Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Composing for the Trumpet: an Interview with Joe Drew

(Trumpeter and composer Joe Drew specializes in new music and, under the nom de blog, Jodru, is the most prolific contributor to the AnaBlog associated with the Analog Arts Ensemble.  Satie once claimed that "with six trumpets you can do anything".  The possibilities which Joe describes here suggest that with one trumpet you can do almost anything.  I predict that, after this interview, there will soon be a slew of pieces featuring extreme pedal tone half-valve glissandi with plunger mute. This interview, which took place via email, is the second in a series.)

DJW: A generation or so ago, if you wrote for trumpet, that meant a Bb instrument, maybe a C, and some players might have a cornet as well. Now, it is not unusual for players to be ready to play Bb, C, D trumpets, piccolo trumpet, with some players specializing in historical instruments (natural trumpets, the F trumpet of late romantic music, even keyed bugles) and to play flugelhorn as well as cornet. What is the basic set of equipment that an orchestral player will have? What about a new music specialist?

JD: Every orchestral player will have a Bb, C & piccolo trumpet (pitched in A & Bb). Most students own all three horns by the 2nd or 3rd year of their undergraduate studies. That trio of horns will be all most gigging trumpeters need. If you are seeing an American orchestra performing German music on rotary trumpets, those players most likely do not own those instruments. They're probably owned by the orchestra or a school where one of the trumpeters is on faculty. 

A very common misconception about the C trumpet is that it's favored by orchestral players because it is brighter than a Bb. It isn't. The transpositions are much easier on a C trumpet. The American orchestral sound is so bright that somehow that basic sound and the prevalence of the C trumpet got conflated into this myth.

The next horn that most people would buy is an Eb/D. The D trumpet is most commonly used on the 3rd part in Baroque pieces, and the Eb is what most people prefer to use on the Haydn or Hummel. Owning an Eb/D also gives you more transposition options in an orchestra.

It is not at all unusual for orchestral trumpeters to have a whole variety of horns for different pieces. Gerard Schwartz liked to play the Haydn on Bb. Some guys would never dream of touching the Brandenburg on a standard piccolo. I've been to auditions where people lugged along a G trumpet just to play certain excerpts. Most players stick to that basic trio, although there is no universal system.

For many professional trumpeters, if a piece required them to use a flugelhorn, they'd have to borrow it. Same with cornet. Neither instrument is used enough for trumpeters to feel that they have to own one. That being said, it is not uncommon for a trumpeter to own all 6.

Historical specialists tend to play both the natural trumpet and dabble in the cornetto, although the players who do both equally well are rare. Most tend to focus on one in particular. In an ideal world, every trumpeter would learn the natural trumpet, because it strengthens your fundamentals so thoroughly.

A new music specialist could play most of the received repertoire with that basic trio of horns. You have to get pretty deep into the specialty before you start to require things like quarter-tone valves and double bells, but increasingly, you are going to see more and more trumpeters with that gear. I'm currently setting aside shekels so that I can add a quarter-tone valve to my flugelhorn, for instance. I've put it off for too long!

For the record, I have seven horns, but instead of the Eb/D trumpet, I have an Eb with 4-valves and a regular D trumpet.

DJW: I'm a fan of the old virtuoso cornet literature. With the growing use of the flugelhorn, is the cornet still an option for composers?

JD: The cornet definitely is an option for composer, even though they can't expect every trumpeter to own one. Aside from those old virtuoso pieces, the most famous piece that requires a cornet is A Soldier's Tale, and most people play all of that repertoire on trumpet. Though the trumpet and cornet are identical notationally, the sound is quite different, and a trumpeter can't just pick up a cornet and automatically sound good on it. If someone is going to play A Soldier's Tale on cornet, they are going to spend quite a bit of time getting comfortable on the instrument. Notes just lay differently on a cornet, and in that piece especially, the minor differences between the trumpet and the cornet can really trip you up.

The flugelhorn is much easier to switch to from a trumpet, although the sound difference is enormous.

DJW: What is a secure standard range for professionals, and how secure are the possible extensions both down- and upwards? If in doubt about the range is it more diplomatic for the composer to write out ossias or to let the player decide what to do? What endurance issues are raised by using extreme registers?

JD: The secure standard range really is what you read in the textbooks: from the low F# below the staff to the high C above the staff. A composer can expect any professional trumpet player to have that range. On the high side, it's not asking too much to go another whole step higher to the D. The low side is a different story. Most trumpeters can comfortably play a half-step below the F#. There are two common orchestral excerpts (Carmen Prelude & Ein Heldenleben) which require a pedal F that most trumpeters play by kicking out their valve slides and using false fingerings.

The possible extensions are where writing for trumpet gets highly variable. Since we're talking about classical music, I'm going to stick to what classical trumpet players can do. A lead jazz trumpeter is capable of extreme high notes which are not possible for most classical players. When I was at Yale, the Philharmonia was doing a piece by Timothy Geller, and we were all dying, because he'd written these unplayable parts where the trumpets would scream on high F's and G's for long passages. He was surprised to learn it was unreasonable, because he'd written it with the input of a lead jazz trumpeter.

I've attached a chart which outlines what is reasonable for extremely proficient professional classical players. On the high side, the high F (F6) is not unreasonable to ask. The G above that is probably pushing it. This upper extension on the standard range is either going to be very secure for a player, or it's not. Chances are, if they can get those notes, they're secure up there.

The pedal side is where it gets interesting. The pedal range down to C3 is accessible enough that a composer can ask for any of those notes from a professional. This range takes preparation to play accurately, but it is very secure. Below that, and you'll draw a blank with most trumpeters. However, these notes are not hard to get, and any trumpeter at any skill level can learn to play them in about 5 minutes! From F#2 to E1, the lower lip actually has to be outside of the mouthpiece. Since this is not a standard practice, composers shouldn't expect any trumpeter to be able to do it, but it is a wonderful sound. It's worth working with a trumpeter to get it. And just in case anyone thinks this is some kind of kooky 'new music' extended technique, just listen to this recording from 1902.

DJW: That's fantastic — you really understand why Robert Erickson named his solo piece Kryl. If the composer is in doubt about the range, is it more diplomatic to write out ossias or to let the player decide what to do, switching instruments for example?

JD: Switching instruments will give you a different sound; so, a composer should decide what's most important in the piece. Classical players like me will often use the piccolo to cheat on lead parts. To us, it's a fairly accurate imitation of the nasal sound of a jazz lead player, but put it next to the real thing, and the difference is immediately recognizable.

An ossia is certainly one way to go. Trumpeters will already take things down an octave without being asked! Diplomacy shouldn't be a concern. As all composers know, if they ask for something abnormal, the musicians will think that they're 'an idiot'. That's just a fact of life. However, professional musicians are also grown ups, and they're used to working around abnormal demands in a score. The best thing to do is make your intentions as clear as possible on the written page and deal with a player's limitations in person.

DJW: Are there leaps between registers we can ask for with some confidence, or are there some that should be avoided at all costs?  

JD: Leaps from the register below middle C to above the staff are difficult to execute on sight. A little practice makes short work of them, though. The standard range of a trumpet is small enough that leaps aren't too big of a problem. As Patty said about the oboe, we're not a piano. The leap from low C to high C is executed by a dozen facial muscles that are constricted by a metal ring that's less than an inch wide. So, it's a much more physical leap on a trumpet than it is on a piano. A composer should simply bear that in mind, however. Just because it's harder for us doesn't mean it should be avoided.

DJW: What endurance issues are raised by using extreme registers?

JD: Fatigue on the trumpet is a result of the pressure from the mouthpiece on our lips. The metal restricts the flow of blood. Imagine doing a bicep curl with a metal band clamped around your bicep. It would be a lot harder, right? Well, that's what playing the trumpet is like. As we go higher, the opening in our lips (aperture) gets smaller. The longer you play, the more swollen & tired your lips get, just as your legs wear out during a race. After a while, they wear down to the point where it becomes impossible to maintain the small aperture you need for the high notes. To return to the weight lifting analogy, it's the same as how your arms get rubbery after a weight lifting session. After long periods of exertion, our lips get rubbery too, and it's just harder to exert the finite control over them that we need to in order to play the instrument. 

The endurance of players varies widely. It's difficult to give a standard guideline for a composer to avoid wearing out a player. The key thing is to give us time to recoup. Sometimes, just a half beat where we can take the horn off the lips a bit helps get the blood flowing back in, and we're good to go again. 

There is no endurance factor for the low register. The only thing to bear in mind is that if you ask a trumpeter to play in the low register for an extended period of time, he will kind of be stuck down there. When you play 2nd on an entire classical symphony, you've been in your low setting for so long, that it's not easy to play in the high register for a while.

DJW: Let's move on to mutes. Straight, Cup, Harmon, Bucket, Solotone, Practice, any of the above in Metal or Fibre, playing in the stand, or just using your hand: what is the basic spice rack that every player will have, so that, for example, an entire section will use the same mute?

JD: Straight, Cup, Harmon, Plunger, & Practice. Every trumpet player will have one of those, and if they don't, they'll be willing to buy one to play your piece, because they know they'll need it eventually. There are tons of different mutes, and one trap to avoid is writing off-brand. When a composer asks for a mute that's not being made anymore or is really hard to track down, it just reduces a player's incentive to perform the piece. You may love the sound of the obscure mute you've discovered, but bear in mind, that not everyone will be able to find it.

DJW: The standard notation for muting is a binary + and -, on and off. What's the best notation for transient muting (moving between open and closed) or muting with a specific rhythmic profile?

JD: There really isn't a standard notation. Every player will be familiar with 'con sordino' and 'senza sordino'. A composer is always best suited by settling on a notation that's clear. If someone is writing a lot of mute changes very quickly, which is a nice effect, the notation would need to be concise. A 'cs' or + work just fine. If someone is giving specific rhythms to the mute, just put it above the staff (see below).

DJW: Since each mute affects the spectrum in different ways, a muted trumpet is not automatically a _quieter_ trumpet (indeed some mutes are at their best when used with strongly changing dynamics). Relative to the open trumpet, what are the effective ranges of the mutes? Which mutes hide the player more in a mixed ensemble and which make the instrument more penetrent?

JD: You make an extremely important point: mutes do not make a trumpet softer. If a composer writes 'con sordino' without specifying a mute, most trumpeters will put in a straight mute (I prefer a cup mute). Neither the straight or the cup mute deadens the sound of a trumpet the way a mute on a violin does. It simply changes the color of the sound. A muted trumpet can still be deafening. A straight mute makes the trumpet so nasal that it actually cuts through the ensemble, much like an oboe. The cup mute mellows out the sound. It's definitely easier to blend with a cup mute than a straight mute.

Composers tend to think that a trumpet must be muted to blend in with softer instruments in a chamber ensemble. No, no, no, a thousand times, no! A trumpet is capable of playing extremely quiet dynamics akin to subtones on a clarinet. (If you'd like, I could record an example). When I'm working with composers, I often find that they only have a mute in because they want the trumpet to blend with other instruments at a quiet dynamic. They are always surprised to learn that the mute is not necessary for that! Moreover, the straight mute, in particular, changes the sound of the trumpet so drastically that it strikes me as almost insensitive to ask for it just to have less volume. A composer who writes 'con sordino' is really asking for a timbre change; so, they should give a little more thought to the marking than, "I want the trumpet quieter".

The Harmon mute will soften the sound significantly and the practice mute completely deadens it. So, those are mutes that genuinely quiet the instrument, but again, the timbre change with them is extreme. Composers who are writing for mutes should make sure they are getting the timbre they want. The player can adjust his volume on his own.

You can play any mute over the entire range of the instrument. Mutes like Harmons and practice mutes make the extreme registers too difficult to play extensively. Other than that, there's no real limitation for a muted trumpet, particularly with the standard straight or cup. And I hope when composers catch on to the magic of the extreme pedal register with a plunger mute, you'll see a lot more writing for it! The trumpet can sound like a didgeridoo or a herd of elephants down there. It's amazing.

DJW: Speaking of the didgeridoo, how about using the mouth cavity to reinforce particular overtones? Is this as effective with the trumpet as with the low brass? What is the best notation for this — vowels?

JD: We are dealing with much smaller spaces than the low brass; so, the differences tend to be subtler. However, the mouth cavity is an extremely efficient way to manipulate the sound of the trumpet. There is no standard notation for this, and a composer would need to work directly with a trumpeter to figure out the range of possibilities. The difference between an 'a' position and an 'e' position of the tongue yields a very minute change in timbre, but for some composers, the difference would be fraught with drama. Articulation differences are much more acute. Say "ta da ga ha ka tee dee kee ghee" and then imagine that on a trumpet. Berio's Sequenza is a great place to start discovering the difference.

DJW: One real advantage of trumpet players is that they usually have a hand free. What extra work can we give a trumpet player?

JD: Bear in mind that playing one handed is stressful. There are certain pieces where I play for a long time with just one hand holding the trumpet, and I need to do some serious stretching afterward.

Keeping with the phonetic theme, composers should look to Berio and Stockhausen for just how rich this tonal palette can be. With the right mute and hand position, the trumpet can produce almost any phonetic sound. Cootie Williams was brilliant at making the trumpet speak.

Samuel Adler's Canto has the trumpeter tap on the instrument with the fingernails. There are all sorts of things we can do with our left hands. On a lot of my concerts, my left hand is fiddling with knobs while I play. That's a whole other ball game, but signal processing is definitely something that could use some compositional guidance. It would be great to have composers thinking about the trumpet that way.

DJW: Joe, off the top of my head, I get: turn pages, mute, change mutes, make percussive sounds, adjust or remove the mouthpiece, adjust the tuning slides or spit valves, remove the slides...

JD: Yes to all of this. Removing the slides while you are playing is probably the only thing that wouldn't work too well, because they aren't that easy to remove. However, there are pieces where the valve slides are removed beforehand and the effect is wonderful.

DJW: What can a player do with a half-valve (the valve is pressed 1/2 way down so that the portion of extra pipe associate with the valve is open in parallel to the ordinary length of pipe)?

JD: Anything. Literally, anything. After the unawareness about the dynamic range, the most common thing that surprises me about composers is that they are unaware that the trumpet can gliss. You can gliss over the entire range of the instrument with a half-valve depressed.

The half-valve also creates all sorts of beautiful timbre changes. For instance the B on the 3rd line of the treble clef sounds like an old lady moaning when played with a half-valve. Like Cootie with his plunger, we can imitate almost any sound with our half-valves. Talking about all this makes me realize that trumpeters really should get all this written down for composers. It's unfortunate that you have to work so closely with the performers to learn what an instrument can do, but that's how advances are made.

Berio asks for a few things in the Sequenza which just didn't work well, and he didn't find that out until Thomas Stevens got his hands on the piece. The reason Stockhausen's music for the instrument is so well-written is because he was working, often in seclusion, with his son. Come to think of it, those pieces for Marcus do represent a sort of manual for trumpet technique that would serve most composers well.

DJW: What about articulations: how much notation do you like to see on a page? I think that many composers have a weakness, coming from the piano especially, when it comes to slurs and articulations on other instruments.

JD: I don't have a personal preference. I think all composers have had experience working with gigging musicians who really prefer to have all the information they need on the page. If you care about the articulation, write it in. Trumpeters aren't used to seeing detailed articulations anywhere outside of method books, and as professionals, we get really lazy about it. So, if you get hyper specific, expect some grousing behind your back, but there's no reason to avoid it. We can deal.

DJW: What's the current standard for vibrato in trumpet playing?

JD: There is none.

DJW: Can players reliably respond when a composer asks to turn vibrato on or off or specify the width and speed of the vibrato?

JD: Yes. Trumpet vibrato can be regulated with extreme precision, regardless of how it's produced. A specific request aside from something basic like 'molto vibrato' will probably be new for most trumpet players, but there isn't a professional trumpeter who couldn't produce a rhythmic vibrato. A flutter tongue is another story, though!

DJW: Aside from the Stockhausen — of which you're a great advocate — what are some other examples of state of the art composing for trumpet?

JD: I know, too much Stockhausen, right? The thing is that he didn't just write a lot of music for us. He created an entire operatic role for us, like Brünnhilde or Siegfried. In my experience, both trumpeters & composers learn so much about the instrument from the pieces he wrote. Spending even 5 minutes with a piece like Oberlippentanz expands their perspective enormously. So, Stockhausen is a great starting point for contemporary trumpet.

Peter Maxwell Davies continues to write wonderful, very difficult music for the instrument. Mark-Anthony Turnage gave us a lovely little piece. Although I don't find it very interesting musically, Olga Neuwirth wrote a nice concerto based on a solo piece which gives us quite a bit to do. These are all straightforward concert pieces, and thank God we are getting new repertoire in that arena, because let's face it, what we have is crap.

John Williams tried to write a new standard concerto for us in the 90's, to replace the Haydn, and it's warmed over Arutunian, which is abysmal to begin with. For a composer who's interested in writing a trumpet piece, if they check out our standard body of repertoire, they're going to hear a lot of garbage. It's no wonder that composers have a hard time getting inspired to write for us!

Some of the most exciting music now is written with the new sonic awareness of the instrument that composers like Stockhausen and Berio have given us. You see a lot of effect-driven pieces, which, for me, are not too successful musically, but they are much more enjoyable listening experiences than something like the Halsey Stevens sonata. Also, they are infinitely more fun to play. You are also seeing a lot of music written for hybrid instruments with quarter-tone valves and double bells.

These are all very exciting developments, but we're still waiting for some composers to come along and turn all this into great music, if you know what I mean. As with anything, a composer can get lost in all the possible effects of a trumpet and lose the thread of what they want to say with a piece. If you want to make a melodic statement, use our best models: 2nd movement of the Hummel, Enesco's Legende, and Scelsi's Four Pieces. If you want to make a sound sculpture, there's no better model than the Sequenza.

I also think one of the basic truths of contemporary brass music is that it all happened in jazz first. The basic model of composers co-opting things that they admire from jazz trumpeters has served us very well.

If we're going to close (pity because it's been a lovely conversation), I would just put out a basic plea to composers that the trumpet is vastly more expressive than you've been lead to believe, and clearly, we need better music!

And here's a brief list of pieces that have really done wonders for our repertoire:

Berio, Sequenza X (The piano is so often forgotten here. using the piano as a resonator is a wonderful device.)

Stockhausen, Michael's Journey Around the World (This is an encyclopedia of extended trumpet techniques.)

Scelsi, Four Pieces for Trumpet (A great marriage of effects and music, and a wonderful example of how melodic one note can be.)

And others worth checking out:

Rebecca Saunders, Blaauw
Peter Eötvös, Jet Stream
Toru Takemitsu, Paths
Robert Erickson, Kryl

Peter Maxwell Davies, Sonata for Trumpet in D

N.B. :  In the original version of this interview, the score by Timothy Geller was misidentified as a work by Martin Bresnick.  


Unknown said...

Hello Joe, Daniel,

Your comments inspired me to look back at my orchestral score "One" - the work you referred to in your interview. The highest notes for the trumpets are a few Bbs below high C.

There are numerous forte Fs and Gs below that Bb, but I wonder if you really consider this range "unplayable". You may be right, but I confess I'm still surprised...

WIth best wishes,


jodru said...

To which high C are you referring, Martin? For trumpet, our 'high C' is two ledger lines above the treble clef. We refer to the C an octave above that as 'double C'.

The high notes in your piece were all between high and double C, which is playable for lead players and the high blowers who play film scores. However, your average orchestral player will find that unplayable for extended stretches.

We dealt with it briefly in rehearsals, and you expressed surprise. As I recall, we had to bring in other members of the studio to spell each other, and I think we still didn't come close to playing your parts as written.

There's no reason to avoid those notes, if you've got players who can get them. I used it as an example in this discussion because the focus was on the basic standards of the instrument.

Unknown said...

Hi Joe,

I am looking at my score.

The high C I am referring to is the C two ledger lines above the staff (just like a soprano singer's high C). My Gs and Fs are all on or just above the staff - not above the high C. I can imagine it is tiring to play those notes loud for long periods. But I still think "unplayable" is a bit too strong a description of that passage.

Great to hear you are so active!


jodru said...

Yes, the G and F on the top of the treble clef are not tiring to play, even at great length. We are either talking about a different piece or the parts were revised. Your site lists 'One' as a chamber orchestra piece, and the piece we performed was for larger forces. It was '98 or '99.

I don't know if you'd remember this at all, because we dealt with it so briefly in rehearsal, and you were very gracious about it. Perhaps you changed the parts afterward or we are simply talking about another piece.

And I hope you don't mind me using it as an example. Now, I feel compelled to dig through my files to see if I can find the part! But I can guarantee we wouldn't have balked at notes at the top of the treble clef.

The issue wasn't so much the high notes, which some of us in the studio could play, it was that we had to sustain them. Again, they were parts that commercial guys like Bob Findlay could play without a problem, but for most orchestral trumpeters, they are too difficult. Many of the best trumpet soloists don't develop that range because they don't need it for the repertoire they play.

Anyway, I'm sorry to not have more specifics on hand to close the gap in our recollection.

Unknown said...

Hi Joe,

Thanks for your thoughtful response.
I have actually never, in any work, written a note for trumpet higher than a D above high C and that was a single instance in a very early work for 2 Trumpets and Percussion (Bote & Bock publ.) Perhaps you are thinking of my orchestra piece "Pontoosuc". In that work the highest trumpet note is a brief high C# above high C.
There are, however, some extended high Bs (below high C) which again might be really tiring to play loudly in an lengthy passage.

Don't worry about it... I promise to be as considerate as possible in the next works!


jodru said...

Well, now I'm compelled out of due diligence to doublecheck my recollection somehow. I'd feel awful if I was mistaken, but it's a very clear memory because of the weeks we spent gabbing about the parts.

jodru said...

Apologies are in order! It turns out the composer was not Martin Bresnick at all but a fellow named Timothy Geller. The piece was 'To a Dancing God', and we were giving the world premiere under Gunther Schuller.

I am terribly sorry, Martin.


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