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'It works beautifully on the saxophone': An interview with Amy Dickson (GD)

Amy Dickson and Gavin Dixon


Philip Glass and John Tavener get a makeover on Amy Dickson’s new album. She has arranged the Glass Violin Concerto and a movement of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil for soprano saxophone and has recorded them, along with Michael Nyman’s Where the Bee Dances, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mikel Toms. Here, Gavin Dixon talks with Amy about the project and about her pioneering career as a classical saxophonist.

Congratulations on your new CD! Your arrangements seem to be exploring some fascinating new directions for the classical saxophone, and the whole disc is beautifully played. Can I start by asking you what attracted you to the Philip Glass Violin Concerto?

I was played it by a friend about three or four years ago. I instantly fell in love with it, but when this friend suggested I play it on the saxophone, my first reaction was that it was a stupid idea, it would be impossible. Then I got thinking and I really did love it so much that I wanted to try. I started mucking around with it, just playing it by ear and trying to make it work. When I was signed by Sony, they really liked the idea, so I started thinking about it a little more seriously. I wrote to Philip Glass. He gave me his approval to arrange the work, and I sent the score to him at various points as the arrangement came together.

What sort of technical challenges did the work pose?

Many of the longer phrases require circular breathing, which I couldn’t do when I started the arrangement. It took about six months of practising before my circular breathing was at a level where I was happy to do it in front of an orchestra. I also had to get used to some unnatural fingerings, as there are a lot of strange leaps and intervals. It’s not like on the violin, where you can tackle so many notes in one bow and play the large intervals by jumping between the strings. Also, some of the notes are very, very high. I didn’t want to change too many octaves or leave any notes out. Just learning to do that technically was very challenging. It probably took me about a year to be able to do it.

Were there any RSI issues?

Yes, and I actually had quite a bit of trouble with that while I was doing the recording. I learnt to combat it, but it was a bit of worry at the time.

Had you already played the concerto live?

Yes. I gave the first performance at the end of 2008 and it went really well. I think it works beautifully on the saxophone, especially the soprano saxophone. A lot of the writing in the solo part is mirrored in the wind instruments, and the saxophone combines with them very differently to the violin. It is able to merge with the sounds of the oboe and the flute; it is a very interesting mix. I originally made the arrangement for alto, and the Tavener too, because being works for violin and cello, the alto saxophone seemed more suitable. But I got such a shock when I finished my arrangement and I played it. It sounded horrible! It just didn’t sit right. By then we had the RPO booked and everything was ready to go, and I thought ‘Aghhhh....’ Then I thought I’d put it on the soprano and see what it sounded like and it was beautiful. I don’t know why it didn’t work on the alto.

For many Philip Glass sceptics, the Violin Concerto is the one work they’ll make an exception for. Perhaps that is because he allows so much of the soloist to come through. There is so much scope for expression. I’m thinking particularly of the second movement...

Yes, when I came to the work, I didn’t treat is as being different from any other concerto, or from any of the Romantic concertos I play. I really love the second movement because there is so much scope for beautiful phrasing. It is challenging in that the phrases are so long, yet so transparent. And the outer movements are so cleverly written. I think that is why people who don’t like Glass’ music generally can quite happily listen to the Violin Concerto and find it interesting. All the way through the solo part, he just changes little tiny things that might not be immediately obvious to the audience. It is a very clever way of developing the motives. It also made memorising it easier.

I love that sensation at the end of the first movement that what you have just heard seems to forms coherent, even symphonic, structure, but you have no idea how he did it.

I think you need a copy of the score and a lot of time on your hands to make sense of all the developments, but it is very interesting.

Were you inclined to try to imitate the sounds of the string instruments for which the Glass and the Tavener were originally written, or were you essentially trying to create true saxophone concertos?

I had to make each into my own piece. The arrangement process was difficult because I heard them as works for violin and cello. But the point came when I could play both works and I decided to forget all about the violin and cello and just perform the works as saxophone concertos. I remember that point. Usually that wouldn’t have been the case, even if it was an arrangement. But because I did the arrangements myself and I was trying to emulate the originals as much as I could, I desperately didn’t want to change very much. I had to change a few octave leaps, but that was about it. I was trying to be a cello or a violin for so long, but then there was a moment when I had to say, OK now it is a saxophone that I am playing.

I assume that the Tavener requires you to spend a lot of time in the lower register of the saxophone.

I love the deep, stringy sound that Tavener draws from the cello in the lower register. In that respect, I guess it is very similar to the saxophone, because the extremities are so different. The saxophone repertoire actually makes very little use of the lower register. It can be difficult to play well in the lower register because it is less malleable, but it is possible to achieve a rich, singing timbre from these deep notes.

It sounds like you really made the most of it. Have any other saxophonists had an influence on your tone?

Absolutely. Everybody is an influence, and there is such a diverse range of sounds between different players. My sound owes a great deal to the teachers I travelled all the way from Australia to study with, Kyle Horch, who is at the Royal College of Music, and Arno Bornkamp in Amsterdam. I chose my teachers because I wanted their sounds. I think that I’ve a slightly different sound to them because I’m me, but I’ve tried very hard to emulate a certain sound.

I notice that Martin Robertson was one of your teachers. Can I ask what you think of the saxophone music of Mark-Anthony Turnage?

I love it, it is so powerful. It’s wonderful music, so cleverly written. Everybody loves listening to it, and yet he never spoon-feeds the audience. I’ve played a lot of it, and it was great to study the saxophone works with Martin because they were all written for him.

Do you think there is a good understanding among contemporary composers about what the saxophone is capable of?

Yes I do. I regularly work with composers on new music and one of my favourite things is when a composer comes round with a new piece of music and they have a coffee at my place and we play though some stuff, it’s just so much fun. It means I can give them feedback straight away and tell them if things are doable. But there are a lot of different trends in modern saxophone composition, with some distinctive styles coming out of different European countries. I guess there are two main types of repertoire that are almost independent of each other, although they are played by the same performers: one is more lyrical, the other more abstract.

What do you think the current relationship is between the classical saxophone and jazz?

They are not completely separate. I think that the saxophone is a jazz instrument. People hear it like that, and it is. It is both a classical instrument and a jazz instrument. The wonderful thing about a lot of the classical repertoire is that there are jazz influences, often almost imperceptible to the listener. So you get the chance to do a little bit of both. And there are composers using jazz in classical works, and vice versa. Turnage is a great example of somebody who is influenced by jazz but who writes beautifully in a classical way, and really well for the instrument.

Do you have any plans to make any further saxophone arrangements?

I’m always looking for repertoire to arrange, that isn’t going to offend too many people.

There are some great modern clarinet pieces which could be good on the sax.

Yes, I’d love to do the Kancheli Night Prayers.

Do you have any concerto performances on the horizon?

I’m looking forward to going back to Melbourne in May, to play Panic by Harrison Birtwistle. I’ve learned it, but I haven’t had the opportunity to perform it yet. I think it will be a great experience.

I’ll bet it was tricky to learn.

It was fine actually, because it is so well written. Of course it’s a bit tricky. The range is huge and it is technically demanding. There is a lot of quick finger work in the altissimo register.

How do you think Melbourne will respond to Birtwistle?

They’ll love it. The concert is part of the Metropolis Series, which is a series of concerts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra do each year of really new music. And the audiences really get into it.

Do you have any further recording projects lined up?

Yes. We are just starting to put the next album together at the moment. Unfortunately, I can’t say what it is, but it is a dream that I have had for many, many years, and it’s very exciting. I have tried to do different things on my first two albums, but with this I’m going to be moving in a completely different direction again.

Intriguing, and something to look forward to. In the mean time, Amy’s album of Glass, Tavener and Nyman, which I warmly recommend (even to Philip Glass sceptics), is released by Sony in the UK on the 1st of February 2010.

© Gavin Dixon 2010

Amy Dickson’s website:

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