It’s a rainy night and a little girl’s recorded voice sings out “it’s ice cream time”, triggering an outburst from sax quartet and electric guitar, a sort of warped chorale loosely based on her melody.

Nick Didkovsky © Martin Morissette
Nick Didkovsky
© Martin Morissette

Thus began sax quartet PRISM’s Roulette debut, and the New York première of Nick Didkovsky’s Ice Cream Time on Sunday night. Originally commissioned by ARTE Quartett in Basel in 2003, the piece is based on an exuberant answering machine message from the composer’s six-year-old niece (now an adult and in attendance at the concert). The message was her response to her uncle’s request to make up a song based on a few lines of lyrics he had emailed her and her brother. It was, he said, the “weirdest phone message of my life”.

The piece is divided into twelve sections and played continuously. Its character is much like that of an abstract tone poem, as it traverses many moods and conjures up various images in the mind’s eye. Thomas Dimuzio’s live processing is to be praised for its nuance and taste, creating a subtle sheen throughout the whole, and augmenting the intensity of what the instruments were playing. His and Didkovsky’s electronic contributions felt organically integrated into piece. To echo the composer during his opening remarks, the group comprised “a killer band”, PRISM giving an impassioned and skillful performance.

Angular, jazz-like melodies followed the opening sections described above, followed in turn by a quasi-fugal texture, the soprano and alto saxes and guitar playing in something like imitative counterpoint, and the tenor and baritone saxes providing a countermelody. Suddenly the guitar burst out in a discordant howl, died away, and began churning out an ostinato with the baritone sax, the other three saxes playing a disjointed melody, continuing the polyphonic texture.

A powerful unison phrase gave way to a tenor sax solo; the other saxes joined in to create a confusion of rapid sound. Didkovsky dangled earbuds over his electric guitar (which was lying on the table in front of him) to create a pulsating whoosh that was then manipulated by Dimuzio. This built into a layered, multifaceted electronic texture, punctuated by Didkovsky striking the underside of the table to create brief growls from the guitar.

At a certain point the entire ensemble went crazy on their instruments, rock-concert-style, before segueing into a moment of calm, the round sound of the sustained saxes gently filling the room with their resonance. It was a sublime moment, the electronics creating an ethereal, organ-like backdrop, PRISM sustaining the mood beautifully.

Cueing the section change to Dimuzio, the soprano saxophonist played a lonely solo, after which the rest of the ensemble joined in, still maintaining a quiet dynamic. The effect was mesmerizing, the instruments playing a pedal tone in unison and octaves, with fifths and then other notes being gradually introduced. The piece ended with an extended fade-out, the sound gradually dying away.