Melting Pot Approach Key to Kaleidoscope Saxophone Quartet’s Success  

The award-winning Kaleidoscope Saxophone Quartet hold the Company’s prestigious Maisie Lewis Prize. Hailed as ‘entirely irresistible’ by The Times and ‘ebullient and soulful…dazzling Classical Source, the quartet comprise Sally MacTaggart, Alastair Penman, Guy Passey and Jenni Watson – four hugely talented individuals ranging from award-winning soloists and multi-instrumentalists to innovative composers of music. Here Sally tells us what they’re up to, their dislike of ‘pigeon-holing’ and how being a melting pot of creative talent is instrumental to their success.


How would you describe your music?

Varied! The saxophone’s relative youth as an instrument and lack of a classical or romantic repertoire means that from our music college days we were all encouraged and required to be creative in finding good music to play. So through arrangements, adaptations and new commissions our repertoire includes baroque, jazz, romantic, electronic, contemporary, American popular song, film music, and even pieces we’ve written ourselves. Often audiences don’t know what to expect from a sax quartet, and are surprised by the variety of colours it can produce and the versatility of the repertoire. The only real common characteristic of the pieces is that they excite us, and make us want to play them again!


How do your distinct creative personalities add value?

Each of us has such varied musical tastes but there is a lot of common ground between us – it’s fabulous to be able to bring new ideas to the table and have a group that shares ideals and vision. Whilst we do perform, and love, a lot of classical music, our varied individual careers outside of the quartet bring so many other rich influences, including composition, working with electronics, folk music, multimedia and mixed instrumentation, and being able to draw on all of these is a great way to start creating something original and distinctive.


Tell us about some of the work you’ve commissioned and premiered

We have been actively seeking out composers to work with ever since the quartet first formed. One of our earliest commissions was a  brilliant piece called ‘Olfactory Music’ by Dan Harle, which was a kind of multi-sensory experience that came with special scented papers for the audience to sniff at particular moments! That was always a lot of fun to perform.

We find it really rewarding to spend some real time working with composers throughout the process – you get this brilliant exchange of ideas and come away with a piece that feels somehow personalised, like it was written just for you. That happened very strongly with A day at the Spa by Oliver Leith, where he spent a lot of time working with us on these really unusual colour trill effects, where the same note can cycle rapidly between numerous different tone colours. He then went away and wrote this extraordinary piece, which actually won a British Composer Award the following year.

More recently we worked with the brilliant Mark Bowler, who recently won the Britten Sinfonia OPUS 2017 award. He wrote us a Puzzle Book, which is based on a series of mathematical ‘compositional problems’, with layering of different rhythmical units across one another to create some amazing sound worlds, which are rather fiendish to play but great fun to listen to. We actually first met him through one of us playing in his folk band, which is a nice example of outside work coming back to enrich the group!


Has your debut album, Oil, been received?

It was great to be able to really get stuck into a creative project like that, and we’ve had some great feedback, including two of the tracks, A day at the Spa by Oliver Leith and Tinged by our own Jenni Watson, being broadcast on Radio 3. Our favourite thing that people say is how the variety of the programming transcends the idea of a saxophone quartet playing classical music – the music and use of the instrumentation is so varied that the fact that it’s saxophones becomes almost irrelevant, and people can just focus on the pieces, which are themselves so varied that you could play them anywhere from a concert hall to a band venue. In fact we did the launch at this amazing venue called the Islington Metal Works, which is much closer to the latter!


How did you shoot the art-music video?

The video was filmed using a 50-litre fish tank from Pets at Home and syringes to inject ‘oil’ (we used black ink), captured on a slow motion camera. It was a very surreal experience watching a split-second squirt of ink get stretched out by the camera into this epic 3 minute slow-motion clip. Although less fun was bailing out the entire 50 litres after every shot so that you could try again with fresh water! It premiered at the Manchester Midday concert series at The Bridgewater Hall. You can watch it here.


You’re actively involved in workshops and Outreach. Tell us more.

We regularly go into schools both as a group and individually, sometimes for one-off taster sessions but also for longer term projects. It is so important to bring live music into schools and let all children experience it, and it’s great to do that with the saxophone – a fairly universally popular instrument, but not always known for its performance of classical music. With the difficulties many schools are currently facing with decreased emphasis on provision of the arts, schemes like the Musicians’ Company Outreach are becoming ever more vital in helping to combat this and bring music to wider audiences.


What have been the highlights of the year?

We were invited back by Hattori Foundation to do the last concert in this year’s Rush Hour recital season in April. This was also the concert where we premiered Mark Bowler’s new piece Puzzle Book, and a world premiere is always an exciting experience!

We were also invited to perform at the World Saxophone Congress in Zagreb in July, where we performed a programme of works which had been written for the group in the last three years. Our recital was scheduled exactly one hour before the England v Croatia semi-final world cup match, which added a certain intensity to the atmosphere!

We also very recently battled our way down to Exmoor in gale-force winds for two concerts at the brilliant Two Moors Festival.


What are your future plans as a group?

We are playing at Cambridge Music Festival in November, will be recording some new audio and video soon, and are in the planning phase for an exciting new large-scale project, details of which will be forthcoming!


For KSQ’s latest concert dates visit

Interview by Suzy Willmott @suzywillmott