Playing authentic saxophones

The last 15 years my interest in the history of the saxophone has grown very much. I've always felt by inspired by giants as Marcel Mule, Daniel Deffayet, Sigurd Rascher and others. They have been in close contact with the composers of our standard repertory and when I hear them play on recordings I feel, that they have a very authentic musical message, coloured and influenced by the period when they were active as a performer and conditioned by the material, that they have used.

This interest grew into the wish of owning a true Adolphe Sax saxophone. I wanted to be able to play on the instrument, built by the inventor (I knew, that that could be possible: the Netherlands Saxophone Quartet played on a quartet of Adolphe Sax saxophones, owned by Leo van Oostrom). Fortunately I could buy a beautiful Adolphe Sax alto (from 1876) in London at the Tony Bingham antique musicshop. It is a real treasure: perfect condition, restored with goatleather pads and original corks with a copy of an original Adolphe Sax mouthpiece. I tried to play on it, but with my 'modern' embouchure I couldn't get a decent sound from the mouthpiece. So I started to put a modern mouthpiece on it. I could play it, but the intonation was completely off! Then, in a summer holiday, I took some more time to try things out and suddenly I got a brainwave, while playing again on the original mouthpiece: I had to put much more mouthpiece in my mouth and had to focus the air more 'broadly'. Suddenly the instrument started to sound well and seemed to be in tune!! But when I checked the pitch with the tuning-machine, it was much lower than 440 hz. And then I remembered, that I once read about the 'Académie Francaise' fixing in the year 1859 the official tuning on 435 Hz. And that made sense: my instrument was on 435 Hz as well! This, by the way, doesn't mean, that all instruments from that time are on 435 Hz. We can find also 440 Hz.and even 448 Hz., which was most common before 1859.

Now I could start to dream of performing on the instrument. But before that I had to overcome many problems: compared to the present saxophone, the fingering is primitive and does not, of course, incorporate the extensions and improvements invented later. For instance, the octave mechanism is not linked but consists of two separate octave keys. Furthermore the volume is more limited and the small range of overtones makes the sound quite intimate. However, the sound is round and full and agrees completely with Hector Berlioz's description in Le Journal des Débats (21 april 1849), in which he speaks of the saxophone sound in terms of mystery, dream, passion and being on the edge of silence, like a the echo of a clock. Publications about 19th century windplaying made clear to me, that vibrato was not in use (even 'not done'). So for this reason I had to deprive myself (temporarily) of one of my favourite tonecolours! It took me three years to learn all this and more and more I became convinced, that performing on this instrument together with a modern Steinway piano would be inappropriate. And so, in the year 2000, the contours of my project 'Adolphe Sax Revisited' became clear: to organize a serie of concerts and a cd-recording (Ottavo: C50178) together with a period Erard piano, which was the leading mark of the time. Ivo Janssen was able to play on a beautiful one from 1846 (signed by the great piano-virtuoso Sigismund Thalberg (a rival of Liszt in Paris).

It made me happy to show to a big audience, where our instrument originally comes from playing the repertory from that time: mainly 'Fantasy'pieces by Arban, Kastner, Soualle, Savari, Demersseman a.o. This repertory is nice but not top-class and doesn't consist very virtuoso pianoparts. For this reason I invited the young pianist/composer Wijnand van Klaveren to compose two gorguous compositions in 19th Century style on original saxophone-themes by Berlioz and Thomas: so there was the link with our time!

The 'virus' of collecting vintage saxophones caught me: I found some beautiful and historically interesting instruments. But, I always kept in mind, that the instrument should be good enough to perform on it and that there is a link with our repertory. In this respect I was able to find a 'Super Sax Selmer' alto from 1931 ('Cigarcutter') and a Selmer tenor with an Adolphe Sax Junior stamp from 1930 with appropriate mouthpieces of the time. Especially these combinations evoque the true sound of these instruments, which remind us directly of the period in which they are built (although they are much closer to modern saxes than the Adolphe Sax 'Father' instruments). And again I had to form my playing in another way and with great pleasure, which brings me to a second project, that I have created in this respect: 'Metropolis Berlin 1925-1933' (cd: Ottavo, OTR C100386). In this period the city Berlin has produced some great saxophone repertory, before the Nazi's banned the saxophone as an "Entartet Instrument" and it's repertory as "Entartet" as well. I speak about Schulhoff's 'Hot-Sonata' for sax and piano, the Quintet for saxophone and string quartet by Adolf Busch, the Trio for viola, tenorsaxophone and piano by Hindemith and the 'Konzertstück' for two alto saxophones by the same composer. I included also an arrangement by Wijnand van Klaveren of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny-Suite for string quartet, piano and saxophone. These pieces paint this very exciting period in Berlin and although the instruments are not German at all, they bring the music's origin very close.

Since 2006 I play with my colleagues Niels Bijl and Femke Ylstra with 'Anima Eterna'. This is an orchestra, seeded in Bruges (Belgium), which performs on period instruments. We've been hired to play Ravel's 'Bolero' and Gershwin's 'An American in Paris'. The Bolero came out on a worldwide praised Ravel-CD. Of course we used my vintage instruments of the period of the music.

In Spring 2008 another dream came true: with the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet we performed our first entire concert on four Adolphe Sax saxophones. It was an adventure on itself to collect the instruments one by one and to make them 'compatible' to each other, not to speak about the process of rehearsing! Everything is differerent, we had to built up a 'new' system of reflexes. Very rewarding in the end, because it showed the sax-quartet in it's most pure, naked shape, in a highly original (middle of the 19th century) repertoire.

To find the appropriate musical environment for the instruments is very important. It's not just showing a 'sound', a gimmick. The sound is part of the whole idea, a concept. Playing authentic saxophones, in my opinion, is in fact part of the whole general development of playing on authentic instruments of the last 50 years, which has created a completely new way of approaching music of the past: putting the performance in the perspective of all that we know from the period of the composition and using the same material as the musicians used then.

For me these projects has been a very rewarding and educative undertaking. The history of the saxophone and the instruments, which represent it's history will be an ongoing source of inspiration for me.

Playing in the Clazz-ensemble (consisting of jazz- and classical players) since 2007 put me on another track: my jazz-saxophone colleagues use fundamentally different material: Mark VI or Super Balanced Action with metal Otto Link or Berg Larsen mouthpieces. To be able to match better with them in the section I tried to find the appropriate material. For instance I had a beautiful Otto Link Tonemaster (from the '40's) for tenor, but not really a saxophone, that fitted with it. But then my favourite saxophoneshop, Harry Bakker, offered a Super Balanced Action-tenor (1948) in perfect condition: that fitted perfectly! The alto, that I use there is the 'Cigarcutter' with an Otto Link 5* and the soprano my silver Mark VI (Soloist C*).

By the way, my regular set-up is:
Soprano: Yanagisawa Elimona (1991) with soloist C*
Alto: Buffet Crampon Prestige (1983) with Vandoren AL3
Tenor: Selmer Mark VII (1978) with Selmer C*
Baritone: Selmer Mark VI (1978) with Vandoren BL3

Arno Bornkamp