Ryan Muncy: Hot


Saxophonist Ryan Muncy releases a recording that features works that highlight the shifting and increasingly prominent role that his instrument plays in the avant garde. 


Saxophonist Ryan Muncy's groundbreaking, virtuosic recording Hot presents works that highlight the shifting and increasingly prominent role that his instrument plays in the cutting edge works of the avant-garde. Featuring premieres of works written for him by Chaya Czernowin and Marcos Balter, as well as definitive performances of works by Franco Donatoni, Georges Aperghis, Anthony Cheung, and Aaron Cassidy, Muncy explores the full range of the saxophone’s capacity, appearing here on each member of the instrument’s family – from baritone to the rarely heard sopranino saxophone. From Donatoni's searing and chaotic title work Hot, to Anthony Cheung's lush, detuned, and melodic Refrain from Riffing, to Georges Aperghis' hyper, playful duo, Rasch, the works on this recording engage with and push past the limitations of the saxophone's historical associations with jazz and wind ensemble music, breaking into new territory.

This recording also features several of contemporary music's most prominent performers; alongside Ensemble Dal Niente, masterfully conducted by Michael Lewanski, Muncy joins MacArthur Foundation Genius grantee flutist Claire Chase, acclaimed violist Nadia Sirota, and new music harpist Ben Melsky for duo performances. The range of Muncy's playing is extraordinary, from powerful soloistic playing over the ensemble in Donatoni's big band inspired work, to delicate, timbral sound painting in the introspective solo works by Czernowin and Cassidy. The saxophone becomes a chameleon-like device, proving equally at home in both sensitive chamber settings and wild soloistic displays.

Ryan Muncy

Praised for "superb" performances by The New York Times as well as his ability to "show off the instrument's malleability and freakish extended range as well as its delicacy and refinement" by The Chicago Reader, Ryan Muncy is a saxophonist who performs, commissions, and presents new music. His work emphasizes collaborative relationships with composers and artists of his generation and aims to reimagine the way listeners experience the saxophone through contemporary music. He is a recipient of the Kranichstein Music Prize awarded at the 46th International Summer Courses for New Music Darmstadt, the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists, a Fulbright Fellowship in France, and has participated in the creation of more than 125 new works for the instrument. His debut solo album Hot was released by New Focus Recordings in 2013 to critical acclaim, praised as "one of the year's best albums" (Time Out New York). Muncy is the saxophonist of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), where he additionally serves as co-director of OpenICE, an outreach initiative which offers barrier-free experiences and free concerts around the world.

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New York Times

Ryan Muncy, a superb Chicago saxophonist, claims his share of Mr. Balter’s creativity on “Hot,” which ranges from flitting solo intimacies to a boisterous, swinging finale played by Ensemble Dal Niente, the new-music group Mr. Muncy directs. Mr. Balter’s “Strohbass” pairs Mr. Muncy on baritone saxophone with Claire Chase on bass flute, both purring, popping and fluttering in an eerie pas de deux.

— Steve Smith


I Care If You Listen

Michael Lewanski, conductor of Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente, introduced saxophonist (and EDN Executive Director) Ryan Muncy with his tongue in his cheek and a point to make. He reeled off a list of famous saxophone practitioners from Charlie Parker, to John Coltrane, to Bill Clinton, to Kenny G and Lisa Simpson, without naming a single classical musician. The occasion was the release event for Muncy’s first CD, HOT (on New Focus Recordings), at Constellation Chicago on September 22, 2013. Lewanski’s purpose was not only to decry the dearth of repertoire for classical saxophone, but also to extol Muncy and his collaborating composers for staking out new territory for the saxophone in contemporary music.

Muncy strapped on his saxes and quickly demonstrated what all the fuss is about, playing three tracks from the new recording – The Last Leaf (2012) for sopranino by Chaya Czernowin, Refrain from Riffing (2008) for alto and detuned harp by Anthony Cheung, and Aaron Cassidy’s Asphyxia (2000) for soprano. He rounded out the program with Andrea Agostini’s gli atomi che s’accendevano e radiavano (2009) for baritone and live electronics and Tre Pezzi (1965) for soprano and tenor by Giacinto Scelsi.

Muncy opened with the Agostini, his baritone on a slow deep burn with percussive bubbling electronics repeating a whirlwind of notes. There were moments when Muncy was doing little more than breathing and clicking on the valves evoking a barren landscape, followed by relentlessly repeating bari blasts over very loud electronics, as if he had been breathing life into the creation of the universe.

The Last Leaf, which we heard at its world premiere in November 2012, was even stronger now as Muncy has matured his presentation of this terrifyingly difficult piece. The sopranino is so tiny, it almost looks like a toy, save for its intricate jewel-like keys and fittings. It is notoriously resistant to bending to the player’s will, so playing it is always a high-risk venture. But Czernowin spares nothing in her demands for the piece. Starting with quiet spare bleats and toneless percussive tapping, Muncy suddenly dropped a bomb of deep, unrelenting, impossibly low blasts. A cycle of acrobatic register leaps repeated, exploring the full range of the sopranino’s sonic palette, ending with a high strained run of nearly breathless notes.

Scelsi’s Tre Pezzi was the most melodic piece of the evening, though there were plenty enough screeches to satisfy the contemporary music audience. A first section on soprano was a deconstructed blues full of obtuse angles. It gave way to a middle eastern modal passage that could have charmed a snake. Switching to tenor, Muncy laid out a slow and gentle lullaby, tinged with melancholy, that slowly disintegrated into silence. The spirited finale on soprano brought a bright run of birdsong.

Prior to joining Muncy for Cheung’s Refrain from Riffing, harpist Ben Melsky explained the scordatura tuning for the piece. 12 of the harps strings are detuned — six to a quarter-tone sharp, and six to a quarter-tone flat — lending gnarly and eerie overtones, especially during glissandos. Muncy’s alto part had a very jazzy feel as Melsky added acerbic commentary from his harp. Melsky accompanied a fractured, jittery sax melody with low-string harp plucks that evoked jazz bass playing. This piece had a jangly, confusing feel, in a thoroughly pleasing way.

The oversized score for the closing Asphyxia has two parallel staves, one for the fingering and the other for the blowing. Muncy described it as the scariest piece he has ever tackled. And by the time it was over, Muncy and the audience were in desperate need of oxygen. The piece was crazy-time, with a frenetic, chaotic feel and no clear rhyme or reason for nearly any of the playing. It felt like an exercise in just how disconnected can you get a saxophonist’s key-tapping and breathing without he or she collapsing in defeat.

By the end of the program Muncy looked exhausted, as well he should have been after hard-blowing five different saxophones. The remaining three pieces on the CD were not played because they require other musicians not available for the event. Anyone interested in the latest contemporary saxophone repertoire would do well to check HOT out.

— Larry and Arlene Dunn


Audiophile Audition

From Mr. Muncy’s website, Ryan Muncy is a saxophonist who performs, commissions, and presents new music. His work emphasizes collaborative relationships with composers and artists of his generation and aims to reimagine the way listeners experience the saxophone through contemporary music. Since 2010, Muncy has been the executive director of Ensemble Dal Niente, a 20-member contemporary music collective described by the Chicago Tribune as “super-musicians” and “a model of what contemporary music needs, but seldom gets, to reach and engage a wider public”. Under his leadership, Dal Niente became Chicago’s most active local presenter of contemporary music and in 2012 was named the first-ever ensemble recipient of the Kranichstein Music Prize, awarded at the 46th International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany.

I take a very pragmatic approach to music in general and contemporary music in particular. My inner-Chicagoan agrees with what the Tribune says about Muncy and his ensemble. They really are “super-musicians”. The music contained in this solo album by Muncy is all, seemingly, very difficult and requires some very advanced techniques. The music herein also requires some keen awareness of the leading edge of arthouse contemporary music. I do not think any of the music here is even remotely “mainstream” and yet it is quite interesting.

Rasch by Georges Aperghis is very nearly an abstract jam for soprano saxophone and viola and contains some nice interplay between the two soloists. The coyly titled Refrain from Riffing by Anthony Cheung is a similarly structured “discussion” between alto sax and harp. I actually liked this piece as one of my favorites on this album for its rather overtly jazz-tinged feel.

Asphyxia by Aaron Cassidy is a wildly improvisatory work for solo soprano saxophone. It sounds nearly “breathless” in places and provides some extreme challenges for the soloist. The other solo soprano sax work here, The Last Leaf, by Chaya Czernowin (actually this is for the Eb sopranino sax) is notable for its nearly insect-like flitting about on this notoriously difficult-to-control little instrument.

I was pretty intrigued by Strohbass for bass flute and baritone saxophone by Marcos Balter. Taking its title in part from the bizarre nineteenth century instrument the Strohviolin, special commendation must be given to flutist Claire Chase for putting the already difficult-to-play bass flute through some gymnastics.

The title work, Hot, by Franco Donatoni is, in many ways, the centerpiece of this collection. The soloists involve tenor and sopranino saxophones in this work that has some nice, moody ensemble sound. I felt this work also requires really tight playing and I enjoyed its jazz inspired sound as well.

There is no question that Ryan Muncy is a very skilled player, as are all members of the Ensemble Dal Niente. I had never heard of any of these composers and research shows that they come from a variety of backgrounds and locales including Greece, San Francisco, England, Brazil, Israel and Italy. Based only on these brief samples it also seems their music is quite “modernist” and many might find it fairly abstract. Probably my first indication that this was going to be the case was the inside booklet notes by Seth Brodsky discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the context of music (and I admit I didn’t get it….)

There is also no question that this is a very niche album, appealing most likely to fans of progressive jazz and the very avant-garde. It places extreme demands on the players as well as the listener. You have to be amazed by the playing; the music itself: maybe yes, maybe no.

— Daniel Coombs, 11.01.2013


Chicago Reader

Ryan Muncy, executive director of fearless new-music group Ensemble dal Niente and member of the all-saxophone Anubis Quartet, has been a party to the performance or commissioning of more than 100 new works for saxophone—an instrument that remains on the periphery of new music. On his dazzling solo debut, Hot, he continues to fight the good fight: with only one exception, its diverse saxophone pieces were composed in the current century. A series of bracing duets shows off the instrument's versatility and freakish extended range as well as its delicacy and refinement. The album includes compositions by Georges Aperghis, Chaya Czernowin, and Marcos Balter; Muncy duets with violist Nadia Sirota, harpist Ben Melsky, and flutist Claire Chase, and on the Franco Donatoni title piece he's accompanied by Ensemble dal Niente.

— Peter Margasak


Classical Music Daily

Trying to choose one piece from the extraordinary menagerie of marvels that is the catalogue of Franco Donatoni's compositions is an onerous task indeed. So rich in invention, detail, colour, personality, effervescence, wit and magic is every one of his pieces and so many of them are there that he is one composer I could happily spend what remains of my life listening to without exception. I thought about choosing his wind quintet wonderfully titled Blow but finally as live music and concert attendance was clearly so important to and beloved by Giuseppe I have chosen a piece by Donatoni composed in the same year as Blow that brings back very fond memories of one of the most enjoyable concerts I ever attended.

— Robert McCarney, 4.18.2023

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