Minimal Tendencies
Steve Reich, Philip Glass, et al.


Clarinet Classics CC0024


1-3 Steve Reich New York Counterpoint 11:04
4-9 Philip Glass Mishima 16:38
10 Gabin Bryars Alaric I or II 14:32
11-14 Micheal Nyman Songs for Tony 17:33
15 Terry Riley Tread on the Trail 7:29


There is something about so-called ‘minimal’ music which makes it curiously well-suited to the medium of the saxophone quartet, which probably explains why there are a large number of pieces written for this combination by composers who might be described as having a foot (or, in some cases, a toe) in the ‘minimal’ music pond. In fact, like many of the composers themselves, I rather dislike the term ‘minimal’, since it conveys a sense of reduction or devaluation which is simply inappropriate to some of the fine pieces written in this style. Whereas it may have been a reasonable description of certain 1960s and early 1970s pieces which used constant repetition of limited musical material, it certainly does not do justice to what is now a very wide spectrum of musical styles. Yet, neither do potential alternatives such as ‘systems’ or ‘repetitive’ music, and to subsume everything under the banner of postmodernism does an injustice to many other, very different, musical styles which might be similarly described. So, to paraphrase Winston Churchill in another context, we are left with the worst possible descriptive term for this music, apart from all the others. By including the word ‘tendencies’ in the title of our disc, however, we have tried to intimate something of the connection that many of these pieces have with this tradition, while accepting that, with the possible exception of Terry Riley’s piece, which is in any case a very early work, all of these pieces and their composers have progressed far beyond what the description ‘minimal’ originally meant.

In speaking of this tradition of ‘minimal’ music people often refer to the four ‘founding fathers’ as being Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and La Monte Young. Of these, only Young is unrepresented on this disc. But the other two composers who are featured here, Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, both have strong personal, as well as musical, connections with this original group.

Steve Reich has remained at the forefront of tradition, and as his musical style has evolved so have the forces for which he has written, from early small-scale works for a few close colleagues to full symphony orchestra pieces and, lately, an interest in multi-media collaborations. New York Counterpoint is one of a series of works for solo instrument and tape which all use in their title the word ‘counterpoint’. The piece was originally scored for solo clarinet and ten other multi-tracked clarinets, but this recent version for saxophone quartet, made in collaboration with the composer, superimposes four live lines against eight pre-recorded ones. Reich has said that his preoccupation in this piece lies with manipulating our perceptions of what we hear:

The piece is in the meter 3/2 = 6/4 (= 12/8). As is often the case when I write in this meter, there is an ambiguity between whether one hears measures of 3 groups of 4 eighth notes, or 4 groups of 3 eighth notes. In the last movement of ‘New York Counterpoint’ the baritone saxophones function to accent first one and then the other of these possibilities while the upper saxophones essentially do not change. The effect, by change of accent, is to vary the perception of that which in fact is not changing.

Like Reich, Philip Glass’s reputation has grown from fairly ordinary beginnings (for some time he worked as a New York taxi driver) to that of a composer of international significance; in part this is through his collaboration with several film makers, including, recently, Martin Scorsese on ‘Kundun’, and it was through one such collaboration that the music for Mishima evolved. In its original incarnation as his 3rd String Quartet (here I have made a straight transcription for saxophones) it was drawn from music for a film of the same name by Paul Schrader. The film has a complex narrative structure which divides the life of this famous Japanese novelist into three parts: dramatizations of his novels, underscored with music for large orchestra; his last day, encompassing his highly theatrical suicide, accompanied by string orchestra; and his biography, accompanied by music for string quartet. It is no coincidence that Glass turned to the string quartet for the most telling moments of intimacy and introspection:

In an odd way, string quartets have always functioned like that for composers. I don’t really know why, but it’s almost impossible to get away from it. It’s the way composers of the past have thought and that’s no less true for me.

Whether the medium of the saxophone quartet carries the same musical ‘weight’ as that of the string quartet is a moot point; we leave it for the listener to judge.

There is a historical connection between Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, as the latter worked with Reich in his ensemble for a time in the early 1970s. Bryars is often referred to as a leading ‘experimental’ composer, a description which he earned in earlier years through his association with, among others, Cornelius Cardew and the ‘Scratch’ Orchestra, and which has persisted since.

Nowadays he is more in the mainstream of contemporary composition, although that is not to say his work is ‘conventional’, as the opening to Alaric I or II demonstrates. We commissioned this piece in 1989, and, as with all the composers with whom we work, we spent some time establishing with Gavin what sort of things were easy on the saxophone and what were not. He then promptly ignored the first group!

The piece is technically very demanding and exploits many facets of the saxophone’s extended techniques (circular breathing, multiphonics, extreme harmonic reqisters) and is scored for two sopranos, alto and baritone, a choice which mirrors the instrumentation and pitch ranges of the string quartet. The most substantial soloistic passages are for the alto saxophone in the central section and the baritone saxophone at the end. All the musical allusions are to pieces half remembered, without access to the original source, and constitute a rather nebulous or at least imprecise form of scholarship. The title refers to a mountain in South West France, Mount Alaric, and I was touched to find (with equivalent imprecision) that no-one knew which one of two Visigoth ‘King Alarics’ was being commemorated.

As with Bryars, there is also a historical connection, albeit of a different kind, between Michael Nyman and the American composers on this disc, which stems from Nyman’s earlier incarnation as a writer and critic.

His 1974 book on ‘Experimental Music’ has its last chapter on the as then still fledgling ‘minimal’ music movement, and he also provided the preface for Wim Merlon’s book on ‘American ‘Minimal’ Music’ (1980). Although Michael himself started composing in the 1970s he became more widely known in the early 1980s when he too provided the soundtrack for a film, in this case Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’. This led to a number of further collaborations both with Greenaway and others, most notably in his film score for Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’, which also provides some of the material for his saxophone quartet Songs For Tony. In particular, the tenor saxophone solo in movement two is taken from the end of the film, when the main protagonist, having pushed her piano and herself out of a boat and into the sea, finds her body choosing life instead of death, much to her own surprise. This image provides a poignant counterpoint to the genesis of the piece, as Michael explains:

I began writing a saxophone quartet on New Year’s Eve 1992. In the early afternoon of 5th January 1993 I was informed that my friend and business manager, Tony Simmons, had died after a long and heroic fight against cancer. I immediately sat down and wrote the music which became the fourth song, in what became a ‘memorial’ quartet. The previously composed music was scrapped as I decided to give each player, in turn, an ‘aria’ of his own. The first song is a transcription of an actual song — ‘Mozart on Mortality’ — which I wrote for the Composers Ensemble in the spring of 1992. The text, by Mozart himself, is all too appropriate: ‘I may not see another day’. The second song is adapted from the music for the film The Piano. This film was the last major deal that Tony negotiated on my behalf. The third song, a soprano sax solo, is based on a tune I composed some years ago, but was saving for a special occasion.

Finally, Terry Riley’s Tread on the Trail is the piece which remains closest to the roots of minimalism, although, as I remarked above, it is also the oldest, written when ‘minimal’ music was still in its infancy. Whereas Glass and Reich have gone on to achieve considerable prestige Riley has remained a more enigmatic figure, and his music has been less frequently performed than it might have been, certainly in Europe, apart perhaps from ‘In C’, which has become a cornerstone of the ‘minimal’ music movement.

The last few years, however, have seen something of a resurgence of interest in his work. ‘Tread on the Trail’ was composed in the mid 1960s, originally for a small jazz group, and derives its title from the way in which the performers follow each other around five separate melodic lines, in a quasi-canonic yet also partly random way. Riley has often delegated to his performers the responsibility for the ultimate shape of a piece by allowing them to choose which music they play at what point, something that arises from his interest in the improvised structures of jazz and some non-western musics, and also an earlier involvement in the ‘chance’ music of John Cage. Here, we have taken further liberties by overdubbing two ‘live’ quartets to make an octet version; a tendency, perhaps, to make the maximum use possible of our ‘minimal’ resources.

— Stephen Cottrell

The Delta Saxophone Quartet was formed in 1984 and is Britain’s longest established saxophone group. From the outset the Quartet has sought constantly to expand both the repertoire and presentation of saxophone quartet music, and to this end has collaborated with some of the world’s leading composers, including Gavin Bryars, Michael Finnissy, Graham Fitkin, Terry Riley, Mike Westbrook and many others.

Commissioning new material is fundamental to the Quartet’s work, and, in addition to working with these and other established composers, the Quartet has also been active in promoting the works of younger composers, and has on several occasions collaborated with the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) to encourage less familiar names to write for the group. Additionally, the Quartet has introduced many foreign works to British audiences. Notable premieres include ‘Facing Death’ by Louis Andriessen, a fearsomely difficult saxophone quartet arrangement of his string quartet; ‘Night’ for soprano and saxophone quartet by Elena Firsova; and several Dutch works by composers such as Klaas de Vries and Geert van Keulen, among The Quartet has always taken a dynamic, innovative approach to the presentation of their music, extending the natural theatrical boundaries of normal concert performance. For example, in Vinko Globokar’s ‘Discours V, the concert begins outside the auditorium, with each player circulating among the audience wearing a cassette recorder which plays a series of pre- recorded questions; their collaboration with Mike Westbrook resulted in ‘IN A FIX’, a 35′ piece of instrumental theatre. This constant search for ways of dismantling the static ritual of concert performance is a recurring theme of their work.

The Quartet has performed at several major European festivals and at venues throughout Britain, including the Queen Elizabeth Hall. They have recorded several programmes of contemporary music for the BBC, as well as a number of commercial recordings. For the past 14 years the Delta Saxophone Quartet has been the most innovative and exciting saxophone quartet in Britain, and is now one of the country’s brightest and most dynamic contemporary music groups.


Delta Saxophone Quartet: Stephen Cottrell, Peter Whyman, Gareth Brady, Chris Caldwell.

Thanks to: Colin S. and Simon E for their time, skill and very sad sense of humour; Simon W. for expertise; Peter Conway at Blackheath Concert Halls.
Publishers: New York Counterpoint — Boosey & Hawkes; Mishima — Chester Music; Alaric I or II — Schott; Songs for Tony — Chester Music; Tread on the Trail — manuscript.

Schort Music Publishers for photo of Gavin Bryars; Boosey and Hawkes for photo of Steve Reich; Chester Music for photo of Phidp Glass; and EMI Classics for photo of Michael Nyman.

Cover concept and design: ADS Photographs: Lee Funnel

Clarinet classics was founded by Victoria and Nicolas Soames.



String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima)
Music for Mishima

Mishima on Nonesuch
Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch
Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass on Nonesuch

FILMS:Mishima by Paul Schrader