Wednesday, January 3, 2024

"The Futility Of His Occupation". A Fanfare For Alto Saxophone

Commentary by Charles Simic, Poet and Poetry Editor of The Paris Review

Let us address the post-modern saxophonist's burden when confronting the stark emotional wilderness mapped in Bil Smith's offbeat fanfare, "The Futility of His Occupation." One enters this austere 10-minute solo expecting affidavits of grandeur and brassy bravado endemic to the swaggering jazz tradition. What greets our embouchured antihero instead is an angst-ridden internal monologue splayed in discontinuous fits, starts, and paralytic silences.

Bereft of any earnest melody, our altoist wanders through a fractured landscape haunted by ghosts of genre past. The entirety transpires in a nebulous minor mode, flickering hints of hopeful major peaks extinguished just as swiftly. Sparse notation offers mere waypoints over treacherous terrain, barlines and time signatures erased in favor of Smith’s hallmark “temporal proportioning.”

Thus unmoored, the saxophonist must channel righteous improvisational fury to imbue formlessness with conviction. Yet ours is a quixotic quest, tilted against the affectless procession of lonesome echoing tones wasting in the empty expanse. We aspire toward lyricism but are rewarded solely with fragments, shard-strewn across Five Points’ unforgiving stage.

So too does even modest ambition elude our clasping. Smith’s meticulous indication of clinical multiphonics—the simultaneously sounded harmonic pitches so prized in contemporary classical circles—epitomizes technical conceit. But ingenuity is not genius; in practice, these fruits of instrumental expansion expire listless on the alter of expressive poverty.

And perhaps this hollowness lays bare the deeper existential crisis. What space remains for saxophone identity when even defiant rebellion has been distilled and commodified by the avant-garde machine? For all its impenetrable graphics mimicking meaning, “Futility” offers no way forward, no seeds of resurrection, no heroic overcoming of muted despair. Merely the simulacra of subversion sustained note by empty note.

We can posit post-modern pastiche as a defiant statement unto itself. Yet I suspect Smith intends no supercilious social commentary. Instead, we face sincere angst borne of a medium pushed past its breaking point. For all the promise of liberation promised by the 20th century sonic boom, has not our omnivorous appetite for novelty yielded naught but diminished returns?

Even noise itself has lost its disruptive power, subsumed into an academic silo diligently studied, safely sanitized. And where noise and pure sound have joined melody and harmony along the great chain of co-optation, where may our beleaguered saxophonist retreat to wrest purpose from craft? When all roads lead to alienation, what destiny but futility awaits this occupation and its adherents?

Alas, let us table the philosophy for footnoted rumination another day. Demand beckons for our altoist to render these graphic hieroglyphs sensible with spirit and spittle before an audience rendered comatose. Perhaps catharsis lies waiting within the maw of performative expectation, if only we can channel just one transcendent minute from this over-intellectualized ordeal. Allow deaf tradition to swell once more against the dying of the light. Play on, brave saxophonist! With apology to the bard, silence is not golden when notes remain yet unplayed.

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