• John Harle
  • The Little Death Machine (2006)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • 2222/2000/2perc/kbd/str
  • Soprano Saxophone
  • 15 min

Programme Note

The Little Death Machine is a concerto in one movement for Saxophone, Chamber Orchestra, and two Keyboard/Sampler players.

Its initial inspiration was the sculpture by Jake and Dino Chapman of a similar name in the Tate Modern, but as the compositional process unfolded, the piece gradually became a vision of monstrous musico-mechanical mayhem, drawing inspiration from sources such as Delia Derbyshire, the BBC Radiophonic workshop, Luigi Russolo’s noise machines, and the Futurists.

The Saxophonic equivalent of a Death Machine is the Sopranino Saxophone, - played after the initial sections on Soprano. It’s a notoriously difficult instrument to control, but especially in the top range, has an almost electronic, sine-wave sonic signal when attacked with sufficient verve by the saxophone operator, and can blend with both electronic and acoustic sound.

After the initial melodic statement by the Soprano Saxophone, mirrored then by strings and woodwind, orchestral second gear is reached with cross-rhythmic patterns, and a fluid saxophone line, before a restatement of the original idea as the samplers enter, playing swirling glissandi sounds created by Derbyshire’s VCS3 - the first synthesiser invented.
The fluid saxophone line returns, this time finding the need for oil in some of the cogs, as the line gets ‘stuck’ in a variety of mischievous saxophonic capers, before a winding, high-wire, 12 tone melody leads us into a darker world - of cool trumpet, alto flute and cor anglais figures, radio sounds, and mysterious flying machines. A loop from the classic 808 drum machine brings Saxophone and Orchestra together in a slowed down version of the earlier chromatic saxophone figure, before the sax continues to improvise around the same scales.

Changing to the sopranino sax, the very first figure of the work is restated, and builds with the orchestra to an angular, jutting semiquaver riff, requiring virtuoso playing from all - especially harpsichord and strings.

Minimoog and ARP synthesisers then take the work sideways into a mad march like stomp, as the sopranino sax line joins with the Moogamin synthesiser to add some high-decibel craziness, before the semiquaver riff returns, with a Kaoss pad drum-loop and a countermelody on strings and trumpets.

Special thanks to Adrian Utley, Will Gregory and Martin Barker for their help in the preparation of the samples.

John Harle