Strangely, the pickings are slim when it comes to melodic material written for the instrument usually delegated to announce doom and doom-related activities. Modern bass trombone repertoire has been greatly defined with more angular blip, blap, and splat music rather than whistleable tunes with lyrical lines. Don’t tell anyone, but quite often we have to steal from other instruments’ rep if we’re in the mood to play pretty. It is with this in mind why Eric Culver’s Suite for Unaccompanied Bass Trombone is not only one of my favorite pieces to play, but I believe is one of the most important pieces in our repertoire.
This four-movement Suite was commissioned by the great Los Angeles area bass trombonist, Bob Sanders. For lack of a better term, I would classify it as a neo-Baroque piece, as it is inspired by the well-known and oft-stolen Cello Suites of Bach. In the liner notes about the piece, Culver states, “[Bob] asked that I include lots of interesting, fun, and nearly impossible interval jumps to make the work more challenging.” Mission accomplished, Mr. Culver. Mission A-ccomplished.
To say this piece is challenging is an understatement. In my opinion, the first movement, “Fantasia,” is the bear of the work while the subsequent movements, “Dance of the Delicate Sorrow,” “Ballade,” and “The Jubilant Gallop” are slightly more accessible from the player’s standpoint. But don’t get me wrong, they will still work up a good sweat! In the first movement alone, the full range from pedal D through the C four ledger lines above the bass clef staff is covered. Beyond the bounty of interval leaps in the piece, many an octave and a half to two octaves and more, there are also plenty of demanding linear lines to navigate through. While many pieces written with the intention of being difficult sound just that, Culver has magnificently crafted this work so the musicality of it is never sacrificed.
That said, the piece doesn’t play itself. This Suite demands a strong attention to detail and a never-fading level of concentration from the player. While it takes a little extra elbow grease from the performer to obtain maximum listenability, the rewards are immeasurable. Below is an unedited and unairbrushed run through of the first movement, “Fantasia,” I did on May 7, 2014. Then I’d like to share some things that I’ve worked on specific to this movement, as well as a few of the many things I’m going to continue to work on. Oh, and as always, please do me a kindness and listen to this using at least semi-respectable speakers or headphones. I listened to this on an iPhone and I wanted to crawl under a rock.
Some of the Things I’ve Worked On:
– Adequately sustaining notes of all shapes and sizes is one of the keys to making music sound good. I’ve found that recording myself is the best way to realize it, because often in the heat of battle, what we hear on our side of the horn is quite different than what is happening on the listener’s side. I’m on the fence on making this a commandment, but I’m significantly leaning in the direction that our standard default articulation for almost all symphonic and commercial orchestral, chamber and solo playing should be tenuto. An in-time tenuto, but tenuto nonetheless. Giving full value to all parts of dotted eighth, sixteenth figures, regardless of range or interval, will give it a desirable maturity, and sustained notes for all melodic lines greatly boost the quality of phrasing.
– The tempo of this movement is marked “rubato as you wish.” I wish lots. While there is no soapbox big enough for me to kvetch on regarding the vanilla, middle-of-the-road, safe playing that has become standard fare in our musical world, I decided to take this piece a little out in my own personal protest of such boredom. Sometimes successful, sometimes not, but I’d rather go down flying too close to the sun than muddling about in the middle of the street. The only way we can discover the special moments in music is if we go out looking for them. I find myself continually having to remind myself to take chances. That said, there is a fine line between “exciting” and “out of control,” albeit much of the time, the difference is in the eye of the beholder. Like I said…sometimes I was successful…sometimes not.
– Listening to more renditions of the Bach Cello Suites than I can count over the years has been a great lesson in so many ways. While listening to each nuanced difference from player to player helps us develop our own bag of tricks to pull from, I’ve found that the most important thing that makes the Cello Suites the Cello Suites is the cello itself. One of my favorite characteristics of the cello is how the sound of the instrument really blossoms in the low register. The richness of a cello’s low range has been a great inspiration to me on how I approach the bass trombone, especially with the types of lines as found in this piece. While we’re gliding through the middle register with these periodic dips into the low range, I want to milk the low notes for all I can. In my opinion, it gives the piece a certain gravity and stability that is a nice counterbalance to the flowing lines in the middle and high registers.
Some of the Things I’m Going to Continue to Work On:
– For me, the most challenging lick in a piece of nothing but challenging licks is found in measures 19-20 (1:24 on the video). Technically, it isn’t all that bad, but the musical phrasing my ear demands is an uninterrupted fluid line from beat 2 of measure 19 through the first 8th note of B (measure 21). My shift in the pedal range, these days at least, happens between a pedal Gb and pedal F; meaning that I shift my embouchure at a pedal F to go the rest of the way down to the double pedal Bb. Fluidity across the shift is something I used to be good at, then got bad at (thanks, tuba!) and have been working on vigorously to bring back to glory since my shift shifted down a half step (it used to be between the G and Gb pre-tuba doubling days). I’ve gotten to the point where practicing this lick out of context has been consistently going well, but it’s the thick brush you have to go through to get to these measures that throw consistency out the window for me. It’s one of those feelings that you know it’s going to happen or you know it’s not, and I wasn’t feeling it this pass, so on the fly I decided to break the phrase after the pedal Gb (& of 2 in measure 19). This also goes back to what I was saying about the importance of sustain before. On the recording, the pedal Gb comes across as too abrupt and not adequately supported, thus placing a big steaming turd right in the middle of a gorgeously written phrase. Next time I don’t sense the pedal shift gods are in my favor, I think I’ll keep this phrasing, but try to be a bit more generous on the pedal Gb, then quickly reset to get me through to the next series of horrors. And in the meantime, I’ll just work at being better.
– Due to the extreme intervallic nature of the piece, vastly different parts of the horn are standing right next to each other to make up these beautiful melodic phrases. A solid consistency of sound among the various ranges, open horn and all permutations of valve usage is imperative, as this piece shines a big bright spotlight on it. There are moments to let the low range enjoy being the low range as I mentioned earlier, but there are also moments that demand a more unified tone quality among the ranges. This can be achieved by compensating for natural dynamic differences and being vigilant about always projecting the air through the instrument. Oh, and have I mentioned “sustain” lately?
– While it would be easy to write off my airball of the Eb on the downbeat of measure 54 (3:22 on the video) as a “fecal matter occurs” incident, I know my chances of such a thing greatly increased because I started to mentally coast toward the end. The high C a few measures back just squeaked out and I didn’t totally fall over the high Ab on the way down from it, so by the time I got to this measure, I already had the beer cracked open and the chicken wings on the plate. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. And after some 15 years after learning that lesson the hard way (an audition horror story I’ll gladly share with you over some beer and chicken wings), some day it’ll actually sink in.
Mike Dobranski is a professional bass trombonist, eater of good food and avid couch potato in the Seattle area. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeDobranski.