OLD LYME — Imagine four classically-trained saxophonists playing contemporary compositions together, with most pieces performed from memory, and you’ve got “a chamber ensemble for the 21st century” known as the Project Fusion saxophone quartet.
The quartet formed while the players were students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, said Michael Sawzin, the group’s tenor saxophonist, in a phone conversation with CT Examiner and Musical Masterworks President Alden Murphy on November 6.
The group will perform two world premieres, among other contemporary work, on Friday, November 15 at 5:30 p.m. at the Lyme Art Association in Old Lyme. The quartet is part of MMModern, a program sponsored by Musical Masterworks in Old Lyme.
“We live all over the country,” said Sawzin, who lives in Dayton, Ohio. Soprano saxophonist Dannel Espinoza lives in south Florida, alto player Matthew Amedio lives in Rochester, and baritone player Matt Evans lives in Arlington, Virginia. “But while we were in school we rehearsed between 25 and 23 hours a week together. We spent so much time together that now we might not see each other for a month, but when we have an hour to rehearse things snap right back together.”
At Eastman, the four came together for a performance in “The Rest is Noise,” and realized they ‘vibed’ together, said Sawzin.
“We decided, let’s give this a shot and play something that we’re not used to — let’s see how we do with competitions,” he said, adding that in 2012, its first year, the quartet placed second or failed to advance in competition, but the group gained valuable experience that led to success.
“We were just barely attaining our goals, but all the feedback we got was about how we needed to sound more blended and more homogeneous,” Sawzin said. “So we spent a lot of time playing Bach chorales together and transcribing very slow music for voice and organ — and that next year we got first place in three competitions.”
Those successes, while wonderful, led to group to decide the goal wasn’t to win competitions, but to help people hear and feel what saxophone quartet was all about, he said.
The quartet is known for performing almost exclusively from memory, which enhances the feeling of connection between the audience and the musicians, he said.
“[Performing from memory] is kind of like theater where you break down that fourth wall. At the highest level of chamber music playing, the audience should feel like they are part of the music-making,” Sawzin said. “Whether or not you’re watching the group — you might just be sitting in your chair with your eyes closed and absorbing the sound — but to know that deep down you just being in the room with the musicians and with this music being formed is a vital part of the network and the experience that everyone is sharing together.”
American composers, world premieres
For the concert in Old Lyme, the group has chosen works by American composers created from 2006 to present.
The concert will open with a movement from “Ex Machina, which composed for Project Fusion by Mark Mellits as part of a larger composition for seven different saxophone quartets
“It has a machine-like quality characterized by each of these groups personality-wise. It’s a very cool, very animated, has a lot of personality — and we’ll be playing the movement that was written for us,” Sawzin said. “There’s a lot of push and pull in it and it’s the only movement in that piece that has an adjustment in tempo within the movement, so that’s another subtle listening cue that makes that movement special for us to play.”
The first world premiere will be “Catch on Fire” by composer Carlos Simon, which is based on a spiritual hymn, which Sawzin described as “very meditative.”
The second, “Walkabout” by composer Paul Lansky, has four movements related to ways of walking: perambulant, high wire, stroll and strut.
“This is something that we haven’t performed before, so when I was reading through the score and imagining how it would feel on stage to play this music and to be inspired by different forms of walking and how that might influence how we end up dancing on stage — we tend to dance a bit when we really get into our music,” Sawzin laughed.
While the compositions are “extremely contemporary” — actually, brand new — much of it seems neoclassical, he said.
“There are these elements of old sound that makes it seem as if you aren’t listening to something from a composer today,” he said. “Music has the power to move us and heal us in some ways and even though we’re composing a program of modern music, our theme of connection is always there.”
As part of Musical Masterworks annual outreach program, Project Fusion will be presenting 13 programs over four days in seven different schools in New London and Norwich during the week before the performance.
As far as learning and playing the saxophone, Sawzin said, “It’s easy to make a sound, it’s super-difficult to make a really good sound.”
The instrument can be played by anyone at any age, said Sawzin, who has taught students from ages 8 to age 78, whom he described as “amazing players across the spectrum.”
“I do honestly believe music is for everyone. I do believe that everyone does have music and rhythm and melody in them. It’s how we communicate as human beings,” he said. “The key in music is you need to have someone who teaches it well, engaging with you as a person, not just trying to spill knowledge at you or telling you to read this book, or study that, or play this and then you’ll be a musician — there’s a lot to it.”
Sawzin said the process of playing and listening to music can lead to a deeper understanding of one’s self and the work, but only if one is willing to risk moments of uncertainty along the way.
“When anyone chooses to challenge themselves, it really does open a door. But the door will only open to the degree of being uncomfortable or being confused or feeling out of place. And, it’s only in that moment … that you will come out of that feeling and the reward is enlightenment. The reward is epiphany,” he said. “You have that feeling that you’ve changed and that’s what we’ve tried to do, we try to push each other to change.”
Project Fusion tries to challenge its audience “to listen just a little differently,” Sawzin said. “You may have seen plenty of chamber groups before Project Fusion but I hope you feel something a little different when we’re up on stage.”
The group just finished recording its debut album with Bridge Records, which will be released in the spring in 2020 as a CD, on vinyl and in digital form.
“It’s more a product of our heart, playing the original pieces that we started with to help find our sound,” Sawzin said. “It’s our foundation, the music that made us who we are — it’s our musical blueprint.”
To reserve tickets for the November 15 performance, go to www.musicalmasterworks.org or call 860-434-2252. A three-course prix fixe dinner for two is available for $100 at the Bee & Thistle for MMModern concertgoers after the performance. Call the Bee & Thistle at 860-434-1667 to make a reservation.