Desert Island Artists – Part 1


desert island discs

Here’s the game.¬† Most people in the UK will have heard of the radio show Desert Island Discs.¬† If you haven’t, the basic premise is this.¬† A well known person is asked the question, if they were be¬†to castaway alone on a desert island, what 8 records would they choose to take with them.¬† (They would also have for company, the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, another book of their choice and another luxury item)

This is a modified version of the above concept conceived by a friend of mine and is a great way to while away long car journeys.

The Rules

Unlike the radio show this version of the game is somewhat more generous with the amount of music you can take with you, but the basic question is the same.  If you were only allowed to  listen to a limited number of musical artists for the rest of your life,  who and what would you choose?

In this version of the game you are allowed the complete works (everything written and/or recorded) by your top 10 favourite pop/rock artists and your 10 top classical composers.  To start you off you also get thrown in the complete JS Bach and the complete Beatles.

Why Pop/Rock & Classical and how do you define the genres?

Yes, there are countless other genres of music out there. To be frank, these are the two I have most knowledge of and most interest in Рbut you are welcome to use whatever categories you like.  Also feel free to argue the toss over which category you think jazz, metal, dance, folk etc etc fit best into.  My very loose definition of the categories is this:  Pop and Rock, I define as short form music Рie the musical and lyrical ideas can be distilled down to a single 3 minute piece of music.  The classical category favours music where the ideas are developed over a long timescale, a symphony or an opera etc.  The classical category tends to be exclusively composer led as it is almost certain that the ideas will have been intricately worked out and written down in advance. Pop and Rock tends to be more performer led and often the ideas can be better communicated aurally.

So, for example – (spoiler alert), I have both a musical theatre composer and a jazz composer/performer in my list, Stephen Sondheim and Miles Davis¬†– and there is possibly an argument for both to fall into both the classical and the pop list.¬† However, Sondheim’s whole ethos and attitude to writing is based on meticulous planning and attention to detail prior to performance.¬† Not a single word is left to chance.¬†Also, his themes and ideas are developed¬†over the length of a 2 hour theatrical show.¬† Miles Davis, on the other hand, is all about taking great performers, freeing them from the shackles of¬† composer led music¬†and living in the moment with them.¬† Whole albums are improvised and ¬†constructed instantly¬†out of¬†the barest of initial ideas.¬† So, very clearly Sondheim has to fall into the classical list and Davis into the pop/rock list.¬† Ironically Sondheim (despite his probable protestations – “I’d like to perform a medley of my greatest hit”) has probably had more hit singles than Davis.

I don’t like Bach or the Beatles?

You don’t have to listen them just like you don’t have to read the Bible or the complete works of Shakespeare.¬† They are¬†there as the most significant originators of the two genres of music we’re looking at.¬† Also, feel free to argue the case for someone else if you wish!

A bit of history and geography

alan partridge

“I’ve got a broad taste in music, from the Britpop bands UB40, Def Leppard right back to classic rock like Wings. They’re only the band The Beatles could have been. [Favourite Beatles album?] I think I’d have to say The Best of The Beatles.” – Alan Partridge.

Like Alan, I pride myself on a pretty broad taste in music so – before I put my cards on the table and humiliate myself with my achingly uncool/mediocre/ignorant music choices I thought I’d do a very rough and ready study.¬† If we look at the fact that we have access to musical ideas going back approximately 1000 years across six different continents where does my breadth of taste fit in with all of that?

Well, looking at birthdates of the artists concerned and city of birth, my classical choices span 117 years (1813 – 1930) and 3 continents (although I’m not entirely sure that St Petersburg in any way represents Asia).¬† On top of that there’s a definite cluster around Germany/Central Europe and 1860ish.¬† The Pop list spans 68 years (1915 – 1983) and only 2 countries (no prizes for guessing which) with a cluster of artists born round about 1950 in or around New Jersey.

Not a bad spread – but pretty tiny compared to the history of the world.¬† And that’s okay – if I’m going to be stuck on that desert island I want it to be stuff I want to listen to – not stuff I ought to listen to.

Which means none of those artists or composers you see in lists of people you’re supposed to listen to:

i.e. (for Classical) no Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Handel, Haydn, Purcell,  etc

and for Pop (or it’s¬†allegedly more credible big brother, Rock) no Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Smiths, The Jam etc¬† – or countless other white male rock bands that a certain type of (white, male, over 40) music journalist like to worship and put in their all time¬†greatest lists…

Not, I hasten to add, that I have any problems with any of the above – indeed I do rather like a lot of it – but as I discussed in my previous post, popular stuff tends to be popular because it’s popular, and I rather think that critically acclaimed stuff (a different type of popularity – another discussion)¬†often ends up going the same way. (Not that I’m going to set the world alight with my own choices either…)

After that ridiculously long preamble here goes Р(for no particular reason) in geographical order РEast to West.




C1. Igor Stravinsky – born St Petersburg, Russia (1882 – 1971)

Our most easterly point for the classical world is St Petersburg and Stravinsky.¬† And my first entry might straight away make it as my number one favourite classical choice.¬† Did he create modern music and the sound of the twentieth century and beyond with masterpieces such as the Rite of Spring?¬† Very probably.¬† But don’t just listen to¬†those lavish early ballet scores.¬† There is so much variety and reinvention in this one composer’s output, and I never tire of listening to any of it.¬† His ballet music alone is a history of twentieth century musical form, from the lavish¬†romanticism of The Firebird (1910), Les Noces (1914) – minimalism 50 years early, Apollo (1928) – neoclassical elegance, Agon (1957) – 12 tone music¬†50 years late!¬† Then there are theatrical works such as The Soldier’s Tale (1918) and Oedipus Rex (1927) using innovative ways of integrating music and storytelling.¬† And countless orchestral, vocal, solo and chamber works – all unique, all utterly compelling, all Stravinsky.



P1. Kate Bush – born Kent, UK (1958 – )

The furthest east we go for the pop category is Kent, UK.¬† If you’re a lover of Europop or Indipop, sorry!¬† And straightaway, we see how wonderfully restrictive terminology like pop and classical are.¬† Kate is undeniably a pop artist – she has hit albums, number 1 singles, sell out concerts at the Hammersmith Apollo.¬† Most of her songs are the statutory 3 1/2 minutes in length.¬† But she sounds like no other pop (or classical) artist I’ve ever heard.¬† Her songs (clich√© alert) really do defy categorization.¬† I think she writes tiny operas in miniature.

My favourite Kate Bush album, “The Dreaming” was¬†the first album she produced¬†on her own.¬† It’s an eclectic soundscape of¬† musical and vocal styles alongside experimental synthesizer, sampler and drum machine techniques.¬†¬†Where this crazy collage of sounds comes to the fore is when you start to listen to the stories the songs tell and the characters that Kate becomes.¬† In one song she’s an East End bankrobber.¬†¬†In another, she’s an Australian bushman.¬† In another, wonderfully and heartbreakingly, she’s Harry Houdini’s wife standing by the side of the stage watching the escapology trick that kills her husband.

There’s something wonderfully British about Kate Bush – that strange¬† world of the eccentric inventor merged with English woodlands, Edwardian fairy stories, bookish studiousness and wistful daydreaming.¬† Are we unique in the world that we live somewhere where an 18 year old can conceive of¬†a song like Wuthering Heights which can then make it to number 1?¬† Probably not, but it’s a romantic notion.


C2. Dmitri Shostkovitch – born St Petersburg, Russia (1906 – 1975)

My second choice to come out of St Petersburg.¬† Unlike Stravinsky who got the hell out of the country¬†following the revolution, Shostakvitch remained in the USSR his whole life.¬† I have mentioned before, that his music is¬†inextricably linked with the¬†history and fortunes of that country¬†throughout the twentieth century.¬† In particular, an understanding of the¬†frankly bizarre relationship Shostakovitch had with the tyrannical dictator and amateur music critic Joseph Stalin¬†provides an extraordinary¬†background to many of his compositions. It never fails to amaze me how much, time and time again, the powerful and influential fear and try to manipulate the arts to their own ends¬†– even music, opaque in meaning, with it’s lack of words and pictures.

And of course, shostakovitch’s ¬†music stands on it’s on too.¬† This music has real emotional depth, humour, anger, pathos, romance,¬†despair.

A towering figure.



P2. Amy Winehouse – born London (1983 – 2011)

Such a tiny output of music before her untimely death, but what a compelling artist.¬† I never grow tired of listening to her 2 (only 2!) albums or her many live performances you can find on youtube. Her vocal skills and musicianship are undisputable but I’m also¬† blown away by her lyric writing (usually a secondary concern for me).¬† Particularly on that first album, before she became stratospherically and destructively famous, there’s a wisdom and sophistication of ideas¬†mixed with sheer¬†naked emotion and honesty.¬† And a self¬†aware sense of ¬†humour.¬†And a¬†youthful¬†optimism and love of life.

I was lucky enough to hear her in a small venue in Manchester just before she became huge. Flawless performance.  And she invited everyone in the audience out clubbing after the gig!



C.3 Jean Sibelius – born Hameenlinna, Finland (1865 – 1957)

Chances are I’ll never visit Finland, but I feel I already know the country intimately; ¬†it’s political¬†history, climate,¬†it’s myths and legends.¬† Sibelius is to Finland what Shakespeare¬†is to England and Burns is to Scotland.¬† Except even more so.¬† This chilly northern land is Sibelius and Sibelius is Finland.¬† And the music, beautiful and melodic, is so unlike any other composer – particularly when you look at his contemporaries – spanning the end of lush indulgent romanticism through to the spiky violent rhythms of twentieth century modernism.¬† Sibelius’ music on the other hand is ¬†expansive yet intimate, simple yet¬†endlessly complex.¬†¬†Outside Finland we tend¬†to only really hear his symphonies performed –¬†like in the recent triumphant¬†visit¬†to the Barbican of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil.¬† But there are loads of tone poems and songs based on Finnish legends, seldom performed outside the country.¬† My triple CD boxset containing many of them arrived today – lots of new stuff to get to know!

P3. Steely Dan / Donald Fagen РFagen born Passaic, New Jersey, USA (1948 Р)

A few quotes taken from Telegraph journalist Neil McCormick from his very entertaining liner notes from the 2009 album “The Very Best of Steely Dan”.

“Steely Dan, a group who exist outside of¬† pop culture”

“Steely Dan existed in an entirely different musical dimension to all of their contemporaries, a parallel universe where pop music was actually a form of Blue Note Jazz.¬† Imagine if Miles Davis and John Coltrane got together and wanted to make hits, blending uber cool 50s noir jazz with southern boogie, and topping it over with wry super-smart lyrics”…..”a sinuous blend of groove, harmonic structure and frankly outrageous playing”

“Sadly Steely Dan was far too ahead of our time to make itself properly understood.¬† In the course of eight increasingly desperate years, Steely Dan’s attempts to establish whether there was intelligent musical life on earth drove some of the greatest session musicians in the world to the brink of despair and insnity in a quest for perfection beyond human comprehension, the cosmic search for the universal chord.”

I’m sure the rules of the game allow me all the material those despairing session musicans produced too, so that includes the great Michael McDonald (keyboards/vocals) and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar)¬†from the Doobie Brothers, Michael and Randy Brecker (sax and trumpet) and a whole load of America’s finest.

And¬†Steely¬†Dan is ¬†named after a giant steam powered vibrator from a William Burroughs novel – you’ve gotta love that…




Right, that’s well over 2000 words and I’m off on holiday tomorrow – so I’ll finish the list¬†in the next post.

In¬† the meantime I’d love to hear about your own lists, or suggestions for me, or predictions for what’s on the rest of my list.¬† If you’ve read my other posts a lot of the choices should be fairly easy to work out…

Till next time – Happy Easter!













Once Upon a Time in Shaolin

wu tang

Those of you who have¬†read some of my earlier posts will know that I am rather foolishly in the midst of trying to write¬†an opera. ¬†I’m pleased to say that it is very nearly finished – only a few more pages of orchestration to go.¬† I’ve just started to have some initial chats regarding potential¬†performance opportunities and will let you know more when there is more to tell.

So, whilst I’m not quite ready to talk in detail about the opera, being¬†ensconced in this¬†process had got me thinking long and hard about the craft of ¬†writing.¬† I should make absolutely clear at this point that I am not in any way a trained composer, librettist or songwriter.¬† This is purely a hobbyist’s pursuit and I have no¬†grandeurous delusions as to the quality of the work I produce.¬† However, as you will hopefully ascertain from my other blog posts I am particularly interested in the craft, tradition, influences and learning processes attached to the world of music making; whether it be writing, producing or performing.

With that in mind I was all set to write what I thought would have been quite a cute post discussing my attempts at songwriting and composing in the past.  It would have been based around my experiences writing songs for my musical ( Рcheck it out) and would have talked about who I was performing with at the time, what I was listening to, and how all these things molded and influenced the songs as they were written.

I love reading about all that sort of stuff – the creative process.¬† I find it can only enhance your enjoyment of a work.¬† And it’s an essential part of learning how to do¬†pretty much anything.

But, as many of you will know, ¬†jurors in Los Angeles¬†last week¬†awarded the Marvin Gaye estate damages of $7.3M for alleged plagiarism of Gaye’s hit “Got to Give it Up” by Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams’ song “Blurred Lines”.¬† And here’s the thing – the songs ARE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!¬† Now, I’m not here to comment on the relative quality of the songs or the appropriateness of the lyrics,¬†etc etc¬†– but the melodies and lyrics are not REMOTELY THE SAME!¬† Yes, they have a drumbeat and a bass line which perhaps share some similarities.¬† But this is pop music!¬†Familiarity is why pop music is popular!¬† The differences in rhythmic meter, harmonic structure and melodic invention in the history of pop is minute compared to other forms of music.¬† And that’s fine – those are the parameters.¬† And the medium moves forward, built on the past. Or it doesn’t, and we just sit and watch the lawyers get wealthier.

I absolutely sincerely believe that this sets a dangerous precedent for the music industry and I’m glad that the ruling is being challenged.¬† Obviously I can only speculate on the case and the jurors’ conclusions but I do think a major factor in the case is the fact that Thicke and Williams had talked about their influences with regard to the song – and somewhere down the line the lawyers¬†saw an opportunity to make a load of money.

In light of the above¬†my desire to share¬†any thoughts about the writing process has waned somewhat,¬†however like the majority of people who have created anything, my conscience is clear.¬† The musicologists will just have to argue over my influences long after I’m gone!¬† Not that anyone would try and sue me – I don’t expect to make a penny out of anything I have written. In contrast Blurred Lines made a cool $16M – worth the risk for the honourable profession. And therein lies the real¬†truth – ‘where there’s a hit there’s a writ’…

Who gets the money (minus fees) in the above case?¬† Not the writer,¬†Marvin Gaye – he’s long dead.¬† Instead it goes to his children, who¬† have already ¬†lived their lives with all the advantages/disadvantages, opportunities/prejudices that come with being the progeny of an multimillion selling recording artist.¬† And I want to be clear on this, I don’t judge them – the law is the law – and they are just exercising their right.¬† And the laws¬†governing royalty payments¬†are of course¬†a¬†good and proper thing.

Which brings me on to another topic I’d like to talk about. Royalty Payments.

Firstly¬†a bit of history: many of the laws set up concerning royalty payments were due to the¬†sterling efforts of Jessie Coleridge-Taylor.¬† Her husband Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not to be confused with nutty poet and opium addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge) was a truly extraordinary man.¬† Born in 1875¬†to an English mother and a black African father, he overcame prejudice to become one of the most well loved and successful composers of the Victorian era. His biggest success was a choral work called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast which was repeatedly performed all over the world, with¬†the sheet music selling countless copies.¬† Coleridge-Taylor had sold the rights to the piece outright to publisher¬†Novello so made no further money from the piece. This was fairly commonplace for composers, who of course generally didn’t have a great deal of cash flow, so money up front for work was necessary.¬† Likewise publishing companies shouldered all the financial risk with printing and promoting a piece that may have¬†ended up earning them nothing.¬†When Coleridge-Taylor died, young (partly from the exhaustion of having to rewrite from scratch his violin concerto after the only score was lost on the Titanic – don’t forget to back up your work folks) his family found themselves with no source of income.¬† Jessie tirelessly campaigned for her family to receive a share of Novello’s profits and as a result, the Performing Rights Society was set up to ensure musicians were paid a fair price for their work.¬† All good and proper and I heartily endorse it.¬† However this copyright endures for (at the time of writing, in the UK) 70 years after the composer’s death.¬† Compare this to, for example, the big bad pharmaceutical companies who have¬†10 years to make their money from a product before it comes off patent.¬† And this is after maybe 20 years of development and trials costing billions with no guarantee of the product working at the end of it all.¬† Perhaps this begins to explain why the drugs are so expensive.

Conversely I think that¬†the 70 year ruling for music publishing means that too much of the financial¬†risk has been transferred from the copyright owner¬†to the performer, or concert promoter or radio station owner.¬† Particularly in the classical world, if it costs to put on a piece of new music and it’s less likely to attract a large audience because it’s unknown we end up in a vicious circle of “safe” programming.¬† This can particularly be seen in the opera houses where an increasingly dwindling number of different operas are put on again and again purely because they are considered box office draws.¬† So we end up in this¬†weird feedback loop¬†where stuff that is popular is only popular because it’s popular.¬† And of course the pop world will take even fewer risks which is why we end up with a relatively small number of performers making vast amounts of cash from increasingly unambitious music choices.¬† So, the rulings brought in to help the Jessie Coleridge-Taylors of the world have ended up profiting an increasingly small group of people.

I suppose we should marvel that “Blurred Lines” is still capable of making a ridiculous amount of money in this day and age.¬† In this increasingly acquisitive world, as people suffocate under the weight of more and more ‘stuff’,¬†¬†the¬†thing more and more people are divesting themselves of is their record and cd collections.¬† Streaming technologies have pretty much rendered obsolete the need to own or pay for music at all, especially if you aren’t too fussed about sound quality.¬† The music recording has pretty much been rendered¬†worthless.¬†In fact, getting people to pay for music in any form is becoming harder and harder – and once again we’re back in that inevitable world of ever decreasing ‘safe’ choices.

Legendary hiphop collective the Wu Tang Clan have come up with an interesting concept regarding the perceived financial¬†worth of music.¬† The mysterious box at the top of this blog post is the one and only copy of the Clan’s album, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”.¬† It will be exhibited in galleries like a major artwork.¬† People will only be able to listen to it through headphones after being searched for recording devices.¬† After being exhibited it will then be auctioned off to the highest bidder.¬† Once bought, the buyer will not be allowed to release the product for 88 years.¬† The idea of course is to try and rekindle in people’s minds that music has¬†artistic and commercial worth in a similar way to, say, a painting by Van Gogh.

But there is a flaw in the logic…¬† The reason an artwork sells for an extraordinary sum is precisely due to it’s uniqueness rather than the quality of the work. Also, inherent in this is the understanding that seeing a reproduction of a work is in some way not as fulfilling an experience as seeing the real thing,¬† hence why millions of people flock to the Louvre each year¬†to see the Mona Lisa despite every single one of those people having already seen the picture in reproduction form. Ironically their postcard almost certainly gave a clearer view than the one they’ll get in the Louvre! ¬† Conversely, every copy of a recorded music album is (and is supposed to be)¬†identical to the original,¬†so the burning desire of the wealthy collector to own something unique becomes impossible.¬† Therefore is¬†“Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”¬† actually being sold as a piece of art rather than a piece of¬†music?

However the musical artist has one up on the visual artist – they¬†can provide a the unique experience of a live performance.¬†¬†This is¬†still the most emotionally involving and spiritually moving way to experience this most visceral of art forms.¬†Therefore unlike¬† a¬†painter or sculptor who has “made it”, a successful musician¬†has to keep on working and performing until the day they die to¬†satiate their audiences’ desire for unique emotional experiences.¬† Ironically, the visual artist can actually see¬†the worth of their¬†work increase¬†the less they produce!¬† In fact, if you happen to own a Damien Hirst dot painting the best way to force an increase in it’s value is to hire someone to murder Damien – then watch the value of his art skyrocket.¬† Just to be clear I’m NOT advocating you do that!

And then bizarrely, the pleasure that people derive from having something other folk don’t have, doesn’t apply to music.¬† At least, I don’t think it does.¬† If I like a piece of music, a band or¬†a singer, I want everyone else to know about it and love it too.¬† Isn’t everyone a bit like that?¬† In a strange sort of way,¬†our own self worth and the way we judge other people is wrapped up in the music we – and they – listen to.

So there we go, a strange dichotomy – music, both priceless and worthless. And maybe that’s always been the problem.¬† How do you put a price on something that’s priceless.¬† Happy Listening! xx


To Alto or not to Alto


trombone family


It’s a bit of geeky brass player post this week I’m afraid…

A big topic in the classical world¬†in recent years has been the thorny¬†subject of the Historically Informed Performance.¬† This is when conductors and players strive to perform a piece in a way that is as close as possible in style and sound to the way the piece was¬† performed when it was originally composed.¬† The intention being that this is the best chance we have of hearing the music as the composer intended it to be heard.¬† I joked with our conductor the other week that if we were to do a historically informed performance of the first outing of the Rachmaninoff symphony we were playing, we would need a drunk conductor, an orchestra that couldn’t play half the notes and a composer in therapy for the next three years.

Generally historically informed performances concentrate on 2 aspects:

  1. How the notes are played – speed, articulation, vibrato etc
  2. The choice of instrument the piece is played on.

The first aspect ought to be relatively straight-forward to achieve with a certain level of technique, commitment, listening ability, adherence to direction from the conductor and musicianship. The second is often less achievable, particularly in the amateur music scene Рeven at a high level Рas it can require investment in new instruments (expensive),  and new techniques (expensive in practise time, which for many is limited to the occasional evenings.)

With regards to playing style, I have a whole number of bugbears concerning a lot of orchestral trombone playing.¬† Some require a bit of historical knowledge and context; others just require a player to use their ears! (Warning ‚Äď rant coming up):


Richard’s Historically Informed Bugbear Number 1

The great nineteenth century composer, Anton Bruckner¬†peppers his trombone parts with this symbol above the notes:¬† ňĄ

Now, any musician worth their salt knows that symbol as a marcato, a really strong, loud accent.  In other words, hit the note hard and then come away from it quickly Рimagine hitting a bell hard with a metal hammer.  We trombone players are great at that sort of punch in the solar plexus sound.


Bruckner, as you all know, was an organist.¬† His music looks and sounds like¬†organ music.¬† When he writes a trombone line, it’s like the organist has pulled out the Posaune stop.¬† So he wants a loud sound, but with no ‘smack’ at the beginning of it, but also no reduction in volume.¬† That’s just the way an organ works. ¬†He probably should have put this symbol above the notes: – the tenuto (play the note for as long as you dare), instead of the ^¬†but he didn‚Äôt. It sounds terribly ugly if it‚Äôs played as written. So, trombonists, use your ears and bear in mind the context of the piece.

Richard’s Historically Informed Bugbear Number 2

Fortissimo (very loud) in a Schubert symphony is not the same as fortissimo in a Shostakovitch symphony. Schubert uses the trombone as part of the general texture of the piece, much like he would the bassoon or clarinet, whereas with Shostakovitch the trombones have been held back for moments of earshattering chaos and despair! Playing loud on the trombone isn’t that difficult.¬† Playing the appropriate volume – well…

Trombonists get an awful lot of stick from conductors/ fellow players for playing too loud.¬† For what it’s worth, I think more often than not the real problem isn’t trombonists playing too loud in the loud bits, but woodwind players failing to play soft in the quiet bits – but that’s another whinge for another post on another day…

Rant over for now.



Back to what I really wanted to talk about…

Choice of instrument.

When it comes to historically informed performance, trombonists do seem to have slightly more choices on offer than other classical musicians.¬† Baroque oboes and bassoons, gut strings and short bows on violins really are the preserve of a few specialist players – but even in the amateur world most of the¬†trombonists I know own more than one instrument.¬† When I tell you that the majority of trombone parts in the orchestral repertoire are playable on the standard tenor trombone, you may ask why?¬† Well, maybe we are a bit geekier than other musicians.¬† Maybe we’re lucky that a¬†good quality trombone costs a good deal less than a quality oboe or bassoon, and a massive deal less than a quality violin or cello.¬† There is also the wide range of music styles that trombone plays a part in, and the fact that the standard instrument used in the jazz band has more in common with the instrument used in the early nineteenth century orchestra than the instrument used in the modern symphony orchestra.

So we can play around with instrument choice a bit more than some of the other sections of the orchestra.¬†¬†¬†If we look at the development of most of the orchestral instruments, the tendency has for them all to move towards louder richer sounds.¬† In the case of the trombone this has been generally achieved by designing instruments with wider bores (tubing) and using larger mouthpieces.¬† As mentioned above, jazz and pop players tend to stick with narrow bores and smaller mouthpieces.¬†This allows them greater agility, range in the upper register and a brighter sound, but loses them volume and richness of tone.¬† For example, take Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars and compare that with the sound of the trombone solo at the opening of Dinah Washington’s recording of “Mad about the Boy”. The difference between the 2 sounds from the two different instruments is marked.

My old trombone teacher, Chris Stearn – principal bass trombone with Scottish Opera ‚Äď recently had a moan on the trombone forum about the section being asked on occasion to play narrower bore instruments for reasons of authenticity.¬† Why should the trombones be singled out for special treatment when the rest of the orchestra are quite happily playing modern instruments?¬† With much respect to Chris, I do think that this difference in trombone sound is marked enough to have had an effect on the way composers wrote for the instrument.¬† It takes quite a practiced ear to discern the difference in sound between a German rotary valve trumpet and modern American piston valve trumpet, or the difference between a Viennese Oboe and a standard oboe.¬† We used narrow bore trombones for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantasique recently.¬† The razor sharp edginess of the sound compared to the usual warmth of sound I like to think we produce was quite terrifying – noticeable enough for it to draw comment from audience and orchestra alike.


Back to what I really, really properly wanted to talk about…

The Alto Trombone.

I’m now about to completely contradict what I said above about composers writing for specific instruments, particularly with regards to the trombone (and the tuba – but that’s for another even geekier blog post).

When a wind player sees the words bass clarinet, or tenor saxophone or alto flute at the top of their part they can be reasonably assured as to what instrument to play the part on.¬† If you are¬†a trombone player this is not the case. In earlier music, things were pretty straight forward. The parts would say alto trombone, tenor trombone and bass trombone and would be played on the equivalent instrument.¬† This was mainly in church music, accompanying the equivalent choral part (see my previous post,¬†“The trombone, too sacred for frequent use”).¬†The tenor trombone is the standard instrument that most people would visualize when they think of the trombone.¬† The alto is two thirds the size of the tenor, pitched in Eb. The bass was a cumbersome instrument pitched in G or F¬†with an extra-long slide, which was so long that it required a handle to reach the lowest slide positions!¬†¬† Despite the different sizes being in different pitches, the trombone has never been treated by composers as a transposing instrument. This is unlike, say, the saxophone which can be pitched in either Eb or Bb allowing the different sizes of instrument to¬†be played by the same player without them having to learn an entirely new fingering.¬† So a concert pitch Eb is written as C on the alto sax and a concert pitch Bb is written as C on the tenor sax.¬† On the trombone a C is a C which I think makes things conceptually easier to think through.¬† There are, of course, exceptions – brass bands treat the trombone as if it were a transposing instrument in Bb – but let‚Äôs leave that to one side for now.

However writing for all three different sized instruments in C does mean that the location of the notes on the slides of the different trombones are all completely different, which is a pain if you are a tenor trombone player who occasionally has to play the alto.

Anyway as I said, for a whole bunch of music up to about 1850, the parts would say alto, tenor, bass, the pitch of the parts would more or less mimic the equivalent singing voices, and the appropriate clef would be used for the parts. Most people are fully conversant with the treble and bass clef, but other clefs exist so that parts of a certain range fit comfortably and are easily readable on the 5 line stave.  The picture below shows the same C major scale (bass clef 1 octave down) written using 4 different clefs.


By the mid nineteenth century, the alto trombone began to fall into disuse.¬† The invention of the valve meant that horns and trumpets could now play chromatically, so the need for a higher pitched trombone was less apparent.¬† The cumbersome bass trombone in G with the extra-long slide also began to fall out of favour although plenty of players carried on using it throughout the twentieth century.¬† The modern bass trombone¬†wasn’t really invented until about 1960 and is based on the standard tenor trombone.¬† It has the same length of slide, but has a much wider bore of tubing, a larger mouthpiece and a valve section¬†to extend the range downwards.¬† It is a truly impressive instrument.¬† However (warning ‚Äď rant coming up):¬† If you are trombonist asked to play for example the bass trombone part in Mozart’s Requiem, please do not turn up to accompany a chamber choir with an instrument that has been designed to support a full modern symphony orchestra from the bottom of a Hans Zimmer film score.¬† The choir and conductor won’t thank you!¬† The tenor trombone will do the job far better.

And here’s the crux of this rather rambling post – often we just don’t know what the composer’s intentions were with regards to instrument choice.¬† I rather think that often their intentions weren’t necessarily realized and that they were stuck with whatever instruments the players they were writing for had and could play.¬† But often their intentions aren’t clear on the part.¬† The driver for writing this post was a performance of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony I was involved with and I was genuinely unsure of what instrument to play it on.

The part says Alto Trombone.¬† It’s written in the alto clef.¬† The range of the part is consistently in the high register, including rather too many top Ds (a note I don’t care to play too often the tenor trombone if I can help it).¬† It’s a no-brainer; it must be an alto trombone part mustn’t it?

But, we get plenty of trombone parts that say alto on them and clearly aren’t. For example, the aforementioned Bruckner – trombone writing of epic proportions – the part asks for the baroque and dainty alto trombone.¬†And he is by no means the¬†only one.¬†Why?¬† Well, there are all sorts of theories, most of them wonderfully prosaic and banal. One is that the pre-printed manuscript came with alto, tenor and bass already there. Another is that the convention was to call the highest part alto and the lowest bass. Another is that the copyists and publishers edited and published the parts as alto, tenor, bass and the instructions remain today.

Often the parts hedge their bets altogether and call the parts trombone 1, 2 and 3. Hmmm, is that  2 tenors and a bass? 3 tenors?  Even a composer as exacting as Mahler (who on occasion writes for a four trombone section) hedges his bets.  2 tenors and 2 basses?  3 tenors and 1 bass?

And as for that pesky alto clef…!

Composers can’t seem to agree on what clef to write the instrument in.¬† This is¬†partly because the instrument is blessed with a large range but it does leave us in the awkward situation of having to learn music in up to 5 different clefs: bass, tenor, alto, occasionally treble and the aforementioned Bb transposing treble clef.

So, back to the Dvorak 6.¬† Everything on the page points towards it being written with Dvorak intending it to be played on the Alto.¬† But, in my gut Dvorak just doesn‚Äôt seem like an alto trombone composer.¬†¬† Certainly the later works – the Cello Concerto and New World Symphony in particular – are most definitely for tenor trombone, but this piece is earlier, with a more classical feel. The trombone parts are more like the sort of parts I would see in a Schubert or Mendelssohn symphony. ¬† Hmm, perhaps the internet can help with a definitive answer?¬† Well, not really. Because there is a lot of interesting debate amongst some of the top players from top orchestras about what the correct instrument should be ‚Äď resulting in a pretty much 50/50 split between tenor & alto.¬† In fact, the Internet tell me that those Dvorak symphonies may have played on some new design valve trombones, so a different instrument again.

In the end, I played the part on the tenor and just squeezed my buttocks a little harder together for all those top Ds on the final page.

So, if there is a point to all this rambling, and a counter to Chris’s moan about the special attention trombones sometimes receive, perhaps it’s this.¬† The trombone is a huge sledge hammer of instrument. ¬†A wrong dynamic or articulation can have a massive, and obviously negative¬†effect on a performance. Therefore we do have an obligation to our fellow players, conductors and audience members to get the subtleties right (well, as subtle as you can be blowing into 9 feet of brass tubing).¬† Ladies and gentlemen of the trombone section, you wield great power.¬† Use it wisely!


In anticipation of the even geekier tuba entry (don’t worry, not for a while) – check out this low brass version of The Game of Thrones Theme…




Gig Guide

I’m playing Mozart C Minor Mass for the Stockport Grammar School Chorus and Chamber Choir, Saturday 14 March at the Grammar School.¬† This one’s definitely written for the alto trombone! Hopefully there‚Äôll be some sensitive playing on the bass part too‚Ķ