14 February 2009

Just Call Us "Other"

You can't make this stuff up...

From the Department of Poorly Written Program Notes, co-presented with the Department of Inadvertently Displayed Ignorance, and with promotional consideration provided by the Department of Midwestern Artsy-Fartsy Cuteness, I give you the blurb on George Benjamin's At First Light from the SPCO's "Program at a Glance," the condensed program notes that accompany the regular length program notes so that people who kind of care but kind of don't can learn something about the noise that is about to be foisted on them without taking too much time away from coughing and whispering to each other about how much they hate new music:

At First Light

This piece, written when Benjamin was 22, was inspired by Turner's painting
Norham Castle, Sunrise, an early precursor to impressionism. The music is itself a pastiche of gestures and abstractions. Fourteen musicians play more than 30 colorful instruments, including a bass trombone, whip, and a large newspaper.

Where to start? The appeal to age-based novelty is hardly uncommon, nor is the use of the term "gesture" as a backhanded compliment to a piece of new music, nor is the gratuitous use of an adjective such as "colorful" to distract listeners from the dissonance they're about to encounter. The crown jewel of this blurb, however, is the implication that the bass trombone is on par for novelty with a whip. A whip?!

It's true, I'm a low brass player myself, and hence a but biased, maybe even more than a bit insecure about our always tenuous status as "standard" members of the orchestra. That point aside, to categorize the bass trombone as novel is one thing, but to lump it in with whips and newspapers is completely absurd and ignorant. Not that I have anything against whips and newspapers (or rocks or sirens or bowed crotales...actually, I do have something against bowed crotales, but that story will have to wait for another time) being used as musical instruments, but I don't think its a stretch to say that the bass trombone has historically played a more significant role in the orchestra than they have.

In larger orchestras, the instrument is quite standardly used as the 3rd trombone, even if "bass" trombone was not specified by the composer. In case those of you who write program notes haven't ever actually been down to a concert since people got audacious enough to start sticking valves on trombones some several decades ago, this is because it sounds pretty damn close to a tenor trombone most of the time, and sounds even better in the lower registers by virtue of its larger bore, this despite being pitched in the same key as the tenor.

When one refers to a bass tuba, people are often curious as to how and why anyone would make a tuba that was even lower than normal, not realizing, of course, that the tubas they've seen and heard were, in most cases, contrabass tubas, and that bass tubas are actually smaller, not larger, than the instruments they're most familiar with. I suspect that, although the bass trombone is, in fact, larger than the the more commonly encountered tenor, the same dynamic is on display here, namely that the modifier is what catches people's attention first, along with the expectation that a bass version of an already low-pitched and heavily caricatured instrument must be something to behold. When this comes up in conversation with an avowed novice, I'm always happy to offer clarification, along with a good-natured, self-depricating low brass joke to help the medicine go down. When I read something like this in program notes supplied by a first-rate professional orchestra, the good-naturedness takes a hike. Writing program notes ought to consist of more than merely scanning the instrumentation for novelties, but when it must, a good handle on what exactly constitutes novelty in the first place is a must.

The poetic justice here? The trombonist played the entire part on his tenor (or, strictly speaking, "tenor-bass" trombone, a tenor trombone with one valve which lowers the pitch a perfect fourth, or less if the slide is out further at the time). Sorry, folks, you didn't get to hear bass trombone after all. If it's any consolation, at least you got to hear a nearly identical sound coming out of a nearly identical instrument, and at least the piece was actually written by a 22 year-old, albeit a 22 year-old who is now nearly 50. As for my consolation, I, probably alone, got to have a good chuckle at the status (or lack thereof) enjoyed by those of us who blow into big metal things that no one can name. It's not the first time, and I suspect it won't be the last.

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