Urban Sax or the saxophone let loose

Wednesday 12 May 2021, by Franco Onweb

All the versions of this article: [English] [Français]

Since 1973, a unique musical experience has been taking place in France: Urban Sax! Created by Gilbert Artman in 1973, this collective, including 31 saxophonists, performs all over the world with an original music and concept. Gilbert’s idea is to play with sound, space and audience, making each Urban Sax concert a unique experience.

I met Gilbert Artman a long time ago at the Urban Sax premises in Les Frigos, so that he could explain the history, the concept and the functioning of this unusual group. Here is one of the most incredible musical experiences that music can offer us.

When and how did Urban Sax come into being?

In 1973, during a tour in the south of France with the group Lard Free, we played a concert in Menton. It’s a town I know well and I like it a lot. As a child, I spent holidays there with friends. I loved the old town, the narrow streets... To answer the musicians’ questions about my idea of creating a multipoint concert, I took them to the beautiful little St Michel’s cathedral square, where the annual classical music festival was taking place. The greatest soloists have performed there, the cathedral square offers many natural terraces and remarkable acoustics for an audience of 5 to 600 people.

My idea was to install four continuous sound generators on the four lanes that converge on this square. Eight musicians would be positioned on the various balconies and terraces surrounding the square, while 4 musicians would be placed on a merry-go-round (a form of turntable) in the centre of the square. This would create a very linear performance aimed at the people who were walking through the alleys to get to the Festival. There the different saxophonists would respond to each other with loops of tonal music in harmony with the sound of the cathedra organs, doors wide open. This would create a very minimalist form of sonic ’phasing’.

That same evening I wrote this project in order to submit it to the city of Menton. This was the starting point of the whole Urban Sax adventure.

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(Gilbert Artman) 

Why the saxophone for this performance?

The saxophone, of course, is an instrument that makes every jazz and free music lover dream, and far beyond. It is an instrument that I would have liked to play more, but it is also a splendid work of sculptural and mechanical art, industrial and urban period. It is a complex instrument in its ergonomics, which allows oh! Wonder ! a palette of sounds from the sopranino to the double bass sax, infinite possibilities. But it is also an instrument, and this is not the least of its qualities, with which one can move around, express oneself... continuity of the breath (the tchi...) !

Where did this idea of playing according to the space, the movement .... come from?

That is the very concept of this proposal. The initial idea was to do away with the notion of a frontal show and its relationship with the audience (which is not so simple). To work on the architecture, the roofs, the balconies, to create sound perspectives, sound distances, then forms of sound travelling in the middle of the audience. What could be thought of at that time as agit “prop” action.

It only took two rehearsals with four musician friends (Phil Drom and Jean Augeron from the group Archexenon, Jean-Pierre Thirault and Antoine Duvernet from Lard Free) to understand the difficulties to be overcome as soon as one enters into spatialized writing. Beyond a square of 25 m, the musicians playing on their listening, the architecture of sounds becomes shaky, even impossible. I must say a big thank you to all the musicians who have been willing to join us in this adventure, because if you look at the photo of the first concerts, you will understand that it is thanks to the multidisciplinarity and goodwill of this first team that things have been possible. Beyond their quality as musicians, most of them had a personal artistic commitment.

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(First repetition, thanks to Philippe Robert for this picture) 

We had to adapt to the proposed architectures, with different conducting modes. At first we tried with strobes which were quite accurate, but this did not prevent sound shifts. When the Forum des Halles was inaugurated, we were able to purchase a frequency modulation transmitter. The musicians were then equipped with FM receivers. At the time, they were quite big with an antenna that protruded, the aesthetics left something to be desired... Our transmitter could broadcast 30 or 50 metres, which was enough for this space!

Are there many musicians?

To play the first scores, we needed a minimum of 16 saxophonists, arranged in 4 groups around the audience, in order to create a first spiral of sounds. We worked on the basis of a sound continuum, starting with the breath, then a continuous sound on which evolving, repetitive loops were grafted. Very quickly, other musicians joined us, from very different musical backgrounds (classical, jazz, conservatories...)

In order to give another colour to this mass of brassy sound, it seemed complementary that a three-voice choir on the same principle join us. We equipped each element of the choir with a small portable amp, in order to rebalance the choir/sax volumes.

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(Urban Sax in Venise - Photo Irmi Pozorsky)

But it was at the occasion of the order for the inauguration of the Forum des Halles that I was really able to write a piece with the possibility of multiplying, thanks to the contribution of 4 quartets (strings, percussion, guitars, keyboards) the positioning of the saxophonists and their mobility from and around these 4 fixed stages. The Forum des Halles, thanks to its three levels, logically allowed the deployment of this scenography, completed by a soprano (Annick Nosati) and dancers (Jorma Uotinen and Dominique Petit). Jean-Marie Prouvez provided the spatialized lighting direction.

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(Urban Sax in “France Soir”)

It is difficult for me to remember, to write without being able to mention all the musicians and technicians who made it possible to carry out this first truly spatialized performance with great patience.

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(Urban Sax scene shot, extra from the sheet music book – Gilbert Atman’s personnal collection)

Well, some 40 years later, I witnessed the destruction of this complex. In the end we lasted longer than this ambitious Forum des Halles (laughs)!

How do you get into the group?

We didn’t invent anything: in the manner of ritual groups, like in the gamelans, the musicians attend the rehearsals, and little by little, after a few tries to see if it “fits”, “led” by the elders: the rehearsal staff and as the musical sequences progress, they integrate a cell/panel (sopranos, altos, tenors, basses).

It is important to know that joining the group involves a few constraints, in particular costumes decorated with inflatable bubbles, an FM receiver, a lot of things to memorise, a relationship with the microphone, an attitude to adopt in the way of moving with the audience... it is quite simple! You have to accept the benevolence of some and the “grumbling” of others... everyone has to find their place. Each performer, beyond the music, has an important role to play in the preparation of the project. Without the spirit of the group - as in the theatre - our purpose has no existence.

How many musicians are there at the moment?

We are a small family of 52 members, with choirs, vibraphones, guitars, basses and the saxophonists. There are also two dancers for the gongs and the projected videos. Depending on the venue, the project or the architecture dictates, we can work with additional musicians, choristers or dancers to complete the desks. Depending on the project, we can also work with cavers, firemen, etc.

Are you still the composer?

Composer ? as you know, I am absolutely self-taught. For the composition, I propose well-defined musical cells that I make travel from stage to stage, which complete each other, superimpose each other, answer each other. This ensemble becomes very precise sound perspectives surrounding the audience. 

Saxophonists in principle have a great desire to express themselves. Jazz and classical in virtuosity, rockers in dynamics and roughness of sound. In Urban Sax, I consider myself more of a hindrance than a composer: the music is linear and evolving, even repetitive, based on movements of sound. It is the opposite of talkative music, and the mere distance of the scenes implies a very structured music. My role is perhaps more to organise, beyond the notes, the cohesion of all the sound perspectives. If there is music, it has to be beyond the notes.

But you have played in some incredible places: the Château de Versailles (G7 heads of state summit), the Alhambra in Granada, in Tokyo (opening of the first MultiMedia centre), closing of the Baalbeck festival and others. Do you compose according to the place or do you adapt to each time?

This mode of linear and tonal music linked to architecture, and therefore to resonance, requires us to really take into consideration the acoustics of the place, as well as the way in which we are going to inhabit a space with and around the audience. At each rehearsal or concert, we have to be able to rethink the score and the positioning of this or that musician or dancer.

Indeed, my role is linked to ’scripting’, I have to imagine according to the moments and places. It would not be possible to compose for every place. What is possible, however, is to rethink things! We adapt the music, we see how to move around, how to set up the sound system, how to create off-stage... There is a work of appropriation of each concert venue.

Do you go and identify each venue beforehand?

Yes, and then we draw up a technical sheet according to the venue and it is the venue that will decide what we will play. The proposed score will necessarily be different in a resonant venue (factory, cathedral...) or in an Italian-style theatre, or outdoors. There are scores that sound perfect in a hall or a church, and that become “fragile” outdoors. For example: the simple use of the vibraphone can cause feedback problems in a reverberant space.

But your music takes on an incredible magnitude with the scenography while keeping a “childish” side, a kind of enchantment that gives another magnitude to these places.

Because it’s simple music!

You couldn’t exist without this side to the space?

No, our specificity is precisely the deployment and the relationship to space, and to the displacement of sounds... once again, to create sound and light perspectives. The light writing becomes very important, both for the enhancement of the buildings, but also for the follow-up of the movement of the sounds, the musicians and dancers.

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Irmi Pozorsky)

Not such a simple music!

Indeed, there are very good musicians who have had some difficulty in grasping the concept, the repetitive practice, and the polyrhythm (beyond our functioning, dance, the displacement of our equipment: suspensions, hooks, the use of urban equipment: flying-carpets, caterpillars, air-lifts...

This music is easier to listen to than to play. It remains a music of oral tradition, even if there are score books now. I have often been asked abroad, no doubt for the sake of “economy”, to set up an Urban Sax “on the spot”, which I have always refused to do. The practice that we have is acquired over time, and with teams that master the course of the concert and the conducting gestures, and above all the simple reason for things. Without this notion of the group and its knowledge, what is the point?

But you’ve played all over the world?

There are still so many places to visit, to invest ! Fortunately ! (laughs)

But how does it work, do you rehearse here in your workshop/studio at Les Frigos?

Yes, of course, all the things are set up from the workshop, and its studio offers us the possibility to record. And this magical place of the Frigos allows us to meet artists with whom it is good to exchange...


Do you have stage clothes?

Of course we do. Seeing is hearing. When we started working on the sound perspectives, we had to work on the image and create a unity. At the beginning we had few resources, we wore white paper suits, a bit like painters. This allowed us and the audience, beyond practising a form of anonymity, to identify ourselves in our movements and positions on the buildings.

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(Irmi Pozorsky)

For a concert at the Palace, we were tired of white suits, we had to be a bit creative! I brought back rolls of cling film, and we decided to play naked wrapped in plastic to catch the light. Great! but we didn’t count on the sweat that quickly stripped us of our superb envelope of light! we spent the concert constantly readjusting our costumes... But it was PALACE! (I was somewhat hated... a bit more than that...).

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(Irmi Pozorsky )

We were already practising poor art, art on the edge - everything is relative, and when, to our great surprise, we were asked to take part in the festivities for the G7 summit of heads of state in Versailles, I found it interesting to use plastic and gilding. We made our costumes in-house, with bubble plastic and gold milar. But of course, the most important thing was the Bassin de Neptune, an exceptional site, and the great waters! as well as the fireworks of the detonating Pierre-Alain Hubert... After this concert in mondio-vision our “adored manager” Gilles Yepremian received requests that opened the borders for us! Thank you to those who embarked on this adventure...

Later we made translucent inflatable plastic outgrowths that glowed under the lights. Then, on the occasion of the closing concerts of the Baalbek festival, we found in Syria superb wedding dresses with hoops, made of satin and brocade... and we exchanged certain combinations for coloured dresses with crinoline, for boys and girls, which allowed the sound to rotate around you, in the manner of the dervishes... Our stages are also dressed identically, playing with transparency and light... making us forget the technical aspect...


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(Urban Sax) 

How would you define the music of Urban Sax?

I don’t define it. It is a musical and visual experience. A specific sound architecture. To be experienced with the ears and the eyes..

But it’s a music of sharing: as soon as you go to play somewhere you play with the local musicians. So your music can be adapted to the local music?

In our tribulations, we had the opportunity to meet native music from different continents: Iroquois Amerindians in Vancouver, Sufi musicians from Konya in Turkey, court music in China with the Chen players, java Gamelan in Indonesia, a wonderful shepherd playing the mijwiz in Baalbeck, Big pipe players in Glasgow, the mamuthones in Sardinia.... I enjoy quoting these musics, which are a journey in themselves...

Most of the time, they are our musical masters! These exchanges with ritual music have certainly been the most involving and moving for the musicians of the group. Meeting these musicians in their daily life and their approach so different, absent from the idea of a show... the exchanges were, I’m sure, surprising, questioning and enriching in both directions...

Do you meet them beforehand?

Of course, from the first scouting sessions.

Do you feel like a French ambassador when you play abroad?

 Absolutely (laughs), an ambassador who is a bit out of place...

Is Étienne Jaumet part of Urban Sax?

Superb meeting at the initiative of Dominique Grimaud, a great facilitator of exchanges between unlikely musicians... We participated in an album, with Philippe Bolliet and Etienne Jaumet: We participated in an album, with Philippe Bolliet and Etienne Jaumet : “Veterans of the french undergroud meet la jeune garde” for the label “zut-o-pistes” with a track called Zomlard.

This furtive recording led to other meetings with Etienne. Vegetarian, fine-mouthed, in addition to the meals, by touching here and there the instruments the idea of a recording was improvised... and concretized in the form of an album... of summer!... and some concerts planned, alas momentarily suspended.

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Is he part of the generation that rehabilitated you?

I’m a bit worried about that, it sounds like a veteran and a young wolf! It’s true that he has a great knowledge of all this music, and in addition to the sax with its instinctive approach, he has a great mastery of the synthesizers of our time and of these marvellous little machines that never cease to amaze me. And all this I repeat, in a subtly intuitive way.

But all these people like Turzi or Zombie Zombie claim to be yours?

Even if we’ve always tried to erase the borders between music genres (classical, jazz, contemporary, rock, world, techno...) new families are created through generations! in relation to lifestyles, encounters, and memories already heard.

As far as these two groups are concerned, I think there is also a desire to exploit even further the sounds of these promising analogue instruments. Memory, yes, but to better move on... forward!

But do you enjoy being in front of an audience that is not conquered and does not have your culture?

The advantage of the public space is that you’re just passing through. There can be no other pretence. The notion of performance is erased by its fluidity. The audience in our proposal cannot see everything, it is a possible epicentre of sound. The sound comes from afar. The performers, musicians and dancers, inhabit the stage and the architecture, the sound and the images are dispersed in different sources of light and artifice. The space is played with for the duration of the performance, and the sound returns to the distance... For the duration of the concert, it is another vision, which we hope is poetic, of an everyday place.

The last adventure that remains is this one! One of the nice things about Urban is that we have often had access to open spaces with pushchairs, families... It takes a while for them to understand things. They discover the place, why this architecture... They see their places differently and the public loves that! The children ask themselves why, how? They see the musicians moving around and try to understand why.

What next?

Full of desire and joy!

Did you also play with Catalogue?

It allows me to breathe ! In the tribulations of a musician, it’s cool to have a haven of peace... well, I was offered the opposite! CATALOGUE ! a group eternally in the making... CATALOGUE the tumult, the abyss, the madness, the extreme generosity, the reflexes, the notion of the gesture found...... couscous in abundance, a real public and its hazards... The music that overflows... The regret of the rolls that never arrives...

And happiness in the reunions... That will be the next episode ! 

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There is an exhibition on Urban Sax which presents the band for press conferences or concerts. To find out more, follow the link: