Thursday, April 13, 2017

Eastern Iowa Brass Band

Eastern Iowa Brass Band
Arfon Owen-Tenor Horn Soloist

I wanted to return to the United States and give a plug for the Brass Band that is essentially in my own back yard.  The Eastern Iowa Brass Band rehearses in Mt. Vernon, IA, but they perform in Cedar Rapids, West Branch, Davenport, Des Moines, and at North American Brass Band Association events from time to time.

I have been acquainted with a lot of the performers in this group over the years.  A couple of them have even performed in the same ensembles as I, but that is par for the course around NE Iowa and NW Illinois.  There was a time I even received a call from a member trying to recruit me for an open tuba spot back in 2004 or 2005.  Two hour drives on US 30 did not sound like a good idea to me.  I was already traveling nearly two hours to play in the Rockford Wind Ensemble at that time.  

I have had the pleasure of hearing the band play at the Iowa Bandmaster's Convention in Des Moines and at an event in Davenport many years ago.  They work hard and they take their musical craft seriously.  I also like that they play outdoors for patriotic events at the Hoover Presidential Museum in West Branch.  The video above is from their most recent concert.  The selection is Slavische Fantasie and the soloist is Arfon Owen who visited my class last month.  The EIBB schedule is here:   You can also find more information about these Iowa musical ambassadors there beyond when they are performing.   Please enjoy this performance of the Eastern Iowa Brass Band!!!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Listening Party Part Deux

Our professor, John Manning, was on the East Coast this week performing and giving masterclasses, so the students of Advanced Brass Literature, had another listening party.  

The first selection was an arrangement of Fugue in D Minor by Bach for Horn Quartet.  This performance by the Budapest Horn Quartet is simply outstanding.  

Our second selection was from the pen of Benjamin Blasko.  Victory Fanfare is for Trumpet Ensemble and Concert Band.  Tromba Mundi and the US Navy Band provide the performance in this video.

The selection that I brought to the party is the Divertimento for Brass and Percussion by the late Karel Husa.  This work is scored for three trumpets, four horns, three trombones, tuba, and two percussionists.  Husa scored this for brass quintet, and John Boyd arranged it for concert band.  Husa passed away on December 14, 2016 at the age of 95.  I was blessed to have been one of his assistants for the Contemporary Music Symposium at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1989.  I have never met a kinder man than Karel Husa.  

Our fourth selection was from the pen of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.  The Clarino Quartet for trumpet ensemble is scored for piccolo trumpet, e-flat trumpet, and two C trumpets.  This is the first movement of the work.

The next selection is brass ensemble by John Williams.  Quidditch from the Harry Potter film series is score for three trumpets, four horns, and three trombones.  

Our final selection was Alec Wilder's Jazz Suite for Four Horns, Harpsichord, Bass and Drums.  I have played several tuba works by Alec Wilder in my undergraduate years.  His music is creative, diverse, and amusing at times.  This is the first movement from the suite, Horns O'Plenty.  

I hope you enjoy these diverse selections from our class.  I think we covered a lot of territory musically in our party.   

Monday, April 3, 2017

Vivo Montana (Bulgaria)

Vivo Montana
Several years ago I was introduced to the musical genre Chalga.  Chalga is a type of popular folk or dance music prominent in Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries.  The music is unique mix of Western electronic dance music, folk music, and other influences.  I was in research class for my Master's program when we listened to several Bulgarian folk and popular musical selections.  One of the artists we listened to is Azis.  Azis is a gender fluid Chalga artist.  His music and music videos were a little shocking to me at first, but I quickly became accustomed to the fusion of musical styles and the gender fluidity of his video persona.  Here is a glimpse of Azis.  
Vivo Montana is a brass band made up of young men that play popular music of Bulgaria on Brass Instruments.  The clip at the top of this post has a similar style to Azis' music, but the acoustic brass elements are less processed and sound less clean musically.  However, the energy is still there.  The men play trumpets, baritones, trombones, tuba (sousaphone) and percussion.  Vivo Montana, hail from the city of Montana, Bulgaria in the Northwest section of the country.  These young men attended a math and science high school together and organized their band with the help of their music teacher.  The band has appeared on Bulgaria's Got Talent and other television shows.  The group has their own web page with dozens of performances in video and Soundcloud audio.

I find their performances to be enjoyable and full of energy.  I would not say they are polished in a professional sense, but that is where the charm begins.  The performances are edgy and at times dangerous.  My embouchure is screaming at me watching all of the choreography and movement.  You can see the joy on their faces.  The music is just a portion of the entertainment package, just as Asiz uses video and imagery to enhance the music.  No, I do not expect you like the music, nor the performers, but I encourage you to step out of the box and just experience this style of performance.  I feel their work is important historically.  In 1991 when the iron curtain fell, Western influence, poured in.  This music is a product of that cultural revolution in Eastern Europe.  There is validity and a humanness to this product that I find intriguing artistically.  My life in the United States has been rather tame artistically.  Imagine if we lifted all kinds of societal restrictions and cultural assimilation tactics from the States.  What could we accomplish artistically or musically?  Look at Bulgaria!  Vivo Montana and Asiz are obviously celebrating their freedom to pursue music in a personal way.  Now I wait for America's Got Talent to have all manner of ensembles hit the stage......

Friday, March 31, 2017

Belgium (Brass Band Buizingen)

Brass Band Buizingen
Brass Band Buizingen is a championship caliber brass band from Halle, Belgium.  They are the cultural ambassadors of Flanders.  The band originated out of a fanfare band from a local porcelain factory in 1879, but the current brass band was founded in 1975.

The current band has won the Belgian and European championships.  The video above is from the 2014 Belgian championships.  This selection is Electra by Martin Ellerby.  The group has worked with many fine soloists, and has recorded several discs of music.  The most familiar name on their soloist roster, for me anyway, is euphonium virtuoso Steven Mead.  I grew up in Professor Brian Bowman's neighborhood so I have a bias for euphonium and tuba soloists.  

This particular group appears to have grown from humble community origins to professional ranks.  I am not sure of the vocations of many of the musicians, but the organization has corporate and private sponsorships available.  It is very possible that the band operates much like a small or mid-sized American orchestra based on the level of advertisements, recording information, and perceived business model.  I wonder if there is government support here too, since they are cultural ambassadors?  

Electra is a test piece written in 2012.  It is one of over 20 original works that Ellerby has written for Brass Band.  He has also written for orchestra, concert band, choir, and chamber ensembles as well.  His Euphonium Concerto is quite stunning, but that is my bias opinion.  Two works that have received some attention here in the States from the concert band world are:  Paris Sketches and Elgar Variations (brass band transcription.)  His fellow countrymen Philip Sparke and Adam Gorb have both received more attention in the States than he has when it comes to concert band music.  I feel, it may have to do with accessibility of performance by our academic ensembles.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Special Post on Elliot Carter and Dmitri Tymoczko

Special Post (New or Newer Music)

In our Brass Literature class this morning, 3-27-17, we listened to Elliott Carter's Brass Quintet, and Dmitri Tymoczko's Rube Goldberg Variations.  Carter's work dates from 1974 and it was written for the American Brass Quintet.  The instrumentation is two trumpets, horn, tenor and bass trombone.  Tymoczko's work from 2014 was written for Proemium Metals a brass quintet from Granada, Spain. The instrumentation for this work is two trumpets, horn, tenor trombone, tuba, and prepared piano.

Our professor, John Manning, has asked us to explore the following questions with these two works.
  1.  What is the overall affect of the piece? How does it make you feel? How does the composer achieve that?
  2. List three remarkable or noteable aspects of the piece. Include measure numbers or rehearsal numbers or letters and explain your answer.
  3. Comment on the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic language used. What are some of the challenges presented in the performances of this work created by these languages?
  4. Finally, compare and contrast both works. What are their similarities? What are their differences?
I will begin with the Carter:

The Carter composition's effect strikes me as conversation between the full ensemble and duo's, trio's, and one solo (the horn about 3/5's of the way through the piece.)  Each small ensemble section explores a particular interval or color combination, while the quodlibet sections for the whole ensemble focus on an emotion.  In my rudimentary examination there are ten small ensembles, one solo, six quodlibets, and a Coda in his formal plan.  Each quodlibet is followed by two small ensemble sections except for the sixth.  The sixth is followed by a duo before the Coda.  The formal structure and the motivic development of the work enable the composition to maintain cohesion despite the atonality nature. 

This composition makes me feel unsettled and uncomfortable.  This is difficult, dense, and cerebral music.  The process of the composition is more interesting to me, than the sound.  I find this is the case with most difficult music for me.  I imagine if I listen to the piece a dozen or so times, and analyze the motives, the metric modulations, the pitch rows, and the organization of timbre it will become easier to process and less uncomfortable to listen to.  If I had to perform this work, I would be extremely intimidated and unlikely to have success.  

The three characteristics of the work that I feel are notable were the solo horn at measure 236, the final duo at 388-395, and the ending tremolo.  The tritone is developed in the solo horn.  The writing is expressive, and since it is the only monophonic section of the piece the listener is able to identify with the line more easily.  The minor seventh is developed by the final duo.  The use of this interval in half diminished chords and as a melodic device in many works always captures my interest.  The final tremolo shimmers between a two fully diminished seventh chords, but there is a major ninth added to the first chord in the bass trombone.  This added color provides ambiguity.  Are we done?  Or is there more to this conversation then meets the eye?  I'm not sure yet.  Check back with me in a year or two.

The performance challenges of the Carter start at measure one and end at measure 400.  There is so much detail to consider.  The metric markings are exact.  One section is marked at 53.3 beats per minute.  The dotted eighth is used as a metric pulse rather than the eighth note.  He has nearly a dozen different time signatures.  The vertical alignment will require a conductor in early rehearsals, or at least a metronome.  The individual lines are all difficult to play.  The interval development is sometimes compounded by cold attacks in extreme registers or by extending the interval an extra octave.  Once you add polyphonic rhythms to equation, how does the performer maintain a sense of line or concept of the whole?  I feel as if I am trying to have a conversation on the nuance string theory with physicist, while looking at the score.

The Tymoczko is a different piece altogether.  You may find a link to the recording here:  The four movements are To a Leaf, Stravinsky Fountain, Homage, and Father Makes the World.  

The goal of this work appears to be a musical rendition of a machine that can do something simple in the most complex way imaginable.  Rube Goldberg was an inventor and cartoonist who created complex machines for simple tasks.  The piece seems full of tongue in cheek humor, but delivered in a very serious context. That is the impression the composition leaves with me.  Tymoczko creates this effect through the change of metrical rhythm and timbre.  The piano is key to holding the composition together.  The brass are the little tools in the chain, while the piano is the machine itself propelling everything.

The three sections that I feel are notable are the tempo marking of the second movement (Whole Note=80,)  the lack of cadence for the entire work (very machine like,)  and the use of polyrhythm to portray the different aspects of the machine's movement.  I think of these devices as part of a musical sculpture.  

Rhythm and timbre are very important driving forces behind the work.  Melody and harmony are not present.  Musical motives derived from pitch and rhythm represent different functions of the machine.  The piano provides multiple sound effects, or moving parts generating the energy for the brass quintet to add to the landscape.  It is an unique sound experience.  Performance challenges include, the preparation of the piano, and alignment of rhythm.  The parts by themselves (beyond the piano) are quite playable technically.  The placement of the rhythm is the most challenging.  The prepared piano will make it difficult to feel a rhythm, so one must be cognizant of the meter at all times.

The Carter is a piece of abstract absolute music.  The process of attaching the eleven intervals through development are key to the design.  The piece is conceptual, through process.  It is hard to process the individual events as music, without understanding the conceptual framework.  The more homework you do studying the music the more understandable it becomes as a soundscape.  The Tymoczko is a musical sculpture.  The sounds and form are a Rube Goldberg machine.  You are hearing an interpretation of the machine in the design and placement of notes from the composer.  Both works must be listened to from the distance to capture the nature and scope of the artistry.  Both works are process pieces that require more than a superficial listening to grasp the work.  I am still working on the Carter, and I probably will be for a long time.  

As I conclude this installment I want to provide an analogy.  In Millennium Park in Chicago there is a sculpture that we call "The Bean" in Illinois.  The proper name is Cloud Gate. This reflective sculpture captures the skyline of Chicago, but when you first examine it, it is easy to laugh at your distorted reflection.  You as the viewer are looking too closely at the minute detail that you are unable see the broader picture or purpose of the sculpture.  When you look at "The Bean" from afar you are then able to appreciate the artistry before you.  The image is never the same as the sky is always changing.  Both of these musical pieces are very much like "The Bean."  When I listen to them as a performer, I get bogged down and lost in the minute detail.  When I start to listen from afar the image or sculpture becomes clearer.  Here is where the artistry of these two contemporary works lie.  I am not sure how far I need to be from the Carter in order to truly appreciate it, but I know that one day I will feel more comfortable with the piece.  Go for a walk and then look back.  I hope you begin to hear or see what I am perceiving.  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Austria Loves their Brass music

Mnozil Brass

In 1993 the professional brass septet Mnozil Brass began there travels across Austria and Europe.  I first became aware of them in around 2011 when their you tube video of Lonely Boy went viral.  They are performing in the States this year.  Late this month they will be in Wisconsin visiting Lawrence University, U-W Madison, and U-W Lacrosse.  Ticket prices run between $25 and $50.  Unfortunately these are school nights.  

I have enjoyed their videos on the net, but the brass band tradition in Austria is pretty strong as well.  I found a list of seven active bands in Austria.  The first one I have selected to share with you is the Austrian Brass Band.  This band is a championship band according to this website.

I chose this group for this unique video from the perspective of the set drummer.  This is a fun arrangement of the Toccata in D minor by Bach.

If you ever wondered what life was like in the back of the band, well now you know.  This group appears to have been around since 2001.  They do have an active website, and I wish I could read German.  The group has only appeared in the championship section of competition since 2013, so this group is still developing.  

Last but least we have Brass Band Oberösterreich.   This band won the championship in 2016.  This performance is Call of the Cossacks as arranged by Peter Graham.  

Three unique ensembles in the heart of Europe providing great music to their patrons in a most entertaining way.  I hope you found this musical trip enjoyable.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Golden Hymn Brass Band
Many years ago I used to travel all around the Midwest to attend Drum Corps International marching competitions.  In 2000 I attended the Drum Corps International Finals at the University of Maryland. I recently remembered that experience.  It was also the first time that I experienced world politics while attending a music event.  Taiwan is not officially recognized as a country by the United States.  Taipei Yuehfu from Taipei, Taiwan participated in the DCI Championships that year.  They earned the international championship trophy and this earned them the right to perform their show in exhibition before the Division one (now World Class) finals.  Unfortunately, they had to perform before the official start of the event, since the "Commandant's Own" Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps was playing the Canadian and American national anthem.  If Taipei Yuehfu were to perform after the playing of the national anthems it would be a foreign relations faux pas, as this would signify that Taiwan was a recognized nation on American soil.

This memory made me curious.  If Taiwan had a drum and bugle corps, could they have a brass band?  The answer is yes!  The Golden Hymn Brass Band from Taipei is featured above playing Music of Spheres by Philip Sparke.  Music of Spheres was written in 2004 and it is a professional level work.  Sparke also arranged this score for concert band.  You kind find out more about the work here:

The Golden Hymn Brass Band does have a Facebook page and they are active.  I do not read Hokkien, so all I am able to derive from the page is their performance schedule.  The performance of the work is not bad considering the difficulty.  The solo passages are played well.  I do wonder.  Are there any members in this group that marched with Taipei Yeuhfu back in 2000?  I hope so, music is a lifelong activity.