Mike Madriaga 9 a.m., Jan. 23
In search of the high notes
Gigging: a lesson with Saximus, master of all things altissimo
Todd Rewoldt goes by the name of Saximus, on stage. He performs in a cutting edge avant chamber group headquartered in La Mesa called Swarmius. Saximus should give away the instrument Rewoldt plays, one that he and I have in common: the saxophone. I favor the devil's music, meaning rock and jazz and blues, while Rewoldt is a classically trained virtuoso-level symphony saxist. As such, he rips.
Once, I got a peek at a score he'd performed at a Swarmius concert in tandem with Orchestra Nova. What I saw was deeply disturbing. Composer Joseph Waters (Josephius) had arranged several measures of altissimo tones laid out in 64th note runs, meaning so fast as to have been Impossible to play on a saxophone or any woodwind instrument, for that matter.
"That's the problem with Joe," he'd said that night, somewhat good-naturedly. "He writes this crazy, wild, really difficult stuff, and I figure out how to play it, and then he goes and writes more."
Altissimo is an Italian word that actually means very high. And very high it is. On the saxophone, altissimo is any note that is higher than high F#, the highest of notes within the instrument's regular range. Wikipedia breaks it down this way:
Altissimo is produced by the player using various voicing techniques such as air stream, tongue, throat and embrochure variations to disturb the fundamental of a note which results in one of the higher overtones dominating.
Classical sax players know all about altissimo (also called top tones.) As if the normal range of the instrument was not enough, altissimo appears in much of the classical repertoire that utilizes saxophone. Jazz is another thing entirely. John Coltrane may have been the first to really blow altissimo up for the listening audiences during the 1960s, but Lenny Pickett, the tenor sax guy from Tower of Power and the Saturday Night Live show band takes altissimo to a whole different level.
The altissimo range, when played in a sax solo at the right time is not unlike that middle-A power chord on electric guitar: nobody really knows why, but it works on a listener's head in a good way. It is a trick to learn to play altissimo, which is the science of managing to blow a specific set of overtones and manage alternate fingerings and such. And not everybody can play altissimo. It becomes something of a holy grail for sax players.
"It's a different way of thinking," David Jackson, the tenor sax guy in the home town Euphoria Brass Band once told me. Books have been written about the subject, and countless Youtube videos attempt to impart the secret to blowing great altissimo notes.
When it came time in my own sax evolution to master the playing of at least one such note, I sought out Saximus. We met up one sunny afternoon in his office at San Diego State University where he is a professor in the music department. It turns out that the secret to playing altissimo is learning to sing.
"Overtones are one thing," he says in reference to the practice of learning to control the overtones that a saxophone normally makes and that blend together to compose a single note. "I don't know if you've ever done this before, but can you actually sing the note that you want to be able to produce?
Not likely, was my answer. A high G above F#? I cannot do this. But Rewoldt can.
"You throat is what controls everything, actually. All the fingerings are bullshit. Most of them actually are." He laughs, and demonstrates by blowing an altissimo A, then changing fingerings a dozen times. "You master the throat positions that'll give you what you actually want. It's the throat that controls it."
And then he demonstrates by singing all the way up to the high A.
"Now you try it."
I do, and I am glad that he is the only one to hear it.
"I want you to pretend that someone is punching you in the gut," he says in reference to my anemic voice, "and make the sound on the exhale: ha! Ha! Ha!"
I do that too, and on the tape playback after the interview has been concluded, I hear myself barking more like a dog than singing. A falsetto dog at that. I'm thinking that my neighbors are really gonna love this new part of my practice routine while Saximus corrects my approach.
"Really open your throat here," he says. "The tongue is down." He should know -- he can sing the high notes like a Vienna Choir boy.
We spend the remainder of the half hour working. He writes practice notes in a tiny hand on scraps of waste paper. He blows beauty altissimo notes that fly about like birds, and I blow some kind of wretched nasal coughs that sound tubercular. It is the worst thing I have ever heard of myself until behold -- an altissimo G squeaks out of the hairy mess of clams I am playing.
But Rewoldt fears no bad sound. He encourages me to make more wicked noises and squeaks. At one point he has me swallowing pretty much the entire mouthpiece. "More," he says. "More. Even more. I know it's exaggerated. Then, "stop you're trying too hard to make a note."
Of course I am. Every thing is clenched. Must - have - altissimo.
"If you can hold that squeak, you can bend that note all the way down." He demonstrates once again by singing. "If we can get a squeak while you're working on your tones, then you can work on bending it down, and you'll be passing through a lot of overtones."
So in the final analysis, did I get an altissimo note? Kind of not. But I am singing a lot more like Phillip Bailey, the man-falsetto on all those Earth, Wind, and Fire records.
There is hope, yes?