Killing In the Name for solo alto saxophone

For some reason, I’ve had in my head that I must write a solo arrangement of Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In the Name. It’s a completely inappropriate piece for a solo wind instrument given that it’s somewhat dependent upon percussive guitar, a whammy pedal for the guitar solo, and a vocal line that is almost spoken, but I had a hunch it could be done.

There’s a piece in the Sixty for Sax book called Sax Valsant, and it has this neat trick of maintaining what seems like a bass line and a treble line. The music doesn’t explicitly tell you this, but I can see it, and making the piece sound good relies on the player being able to detach these parts out with a mixture of dynamics and shape.

In short, Sax Valsant is two parts rolled into one, and it works. Still difficult for the students, but straightforward for myself, so it’s good teaching material.

This is what I figured could be done with Killing In the Name, a piece that seems to have 2-3 distinct lines to it; bass, rhythmic guitar and vocals. I had to figure out how to get enough bass notes into the music to “ground” it, and just enough rhythmic guitar folded into the vocal line to carry the tune.

The main challenge (and this is for pop music in general) is coming up with an alternative to spoken vocals. For an alto sax, Killing in the Name predominantly uses B minor pentatonic scale ((B, D, E, F# A, B), but sneaking in a C# and F natural can work in places too), so the only way to make the arrangement interesting is to make it more melodic. There is a lot of taking the vocal’s rhythm, but attaching pitch to it.

Then there’s the whammy pedal guitar solo. It definitely doesn’t work for saxophone, but what it does do is establish a descending line with the whammy’s octave jumps. You can here the sax arrangement use lots of pentatonic and almost bluesy scales through the line as it descends.

There’s a kind of interlude toward the end of the piece that builds some tension while the guitar is strumming and the vocalist is getting more riled up, but it ascends almost chromatically, so with some trills and playing the rhythms of the vocal line, there’s some great tension build up here. This then becomes ‘chaos-at-the-end’ so I just go all improv-like, hitting all the bass notes with octave jumps, and jumping up to do a swung-semiquaver-funk melody on top.

5 mins 40 secs of breathless energy building. That’s what this is. There are so many low lots on the first page that you can get exhausted pretty quickly unless you come up with a breathing/phrase strategy. I put in commas to help, but even I was running out of air for those low Bs. By the second page, it’s a necessity to dial it back to mezzo forte in order to recharge the stamina. Breathing all the time chops the music up too much, so it’s really important to keep any gaps caused by ’emergency breathing’ as short as possible.

Truth be told, it was an absolute mission to get a recording I was happy with, and even now, what I uploaded was merely “good enough”. I just had to let it go and run with what I had because all the practices and recording were eating away at my free time. I was doing this on my old student model Yamaha sax while the Yanigasawa is back in Japan (a story in itself), and I was trying to record this in high humidity in the bedroom. I almost achieved a performance that relatively free of mistakes until I realised the camera was all out of focus! Small mercy though, the following days were cooler and I got something recorded.

The ultimate goal was to write an arrangement, record it, release it to the wild and then make the arrangement available for download. You can get a copy of it on my newly established Ko-fi page, which will do until I finally make my own online store. No need for that I guess until I have more material. Hopefully something completely original next time.

On a side note, the music was written using Steinburg’s Dorico. Get it, it’s awesome!


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