Consider the Brass

There is much talk these days of inequality, of unfounded biases and long-standing preconceptions that not only affect those that face the brunt of such prejudice, but ultimately the entire community as views slowly become more monochromatic, indistinguishable, and, in a word, dull. Often undue favoritism can be subtle, inadvertent, even unintentional (as many biases via omission can be), and over time this can slowly erode the affected population until it has dwindled to the point where only through direct and organized activism can such trends be reversed. It is entirely possible that many who are reading this article may, either overtly or subconsciously, in fact be a perpetrator of intolerance towards this long-standing yet misunderstood group.

I am, of course, speaking of the bias against brass instruments in contemporary chamber music today.

In many ways, it’s perfectly understandable why brass instruments have not found a proper niche within the contemporary concert community. Their limitations are completely antithetical to many of the parametrical experiments composers have been working on, especially over the past fifty years or so. Want to write a work that lasts an insanely long time? Chopbuster. Enjoy breaking away from linear lyricism and incorporating angularity into your melodic material? Not so much. How about working with extremely soft dynamics (unless you’re open to being limited timbrally with mutes)? Minimalistic use of repetition? Extreme registers? How about just blending and balancing with strings and woodwinds?

Of course these can all be worked around with the right players and well thought-out orchestration techniques, but I think that these limitations only scratch the surface of why more composers don’t write for brass instruments and why chamber ensembles don’t incorporate them. Pre-20th-century chamber repertoire already brings pianists, strings, and woodwinds together with only the occasional addition of a horn when composers were feeling frisky, even after horns and trumpets became truly chromatic and tubas gave composers another octave with which to work. Early in the 20th century, brass instruments were not ignored–Stravinsky proved with his Octet and Histoire du Soldat that brass instruments could be utilized to great effect outside of their normal orchestral wheelhouse–but they never garnered as much attention as the strings, woodwinds, and keyboards did. Two outstanding composers who wrote solo works for several of the brass instruments (as part of their collection of solo instrumental works for all the families) were Hindemith (whose Sonatas are boons to brass players and banes to pianists) and Berio (whose Sequenzas for trumpet and trombone are staples of the literature).

When one looks at the various musical adventures over the past 40 years or so–minimalism, spectralism, post-minimalism, alt-classical, and many others–brass instruments are very hard to find. In fact, if any instrumental group has come into its own over that time period, it would be percussion, beginning with Cage’s experiments, moving through Steve Reich’s relationship with the Nexus percussion ensemble, and picking up steam with So Percussion, Third Coast Percussion, Meehan/Perkins Percussion Duo, and others over the past 15 years.

All is not lost, however. From my vantage point, there are three primary veins of activity in the new music world that are seeing more and more composers jump onto the brass bandwagon, the first and oldest being the brass quintet. Beginning back in the 1940s in Chicago and New York, the brass quintet as a chamber genre continues to have a strong but slightly limited tradition of commissioning composers to write music for them. These days there are three brass quintets that have carved out their own places in the genre–the American Brass Quintet (a group that’s been around longer than almost everyone and has commissioned more than anyone else), the Meridian Arts Ensemble (an additional percussionist allows them to explore repertoire such as Zappa with an intensity not found in other quintets), and the Gaudete Brass (the youth and commissioning activity of which proves that the traditional medium is not yet dead). This mixed-instrumentation ensemble is not everyone’s cup-o’-tea to write for, but groups like these and others are proving that the genre is an extremely versatile one.

If the mixed brass quintet is the most prevalent brass chamber ensemble, the homogenous brass quartet or ensemble seems to have the most momentum these days as far as new groups being formed and new ideas being experimented with. Whereas the brass quintet allows for maximum color and range, homogenous ensembles give composers a much more blended and balanced palette with which to work. The most common of this type of group is the trombone quartet or ensemble, with a history that reaches back hundreds of years to the time of sackbutt consorts, and a list of these would have to include the New York Trombone Quartet and Four of a Kind (both fronted by NY Phil principal trombonist Joseph Alessi), the Amsterdam-based New Trombone Collective, and New York’s Guidonian Hand (whose performance at the 2012 Bang on a Can Marathon proved that brass could work in the current new music concert scene) as well as non-NYC-based groups such as the Chicago Trombone Consort, Washington Trombone Ensemble, and the Texas-based Minor 4th Trombone Quartet. Other types of homogenous ensembles are decidedly more rare on the new music front, although one that has been building up steam is the self-styled “leading post post-feminist feminist all-female horn experience” Genghis Barbie, whose current show “Guns & Rosenkavalier” (with operatic tenor Andrew Wilkowske) seemingly shows the potential for such a group to infuse both humor and non-traditional styles into an admittedly very traditional sound world.

The final type of chamber ensemble that is beginning to show interest in utilizing brass instruments is the mixed ensemble. There are several large mixed ensembles, two of the most prominent being Alarm Will Sound and Dal Niente, that conform to the “new music ensemble” format found at many universities that bring together one of each brass and woodwind along with a string quintet, piano, percussion, and various other instruments (depending on the ensemble). These are practically chamber orchestras and don’t have the balance issues that smaller groups do, but they do give composers the chance to incorporate brass into their works. Much less common are smaller ensembles, but there are two that, to my mind, demonstrate the variety of direction that other groups could explore. Asphalt Orchestra, started several years ago by folks associated with Bang on a Can, is made up of trumpets, trombones, saxophones, sousaphone, and marching percussion. They have taken the concept of a marching band (more of a New Orleans “Second Line” band than anything you’ll see in the Rose Bowl Parade) and asked composers such as Yoko Ono, David Byrne, and Tyondai Braxton to add to their repertoire. Taking a completely different tack, the quartet loadbang combines trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and baritone voice, a combination that encourages composers to re-evaluate how brass instruments can be used in a chamber setting. In addition to performing their own interpretations of Guillaume de Machaut, John Cage, and David Lang, they themselves have been forced to commission new works simply because of the uniqueness of their instrumentation.

Having written more than my fair share of brass works, I find myself asking why more composers don’t try their hand at it. In many ways it’s like the “chicken-and-the-egg” conundrum–what comes first, the repertoire or the available and interested performers? As more repertoire is written and more chamber groups explore the potential of including brass instruments within their ranks, that inequality I wrote about earlier may indeed fall by the wayside.

11 thoughts on “Consider the Brass

  1. Brighton21

    Happy to say I am currently writing for brass quintet, percussion ensemble and piano 4 hands. Glad you wrote about this. Looking fwd to working w musicians who can count and who don’t take themselves too seriously. Looking at you, string players.

    Reply
  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Thanks for that. Brass quintets are also a lot of fun; I wrote two pieces recently (one set of variations, and one set of five folksong arrangements) and have a bunch of brass ensemble pieces over the past decade.

    The only downside is that when brass groups mess up, it’s hard to hide.

    Reply
    1. william lang

      that’s a nice video of star and stripes and all (they are great players and exciting) – but in my view it reinforces the kitschy side of brass playing, and doesn’t add anything new to the musical environment at large.

      Reply
      1. william osborne

        True, banal music (to belabor the obvious?) like the pop arrangement and march music linked in the article. Interesting to me because it shows some things a trb quartet can do, four virtuosic women are playing an instrument coded as male, and especially because the video has has had 1.5 million hits.

        Reply
          1. william lang

            That was my pleasure! One of my favorite solo works!!

            and good points – they do play some stuff that is very virtuosic and seemingly “unidiomatic” for trombone.

            Reply
  3. Danvisconti

    Thanks for the great post, Rob! I wanted to comment on an additional bias that (I think) amplifies and exponentially compounds the anti-brass (or rather, non-brass-centric) bias you wrote about:

    I can speak from personal experience as well as that of many others that composers often end up writing for the same ensembles in which they initially distinguished themselves–not necessarily because composers don’t want to branch out, but because a good piano piece (say) tends to increase one’s visibility among pianists, and very early on a kind of feedback mechanism kicks in, in which composers can often become victims of their own initial success.

    I think the issue with brass is a particularly negative example of a larger issue of composers being pigeonholed (and sometimes, doing some self-pigeonholding, which is not as fun as it sounds). I feel like changing this whole environment would have positive impact on a lot of issues, your example of the brass included.

    Reply
  4. Philipp Blume

    The dynamic capabilities of brass instruments are commonly misunderstood (though I don’t mean to imply Rob doesn’t know it).

    I’d venture that an experienced trumpeter can play more softly than an average oboist, a skilled hornist can play softer than an average bassoonist, and a trombone can whisper in your ear like a lover, without a mute as far as the eye can see.

    Reply
  5. Greg Robin

    I have had more performances, and now publications, for brass. Although I was more comfortable with strings and winds, I ventured out. Brass players tend to be great advocates of new music and are great to work with. Every composer should try their hand at brass music.

    Reply

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