E-flat Contrabass Saxophone

Contrabass Saxophone

Contrabass Saxophone

This is the largest member of the saxophone family pitched one octave lower than the Baritone Saxophone.  This is a rare instrument, but its numbers are increasing.  When I first started to study instruments over twenty years ago, there were only seventeen such instruments in the world.  Continue reading “E-flat Contrabass Saxophone”

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The Woodwind Section Part 4 – The Contrabass Register

The most misunderstood, frequently misused, and neglected instruments in the woodwind section are those in the contrabass pitch level.

For the purposes of this article, I will refer to woodwind instruments whose bottom notes fall within the lowest octave of the piano (A0 to A1).  In this category, there are two distinct subsets of contrabass instruments, namely the full contras and the half contras.  Full contras will have a lowest note somewhere around C1, whereas half contras will have a lowest note somewhere around G1.

Half Contras

  • Sub-Bass FluteSub-Bass Flute in G range
  • Contra-Alto ClarinetContra-Alto Clarinet
  • Bass SaxophoneBass Saxophone

Full Contras

  • Contrabass Flute (a.k.a. “Double” Contrabass Flute)Contrabass Flute range
  • Contrabass ClarinetContrabass Clarinet range
  • Contrabass SaxophoneContrabass Saxophone
  • Contrabassooncontrabassoon range

In these two categories we see that the flutes, clarinets, and saxophones have representatives in each, whereas the bassoons have only the single member, and the oboe family is absent.  The bassoon family’s Semi-Contrabassoon, were it to be resurrected, would be a half contra.

Half vs. Full

Halves and fulls both have their places and uses.  In general, the halves are far better as solo instruments, whereas the fulls are better at harmonic support.  The easiest comparison is between the two Contra Clarinets.  The Contra-Alto is a more flexible instrument whereas the Contrabass is slower and even sluggish.  Choice of one versus the other will depend entirely on circumstance.  If it is the extra range of notes that is needed, full contras are far better. However, if it is the tone that is desired, the half contras are better.

Availability

As these are the largest of the woodwinds, they are also the most expensive, therefore they are harder to come by.  The following is a rough ranking of the availability of the instruments based on numbers extant.

  1. Contra-Alto Clarinet
  2. Contrabass Clarinet
  3. Bass Saxophone
  4. Contrabassoon
  5. Contrabass Saxophone
  6. Contrabass Flute
  7. Sub-Bass Flute

It might surprise some people to see the seemingly normal Contrabassoon in 4th here, but numbers of instruments manufactured far favor the single reeds.  Contra-Alto Clarinets can be found in most high school band halls.  Many schools will also have a Contrabass Clarinet.  In the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, Bass Saxophones were cranked out by the hundreds by several of the large American manufacturers.  Contrabassoons, however, have always been specialty instruments made by hand by only a few German manufacturers and a single American maker.

Contrabass Saxophone numbers, worldwide, are almost assuredly lower than 50 instruments.

The two low flutes numbers are almost negligible.  Only 3 Sub-Bass Flutes currently exist, and the numbers of Contrabass are about double that, but still probably in the single digits.

If you write for these instruments, you have a far better chance of securing a Contra Clarinet than you will a Contrabassoon.  Note: this bit of advice comes from someone who has made money as a professional Contrabassoonist.

Acoustics

The lowest tones of these instruments are towards the bottom end of human hearing (the lowest note of a Contrabassoon is 29 Hz).  However, all of these instruments will have a large overtone series that will make the fundamentals seem much more present.

The Contrabassoon and the saxophones will have the largest array of harmonics due to their conical bore structure.  These instruments will have a larger carrying capacity and will be more audible in solo or semi-solo settings.

The Contra Clarinets, on the other hand, have a limited harmonic array due to the cylindrical nature of their bore.  These instruments function better as harmonic support rather than melodic or soloistic.

The soft sound of the flutes is so soft that they cannot be used in an ensemble setting save in the lightest of accompaniment. Human lungs cannot cope with the volume of air required on these instruments.

Because the entire spectrum of harmonics lies within the limits of human hearing, these instruments will all have distinct tone colors that will be readily heard by all ears.  This will lead to interesting orchestrational questions. Such as:

  • Can one instrument support the tone colors of the other families?
  • Can several or all of these instrument be combined into a homogeneous contrabass unit?

Dynamics

The range of dynamics of these instruments is huge.

The Contra Clarinets will have the ability to go from an inaudible pianissimo to a strong fortissimo.

The low saxophones will not be able to match the delicacy of the clarinet’s soft end, but can far surpass the upper end.

The Contrabassoon’s dynamic is neither as soft nor as loud as either the clarinets or the saxophones.  It occupies a happy medium, but cannot provide the delicacy or the power needed at times.

The low flutes have a maximum dynamic of pianissimo and are thus useless.

Orchestra

In the orchestra, the only guaranteed instrument is the Contrabassoon.  It has been used fairly consistently for 200 years and is a standard member of every major orchestra’s roster.

The Contrabass Clarinet has been making rare appearances since around 1900, but is becoming more frequent.

The Bass Saxophone has never made a significant contribution to orchestral literature and has only appeared a handful of times since the invention of the saxophone.

I know of almost no works that call for the Contra-Alto Clarinet or the Contrabass Saxophone.

Band

Both Contra Clarinets, Bass Saxophone, and Contrabassoon appear frequently in works for band.  Usually the parts for the Contra Clarinets are interchangeable, but not always. Bass Saxophone parts appear more often in older works than in modern works.  Contrabassoon use appears to be limited to works written for college level and higher.

Again, I know of no works that make use of the Contrabass Saxophone.

Use

Instruments in this register will be used far more than instruments in the super treble register.  The human ear tolerates low notes far more than high notes.  Take a look at an orchestral score and figure out how often the string Basses are used, and figure that in a band, these instruments will play about that same percentage (perhaps 60% of the time).  In an orchestra, because of the Basses, these instruments will play less as the primary contrabass role is taken and the woodwinds serve only as color.

Octave Doublings

When writing in this register, it is best to make sure that the lowest notes are doubled an octave higher is power is wanted.  A single pedal C1 will not have much carrying capacity (see the opening of Zarathustra), but add the upper octave, this will become a much richer and audible sound.

Personal Thoughts

I compose for all of these instruments frequently.  I have played most of them on some level.  Here are my thoughts on how to use each instrument effectively.

Low Flutes – Useless

Contra Clarinets – These instruments are best at soft harmonic support.  Must be doubled at the octave for effect to be noticed.  The Contra-Alto is better for solos than the Contrabass.  There is something eerie and ominous in their ability to  play their bottom notes at am impossible to hear soft dynamic.

Low Saxophones – Pure power.  For a rough, and raucous bass, there is no sound better than the Bass and Contrabass Saxophones. They will blend best with the brass.

Contrabassoon – This chocolaty sound is the best of all worlds without the extremes.  It blends best with the strings.

Were I to have my limitations, I would pick a full contra instrument over a half contra.  My personal option would be Contrabassoon followed closely by Contrabass Clarinet.  The rarity of the Contrabass Saxophone is lamentable, but understandable.

The Contrabass Flutes are useless.

Saxophones Part 5 – Saxophone Technique

Saxophone Technique

As the saxophone is the most modern of all of our woodwind instruments, it naturally follows that it has the most perfect mechanism.  To that end, the technique on the saxophone is simple and easy.  There are only a handful of trills that cannot be done, namely all trills on the low B-flat, the whole-tone trill on the low B, and the whole-tone trill on the low C-sharp.  Aside from these small restrictions any and all technical passages should be playable on nearly any saxophone.

There are a few range variations among the different instruments.  All modern Baritones and most Contrabasses possess a low A extension (in both cases sounding a C).  Some older Sopraninos, Sopranos, and Basses are only keyed up to high E-flat, though players are able to produce higher notes through the use of harmonics.

All saxophones, with the possible exception of the Piccolo, are able to produce to so-called altissimo range.  This range consists of notes above the top keyed note on the instrument (usually high F or F-sharp).  A general rule of thumb goes: the larger the instrument, the easier it is to produce the altissimo register.  Also, the larger instruments will have a larger range of altissimo.  For instance, the Soprano may only be able to play a few notes into the altissimo range, while a Bass may be able to play well over an octave above its normal range.

In general, the altissimo range is somewhat inflexible.  Technique up here is difficult, so sustained lines are best.  Only the most advanced players will be able to produce the altissimo range, which is why it is often left as an option only for soloists.

“Holy Roller” for Saxophone and band by Libby Larsen.  Check out the technique, and especially the use of altissimo.

 

Saxophones Part 4 – Saxophones in the Band

Saxophone in the Band

The saxophone is really the odd man out in the woodwind section.  There is no orchestral equivalent for which to draw from for inspiration.  Yet, the saxophone family is the most well-balanced, most harmonious, and has the largest usable range of all of the reed families.  In bad bandestrations, I have seen some really atrocious scoring for saxophones.  The Altos are continuously scored for with the Horns, while the Tenors and Baritones are made to blend with the low brass.  In this kind of scoring, we break up the unified family, and thus lose the one sound than can make the band’s woodwind section a cohesive unit.

For illustration purposes, let’s assume that both the oboes and the bassoons from a single double reed section (remember though that the oboe and the bassoon families have little to do with each other than their means of sound production).  In the sound of the double reeds, we have a nasal, reedy sound with a beautiful vibrato.  Their opposite is the clarinets who have a warm, cool sound without any hint of a vibrato.  They are mirror images of each other, and when we try and blend then, it is like oil and water.  But, add the saxophones, whose characteristics are exactly midway between the double reeds and the clarinets, and we instantly get a harmonious mixture.

But, there is a problem with this blending, and it lies in the modern saxophonist’s conception of sound.  The modern saxophonist wants a big, almost strident sound that can cut through an amplified jazz ensemble or a rock band.  This simply will not work in a band.  What most saxophone players do not realize is that their closest kin, at least timbral-wise, is not the clarinets, but the double reeds.  The double reeds are gentle beasts for the most part, and so should be the saxophone.  I can just imagine a beautiful Bach choral played on a saxophone choir in my head.  It is organ-like, sonorous, rich, but I cannot imagine a saxophone player having the sensitivity in today’s world to pull it off.  Modern saxophone players have almost entirely eschewed the one player who tried to rectify this situation, Sigurd Rascher, who emphasized a beautiful rich sound.  Instead, they have aligned themselves with the school of thought that technique is far superior to sound.

My own thoughts on saxophone sound aside, let us now take a look at the constitution of the saxophone section in the band, and the potential possibilities that lie within.  The traditional saxophone section is made up of either two Altos, one Tenor, and one Baritone; or one each of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone.  The later of these make-ups consists of the only section in a traditional band that is perfectly balanced from high to low.  The use of two Altos or one Alto and one Soprano is one of timbral choice.  Both ensembles have their merits.  The two Alto group is warmer in sound, while the group with the Soprano is brighter with a larger range.

Older scores, pre-1950 almost always include a part for a Bass Saxophone.  The scoring for Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is rather unusual in that it calls for six saxophones (Soprano, 2 Altos, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass).  In this work, each member is integral and plays an important part.  However, as so often happens, one or two members of the section are left out (usually 2nd Alto and Bass).  To leave out a part in an orchestra is sacrilege!  Why then are bands allowed to get away with it?  We should strive at all times to make sure to include every instrument a composer specifies.

From Grainger’s section of six saxophones, I’d like to build one step further to a larger section of eight.  As all saxophone players are able to play multiple instruments (or should!), we can think of doublings, and even triplings within the section.  Here is a hypothetical scenario for eight competent players.

Player 1 – Sopranino, Alto

Player 2 – Soprano, Alto

Player 3 – Alto, Piccolo

Player 4 – Alto, Tenor

Player 5 – Tenor, Baritone

Player 6 – Baritone

Player 7 – Bass

Player 8 – Contrabass

Note that the basic makeup is Sn,S,A,A,T,B,Bs,CB, which is a perfectly balanced section from high to low.  We can also have a section of P,Sn,S,A,T,B,Bs,CB when the 1st Alto player switches to the Piccolo.  On the top end, we can have all four higher players playing Alto at the same time, or even a high quartet of Piccolo, Sopranino, Soprano, and Alto.  There are opportunities for two Tenors, as well as a low quartet of the Baritones, Bass, and Contrabass.  Also note that I do not have the Bass and Contrabass players doubling.  The size of their instruments alone makes doubling much harder.  A creative bandestrator can take this scenario and tweak it to their own needs, but it does serve as the basis for a realm of possibility.

With this list of possibilities, what you must remember is that the saxophone is a full member of the woodwind section, and in no way should it support the brass (i.e. the use of them being further members of the Horn section).  Proper use of saxophones should fill out the sound of the entire band from soprano to bass, not just the middle octaves.  I find it best to think of the saxophone section as a cohesive unit rather than a mixture of individual parts.  Think choir, not soloist.

Bach’s Fugue in G minor

Rascher Saxophone Quartet playing Philip Glass’ Concerto for Saxophone Quartet.  Listen carefully to the timbre produced by these four players using vintage instruments with round chamber mouthpieces, and compare that to the sound produced by most modern players.

Finally, this may be one of the most impressive videos I’ve ever seen.  It is an entire orchestra made up of saxophones from Sopranino to Contrabass playing Respighi’s Roman Festivals.  There is never a single moment where the sound of the strings is missed.