Iapetus Suture: for Saxophone Quartet

Richard Whalley (Composer)

Research output: Non-textual formComposition


Iapetus Suture was commissioned by the Ebonit saxophone quartet and premiered in Paris in April 2016. Subsequent performances have occurred in Manchester and Amsterdam (April 2016), Alkmaar (February 2018), Manchester (November 2019; recording at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAe155S9jzA), Maastricht and Kasteel Keukenhof (February 2020). The submitted CD comprises the quartet’s commercial recording (Metier, 2020).

The principal research aim was to investigate how shapes and proportions found in nature can be used as analogies for musical processes, focusing on the Iapetus Suture, a major geological fault near the English–Scottish border. Three interrelated methodologies were employed. A geological cross-section map determined the structure of sections within the piece: the landscape proportions of distances between rivers and lakes were translated into temporal proportions, while musical shapes modelled the contours of Lake District mountains. Texturally, the analogy focused on perception of the multiple geological layers above and beneath the surface, represented by differentiated textures and playing techniques, informed by the micropolyphony of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto; however, the harmonic structures here were based on fingered quartertones and microtones including those found within multiphonics. Such stratified textures were further differentiated through fluctuations in coordination between parts using a spectrum of temporal relationships – ranging from highly ordered notation with a strongly articulated pulse, to a more aleatoric conception where individual players determine the pathway taken by their parts. The third methodology highlighted such contrasts by exploiting the saxophone’s extraordinary dynamic range and timbral spectrum, using pitched and non-pitched sounds, multiphonics and various extended techniques, informed by study of Birtwistle’s Panic and Christian Lauba’s Neuf Études pour Saxophones. The resulting work produced insights into the connections between standard and extended saxophone techniques, while the large-scale geologically derived structure allowed maximum contrast to be drawn from the instruments by creating a ‘polyphony of textures’, slowly transformed by textural layering.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherComposers Edition
Size17-18 minutes
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2016


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