Pushing musical boundaries with a Charlotte-area saxophonist | WFAE 90.7

For most of us, the music we listen to is familiar. It often has a verse and a chorus and a catchy melody – and chances are it’s sung by a pop star. But a new album from a Charlotte-area artist probably isn’t the type of music most of us are familiar with. WFAE’s Jesse Steinmetz spoke to local musician, Dylan Ward, about his experimental new album, “Tourmaline.”

The most streamed song on Spotify in 2021, worldwide, was Olivia Rodrigo’s the driver’s license.” The second most-streamed song was by Lil Nas X. In third place was a collaboration by Justin Bieber, and cleaning the stick was another song by Olivia Rodrigo.

Dylan Ward’s first solo album isn’t pop music, but it’s still worth listening to.

The Charlotte-area musician’s new album is called Tourmaline, named after the gemstone, and the songs feature mostly saxophones and electronics. There are no lyrics or refrains to sing, but there are none.

There are instrumental solos and harmonies, and a saxophone sound that can only be achieved through years of dedicated practice.

There are also, at times, dissonant and discordant tones, sometimes lasting for minutes.

It can be a good thing to push our musical boundaries, though. It can force us to reassess what we know about music, and sometimes what we know about other aspects of our lives as well.

Ward has appeared as a soloist with the North Carolina Symphony and the Raleigh Symphony, among others, and has performed everywhere from Lincoln Center to the UK. He holds degrees from Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, as well as a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He joined me to discuss his first solo album which will be released later this month.

Steinmetz: The title of your album is “Tourmaline”. It is not uncommon, especially for classical artists, to reflect on the things of nature. The French composer Messiaen was famous for transcribing birdsong and writing it into his compositions. And John Luther Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014 for his song “Become Ocean.” Tell me about this project. Tourmaline is a gemstone that can be of different colors. This is the name of the first song on your album and the name of the album itself. Why did you choose this title and what do you hope it conveys to the listener?

Hall: There are several different reasons for the naming of the title. The first, of course, is that it’s kind of a broader representation of my creative work, spanning multiple projects. I like to think that my work explores the connection between natural human, digital and historical consciousnesses and how they all interact. This album really explores the ideas of sound transmutation or the transformation of one object into another. And in fact, the kind of process that this album explores is that of an alchemical process. There are a lot of images and metaphors between tourmaline as a natural gemstone, but also its sort of metaphorical representation of the philosopher’s stone.

Steinmetz: You are a saxophonist and saxophones are wind instruments, which means you have to blow air into them to make them sound. It’s very physical. And musicians sometimes describe their instrument as an extension of their body, which seems especially true for saxophones. But for your first solo album, you chose to play with electronics rather than a live orchestra. One track has guitar and piano, but otherwise it’s just saxophone and electronics. Why did you choose to play mainly with a laptop rather than with other musicians?

Hall: On a practical level, this project was set up and undertaken during COVID, when quarantine was happening. So, I was kind of removed from physically playing with a lot of collaborators, which I might have done otherwise. But I think maybe more importantly, I’m really interested in the possibilities that exist for electronic and electroacoustic music. I mean, technology has accelerated at such a rapid rate over the years that the possibilities are truly endless, and it’s only accelerating and escalating even further. So just the amount of possibilities that is available by working with electronics and working with pre-recorded sounds – the saxophone can then somehow be manipulated into a new hybrid instrument. And that kind of thing really appeals to me. And while the saxophone plays and perhaps performs music of various styles, that’s still its essence, a saxophone, isn’t it? There is no kind of mass manipulation beyond that.

Steinmetz: This album really isn’t pop music, and it’s not meant to be. Can you tell me a bit about this genre and what you think it can do that pop, jazz or traditional classical music can’t?

Hall: So I would sort of define this music as contemporary electroacoustic music. We could perhaps call it experimental music or experimental electroacoustic music. I think what a project like this does for me is it really allows a space to process and express abstract and complex ideas over a longer and longer time frame. So you were referring to some of the top pop hits of the last year, right? Pop songs or rock songs that we are usually used to are between three and five minutes long. But if you look at some of the track listings on this record, you know, some of the tracks are 17 minutes long. And I find that duration really opens up and allows more complex ideas to come out in a musical way.

Steinmetz: Your album contains five songs by five different composers, but a few of these songs were commissioned and composed specifically for this project. One of these songs, Angelus Novus, which was named after Paul Klee’s painting, was created by heavily processing and reprocessing the sounds of the saxophone. It also features a kind of tenor saxophone solo. Tell me what was going through your mind when performing this piece – at first it seems almost scary, and later it can be tense and dissonant, although in the end the conflict has been resolved. What were you trying to convey?

Hall: Generally speaking, with this piece, the solo tenor saxophone line is somehow representative of “the angel of history”. So it’s this sort of overhanging entity that looks down and sees the chaos of the historical process and human development on the planet. So on the saxophone, the goal is to explore the ideas of phenomenology in music and how we actually deal with various phenomena. So what you will hear with this track is that there is just a very long microtonal spectrum in glacial motion. So it feels like this very gradual thing that unfolds over time, but there’s no cadence or end point, it’s just this endless cycle of chaos and seeming desperation, that was in somehow [Walter] Benjamin’s interpretation of this painting. But then I use that link in the phenomenology to finally get to this just outrageous climax, which happens about halfway through the piece. I incorporated a lot of harmonic sweeping and frenetic playing, which really sounds like moans, to be honest, kind of moans, you know, of the chaos of the story.

Steinmetz: Many listeners accustomed to simple rhythms and a verse followed by a chorus might find certain aspects of these songs quite challenging. What would you say to someone who is not used to this type of music, and how would you advise listeners to enjoy this genre?

Hall: I would say that the best way to appreciate this type of music which is perhaps devoid of the standard conventional song structures and forms that we are used to hearing, is to simply really focus on the experience. Let the experience overwhelm you and simply try to understand how music works on a strictly oral level. But also, there’s a lot of interesting information in the liner notes to help contextualize some of the ideas. The ideas are certainly abstract, but I think this type of music, in particular, because it has this basis of electronics, is really meant to be just experienced. A few people have said that this music sounds a bit like cinematic music, where it’s so immersive and you’re really there to feel all the sounds that are coming. So that would be my recommendation.

Steinmetz: And tell me a bit about your childhood here. You’re based in Harrisburg, just over the Charlotte line. But you have played and studied all over the world. How has the Charlotte area influenced your musical journey?

Hall: I was very lucky to go through Cabarrus County Schools and was set up with great band managers who encouraged me to take the music seriously and keep bringing it to the higher level and, you know, were incredibly supportive and always looking to sort out new opportunities. Growing up in Harrisburg, I was also a bit in Charlotte. I did the Charlotte Youth Wind Ensemble which was hosted by UNC Charlotte at the time. And then from there, going to UNCSA as an undergrad and really developing the skills of what it means to be a professional musician. So yes, I was very lucky that this area had great group programs and really supported me in my activities.

Dylan Ward’s new album is called “Tourmaline” and was released with Neuma Records on July 15.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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