Interview: Saxophonist Sarah Hughes

I recently had the opportunity to talk with saxophonist Sarah Hughes. Having released her second record as a leader, The Drag, in late 2019, she continues to experiment and explore new areas of her sound. This interview focuses on her creative process, her approach to experimentation, and where Ms. Hughes intends to go next.

Cisco Bradley: Where do you think your current experiments are taking you? Or where do you hope to go?

Sarah Hughes: On many occasions, what others see as experimental is me simply trying to have fun, practice, make new connections, and if possible, give back to the community. I do (did) like to make social experiments– for instance, playing solo sets for people in the fast food drive-thrus near my apartment, or playing amongst trash bags floating in the breeze of a busy suburban shopping plaza.  Recently, it has come to my attention that some of my experiments may not be safe or welcome, so I may be laying off of those for a while. I don’t want to be obtrusive to the point of being offensive or instigating conflict– but I do love peaking curiosity and raising questions, or at least eyebrows. I guess you could say I like being provocative. I know I can use my own outward identity in combination with my non-commercial musical identity to create interesting scenarios or a feeling of paradox or “otherness”. I like being surprising and random because it makes people, including myself, question beliefs and assumptions. I think I need to sit with my fears and my reservations about continuing these “pop-up” performances and figure out if they’re worth the worrying and also, am I actually being a jerk by imposing on space as I did.

Where do I hope to go? I’m hoping to find a comfortable and truthful place in my career where I can create art consistently and freely. I also like to be able to deliver my messages effectively. My current message is that “things, as they are, are mostly not what they should, could, would be.” This message is in reference to social justice, the environment, and bureaucracy.  As far as how to deliver my messages– my artistic palette seems to be expanding and contracting from day to day. Sometimes I feel like I won’t ever touch a loop pedal or effects pedal again and then on other days I feel like experimenting with them and trying to expand the emotional capability of my setup. On some days I feel like I might be using my poetry/prose writing to avoid getting deeper into music making or composing and on other days I feel like the written material is essential to my art. On other days I just paint.  I’m hoping this is all part of some distillation process that will bring me to the true source of my own creative power. It all feels like dying though.

CB: What has experimentation revealed to you thus far?

SH: I feel that experimentation is my spice of life.  And, if I could, I would like to pour A LOT of that spice into the people who govern us. Before everything really came to light with COVID and BLM, there was a naive part of me that thought the reason things in the USA and the world are so god awful is because older adults mistakenly stick to solutions created and used throughout history.  This seems like a mistake to me because the evolution from primitive to advanced humanity is happening really quickly, as we speak, so why would we stick to practices and principles thought up by a bunch of neanderthals (I’m exaggerating but also, not really). I thought to myself, “if I am going to be a powerhouse for something as an artist, it has to be a force that creates ‘the other.” It’s revealed to me that, although there is nothing new under the sun, a person who challenges themselves to get out of their comfort zone and try something new every performance is inspiring.  I just hope I can apply that stage persona to my actual practical adult life–particularly my social life.

CB: How would you describe your sonic palette?

SH: I’d describe my sonic palette as pretty diverse. I started as an alto saxophonist, which was my principal voice for most of my career. I studied classical saxophone literature, played Bird transcriptions, and transcribed a bunch of Tristano heads on the alto, and also played in the Jazz program at the New England Conservatory. I like the alto because it is capable of a lot of warmth and depth. I love delving into the nuances of all of the woodwinds–I play the soprano saxophone, the flute, and the clarinet too and I have fun exploring the different characters inspired by each instrument. My vocal effects pedal has been a big part of my sound for the last couple of years. I programmed different harmonies into the pedal and I use it with both my voice and the horns. The pedal has different “characters” in it that can transform my voice into that of a child or a man or a chorus of robots. The harmonies are programmed with the intention of creating different “spaces” that I can access– different atmospheres with different dimensions. I honestly haven’t really integrated the pedal into my sonic palette in a serious way as of yet. I want to think it’s coming but I get annoyed by the sound of electronics often so I am not sure whether it’ll actually come to fruition. It’s like that with me and the machines–I seem to have a natural vendetta against them and keep wanting to run the other way but then I get captivated by what they are capable of and want to play with them for a little longer. I like to experiment with the guitar and violin as well. By the way, I want to put it out in public that I do not feel that the videos on YouTube represent who I am as a musician or artist at all. The videos are pretty old and I am an anxious wreck in the majority of them. Anxiety has been a huge factor in my performances and in my career. Can anxiety be part of a sonic palette (haha)? I do like my recordings on Bandcamp though.

CB: Who has had a big impact on your developing sound?

SH: Absolutely everyone!

CB: How did you go about developing the music that appeared on Coy Fish? And how have you moved forward since that recording?

SH: Coy Fish was all about the novel chemistry of four people who had never played together before meeting for the first time in the studio and exploring “on tape.” I went with my gut when I chose the people for the session because each person has a sense of balance, knowing when to act and when to provide stillness. I relied on our listening skills and the interesting textures/options provided by the presence of the daxophone to create tension and chances for adventurous choices. I brought in the words for The Addict and had already envisioned how we might deliver it as a group.

I don’t know about “moving forward”… but for my last recording, The DragI brought in more extended written material as well as a couple of graphic scores. So, I suppose the composition factor increased a bit. I also was more certain about including post-production maneuvers in the process and so treated the recording session time differently (more relaxed but also more structured) than for Coy Fish.

CB: Anyone who thinks the jazz industry is not sexist clearly hasn’t been paying attention. What substantive changes can you envision that would make the music scene markedly better?

SH: I’m sure a lot of this is being done in various places but….Blind listening. Panels for festivals that are equally male and female, young and old. Acknowledgement that music is not a sport and that one person’s noise is another person’s symphony.  Support all kinds of diversity. Expand definitions or add new words/categories if needed. Acknowledge music for what it is, which is an expression of human spirit. Understand the nuances of the human spirit and the beauty in each color. Showcase humans that show other humans how to be more free. Help the suffering through giving them voice– program compassion and understanding. Give monetary support to non-commercial (freedom) Jazz projects. Start all kinds of community “jazz” orchestras– fund conductors who demonstrate an attitude of inclusion and open-mindedness. If necessary, declare a new branch of improvised music which is not called Jazz and make sure people know they can go there if they feel stifled by the energy around Jazz…

Honestly, I’m the last person to talk with about this. My ideal world is one in which we view one another as unique, cosmic spirits encased in human flesh, rather than getting defined by the physical package in which we arrive. I see now that not everyone likes, agrees with, or can even understand that idea. I have been a loner for a long time and until recently, I never really considered that I am actually a half white, half Korean 33 year old. I mean, I just never felt so much like one until now. I cry when I think of caging my spirit within this hollow and misunderstood definition. I don’t want to, or believe I can, speak for a pack of packages. I am a firm believer that each package should get equal attention for what they are trying to express, and not be glossed over with a blanket statement or blanket treatment, which is a bureaucratic tendency and will anchor us in the Dark Ages.

CB: If you could go back in time and talk/perform with one person who is now passed away, who would it be? And why?

SH: I think I’d want to collaborate with Albert Einstein and have a talk with him about Time and relativity. I’d want to know about how the physics of cause and effect work– like, if what I do now is an effect of what happened in the past and will be the cause of some future effect, am I unknowingly creating a type of circle? If not, what shape is it and is there a pattern or consistency in it that applies to animals and humans? Is it possible to not create that shape or does every form of intelligence operate this way? How does the natural shape of cause and effect predict our future?  Is it escapable? What kind of force would be capable of bringing energies that exist on different wavelengths, at different speeds, in different dimensions to one space-time? Which/whose space-time is the “correct” space time if we want our species and planet to survive?

Then I would ask if he would play free music with me, and if he would help me to devise a sort of music or art that would both make time slow down (so that people can evolve to a future enlightened state within the span of one lifetime) and also cause a person to understand cause and effect in a profound, life-changing way in order to enable them to help move humanity forward with their choices. I would video-tape the entire process, bring it back to the present, and put it up on Facebook to see if it would go viral.

CB: How did your duo collaboration with bassist Luke Stewart develop? What intrigued you most about that project?

SH: The duo with Luke and I doesn’t necessarily develop as much as just exists?  He asked me to play a gig shortly after I moved back from Boston in 2016, so that was our first time playing together. Then we were both doing our own thing for a while. I forget the context of the Rhizome concert, which is where the duo recording comes from– but I do remember that I wanted to be able to meet him on the level of his kinetic energy. I chose to bring the IKEA slats and a hacksaw because I wanted to be able to access his playing field.  I tend to be on the slower, floaty, contemplative side in my free play but I know where Luke lives and goes and wanted to be there with him. In the meantime, my own narrative was allowed to unfold;  the IKEA slats being a pretty powerful prop for my internal storyteller, who is the one who takes over when I improvise.  During the improvisation I remember dealing with themes of forced activity or acts of a futile nature, deconstruction of the notion of resting, intuitive construction as a lifestyle and job, “busybodying”, exhaustion, and the feeling of loss after having deconstructed. Other moments were just straight up fire-making.


Ms. Hughes is also a visual artist. See her website for details.

Cover Photo Credit: Gerar Dos Santos
Cisco BradleyInterview: Saxophonist Sarah Hughes