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In Rarefied Air

A few months ago, I received in my email box an email from Katherine Weintraub, the super-talented professor of saxophone at Florida State University, with an exciting request. She'd heard some of my music and requested a new unaccompanied alto saxophone piece to perform at the upcoming NASA Regional Conference in Valdosta. Of course I was elated to collaborate! As we corresponded, she gave me a list of some things she'd like to see in a new piece. The list was great - she mentioned a few techniques she liked, and that she wanted to explore both the lyrical and virtuosic sides of the instrument. It was an excellent starting point: not overly specific or restricting, but detailed enough to give me some ideas as I started sketching.

For this piece, I didn't begin with a well-defined thematic concept. Instead, my focus kept returning to what I can only describe as a vague and mysterious sense of place. Since I recently moved to Tucson, a desert town surrounded by mountains, I am constantly in wonder at the environment here, and this has had an effect on my writing process. But I didn't just go stare at the mountains and jot down musical impressions. I wanted the piece to be more universal, not tied down to a specific location. As I meditated on my early ideas, I imagined a distant call, perhaps a bird, or some unknown wild creature, or something even less concrete... a feeling.

To achieve this feeling musically, I decided to begin the piece very high (in the altissimo register) and very quiet... not the easiest task on saxophone, but I knew Katherine was comfortable in this range. I wrote out an opening idea as I heard it, without really worrying about technique. Here's what I started with:

I am a saxophonist, and I tried playing it, but pulling off a piano dynamic in this register, with leaps, without sounding crass and uncontrolled is beyond the realm of possibility for me (I need to practice)! Rather than depend on my own abilities, I decided to send the sketch to Katherine and see what she thought about playing so quietly in this register.

Katherine's response: no problem at all! This was great to hear... I now knew that I didn't need to be too hung up on technique, and I could just write what I felt. In just 4 weeks I had a complete draft to send off. We traded a few comments and edits back and forth, I spent some time coming up with a title and program notes that would come close to capturing the gist of my original ideas, and then I sent off the final version... In Rarefied Air. I'm looking forward to hearing Katherine play it in March!

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