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saxophone improvisations for island life, Part 1:

Note Hunting

July 2010
This project was made possible by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Swing Space program; Space in Building 110 on Governors Island is donated by The Trust For Governors Island.

Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting

Between the years of 1836-1878 a military “School of Music Practice,” housed in the South Battery on Governors Island, taught twelve to fifteen-year-old enlisted boys to play the bugle, fife, and drums for daily life and war skirmishes. On becoming an artist-in-residence, I took this history as an opportunity to learn to play the saxophone (something I had been meaning to do for a while having played but abandoned it also between the ages of eleven and thirteen). Though not used for these purposes, the saxophone debuted in military bands but later became known for its free and solo voice. Like the saxophone, Governors Island today is making a transition away from a military establishment and into an arts destination. To celebrate this parallel I began concocting ways to reanimate the island’s musical memory. Since Governors Island has been unpopulated since the Coast Guard left in 1996, it became the perfect practice space since there would be no one within earshot as I struggled through the basics.

Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting

Since I spent all of my time in residence outdoors, for this installation I wanted to translate my activities to an indoor setting, much like the way Earthworks artists in the 1970s used commercial galleries to their advantage. The materials I chose mimicked the architecture on Governors Island. The houses are built either with yellow siding or red brick. I covered one wall with plastic faux brick and the other with aluminum siding and painted it with the same yellow. Drainpipes run down all of the homes, and many of them have extension hoses attached to the ends to move the rain water away from the foundations. So I included gutters and drainpipes. The plastic turf meets the blue wall in the same way that the green grass on the island met either the water or the sky. When I took my saxophone out "hunting" for notes, I chose a uniform of camouflage that would match the colors I was standing within. With the plastics and faux nature of this setting and these uniforms I wanted to enhance the artificiality of my indoor presentation as a way to direct the viewers' attention back to the outdoors and my activities there.

Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting

To begin my instruction, I needed to relearn how to read music, so I built tools to help me do that. I used the positions of geese in the field and seagulls, swallows, and helicopters in the sky as data to write scores or play live from. I drew a five bar musical measure with a treble clef on a plastic faceshield. I used this in the field to play whatever fell within the range of the five bars. I quickly realized how difficult it was to switch between focusing on birds or plants in the distance and the black lines that were only an inch from my eyes. So I needed to create more depth. Next I found a Plexiglas music stand and put the same five black bars over that. I set this up in the field and used it in the same way a hunter would use the crosshairs on the sight of his gun. This too gave me only a limited range. It worked well for plants, but when I stepped back for objects at a greater distance, the frame of these lines became very small. To solve this, I fabricated two telescoping paint poles with spikes on the bottom, clamps on the top, and five twenty-five foot black ropes. I hammered and tied these into the ground or secured them to fences. With this larger field of vision, I could now step back in the field and raise and lower the lines according to my target notes.

Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting tools


Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting compositions
At the same time I was playing these compositions "live," I was also transcribing photographs of geese, seagulls, flowers, clouds, and many other things into musical compositions by superimposing a five bar measure over them. While some of these compositions clearly indicated notes, others required decision making. For example, the cloud compositions would be played a variety of ways by different musicians. I chose to play them by exploring harmonic overtones and multiphonics. In a photo of a crowd of people, several musicians could play different variations by choosing different criteria: while one plays hats, another could play blue shirts, and yet another blond hair.
Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting compositions
My other strategy for hunting notes and music was in connecting with the island. As I looked for locations to play the saxophone in I also wanted to tap into the island's musical memory and play the island as if it were an instrument itself. As I began to explore and photograph, the first things that caught my attention were the Canadian geese. Their honk fell within the tenor saxophone range and their necks and body shape resembled a saxophone. So I played to them as an audience, played with them by mimicking their sounds, and played them (their heads and bodies) as notes in my compositions. The goose throats directed my attention toward other "throats" on the island. I began noticing gutter systems and drainpipes that extended away from the foundations of the buildings, and canons, the moat, and other crevices or architectural features that could project sound or were acoustically interesting. Public address speakers on tall poles and the roofs of buildings are also scattered around the island. These were used by the modern military and the Coast Guard to continue the tradition of the buglers from the 1800s. Now defunct, these speakers once played the Reveille, To The Colors, Retreat, Taps, and the other calls to punctuate the daily routine of the island's military residents. Though the wires for this system are disconnected from their central PA system, their presence inspired me to keep sounding the bugle calls on the island. So I learned these as my first songs, and I played them, as well as freely making music and sounds, into these various throats.
Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting

This combination of playing bugle calls and freely blowing reminded me of the music of Albert Ayler. Ayler was a pioneer of free jazz and a master at taking simple melodies, often specifically the bugle calls, and morphing them into complex compositions. So I printed out several Albert Ayler lead sheets and began to learn his melodies as well. At this early stage in my learning, playing simple melodies and freely improvising were the two things I could do. So, in this sense, Albert Ayler became my first teacher. I quickly learned that Ayler's mastery and complexity was his ability to fuse these two things, a talent and skill that would take a lifetime to master. After reading more about Albert Ayler and listening to his music and interviews, I learned that he died in NY Harbor. He was last seen on November 25, 1970 and his body was discovered floating near either (there are conflicting reports) Congress Pier in Brooklyn or around Liberty Island, the result of suicide. Governors Island looks out over both of these locations, and Ayler's body must have passed by here. So I took my rudimentary bugle calls, my Ayler lead sheets, and my free playing and projected them over the waters of NY Harbor in his memory.

Saxophone Improvisations - Note Hunting

my adapation of LOVE CRY - one of the songs Ayler played at John Coltrane's funeral

Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Note Hunting
To further represent these activities, I built notes and set them in the center of the installation as the successes of my hunting outings.
Saxophone Improvisations for Island Life - Hunter


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