Thanks to musicologist Ryan Dohoney* for his email interview with Alex Mincek, conducted April-May 2013. 

Ryan Dohoney
What I love about your music is how idiomatic it seems for the players, that it seems lovingly crafted for their particular instruments and abilities. How has your working relationship with the players of Wet Ink shaped your music?
Alex Mincek

Playing and composing for the Wet Ink Ensemble has allowed me to discover and refine ideas in a way I find hard to imagine would be possible otherwise. Working closely with these musicians allows me to take chances. I can write things I imagine will be interesting, without knowing for sure how they will work because I know the rehearsal process with Wet Ink will allow me to fix any ideas that didn’t turn out the way I had imagined. Rehearsals are a little like being in a musical laboratory: we experiment. This requires time, patience and trust, which can often be in short supply in other circumstances. Working with Wet Ink I have learned a lot about individual instrumental techniques, and have had many opportunities to explore the various ways these techniques can be combined.

Aside from Wet Ink, I have had many collaborations that have also greatly shaped my music. Working with string quartets like the JACK Quartet and MIVOS has significantly influenced my approach to writing chamber music and, more specifically, for string instruments.

How has your experience as a performer—particularly a saxophonist—shaped your approach to composition, both in terms of genre and musical gesture?

My work as a performer has been crucial in my approach to composition. I often compose music that I intend to play myself, so I naturally consider my own strengths and weaknesses as a performer, which of course has both pros and cons. Performing keeps me from thinking too abstractly about sound and music notation. I often think about practical solutions to the physical aspects of a musical idea—how an idea can be communicated and realized in the most effective manner possible. For example, the musician should be able to understand exactly what I am asking them to do and precisely how to accomplish it. Another important aspect of being a performer is that I most frequently perform with other musicians. Composing is most often a solitary, internal endeavor, which can become stifling and getting outside of my own head can be very helpful. Being actively engaged in music making in direct interaction with other musicians is vital to my own creativity as a composer because it forces/allows me to react to the ideas and practices of others.




From an historical perspective the saxophone is a relatively recent invention, so as a saxophonist I didn’t really learn music by playing Baroque and Classical sonatas the way a violinist or flutist might (though, my insecurity of this perceived ‘void’ in my education caused me to intensely study these forms later). Instead, I transcribed a lot of improvised and non-notated music by other saxophonists who are generally associated with jazz and popular music. I emulated them. I also improvised. The saxophone, in terms of genre, positioned me away from some of the more commonly accepted forms, traditions and practices in the canon of Western Classical music, and also led me to the practice of improvisation and transcription, which I think has been very important to my compositional thinking in terms of how I listen, hear and analyze music. It allows me to think beyond the musical ‘score.’ This is important. It is easy to get  wrapped up in superfluous notational techniques, and in the look of the score, rather than its function, (an attractive looking score is important, just not at the cost of the resulting music). Being a saxophonist has also led to other saxophonists being very influential to my own music, even if that is not immediately recognizable.

From a more purely physical perspective, the saxophone has also greatly shaped my musical thought. The mere design of the saxophone has been crucial to my recent musical thinking in a number of ways. The saxophone is basically a tube that can be made longer or shorter by closing or opening holes along the length of the tube in a specific order. This specific order maintains that the saxophone will ‘properly’ resonate to produce a singularly identifiable tone. However, if the keys are opened/closed ‘out’ of order, the instrument kind of malfunctions. Instead of producing a single resonant tone, it produces a distorted, split tone—a chord of sorts (commonly referred to as a multiphonic). I often find these sounds more interesting and appealing than the ones the instrument was designed to create, and these sounds are the harmonic basis for a lot of my music.

In addition to using actual multiphonics in my music, I use them as virtual models for broader musical ideas (harmony, orchestration, etc.). There are many other examples of this type of instrumental ‘malfunction,’ or, to apply a more positive term, ‘extension.’ Specific articulations via the reed and mouthpiece of the instrument can cause novel sounds, as can drastic uses of air pressure in tandem with embouchure pressure. Equally important to using these methods and the resulting sounds, is the more general idea of understanding basic instrumental design functions and then finding ways to make them attractively ‘malfunction.’ I use this idea in the conception of broader musical applications.

For example, every instrument has a cause and effect relationship with the production of sound. The player acts upon the instrument and a sound results from that action. The physical triggers the audible. My music frequently plays with the ambiguous relation between how various physical gestures and audible structures feed into and off of one another.

Physical gesture can be considered a basis for connectivity. For instance, if a small collection of physical gestures is uniformly distributed to all of the instruments, there is a collective sense of doing the same thing. However, since instruments are constructed differently, it follows that the resulting sounds from each will, at times, be strikingly varied. For example, the idea of physically applying extreme pressure to all the instruments collectively results in a variety of different sounds. More specifically, physically similar back-and-forth arm motions carried out by a trombone and a double bass creates different sonic results. Thus, uniform physical gestures are filtered by the designs of the instruments into many similar and different audible structures, creating a sense of individuality within an environment of collective physical unity.

Conversely, the character of sound can be considered as the basis for connectivity. For instance, if a collection of sounds is uniformly distributed to all of the instruments, there is a collective sense of sounding the same. To produce similar sounds the players will have to employ different physical tactics, some subtle, others drastic. For example, ‘glissandi’ can be produced by most instruments, allowing them to sound similar, but requiring them to act differently. A flute accomplishes a harmonic glissando using air pressure, while the cello uses hand movement.

Finally, these sonic/physical perspectives can be intertwined by considering how, on each individual instrument, the slightest variations to physical gesture can cause drastic changes to the audible result (and vice versa). If a violinist slides a finger the length of the fingerboard while pressing the string, we hear a continuous glissando. If the player performs the same physical task while lightly touching the string instead of pressing it, we hear a discontinuous series of sounds (harmonics). This idea can be transferred to another instrument.

For example, if the flutist plays with regular air pressure while sliding the mouthpiece away from his or her embouchure, we can hear a continuous glissando. If the player performs the same physical task, while using much lighter air pressure, we hear a discontinuous series of sounds (‘whistle tones’). This idea can be passed to another instrument, and then another, and another, etc…From these relays, questions arise: which resulting structures best represent the nature of each physical gesture? On what sounds can all the instruments most seamlessly intersect, and at what physical price do they pay for this coexistence? By exploring such ambiguities, I hope to demonstrate the futility of both succinct classification and stereotype.





Full Interivew with Alex Mincek, interviewed by Ed Campion
Alex Mincek
Orpheus Project 440
Pendulum V
Alex Mincek, Pendulum V, Wet Ink Ensemble, 2009
“The saxophone led me to the practice of improvisation and transcription, which has been very important to my compositional thinking.” Alex Mincek
Pendulum III

Pendulum VII
Alex Mincek, Pendulum VII, Wet Ink Ensemble, 2013

Alex Mincek, Ali, 2011. Alto saxophone: Michael Ibrahim
“My music frequently plays with the ambiguous relation between how various physical gestures and audible structures feed into and off of one another.” Alex Mincek