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David Maslanka, ​Song Book for Alto Saxophone and

Marimba

David Maslanka (1943-2017) was a twentieth-century


American composer most known for his major use of four-part Bach
chorales in his works. Maslanka studied composition with Joseph
Wood at the Oberlin College Conservatory, where he received his
Bachelor of Music degree in 1965. He also studied composition with
H. Owen Reed at Michigan State University, where he thereafter
earned his Master of Music and a Doctoral degree in Philosophy
between 1965 and 1970. Maslanka worked as a freelance composer
on commissions living out the rest of his life in Missoula, Montana
until he lost the battle to colon cancer on August 7, 2017.
Song Book for Alto Saxophone and Marimba​ was composed
in the summer of 1998 by David Maslanka and was written for and
commissioned by Stephen Jordheim and Dane Richeson of the Lawrence University
Conservatory of Music. ​ ​Maslanka, in his own program notes on the piece, states that the seven
brief movements of ​Song Book​ act as “emotional scenes” that “have a particular thing to say, a
particular mood and attitude to express, and then they are done”.​ ​Song Book​ uniquely
encompasses both old and new traditions of composition, and the work​ as a whole focuses on the
tonal and timbral qualities of the saxophone and the marimba, and how their contemporary
interplay can correlate well into traditional settings of hymn tunes and chorales.
Through utilizing multiple Bach chorales and contrapuntal writing between the
saxophone and marimba, Maslanka is able to harness a reflective, spiritual sound while evoking
unique sonorities and colors through contemporary techniques in orchestration. Many of the
work’s movements incorporate the use of free rhythm, creating an ambient, meditative space for
melodies and harmonies to emerge. The work pays homage to the techniques of the Romantic era
by utilizing traditional ornamentation in the saxophone part as well as a specific movement
dedicated to the Romantic era compositional practice of “theme and variation”. The final
movement of the work also references this musical time period through the use of material from
Brahms’ ​Intermezzos, Op. 116​.
The work’s seven movements all have separate contrasting moods, with different unique
inspirations behind each. For example, “Song for Davy - The Old Year is Past” ​reflects on a time
of personal transition for Maslanka as a young person, while “Lost” ​centers around on the feeling
of being lost and in need of help; “Song for Alison” was written for Maslanka’s wife as a way of
saying thank you for all of her support in his life’s endeavors, and “Summer Song” is simply, in
Maslanka’s words, “a sweet piece that needs no further explanation”. Maslanka’s innate creative
sensibility allows for what may be seen as seven short arbitrary tunes to be comprehended as a
larger, deeply connected set of spiritual pieces. Since its creation in 1998, ​Song Book​ has been
performed all over the United States and internationally, becoming a standard work of chamber
duet repertoire.

Note by Brian Kachur


Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CMB_1254_(16149054249).jpg