Saturday, September 22, 2007

A mellow niche

I love learning about all the communities of like-minded musicians that spring up online, each sharing passions for an instrument or ensemble or repertoire outside of my own experience. The amount of expert knowledge in these areas is often very useful to a composer, and the excursions into unknown music -- of whatever quality or character -- is alway rewarding. Whether it's irish flutes or alto trombones, the q'in or the ryuteki, or the whole garden of contrabass instruments, there's some resource out there. For example, last night, while collating too many pieces of paper, I spent two hours listening to archived podcasts of the "Mellocast" -- just about everything you never knew about the mellophone & its relations. The mellophone's origins are a bit obscure, but it seem initially to have been an experiment in creating an alto range instrument (= about 6 1/2 feet of tubing, in Eb or F) to replace the French horn in marching bands (the Euphonium-like tenor horn plays the same role in many European brass band traditions). After many starts, restarts, steps and misteps (for example, the ill-fated "mellophonium" section in the Kenton band of the early 1960's) , the mellophone seems to have come into its own as the alto voice (and sometimes as a soloist) in Drum Corps (what used to be called Drum and Bugle Corps, a culture and aesthetic world unto itself) and, sometimes, as a solo instrument in jazz. The mellophone was initially cursed by bad intonation and uncertainty over the proper mouthpiece for the horn, which led to a great disparity in playing quality and the character of the instrument -- was it more horn-like or trumpet/cornet/flugelhorn-like? or more like a tiny euphonium? But for all that, the shape of the horn remains one of the most charming ever designed, and when the player, mouthpiece, and horn matchup, it has a distinctive and charming voice.

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