OXYTON is (and, in my opinion, will be) a masterpiece of the contemporary baritone saxophone repertoire. For this reason, I decided to include it in my first solo album BELIEVER. I also felt the need to talk about it on the blog of my website sometime.

CHRISTOPHE HAVEL (France, 1956), a formed saxophone player, leads an intense activity as an artist and teacher. He is currently professor of electroacoustic music composition at the CRR of Bordeaux (France) and the ESMUC of Barcelona (Spain). He is also a member, as a sound engineer and composer, of the well-known French contemporary music group Proxima Centauri.

Read more about Christophe Havel, here

Meaning and Structure of Oxyton

“It is a multiple cry which gradually oxidizes and dematerializes itself. Its steely resonances, at the sweet scent of acid, converge towards infinity of immobility” (Christophe Havel).

OXYTON, for baritone saxophone solo, was written in 1991 and dedicated to Marie-Bernadette Charrier, a contemporary music saxophonist recognized worldwide and the composer’s couple. The work was published on J. P. Tonger Musikverlag Köln-Rodenkirchen (Germany) in 1993.

Although being a piece for solo instrument, it shows clearly the influence of electronic music with the use of sound textures such as different multiphonics, flatterzunges (granular textures), vibrato and oscillations changes and sudden termination of sound.

OXYTON is a piece of great contrasts. We can hear it, for example, on its two most basic compositional elements, represented by an acid and metallic chord (multiphonic) and, on the other hand, a very fast and articulate melodic motif of three notes. Furthermore, its character leads us to moments of maximum agitation and of extreme calm. All these contrasts often appear suddenly.

OXYTON is structured in various sections without interruption. I observe the following parts:

  1. Introduction (p. 4, first 4 staves). There we find the exposition of the two main elements of the piece in the 1st staff. The beat is different for each element: the multiphonics are mostly indicated in seconds (or quaver = 72) and always in ff, whilst short and fast excerpts are written in sixteenths (= 116) and always in pppp. This section forms the impression of a static rhythm.
  2. Allegro (from p. 4, 5th staff to p. 7 4th staff): The pulse is steady (=116, except for some multiphonics, expressed in seconds) but fluctuates increasingly towards the end. The elements previously exposed develop in different directions: multiphonics predominate at the very beginning of this section but are gradually supplanted for the greater presence and duration of the fast and articulated motifs. In addition, some short melodic excerpts alternate between chords and rapid motifs, increasing their contrasts and the sense of rhythmic instability.
  3. Agitato (from p. 7, 4th staff to p. 8, 2nd staff) It is a melodic part on the very treble and altissimo register of the instrument with lots of dynamic contrasts, glissandi, portamenti, accellerandi, quarter-tones and vibrato and oscillations which give a great expressivity.
  4. Lento (from p. 8, 2nd staff to the end of p. 9): The first part of this section contains some melodic elements from Agitato at a much slower speed (= 44). Despite the changes and dynamic contrasts, this part plays with different timbres and wide intervals with quarter-tones. The second part of the section is purely microtonal, a bit faster (= 66, with progressive accellerandi) and mostly pp. The rhythm of irregular groups, along with accellerandi and crescendi, suggests an arabesque improvisation.
  5. Final (pages 10 and 11): This section starts with great force with lots of multiphonics (and distorted notes as well), slaps and melodic excerpts played with dynamic contrasts ff/pp. This force is diluted progressively while long notes and silences appear and gain more prominence towards the end of the piece. At the same time, the musical discourse goes in two directions: one towards the extreme of the altissimo register (there is a trill Bb6-Cb7 written in pp, dim al niente in the last staff) and the other towards the low register (an A2 of 9 seconds long precedes the altissimo trill).

Watch the video:

Technical Work

OXYTON is a very difficult piece because of its hard technical elements: extreme changes of registers, sudden contrasts of dynamics, pitch of the altissimo register, soft dynamics and subtones on the very low register, precision in the emission of multiphonics, etc.

From the very beginning, I recommend doing a very detailed work plan on different playing aspects:

  • Work piano dynamics (from mp to pppp and subtones) on the low register, separately.
  • Master the altissimo register in all dynamics (from pppp to ff), not only notes but also motifs.
  • Work on the balance of the multiphonics, also note by note (you can look for correction or alternative fingerings as well).
  • Practice mostly the fast motifs in a slow speed, seeking clarity of the excerpts with a well noticeable accents, portamenti, flatterzunge and noises of keys.
  • Group and work all parts of the same tempo to acquire a steady beat and, at the same time, distinct from the other parts with other tempos.
  • Group and work notes and sections of the same dynamic to acquire a more homogeneous range and, at the same time, well defined when playing other notes or sections with other dynamics.
  • Look for the closest pitch with C keys for notes on p. 9.
  • Pay attention to large intervals (there are lots of biggest than 2 octaves) and, especially, those that also have dynamic changes on every note.

Once you have checked these aspects, start to link the different elements on each part or section in order to give continuity to the musical discourse.

As it happens with masterpieces for any instrument, a detailed practice of OXYTON will help you reach a great technical mastery of the baritone saxophone. In fact, when you perform back this piece after some time, you will realise that besides having strengthened your technique, you will also be able to better mature its interpretation.

Performing Work

Undoubtedly, this is the most exciting part of the working process, after ending the technical difficulties.

Physical and mental exhaustion are the main drawbacks you will have to face when playing OXYTON. Although it´s not a very long work, it requires great concentration during the circa 9 minutes performance. It is very important to breathe well throughout the piece, doing a good job of integrating breaths and silences within the musical discourse and to play with a lot of energy, also in the slow and contemplative sections.

Both in the Introduction and Allegro, the vertical (multiphonics) and horizontal (melodic motifs) elements should be very contrasted: the horizontal parts have to be very active rhythmically (it is very important to stress well accents and key-noise) in all dynamics (from pppp to fff) and the vertical parts have to be as static as possible (in spite of the rhythmical indications to change the colour of some multiphonics). In an OXYTON working session, Christophe Havel even suggested me to do not move when playing multiphonics, especially in pages 5 and 6, in order to strengthen further this contrast in a visual way.

I like playing the Agitato section creating anxiety. So, I don’t elongate too much the long notes and I make sharp contrasts of dynamics, playing very quickly (almost with precipitation) in order to link this section with the tempo of the previous part. The only time I play calm and slow is right in the middle of this section, to increase its contrasts.

I perform the Lento part in a static way, reveling in the different colours of sound that occur with quarter-tones, fratterzunge, the portamenti and bringing out the notes of multiphonics separately. The unstable rhythmic notation on page 9 motivates me to play it as an arabesque improvisation.

In the Final section, I like to go to the limit of sound (almost cracking it) with strong dynamics and slaps, exaggerating the contrast between these elements with the subtone long notes in the low register. At the very end, I elongate the length of notes and rests (always well integrated into the musical discourse) as appropriate, to conduct the piece “towards infinity of immobility”.

Reviewed by Christophe Havel