This morning I had coffee with Peter Maxwell Davies. Well, not the real Maxwell Davies, but with his music. Specifically, I had coffee with a brash 19 year old version of him who had the gall (thankfully) to write a compact hard driving Sonata that pushed the bounds of what is possible on the instrument, and has since become a staple of the solo trumpet repertoire.
Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to creating an effective recital program that will feature music from my yet to be released solo CD (exciting news on that coming very soon) while also including some of the high points of the trumpet repertoire. And whenever I think of programming pieces from the trumpet and piano rep, I quickly turn to that brash Sonata by the young Maxwell Davies, the piece he considers to be his opus 1. If you ask me, this piece makes a pretty impressive opus 1! Ironically, as much I have always liked this piece, I have never performed it. I guess there’s no time like the present…
My coffee time this morning was spent with the first movement, and in looking over the piano score I was struck by how unusual (yet critical) some of his choices are. For example, the piece has no time signature, but it is barred. Why? It would be no problem to notate time signatures throughout the piece. Perhaps this is my 21st century eyes looking at it, but why not notate the changing time signatures? The opening bars for instance would be: 4/4 (8/8), 2/4 (4/8), 9/16, 7/16, 2/8, 2/4 (4/8) etc. Perhaps when this was written it was not common practice to use time signatures like 7/16 and 9/16, or perhaps Maxwell Davies found a certain charm in the ambiguity created by omitting them. If the latter was the case, I’m not sure it worked, because I think the only way to actually count it is to break it down into some kind of meter, which means that the soloist then will have to simply supply the meters himself. Besides, it’s not like it can actually be ambiguous. After all, 9/16 is 9/16. It can only be what it is.
Another interesting aspect of the first movement is that he has chosen to have the 8th note get the beat, but he makes no notation to indicate that. He simply marks Allegro moderato at the top with no further indication. If you have never seen the score, it can be quite disarming at first sight. The page full of 16ths with no meter looks more like a black and white Jackson Pollock painting than you might like to admit — the complexity takes a while to process. If he had chosen, however, to have the quarter note to get the beat, then some of those above mentioned “meters” would not have seemed so daunting (if he was even concerned about that at all) and the piece would have had a distinctly friendlier appearance. The opening of the piece would then be rewritten to look like this: Bar 1 becomes two 4/4 bars of one whole note each, Bar 2 = 4/4 with a half note and half rest, bar 3 = 2/4, bar 4 = 9/8, bar 5 = 7/8 and so on… Now don’t get me wrong, I love the decision to give the 8th note the beat and have the 16th be the driving pulse for the piece; it just feels right. But I find this kind of decision making by composers — as they translate the music in their heads to the music on the page — a really fascinating process.
This piece would have a very different look and feel if notated differently. And I think the choice made by the composer to choose a specific notation has a noticeable impact on the way it sounds, even in cases like this where the actual content would be unaltered (all the notes and proportions would remain the same). Why, you may ask? The reason lies in the perception of the piece by the soloist. For instance, 16ths are faster than 8ths, more frantic, more motion and turbulence; 8ths are slower and less frantic, more stable. Of course, I have experienced many 8th note passages with a chip on their shoulder and a point to prove, bearing the turbulence of the world on their shoulders, but even in those cases, when the 16ths join in, that character gets heightened. If Maxwell Davies had chosen to notate the piece with the quarter getting the beat and the 8th notes providing the pulse, then this movement would have looked less frantic, less hair-raising, and it would have sounded that way in performance too. And if you know this movement, then you would understand that that would simply not do. Perhaps that is the rational for the missing meters as well. Maybe he wants to cause the soloist that feeling of disorientation leading to panic, an effort to bring out the frenzied, edgy nature of the movement, and indeed, the piece. Or alternatively, perhaps he wanted to create a sense of freedom on the part of the soloist, a feeling that we are no longer bound by earthly meters, but are free to roam the rhythmic heavens at a whim, in spite of the fact that we remain bound and tied to our rhythmic structure — like one of those hot air balloons at big tourist areas, ascending into the sky while remaining firmly fixed to the ground with a large offending rope or wire. It would be nice to ask him. Maybe a cup of coffee with the actual man, and not just his music, is in order.
But for now, while this exploration of musical notation and interpretation is a fascinating one, I’m afraid further discussion will have to wait. You see, my coffee is done, and I actually have to go and learn how to play this thing! For some reason, it is required that I know how to buzz my lips into a tiny metal cup in order to perform this piece. Go figure…
Given all this discussion, I think it is only appropriate that I include an audio example from the sonata. I have attached a clip of the opening of this movement performed by the inimitable Håkan Hardenberger with Roland Pontinen on piano. This recording is from his CD The Virtuoso Trumpet. If you don’t own this recording, check it out. It’s extraordinary. Perhaps now you will enjoy a morning coffee with Mr. Davies as well.
As I sit here waiting for the radio feature to play on KALW, (in case you haven’t heard, there will be an hour long interview/special on me and my music on KALW San Francisco public radio tonight at 8pm PDT. To hear it, visit this page and select “Listen Live”) I am struck by what an eventful day it has been. I coached the brass section out at the New World Symphony for the first time this year, received 4 perusal scores in the mail for some amazing (yet devastatingly hard) modern trumpet concertos, and then have the radio interview coming later tonight. Throw in a few good hours of practice and you have a pretty damn good day!
The New World coaching was an intense 2 hour immersion into audition preparation and philosophy. Those guys hung in there and asked some fantastic questions over the course of the long lecture/discussion. Hopefully it helped them de-mystify the audition process somewhat. The afternoon was followed with a couple of great lessons with more excellent questions. All in all, my time on the beach was draining, but very rewarding.
And when I got home, I had the four perusal scores waiting invitingly on the front porch (I can’t help but laugh at the thought of someone stealing the package, ripping it open, and looking with wonder and disgust at what they had collected as “loot”). The pieces are:
Turnage – From the Wreckage
Gruber – Aerial
Gruber – Busking
MacMillan – Epiclesis
These are intense pieces and even just looking at the score is daunting. Like always, though, a little time to reflect and process can make even the most complex and difficult things possible. It’s a remarkable process, really. The piece by Gruber titled Busking is a new and fascinating piece. It is written for solo trumpet, banjo, accordion and strings! I haven’t really had a chance to dig into this one yet, but my first impression is a good one. Look for more thoughts about this piece in the future. There’s lots more to share (and posts will be more regular if it kills me), but for now I will add writing for my blog to the list of rewarding activities today. No complaints. Now, hopefully I didn’t make a fool of myself in this interview…
If I were to choose any trumpet concerto to sit and listen to, just for the sake of enjoyment, I believe I would choose Desolation Wilderness, the piece that has been occupying real estate on my music stand for quite some time now. The reason I would sit and listen to it isn’t because of that, however. There are plenty of concertos that I have spent a ton of time learning that will never see the light of day on a playlist of mine. This concerto by Joby Talbot offers us trumpet players something that is sorely lacking from our repertoire: a beautiful concerto that is exciting, challenging, and flashy, while giving the trumpet player that rare chance to really sing a truly heartfelt line. Simply put, it is finely crafted and dynamic music, with a soul.
I suppose it is a good sign that I feel this way as I work to get the piece ready for it’s U.S. Premier. This is one concerto that should definitely become a staple of our repertoire. I know it will of mine.
Oh yeah, and one more thing, unlike many trumpet concertos, it doesn’t have a crappy 3rd movement. Rejoice!
Each of the past two summers I have been playing the two week new music immersion that is the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. The festival is located in Santa Cruz, California, and it offers a unique musical opportunity to simultaneously expose and be exposed to some of the best new music being written today. Every year the festival brings in the leading composers of our time and they collaborate with music director Marin Alsop and the orchestra to create concerts that focus solely on new music; there is no old musical warhorse being trotted around these grounds. If you want to hear Tchaik 5, or Beethoven 5, or Pictures at an Exhibition, you’ll have to find a different festival.
This year, I am especially excited about the festival because I am performing the U.S. Premier of Desolation Wilderness, a trumpet concerto written by the British composer, Joby Talbot. The concerto was written in 2006 for Alison Balsom and it features driving minimalist-style rhythms, soaring melodic lines, and lightning fast technical passages reminiscent of the great violin concertos; it is a welcome addition to the trumpet repertoire to be sure. If you don’t know Joby’s music, you should definitely check it out. He has done some extraordinary work. You can learn more about him by visiting www.jobytalbot.com.
Joby’s music is a perfect example of new music that bucks the trend of being difficult to listen to and academic. Indeed, my experiences the past couple of summers at the Cabrillo Festival have introduced me to a wide range of composers who write music that is strikingly beautiful and quite easy to listen to, while maintaining important aspects like originality, finely crafted orchestration, and a well organized formal structure. This new direction for modern music is exciting and necessary for the survival of classical music as an art form. Over the last 50-100 years the vast majority of composers have ignored their audiences and written music that most of the population would not choose to listen to. Artistically speaking, I have no problem with that. I truly believe a composer should write the music he/she most believes in, regardless of what people think. The problem comes when we want to be able to make a living writing or performing this type of music. For that, we need to be able to make money, and to make money we need the audience to care about our work; it’s that simple. If classical music is going to continue into the future as a living, thriving art form — and not as just an old museum relic — it will need to have new music that audiences care about, that people are excited to hear. New music is the music of our age; it needs to be the main attraction, and the main attraction has to be good!
For two short weeks in Santa Cruz that is exactly what is on offer, and I am happy to be a part of it. To see what is going on at the festival this year simply visit: www.cabrillomusic.org
Take a deep breath… Exhale! It has been quite a time for me lately. The semester at the University of Miami came screaming to a close. I worked every day over the last two weeks of the semester, and only had one night at home to lick my wounds. During that time I had 4 student recitals and a solo performance of my own over a 4 day period. Can you say frantic? I knew you could (written in classic “Mr. Rogers”).
For my performance with the band, I played Excursions by Bruce Broughton. This proved to be an effective choice, and I recommend it to anyone looking for something to play with a band. This piece doesn’t have the sophistication of a piece like the Jolivet Concerto No. 2, but it works very well compared to other pieces for trumpet and large band. Plus, it isn’t nearly as difficult for the ensemble or soloist.
Once the semester finished in the first week of May, it was time to do some serious catching up with my responsibilities outside of work. The good news is I am now looking at 4 months of time to devote to whatever I see fit. Yeah, teaching in College is not half bad.
I look forward to a return to normalcy, and to resuming regular posts on this blog.
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