Review: Terry Jennings – Piece For Cello And Saxophone

Despite the title, there is no saxophone throughout these 84 minutes – only Charles Curtis on cello, arranged in just intonation by LaMonte Young. On a quick skim of the composition’s history, versions including the intended instrumentation seem to be in the minority: an earlier configuration by Young involved Curtis again on cello, but with Young himself singing the saxophone part; another version was planned for Yoko Ono’s loft, which would have centred on cello and bass (although bassist Scott LaFaro was unable to attend); performances of this solo version involved the cello drones being prerecorded, in which cases neither cello nor saxophone are technically playing the part written for them. Young references a taped version with Jennings himself playing the alto saxophone, although I’m unable to find any audio of this version online. And so the title becomes a residue of the original intention, a weathered shop sign fastened above a changing interior, with the particulars of the piece’s execution drifting through the exact sort of elegant transformations that characterise the music within.

The elements are a simple: a swaying cradle of low drones, and a soloist reaching upward and probing into the air. Through the most gentle tilts, Curtis’ cello solo swerves between serenity and shadow, emulating the dispersal of dawn light and then the droop of a dying flower head. It encapsulates how each emotional state is in fragile proximity to its antithesis; how a mere contracted muscle can render a smile into a grimace, or how the sinister evaporates if the light hits it differently. Curtis dips down a semitone, and the entire piece seems to reconfigure around him.

Occasionally he hangs on a single note, flirting with the eternity implied by the surrounding drones, before obliging a fundamental urge to keep moving. Even the drones themselves are moving through incessant transformations, albeit often imperceptible – one harmony might quietly slip into silence to leave a lone string quivering alone, or the chord might shift casually into a new arrangement. There’s a familiar indecision at work, and one that befits a composer whose inclinations included both droning minimalism and, later, the more kinetic forms of neo-romanticism: between stillness and flight, between the vertical of meditative states and the horizontal of movement and rhythmic dynamism. The ecstatic promise of panoramic exploration, the ecstatic promise of deep rest. The instant and the infinite. The cello quivers between the two and, through some feat of wizardry on the parts of both Jennings and Curtis, attains both simultaneously.

Skip to content