Tilt Brass – Photo J. Christenson

A Blast of Brass on a Block of Greenwich Townhouses

New York’s West Village, once a center of radicalism in the arts and politics, is now home to a lot of overpriced restaurants, yuppies, and spoiled NYU kids. Occasionally, however, there’s a reminder of the kind of experimentation that used to go on. Tilt Brass’s May 30 chamber music concert was just such an occurrence. The diverse program performed at the Greenwich House Music School explored a myriad of sounds on brass instruments that was full of substance and experimentation.

Tilt Brass - Photo J. Christenson

Tilt Brass – Photo J. Christenson

The highlight for me was two works for trombone—an instrument that rarely gets its due props. In Kitty Brazelton’s Sonar Come Una Tromba Larga the solo trombone was provided a backdrop with a pre-recorded soundtrack. The soundtrack’s dissonant electronic drone filled the room with a sense of atmosphere, and pre-recorded brass parts, at times becoming almost a brass choir, made for moments of conversation and climax. The solo trombone was immensely captivating, with an austere beginning giving way to a series of explorations in timbres and melodic ideas. This ranged from heavy breathing into the instrument abruptly halted by the player’s tongue, an extended melody in a language influenced by modern jazz but a little too leapy and dissonant to be quite that, and some great contrasts between spurts in the trombone’s upper register with low notes rich in resonance. All this was adeptly handled by trombonist Jen Baker, who made the piece her own and perfectly coordinated her performance with the pre-recorded soundtrack. I was especially impressed with how all of the musical material was presented with tremendous clarity and simplicity, given time to breathe, and worked on my ears to create an enticing musical experience.

John King’s Hammerbone for two trombones and electronics was likewise impressive for its level of interaction, both between the two performers and the electronics. At times this involved slides into dissonance between the two trombones, and at other times one trombone would settle into a simple groove while the other burst into soloistic passages. The electronics flowed out of the performance, filling in the music, building new timbres from the live instruments, and echoing the trombone lines. The more consonant moments verged on some combination of minimalism and modern jazz without ever quite going there. The low rumbles and resonance created between the two trombones and electronics were full of sonorous gravitas. Jen Baker and Chris McIntyre moved through the expansive and virtuosic material with great control and a feeling of spontaneity.

Besides getting to experience so much sound exploration in these two pieces, I was also struck by the way in which both composers took in so much of the 20th century. One could hear influences of all sorts of musical languages and sound explorations, but in a way that was organically cohered into each composer’s unique style. This was not crossover or some particular avant-garde niche, but rather two individual’s way of synthesizing the musical achievements of the last century.

John King

John King

Tilt’s ensemble capabilities were explored with Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes, for three duos of trombones, trumpets, and French horns along with a pre-recorded soundtrack. What was intriguing was the way Marshall separated the three duos, with the trombones providing a low-brass anchor rich in resonance, the French horns a sort of rounded atmospheric moving line, and the muted trumpets subtly but gorgeously singing over top. The layered brass ensemble effect was something I’ve never quite heard before, and the soundtrack built the piece up further, especially with the sudden entrance of ethereal singing. This was one of those pieces to just sit back and take in and consider yourself lucky to be there.

While Fog Tropes was somber and slow-moving, Matthias Pintscher’s Shining Forth for solo trumpet was full of nervous energy. The mostly muted trumpet explored tremendously diverse timbral terrain. Frequent bursts of virtuosic activity were punctuated with wide leaps, and travailed the trumpet’s whole register with frequent explorations into the stratosphere—though the quieter dynamics and mutes created a subdued effect full of tension. Gareth Flowers performed this technically and intellectually difficult piece with great finesse. One of my favorite moments was a quiet pitch bend crescendoing to a sharp cut off. The phrasing, both rhythmically and melodically, felt intuitive even while it was tremendously complex and ever-changing.

Tilt Brass lived up to their goal of presenting the most cutting-edge works for brass, and in a way that was engaging to the audience. The different instrumentation in the program showcased the full possibilities of brass instruments, and Tilt’s ongoing collaborations with composers are proving fruitful. I wish there could have been some kids from the musical school in attendance—I remember Luciano Berio mentioning in an interview that his Trombone Sequenza was a hit with little kids. It would be great to see the effects this kind of music would have on people who haven’t yet lost their sense of imagination and awe.

January, 2013 will be Tilt’s 10th anniversary, so be sure to keep your eyes open for some exciting performances. Their concerts are unique presentations of new music on instruments that are seldom given enough prominence.


David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.