Pushing musical boundaries with a Charlotte-area saxophonist
The most listened to song on Spotify in 2021, in the world, was Olivia Rodrigo's “drivers license.” The second most listened to song was by Lil Nas X. In third place was a Justin Bieber collaboration, and batting cleanup was another Olivia Rodrigo song.
Dylan Ward's solo debut album is not pop music, but it's still worth listening to.
The Charlotte-area musician’s new album is called Tourmaline, after the gemstone, and the songs mostly feature saxophones and electronics. There are no lyrics and no choruses to sing along to — but there aren’t supposed to be.
There are instrumental solos and harmonies, and a saxophone tone that can only be achieved through years of dedicated practice.
There are also, at times, dissonant and clashing tones, sometimes for minutes on end.
It may be a good thing to push our musical boundaries, though. It can force us to reevaluate what we know about music, and sometimes what we know about other aspects of our lives, too.
Ward has appeared as a soloist with the North Carolina Symphony and Raleigh Symphony, among others, and has performed everywhere from the Lincoln Center to the UK. He has degrees from Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, as well as a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He joined me to discuss his solo debut album coming out later this month.
Steinmetz: The title of your album is "Tourmaline." It's not uncommon, especially for classical artists, to reflect on things in nature. The French composer Messiaen was famous for transcribing birdsong and writing it into his compositions. And John Luther Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014 for his song “Become Ocean.” Tell me about this project. Tourmaline is a gemstone that can be a variety of different colors. It's the name of the first song on your album and the name of the album itself. Why did you go with that title and what are you hoping it gets across to the listener?
Ward: There are a few different reasons for the naming of the title. One, of course, is that it's sort of a larger representation of my creative work, spanning multiple projects. I like to think of my work as exploring the connection between natural human, digital and historical consciousnesses and the way that they all sort of interact. This album is really exploring ideas of sonic transmutation or the transformation of one object into another. And actually, the kind of process that this album is exploring is one of an alchemical process. There's a lot of imagery and metaphor between the tourmaline stone as a natural gemstone, but also its sort of metaphorical representation of the philosopher's stone.
Steinmetz: You're a saxophonist, and saxophones are wind instruments, which means you have to blow air into them for them to make noise. It's very physical. And musicians sometimes describe their instrument as an extension of their body, which seems especially true for saxophones. But for your debut solo album, you chose to perform with electronics rather than a live orchestra. One track has guitar and piano, but otherwise it's only saxophone and electronics. Why did you choose to perform primarily with a laptop rather than other musicians?
Ward: On a practical level, this project was being put together and undertaken during COVID, when quarantine was happening. So, I was sort of removed from physically playing with a lot of collaborators that I would have perhaps done otherwise. But I think perhaps more importantly, I'm really interested in the possibilities that exist for electronic and electroacoustic music. I mean, the technology has been accelerating at such a rapid rate over the years that the possibilities really are seemingly endless, and it’s only accelerating and ascending further. So, just the amount of possibility that's available in working with electronics and working with prerecorded sounds – the saxophone can then sort of be manipulated into a new hybrid instrument. And that sort of thing is really appealing to me. And while the saxophone is playing and perhaps playing music of varying styles, it's still at its essence, a saxophone, right? There's no sort of mass manipulation sort of beyond that.
Steinmetz: This album is very much not pop music, and it's not supposed to be. Can you tell me a little bit about this genre and what you think it can do that pop or jazz or traditional classical music can't?
Ward: So, I would sort of loosely define this music as contemporary electroacoustic music. You could perhaps call it experimental music or experimental electroacoustic music. I think the thing for me that a project like this does is it really allows a space to process and express abstract, complex ideas over a longer, larger time frame. So, you were referencing some of the top pop hits of last year, right? Pop songs or rock songs that we're typically accustomed to last between three and five minutes. But if you take a look at some of the track listings on this record, you know, some of the pieces are 17 minutes long. And I find that that length of time really opens up and allows for sort of more complex ideas to be manifested in kind of a musical manner.
Steinmetz: Your album features five songs from five different composers, but a couple of those songs were commissioned and composed specifically for this project. One of those songs, Angelus Novus, which was named after the Paul Klee painting, was created by heavily processing and reprocessing saxophone sounds. It also features a tenor saxophone solo of sorts. Tell me what was going through your mind when performing that piece — towards the beginning it almost sounds spooky, and later it can be tense and dissonant, although it sounds like by the end, the conflict has been resolved. What were you trying to convey?
Ward: Broadly speaking, with that piece the solo tenor saxophone line is sort of representative of “the angel of history.” So, it’s this sort of overlooking entity that is looking down and seeing the chaos of the historical process and of human development on the planet. So, on saxophone the goal is to explore ideas of phenomenology in music and how we actually process various phenomenon. So, what you'll hear with this track is that there is just a really long, glacially moving microtonal spectrum. So, it just sounds like this very incremental thing that's going over time, but there's no sort of cadence or arrival point, it just is this endless cycle of seemingly chaos and despair, which was sort of [Walter] Benjamin's interpretation of that painting. But then I use that link in phenomenology to eventually arrive at this just outrageous climactic point, which happens about halfway through the piece. I incorporated a lot of harmonic scanning and frenetic playing, which really just sounds like wailing, to be honest, sort of the moans of, you know, the chaos of history.
Steinmetz: A lot of listeners who are used to straightforward rhythms, and a verse followed by a chorus, might find some aspects of these songs kind of challenging. What would you say to someone who isn't used to this type of music, and how would you advise listeners to appreciate this genre?
Ward: I would say the best way to appreciate this type of music that is maybe devoid of the standard conventional song structures and forms that we’re accustomed to hearing, is just to really focus on the experience. Let the experience wash over you and just try to get both an understanding of how music is operating just from a strictly oral level. But also, there's a lot of great information in the liner notes to help sort of contextualize some of the ideas. The ideas are admittedly abstract, but I think that this type of music, specifically, because it does have that base of electronics, is really meant to just be experienced. I've had a couple of people say that this music sounds sort of like cinematic music, where it's just so immersive and you're just really there experiencing all of the sounds that are coming in. So that would be my recommendation.
Steinmetz: And tell me a little bit about growing up here. You're based out of Harrisburg, right over the Charlotte line. But you've performed and studied across the world. How did the Charlotte area inform your musical journey?
Ward: I was really fortunate to go through Cabarrus County schools and I got set up with really excellent band directors that encouraged me to take music seriously and continue to bump it up to the next level and, you know, were incredibly supportive and always looking to sort of present new opportunities. Growing up in Harrisburg, I also was in Charlotte quite a bit. I did the Charlotte Youth Wind Ensemble that was hosted by UNC Charlotte at the time. And then from there going to UNCSA as an undergraduate student and really developing the skills of what it means to become a professional musician. So yeah, I was very fortunate that this area had great band programs and was really supportive in my pursuits.
Dylan Ward's new album is called "Tourmaline," and was released with Neuma Records.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.