Monday, 25 March 2013

Taming the Two-slide Trombone

A delegation from the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust recently visited the Horniman Museum to examine a very unusual trombone. The Trust ( promotes the development of orchestral instruments that can be played with just one hand, and this trombone has been adapted for just that purpose.

The instrument was invented by Eric McGavin, pictured above. McGavin was employed by Boosey & Hawkes from 1950 to 1970. He held a wide brief, overseeing the musical instrument museum at the company’s Edgware factory, playing an active part in instrument design, and leading a range of education programmes. This double-slide trombone benefited from all these fields of expertise. Another instrument in the Horniman collection, a double-slide contrabass trombone was part of the B&H collection that McGavin curated, and this may have provided an inspiration for his design. 
                                                                     McGavin’s trombone today.

The team assembled to examine the instrument included players, engineers and curators, and the morning was spent assessing McGavin’s solutions to the problems posed. The stand in the image above, which is probably a converted bassoon stand, does not survive, but from the photograph it is difficult to imagine how such an arrangement could be practical, given the forward and backward forces it would have to withstand. Frank Myers, who is the Director of MERU (, specialises in the design of equipment for use by disabled children. As soon as he saw the instrument he was coming up with his own ideas about how it could be harnessed and supported. So look out for his alternative design in the near future.

The trumpeter Alison Balsom was also present. She is an OHMI patron and has been advising on some of the brass instrument designs under consideration. 

Alison Balsom, Frank Myers, Stephen Hetherington (founder of OHMI) and Mimi Waitzman (Deputy Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman). 
                                                          Perfecting the one-handed trombone posture.

After our visitors had left, I couldn’t resist the chance to put the trombone through its paces. The 50-year-old slide was a bit creaky, and the double-slide arrangement only adds to the problem by increasing the resistance. Then there is the issue of the shortened slide positions. Anyway, excuses, excuses...I managed to get a tune out of it, just.

All images and sound recording copyright Horniman Museum. The OHMI report on the Horniman visit can be found at:

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Fretwork, Tabea Zimmermann, Benjamin, Goehr

Goehr: Three Sonnets and Two Fantasias (excerpts), Shadow of Night (excerpts), Sur terre, en l’air
Benjamin: Piano Figures, Viola, Viola, Upon Silence
Fretwork, Susan Bickley (mezzo), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Antoine Tamestit (viola), George Benjamin (piano, conductor), Wigmore Hall, London, 20.3.1013

George Benjamin is the toast of the town just now, with his Written on Skin, playing at Covent Garden, the most universally lauded new opera to hit the London stage since Britten. So the Wigmore Hall has made a savvy choice in programming a season of Benjamin’s music to run through the early months of 2013. This evening’s programme was a curious combination of works and performers, combing both Benjamin’s music with that of his former teacher, Alexander Goehr, and the talents of viol consort Fretwork with those of star violist Tabea Zimmermann. Viola and viols were never heard together, but the alternation of new and old strings had the effect of intensifying both the austere beauty of the viol sound and the plush roundness of the viola.
The first half was dominated by Goehr’s Three Sonnets and Two Fantasias, a work which, despite its scoring for viols and voice (Susan Bickley), and despite the Renaissance forms named in its title, takes an innovative approach to both the viol ensemble and Shakespeare, with only the vaguest hints at allusions to the music of the ancient past. Goehr fragments the consort, treating each player as a soloist and often reducing the texture to just one or two lines. His vocal writing seems to serve the instrumental invention rather than vice versa, so Bickley’s plain and direct tone suited the music well. Even so, the piece seemed more experimental than consummately crafted, especially when compared with Goehr’s other work for the same forces, Shadow of Night, excepts of which were heard in the second half. This later work takes a different approach to the ensemble, using tutti textures almost throughout and regularly engaging in imitative contrapuntal forms. Not that this sounds like pastiche either, but its more traditional use of the consort better exploits the instruments' ability to sing out their individual lines, even when in complex combinations.
Benjamin’s contributions to the first half consisted of his Piano Figures, which he performed himself, and Viola, Viola, which has deservedly become one of his most performed works. Piano Figures, the programme assures us, is suitable for children, something that cannot be said of Written on Skin. Benjamin takes up the challenge of writing technically undemanding pieces for piano, while still exploring the all the tone colours and textures that he would habitually seek to draw from the instrument. The result is a little imbalanced, with the simplicity of the musical material at odds with the sophistication of the treatment to which it is subject. Messiaen’s piano works are a continual presence, and come to the fore when Benjamin explores the upper registers is soft filigree textures. Given that he has spent most of the last two weeks in the pit at Royal Opera, he can be forgiven for not having kept up with his piano practice, and there were a few hesitations where the momentum was lost. He was also surprisingly firm in his touch, never trying to make his overtone textures sound more nebulous than their voicings allow. The same was true of Viola, Viola, performed by violists Tabea Zimmermann and Antoine Tamestit. The piece was written for the opening of the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, and Benjamin’s aim was to cast the violas against type, setting aside the instrument’s demure persona and instead asking them to fill this large hall with their tone. The bright, resonant acoustic of the Wigmore Hall proved another ideal sounding space for this brash and ostentatious work, although Zimmermann and Tamestit also ensured that Benjamin’s many subtle touches were also given their due.
The final Goehr work on the programme was Sur Terre, en l’air, for viola and piano, performed here by Zimmermann and Benjamin. The piece was written for Zimmermann but was also intended as a homage to Messiaen, with whom both Goehr and Benjamin studied. The music is generally direct and melodic, at least by Goehr’s standards, and references the string writing of Messiaen’s early years, the Violin Variations and the cello in the Quartet for the End of Time. A pleasant piece, but ultimately lacking in focus or direction.
The concert ended with the impressive Upon Silence by George Benjamin, scored, like the earlier Goehr works, for voice and viols. Benjamin’s approach to the consort is completely different to Goehr’s; he treats is as a unit from which to draw singular, although always multi-faceted, textures. He moves into extended performance techniques, with glissandos across natural harmonics and some ambitious double stoppings. His use of the voice (setting Yeats) is particularly inspired, always idiomatic but never falling back on conventions, and with new ideas and surprises at every turn. In all these respects, Upon Silence, is a clear precursor to Written on Skin, and many of the musical ideas upon which that extraordinary work is based can be heard in nascent form here. The piece is over 20 years old though, suggesting that the consummate soundworld of Benjamin’s new opera has been gradually refining in his mind for decades.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Us and Them

Modernist music has had a tough time recently on BBC television. In the space of just a few days, John Adams, Eric Whitacre and Howard Goodall were all given primetime slots to present their condescending dismissals of the Second Viennese School. Bizarrely, the narrow-minded prejudices conveyed by each were presented as if they were meaningful and useful ways of understanding this period of musical history. What could the BBC’s motivations possibly be? Some belated penance for the perceived excesses of William Glock perhaps? I’m hardly the first in the blogoshere to have taken issue with this programming, and both Tristan Jakob-Hoff and Gavin Plumley have taken the Beeb to task on the matter.
Gavin Plumley quotes Goodall as saying “This academic rebellion was later labelled serialism or atonality and it produced decades of scholarly hot air, books, debates and seminars and, in its purest strictest form, not one piece of music that a normal person could understand or enjoy in 100 years.” After pointing out that this short statement contains at least two factual errors, Plumley goes on to point out that Goodall is intent on endorsing a “them and us” mentality when it comes to the advocates of serialism and/or atonality, the two concepts conflated by Goodall and neither adequately defined.
Clearly, advocates of Modernist music need to take issue with this “us and them” dichotomy, yet the mindset is difficult to shake off. Given its relatively small audience, it is easy to assume that Modernist music appeals only to a certain sector of society. We may not openly endorse Goodall’s view that serialism (to narrow it down a little) appeals only to those who take a scholarly approach to music, or that a broader intellectual framework supports Modernist music than is required by any other style, yet the promotion of these works, and often lack thereof, suggests that even advocates share these assumptions.
I’m as guilty as anybody else in this respect (though I’m trying to change my ways). Last September, I was amused to read the comments under a piece by Tom Service about the lack of a classical contender among the Mercury Prize finalists. Most were pretty hostile to contemporary classical music. Here’s a sample: “...Classical music is dead and anyone writing in it now is just holding up a corpse waving round it's [sic.] rotted arms and legs, hoping we won't notice the smell.” Entertained by the vehemence and casual aggression of many of these comments, I began quoting them on Twitter, explaining that I found it “interesting to read what the outside world thinks of contemporary classical music...” I was taken to task, quite rightly, by @carlrosman about my assumptions and motivations. He pointed out the risk of talking about an ‘outside world’, a concept that is easily fetishised and unintentionally consolidated. Carl was kind enough to suggest that my assumptions were only symptoms of a broader trend, and the result of an inferiority complex permeating the whole classical music culture.
If we succumb to this thinking, then Modernist classical music is twice damned. Classical music is itself a minority concern, and liable to align itself with specific social and cultural contexts when on the defensive. Modernist music, so this assumption goes, is exclusive in its appeal to a subset that forms a small proportion of this already small group.
When all these assumptions are written down they start looking very silly, especially when we consider the number of organisations that are able to promote Modernist music based on other paradigms. Look, for example, at the success the London Sinfonietta has had in promoting the acoustic music of Stockhausen, Nono and Xenakis to audiences from the broader electronic music world, for whom these names have a different, yet no less important significance.
Although not quite as defamatory as Howard Goodall, the BBC’s recent series The Sound and the Fury has also been peddling the idea that Modernist music only appeals, indeed can only appeal, to a small and strictly defined audience. Worse still, the programme assumes that its own audience is made up exclusively of the other group, the ‘normal’ people. Tristan Jakob-Hoff is right that the programme is attempting to cordon off ‘difficult’ music and to apologise for its existence. The assumption seems to be that ‘normal’ people like tonal music, so the best way to engage them with the music of the 20th century is to show that tonal music has been written continuously throughout that period. As a result, Stravinsky and Minimalism take centre stage. But they too get misrepresented in the process, with the irony of Stravinsky’s tonal references brushed over, and the non-functional (in a tonal sense) nature of the diatonic language of much Minimalist music presented as if it were a return to some 18th-century ideal of melody and harmony.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no harm in acknowledging that styles of music often have natural constituencies, and even that tribal instincts often influence the music we champion. The danger comes in making assumptions about the kinds of people who don’t like a certain kind of music. For some reason, the BBC has been doing this a lot recently, repeatedly assuring its audiences that Modernist music is not for them.
And perhaps it isn’t for many of them, but generalising at this level has the effect of completely obliterating whatever possible audience Modernist music even could have. So when we read or hear views hostile to Modernist music, it is important to remember that they are not necessarily the opinions of the public at large. You can like this music and be ‘normal’ just as much as you can dislike it and still be ‘normal’. As is probably clear by now, Howard Goodall doesn’t speak for me. And despite his statements to the contrary, he doesn’t speak for anybody else either.