Cusp

I met Argeo Ascani last year. He talked about how he preferred the word “cusp” over “threshold.” I agreed with him and we started cusp-cusp-cusping.

Then he told me that he played the saxophone. Oh-oh, one of those instruments that make me cringe, like the snare drum or harp. A teacher told me that I should compose for instruments I find difficult, but I am no longer in school.

Shouldn’t I just write for instruments I like?

How, after composing mostly for voices these past few years, am I to write anything meaningful for a solo instrument?

Argeo and I talked more about the sax. He said he was searching for music relevant to his experience. As a classically trained musician, he needed contemporary repertoire for the sax.

I offered that perhaps he was on the cusp, at the point where the saxophone and a potential new music coincide. This “woodwind” instrument made of brass, was created by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian who worked in France. It was a European instrument invented for military bands that became popularized by American jazz musicians. The sax is an instrument forever in-between worlds, similar to how I am between places.

I proposed writing a work called Cusp, for saxophone solo. We agreed to meet a few weeks later. I had Argeo play his sax and walk about. What was Adolphe thinking? This could never be a military instrument. Argeo looked so awkward playing the big brass elephant trunk.

My mind wandered to places I’d seen saxophonists: in bars, on street corners, in subway stations, and in theaters. I wanted to reference this instrument hailed by Berlioz, but now relegated to the “special instrument” section of symphonic orchestras. I realized that I needed a crossover space.

How about a step?

Because Argeo performs in concert halls, I proposed a small platform on top of the stage. The musical material switches when he is on or off this platform. Most importantly, Argeo has an acoustic and dramatic location while moving up or down, where the physical music can be caught in mid-air.

I compose this work now, a solo for the sax, finding that I adore the awkwardness of this adolescent instrument as it stumbles to define itself within classical music. While writing, I realize that the sax, a mutant brass-woodwind-military-jazz character is just fine with being on the Cusp.