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New music for trumpet

5 years ago

In October last year we published Spectrum for Trumpet, compiled by trumpeter and former Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland John Wallace. We asked him to share his experience of working on this exciting collection of contemporary pieces.

How did you get involved with Spectrum for Trumpet?

ABRSM wanted to commission a volume of trumpet pieces in the Spectrum series, to stimulate interest both in the instrument and in contemporary composers writing new and colourful stuff. The idea was for a collection of brand new works that would span the range of abilities, from beginners to those of Grade 8 standard.

Was there anything like this around when you were learning the trumpet?

Absolutely not! When I was at music college I played the music of other students. It was my way into the mysteries of the instrument – a means of continually exploring its capabilities. Too many conservatoires are still unadventurous in the trumpet music they require students to play. This new volume challenges the orthodoxy that you should rely on the same old pieces. It’s so important that young players encounter new music by leading composers at the top of their game.

How did you decide which composers to ask?

We decided that the best thing was for me to go to composers I’d worked with previously as a trumpeter – who’d maybe written pieces for me. As it turned out, they were all really enthusiastic. Tom Adès dashed off his Reveilles virtually overnight!

How did composers react to having to write for particular levels of ability?

What came across was how they thrived on being given parameters. Dominic Muldowney said he loved that challenge in writing his Fanfare Rondo – seeing what the boundaries were and having to find solutions. I gave Robert Saxton the difficult task of writing a Grade 1 piece. He did it brilliantly in his Fanfare, producing a fife and drum/Susato-type march. And we all know about the complexity in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s music, so the simplicity he offers here in Processional may come as something of a surprise.

So how tricky are the most difficult pieces?

Well, Michael Nyman’s Where the City’s Ceaseless Crowd is sheer energy from start to finish! A real test of stamina – which is all part of modern trumpet playing. Tom Adès’s piece presents the challenge of very demanding metric modulation. Even professional trumpeters have problems with that sort of thing. But you know, today’s young players can tackle anything! It always amazes me. Pieces that once seemed impossible to play become standard repertoire. Trumpet valves

Would you say the composers kept their familiar musical languages?

Absolutely. Those who know their music will easily hear the individual styles and stamps. And what excited me was how various pieces moved away from ‘traditional trumpetry’ to the creation of real atmosphere. James MacMillan’s Study is very mythic, Sally Beamish’s Burglars ultra-playful and Stuart MacRae’s Black Pearl – well – it’s very dark! Several composers gave me little tone pictures.

And are these musical languages approachable for young players?

Overall the collection is post-modern and eclectic. There’s none of the 1960s and 70s avant-garde about it. And everything is written with the trumpeter in mind. What we want to do is create an appetite for contemporary music so that young players look out for more. That helps ensure there’ll always be new music. As usual with Spectrum, there’s an accompanying CD featuring all the pieces, played here by you. What’s the benefit of that? From my teaching I know that these days young players like to hear the music they’re being asked to learn early on. Making the recordings, with pianist Simon Wright, was a fabulous experience. A completely new work is still like wet clay and performers have a part in giving it final shape. We occasionally went back to the composers and asked if we could change this or that. We found Michael Nyman’s piece so relentlessly fast that we got his agreement to bring down the metronome marking!

Do you have any advice for teachers introducing these Spectrum pieces to their students?

Get students to consider what the music is trying to say. What’s the atmosphere? OK, you have to teach the technical side – and these pieces fit very well with the exercises students will be doing. But then you need to get away from these being just notes on a page and engage the imagination.

Is there a moment in your career when you saw the impact a new piece of music can have on an audience?

I recall playing James MacMillan’s Epiclesis in the Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh Festival – he wasn’t so well known then. At the end you’d have thought Scotland had won the World Cup! The whole place erupted. The audience went wild. One of the most incredible experiences of my life!

More on Spectrum for Trumpet

Spectrum for TrumpetSpectrum for Trumpet contains 16 new works by leading contemporary composers. The repertoire ranges from Grade 1 to 8 in difficulty, so there’s something for players of all ages and abilities. The collection is perfect for exploring tonality, rhythm and technique through modern repertoire. It opens with engaging works for younger players. I, Robotrumpet by Gordon McPherson uses rhythm to conjure up images of a robot’s development, while Sally Beamish’s Burglars is inspired by favourite children’s book Burglar Bill. More challenging pieces include James MacMillan’s Study – full of dynamic contrasts with energetic triplet motifs. Coronach by Rory Boyle is an evocative, Scottish-style lament, while Param Vir’s the angel of the waikato calls for a few notes on the woodblock! Michael Nyman’s piece – Where the City’s Ceaseless Crowd – evokes an urban landscape, and JW Shuffle by Guy Barker is a playful and refreshing take on jazz. Throughout the book, descriptive titles and footnotes help with interpretation and the accompanying CD includes performances of all the pieces by John Wallace and pianist Simon Wright. We published our first Spectrum book, for piano, in 1996, in collaboration with Thalia Myers. Three more piano titles followed, as well as books for violin, cello, clarinet, piano duet and string quartet. Almost twenty years later, the aim of the series remains the same: to commission the finest composers to write pieces of modest length and difficulty, while preserving the essential characteristics of their compositional style. Spectrum for Trumpet is available from music shops worldwide and from

This article was originally featured in the March 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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