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The 15-member Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra makes massive, spectrum-enveloping sound clouds out of little more than the horn’s warm, bleating tones. In the shadow of last year’s 88-drummer Boadrum and Saturday’s Rhys Chatham 200-guitar army, the SSO is a slightly scaled-back but no less grand gesture, fully embracing the spectral melodies and otherworldly timbres that emerge in multi-instrument settings. Led by conductor Ben Miller, himself a graduate of Glenn Branca’s 100-guitar pieces, the SSO will be taking on Terry Riley’s minimalist standard “In C” this Friday at the Issue Project Room. The piece (currently celebrating its 45th birthday) has a labyrinth of interlocking parts that lend themselves to creating unique melodies in the listener’s head with every performance–an effect that will surely rank somewhere between hypnotic and nauseating when played by 13 saxes. Miller likens the sound of the orchestra to “one gigantic instrument,” and this rehearsal recording of Miller’s own “Glow White” certainly shows that effect: a haunting, dissonant swoon like that of battling church organs, or a swarm of bugs.
How did your interest in the sound of the saxophone begin?
I started playing alto saxophone in 5th grade. Actually I’d begged my parents for a saxophone ever since 1st grade. I was totally in love with the instrument. Not sure why.
Tell me about the genesis of the idea to form a saxophone orchestra.
When I first played with Glenn Branca’s 100-guitar orchestra in 2004, I was completely blown away by the massive, interstellar sound. I came away from that experience believing that exploring a full orchestra of some configuration would be the ultimate creative scenario. The very first band I ever put together was in fact a 7-guitar ensemble, but at the age of 14 it didn’t last long. I Googled for months to find out about saxophone orchestras and was very surprised at how few there have ever been. In fact, NYC has never had a full-on saxophone orchestra. That shocked me.
What are the upsides and downsides of having an all-sax orchestra?
The upside is that all instruments have essentially the same liabilities and assets in technique and sound. If I need a certain uniformity in timbre and character, for example, I can have them all play in their identical registers and achieve this throughout the entire ensemble. However, I may wish to have a sound cluster make a single attack and to sustain that for an extremely long time–something that a bowed violin could produce add infinitum. Other than cyclical breathing, a saxophonist cannot offer that luxury.
What’s your favorite sax solo of all time?
Too numerous to mention, but what pops into my mind immediately is an amazing solo somewhere on Miles Davis’s Agharta LP by Sonny Fortune. I think the first horn player that really stuck in my ear was Albert Ayler. Such sincerity.
Do you have any good saxophone jokes?
No. Only drummer jokes.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2009