Kate Romano talks to saxophonist Rob Buckland - soloist, chamber musician and composer
‘I’m not especially interested in the saxophone,’ says Rob Buckland. He’s a founder member of the acclaimed Apollo saxophone quartet, a soloist, chamber musician and improviser renowned for his distinctive sound, technical mastery and superb musicianship. ‘Almost anyone can get hold of a saxophone’, he continues. ‘Someone always wants one, someone always used to play one, and there are thousands of saxophonists, all doing thousands of hours of practice. I’m just not interested in playing for its own sake. What I am interested in, is what the saxophone can do, and how I can connect with people through it’.
Rob Buckland, one of the UK’s most respected saxophonists is - in his own words - on the wrong side of the hump. And that's a good thing. ‘I know who I am, and what I want to sound like, what interests me and what I haven’t got time left to get better at. The things you find hard are the things that define you; the ways you work around them become part of who you are’. As we talk, he’s occupied by a new piece for saxophone and piano which he is composing for American saxophonist Timothy McAllister, who is also a colleague at the RNCM where Rob is professor of saxophone. If he's 'not especially interested' in the saxophone itself, Rob certainly has a warm, appealing interest in his saxophonist colleagues and students, which continually runs through our conversation.
‘I know how to make the saxophone work,’ he says, matter of factly. ‘I’m someone who needs to know how things work. My dad is like that too. It's not so much about the wonder of discovery; it's just figuring it out and explaining it. I like to distil things down into their simplest forms and that includes all the technical stuff. Knowing how it works is knowing how to make it possible to do your job’. And what is the job? ‘It’s what you do that isn’t written down. That’s the important bit. It's what you do wrong that makes you sound like you. Your mistakes, your idiosyncrasies, the things you find hard… these become the things that people connect with, rather than an ability to do it absolutely right. The desired result is actually imperfection, but in a consistent way. I find my own notated music quite hard to play, actually… I think I’m writing for the kind of saxophone player I wish I was!’’
Creating new music - composing, improvising, commissioning - has been a constant in Rob’s career. The Apollo Saxophone quartet was founded in 1985 when Rob was still a student, and with this, a long-sighted responsibility and drive to generate their own repertoire. Over 35 years, the Apollo Saxophone Quartet has made the largest single contribution to saxophone quartet repertoire in the UK, commissioning and premiering well over one hundred works, many of which are now performed worldwide and considered core repertoire.
Rob’s own publications include pieces for saxophone and piano, quartets and educational material. ‘I have a clear image in my head when I compose’' he says. ‘But I don’t think everyone listening has the same picture in mind as I do when I write. My subconscious starts working the moment I’ve been asked to write something. It starts with a feeling, then the feeling grows into a shape. For example, I had a little irregular arpeggio shape in my head which went down and then turned upwards. In the place where I write, I can see a small Japanese acer in my garden and suddenly it turned from green to red. I never actually saw the moment of change, but the idea of falling (‘fall’ as in autumn, falling down, falling for someone…) started to find its way into the musical idea. I do months of this sort of thinking in my head and then start to write’.
Rob’s own music features in his concert at the Granary on Sunday 24 September, alongside music by colleagues written for him. ‘I promised myself I’d write a series of solo pieces and I planned to do that for a long time' he explains, 'but there had been no space to do it, and then the lockdowns came, so I got on with it'. It resulted in an album; Just Because - Short Stories for Solo Saxophone, 14 pieces of striking stylistic variety, from Jay Capperauld's Déjà Vu (a re-creation of the Prelude from Bach’s first Cello Suite) to Jenni Watson's Downpour, a vivid cityscape drenched in heavy rain. Two of the five pieces by Buckland - AltoGenesis and Tenacity - are, in turn, a quirky imagining of how the saxophone was discovered, and a musical trek through life's unexpected twists and turns.
‘When you hear someone perform’ he says, ‘you should feel a sort of connection, like when someone new comes into your life. I think that part of the magic of what we do with an instrument is to recreate that kind of connection in sound. You can tell a whole story in a single note. My journey as a musician - regardless of context or style or genre - is somehow trying to replicate that connection. We take in the basic information in a notated piece and then we can each - individually and personally - work out what to add to it that is not in the music. That's my lifelong goal as a performer - to find something in the music and in my sound that keeps connecting myself and my audience, just like collection of little stories…’
ROB BUCKLAND: SHORT STORIES FOR SOLO SAXOPHONE