Sunday, February 23, 2014

No Good Trumpet Trios (Part V)

The Tomasi Suite for Three Trumpets is a complicated work in three movements. The first movement, the Havanaise takes advantage of the effectiveness of trumpets in close harmony. Really, the whole suite puts the trumpets close together, but it's most apparent in the first movement. The recording, from Paris emphasizes the rhythm, but my first experience with this piece, at ITG 2012 was ponderously slow and spent more time exploring the complicated harmonies of the piece. Either method is perfectly effective, but achieving a sensual dance-like feel in the Havanaise is important in order to draw contrast between the first and second movements. The third movement is a tuning challenge, but because of where each trumpet lands register-wise, it's possible to realize without fighting the horn for pitch on every note. I attribute that to the chromatic movement and sharp tonal center that avoids a lot of typically out-of-tune pitches on the instrument.

So what makes for a good trumpet trio? Well, based on my fairly small sample size I can't say this with a lot of authority, but I can list off a few things that my picks did well.

First, there is a fine balance between division of labor and mercy on the lower part. Each part needs to be interesting and work through the entire range of the horn, but because most of these trumpet trios are academic the composer must assume that the best player will be on the first part and thus able to handle more endurance challenges. Good trios (and I wager quartets as well) may balance this out by keeping the first part on a high tessitura, but giving the lower parts more playing time so that the top voice can rest.

Second, good trios take advantage of the special shimmer of trumpets in close harmony. Because the instrument can adjust timbre very quickly, the players can transition from their ensemble sound to their solo sound and back allowing for complicated harmonic movement while still emphasizing one voice over another.

Third, it seems the best solos only occasionally take advantage of the very shocking timbre of all three trumpets at equal strength. The effect of three trumpets resonating together is exciting, but becomes tiresome very quickly and is more suitable as an exclamation point in a paragraph full of commas and periods. For the most part, the better trios emphasize one trumpet at a time while the other two accompany the "solo" voice. In addition, the trumpets will share the solo line either in fragments or in a call and response fashion. The Havanaise is an excellent example of call and response style texture.

Finally, good trios use multiple short movements rather than long ones. For the most part, good trumpet trios are like a good joke: they can take up a little more time if the punch line is worth it, but once everyone "gets it" then it's time to move on. The Tomasi Suite is about 6-7 minutes and each movement does not overstay its welcome. The Burrill trio is nine minutes and I found myself bored of each movement about 2/3 of the way in. Even if the individual movements are cleverly written with lots of contrasting ideas it's exhausting to the listener to sit through a 9+ minute tour-de-force with only three similarly timbered voices. The little five second break between movements is critical to let the audience's ears relax a bit before the trio presents the next idea.

No Good Trumpet Trios (Part IV)

Next up is the Burrill Phillips trumpet trio. I found exactly one recording of this trio and it's got some tuning issues, but I can hear the potential in the arrangement so I wanted to dig in a little bit. The piece definitely covers the whole range of the horn and mostly satisfies that requirement in every trumpet part. I can hear that the amount of melodic and harmonic work is distributed between the three parts, but there are some excessively long phrases that sound pretty exhausting and lead to some of the aforementioned tuning issues.

The middle muted movement is, in my opinion, very cool. While two parts ostinati, a solo voice sings on top of them. This kind of texture is easy to make boring, but it can also create suspense and give listeners a feeling of 'groundedness' to latch on to when things get a little weird. The scherzo-like third movement is excellent as well.

Overall, this piece is very dense. At over 9 minutes it rivals a lot of solo literature for pure exhaustion quotient. If I got a hold of the trio I would be interested in tweaking some of the distribution of challenges to make things a little more even between parts. There are some repetitions in each movement that could be clipped as well to get the run time closer to seven minutes. That might be in poor taste, but there's so few good trumpet trios I feel compelled to want to shine up the few gems I can find.

No Good Trumpet Trios (Part III)

I'm worried I'm running out of options. I checked out Trumpets of Spain by Robert Nagel but didn't like any of the recordings and found the whole thing kind of stylistically dull. It may have been the performances or the fact that Trumpets of Spain is more of a character piece using Spanish harmony (sounded more like Mariachi to me). It gets a lot of play by high schoolers and I found a couple of collegiate performances, but there's a wide swath of tempos and interpretations people are going with based on their own preconceived notions of what "Spanish" sounds like.

Here's Notre Dame in 2013 giving it a shot. I think the tempo needs to come up quite a few clicks and the balance needs to get inverted (more low end, less top end) then it might come off better.

No Good Trumpet Trios (Part II)

I found a cool one from a freelance arranger who posted the whole thing on Youtube with the trio score.

Pie Jesu for three trumpets - Valter Valerio

The video is for two trumpets and flugelhorn, but on Valter's blog he lists it for picc trumpet, trumpet, and flugel. I don't think it goes high enough to really necessitate a piccolo and it sounds like the recording (done by three Paolo Trettels) was performed on Bb trumpet on each part. The piece is decent, but falls prey to the common roles of first, second, and third trumpet which makes it cripplingly boring for #3 and very tiring for #1.

I'm thinking of ordering it, or transcribing it, then experimenting with moving some of the parts around so that each trumpet has an equal share of the load and a little more break time overall. I may also give his picc/trumpet/flugel arrangement a shot and see if that sounds cool or if the Piccolo just overbalances everything.

No Good Trumpet Trios (Part I)

We've got a trumpet trio this semester made up of two grad students and a super-senior. We pulled every trumpet trio off the library shelves and read them all down. There are almost no good trumpet trios. Heck, type in 'trumpet trio' and you'll get the national anthem, bugler's holiday, and trumpeter's lullaby performed by high school kids at contest. That's nearly all I could find. So I went digging for some gems. For today's challenge, I will dig through piles of bad trumpet trios and try to find decent collegiate-level trios with good recordings to match. I also promised myself I wouldn't post about the Tomasi Suite until I've exhausted all other options.

Robert Muczynski - Trumpet Trio

There's the link. It only has the first and fifth movements. There is a recording with all five movements, but it's so terrible I opted not to post it at all. This trio first caught my ear because it takes advantage of the low, medium, and upper-middle registers of the trumpet in an interesting way. The movements are short and rhythmic, with some very cool hocketed exchanges between parts. The whole thing is about 4:30 long, each movement being between 30-60 seconds. Great interest builder that doesn't overstay its welcome. I jumped online and ordered a copy for myself I liked it so much.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Cityscapes" is a challenge in all the right ways

From NTC 2009, Grand Valley State University:

The UI trumpet ensemble is looking at tackling this piece this semester, so I took a look at it. Firstly, it's very 'heavy'. It sits low on the trumpet register for most of its duration and is made up of a lot of persistent tempo challenges. The rhythms themselves are not absurd, but the way bell-tones and melodies are passed between parts, it's impressive how GVSU is able to maintain a consistent tempo throughout. The scalar flourishes lay very well on the instrument and are not terribly exhausting.

This piece almost feels like an ensemble etude. It's challenging and interesting, sure, but the challenges are compartmentalized. The main melody rests squarely on the first trumpet player for the beginning of the piece, and is only transferred between parts in the recapitulation. While the melody glides on top of the other four players, they must contend with maintaining a consistent tempo and matching crisp articulations between both the low and middle registers. The sixteenth-note flourishes are intermittent, but take a look at 5:20, they take over the entire ensemble. The challenge now is maintaining tempo in the fingers rather than in the tongue. That may not seem like a big deal, but it's actually harder to do on easy parts because the fingers want to go on autopilot. The danger here is that each trumpet player must resist the urge to play their sixteenth notes like a grace note flourish.

The second movement, about 3:00 is a tuning minefield. It utilizes close harmonies across several registers and given the various tuning tendencies of the instrument that can cause a lot of unwanted crunches. Then, at about 7:30, there is a fantastic breakdown section that utilizes are wonderful extended technique I've never seen in an ensemble before. I cringed a bit for their mouthpieces.

Ewazen's Trumpet Fantasia. Looking at equal challenge distribution.

From "Soloists of the American Brass Quintet" (1999):

From NTC 2012, Central Washington University:

Firstly, it's okay to not listen to both recordings entirely. It's a pretty long piece. I saw both recordings next to each other and figured it was a good opportunity to examine the piece from a pedagogical standpoint. Trumpet ensemble music is fun and exciting but the ensembles themselves are, in my opinion, primarily an opportunity for less experienced trumpet players to perform and learn from more experienced trumpet players.

Even at the best schools in the world, I think it's a very tall order for anyone to find seven trumpet students in a single studio capable of tackling the Ewazen Fantasia to satisfaction. The first recording is all professionals, and I'm sure there's some editing, but the difference in control and endurance is obvious between the pros and the students. Ewazen wrote this piece to be fairly equal and interesting between trumpet parts. That means each player has an equal share of the load (a load which sits generally high on the trumpet's tessitura for eight minutes and is packed with close harmonies with little room for breaks). I don't want to complain that the piece is "too hard", but rather to make a case for unequal part distribution. It is acceptable for a trumpet ensemble piece to favor the better players while challenging the up-and-comers. Ewazen's Fantasia is likely a killer experience for someone capable of playing it. But for every student who has loved preparing it, the Fantasia has likely been a nightmare for five others who may not have had the facility or raw staying-power to keep up.