Friday, October 03, 2008

Brassy composers

Last night I went to a guest recital that featured horn ensembles. The last piece of the evening was composed by a colleague for 12 horns and percussion. The colleague himself is a brass player, and it struck me that all of the pieces I know that were composed by brass players for brass instruments share a key characteristic. All of these pieces are neo-tonal, emphasizing the sonorous harmonic series through lots of quartal chords and triads. Thus they allow the brass instruments to reinforce each other, allowing the strong overtones to align and make the chords ring. This focus on sonority comes from a emphasis on producing beautiful sounds in brass pedagogy. Creating a big, round sound is the goal of every brass player, often to the sacrifice of other musical considerations. Likewise brass compositions emphasize these beautiful sounds to the detriment of more interesting harmonic progressions. I'm thinking of works by trumpeters Tony Plog and Thomas Stevens, and trombonists Jim Beckel and Christian Lindberg. Exceptions to this rule would be jazzers like Bob Brookmeyer who glory in crunchy chords.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the big, round sound you describe goes back to the days when brass instruments were not valved and could produce only certain tones in the lower registers. I'm playing trumpet in a Mendelssohn piece (Hebrides Overture) and its a straight classical part, the two trumpets are often doubling and we are staying on the obvious chords - there might as well be crooks and no valves in our horns. This piece is clearly in the romantic style, so maybe brass orchestration has been locked into a certain preconception?

BTW, my daughter taught in the Psychology dept. at Depauw for a couple years. Loved the school - Greencastle, not so much.

Scott said...

Certainly the limited pitches of valve-less brass instruments could have been a cause of the conservative view towards brass composition, or at least gave the brass players more incentive to create beautiful timbres since they couldn't compete in the pitch variety department with strings and woodwinds. I think your idea has merit.

Greencastle isn't that bad, though I do have several colleagues who commute from Indianapolis or Bloomington.

M. L. Place Badarak said...

Crunchy chords are called "clams" in the brass world, and while they may be a fact of life - we avoid them at all costs.

brassers glory in the world of harmonics (with or without valves) - they are ringing in our ears. The bigger & rounder the better.

for something crunchy, try this:

Scott said...

Clams are different from crunchy chords. Clams are unintended, mishits of the notes we are aiming for. Crunchy chords are intended dissonances. It is still possible to have a big round sound with a crunchy dissonance, but the chord won't emphasize the ringing you reference. But in the jazz world the emphasis is more on edge than roundness, thus why dissonances are desired. The dissonances emphasize the sharp edges.