Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sound identity

I have found myself listening to a large amount of brass ensemble literature lately, and have found myself more often then not disappointed by the overall sound of the group. When I think of different instruments, I think of different colours and timbres; I think of the different sound qualities joining together to play in harmony. The groups I have been listening to have for the most part been professional, so their tuning is for the most part on par, their intonation is good and they obviously know how to play. So what is it that leaves me wanting? I have been pondering this, unable to find words. Today, however, I was on one of my favorite brass ensembles' websites (The Washington Symphonic Brass) and found a quote of J. Reilly Lewis, music director Of the Cathedral Choral Society and The Washington Bach Consort, concerning the Washington Symphonic Brass: "Impeccable musicianship... Roundness and warmth of sound not often associated with brass ensembles." I believe this is very true. There are too few groups that have this roundness and warmth. The goal of an ensemble is to create a unified sound, but I believe this concept is being taken to an extreme. A French Horn is meant to sound like a French Horn, a 1st trumpet like a 1st trumpet, a trombone like a trombone, etc. when these individual colours come together, they are glorious. It gives me goosebumps nd brings tears to my eyes. On most of these recordings I have been hearing a French Horn that sounds like a trombone, a 2nd trumpet that sounds like a 1st trumpet. I believe even the two trumpets in a quintet need to bring to the table different colours. I have had the pleasure of playing as a sub and now member of the Baltimore Brass Quintet for many years and each time I play with them it is a treat. Now know why it is so different then most groups I have been in. Jeremy and Brian have been playing together for most of their lives. With one look they can switch parts and when they do their colour changes, the second part maintains a slightly darker sound that fits perfectly into a properly constructed sound pyramid. They also instinctively know that there are exceptions to this rule. When a melody passes from trumpet to trumpet, they sound like the same player. With the Horn player sounding like a trombone, the colour of the horn is missing from the whole and the sound pyramid is skewed, with the lower bass voices being more powerful and there being no middle portion of the pyramid. If the horn player sounds like a trombone, there are two sound pyramids essentially and two groups (two trumpets in one group, and horn, trombone, and tuba in the other) playing the same music at the same time. Perhaps the answer is to work at maintaining a solid sound pyramid while focusing to unify pitch, intonation, dynamic intensity, etc. Brass ensembles have such potential to be enjoyable and intense in their uniqueness. They say in relationships, each person needs to maintain their own individual identity; maybe musicians should do the same. Bringing their own traits and personalities as well as unique timbres of their instruments to a group, while maintaining a professional level of musical integrity would not only shake things up and open worlds for the musicians, but the listeners as well!

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