Composers Contemporary Trombone Excerpts Music Repertoire Trombone Trombone Excerpts

Contemporary Trombone Excerpts – Ayres, In the Alps

No. 42 (In the Alps), Richard Ayres

Melodrama for soprano and chamber orchestra (2008)

No. 42 (In The Alps) by Richard Ayres is an orchestral trombonist’s dream: part Strauss, part Rossini, part Mahler, mostly hilarious. Here’s how the composer Richard Ayres describes it:

No.42 (In the Alps) could perhaps best be described as a melodrama. It combines many of the subjects that fascinate me: the relationship of text narrative and musical narrative, the history of opera, early cinema, the theatrical practices of the nineteenth century, along with the folk and popular music of the Alpine region.

A girl (the soprano), stranded on top of an un-climbable mountain peak as a young baby, is taught to sing by the mountain animals. Young Bobli lives in the village far below the un-climbable peak. He was born mute and communicates with the world by playing the trumpet. Bobli hears the soprano’s song drifting down into the valley. The soprano listens to Bobli’s trumpet tunes blown up to her by the wind. They are both enchanted.

The three acts are separated by interludes describing how three animals experience time passing in relation to a musical tempo.

Like any self respecting melodrama the text and music combine to depict or imply a wide ranging theatrical adventure, in this piece starting at the Creation (or the big bang), a lonely existence, scenes of rustic village life, some carpentry, many mountain goats, unrequited love, and ending in a quest destined to fail.  In a live performance the text [provided with the performance material] is to be projected on a screen behind the musicians in the style of silent movie intertitles.

Richard Ayres

In the Alps calls for a brass section with two trumpets, two French horns, bass trombone, and tuba. The bass trombone (and this is definitely a bass trombone part) performs both as an ensemble voice as well as a soloist. The piece was written for the Netherlands Blazers Ensemble with Barbara Hannigan (recording available here), and the bass trombone part created with Brandt Attema‘s playing in mind.

Act I, Prelude – Straussian

The trombone first enters as an ensemble member at Rehearsal D (Act I, Prelude). This loud moment comes as a surprise after an opening reminiscent of the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony (ppp). The trombone is doubled with the tuba and both are marked only f, whereas the low woodwinds and double bass, playing different material, are marked fff. This is likely a case of the composer being aware that a trombone f is different than a bassoon f and attempting to balance the instruments.

The fun begins.

Between rhl D and E the brass section plays a Straussian klangfarbenmelodie. At rhl E the ensemble is quiet again and tension builds leading to rhl F. Rhl F contains none of the lyricism of D. The ensemble is in almost complete rhythmic unison on these ff notes. The motives shift abruptly and at unexpected times due to the meter changes.

Rhl G is a sweep of contrary motion that gathers momentum and leads us to full-ensemble rhythmic unison beginning three measures before rhl H.

Act I, Scene 1 – Snoring Bears

The next trombone entrance is with tuba, contrabassoon, and double bass at the end of Act I, Scene 1. The scene introduces the animals of the Alps one-by-one starting with the song of the nightingale, then the “song” of the cicada, then the hooting of the owl, then the toad, and on and on until the snoring of the mountain bear. By the time the low quartet enters the orchestration is quite thick and it might take a bit of effort to from the full ensemble and quartet to create a balance where the snoring can be heard.

Snoring bears cover quite a range.

(Note: I’m skipping some fun passages but I feel the need to be a bit choosy about things to include.)

Excerpt from Richard Ayres, No. 42 (In The Alps) (Act II, Scene 4) performed by Alarm Will Sound

Act II, Scene 4 – “Bobli Dance”

The town band.

“Bobli’s Dance” (Act II, Scene 4) is a riotous, warped polka that switches between simple and compound subdivisions. While the trombone has the melody at rhl L, it’s secondary to the trumpet (Bobli) who plays “rough, indistinct pedal tones” only occasionally. Bobli is learning to play the trumpet and the rest of the ensemble is the town band backing him up. Playing the passage accurately at tempo requires a nimble slide and special attention to articulations that switch from legato to staccato. The hairpin dynamics can be slightly tricky as well: first the subito mp at L, then the hairpin cresc/dim in the subsequent measures.

Act II, Scene 5 – Low Notes!

I had to count ledger lines and pitches to figure out what note this lick begins on.
Excerpt from Richard Ayres, No. 42 (In The Alps) (Act II, Scene 5) performed by Alarm Will Sound

I have to point out Act II, Scene 5, rhl HH as it is the only ff pedal B I know of in the repertoire. The bass trombone is once again with our buddies contrabassoon, tuba, and double bass. The line moves, in unison, seven octaves up the ensemble ending on a ridiculously high E played as a string harmonic.

Act III, Scene 1: The Solo

The actual “excerpt” from In the Alps happens in Act III, Scene 1, close to the end of the piece within a storm sequence.

Excerpt from Richard Ayres, No. 42 (In The Alps) (Act III, Scene 1), beginning c. 8 measures before the trombone solo, performed by Alarm Will Sound
The storm solo.

The god Zeus is sitting atop a mountain, feeling ungod-like. He attempts some grandiosity (portrayed by a tuba solo) but when he fails he lets out a sigh that turns into a great storm. At the peak of the storm the trombone enters.

“Peak of the storm” means that once again projection can be problematic. Lone trombone against the full ensemble. What’s more, the rest of the ensemble gets to coast on less technically demanding music. Like the mountain bear earlier, it can be a challenge to project over the ensemble.

While there are significant technical demands in terms of dynamic (full, projected, evocative of a raging storm brought on by a god), range (three and a half octaves in the final phrase), and articulation (triple tonguing makes the ending easier), the rhythm provides its own challenge. The majority of measures contain triplets over beats. These can be challenging to execute. I found the two most effective methods to practice and perform the excerpt were:
1. To think in eighth note subdivisions, essentially reconceptualizing the passage as quarter notes and quarter note triplets in 6/4, and
2. To internalize the feeling of where the duple falls within each hemiola, making sure that the beat lands after the second eighth note in the triplet (the “ing” of “George Wash-ing-ton”)

2/3 hemiola

Bonus tip 3 that helps 100% of the time: slow it down.

It’s also good to have an understanding of the music that occurs before the trombone entrance. In the chaos of the storm it can be easy to lose track of where you are in the measure. The horns obscure beat 1 by tying across the bar lines and the upper woodwinds and strings play quarter notes in groups of two that can create a feeling of being in 4. It’s best to cue into your buddies in the low woodwinds.

Personal story about performing this piece: This was the first piece I ever performed in concert on bass trombone. I got my instrument in July of 2013 and Alarm Will Sound performed this piece at Carnegie Hall in April of 2014. When I first saw the part I had thoughts about subbing out the gig. Instead I decided to go all in. I scheduled time every day to practice, starting in sections, under tempo, and gradually doing longer and longer chunks at faster speeds. By the time of the concert (which also included music of Donnacha Dennehy, and new works by Kate Moore and Kaki King), I was feeling alright.

Richard Ayres was there for the rehearsals and performance and had nothing to say about the solo. After the concert we all gathered at a bar in Manhattan. I joined Richard at the bar and said, “you wrote one beast of a bass trombone part.” To which he replied something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, you know you didn’t have to play all of that! When I received the commission they told me they had a monster bass trombonist in the ensemble and I should write something really hard for him. I never expected anyone else would play the part!”

Other Contemporary Trombone Excerpts:
Remix by Georg Friedrich Haas

Composers Contemporary Trombone Excerpts Music Trombone Trombone Excerpts

Contemporary Trombone Excerpts – Haas, Remix

Trombonists (and “ensembly-minded” musicians in general) spend a lot of time thinking about excerpts, passages of music from repertoire. We naturally single out these snippets as places we need to dedicate extra practice time. An excerpt might be an exposed passage, or maybe it’s technically demanding or difficult to play in tune or in a style that’s hard to pull off (or a combination of those things!).

The trombone solo from the Tuba Mirum of Mozart’s Requiem.

Some excerpts ascend to sacred status: they become measuring devices by which musicians can be compared. These bits of music are requested in auditions for professional ensembles and, because of their important role in finding employment, become the backbone of study for many players. Time and energy are lavished on the traditional excerpt crew (Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Rossini, Mozart, etc.) and an incredible amount of music gets overlooked: much of it written after 1930 and much of it for ensembles smaller than full orchestra.

Excerpt from the trombone part to "Living Toys" by Thomas Adès.
Excerpt from Living Toys Op. 9 by Thomas Adès.

It’s a shame because there’s so much great (and challenging!) contemporary music that deserves some attention. My aim is to make this a series that shines a light on a few contemporary trombone excerpts I’ve been lucky enough to play, and point out some sections that I really enjoyed.

NOTE: If you’re looking for other resources on contemporary trombone excerpts, I know of two books that are dedicated to them: Henry Charles Smith’s Twentieth Century Orchestra Studies and Benny Sluchin’s Contemporary Trombone Excerpts. Smith’s book was published in 1969 which means there’s a ton of music that’s been written since. Sluchin’s book was published in 1996 and includes a significant number of excerpts from solo repertoire (as opposed to ensemble music). I don’t think either are still in print, unfortunately.

Remix by Georg Friedrich Haas (2007)

For Kammerensemble (fl, ob, cl, bsn, tpt, hn, tbn, perc, pno, 2 vln, vla, vc, db)

Right off the bat, I’m cheating. I can’t say there’s an excerpt in Remix because the entire thing is challenging. You could pick any line of music, any page and call it an excerpt. Fortunately, the aim in performing this piece isn’t absolute perfection (this is from Haas himself). Haas says the player’s goal should be to follow the gestures of the music (pitch content, changing dynamics, gradual increase/decrease of the speed of the rhythm). He described the piece as French cooking as opposed to Italian cooking, a cassoulet if you will. Everything is intermixed. The sounds of the instruments blur and, if done well, no one stands out of the texture.

Haas, Remix(circa mm. 16-19) performed by Alarm Will Sound
Excerpt from page one of the trombone part to "Remix" by Georg Friedrich Haas.
Remix is 23 pages of similar material.

I actually found it more difficult to play “loose” and go for gesture than to attempt to accurately realize what was on the page. My attempt was inevitably imperfect, so maybe I came close to what Haas wanted “by accident.”

In the passage above, from the beginning of the work, the trombone joins a quiet, insistent miasma of sound that began with the lowest instruments. The piece employs extreme dynamics and it’s especially important to play softly here so the loud moments that happen later will be even more effective.

Each phrase contains rests that 1) allow for little breaks while playing (yay!), 2) create a nervous atmosphere, and 3) are absolutely not intuitive. Much of the initial work I put in was just practicing subdividing 7, then 8, then 9, then 10, then 9, then 8, then…

I quickly realized I couldn’t trust myself to subdivide accurately and consistently, and that I needed a super metronome to keep track of where I was. Unfortunately, normal metronomes aren’t great at doing this, so I was off to Sibelius to create a custom click with all the subdivisions.

Excerpt from homemade click track to Remix
Haas "Remix" - Click Track
All woodblock, all the time. With added low woodblock on the beats to help keep track.

The next step was practicing which parts of the subdivision to play. “1e&a 2e&a” wasn’t going to cut it here. I started slooooooow (♩=30) and gradually worked up. As I internalized the rhythms, I moved the tempo up. Eventually, the technique became a bigger challenge than the rhythm. The 10s, the fastest note values, are equivalent to sixteenths at ♩=150. Definitely not easy but doable in scale patterns…

Excerpt from page two of the trombone part to "Remix" by Georg Friedrich Haas.
Yeah, it’s not all scale patterns.

The scale patterns don’t last. As the music progresses, the intervals widen and the challenge increases. Measure 27 (in the image above), at tempo, may very well be one of the most challenging things I’ve played… and that’s just one measure. It comes in the context of 21 other pages/351 other measures.

Which brings me to what may very well be the biggest challenge of the piece: endurance. As the piece continues the range grows. Several times during the piece there are ensemble-wide scalar passages like the one below that ascend or descend over large intervals. Instruments overlap and create a Shepard Tone effect. It’s thrilling to listen to but brutal on the chops if you’re not focused 100% on efficiency (and even then, still brutal).

Back to scale patterns, but harder now.

To add to the test of stamina, there’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through the piece where Haas calls for extremely loud C4s, repeated over and over. This is a fantastically intense moment with about half the ensemble hammering these notes.

Haas, Remix(circa mm. 299-304) performed by Alarm Will Sound

All in all, Remix is unrelenting but a blast to play if you like a challenge. The effect of all the timbres coming together is other-worldly. Unfortunately, after all the work in preparing the piece, I’ve only had one opportunity to perform it but I distinctly remember the silence that followed. I was left with a mixture of exhaustion, sadness, and joy. Sadness from the absence of Haas’s sound world and joy from the feeling of accomplishment that came from the weeks of hard work I put into the piece.

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Canzonas Americanas

Canzonas Americanas

I’m a little behind on this. Canzonas Americanas with music by Derek Bermel, was released last November, and since then it’s received decent reviews. The Guardian says Alarm Will Sound plays with “panache,and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post placed the album in her best of 2012. (And the consumers on Amazon and iTunes seem to like it as well.)

The recording contains all music of Derek Bermel, including the title work Cazonas Americanas which was written for the LA Phil in 2010, Three Rivers (2001), Continental Divide (1996) and Hot Zone (1995). In addition to AWS, the album features vocal performances by Luciana Souza (Grammy award winner) on Canzonas, Kiera Duffy on At the End of the World (2000) and Timothy Jones on Natural Selection (2000).

I like that the trombone actually gets some work in Derek’s music. In Three Rivers the trombone is part of the funky, lugubrious, dissonant line that occurs throughout the piece.

Three Rivers - Excerpt 1

The part is entirely playable on tenor trombone with the exception of one low B that happens towards the beginning but has a feel that is very well suited to the bass trombone.

The trombone also participates in the smoother, quicker cascading passages (one example is at 1:30, the trombone has a more prominent role in the subsequent entrances) that recur.

Three Rivers - Excerpt 2

There are also good times to be had for the trombone in Canzonas Americanas. Check the first movement for things like this:

Canzonas Americanas - Mvt 1

This passage is part of a pretty densely scored section. I found I had to play fairly loudly to be heard (c. 1:40):

And the third movement has a nice passage where the brass joins the fantastic electric guitar/bass part:

Canazonas Americanas - Mvt 3

The rest of the disc is just as interesting. Natural Selection  is written in a way that makes the ensemble sound bigger than it is. The trombone range is wide: in the third song “Got My Bag of Brown Shoes” it goes down to pedal F and as high as E at the top of the treble clef (with some other “as high as possible” pitches). The first song, “One Fly,” reminded me of the fly episode of Breaking Bad, so I give you the Bermel/Breaking Bad mashup.

Bonus: Derek also arranged some Conlon Nancarrow for Alarm Will Sound that we recorded for our album a/rhythmia. Lots of trombone work to be done in this one too. The opening looks like a no brainer for the bass trombone. The trombone should hocket with the bassoon to form the boogie woogie piano part. If you have short arms like me you can end up doing damage to yourself trying to play all those low C’s on a tenor trombone.

Study 3a - beginning

But just a short while later in the transcription the trombone part has a duet with the trumpet that takes it up to E flat at the top of the treble clef, a decidedly un-bass trombone lick.

Study 3a - Trumpet duet

The challenges make it fun. Do your best to enjoy it if you ever have the chance to work it up.