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Classical music's siren song and sax legacy

The siren as musical instrument raises eyebrows while the saxophone's classical roots might astonish contemporary listeners.

April 08, 2012|By Rick Schultz
  • A sandpaper block will be played at a Disney Hall series.
A sandpaper block will be played at a Disney Hall series. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

The public doesn't warm to every instrument it hears.

Every winter audiences are enchanted by the celesta, a kind of keyboard glockenspiel, because Tchaikovsky made its sweet sound famous in "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from "Nutcracker."

The jury is out on the siren. Edgard Varèse shocked listeners in 1930 when they heard its high-pitched wailings in his all-percussion "Ionization." The siren will get another hearing when percussionist Steven Schick joins 47 other percussionists in a performance of John Luther Adams' outdoor piece, "Inuksuit," at the Ojai Music Festival in June. Twelve of them will be playing sirens.

"I spent a lot of time trying to play the siren, tuning it so it became an instrument," Schick said. "It's in the cultivation, the sculpting of those sounds."

Schick will also be playing a vibraphone, gongs, cymbals, blocks and cowbells in Helmut Lachenmann's mid-1960s "Intérieur I" for solo percussion, part of a Monday Evening Concerts program on April 23. "At the time, it raised a lot of eyebrows, but now it's common practice for us," Schick said.

In 1841, Adolphe Sax showed Berlioz an odd contraption he called a "saxophone." The composer loved it so much he included it in his 1844 "Chant Sacre." Then he never wrote for it again. But other composers were taken with its versatility. Ravel most famously used it in his "Bolero."

James Rotter, the on-call saxophonist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Pacific Symphony, said jazz helped keep the instrument alive. "Adams, Harbison and Salonen have all written sax parts into their works," Rotter said. "The instrument's been there all along, but in classical music it's still a revelation to the general music public."

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