Smart Alex

for Tenor Saxophone, Piano, and Page Turner/Assistant

  • Genre
  • Commissioned by/written for
    Alex Van Dyke
  • Year completed
  • Year revised
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Henry Fogel
Fanfare Magazine
Very few composers would have the wit and courage to title pieces Opus Pocus or Smart Alex, and fewer still would be able to bring the witty elements off with the élan and professionalism of Canfield.

Warmth, genuine lyricism, and humor are qualities in short supply in much of the music written in recent decades, but they are ever-present (and much welcomed) in the music of David DeBoor Canfield. Very few composers would have the wit and courage to title pieces Opus Pocus or Smart Alex, and fewer still would be able to bring the witty elements off with the élan and professionalism of Canfield.

           Take Smart Alex, for example. It was composed for a young saxophonestudent named Alex Van Dyke and employs some avant-garde techniques that do notget in the way of accessibility. There are also quite witty interjections by a“page-turner/assistant,” who can be heard arguing with the saxophone soloist attimes. Even Canfield’s tempo marking in the score (“Zippity Quick”)demonstrates his easy good humor, as does the sudden C-Major cadence that interruptsthe harmonic chaos at the end. Opus Pocuswas originally written for a more conventional wind quintet, but thecomposer arranged it for a saxophone quartet. Canfield had a quotation of the Sacre du Printemps bassoon solo in theoriginal, but he changed it for a quote from the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto inthis version. (He couldn’t stop himself from being cute, however—the Glazunovwas composed for alto sax, but Canfield gives the quote to a tenor sax here). Opus Pocus is filled with delightful turnsof phrase and a surprising variety of color from four saxophones (soprano,alto, tenor, and baritone).

           The disc’s opening Five Lyric Pieces are genuinely touchingand lovely, and the lyrical Elegie nachBrahms stays in the memory. Canfield relates a touching story about thepiece’s origins in the excellent notes that accompany the disc. The Sonata after Poulenc is one of a seriesof works for different combinations of instruments where Canfield replicatesthe sound world of other composers; this one is particularly effective. Aabac was written for thewonderfully-named Zzyzx Quartet (I am grateful I am not currently announcing onthe radio and having to figure out how to pronounce that). The title Aabac mirrors Zzyzx from the other endof the alphabet. I will confess that this is the piece I had the most troubleconnecting with, perhaps because of my own fairly conservative tastes. Canfieldstates that he composed it in a more advanced tonal language than was his norm.Repeated hearings allowed the music to grow on me.

           Canfield was born in 1950, and the mostof the music here was composed relatively recently, between 2012 and 2016. Awide range of influences is evident, but Canfield’s individual voice is alwaysheard. This is a delightful, engaging collection, well performed throughout andwith a surprisingly consistently good recorded sound given the wide range oforiginal sources.

Smart Alex was written in ten composition sessions between September 18th and October 17th of 2015. It was composed at the request of the dedicatee, a saxophone-playing friend from my church. Having written about 30 works for saxophone before this one, I felt that a divagation from my usual freely tonal style was warranted in this work, in which I sought to bring in advanced techniques and special effects, all within a pronounced atonal context. Nevertheless, hints of tonality appear from time to time, often in a humorous context. The spirit of the piece derives from its title, which was selected before a single note was written. It is quite obviously a play on the given name of the dedicatee. Notable in the piece is a prominent part for the page turner, who is called upon to perform many of the special effects in the work. A spirit of jocularity and humor pervades Smart Alex in my attempt to make a piece that is fun for both performers and audience. The theatrical elements employed add to the brash "smart alecky" spirit of the work. The page turner/assistant utilizes such things in his activites as a metal straight-edge or ruler, a duck call, a wood block or claves, and even a mouth siren. Beyond the usual style of playing, the pianist also utilizes a glockenspiel mallet to strike the strings inside the piano, and the saxophonist employs the us of an extra mouthpiece with reed. Laughing by the audience during the performance of this piece is expected and encouraged.

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