Preparing for Peckinpah

Saturday, April 5th Dan Joseph (hammer dulcimer), Tyler Wilcox (soprano saxophone) and I (trombone) perform Antoine Beuger's Peckinpah Trios.


You can hear a performance of Peckinpah Trios performed by me (trombone), Christian Kobi (soprano saxophone) and Beat Keller (electric guitar) here:

The score to Peckinpah Trios has 50 pages (page 7 attached), some or all of which can be played on a performance. Each page has three staves, one for each of the musicians. On a given page, each musician has one, two, or three pitches which must be played; players choose themselves when to begin and end their tones. Tones are all long or very long. I can play a note lasting 60 seconds. Dan, with the ebow, can play considerably longer.

The way Dan, Tyler and I have been playing it, each of the sections lasts 2-10 minutes, after which the musicians turn to the next page. After page turns, there are breaks between sections which last 30-90 seconds—as between movements of a classical piece—during which the musicians and audience can shift position, cough, briefly stretch, etc. We will begin with page one, performing as many sections as the moment requires. This may take 90 minutes; we are open to it taking five hours or more. Audience will be able to leave during a break for the bathroom, if necessary, returning at the next break.

The form of each section is created in the moment. The players influence—but cannot determine—what the others play. The performance will have very quiet tones, sometimes solo, sometimes chords. The opportunity is there to be together in that moment. The score, then, is a framework within which this exchange between the musicians is possible, similar to the way in which a jazz tune is a frame within which jazz musicians are invited to improvise together. In a successful performance, the musicians accept the invitation to be together in the moment. A communion of listening. The audience is invited into this communion. They can accept that invitation, or not. It may be that something happens during the concert which is outside of day-to-day life.

As with jazz improvisation, preparation is important. Without it, the range of what is possible is limited. The question before me this week is how to prepare for Saturday’s performance. The work that can go into these minimal pieces is not often apparent to the casual listener or performer. There are two parts to this work: work alone and work in the group.

I need to apply care to two things:

  1. what I say (in this case on the trombone), and
  2. how I listen.

I approach what I say on the trombone for this piece as part of my daily practice. After I wake up in the morning, I attend to necessities, do my morning sitting, note down any dreams, read two pages from my current book, eat my breakfast, play with the cat, get dressed, and then go to my rehearsal room.

“If you only have 15 minutes, make it a good 15 minutes.”
          – Frank Crisafulli

Once at my rehearsal room, I continue what I learned from Frank Crisafulli, trying to integrate some of the practices introduced on the Guitar Circle Course this past year in Mexico. I choose a tone.  Before I play that tone, standing in front of the music stand, I go over in my mind each part of playing that tone. I first hear the tone at pitch in my mind. I hear its tone quality, how soft it is, how the note begins and how it ends. I then mentally “see” and “feel” the trombone coming to playing position, feeling the necessary tension in my shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, wrists and fingers, bringing the trombone to my lips, hearing the pitch that will be played, feeling my upper torso expanding as air flows into my lungs, feeling the vibration of the lips as air flows through them—like when I make the syllable “v” as in “very”—feeling the tone vibrating through my head, body, and through the trombone, feeling my diaphragm and torso as air flows out, hearing the end of the tone, feeling my shoulders and arms bringing the trombone back to resting position. I then sing the pitch. Then I play the tone. I repeat on a couple of different tones, taking the same care with each. This usually takes 15 minutes. If that’s all the time I have, I complete, and go on to the next part of my day. If I have more, I then spend about 15 minutes going over simple lip slurs and scale exercises which develop and maintain the lip musculature which supports tone production. After that, I usually need a break, and go get a sip of water, walk around the building, or lie down, knees in the air, and relax my back, imagining it getting longer and the shoulders getting farther apart. I come back and repeat. Sometimes I play drums for five to ten minutes for fun in-between (a sparkly blue Gretch kit with cowbells, yayyy!!).

After practicing in this way, if it’s a week-day, I go to the office. Throughout my day, I stop for 2-3 minutes at a time, bring myself back to a comfortable sitting position and imagine one of the tones that I worked on that morning, and go through the whole process described above, but without playing the tone.

As a brass player, it is important, if not essential, to hear the note in the mind before and while playing it. When a brass player is not hearing the pitch, then tone production is directly affected, often experienced as a “blatt”. In Peckinpah Trios, each notated pitch represents a "pitch zone” (e.g. d = somewhere between c-sharp and e-flat). On the trombone, as on fretless string instruments such as violin and cello, I have a very large (theoretically infinite) number of pitch choices available to me. My ability to perform a given tone effectively is limited by my ability to hear its pitch. So I prepare by being as specific in my mind about the notes that I may be called upon to play. I do this by limiting them to a set of 12 in the range of the trombone where my technique is reliable and repeatable.

As I do not have absolute pitch, how I perceive a pitch relates to the pitches that happen before it. As my fellow musicians are free in their choices, what I hear in the performance may change depending on the moment, directly affecting my playing. So I go over in my mind some of the possibilities. For this performance, I play the bottom voice; on page 7 (above), a D, transposed down one octave into the comfortable middle range of the tenor trombone. As beginnings and endings of tones are free, and assuming that both Tyler and Dan play the pitches written, my D can take place in a total of nine chords: four two-note chords, and five three-note chords. I go over in my mind what each possibility sounds like, becoming as clear as possible. Considering that Dan and Tyler can each choose one of three pitches (again assuming for the moment 12-tone equal temperament), the number of possible two note chords increases to seven, and the number of unique three note chords (treating D-C-D the same for pitch purposes as D-C-C and so on), the number of possibilities increases to 24.

One can appreciate that, were Tyler to choose microtonal pitches, the variables multiply exponentially. It becomes difficult very quickly not to despair and see any practice is futile: “but I can’t practice EVERY variable!” No. I cannot. But this is not the point. I start where I am and do what I can, practicing in my inner hearing and on the trombone what I can do, refining it and hearing it as clearly as I can in the time that I have available to me. I show up on Saturday where I am, giving the best that I can, intending to respond during the concert to what the other musicians are doing and hopefully, to the music itself.

How do I practice listening? Throughout my day, I notice. Right now, I notice the clicking of the keys as I type this, the shuffling of papers, the low hum of the heating. This morning, I noticed the sound of the bus on the street, honking of taxis, and underneath it all, a ground-tone in the total traffic noise. I also notice my own body. The support of the floor under my feet, the feeling of the soles of my feet in my shoes, the muscles of my fingers as I type, the dull ache under my right shoulder blade, and the balance of my skull at the top of my spine. By practicing noticing and listening to sounds throughout my day, I am training my mind to be aware of them during the concert, preparing me to listen to my fellow musicians.

Work in the group began last summer, when we got together for dinner to discuss ideas of things to do together. I’d had wanted to perform Peckinpah Trios again since performing with Christian Kobi and Beat Keller in 2011. There’s something mysterious in the piece; it’s a wonderful vehicle which can withstand quite a bit of careful work. I heard Dan perform James Tenney’s Septet in 2009 and had thought at the time that he would be a great performer for Peckinpah Trios. When I heard Tyler perform my “Bedford Stuyvesant, May 6, 2012” with a command of long tones at very quiet dynamic I thought he would be an excellent choice for Peckinpah. They both have a classical work ethic. I wanted the energy from Dan’s punk experience as well as Tyler’s openness from his experience with free improvisation.

We came to a number of decisions about interpretation/arrangement fairly quickly:

  • Programming: Only piece on the program (possible only because we organize the series ourselves). This allows us to allow the piece to let us know how long it will be. (Note to presenters who may be reading this: we originally wanted to do a 30-day residency, performing every evening beginning at 6:00 pm and going for as long as the music required, a situation that still speaks to me.)
  • Instrumentation: Trombone, soprano saxophone, hammer dulcimer. Brass, reed, percussion/string. This represents the four basic ways of producing sound for acoustic instruments. I choose trombone (and not guitar, thumb piano, drums, or trumpet) because I have the most experience on the trombone. When I play a Bb it is not just the Bb in the moment: it contains every Bb I have ever played--thousands upon thousands of them. There are many points of contact between saxophone and trombone. The range of the instruments separates them. The hammer dulcimer when bowed has a point of contact with the saxophone. With the ebow, it blends with both saxophone and trombone. When struck, it steps outside the sound-world created by the winds. Although possible for this group, we chose not to use an ebow electric guitar or a laptop with sine wave; the hammer dulcimer has richer tonal properties (ebowed steel-string guitar would also work).

We admire each other’s work, so since last summer, we’ve kept in touch, seeing each other at concerts, and occasionally meeting for coffee or dinner.

A week ago last Monday, we rehearsed together for the first time, understanding rehearsal in the literal sense, to “re-hear”. The French word for rehearsal is repetition. After some practical discussions on seating and performance, we took the first two pages and repeated them seven times, choosing entrances and different pitches freely each time. This lasted 90 minutes. Last night we rehearsed with Tony Geballe as coach, stating what we wanted to get out of the rehearsal, going through exercises to improve group communication and reading through seven consecutive pages as a mini-performance (lasting 35 minutes).