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About Us

Acumen ad libitum

Volumes 1-6

James R. Noyes, columnist

~ published in ~


David Gibson, editor


Saxophone Today (2013-2017) was a bi-monthly online-only magazine that succeeded the long-in-print Saxophone Journal (1974-2013). I had been an occasional contributor to SJ in the late 1990s and 2000s, and had long been a fan of the "Vintage Saxophones Revisited" column by Paul Cohen, and of the extensive interviews with saxophonists who performed in all styles and genres of music. The editor of both publications was David Gibson, who, in 2016 reached out to me with an invitation to join his esteemed team of writers as a regular columnist for ST. I was delighted to have this opportunity to work with Gibson, who, beyond being a devotee to all things saxophone, was also an excellent editor with a keen eye for detail and a firm understanding of his audience. His editorial commentary was incisive, sometimes curt, yet often warm and always encouraging. With "Acumen ad libitum," it was truly a gift to be able to put into writing many of the lessons I had been verbally sharing with students throughout my teaching career. After a successful year, and after completing the seventh installment of my column, suddenly and without warning, I received a brief notice in the mail announcing the discontinuation of Saxophone Today. Shortly thereafter, the ST website was taken down and all of its published content made unavailable. The saxophone community was a tremendous beneficiary of Gibson's curation of saxophone topics, whether large or obscure, and I am deeply grateful to him for his generosity and support throughout my career. 

Acumen ad libitum, vol. 1

Saxophone Today – Sept/Oct 2016

Humanities, Math, and Science: Music’s Unseen Scaffolding

James R. Noyes

“[I] have learned more about counterpoint from [novelist] Jean Paul than from my music teacher.”

- - Robert Schumann


As you may have noticed, in recent months a temporary framework has been assembled at the site of historic Riverside Church. Presently utilized for the purpose of repairs, it reveals that which was the most fundamental element in erecting this church: its scaffold. This carefully devised system is used to support workers and materials during construction, but once a structure is able to support itself and function on its own, the scaffold is dismantled – not so much as “removed,” as merely “hidden from view.” And, while most people clearly understand the indispensable relationship between scaffolds and buildings, it may come as a great surprise that musical compositions (apart from traditional “visible” formulas such as sonata or theme and variations) are often built in much the same way, not with the aid of poles and planks, but with that of humanities, math, and science.

There are those who have long thought musical composition to be the product of divine inspiration and nothing more. Here, one must be reminded (nearly 150 years after publication of Darwin’s magnum opus), that creationism, be it applied to the origin of species or the origin of a work of art, has no empirical basis. And, while Bach often quoted Gerhardt Niedt, who stated, “The sole purpose of harmony is the Glory of God,” the composer is said to have insisted himself, “I had to work hard; those who work as hard as I did will achieve the same.”And what of this hard work? Consider his Cantata 106: are most aware that its structural design follows exactly the formal elements of the six-part Aristotelian oratory? Or, that Baroque music is based in the ancient rules of rhetorical speech as well as in the philosophies of Descartes? Consider also the Fugue in C minor, from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: are most aware that Bach went through four successive stages (from simple to complex) in composing this single work? Or, that his typical plan for fugues was one of equal balance between thematic and non-thematic sections? Consider also his “Canon per Tonos” from the Musical Offering, with its potentially infinite modulations: are most aware that this style of composing shares technical elements found in the work of graphic artist M. C. Escher and mathematician Kurt Gödel?

One better understands the reverence with which Schumann held writer Jean Paul upon hearing the intricate musical plotlines as they unfold, indeed take unexpected twists and turns, in the composer’s piano cycles. And, it was in the twentieth century that the compositional techniques of Luciano Berio followed closely those of author James Joyce and the idea of “Work in Progress.” Claude Debussy revealed his literary obsession by confiding to a friend, “E. A. Poe...exerts over me an almost distressing tyranny.” Looking at his career from beginning to end, Debussy was always involved in projects heavily influenced by or entirely based on Poe, and in particular it was “The Fall of the House of Usher” that cast the greatest shadow. Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” was considered to be a “virtual catechism” by Debussy as well as the entire symbolist movement in art of late 19th-century France.


Debussy was also a counter of measures (as was Bach and many others), and used mathematical formulas based in the Fibonacci summation series (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc.) to create naturally proportioned musical scores (including spiral shapes) based on the “Golden Section,” which expressed as a number equals 0.6180..., or as an equation equals a/b = b/a + b. Use of such proportions by Renaissance architects, as well as painters such as da Vinci or Hokusai is widely known, and as applied in music, can be traced as far back as Monteverdi and the late 16th century. The ancient Greeks named this number Phi, and discovery of certain geometrical concepts (including that of the 5-pointed star) based on Phi is attributed to Pythagoras (whose tuning system based entirely on 3:2 is still in use by modern string orchestras). Looking even further into the past, we see this proportion in snail shells, pinecones, sunflowers, and throughout the natural world. As a phrase, Phi is expressed as: “The smaller is to the larger, as the larger is to the whole,” which is an exact description of fractal geometry. Translated into the language of music, it means that by looking at the first few measures of any Beethoven score, one will find everything needed to construct the entire work!

And what of the science of music? According to David Finckel, ‘cellist for the Emerson String Quartet, “When I listen to this music [Bach] I feel my brain cells being re-aligned.” In fact, many scientific studies have now linked musical training to enhanced spatial reasoning, as well as higher scores on math, verbal and other aptitude tests. One astonishing fact is that nearly 100% of past winners in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology (for high school students) play one or more musical instruments. And, it has recently been shown that dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain, which are activated during sexual activity or eating chocolate (among many other pleasurable experiences), are the same neurotransmitters activated while listening to one’s favorite music. So, that’s the reason for those tingly feelings!

To be sure, the scaffolding of humanities, math, and science provides substance and structure to the music we hold dear, and in a much greater sense, music is the scaffold of our lives. It supports us in times of crisis and offers greater heights in our celebrations. It reinforces our togetherness as brothers and sisters of a common humanity, and it does so by providing meaningful nourishment for the body, soul, and spirit. Indeed, our relationship to music is utterly indispensable, which begs the question: if this musical framework were taken down, would our reasons for living still exist? Reminded of Darwin once more, and the tremendous success of our species, it appears self-evident that music is and has always been our greatest survival skill.

Acumen ad libitum, vol. 2

Saxophone Today – Sept/Oct 2016

Discovering the Secret of Musical Composition –

Part I: Listening to Our Surroundings

James R. Noyes

Some fifteen years ago, as I stood reading on the uptown number 1 train, another passenger caught my eye and nodded approvingly at my choice of literature. “Great book,” he said. Now, this wasn’t Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code or anything that had ever been on the best-seller list. This was Claude Debussy: et son temps [Claude Debussy: His Life and Works], the first definitive biography of the composer, by Léon Vallas [translated into English by Maire and Grace O'Brien]. As a budding scholar of Debussy’s music, particularly his Rapsodie pour orchestra et saxophone, I concurred, but with one criticism, “I only wish it had an index.” My acquaintance was taken aback, “You’re never going to believe this, but some years ago, I gave an assignment to a graduate student to create one.” Incredulous that my wish had suddenly been granted, we exchanged information and within days, a letter arrived with a crisp copy of the typewritten index – what a New York moment!

It was around this same time that I received another gift, this time from Debussy himself. In 1911, during an interview with the magazine Excelsior (and reprinted by Vallas), he mused:

“Who will discover the secret of musical composition? The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird, register complex impressions within us. Then suddenly, without any deliberate consent on our part, one of these memories issues forth to express itself in the language of music. It bears its own harmony within it. By no effort of ours can we achieve anything more truthful or accurate. In this way only does a soul destined for music discover its most beautiful ideas.”

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but instinctively, I knew this was perhaps the most significant revelation in Debussy’s entire biography, that somehow, the best ideas in music are already present within the natural world. Of course, “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” [“Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea”], the third movement of Debussy’s symphonic masterpiece, La Mer, is a prime and compelling example of his stated theory, with rolling thunder, sinister ocean swells, howling winds, misty sprays, choppy surf, crashing waves, and awe-inspiring magnificence.

However, it wasn’t until I read A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, by Ashley Kahn (a Christmas present from my mom in 2002), that I began to understand more fully what Debussy was getting at. Of course, anyone who has heard the opening movement,“Acknowledgment,” understands the direct link between the introductory bass ostinato and the final chant of, “A love su–preme.” A more discerning ear, however, will hear the tenor saxophone cycling through this motif within all keys and all registers, as well as in rhythmic diminution and augmentation. Here, Coltrane is at once implying and paying homage to the all-mighty, who is in all things – indeed, is all things (according to Trane and others) – and to whom the album is presented as “a humble offering.” Kahn’s discussion of “Psalm,” where Coltrane “reads aloud” his psalm to God (printed in the liner notes) through his instrument, was a true revelation and attests to the depths of his hidden compositional techniques, which are both spiritually profound and intensely personal.

As if by magic, the world of sound I had known my entire life began to unlock its secrets. Over at a friend’s apartment, while listening to “The Pyramid Song,” by Radiohead, I was startled to realize that the opening harmony, an F-sharp major chord in a root position voicing, was also the exact sound when turning on my (late 90s) Mac computer. Was Radiohead hinting at a connection between acoustical sounds and pyramids? Alternative research emerging at that time (The Giza Power Plant: The Technologies of Ancient Egypt by Christopher Dunn) theorized that the pyramids were not tombs at all, but acoustical devices that create a harmonic resonance with the earth to generate wireless electricity. The song also includes a tremulous mixture of “cosmic” sounds coupled with such enigmatic lyrics as, “A moon full of stars and astral cars.” Are there links between the pyramids and outer space? According to Egyptian mythology, souls of dead kings travelled to Orion to become stars within that constellation. Did they hitch a ride in “astral cars”? New evidence even suggests that the pyramids were built in alignment with Orion’s Belt – I mean, talk about far out!

Then, while doing dishes, I put on a recently purchased album, Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix. When I heard rapid-fire gunshots (played on the snare drum), I stopped everything, dried my hands, picked up the CD and was amazed to read the title of the first track – “Machine Gun.” When I listened again from the beginning, I heard the opening dedication to all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. There is perhaps no more fitting correlation in music than the visceral screams of Hendrix’s distorted electric guitar and the epic insanity of modern warfare – no ensemble of acoustic instruments even comes close. Midway through, Buddy Miles brings out the heavy artillery with chilling results.

So, here I was, realizing that this so-called “secret of musical composition” was, indeed, the foundation for some of the greatest composers and improvisers throughout the world. I then considered Debussy’s mention of “the curve of the horizon” – where might that be? It didn’t take me long to realize that embedded within Alexander Borodin’s orchestral masterpiece, В Центральной Азии [V srednyeĭ Azii, In Central Asia] (which I had recently transcribed for an eleven piece saxophone ensemble), was one such place where earth and sky meet as represented by harmonics on the high strings. This “haze” disappears once the caravan comes near enough to block our “view.” Russia is a land where east meets west, and here, Borodin superimposes both occidental and oriental melodies together over a common harmony – such an outstanding metaphor of unity!

And, what about “the cry of a bird”? For this most striking example, I give credit to my good friend and neighbor, Gary Morgan, who around that time had turned me on to the Brazilian composer, Hermeto Pascoal. We listened to recordings where Pascoal was a sideman with Miles Davis and watched a video of his own band playing in a cave, where the stalactites and stalagmites were played as tuned percussion instruments. I then purchased Festa Dos Deuses [Feast of the Gods], an album infused with nature. “Quando as Aves se Encontram, Nasce o Som” ["When the Birds Meet, Sound is Born"] features a short sequence of about six or seven different birdcalls, each played in a loop. After the initial cry, which is heard without accompaniment, subsequent calls are made into songs thickly scored with lush harmonies and complex rhythms – just like the jungle itself!

While I had been long aware of a more superficial connection between music and surroundings, this sequence of events, over a brief period of time, was my initiation into an entirely new way of looking at the world, a whirlwind tour of oceans and continents, to the Pyramids of Africa and the Amazon rainforest, to profound manifestations of both love and hate. This life-affirming journey, full of awe and wonder, continues to this very day, and as Debussy suggests, all souls destined to discover music’s most beautiful ideas are invited to venture forth!

Acumen ad libitum, vol. 3

Saxophone Today – Nov/Dec 2016

Discovering the Secret of Musical Composition –

Part II: A Survey of the Saxophone Repertoire

James R. Noyes

Arriving at Manhattan School of Music in 1997, I prepared myself to be surrounded by master performers as well as master teachers. What caught me by surprise, however, was how many master composers were in my midst – living, breathing composers, writing never-before-heard music, some of it for saxophone. Imagine that! In fact, the very first day of class, while waiting in line at the registrar’s office, I met Ruth Mueller-Maerki, a composer in my program. After a brief introduction, she exclaimed, “I am planning to write a saxophone quartet!” A short time later, the MSM Saxophone Quartet (of which I was a member) became the workshop for Steve Cohen’s Saxophone Quartet No 2, and not long after that, Jan Feddersen, at my request, agreed to compose his Quartett for Soprano Saxophone, Harp, Accordion, and Vibraphone. The dialogue of ideas between Ruth, Steve, Jan and all of the players was fruitful, leading to revised scores, inspired premieres and enduring friendships.

I also began to get to know the music and life of another composer, Claude Debussy, who “spoke to me” when I came across this quotation:

“Who will discover the secret of musical composition? The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird, register complex impressions within us. Then suddenly, without any deliberate consent on our part, one of these memories issues forth to express itself in the language of music. It bears its own harmony within it. By no effort of ours can we achieve anything more truthful or accurate. In this way only does a soul destined for music discover its most beautiful ideas.”

By the time I read this, I had worked with many more composers on a personal level and understood this to be a rare insight into the creative process. Taking Debussy’s lead, and with the help of other sources pointing me in that direction, I delved into how this concept could be applied to all styles and genres of music, including such diverse composers as Borodin, Pascoal, Coltrane, Hendrix, and Radiohead (please see “Acumen ad libitum, vol. 2, Discovering the Secret of Musical Composition: Part I”). Hot on the trail of discovery, it now came time to investigate further the music of my primary instrument. Moving beyond the notes and rhythms, where were the hidden secrets within the saxophone repertoire as written by the likes of Debussy, Glazunov, Heiden, and Still?

In 1901, Debussy accepted (by way of oboist George Longy) a commission from Boston Orchestral Club President, Elise Hall, which was eventually published as Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone. Hall endeavored to expand the role of the saxophone by commissioning nearly two-dozen works, both chamber and symphonic. In Debussy’s score, one can readily hear the complex relationship between orchestra and saxophone, at times awkward, yet amicable, but also exclusionary and even menacing. Rapsodie begins with a misterioso introduction, where the melancholy saxophone wanders in rather haltingly, without accompaniment, almost as if to ask, “Am I in the right place?” The clarinet offers immediate solace with a gentle echo of acceptance while the strings and brass provide lush support as the saxophone sings with greater confidence. However, a lively dance interjects with a teasing, almost sneering oboe (and a haughty flute offering concurrence) as if to say, “Saxophone in the orchestra? Not if we have anything to say about it!” This push and pull provides the basis for Debussy’s entire symphonic portrait, and careful study of the orchestration reveals the English horn (itself with only a limited role) to feel most supremely threatened. While eventually, even as the oboe and saxophone share a tender moment, a sudden and sinister turn of events finds the two “angled horns” engaged in a musical wrestling match of swirling sixteenth notes. Pleading its case, the saxophone appears to come up short in the very end. But, then again, Debussy did fulfill Hall’s request for “un morceau pour orchestre et saxophone oblige,” so in taking the long view of history, this must be considered a tremendous success.

Alexander Glazunov was chronically ill, in self-imposed exile, and seeking renewed musical opportunities when, in early 1934, “under the influence of attacks rather than requests” from Sigurd Rascher, he began his Concerto in E-flat for Saxophone and String Orchestra. How did these trying circumstances inspire him to complete his final opus? When Branford Marsalis performed the Concerto with the New York Philharmonic in 2011, he credits conductor Andrey Boreyko for explaining to him what Russian melodies “represent emotionally.” The opening theme, so often repeated, embodies “homesickness and a longing to be back in Russia,” and every time this melody is altered it reveals “a different emotion.” Looking to increase the potential for affective impact, Boreyko and Marsalis “chose to ignore the printed metronome markings,” which is a practice Debussy also advocated. Indeed, while most contemporary performances finish in less than 14 minutes, Glazunov’s own words suggest a more pensive, unhurried approach, with room for greater liberties so that the music lasts “no longer than 18 minutes.” Marsalis also cautions saxophonists against playing with a “straight beat,” but to instead “dig out of the melody” all its inherent beauty by taking the time (in research and in performance) to discover the underlying sentiment contained within these musical ideas.

A year after Glazunov wrote his Concerto, composer Bernard Heiden, a German Jew, fled the Nazi regime and settled in Detroit. The circumstances surrounding his (and his wife’s) escape to freedom permeate his first major work, the Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, written for Larry Teal and premiered in 1937. The opening march, filled with aggressive dotted rhythms, is suggestive of jack- booted storm troopers, terrorizing those who are “out of step” (characterized by the 3/8 bars), while a plaintive and subdued second theme mourns the loss of innocence, with “seufzer-like” sobbing gestures. A startled and breathless beginning to the second movement infers panic as the polizei sirens go howling past, creating a Doppler effect. The tempo here indicates one must act swiftly and decisively without stumbling, without looking back – run as if your life depends on it! There is hardly time to say goodbye in the brief opening of the last movement, where the lyrical line seems to invoke a purposeful sense of resignation for what must come next. Riding the waves to freedom in a new land, the undulating sixteenth notes portray the unsteady footing on the ship of unknown prospects, which leads to a final, heartbreaking cry followed by a thriving determination to persevere.

Some twenty years after approaching Alexander Glazunov, Sigurd Rascher reached out to William Grant Still, the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” who, in 1954, wrote Romance for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, the first movement of an intended two-movement work. The descriptive title, Romance, helps identify the source material for the musical elements. The opening line features gentle breathing (D-E) and heartbeat patterns (G-G), which intensify to satisfied C-major sighs in the upper register – could this be true love? However, after a brief piano interlude, uncertainty encroaches with a string of unresolved leading tones (B), heightening the emotional intensity, which culminates in a burst of tears and weeping – a simple misunderstanding, or something more? Hopeful questioning ensues, heart and tummy aflutter – where is this heading? With a return to the relaxed and buoyant opening theme in C major, all’s well that ends well. Ironically, dissatisfied with Still’s second movement, a reworking of Quit Dat Fool’nish, Rascher never performed either piece – sounds like a nasty breakup!

Even now, I’m amazed at the discoveries lying in wait with music I’ve heard countless times, or scores I previously thought I fully understood. This is not unlike a lasting relationship, where, even after years of knowing someone, surprising new aspects of her/his character and personality come to the surface. The act of composing, a way of relating to one’s self, can often (“without any deliberate consent”) bring out musical, and even personal, qualities the composer never knew existed. As performers and teachers, when we engage with all souls “destined for music,” we must honor our obligation to discover and reveal these “secrets.” As Marsalis states, “[Boreyko and I] have played [the Glazunov Concerto] five times, and each time, we’re committed to digging more and more information out of the piece.”

Acumen ad libitum, vol. 4

Saxophone Today – Nov/Dec 2016

Rise Up Singing: For the Love of It

James R. Noyes

Singing has always been at the root of instrumental musicianship. When teachers ask their students to play “more musically,” what they often mean is, “play the melody as if you were singing it.” An often-told anecdote about the legendary balladeer, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, gives credence to this point of view. On one occasion, during a performance while in the middle of a solo, Webster stopped playing. When asked about it later, he simply said, “I forgot the words.” On the classical side, composers have long made exclusive use of the saxophone’s vocal quality, going as far back as Jules Demersseman’s Fantaisie sur un Thème Original (1860), which Ted Hegvik rightly refers to as “Grand opera for the saxophone.”

Considering how important singing is to the lifeblood of music making (especially on the saxophone), and to society in general, it is a sad commentary that we live in a time where fewer people than ever before identify themselves as singers. Indeed, vocalizing has seen a swift and precipitous decline within the last 130 years, due to the invention and advancement of recording technologies. In fact, the great American bandmaster, John Philip Sousa, predicted such a plight in 1906 (when he testified before congress and published “The Menace of Mechanical Music”), where he warned of “infernal machines going night and day” that “substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.”Elaborating on the subject, Sousa prophesied:

“The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technique, it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely....[T]he tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant.”

This shockingly accurate portrait of where we are today is best summed up by Homer Simpson, when, after Bart quits playing electric guitar because he “wasn’t good at it right away,” reassures his son that “if something is hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.” And, while concern over the loss of an entire class of musicians – amateurs – may at first appear misplaced, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (writing in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) provides insightful context to bolster Sousa’s claims:

“There are two words whose meanings reflect our somewhat warped attitudes toward levels of commitment to physical or mental activities. These are the terms amateur and dilettante. Nowadays these labels are slightly derogatory. An amateur or a dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally, amateur, from the Latin verb amare, to love, referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly a dilettante, from the Latin delectare, to find delight in, was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attention to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving. Nothing illustrates as clearly our changing attitudes toward the value of experience as the fate of these two words.”

In the realm of singing, there is perhaps no greater example of such aforementioned “warped attitudes” as the case of how our national anthem is performed. Growing up in Iowa City, I remember with great fondness going with my father to University of Iowa basketball games where we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as well as numerous Hawkeye “fight” songs along with a crowd consisting predominantly of men. Sure, we sang for patriotism and camaraderie, but mostly we sang because it was fun and a tremendously uplifting way to feel part of the team. However, around the same time, professional singers began to perform our national anthem as soloists, using it as a vehicle to display a wide spectrum of inflection and creative license. In the most extreme cases, this makes it all but impossible for audiences to join in. José Feliciano was widely criticized for his interpretation of the song presented at the 1968 World Series, but this event can be seen as opening the door to further artistic renditions. This change in custom may have been inevitable, but regrettably, what had once been a shared experience of many, has now become the accomplishment of just a few, and instead of strengthening the bonds of community through collective participation, people now just stand as audience members and prepare for 90-seconds of passive endurance.

In an effort to buck this trend of vanishing amateurism, and in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, a group of friends and acquaintances in my neighborhood of Inwood (upper Manhattan) got together and decided the best response to terrorism was to sing together, accompanied by one or more acoustic guitars. Some five years later, I became part of this circle and tapped into to an amazing musical resource, Rise Up Singing, The Group Singing Songbook, which has words, chords, and sources to 1200 songs. The introduction by Pete Seeger says it all:

Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life? As much as talking, physical exercise, and religion. Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes or walking long journeys. Nowadays we tend to put all these thing in boxes. Can we begin to make our lives once more “all of a piece?” Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start... A singing movement is a winning movement. We’re putting a world together before it blows itself apart...


In the past ten years, through gathering together every couple weeks or months, I have learned dozens of new songs and re-learned dozens of others I had forgotten. I have even discovered two new instrumental voices, the ukulele (for when I am the only instrumentalist in the group) and tenor recorder (for melodies and improvisational accompaniments, since the saxophone can easily overpower in such situations). Most importantly, I have made many friends with whom I look forward to seeing, sharing meals, discussing current events, and of course – singing. If you aspire to build community, I can hardly think of a better way. There’s even a second volume just published, called Rise Again, for a sum total of 2400 songs – now, that’s a lifetime of vocalizing!

Testifying before congress, Sousa recalled, “When I was boy, in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs,” and in an interview on NPR, Johnny Cash reminisced about moving to Memphis in 1954, where “if somebody in the house [apartment complex on McLean Boulevard] was playing music when I would come [home], I would stop and sing with them.” Today, we live in an entirely different world, poignantly described by Paul Simon, “People writing songs that voices never shared – no one dared – disturb the sounds of silence.” Unfortunately, these words even apply to gifted musicians, such as those I teach at the Manhattan School of Music, Precollege Division, where some students struggle to overcome their fears of singing. Here, Bill Hull’s famous comment (cited in John Holt’s How Children Fail) comes to mind – “If we taught children how to speak, they would never learn.” When students who are ripe for discovering their own voices are instead given the task of sight-reading meaningless exercises using syllables from a language foreign to their own, is it any wonder they fail to develop a passion for singing?

As one of many antidotes to this typical “ear-training” routine, I chose to take Jean Sibelius’ famous chorale, Finlandia, and by following what Pete Seeger calls “the folk process,” wrote a new verse emphasizing the importance of why we sing:

Oh, let us sing! Oh, let us raise our voices.
Song warms the heart, and makes the spirit well. We choose to sing! Just one of many choices, Which help to bring us closer to ourselves. Song also brings us close to one another.
Life is our song, a story we all tell.

The students sing this most weeks of the year as we gather together for class. They learn melody, harmony, intonation, balance, and blend, but perhaps most importantly, each begins to learn about and feel comfortable with her/his own voice and the voices of those around them. As I have long told my students, “Music teaches us how to listen, and how to make friends.” Furthermore, according to researchers in Sweden, when choirs sing, it has a calming effect where many hearts beat as one. This is just another way of expressing “come-unity.” The four-part sheet music is attached here – please feel free to share!

There is absolutely no downside to singing. It will improve your musicianship, your life, and your community, and the only costs appear to be if we stop. In the words of Stan Getz, “If you like an instrument that sings, play the saxophone. At its best it’s like the human voice.” Hear, hear! Let us all be at our best. Let us rise up and reconnect – to experience the pure delight in and to feel the deep love of – singing!

Acumen ad libitum, vol. 5

Saxophone Today – Mar/Apr 2017

Making Music Your Own –

Part I: Transcribing and Arranging

James R. Noyes

In his travels to China in the 1970s (chronicled in the Academy Award-winning documentary, From Mao to Mozart), violinist Isaac Stern told a string quartet he was coaching, “Play the music [of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven] as though you’re composing it.” In other words, he was saying to them, “Make this music your own.” While this is certainly a common pronouncement at master classes everywhere, the many paths to musical “ownership” often remain elusive, and finding direction in the interpretive process takes practice. Two techniques that provide a wealth of necessary experience are transcribing and arranging. Each provides opportunities for musical decision-making and both open the doors of discovery, where musicians can re-shape a repertoire in their own image.

My own development as a musician, and later as a composer, was greatly influenced first by the process of transcribing music. While in high school, I transcribed horn parts from the Blues Brothers and Chicago, as well as solos by the likes of Paul Desmond and Joe Henderson. These experiences gave me an ear for harmonization as well as a model for how to formulate improvised solos based in a reiterative approach. As a member of the University of Minnesota marching band, I penned a saxophone-section-only rendition of The Muppet Show theme, where I learned how effective a simple bass-line can be for supporting a tune. Later, with the U of M saxophone quartet, I transcribed Al Cohn’s recording of “My Blues” for the group. With its delicate balance of written and improvised melodies, it offered a concise lesson on blending control with spontaneity.

Shortly after becoming a member of the “Saxophobia” saxophone quartet at Penn State, I remember learning that Edvard Grieg’s hugely popular orchestral score, Peer Gynt Suite, had originally been written for piano four-hands, and with this information I soon realized a spirited adaptation for four-saxophones. When I then heard a Russian recording of Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia at Manhattan School of Music, I imagined the English and French horns (both played with vibrato) as alto and tenor saxophones, and the lower strings (with their march-like pizzicato) as baritone and bass. As I had suspected, when this transcription was finally premiered in 2001, the tone colors and idiomatic writing were a perfect match for the 11-piece saxophone “orchestra.”

For the past 20 years, based on the profound effect transcribing has had on my own development as a musician, I have been asking and encouraging my students to do exactly what I’ve been doing – transcribe for yourself or your ensemble. Three solo projects by students have featured sonatas for oboe, English horn, and bassoon, all by Hindemith, which were re-written for soprano, alto, and baritone saxophones respectively. Additionally, many of my students have written for saxophone trios, quartets, quintets and large ensembles, and have included Western composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Holst, Joplin, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky), popular artists (the Beach Boys, Björk, Rush) Broadway, TV, & film scores (South Pacific, various Disney, Dr. Who, The Last Airbender) and numerous video game accompaniments (Mario Bros, Mega Man, Castlevania). Here, pre-professionals learn suitable transpositions, tessitura, and orchestration, as they search the possibilities within balance, and blend, all the while testing the boundaries of dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and tempo. Many, especially those who are earning degrees in education, take up the baton and conduct their large ensemble pieces while I take their spot the group. It’s exciting to witness the process as it unfolds, and to experience a deeper connection to music that is both palpable and enriching for all involved, including those in the audience.

For those with some transcribing experience under their belt, creating original musical arrangements is a natural next step. In my case, as the leader of the Safe Sax Jazz Quintet, I combined my academic arranging skills with what I learned from transcribing recorded arrangements from the likes of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin, Gil Evans, and others to create fresh perspectives and new grooves on old standards. As the primary arranger for Soul Gypsys, I wrote 3- horn charts for the originals written by our singer/guitarist, Gene Woods. In many cases, these section parts were elevated from the background to become complimentary lead lines, original and attractive phrases complete with lush, extended harmonies. Some were very catchy as well, standing out as the primary “hook” for the song. Indeed, arranging can produce tremendously fruitful collaborations. I attended a master class given by Bob Mintzer, who said that when he auditioned for the Yellow Jackets, they were impressed with his abilities on saxophone (as well as flute, bass clarinet and EWI), but he said it was his skills as an arranger that sealed the deal. For those with ears – hear, hear!

When creating a musical arrangement, the process of analysis and exploration intensifies, becoming more dependent on choices made not by the composer, but of the arranger. One must ultimately determine, “How far do I take this music from its original setting?” As the answers to this question take shape, there are a number of simple, yet surprisingly effective contrapuntal techniques that can push the envelope while staying close to home. These include playing a melody in canon (with successive entrances), in rhythmic augmentation or diminution (longer or shorter note values), in retrograde (backward) or inversion (upside-down). One can also superimpose a melody on itself at a predetermined interval, either real (following the exact contour) or tonal (following the key signature). With today’s music notation software, one can try out almost limitless combinations of possibilities in this regard.

Additional creative devices for snazzing up an arrangement can involve adapting music to a different or “odd” time signature (4/4 to 6/8 or 7/8), unexpected rhythmic shifts (hemiola), alternating between rhythmic feelings (straight, swing, shuffle, or samba), or syncopated placement of rests. A simplified (modal), altered (chromatic), or extended (9th, 11th, 13th) harmonization can also take an arrangement into “uncharted” territory – literally. One can even modify the form of a piece or borrow from other works altogether, rendering the original nearly unrecognizable to all but the most astute listeners – a musical riddle to be solved!

Taking the advice of my colleague, saxophonist David Demsey, I took to writing my most ambitious project of this kind – an entirely through-composed jazz arrangement for his group, the American Saxophone Quartet. Borrowing ideas from all of my previous experience and discovering new paths of creativity, the end result was “Groovin’ Four,” a combination of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” and Eddie Vinson’s “Four.” It heavily features written lines for soprano and baritone saxophonists and includes improvised solo space for alto and tenor. However, in an ironic footnote to this story, when I finally delivered the score and parts to David, due to the recent dispersal of members to other part of the country, the ASQ had disbanded!

Transcribing and arranging are both deeply satisfying endeavors, offering chances to play music that the performer had a hand in writing. Anyone can learn how, and as opportunities readily present themselves, one begins to identify what is “ripe for the taking.” Perhaps the most challenging aspect of any creative process is getting started. However, this is nothing new, since, as the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” The good news for those who take that first stride is that this musical journey needn’t have an end – the choice of destinations is unlimited!

Acumen ad libitum, vol. 6

Saxophone Today – May/Jun 2016

Making Music Your Own –

Part II: Composing

James R. Noyes

Sometimes, a brief nugget of wisdom can have a lasting impression. Twenty-five years ago, as I was just getting started in the professional world, I was offered some valuable advice – “As a musician, the single most important thing you can do for your career is to compose original music.” I took this to heart, and although I was not yet a composer, nor did I fully realize the implications of this statement, from then on I remained vigilant for when such opportunities to compose might arise. Indeed, for those who are open to the possibilities, chances for writing and performing original music frequently present themselves.

In Part I of “Making Music Your Own,” I described some of what influenced my journey of musical “ownership,” which included numerous instances of transcribing and arranging others people’s music. These experiences provided me with the skills to eventually step out on my own as a composer. My first invitation to write original music came from singer/songwriter Gene Woods, who asked me to compose horn lines for his songs. Collaborating is an ideal way for the novice to gain experience, since it allows the work to be divided up. In this case, I was able to focus on my strength as an experienced wind player and leave the poetry and songwriting to Gene. Having to meet the approval of a more experienced musician, someone whom I admired, was also a motivating factor. Gene had booked our first gig only a month after our first rehearsal, so the success of our band was riding on whether I could deliver quality horn charts – audiences would be hearing them soon! For a young composer, this was an ideal training ground. Surrounded by many seasoned players, I experienced tremendous growth, both professionally and personally.

By the mid-90s, after having led the Safe Sax Jazz Quintet for three years, I began writing my first jazz originals. Blues and AABA song forms are great resources for anyone (just think of Thelonious Monk) and so this is where I started. In both cases, due to the repetition inherent in each structure, the amount of musical material needed to complete a song is far less than the total number of measures, which can make the process of coming up with fresh ideas feel less daunting. I also found the “ii-V7-I” to be a reliable harmonic sequence to support my newly written melodies. When trumpeter John Daniel joined the band, the originals he brought to the group often employed unusual forms and chord progressions, and a melodic sensibility uniquely his own. It wasn’t long before the band was filling entire sets with tunes we had penned ourselves. What a thrill it was to be creating new “standards” within the tradition!

At that time many new tools for aiding the process of writing original songs were just becoming available. After composing a melody on the tenor or baritone saxophone, I then used Band-in-a-Box to plug in a suitable chord progression with rhythm section accompaniment, and – voila! This software streamlines the creative process like never before and is a “must have” for all jazz and popular musicians, for both practicing and composing. It is amazing how quickly a composition can come together in the home studio, which means more rehearsal time can be spent working out the details.

Quite unexpectedly, I experienced a seminal moment in my composing journey while reading Roy Howat’s groundbreaking book, Debussy in Proportion. Here I learned that Edgar Allan Poe (and specifically his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition”) had greatly influenced Claude Debussy and other artists in fin de siècle France. After reading the essay myself, I understood why. Poe suggests that the “answers” to any original creation are already present, so that one need only ask the “right questions.” He then goes through his step-by-step process for composing “The Raven,” detailing decisions about “length,” “climax,” and “dénouement,” as well as “poetical tone,” “originality of combinations,” and “force of contrast,” among many other topics. Indeed, an analysis of Debussy’s letters and music reveals direct evidence that he consulted “The Philosophy of Composition” when composing Rapsodie pour orchestra et saxophone (see my research entitled “Poe & Debussy and their Rapsodie”).

Around the same time, having joined a church in 2002, I became inspired to contribute original texts and music for services. Since then, I have written over thirty songs (including lyrics) in all styles, often following Poe’s trusted method of composing. These include Equinox Liturgy (a jazz-influenced service, inspired by John Coltrane’s minor blues, “Equinox,” and featuring original words put to Kenny Garrett’s “Sing a Song of Song”), The Way of Ascension (featuring gospel, rhythm & blues, and pop), and Service of Light (a folk setting).

In addition, as my keyboard skills have improved, I now rely less on software for composing. I’m by no means a virtuoso pianist, but generally speaking, if I can’t play it, I won’t write it. This limitation is actually a creative spark, since it forces me to discover musical pathways that are both simple, yet effective, and for that matter, affective as well. Compositional devices used for centuries, such a passacaglia, canon, and binary form have provided rich resources, as have the myriad techniques of word painting, where poetry implies musical phrases, be it melodic, harmonic or rhythmic. Orchestration can also enhance the connotation of a song, since each musical instrument has its own character associations and can heighten certain feelings or moods. On a couple of occasions, I found it necessary to utilize “spacial” effects where performers are stationed at different places throughout the sanctuary, and in once instance, a piece really called for an interpretive dancer. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities where audiences can participate as well. While this last one can be tricky, it can also create a lasting impression.

Composing original music has been the most important way in which to diversify my career, since these days, most do not have the luxury to specialize in one area or kind of music. And, while none of these endeavors have brought monetary gain (yet!), they have provided life-affirming enrichment – close and lasting friendships, unforgettable experiences, as well as ways to connect with a wider public and with one’s inner self. Becoming a composer has gone a long way toward defining who I am, and it has deepened my relationship with the music I perform as a saxophonist.

Having experienced many rewards from writing my own music, I encourage all musicians to try their hand at composing original scores. If you’re a member of a group, whenever possible use your ensemble as a workshop. If not, compose with the aid of virtual performers until you are able to find willing collaborators. Be patient and allow your compositional voice to take shape over months and years as opposed to days or weeks. Over time, as you imitate and assimilate various influences, your unique voice will begin to assert itself. As the famous composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger once said, “Make a list of the music you love and then learn it by heart.” Perhaps someday, your originals will show up on your list!


1 Acumen ad libitum Vol. 1 was submitted with endnotes, which were not included in the published article. Thus, all subsequent articles were submitted without citations. The original endnotes for Vol. 1 are restored below.

2 Erika Reiman, Schumann’s Piano Cycles and the Novels of Jean Paul, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004).
3 Delano K. Kahlstorf, “The Two-Part Inventions of J. S. Bach: A Performing Edition Based Upon the Keyboard Technique and Performance Practice of Bach and His Circle,” (DMA diss., Texas Tech University, 2002), 11 – 22.
4 Ulrich Siegele, “The four conceptual stages of the Fugue in C Minor, WTC I,” from Bach Studies, Don O. Franklin, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 197-224.

5 Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979), 10-21.
6 Scott W. Klein, “James Joyce and Avant-Garde Music,” a paper originally given at the Contemporary Music Centre's ReJoyce in Music Seminar, June 2004. On the web at
7 James Noyes, “Poe & Debussy, and their Rapsodie,” booklet presented in conjunction with a lecture at the North American Saxophone Alliance Biennial Convention, February 2006.
8 Roy Howat, Debussy in Proportion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
9 Emerson String Quartet, liner notes from Bach: The Art of Fugue, Deutsche Grammophon, 2003.
10 MENC: The National Association for Music Education website, education-2007. On a personal note, my father, Russell Noyes, Jr., was a winner of the Westinghouse Competition in 1952 and plays tenor banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, and sings. He is also a distinguished painter.
11 Daniel J. Levetin, This is Your Brain on Music: the Science ofa Human Obsession, (New York: Dutton, 2006).

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