Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Didjeridoo

The didjeridoo has been used for 1,500 years by the indigenous peoples of Australia, although the instrument's exact age is unknown. It is made of wood, but anyone would classifying this as a 'brass' instrument, requiring a buzz to play. Today's didjeridoo's are 1 - 4 ft. long, some made from cheap plastic pipe.

The didjeridoo, during typical play, is meant to sustain a drone for long amounts of time, up to 30-40 minutes. Players of the instrument use circular breathing to sustain for this long. One recording (Mark Atkins playing the Didjeridoo Concerto) has the didjerido playing continuously for 50 minutes. The instrument can achieve also timbral effects by use of multiphonics.

The Mariachi Tradition

Mariachi bands have been a mainstay in Mexican culture for hundreds of years. It has become emblematic of Mexican music by being some of the first music on Mexican radio and film, and by creating some of the regional song forms of the country. Typically a Mariachi band uses violins, trumpets, and guitars (including a low-pitched guitar, a guitarron, and a high-pitched one, a vihuela).

The mariachi style actually has many stylized song forms, analogous to Baroque and Renaissance dance forms. 2/4 song forms include Cancion ranchera, Corrido, Polka, and Pasodoble, and 3/4 forms include Valses mexicanos, Son Jaliscience, and Huapango.

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is certainly worth mentioning as far as ethnic brass ensembles. Using a New Orleans-style instrumentation, hip-hop/funk influence, and colorful, jazz-influenced harmonies, this band has risen to international fame. It is a 9-piece ensemble, eight of them brothers of the same father, coming out of the south side of Chicago.

The HBE started out playing small gigs in Chicago, including at subway stations. They decided on their name when a man in a suit at the subway watched them for hours, missing train after train. Afterwards he came up to them and said "You guys just hypnotized me."

The British-style Brass Band

Another type of ensemble is the British brass band, whose instrumentation and style has been used and elaborated upon by many nations (including Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Australia, Canada, the U.S., and even Latin America). The modern form of this brass band type in England dates back to the 19th century. The Stalybridge Old Band is of this style, and was founded in 1803 (may be the oldest civilian band).

The instrumentation of such groups is: a soprano cornet, 9 cornets, a flugelhorn, 3 tenor horns, 2 baritones, 2 tenor trombones, a bass trombone, 2 euphoniums, 2-4 tubas, and percussion.

Many big-name composers have written pieces for this instrumentation, including Malcolm Arnold, Artur Bliss, Elgar, Holst, Joseph Horovitz, and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Mehter - oldest type of marching band

When looking into Balkan brass bands, I read of their original influences from Mehter, an old ensemble type and musical genre from the Ottoman Empire. First appearing in the 13th century, these large ensembles of brass and percussion were military musicians (soldiers called janissaries) who entertained sultans and royalty in what is today Turkey and the upper middle-east. These ensembles and their musical style continued to be played for centuries, and actually influenced Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart during the Turkish music fad of the Classical era (ex. Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca).

Today, the country of Turkey still has a military brass band that plays music of the Mehter as a matter of ceremony. It is regarded as a reminder of Turkey's historical past.

(representation of a Mehter band, called a mehterân)

Balkan Brass Bands

This is a style originating from Eastern Europe, when trumpeters in the Serbian military in the 19th century transcribed folk songs to boost morale. It's key regions of popularity and influence are Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. It was common for a town to have a band in these areas to play at gatherings, ceremonies, and festivals such as births, baptisms, weddings, state and church festivals, funerals, and even harvesting, reaping crops.

Many of the brass instruments used today in these bands are off the beaten path, such as flugelhorn, alto horns, helicons, and tenor horns. Included are also trumpets, euphoniums, baritones, tubas, and sometimes trombones.

Some notable groups include the Kocani Orkestar I spoke of in a previous blog, and the Boban Marković Orkestar, founded and led by the greatest trumpeter to come out of the Balkans.

The Dance Forms

During my listening presentation we heard some old dance forms from the Baroque and Renaissance. It would be important to know which forms are which, for they each have their own meters, tempi, and affects. Many of us are familiar with the Baroque forms like the sarabande or the gigue, but what about the stylized dances of the Renaissance? Both eras today.

Bassadance - slow, stately dance, in a combination of 6/4 and 3/2 time (allowing for hemiola).
Pavane - slow processional dance, duple meter.

Allemande - duple meter and moderate tempo. Grave and ceremonious.

Galliarde - lively dance in 6/4. The dance itself is characterized by leaps and hops.

Courante - lively dance in 3/2 or 6/4. Courante literaly means 'running.'

Canario - fast in tempo, in 3/8 or 6/8. Named after the Canary Islands from the dance's origin.

Bouree - quick dance, duple meter. The Bouree starts on the last beat of the bar, giving the music an off-set feel for performers.

Gavotte - 4/4 or 2/2, moderate tempo. Phrases begin in the middle of the bar (instead of the last beat like the Bouree).

Gigue - lively dance in compound meter, originating from the English jig.

Minuet - in 3/4 time. Style and tempo may vary.

Passapied - fast tempo, triple meter. Phrases begin on the upbeat to the bar.

Rigaudon - a lively folk dance for couples in duple meter, uses hopping steps.

Sarabande - slow, serious dance in triple meter.

Additional style terms:
Passamezzo - not actually a dance per se, but a particular chord progression used in Renaissance music. There are two 'passamezzo' chord progressions, one antico (i-VII-i-V) and one moderno (I-IV-I-V).

Scherzo - thought I'd throw this one in here. This style began as Beethoven's version of the Classical minuet. Fast triple meter, often energetic, comedic, or rambunctious.

The Dirty Dozen

The main theme for my blogs has been "ethnic" brass bands that represent a style hailing from a certain part of the world. I forgot this could include America. The famous Dirty Dozen revolutionized the "New Orleans" brass band style, forming in 1977 and taking hip-hop and funk influences into their music.

The rehearsals in their early years were not geared towards gigs. People were just interested in learning the chord progressions and players brought in anything they wanted for the group to read. This relaxed atmosphere fostered the funk influences, and led them to play lots of jaz standards many light-hearted pieces such as the Flintstones theme.

The Dirty Dozen sparked a resurgence of interest in New Orleans style brass bands, and inspired the creation of bands such as Youngblood Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band.

"My Feet Can't Fail Me Now"
"I Shall Not Be Moved"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Arkady and the Alphorn

Arkady Shilkloper is not a member of a brass ensemble, he's more of a one-man show. He is a Russian horn player who took up the alphorn and is kind of amazing on it. Arkady is a virtuosic improviser on the instrument, often soloing with chamber orchestras, looping over himself, or simply playing alone. He loves the funk idiom, as the harmonic series on the instrument (lydian/mixolydian; major scale with sharp-4 and flat-7) serves funk harmonies well.

Jeff Agrell, with his interest in improv, has taken some influence from Shilkloper, advocating what he calls the "daily Arkady." This means to simply pick the horn and make things up constantly for five minutes, to see what comes out. Arkady said this method helped him learn to improvise. Here are some videos for your listening pleasure.

Arkady w/ chamber orchestra playing funk.
Arkady improvising alone.
More improvising alone (longer).

Mexican Banda Music

At the center of the pop music world in Mexico is a style of brass music called Banda. Although first seen in the 1880's, banda music exploded into Mexican pop music in the 1990's. The instrumentation uses brass, woodwinds, and percussion: sousaphones, trombones, trumpets, Latin percussion, and clarinet/saxophones.

Banda el Recodo is a very famous group today that plays in this style. It is remarkable that this group has been around since 1938 and is STILL in the pop scene today. That kind of longevity is the opposite of American pop. The ensemble consists of four clarinets, three trumpets, Latin percussion, a sousaphone, three trombones, and three singers.

Venezuelan Brass Ensemble - Gran Fanfaria

This is a large brass ensemble (37 brass, 6 percussionists) hailing from Venezuela. They perform in concert settings, covering all styles, including Latin, classical, and jazz. This exciting video shows those three styles, and at the end, they all stand and wildly play "I've Got Rhythm" to the delight of the audience. What a show!

The Venezuelan Brass Ensemble was formed in 2003 from Venezuela's state youth orchestra system, so they are interestingly a state-sponsored group. They got their foot into the international scene in 2007 playing at the BBC Proms, and since then they have been playing all over Europe.

The Music of William Boyce

During my listening presentation we heard the Canadian Brass play a suite by William Boyce. This piece was on the same album as such standards as Scheidt's Galliard Battaglia, Mouret's Rondeau, and Bach's Air on the G String, so the presence of Boyce's music should come as a relief to well-listened brass players who are looking for something different.

Boyce is little-known to most people, but according to Grove, he was "the most technically accomplished and versatile English composer of the 18th century." Much of his fame came from his eight short symphonies that were originally written as introductions to theater pieces. Boyce was an admirer of Handel.

Here is a link to the first movement of his First Symphony in D.

Praetorius in the Brass World

Michael Praetorius (pictured right) is mostly known for his collection of folk/secular instrumental Renaissance dances called Terpsichore. Terpischore is the name of one of the nine muses of Greek mythology, the one associated with dance. He did not write the melodies in these piece but did arrange them for wind instruments; the counterpoint/voicing is his own.

Praetorius collaborated with the violinist/composer Caroubel, who was responsible for some 82 dances in Terpsichore. These dances were from the French tradition, and based off of pre-existing melodies.

I love these pieces. I've heard some of these dances since I was young, and like the innocent and light feel to them. I think it's good every once in a while to listen to music that isn't super-serious. It can be oppressive to listen to music out of a sense of duty or self-improvement.

During my listening presentation, we heard 2 "dance suites" arranged for the St. Louis Brass Quintet by the trumpeter, Allan Dean.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Listening on April 13

I brought in much arranged brass quintet music, from many different time periods. Arrangements from other ensemble types can open up your brain to different styles and types of writing. Although these pieces aren't meant for a brass ensemble to play them, a good ensemble is challenged to make the music speak as it was intended, and in this way arranged pieces can be a musical muscle-stretcher for the players. Some arranged music such as the Nutcracker and Carmen are great for engaging the audience. It's always fun for people, especially lay-people, to hear tunes they recognize, and a transcribed piece may be the only way to do that.

Listenings included:

St. Louis Brass
Praetorius - 2 "dance suites" from Terpsichore
Hindemith - Four Madrigals
Scheidt - Passamezzo variations

Bizet - Carmen excerpts
Tchaikovsky - Nutcracker March

Canadian Brass
Boyce Suite