Nexas Quartet: Embracing the Saxophone’s Repertoire Challenge

by Madonna

The saxophone, invented in 1846, occupies a unique place in the world of classical music. Its creation came just after the era of Bach and Beethoven and coincided with the emergence of the Romantic composers. This chronological positioning has given rise to a smaller pool of classical repertoire for the saxophone. However, for saxophonist Michael Duke and the Nexas Quartet, this limitation has become an opportunity to embrace new horizons.

Michael Duke explains, “Although it’s a very important part of what we do, we’ve never limited ourselves to just original compositions for a saxophone quartet. All four members are keen arrangers, and we’ve been looking far and wide for interesting projects that we can translate into this format. From piano solos to string quartets to orchestral works, we have done it all.”


This willingness to explore beyond their conventional repertoire has led to exciting opportunities for the Nexas Quartet. On November 10, 2023, the quartet is set to present two world premiere works, commissioned from the renowned composer Carl Vine and emerging composer Rosa Clifford. This unique concert, titled “Harmonies Unveiled,” will also feature a composition by Lyle Chan and arrangements of works by Debussy and Decruck. The performance will take place at ACO’s The Neilson, located at Walsh Bay’s Pier 2/3.


The quartet is particularly thrilled about their collaboration with Carl Vine. Michael Duke notes that they are still “pinching themselves” in disbelief that Vine agreed to write a piece for them. They have thoroughly enjoyed the process of learning Vine’s work, “Sawtooth.” Vine’s composition explores the full spectrum of the saxophone, from smooth subtlety to powerful energy, challenging each saxophonist’s skills.


Carl Vine’s music is celebrated for its modern and individualistic compositional voice, combining achingly beautiful lyricism with passages of exciting rhythmic vitality. The quartet had the privilege of engaging in a workshop with Vine, enabling them to discuss ideas, share feedback, and refine the work for performance. Michael Duke describes this as a “fantastic moment,” as they collaborated closely with the composer to bring his vision to life.

In addition to Vine’s composition, the quartet will feature a world premiere work by Rosa Clifford, marking her first piece for a saxophone quartet. Her composition, “Quatre Nouts,” takes inspiration from Gérard Grisey’s 1983 work, “Anubis-Nout,” written for bass saxophone. “Quatre Nouts” explores the cycles of day and life through slow explorations of multiphonics, creating a vast and broad soundscape that highlights the saxophone’s fragile qualities.

The Nexas Quartet’s commitment to collaboration and commissioning extends beyond this performance. They have previously worked with renowned operatic artist Peter Coleman-Wright on the album “Ballads of the Pleasant Life,” featuring Weimar-era tracks. The quartet has also commissioned and premiered works from various composers, including Matthew Hindson, Lachlan Skipworth, and Jodie Blackshaw. Rosa Clifford’s composition, “Quatre Nouts,” seamlessly complements Carl Vine’s work and adds a unique dimension to the program.

The collaborative spirit is deeply ingrained in the world of saxophonists, as they continually seek to expand the instrument’s repertoire. Michael Duke emphasizes the value of workshopping with living composers, as it allows for direct communication and interpretation of the composer’s ideas. He concludes, “We don’t have to wonder what Rosa thinks about our interpretive ideas; we just ask her.”

The Nexas Quartet’s commitment to exploring new frontiers in saxophone music and their dedication to nurturing the instrument’s repertoire are evident in their innovative performances. “Harmonies Unveiled” promises to be a captivating musical experience that pushes the boundaries of the saxophone’s capabilities and reveals harmonies that have remained unexplored in the world of classical music.


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