A Saxophone Quartet’s Debut Album Asks, “Is This ~Nois?”

Is it ~Nois? The saxophone quartet ~Nois (pronounced “noise”) asks this question anew each day, and this deep, integrative investigation shines through in their debut album, Is This ~Nois, out on June 26, 2020 as a self-produced endeavor together with Dan Nichols. While many saxophone quartets exist in today’s landscape of new music, few truly make a mark or innovate. ~Nois is here to make a bold statement, not only in their choices in repertoire, but in how they bring the concept of the saxophone quartet into the 21st century and beyond. Honoring their roots in Chicago where the group formed at Northwestern University, ~Nois has curated a blend of commissions and existing pieces by their graduate colleagues and composition professor Hans Thomalla.

The album opens with Thomalla’s 2011 work, Albumblatt II, a weighted blanket of spectral exploration that comforts and soothes with its waves multiphonics and overtones that amplify each other in one moment and then beat against each other in the next. The artful swells and pulsations culminate in a dramatic texture of overlapping voices cut by a single, haunting whistle at the end.

~Nois--Photo by Nick Zoulek

~Nois–Photo by Nick Zoulek

Similarly, Craig Davis Pinson’s commissioned work, Dismantle, uses multiphonics but takes the album’s energy to a wildly different space. Pinson’s choice to use four alto saxophones instead of the full range of a normal saxophone quartet homogenizes the sound in a manner that allows for disorienting effects, though the work might have lost something in the process of narrowing the range to such a degree. That said, Pinson’s dynamic usage of rhythm transforms the saxophone quartet into a percussion ensemble in the quick attacks and transitions between techniques. While some of the precision could have been stronger, ~Nois brings a fresh energy to this music that gives new life to what a saxophone quartet can become.

Another one of the commissioned pieces, Niki Harlafti’s Vaisseau Fantôme, draws inspiration from Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz album. While the members of ~Nois execute the technical gymnastics with supple ease, the piece itself hops from one idea to the next without clear cohesive narrative. The piece starts off strong with an entrance of high, piercing jabs among a chorus of soprano saxophones (Harlafti calls for seven horns amongst the four players), but quickly retracts, almost as if apologizing for its boldness. The fast-paced shifts in sections leaves the listener wishing to spend more time in each exploring place. Next on the album is Marcos Balter’s 2012 work, Intercepting a Shivery Light. The group’s masterful intonation mixed with Balter’s sense of form is one of the highlights of the album. ~Nois executes the piece’s watery swells, expanding and contracting like the rotations of a German wheel, with ease and clarity. ~Nois’ impeccable balance gives the listener a stereo spatialization as individual lines come in and out of focus in the otherwise blurry textures of the piece.

Marcos Balter--Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theatre

Marcos Balter–Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theatre

Mathew Arrellin’s new commission, Apertures, uses ingenious orchestration to create a wide palate colors, from icy straight tones to rich multiphonics that span the range of the instruments. Equally as impressive, ~Nois consistently shifts into stratospheric ranges on each saxophone, reaching the extremes while turning traditional orchestration upside down. At times, the soprano serves as the bass line while the bass serves as the soprano, creating a constantly kaleidoscopic shift throughout the piece.

The album closes with David Reminick’s 2012 piece, Consort for Four Detuned Soprano Saxophones. Intricate gestures break into infinitely many fractals that create unique timbral combinations with the constantly shifting pitches that tremolo in carefully crafted clusters. The detuned saxophones bleat together in configurations that remind the listener of leaves fluttering to the ground, occasionally intermingling with one another as a light breeze tousles them in scattered spirals.

If ~Nois’ debut album is any indicator of what is to come from the group, the genre of the saxophone quartet has a bright future on the near horizon. While the genre has already had been solidified as a standard 20th century instrumentation, ~Nois’ imagination and willingness to go exploring and as the question, “is this ~Nois?” makes the one of the new exciting groups to watch in the field.


Is This ~Nois is now available for pre-order on Bandcamp. All pre-order proceeds will be donated to Brave Space Alliance, the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ Center located on the South Side of Chicago.