JOHN HARLE is an internationally renowned saxophonist with an impressive back catalogue of projects from classical to pop. John Tavener, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and Sir Harrison Birtwistle have all dedicated works to him , and he has also worked with Elvis Costello, Marc Almond, Herbie Hancock and Sir Paul McCartney. He is also the composer of over 100 film and TV scores and 50 concert works.
He is about to publish a major two-volume work about the instrument “The Saxophone” (Faber Music). In this first part of a two-part interview Sebastian asked him about the origins and the scope of this new book:
LondonJazz News: This in-depth book has clearly been a long time in the making. How did the process of writing it start?
John Harle: I’ve always taught the saxophone, but the older I get, the more ordered and methodical I’ve become. The book began by my writing a series of ‘worksheets’ on various aspects of playing for my students – embouchure, breath support, resonance, etc. These ‘worksheets’ were practical exercises with the theories behind the exercises explained. As I did more and more of those, I saw that they formed a kind of continuity, and from that I imagined a whole method for the saxophone. As the book took shape it became more complicated than that (of course) and eventually took me six years of work to complete.
At various times I took breaks from it and went back and re-wrote and re-ordered lots of it so it had more flow. If I’d really known how much work it was going to be I’m not sure I’d have ever started it! – but once it had a basic structure, the book seemed to create a momentum of its own. Even when I’d finished the final rough draft, six months of work followed that with two marvellous editors at Faber who brought a fresh perspective and challenged me to be as clear and logical as possible.
LJN: Has the process of thinking about and writing this book changed your perspective?
JH: I suppose that I feel like I’ve got to the end of a long road, but that I have hopefully done something that will be popular and help people. There isn’t much material about how to play and perform out there, and I did feel a need to lay out some principles of playing that hadn’t been articulated in the same way before, but to do it in a way that was engaging, easy to read and fun! Choosing images for the book was like an enjoyable hobby – there’s some great vintage saxophone images in there. It brings closure to an extent as well – ordering my thoughts in this way has allowed me to relax a little, but I’m not sure that it hasn’t also encouraged some of my more OCD and obsessive characteristics to flourish…
Alongside writing the book, I analysed my own playing in a a depth I’d not done before so that I could be sure everything in the book worked without question. The ethos behind it all is about being able to play with a good sound that’s absolutely in-tune whilst being as relaxed as possible – so that you can think about music as you perform, rather than struggle with the saxophone itself, and that takes a lot of analysis. In doing that, I simply encountered the universal truths about the saxophone – how the reed vibrates, where to direct your breath and how to make a powerful sound without pushing too hard – that sort of thing. And those principles are of course common to all types of players – jazz, classical or pop.
I suppose one of the tensest moments was when I sent the first completed version of the book out for comments to players whom I deeply respect, but I felt truly validated in the work on hearing back from Branford Marsalis, Claude Delangle, Tommy Smith and Snake Davis – this was a lovely moment. In a world that is quite isolationist, to have full support for your work from the people you deeply respect is satisfying and humbling.
LJN: Who is the book really aimed at?
JH: When the first sample book arrived from Faber about three weeks ago I was so thrilled by its feel and appearance I convinced myself that anyone would want to buy it! How could you not? But this is a biased opinion. The fact is that the book lays out how to play the saxophone from the very beginning to a virtuosic level, but it moves at a pace that’s probably just a bit too fast for absolute beginners. So anyone from around ABRSM Grade 3 will find something for themselves in the book and although I suggest that it’s worked through as a continuous method, I’m certain that advanced players will dip in and out of it and take what they want. So it probably works in two ways – as a full method and also as a reference book.
LJN: You have some individual concepts about [tone production/resonance/breathing] such as “The Reed Fan” and “Cathedral of Resonance”. Can you give us some clues… or do we have to buy the book?
JH: These individual concepts are my articulations of playing principles that everyone feels as they play, and I suppose what I have done is to express these principles in a new way that is as clear as possible. The titles you mention are of course my way of giving each of these principles a memorable “concept” so that they can be worked at in further depth without wondering what they actually are. So maybe the titles give these areas of work a mystique they haven’t had before, but I think that’s a good thing! The Reed Fan is a visualistion of the angles at which the reed vibrates, and The Cathedral of Resonance is about where the different registers of the saxophone vibrate in the player’s skull. If you want to see some of this in more depth I’ve put some extracts from the book on my website. (LINK)
LJN: Which other books from the past do you consider the most important in elucidating the essence of what the instrument is about?
JH: It’s interesting that there hasn’t been a full method of basic playing principles for the saxophone since Larry Teal’s The Art of Saxophone Playing in 1960.
There’s been quite a disarray in the teaching of the saxophone since it started to be taught by players who were primarily clarinet players, mostly from the 1950s onwards in the post dance- band era. The connections between the clarinet and the saxophone more or less end at the fact that they’re single reed instruments, and this has caused quite a lot of confusion. Prior to this, the great period of true saxophone specialist books was from the 1900s and 1920s with Otto Langey’s Complete Method and Rudy Wiedoeft’s Secrets of Staccato, which is sadly out of print. Onwards from that the key book is really quite unknown – Kenneth Douse’s How to Double and Triple Staccato which is also out of print. Sigurd Rascher, Donald Sinta and Eugene Rousseau’s books on Voicing are also key works, but of course only cover one aspect of playing – the use of the overtone series to develop intonation and altissimo (very high) notes. It was this patchy history of methods for the saxophone that was one of my main reasons for writing my book as a full method. (pp)
LINKS: Milton Court launch event on 17th March
The Saxophone is published by Faber Music on 15th March. PRE-ORDERS HERE
(LIST) of works dedicated to John Harle