I have always had a deep yearning to be individual. I left the Royal Navy as a Physical Training Instructor in 1991 and started playing the saxophone when I turned twenty six. I knew I had a mountain to climb if I was going to get anywhere as a musician.
As a professional musician and educator graduating from Leeds College of Music in 1995, I have always questioned where my role as a saxophone player fits in. I spent years practicing, trying to sound like someone else, and have spent the last five trying not to sound like anyone else. This has led me down this path of self-discovery.
Jazz technique has advanced at an alarming rate with some players sounding as if they are reciting exercise books. For me, the soul has gone – jazz has to evolve, but I think it has been at the expense of the soul in music.
I think the tradition of learning your art on the bandstand is no longer an option. With the shelves full of books on how to become a monster technician, young players are developing without the deep rooted tradition from the past. Even in the eye of the storm of a Mike Brecker solo you can always feel the soul.
As a freelance musician I’ve served my time playing in “rat pack” tribute shows, small jazz gigs and function bands. But I wanted to take a John Cage approach, and look beyond the boundaries of most ensembles.
I was interested with being able to improvise with the sound wave during and after it leaves the saxophone in real time. Enter MAX/MSP, a computer software program that offered limitless audio options.
I was first introduced to Max/MSP on my Music Production Degree at Leeds Beckett University in 2014, by tutor Rees Archibald. I started to realise that the power the program offered would certainly help me realise my vision.
During one of the guest lectures I was introduced to Phillip Schulze, an artist and composer based in Dusseldorf. Schulze played us some of the work he had done with saxophonist Anthony Braxton using MAX.
This was a pivotal moment for me – not only was it technically brilliant but what surprised me most was how moving the piece sounded. I thought if I could have that much control over my own sound as I performed it would be amazing. It became very apparent early on that there would be a big learning curve to this program, and it would be some time before I could develop anything worthwhile. But at least I could see a direction for my development as an artist.
My first experiments, assisted by Rees, was to develop a MAX patch to interface the saxophone with the software, via a Behringer FCB 1010 midi foot controller. This allowed me to manipulate the audio as I played; for example, I would play multi-phonics, key sounds, flutter tongue (no pitch) and record into four buffers. With the foot controller I would select a snippet of any size for further manipulation such as reversing, pitch bend and stretching, all done in real time.
There is an element of randomization, which in turn leads to new exciting sonic palettes. Of course there’s nothing new about this audio manipulation, but it’s a journey I have to take in order to understand the capabilities of the program.
My next project was offered to me by a fellow student Dan Matthews. Dan’s idea was to create an interface that could mount directly to the sax, that wasn’t invasive to the player. Dan used Adafruit small piezo sensors as buttons to toggle on and off. These measure a change in voltage. We also used an accelerometer to measure movement of the sax which can be tied to values to change dry/wet ratios or effects sizes from large or small.
All the data from these sensors is routed through an Arduino Uno into Max 7. In Max, multiple effects can be used to record and control looping, but the possibilities are huge depending on what you want to do. The Arduino Uno is quite clunky for the saxophone but we used this just to create a prototype initially. Arduino Fio is a more appropriate choice and is roughly half the size.
My journey is far from over, but I feel I have found something that is the beginning for me to becoming the individual saxophonist I’ve always wanted to be, using modern tools – with a desire not to imitate the past but to construct the future (John Cage 1937).
Find out more about MAX here: www.cycling74.com
Phillip Shulze: www.phillipschulze.com
About the author:
Donal Donelly converted from forces physical trainer to professional musician through his passion for playing saxophone. He is equally at home in the studio composing award-winning pop, depping with rock icon Roy Wood, or touring with Wayne Kennedy’s Rat Pack. He lives in North Yorkshire with his wife and two children.