I have often read that the saxophone is a “versatile” instrument. Maybe this is because its inventor; Adolph Sax, intended the role of the saxophone to be somewhere in between a loud woodwind instrument and a versatile brass instrument. Indeed even the professor of saxophone at the Paris conservatoire, Claude Delangle, states “What instrument could be better suited than the saxophone, with its variety of forms and cultures, to adapt itself to the expressive devises of the shakuhachi?”1 Delangle is most likely referring to the jazz and dance band cultures that the saxophone has adapted to, not to mention its dominance in gospel, pop, funk and American church music. This seems to suggest that Sax's instrument is somewhat chameleonic, adapting just as easily to changing musical styles as it does to imitating the Japanese shakuhachi2 or the Greek Duduk3. Indeed the saxophone has become an icon of popular culture, making appearances in television shows and cartoons, and being used in experiments of industrial production (Ornette Coleman used a Grafton saxophone which was almost entirely made of white acrylic).
One of the cultures surrounding the saxophone is its reputation as a novelty or music-hall instrument, forged in 1920's America when novelty acts used the instruments' affore-mentioned versatility for comedic purposes. This association created a backlash of saxophonists who became very protective of the saxophone as a “legitimate” instrument. In 1944 the Paris conservatoire reinstated4 the saxophone department with Marcel Mule at the helm. Mule then went on to create a saxophone pedagogy based largely on transcriptions of Haydn, Bach and famous etudes of the time such as Ferling's Oboe studies. This pedagogy is still regarded as the core of saxophone teaching but it does not encourage further expansion of the saxophone's repertoire, it even seems to deny the saxophone its own identity. As a consequence of this tonal and retrospective pedagogy, popular repertoire choices for concert saxophone players often include largely tonal works based around jazz harmonies or based on the American concert band technique5.
It is therefore sometimes difficult to move away from such a strong and dominating usage of western harmony and tonality in order to experiment with the sounds the instrument can make outside of these rules. There are saxophonists who have explored the instrument however and techniques discovered and utilised through free improvisation and tireless experimentation have allowed composers to create an interesting and stimulating sound world for the saxophone, outside of is ability to play fundamental tones. These techniques have increased in frequency and complexity throughout the 20th century. From the high harmonics asked for during the cadenza of Ibert's Concertina da Camera (1932) to an early appearance of multiphonics in Denisov's Sonata for alto saxophone (1970-1972) and through to the explicit usage of specific...