Recital this Friday: Windows and more

Tia Wortham and me, Stan Curtis

This Friday at 8:00 p.m., EST, at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, I will present a recital with some friends–Tia Wortham, a fabulous soprano, Dr. Ben Keseley, the music director of St. George’s, and Dr. Ina Mirtcheva Blevins, an amazing pianist who is my colleague at George Mason University.

In addition to some unaccompanied pieces for trumpet–“Where are the rests!?!”–and an aria for soprano by Paul Hindemith, we will play three of my own compositions.

For more than 10 years now, I have been composing pieces based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. This summer, my efforts have culminated with a recording project in the nave of St. George’s, where I have been collaborating with some of my close music colleagues to record five of these compositions, each of which relate to the themes and artwork of the windows. The particular themes for these five are the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. Sunlight, streaming through St. George’s windows, breaks into a prismatic rainbow, and for this reason, I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” Refraction, referring to the bending of light, such as in a prism, also speaks of my spiritual path, which has bent, and changed directions, finding me where I have been when I came to St. George’s and leading me to truer, more spiritual directions.

Creation Window

The short piece for soprano, trumpet and piano, called “Without Form,” is the musical setting for the Creation Window, and is my earliest of these window compositions. But the music started with a different text from a poem by T.S. Eliot called Little Gidding. After reaching out to the T.S. Eliot estate for permission, I was told that they do not want his poems set to music, so I was left with a song that needed new words. I turned to the creation story from Genesis, loosely paraphrasing with an eye to making a piece that musically depicted the Creation Window at St. George’s. Some of the music had to be changed, but I think the overall result was effective. Soprano, Tia Wortham, sang both versions of this piece and has continually helped me to better understand the craft of setting words to music. Indeed, many refinements of the text setting come directly from her not only for this piece, but for the other two vocal pieces in this album.

Epiphany Window

My Epiphany Window composition is derived from a concerto for trumpet and orchestra called Night Passages, which was my first multi-movement work for soloist and orchestra. This current version has only piano accompaniment. I play three instruments: flugelhorn for the first movement, B-flat trumpet for the second and third, and piccolo trumpet at the end of the third movement. It presents three different perspectives from the Epiphany window, which is depicted at night. The first movement of my composition is called “Night Fall: What the Stars and Camels Say” which musically represents the beginning of the evening, as the sun goes down and then the stars come out; “Night Walk” presents a frightening nighttime sojourn, and is subtitled, “The Magi Journey by Night”; and, finally, a Latin setting transports us in “Night Club; Dancing with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“Night Fall” begins with overlapping melodies and some shimmering figuration, depicting a spectacular sunset. The introductory lyrical theme, played on flugelhorn, features the downward melodic interval of a third. This opening theme gets lower and the accompaniment gets darker until “stars” begin to appear. Then the main theme of this movement appears, which originally began as a melody written for my son, who plays violin, as a kind of lullaby. The cadenza, normally an unaccompanied part of a solo composition, here is accompanied by piano. This effect is intended to evoke an ancient poet punctuating his verse with the strumming of a hand-held harp. Although I did not directly borrow from his work, Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending was an inspiration for this movement. In addition, much of the material is derived from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and J. S. Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen,” the eighth part of his Cantata 64. And actually, the melodic material from these two pieces, as well as the opening theme of this movement, gets reused throughout the other two movements.

The next movement, “Night Walk” opens with a short and frightening motive that frames the repetitive and initially-relaxed bass line, over which I play long phrases, often interrupted by unpredictable outbursts. The bass line becomes more and more unstable until rhythmic and melodic chaos breaks out, representing a run from terror—possibly the fear that the Magi surely had of King Herod, or the panic Herod had when he heard of the prophecy of Jesus’ future as king of the Jews. After the framing motive returns, relative peace is restored to the end of the movement. Structurally, this movement traces the root structure of one chorus plus the interlude of Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” In general, each chord change in the original jazz standard is spun out over ten bars in my piece. Melodically, much of the melodic material is drawn from the bridge of Gillespie’s composition, while incorporating Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” from time to time. The movement finishes with the overlapping melodic sweeps that lead directly into the third movement.

After a short outburst from the piano, the trumpet introduces the melody, drawn from the main theme of “Night in Tunisia.” I used traditional Latin figurations, such as the “montuno,” derived from Cuban music, to make this movement feel like a salsa tune. The middle of the movement takes a brief look backwards to the opening melody of the first movement before launching into a small baroque-like counterpoint section. At the end of this short movement, I switch to piccolo trumpet with a variation of the main melody played in harmony with the pianist’s right hand.


Crucifixion Window

In 2012, I began to compose Advent, which, despite its name, is the piece I wrote to go with St. George’s Crucifixion Window. I was greatly moved by a poem of the same name by the American Poet Laureate Donald Hall. My intention was to provide a “Trinity” of variations for each of the three stanzas (three flexible interpretations based on the concepts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Each stanza, therefore, has a set of three variations, making a total of nine iterations of the melody first sung at the beginning by the soprano. Regarding the text, “rood” in the first stanza is a cross; “Tenebrae” in the second stanza refers to a Christian religious service celebrated during Holy Week marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles; “Horror vacui” in the third stanza literally means “fear of empty space” and usually describes artwork which fills the entire space with visual detail. The original version of this extended aria featured an extremely unsettling phase-shifting mixed-meter melody between trumpet and piano with soprano singing in the rests, in an effort to imitate the artistic meaning of “horror vacui”, but an alternative, lyric, ending proved more effective in the long run.



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Long term happiness isn’t always fun

My trumpet happiness project will hopefully help me on my long-term happiness as a trumpeter and human being. A big part of happiness, as I consider my trumpet playing, is being able to play at better levels the longer I play the trumpet. But the rigorous kind of practice that alone can help me really improve is not “fun” when experienced. So, I wonder if there is a point in which happy trumpet playing is no longer possible.

Right now, to me, the answer seems to be that long-term happiness is fundamentally different than having fun. Fun seems like happiness, because fun and happiness are (seemingly) the opposite of sadness, anger, contempt or fear. Yet, fun is a temporary state that seems to have left me puzzled in the past. And certainly when I tried to pursue fun, I have often been disappointed. Fun often leads to frustration and even sadness or anger. However, when I have pursued happiness, I usually go through a growing phase with a deeper understanding of life and of myself.

I think we trumpeters will just have to get used to the difficult feeling of deliberate practice that actually improves us. We have to embrace it and its lack of fun. In doing so, we will find a deep happiness.

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What I’ve learned so far from Shelby Foote

I just finished volume one of Shelby Foote’s fantastic trilogy on the Civil War. Volume one takes the reader from Fort Sumter to the battle of Perryville. It’s a long volume (and the other two volumes are even longer!). Of course, I always like to imagine that I’m learning something about the trumpet, even when I’m far afield of the area of music. So, here is what I learned about the trumpet from reading Shelby Foote.

When you are down and out, the best strategy often comes from the Confederate book: be brave and go for it! No need to over think. No need for fancy equipment. Just believe in your cause (the trumpet in our case!), and you will succeed. For this to work, you must have grit!

But, in the big picture, the best strategy follows the Union. Have a just cause (or make one up, as Abraham Lincoln did with the Emancipation Proclamation). Why is it that you are pursuing music and the trumpet? Think about this philosophically. Are you trying to be a trumpeter for all of the best reasons? In addition, it’s best to have as many resources as possible. Instead of land, population, factories and money, I mean (for the trumpeter) resources like time to practice and develop. Enough money for trumpets and other equipment. Getting lessons is a big resource. Going to conferences and summer camps and festivals is a huge resource, and I count my summer camps at Brevard Music Camp and the National Repertory Orchestra as transformative. Having lots of friends and family support your trumpet cause is maybe the biggest resource.

Good luck, and win the war!

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Social Sunday: Indiegogo improvisation app campaign

I just did something new: I backed a crowdsourcing campaign. Hosted by Indiegogo, this campaign is to help develop an app that will help Renaissance and early Baroque musicians practice their ornamentation and improvisation. It’s called Passaggi.

I elected to fund at a premium level, so that I get some sort of rewards, but you can fund these types of projects at any level.

I’m really excited about this project, because it seems to promise something that is really difficult to teach. It teaches you how to improvise in the style of late-16th Century and early-17th Century music. One of the big incentives is that fact that it will provide a continuo for you to play with, and you can alter its pitch and temperament to suit your needs. Here’s a little video about it.

I’d love to know what you’re backing in the crowdsourcing world! Send a comment about it!

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A trumpet dialogue in the spirit of Plato

Ancient Greek plate depicting salpinx player

Two trumpeters, Herodoros of Megara and Tortoise, having finished their morning trumpet routine, are in the lounge at the Athenian conservatory of trumpeting, sipping their coffee and tea.

Herodoros: Well, did you have a good warmup today, Tortoise?

Tortoise: (taking a sip of tea) Yes I did, Herodoros! I played through all of my Clarke “Technical Studies” slowly and with the metronome.

Herodoros: I did nothing of the kind. After eating a gigantic breakfast of eggs and a side of mutton, I did all of the important trumpet playing stuff. First I played loud, then I did a bunch of lip slurs to my highest notes. After that I played two trumpets and the same time, because that always gets them at the Olympics.

Tortoise: You know, Herodoros, they don’t have trumpet playing at the Olympics anymore. Trumpeters play with valves and are kind of refined.

Herodoros: I don’t really care for refined. When you say “refined” it reminds me of those overly-sensitive aulos players! (guzzles some coffee)

Tortoise: But Herodoros, the world is changing. If trumpeters want to keep up, we have to change. For instance, I just bought a new baroque trumpet. It plays great. It cannot miss notes, because, unlike those baroque trumpets, which, up to now, only have three or four fingerholes, this new one has seven. You can show up to rehearsal and play as pretty and smooth as the recorder player! The conductor never gives you a mean look. Those looks make me want to tuck my head in my shell.

Herodoros: Tortoise, my little friend, you’ll never be a 10-time Olympic winner like me if you’re afraid of the conductor. You have to blow the salpinx–uh, what you call the trumpet–without fear!

Tortoise: But the audience won’t stand for those out-of-tune notes that you get on that barbaric trumpet of yours. Those rude partials–the 7th, 11th, and the 13th–are just so out of tune!

Herodoros: Out of tune with what, Tortoise? The Olympic gods–probably Triton himself!–made the salpinx, or trumpet, as you like to call it. It is a perfect instrument, making notes that are mathematically pure with each other. Those other instruments that I hear: the lyre, the harpsichord, the most-unnatural piano that I hear being played in those practice rooms!

Ancient Greek plate with lyre player. Notice the body of the lyre is a tortoise shell.

Tortoise: Actually, some of my ancestors were lyres! But Herodoros, can I ask you some questions?

Herodoros: Of course!

Tortoise: How do you get to be a professional musician?

Herodoros: By getting paid.

Tortoise: Very good. And who pays you your wage as a musician?

Herodoros: The people that would hear you play. If they like you.

Tortoise: That is completely correct. And what sorts of things do these people like?

Herodoros: Well. What they’re used to, I think.

Tortoise: What are these people used to?

Herodoros: The music that they grew up listening to, I would guess.

Tortoise: I wonder, my dear Herodoros, what these gentle audience members grew up listening to?

Herodoros: The music that was on hand. They probably listened to music from a so-called stereo or radio.

Tortoise: You are right again. And do you think these stereos and radios played music with recordings of Greek salpinx players. Or natural trumpet players?

Herodoros: Well, I should hope so! But I don’t remember every making one of these recordings.

Tortoise: You’re right. There just aren’t many recordings of natural trumpet–or, uh, salpinx–being played. But there are a lot of recordings with guitar, harpsichord, and really a lot with the piano. A great instrument, by the way. It is tuned equally from one note to the next, so that you can play in all the keys! So, if they grew up listening to the equal-tempered piano, they probably love the equal temperament of the piano, right?

Herodoros: Uhhh. I’m getting hungry.

Tortoise: “Right!” The answer is “right!” Good. Then, if they love this temperament, will they give their good money to listen to the un-equal temperament of the natural trumpet?

Herodoros: You mean the salpinx? Well, they may not.

Tortoise: Then, can you become a professional musician if you play the natural trumpet?

Herodoros: Uhh. Maybe it’s not likely.

Tortoise: “Not likely”! It’s impossible, my friend! So, do you agree that, if you want to be a professional trumpet player, you cannot play the natural trumpet? You have to put fingerholes into the instrument!

Herodoros: But, Tortoise. Why don’t you just play the trumpet parts on the piano? Or, even better, on one of those machines I saw–I think they call them the synthesizer or sequencer or something like that.

Tortoise: Well, Mr. H., I think they want to see a trumpet in someone’s hand in a performance. Otherwise, what’s the purpose?

Herodoros: Ah. Okay. Well, Mr. Tortoise, we are talking about a so-called period instrument group, right?

Tortoise: Precisely.

Herodoros: Great, T. Then, what does “period” stand for?

Tortoise: Well, uh, the instruments that were used in the “period” in which the music was written.

Herodoros: Why do the people like “period instrument” performances, I wonder?

Tortoise: Well, because it gives them a good idea of the way the music sounded when it was written.

Herodoros: And what was the trumpet like in the day of, say, Bach or Handel?

Tortoise: Well, I wasn’t there, but I believe they were long trumpets, usually with decorated parts on them. Sometimes a banner hung from them, even!

Herodoros: What about these fingerholes? Did they have these?

Tortoise: Well, no. They were invented later.

Herodoros: You mean a few years after the composers made these pieces?

Tortoise: Uh, no. I mean hundreds of years later. When we had a revival of interest in this music in the 20th Century.

Herodoros: So, if the point of playing period instrument music is to play on the instruments of the time, and if the trumpet of the time did not have fingerholes, why would we do this?

Tortoise: Well, because everyone else does! And it is much safer. Safe is good!

Herodoros: So, “period instrument” performance means to play the music like it was originally played, unless everyone else is doing something else nowadays?

Tortoise: Herodoros! You’re impossible! Go, and play your vulgar notes on the natural trumpet and leave me alone.

Herodoros: Fine! I will, after a little lunch. See you tomorrow, Tortoise! Enjoy your new 10-holed fancy trumpet! By the way, you don’t have any money for food do you, T.?

Tortoise: I do have a few dollars, H. They’re left over from my last gig. You can take some–be my guest! Oh, and my trumpet only has seven holes!

Herodoros: Are you sure? I mean, about me borrowing the money? Thanks, Tortoise!

Tortoise: You’re welcome, H. See you later!


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