Photos from the Sorcerer Sound session. From top: Jackson Moore. Randy McKean. Jeff Hudgins. Chris Jonas. James Fei.

JAMES FEI  Alto Quartets
[Organized Sound Recordings 4]
RELEASED: October 2004

1. Study II [Scream] (1999)  3’08”
2. Study IV [Flutter] (2001)  4’02”
3. for four alto saxophones (4/1998)  7’49”
4. Horizontal-Vertical (1999)  6’17”
5. Work for crippled reeds (1999)  14’57”
6. for four alto saxophones (7/1998 part II)  8’11”
7. Study III [Saliva] (2001)  3’09”

Click on titles for MP3 excerpts.

Standard compact disc in matte Digipak package.

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The Alto Quartet was formed in 1998. Its “flatness” of identical instruments was chosen to more readily facilitate compositional and physical process in contrast to the vertical harmony/counterpoint-oriented makeup of traditional saxophone and string quartets. Several works in the series in particular extends the site of performance from the instrument to the bodies of the performers. Not only do instability of the altered reeds and extended techniques employed result in controlled indeterminacy, the musicians’ endurance, variatioins in embouchure and saliva flow, etc, also become part of the processes.

Review by the WIRE:
Alto Quartets brings together works written between 1998 and 2001 by Taiwan-born James Fei, one of many saxophonist/composers who have studied with Anthony Braxton, including Chris Jonas, Jackson Moore and Seth Misterka (who also play on the album, as does Braxton himself on one track). Unlike Braxton's music, which can't resist frequent affectionate glances over its shoulder, Fei's concern with process and mass effect is mirrored in the timbral uniformity of his instrumentation, which kills ourtright any attempt to describe his music as 'jazz.' It is gritty, uncompromising stuff, experimental in nature--notably the three "Studies" whose subtitles "Scream," "Flutter" and "Saliva" are self-explanatory--but muscular and sweaty rather than cool and posed. After the space and austerity of the first part of "for four alto saxophones"--also a study in ensemble synchronisation, or the lack of it--the honks, wails and squeals of "Horizontal-Vertical" are thrilling. "Work" uses an assortment of reeds specially 'crippled' by cuts (as shown on the album cover), producing unpredictable noise and overtone content.

Study II [scream] organizes screams through the saxophone by specifying exact rhythms and the approximate register of the noise spectra. The rapid intercutting of the screams is partly inspired by the detailed splicing of early musique concrète pieces such as Cage’s Williams Mix, as well as structural films (e.g. Paul Sharits) and the metrical films of Peter Kubelka.

Study IV [flutter] is entirely performed with various types of flutter tonguing. The piece is partly derived from my chamber work, The Dots and the Lines, where pointillistic constellations are isolated with extensive silence.

for four alto saxophones (4.98) consists of two parts. The first comprises of a series of staggered chords, where each performer plays slightly before or after the actual pulse; the second part is on the other hand entirely unsynchronized, with independent swells that recall the envelope generated by backwards tape.

Horizontal–Vertical attempts to create a suspended sense of time (i.e. a vertical one) through dense polyphony. Because the material is limited to a small gamut of gestures and pitch/rhythmic units, the listener becomes gradually familiar with the static elements despite the complexity and sonic saturation.

In Work, the reeds of the saxophones are altered with various cuts, no longer producing predictable tones but colored noise with intermittent response. The sheer effort and physicality of performance, with their byproducts such as the sounds of breath and saliva, are brought to the surface where they are usually considered undesirable. Dedicated to the memory of Mr. Sung Hui Hsun.

for four alto saxophones (7.98) part II
mixes bursts of static improvisation with short tones. The events are organized in three rhythmic series, which are taken from my earlier work, for orchestra (3.98).

Study III [saliva]—by tilting the saxophone upwards, a pool of saliva is retained in the mouthpiece, breaking up the reed’s normal mode of vibration. The bubbling liquid induces sweeps through the overtones in addition to multiple rhythms (for the high and low “bubbles”)—the performers circular breathe throughout and make no articulations other than slow shifts in fundamental pitch. Dedicated to Sigurd Rascher.

Tracks 1, 2, 4, 5 & 7 recorded on July 21, 2001 at Sorcerer Sound (New York) by Jon Rosenberg, assited by Chris Palmisano. Each alto saxophone was mic'd with a Neuman U47 or U48 in cardiod. A pair of B&K 4007 omnis were used for room ambience. Some plate reverb was added from an EMT 140. Mixed live to two track on Sorcerer's custom console to DAT (multi-track ADAT was ran as well but not used in the release).

Track 3 recorded live in World Music Hall (Middletown, Connecticut) on April 22, 1998 and track 6 recorded live in Greenwich House (New York City) on October 2, 1998. Both engineered by James Fei with a Crown SASS-P Mk II stereo mic direct to DAT.

Mastered at Organized Sound by James Fei.

OTHER WORKS FOR THE ALTO QUARTET (not included on the CD) :
FOR FOUR ALTO SAXOPHONES (7.98) PART I: I have, unfortunately, not been able to capture this work faithfully on recordings. The piece consists entirely of extreme high tones which cause acoustic interference, producing difference and summation tones in additional to rapid spatial movement.

STUDY I (HARMONY): Each member of the quartet chooses a bebop/hardbop tune, which is played simultaneously with no synchronization. Featured as an encore on the Live in Taipei DVD.

INFRA–SLIM: The title is borrowed from Duchamp: "When the tobacco smoke also smells of the mouth which exhales it, the two odors are married by infra-slim." The hour-long work is concerned with the threshold of audibility, where the four performers attempt to play as quietly as possible, the resultant tones falling indeterminately in as many discrete levels (ppppppp, pppppp, ppppp...) as the one we are accustomed to (ppp, pp, p...). A recording of Infra-Slim is planned for future release on Organized Sound.

FAKTURA: This is an offshoot of the quartet, scored for two alto saxophones and idling electronics. First performed at the Roulette.
MP3 excerpt: Faktura (recorded at Roulette by Jim Staley with two Klaus Heyne-modified U87's and a pair of Schoeps).

Study I [Scream]:
Live at Roulette (NYC) 30 III 02.  2'45"  3.7mb
for four alto saxophones (7.98) part II:
Live at Brecht Forum
 9 III 01 (NYC).  6'03"  8.3mb