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
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.
|Location:||Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK|
|Nodes:||8 (1 / 7)|