09/18/07

Festival of New Trumpet Music

This was the first of two evenings of music curated and conducted by former Metropolitan Opera Orchestra trumpeter Mark Gould as part of the Festival of New Trumpet Music. In his opening remarks, Gould explained that his goal was to combine classical music with improvisation.

The real draw for the night was the U.S. premiere of Dave Douglas’ "Blue Latitudes" (Douglas is pictured), an hour-long piece for orchestra and jazz trio based on the exploits of doomed 18th-century explorer Captain James Cook. That work more than met expectations, proving a deep and revelatory musical experience, but the first half of the concert offered two shorter compositions, quite different but both engaging.

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Suzannah P. Kincannon

Dave Douglas

The evening began with Mark Applebaum’s "Magnetic North," featuring trumpeter Peter Evans with the Meridian Arts Ensemble: two trumpets, French horn, trombone, tuba and percussion. In his program notes, the composer wrote that his piece “aspires—with enthusiasm, vigor, absurdity and maybe even belligerence—to remind us that there are many ways to make music.” It was a playful composition and performance, full of sudden brass swells and squeaks, group vocalizations such as coughs, counting, lip smacks and tongue clicks, as well as foot stomps and the subtle percussive delights of slapped balloons and dropped ping-pong balls. However, the real treat was watching Evans, playing both trumpet and piccolo trumpet, grind his way through the piece with a battery of acoustic effects ranging from something like the hum of a vintage tube amp to a sound like a chainsaw cutting through sheet metal.

Huang Ruo’s "Give You Some Color See See" was commissioned by Gould to be a work called "Trumpets in the Time of War." Ruo replaced the title with a “Chinglish” phrase that means something like “give you a punch.” The piece was startling, eerie and beautiful, with Ruo onstage providing wordless vocals along with the New York Trumpet Ensemble, which included three trumpets (Gould and Evans among them), bass trombone, bass and percussion. Only about 10 minutes long, the composition was characterized by droning trumpets, spare percussion, keening vocals and low-bowed bass. Sounding like an acid trip in a haunted desert mosque, with the trumpets and vocals both at times like calls to prayer or funereal wailing, it was hard not to think of the piece by the commissioned title. The music suggested wind in the desert, emptiness, terror and, finally, death, ending with a good 10 seconds of charged silence as the composer and ensemble stood still before relaxing to enthusiastic applause.

In comparison to the first half, Dave Douglas’ "Blue Latitudes" seemed almost conservative, coming across, despite the inclusion of a free-jazz trio, as a basically straight-forward hour-long classical composition that used nimble score and wide-ranging improvisation to create a sense of grandeur and timelessness. Performed by Douglas, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerald Cleaver onstage with a 17-piece orchestra, the piece was a sublime, Whitman-esque yawp that brought Cook’s exploits to life as a lonely, heroic and beautiful journey, implying along the way that the act of artistic creation was a similar exploration.

The orchestral writing recalled the sounds and romantic spirit of classic modernism—Ives, Stravinsky, Shostakovich—as well as the collaborations of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, melodic music with an abstract edge, a surprisingly ideal platform for free improvisation. The trio’s playing at times was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman, but there were many moments of written exchange and overlap, particularly between Cleaver and the orchestra percussionist. The nine different sections—“Guided by Stars,” “Life at Sea,” “Sailing on Ice,” “Fatal Impact” and others—created a story arc that ranged from heroic to humorous.

Among the highlights were the sections that featured the individual improvisers. While Douglas spent large segments of the night standing to one side cradling his trumpet, when he played he drew on the whole trumpet tradition, from Harmon-muted, moody intensity, to skittish abstract sound making, to horn-held-high exclamation. One exciting section found Dresser windmilling his arm like Pete Townshend to rip out the first two beats of the measure behind Douglas’ soaring horn. Dresser’s rumbling pizzicato beneath the orchestra and bowed solos and Cleaver’s work throughout were a delight.

"Blue Latitudes" has yet to be recorded for commercial release, and even if it comes out on CD might be the kind of work that never finds a wide audience, but it is a masterpiece, an old-fashioned, mind-expanding, heart-quickening you-alone-under-the-immense-night-sky kind of experience. If there was a musical thread connecting all three pieces it was a drone, an abstract, slowly changing, shivering sound that suggests empty spaces and lost communications. It was in Peter Evans’ trumpet playing, in the trumpets and vocals of Ruo’s piece, and in Dresser’s bowed bass solos. It is perhaps the sound of the times we live in, the draft on the back of the neck, the late-night anxiety and melancholy of artists working in a crumbling empire.

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