'Closer to the actual gesture': An interview with Samantha Mason

sam masonKupka's Piano is thrilled to say that Samantha Mason will be a guest artist in our upcoming concert 'Giants Behind Us' on May 10 at the Judith Wright Centre. She will be performing the solo sax tour de force by Katharina Rosenberger 'phragmocone'. One of our resident composers, Liam Flenady interviewed her recently about her life as a saxophonist, the role of the sax in modern music, her piece in the concert, amongst other things. Liam Flenady: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where do you hail from, and what’s in a day’s work for Sam Mason?

Sam Mason: I am Sydney born but Brisbane bred and spent most of my youth in the beautiful suburb of Samford. I started saxophone at the primary school there after having already studied piano for several years. If I was honest, I would admit that saxophone wasn’t a significant part of my life until about grade eleven, after I had already been immersed in the extensive music program of St Peters for four years. I made a decision that saxophone was what I wanted to do and another four years later, here I am, still more than content with my choice. A day’s work for me could be almost anything. Teaching in my private studio as well as at two schools takes up a significant portion of my time and I enjoy it very much. My remaining time is spent, rehearsing in various ensembles (classical, contemporary, big band, all female ten-piece Latin band… you name it!), planning upcoming projects, arranging music, and, of course, practicing. I am often busy in the pro-am musical theatre scene usually doubling flute, pic, saxophones, and clarinet. My saxophone quartet (Barega) is also finding itself busy at this time of year preparing for performances at the Australasian Saxophone and Clarinet Conference held in Sydney July 2013. I also plan on doing a solo concert, and a baritone sax duet concert there. In short, a day’s work for me is usually long but extremely fun.

LF: Saxophone is not a particularly prominent instrument in the classical repertoire, but it has become quite a staple of modernist music. Do you feel there is something of an affinity between modern composers and the instrument (and why)?

SM: The variety and capability of the extended techniques available are a very attractive feature of the saxophone, and this appeals to many modern composers. It is an endlessly flexible instrument that has the sonority of an oboe, the range of a violin, and the expressiveness of a voice. Unfortunately, being such a young invention, it is yet to accumulate the repertoire of any of those instruments. However, recently, it has become more of a popular instrument to write for, and I think it would be hard to find an established composer that has not tried their hand at a piece with saxophone. It has also become very common to have saxophone included in chamber repertoire, and as a part of contemporary chamber ensembles (Califax Reed Quintet, Klangforum Wien, SoundInitiave Paris…etc.). I would certainly like to start something like this in Brisbane in the future.

LF: Do you worry that the strong association of sax with jazz for whatever reason limits its ‘credibility’ in Western art music? Or is it an advantage?

SM: It has to be not only a strong advantage, but another testament to how flexible the instrument can be. The once-distinct line between ‘classical’ and ‘jazz’ has been fading since the 1950’s and of course many composers combine techniques from both disciplines. Yes, the instrument is more associated with jazz than classical over all, but I can see the tables becoming more even in the future.

LF: How are you finding preparing the Katarina Rosenberger piece phragmocone? From looking at the score it seems to me to be a bit of an epic. Is it demanding? What can our audience expect?

SM: The piece is indeed a bit of an epic. Rosenberger use of extended techniques works to great effect in phragmocone. She plays with the percussive qualities of slap-tongue, key-clicks, and air sounds as a device to draw the listener “closer to the actual gesture of playing the instrument”. I am looking forward to how effective this will be when performed in the space at the Judith Wright Centre.

LF: What do you think of the music for sax coming out of Germany today?

SM: Like any globalised country, Germany seems to be exporting a varying musical product. It is apparent that many composers are continuing (in their history’s shadow) in the vein of post WWII composers like Stockhausen. Saying this, there are of course trends in every direction. I don’t know if it is easy any more to distinguish a German piece for saxophone from a French piece. How about a piece by a French born, German raised, composer living in Finland?

LF: You were recently over in Austria participating in the ‘impuls’ Academy run by Beat Furrer and Klangforum Wien. How did you find the contemporary music culture over there and how would you compare it with Australia?

SM: impuls academy was one of my most eye-opening experiences this far in life. The contemporary music culture is – as much as I don’t like to complain – much more ‘everything’ than in Australia. More challenging, engaging, interesting, experimental, and most importantly – more frequent! I went to a concert that was over six hours long of new music where the oldest piece performed was a Berio work from 1976 (the best I have ever heard the Sequenza for violin performed!). I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it easy to feel slightly bitter living and working as a musician in Australia, but at the same time it is incredible to have those overseas experiences and bring back knowledge to your own stomping ground.

LF: Who are your favourite living composers for your instrument (or in general)? Give us a shortlist of pieces… Giving a shortlist is quite a task.

SM: This is closer to a snapshot of my current listening list: I was recently introduced to Salvatore Sciarrino’s music: his Violin Capricci, "Canzona di ringraziamento" for solo flute, saxophone quartet (arrangements of Scarlatti), and chamber works (eg “Studi per I’Intonazione del Mare”) are all on my listening list. Kevin Juilleriat is a Swiss saxophonist and composer that I met during impuls who has written a very interesting solo tenor piece and baritone duet, both of which I will be performing this year. Gorges Aperghis’ music is incredible but of particular note is his piece “Crosswinds” for saxophone quartet and viola. Not saxophone related at all, the composition by Beat Furrer Iotófagos I for Kontrabass and Soprano voice is also a stunning piece of music.

LF: Now, just for fun. What’s your favourite thing about Germany?

SM: I don’t know what to say! Everything! I am certainly not fluent, but I enjoy studying the language first up. The strong focus on, the variance, and the quality the arts is also very refreshing to be around. I enjoy the open-mindedness of the people, the scenery along the Rhine, and who doesn’t love a good Weizenbier? I was once given a hand knitted scarf by a stranger when I was cold, sang in the concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonie, watched a jazz trumpet-player busk in the snow, and sight-sang carols in four-part harmony on Christmas eve with my host family. It is such a special place for me and I can very easily see myself living happily in Berlin.