5 questions to Ryan Muncy (Saxophonist)

Ryan Muncy is a saxophonist who has commissioned and premiered over 100 works for the instrument.  He is also the executive director for the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente and founding member of the Anubis Quartet.  Ryan will release his debut album, Hot, on New Focus Recordings in October.  I recently spoke to him about the upcoming release and what his ensemble is up to.

Bassoonist Rebekah Heller’s recent album consisted entirely of world premieres—no doubt a huge gesture in terms of carving out a contemporary canon for her instrument. Is that kind of documentation something you’re interested in? Though not all of the pieces on Hot were commissioned by you, are you concerned at all with creating some sort of posterity for the saxophone? How much of this album is for the instrument’s sake rather than the album’s sake?

On a broader scale, one of my objectives is to create a new body of saxophone repertoire through collaborations with living composers and to present that music in meaningful ways that make it essential to the musical fabric of our society. One of the biggest handicaps of the saxophone is also its greatest advantage: the sax lacks the rich history of orchestral instruments. Jazz legends notwithstanding, there isn’t repertoire in the classical canon that stands up to violin concertos by Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The lack of history means that, by nature, the saxophone is still an experimental instrument. And considering the incredible wealth of extended performance techniques and multiphonics, composers and performers are still figuring out how to use it. For me, that’s exciting.

With this album, I wanted to present the instrument as a solo instrument, a chamber instrument, a versatile chameleon-like sound machine. A variety of styles, instruments, and sounds is my modus operandi when programming for saxophone, so in this case I used all five – from sopranino to baritone.

Most important, though, is the music. Presenting these works of Chaya Czernowin and Georges Aperghis, arguably amongst the world’s most important living composers, as well as Marcos Balter, Anthony Cheung, and Aaron Cassidy – three of the most unique and individual composers of the younger generation – and Franco Donatoni, one of the greatest Italian composers of the last century, feels like an important thing to do.

Ryan Muncy - Photo by Chelsea Ross Photography

Ryan Muncy – Photo by Chelsea Ross Photography

I was lucky enough to catch Ensemble Dal Niente’s performance of Donatoni’s Hot at The Party last year and I can honestly say it is still the only piece of new music that I’ve heard actually elicit a “F*** YEAH!” from the audience (and for good reason). What is it’s significance for you?

Never before has a piece of music so perfectly captured my own sensibilities as a performer. Perhaps it’s the way the piece necessitates an insane amount of physical force and musical commitment from the soloist, or Donatoni’s controlled chaos that rides in waves throughout the piece, or the orgiastic scoring for jazz septet, or the way the saxophone sound wildly varies from explicit to abstract, classical to jazz, sober to wasted, beautiful to degueulasse, and so on. It’s one of the most stunning pieces for saxophone – at 24 years old, it’s a classic! – and recording this piece with Dal Niente made my album a Dream Project.

And for what it’s worth, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to name the album after Donatoni’s piece. I mean, what else was I going to name it?

Last year I interviewed Chaya Czernowin about The Last Leaf for solo sopranino saxophone which is also featured on your album. She described the piece as one of extremes, to the point where it feels like several instruments are in conversation with each other. Do you envision the music as if it were an ensemble piece?

I interpret Chaya’s comment quite literally. One on hand there are delicate, unclear, fleeting lines of sound (as she previously noted: similar to the unpredictable, fragile, and seemingly never-ending lines in an Egon Schiele painting) next to massive blocks of unmoving sound. These are extremes. One of the interesting qualities of this piece is how it plays with the listener’s perspective and reconciles these extremes.

Imagine this: you watch a small insect buzzing around at eye level, tracking its flight path through the air. The insect moves quickly and your eyes follow it more and more obsessively while everything else in the world stops. At some point you turn around, eyes refocusing, and gasp: you’ve been standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon but hadn’t realized it. After seeing the Grand Canyon, what meaning does that insect have? Do you even bother to look at it again?

In more abstract ways, Chaya’s piece flirts with this predicament. And how she takes sonic versions of these two extremes and eventually marries them is magic.

Is your commissioning process highly collaborative or do you simply choose composers you trust / whose music you like and leave them to it? Similarly, is there anything specific that you want to see written for today’s generation of saxophonists?

Every collaboration is different, just like every relationship, so it’s important to give each project the resources (and love) it needs to succeed. With younger composers, that translates to significant face time, interaction, and exploratory sessions with the instrument. Established composers generally don’t need exploratory sessions, but they often seek personal interaction to get a feel for the performer’s personality. Thankfully, many composers write for the performer, not the instrument, and that necessitates a new long-term relationship with each collaboration.

What do I want to see written for today’s generation of saxophonists? Honestly, I’d love for the generation to decide that. I will say, though, that chamber music with non-saxophonists is highly beneficial on a musical and entrepreneurial level. It teaches one to play well with others – both literally and figuratively – and also helps break the instrument out of its tight knit community that tends to favor pieces for solo saxophone or with piano. This is something I’ve emphasized on my album with tracks including my close collaborators Claire Chase (flute), Nadia Sirota (viola), and Ben Melsky (harp). One learns as much – or even more – from playing saxophone with these instruments.

Surely this is only the beginning of recordings which will feature Dal Niente! Could you fill us in on what you guys have in store for the near future?

We are tremendously excited to see our first full album released later this fall by Carrier Records. It’s program of music by Aaron Einbond and will feature Amanda DeBoer Bartlett as vocal soloist in Aaron’s major work Without Words for soprano, large ensemble, and live electronics, a commission from 2012 that has become a major addition to our repertoire.

We’re also in the early stages of producing an album with Deerhoof, whom we’ve collaborated with a number of times from Chicago’s Millennium Park to the Ecstatic Music Festival in NYC. That program will include drummer Greg Saunier’s Deerhoof Chamber Variations and Marcos Balter’s Meltdown Upshot, an intense song cycle which combines Dal Niente with Deerhoof into a 13-player megagroup.

Ryan will be performing pieces from his debut album at the Constellation in Chicago, September 22nd (tickets here).  For more info about him check out his websiteEnsemble Dal Niente, and Anubis Quartet.