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PRISM Quartet Continues Pushing the Limits of the Saxophone

PRISM Quartet includes Zachary Shemon, Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, and Matthew Levy

In its 32 year history, the PRISM Quartet has commissioned over 250 new pieces, and in doing so, re-defined the saxophone quartet itself. As the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns reports, this summer, they're forging unprecedented relationships with ensembles near and far.

David Patrick Stearns: The PRISM Quartet often keeps unlikely company, and saxophone quartets need to in a world that doesn't always take them seriously. But are even the most adventurous musicians truly ready for the instruments invented by American maverick Harry Partch? Or what he inspires current composers to do? Here's the quartet's co-founder Matt Levy describing what one of their Partch-influenced composers put them through in recent weeks. 

Matt Levy: Our player, he had instructions to go to Home Depot and buy seven feet of tubing that connects to the saxophone body and replaces the neck of the saxophone.

DPS: And the result in Ken Ueno's new piece, titled Future Lilacs?

ML: It is this incredibly low, rumbling sound that's just otherworldly. Way lower than baritone sax.

DPS: Imagine a composer telling Itzhak Perlman to do something like that. But playing alongside the Partch Ensemble, whose instruments divide octaves into 43 microtone pitches, has a singular allure.

Then Levy discovered the transportation cost of trucking the instruments from California was around $10,000. 

ML: It's worth it because the music is incredible. I mean, it is breathtaking.

DPS: PRISM quartet's season, titled Color Theory, also involved collaborations with So Percussion, with Steve Mackey's piece, Blue Notes and Other Clashes, being as close to an immediate hit as the group has ever had. But even that had hazards; rehearsing in a tiny Brooklyn studio, everyone wore earplugs.

ML: Percussion instruments, the attack of them, can be a bit much. 

DPS: Unprecedented music is hard work and often expensive to create. But doesn't the PRISM Quartetseem to have a lot more fun than a string quartet?