notes, no expression,
    classical altissimo unlike when used in Jazz, is devoid of any exciting sound. Classical players think exagerrated dynamics and prissy gyrating around is expression, the classical players move around much more than the jazzers and frankly it looks
    terrible. There are good contemporary classical players but they are rare. And that is not to say that classical technique is not good to have. I may not have heard everything but I have yet to hear much convincing classical sax.

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