Saxophonist Taimur Sullivan views his instrument as chameleon-like, one that has real flexibility of sound, great timbre possibilities and is adaptable to many genres of music.
Indeed, people who hear Sullivan and the PRISM Quartet, an all-sax ensemble in which he holds the baritone chair, are surprised at the different ways the popular instrument can be played.
"The public perception of the sax is one of a jazz instrument, and it was made famous as such," said Sullivan, a Champaign native and an acclaimed classical saxophonist. "But ... it was invented by Belgian-born Adolph Sax in the mid-1800s – well before jazz was developed – and it was created as a concert instrument."
Despite its rich tradition in that realm, the sax has not been a permanent member of the orchestra; it's more common to see it in marching and big bands and up front in jazz combos.
"It's sort of the odd man out. We have some of the same with the classical guitar, and that's been around a lot longer," Sullivan said. "Most of our saxophone repertoire is of a contemporary nature because most of it was written in the 20th century. Some of that is neo-classical and neo-romantic, coming out of the French conservatory tradition."
New pieces for sax
Now celebrating its 25th season, PRISM has worked to build the sax-quartet repertoire, commissioning pieces from composers.
Sullivan has dedicated much of his solo career as well to promoting new repertoire for his instrument, often convincing composers to write their first pieces for the sax.
Though he's only 39, he, alone and with chamber groups, has presented the premieres of more than 150 pieces by established and emerging composers, among them William Bolcom, Libby Larsen, Gunther Schuller, Eve Beglarian, James Fulkerson and University of Illinois faculty members Zack Browning and Guy Garnett.
Sullivan also has performed the American premieres of solo compositions by prominent European composers, among them Gerard Grisey, Philippe Hurel and Jean-Claude Risset.
As a result, Meet the Composer, a nonprofit organization that supports the creation of new music, named Sullivan in 2007 as one of its eight "soloist champions."
In his solo work, which has taken him to venues in London, Germany, Holland and throughout the United States, Sullivan plays all of the saxes: alto, soprano, tenor and baritone.
"In PRISM Quartet I love playing the baritone sax. It's like the iron cello of the string quartet," he said. "It's actually a fun voice.
"In most solo work I play the alto. I like not only its sound, but the fact that most of the great repertoire has been written for it."
Most of the music that Sullivan plays is classical and contemporary. But when he lived in New York for 11 years, he mixed it up, playing jazz, blues and merengue.
He now divides his time between New York, where he performs and is on the faculty of the Contemporary Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music, and Winston-Salem, N.C., where he lives and is professor of saxophone at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Praise for PRISM
PRISM also mixes it up, even though it focuses on classical and new music. The group has released five CDs, with two, "Breath Beneath" and "Antiphony," to be released this month.
"The saxophone's wide range of timbre can be heard to fine effect on the five discs Prism has released since 2008," Vivien Schweitzer wrote in a New York Times article published Jan. 29. "One, recorded with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, features William Bolcom's gregarious Concerto Grosso (2000), which reflects pop, blues, bebop and classical influences."
In the stunning "Antiphony," which has a release date of March 30, PRISM and the Music From China ensemble commissioned works for sax quartet and Chinese instruments like the pipa and erhu, from composers Chen Yi, Zhou Long and Lei Liang.
Schweitzer described Liang's "Yuan," which is on the CD, as "hauntingly beautiful and sonically colorful."
A rare ensemble
While PRISM is among only a dozen or so professional sax quartets – including the Rova Saxophone Quartet, which will perform for free Thursday evening at Krannert Art Museum (please see sidebar) – there are perhaps hundreds of sax quartets at the collegiate level.
"Every university that has a performance program has at least one if not two, three or four saxophone quartets among their student ranks," Sullivan said. "Many of them have been doing extremely well on the competition circuit at major chamber music competitions, performing on the same stage as woodwind, brass and string groups.
"The difficulty is keeping together a group after students graduate. There's less of a market for them than for a successful string quartet."
Making it in NYC
PRISM was founded 25 years ago at the University of Michigan by then-graduate student Matt Levy. The tenor saxophonist remains the quartet's only original member.
In 1994, when Sullivan was accepted into the Michigan doctoral program in saxophone performance, he and six others were invited to audition for PRISM. He won the tryout. After talking with his teachers, he decided to bypass Michigan to join PRISM and to move to New York City to work as a concert saxophonist.
"The time I spent working in New York was a very fortuitous one," he said. "I was able to work with a lot of new music ensembles and to be part of prominent concerts in New York at major venues. That afforded me some opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise gotten."
Of Sullivan's late 1995 New York debut at Merkin Concert Hall, classical music writer Alex Ross wrote, "Mr. Sullivan delivered this wide-ranging program with a seductive breadth of tone and considerable technical agility."
Other critics have described him as outstanding, virtuosic, a whiz and dynamic. One wrote that he "projects a tremendous sound across all registers of the instrument, while conveying the poetry of the score."
Giving teachers due
For his success, Sullivan credits his teachers, from grade school on up to the UI. He homed in on the sax as a fifth-grader at Westview Elementary in Champaign, when the music teacher displayed to students an array of instruments.
"To the eyes of a fifth-grader, the saxophone looked like the coolest instrument up there," Sullivan remembers. "For a very nonprofound reason, I sort of ran with that."
At the same time, he was studying piano privately with Charlotte Arnstein of Champaign. He continued doing that through 11th grade.
At Edison Middle School, he played sax in band, then directed by Carlyle Johnson, a saxophonist who remains part of the C-U music scene.
"He was just a wonderful, nurturing teacher who got a lot of us into music and jazz in particular," Sullivan said.
A son of two academics, Sullivan was accepted by University High School. Because it didn't have much of a band program, he opted for Champaign Central and its thriving music program.
"The band director then was James Kull," Sullivan said. "He was also a saxophonist and was just another great inspiration for us. Many of us in that class ('88) went on to careers in music, either performance or composition."
Some went on to study music at the UI, where Sullivan, who had decided as a high school junior to pursue a career as a saxophonist, majored in sax performance. At the UI, he studied with Joseph Lulloff and Debra Richtmeyer.
"Both of them were just amazing teachers," Sullivan said. "I loved studying with both of them and they did wonderful things for me as a student there. Debra (who remains at the UI) has one of the strongest sax studios in the United States."
After graduating, Sullivan obtained a master's in saxophone performance at Michigan State University, where he studied with James Forger and Lulloff, who had moved on to East Lansing.
Married with kids
Life is now a balancing act for Sullivan, the concert saxophonist, educator and family man. In addition to solo and quartet gigs and his teaching duties in North Carolina and New York, he teaches master classes at universities nationwide.
He is married to Allison Sloan, an Arkansas native whom he met at the UI, where she majored in saxophone, too. She went on to study sax and woodwinds at Michigan State. The two played in a quartet together throughout their time at both universities.
They now have two daughters, Soraya, 4, and Luciya, 2. Sloan no longer plays professionally; while in New York she worked in environmental journalism, including for Meryl Streep's and Bette Midler's green projects, and in field botany.
Taimur's parents, Ed and Zohreh Sullivan, are retired from the UI, where they were English professors. During the last part of his career, Ed Sullivan served as associate dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts. They live in Champaign.
"They were incredibly supportive of anything artistic that I tried to do," Taimur said. "Certainly I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now without their support back then, particularly trying something as off the beaten path as a classical saxophonist."
Rova Saxophone Quartet to perform Thursday
CHAMPAIGN – Taimur Sullivan, a member of the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, has never performed with the Rova Saxophone Quartet, but he certainly knows its work.
He considers Rova, who will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody Drive, C, as a "daring, genre-crossing group that has defined itself through a creative vision drawing on jazz, free improvisation, and contemporary and world music.
"They have also been the catalyst for some important composers writing for our genre; upon hearing their great recording of Terry Riley's mammoth 'Chanting the Light of Foresight,' written for them, I immediately programmed the concert-length work on my new music festival, ThreeTwo, in New York City with PRISM," Sullivan said.
Rova will perform at Krannert Art Museum as part of the Sudden Sound Concert Series, curated by Jason Finkelman, an Urbana musician. The series, free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by the Edwards Foundation Arts Fund and Krannert Art Museum with in-kind support from WEFT-90.1 FM.
Rova members are Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams and Bruce Ackley. Like PRISM, it has been around for a quarter of a century.
Besides Sullivan, a Champaign native, other PRISM members are founder Matt Levy, Timothy McAllister and Zachary Sheman.