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Horns Section Machine

(Photo credit: Todd Berman)

OK: here we are, a bunch of horn players sitting around the campfire (e.g.), sharing war stories on the Craziest Thing I Ever Played. My turn. I toss a stick into the fire and my eyes glaze over.

“Had to be “Turnarounds” for horn and tape by Israel Neuman. Somehow he got ahold of Doug Hill’s book on extended techniques. It’s a wonderful, comprehensive book on the subject that every horn player should own, but I believe it is illegal in most states leave a composer alone in a room (i.e. without a hornist present) with this book lest they try to make a whole piece out of nothing but. Turnarounds is an 8 minute encyclopedia of weird, a catalogue of crazy.

It was back in 2007 or 08. Israel was a bass player doing grad studies at the University of Iowa who apparently decided that there were more opportunities as a composer, so he made the switch, getting into a PhD program in composition.

One day he appeared at my doorstep. He told me his ideas for the piece. I was intrigued, although I should have called the police or escaped to Ulan Bator right then. What was I thinking?

It was a piece for horn and tape (well, no one uses tape anymore, but it’s the easiest term to use. You get the idea). Recorded background constructed from electronically manipulated horn sounds. Notated horn part to be played over this. An old idea, really. Could be interesting!

How does that ancient Chinese curse go? “May you live in interesting times.”

Electronic music portal heading

The recorded electronic background track is really very cool. I have no idea how he did that part of it – some wild sonic manipulations of horn sounds that sound like everything (and I mean everything) from, say, the string quartet on the deck of the sinking Titanic, except going by in an echo chamber on top of a truck with flat tires in high winds, to an underwater Klingon marching band jamming with the bar band from the Star Wars cantina scene. With cadenzas for R2D2. Or: if horror movie sound tracks were composed by arthropods for the arachnid audience on Saturn, you can find examples here. All from horn sounds. Very cool, very imaginative. Nice work! Now, the horn part…

The horn part itself is pretty impossible as written in many places, for the likes of me, anyway. At first glance it seemed to me to have been written without regard to the fact that horn players are human. Or even carbon-based life forms. After I was able to form complete sentences once again and my blood pressure came back down to sub-heart attack levels, I told him I could play the part if he was willing to be “flexible” about my creation of the part. There was no way I could play exactly what was written, but I could certainly give a “rendition” of it – i.e. play what I could play. He said, fine, no problem (as the French-Swiss bassoonist in my old woodwind quintet used to say, “It’s all just a defect.”). What was important to him was that the horn part line up precisely with the recorded part. The horn part has timing in seconds above the so-called notes (parallel to the horn part is a notated rendition of the electronic part, and the notational rendition of the wild sounds is exceptionally imaginative, like what you might have to come up with transcribing whales and dolphins singing to crickets during an earthquake). The trickiest part of playing is that you need three eyes: one eye on the horn part, one eye on the electronic sounds part, and one eye on an external digital clock to make sure that you are lined up. Before we recorded it, I played it in concert and we had a digital clock out in front of me. Challenging. I have been in therapy ever since (not really. I have to thank Israel for taking my comfort zone with extended techniques to a whole new level not experienced before or since). The piece had quite positive audience response and I think he won a couple awards of some sort for it.

Turnarounds is actually pretty interesting to listen to. To play it, you need a nice block of free time, a sense of humor, the patience of Job, a first class ticket out of your comfort zone, and perhaps some flagons of patent nerve tonic after practice sessions.

So, to all you crazy people with too much free time who want to tackle the piece, just remember: the main thing is the exact timing of lining up the horn part with the recorded track; do what you can to approximate the craziness in ink. You can see the score here. You can hear the whole piece here. (both from Israel’s web site; you can also buy the CD Turnarounds is on – “Axiom” at the iTunes store).

So that’s my story. Who’s next?”

[I got the idea for this post from an email from English hornist Helen Beauchamp, who had apparently heard about the piece and wanted to try it. Thanks, Helen, and good luck!]

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