The Road is Never Straight, Never Clear

“Why would you write anything for contrabass trombone?”

It’s not often one gets such non-sequitur questions, especially from a fairly well-established contemporary composer colleague from the alt-classical side o’ the tracks. Except in this particular circumstance, I had just explained that I was in the middle of writing a short work for that very instrument, which was to be premiered at a conference later that spring. Outwardly I responded nonchalantly to his question with some attempt at humor, but with the inward grin that most creative artists allow themselves when they don’t know why they do what they do but they do it anyways because it works.

I knew that such a decision on my part–to take time to create a work of art for such a rare instrument–flew in the face of today’s composer pragmatism that encourages writing for standard ensembles (string quartet, Pierrot ensemble, “winds-in-twos” orchestra, etc.), and yet my decision felt right on many levels. The combination of my love of odd and unique sounds with the challenge of writing something musical for this beast of an instrument and the satisfaction of making a small but noticeable contribution to a minuscule repertoire made the decision easy, though I had no idea if it would result in anything other than a single performance.

As creative artists, we are all faced with similar decisions as to whether or not to take a “risk,” whether it is in our harmonic choices, form and structure, subject matter, instrumentation, or even whether to pursue a career in the arts to begin with. These decisions may be intuitive and made on the spot or thought through and planned to the nth degree, but that element of not knowing whether or not it will work is one of the commonalities that I’ve been discovering in my composer interviews. Some composers thrive with pushing the envelope on many levels while others find more subtle avenues for their experimentation, but all have recognized that embracing the unknown is an important aspect in creating one’s own artistic place in the world.

When a risky or non-sensical decision is first made, we as a society seem to question it with a vengeance: “That doesn’t make sense!” “That won’t work!” and “No one will understand!” are all canned responses that are quite hard for us not to blurt out when we hear of something that goes against the grain of our senses and experiences. To give a non-musical example, if someone announced on a major news show that they were going to organize a peaceful protest against Wall Street and that the protest would not only last over two months and spur similar protests throughout the country but actually bring the topic of income inequality to the forefront of our national discussion, one would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of supporters for such a movement–our society doesn’t “do” long-term protests anymore. And yet, after two months of pushing back against a myriad of naysayers and hardships, such a movement is accomplishing at least some of their goals to a much greater extent than anyone could have predicted.

The most positive aspect of experimentation and making those risky decisions is that whether or not it works, the process through which one carries through the experiment is as important as any result that may occur. One cannot plan for success in any particular project, but simply throw oneself into any project with the same gusto and enthusiasm normally reserved for something “important” and more times than not it will bear fruit. To bring us full circle back to the contrabass trombone—a damn fine instrument, if I do say so myself—my piece seemed to have a very typical trajectory. I wrote it, the commissioner was pleased with it and gave a fine performance at the aforementioned conference. He went on with his career and I went on with mine…until this summer when I was collating videos as reference materials for my orchestration class. I looked up “contrabass trombone” and there was a clip on YouTube of the performer David Becker rehearsing the work before its premiere. That happy accident—David wasn’t even aware that the clip was put online—has resulted in over 10,000 views and e-mails from several performers around the world contacting me about the piece.

What stories do you have of risky or seemingly questionable decisions that have paid off?

3 thoughts on “The Road is Never Straight, Never Clear

  1. Daniel Wolf

    Is it really your impression that there’s a market disadvantage to writing solo works for instruments with less dedicated repertoire? While ensemble music may well favor the standard resources, it’s far from clear that the ordinary is an advantage for solo situations. It’s been my experience that we’re in an age in which the ostensibly marginal instruments happen to be thriving, the doubling instruments particularly so. Aside from the market saturation for concert opportunities on the most-exposed solo instruments, the sonic attractions — and shear fun for variety’s sake — of these instruments are obvious to players as well as composers. There are now virtusi now actively concertizing old and new repertoire on instruments traditionally marginal to the concert hall — the free reeds especially, but also tarogatos and mechanical organs —, on historical instruments — the natural horn, the recorder, and historical keyboards in historical tunings have particularly rich contemporary repertoire, as well as all the doubling instruments, from woodwinds alone: the entire family of flutes; oboes from piccolo to contrabass; clarinets of all sizes, including the extended range bassett horn and clarinet; tenoroons, and contrabassoons (and the extraordinary contraforte.) Experimental instruments are often a good opportunity for a composer: the Hutchins/Brant extended violin family is going through a renaissance and the idea of a composer being commissioned to write for a new instrument is not unusual (Douglas Leedy, for example, has written for several new tracker organs in particular historical tunings; Leedy and Ligeti wrote works for harpsichord in similar tuning environments.) The repertoire of new works for gamelan alone has already been the stuff of dissertations. And finally, don’t forget that the unconventual soloist + ensemble is a proven attraction to concert promoters, with a number of concerti for piccolo and contrabassoon of particular note.

    This is not to discount the notion of risk, a quality I have often championed in public, but risk is all about entertaining, with confidence, the possibility of failure (on whatever terms) and the choice of an underheard instrument doesn’t appear, at least currently, to create immediate risk while what you ask that instrument to do certainly might.

    Reply
    1. Rob Deemer

      Hi Daniel!

      Great comment, and a very appropriate critique. You are very much correct that it is much less risky to write a solo work for a rare instrument, since you can focus your marketing much more effectively. My point was more about the perceived risk that many feel about writing outside of the box, whether it be writing for odd instruments, using graphic notation, or other non-traditional aspects of composing. It’s something I have to deal with a lot as a teacher, balancing when to encourage a student to write something that doesn’t fit a traditional genre and when to suggest adjusting a work so that it can have a fruitful life after the premiere.

      Reply
  2. Shelby

    My story of questionable decision relates directly to yours, Rob. I, with the help of a few professors, convinced the University of Iowa to purchase a contrabass trombone for the trombone studio. Given that there is currently a low amount of literature for this instrument I didn’t think the proposal would go very far. It turns out that it went far enough and the horn should be here in a couple of weeks.
    I have been using the above mentioned youtube video to expose some composer friends to the sound of the contrabass without my actually having it yet and they love it. Speaking of, everyone that has heard it loves the piece itself also. I would love to get my hands on a copy.
    Thanks for posting this,
    Shelby

    Reply

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