Monday, September 20, 2010

Across the Desert, for Trombone and Orchestra

A little over nine years ago, I wrote a trombone concerto. I guess it's more of a concertino since it's just one movement. In late spring of 2001 my high school orchestra played it with me on trombone and made a recording (Thanks, dad!). Recently I was informed that the recording ended up on an internet download site (Thanks, mom!). I'm posting it here so you folks out there can listen to it.

Bear in mind, though that (a) this is a high school orchestra and (b) we only had a few weeks of rehearsal.

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Each spring the school orchestra had a "concerto competition" to perform a movement of a concerto in the end-of year concert. I wrote this for that, but the conductor didn't think the orchestra would be able to play the weird time signatures, so we worked on it during the last few rehearsals after the concert instead.

I started thinking about modes, because I was in a jazz group whose instructor really liked Kind of Blue-era modal jazz, and I came up with a non-diatonic mode that's like major but with a flat two and a flat six. This means you have two augmented seconds in the scale, which are common in middle eastern music. Hence the title "Across the Desert".

I later learned that this mode is called the "Double harmonic scale" and also goes by the name of the "Arabic scale" and the "Byzantine scale". It's also closely related to the Freygish mode in klezmer music, (it's the same scale but with a leading tone).

I then set out to write a piece of classical music in this mode that satisfied all of the voice-leading rules I was taught in music theory. There's even a cannon. The result is something that in no way resembles the music on Kind of Blue.

In common practice classical music, it is typical to have a middle section that's in a related key. For instance if the piece starts out in minor, it would switch into the relative major in the middle. Since the Double harmonic scale sounds like a distorted major, I looked for the related mode that sounded most like a distorted minor. You can get this by starting at the four. That mode is like harmonic minor with a sharp four.

Once again, I didn't know it at the time, but that scale also has a name: the Hungarian Gypsy scale. So the piece starts out in the key of D modified Freygish, with a middle section in G Hungarian Gypsy. Got that?

The middle section is a slower chorale bit in 5:4 with some weird triplet stuff. Listening to the recording now, I think that was the part that needed the most rehearsing, but it's still kind of neat.

In concertos there is typically a cadenza, a part where the solo instrument plays unaccompanied semi-improvisationally and gets to show off a bit. Since my following of classical voice-leading rules diminished the jazz aspect that originally got me looking at the modes, I decided to tie the cadenza into a jazz-style improvisation over a chord progression played by the orchestra. To do this I shamelessly copied the chord progression of a Leonard Cohen song and altered it to fit the Hungarian Gypsy mode I was playing in. To keep a sense of mystery, I won't tell you what Leonard Cohen song it was, but you can feel free to guess.

And after the cadenza it goes back to the main theme and into a rousing finale. Hope you all enjoy it.

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