Transcription Turn-around

As classical saxophonist all know, a lot of our upbringing has centered around the use of transcriptions. The sax being such a young instrument in the global history of music, the early pioneers had to create their own sources of material to perform. Even before being able to get composers to write new music for their instrument, they needed something to show off the capabilities of the saxophone. Hence the use and necessity of transcriptions.

My generation was  brought up playing transcriptions by Marcel Mule , Sigurd Rascher or Larry Teal among others. I recall my first experience of playing in quartet reading Larry Teal's collection of 10 Saxophone Quartets or in a duet setting with his transcription of Bach's 2-part inventions. Mule's trancription of classical sonatas also come to mind.

These were necessary at the time to let young players  get a taste of the masters and to have enough material to make an interesting program for concerts. There just wasn't a lot of original material available to us back then.

Of course, the last 25 years has seen a great increase of interesting and entertaining works to delve in which leaves the transcriptions as secondary material, often disdained by today's performers.

Well, here is a twist for you.

The Turtle Island Quartet, a San Francisco-based string quartet, will be performing will be performing a transcription of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme".

Of course, being a string quartet, they don't need to play this kind of music to supplement their programs. The string quartet has a rich and plentiful history of masterworks, from Haydn Mozart, Beethoven to 20th Century masters such as Bartok and Shostakovich, as well as modern works such as Steve Reich's Different Trains or Stockhausen's Helicopter Music. The only reason for a string quartet to play Coltrane transcription is...  they want to.  The project is done as a tribute to the great artist which Coltrane was.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, violinist Dave Balakrishnan, explains

that if the goal of interpreting originals were to simply reproduce them, then hearing, say, "A Love Supreme" rendered by a chamber group would always fall short. But he sees the differences as liberating, not limiting.

"I know in the end I can't ever sound like John Coltrane," Balakrishnan said from his home in Albany, Calif. "In the meantime, in striving for that ideal, something else happens." The music made in that striving, he said, "becomes my voice, my singing voice."

[read the full article which deals with a number of crossover concerts held this month in L.A.  :,0,3059538.story ]

All this has made me revisit my point of view on the use of transcriptions in concert. I, for one,  have had a condescending attitude about the use of transcriptions in recital programs. Perhaps I'll rethink this attitude with the kind of open thinking demonstrated by Mr. Balakrishnan and his colleagues.

I guess there might be room in a well planned and balanced program to revisit the great masters through the use of transcriptions.


You can also view this youtube clip with the Turtle Island Quartet discussing their "A Love Supreme" project: