HELIX for alto saxophone and wind/percussion octet
Program notes by the composer
Helix was commissioned by the National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors in 1982, written in the fall of 1983, and first performed at the National MENC convention in Chicago on March 24, 1984. Stephen Duke, alto saxophonist, appeared as soloist at the premiere, accompanied by a faculty group from Northern Illinois University. Donald Funes, then chair of the NIU School of Music, was the conductor.
This was one of those rare -- and welcome -- commissions where no specific stipulations regarding instrumentation, style, or length were imposed by the commissioning agency; NACWPI directed only that the work should be written for some combination of wind and percussion instruments. Left completely free to choose my own project, I determined to write a work featuring our school's outstanding alto saxophonist, Stephen Duke. I had long been fascinated with the plight of the saxophone in its search for identity: an instrument never entirely at home with the woodwinds or the brass, neither strictly legitimate as the orchestral winds were nor, for that matter, strictly a jazz instrument either. I decided that this work would explore those struggles of the sax by planting it squarely between two opposing wind trios -- one of brass, one of woodwinds, each with its accompanying percussionist -- and also between two opposing styles: hard-edge jazz and 20th -century French-influenced legitimate music. The work also employs a good deal of heterophony, as the opening sax solo throws flute-, clarinet-, and bassoon-colored "shadows" of itself against the wall of background silence. The title was suggested by the spiral figure which apostrophizes the three initial statements of the sax's melodic material.
Craig B. Parker, writing in the Journal of the International Trumpet Guild, said this of the work:
Bach explores a myriad of timbres in HELIX, from subdued woodwinds and muted brasses to explosive tuttis. HELIX, like many of the recent works of Albright, Bolcom, Del Tredici, Rochberg, and others, adroitly juxtaposes diverse stylistic elements, in this case ranging from Hovhaness-like improvisation to jazz licks, into an eclectic, unified whole.