torbjörn hultmark
musician / composer / audio productions / the soprano trombone project

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the soprano trombone project - home

patron: Sir james macmillan

here are some of the friends and great supporters
of the soprano trombone project

george benjamin, composer
brian ferneyhough, composer
peter eötvös, composer, conductor, professor
martyn brabbins, conductor, music director english national opera
john kenny, trombone soloist, professor at guildhall school of music london
john wallace, trumpet, ex principal royal conservatiore of scotland
byron fulcher, principal trombone philharmonia orchestra
sir james macmillan, composer

 

articles

british trombone society article (june 2016)
the brass herald (september 2016)
BTS publication (november 2016)

"hultmark deserves a lot of credit for his ability to provide the vocal tone
and expressive qualities that the trombone is known for, on an
instrument that is playing in the trumpet register
"
richard leonard, the brass herald, march/april 2017

 

what is a soprano trombone?!

it is the smallest member of the trombone family. the range is similar to that of a soprano voice,
and to that of a trumpet

the instrument is very rare, hence...

 

...this is how/why the project began

in 2011 I took part as a soprano trombonist in a performance of
brian ferneyhough’s 'plötzlichkeit'
at the barbican centre in london with the
BBC symphony orchestra,
conducted by martyn brabbins

this, my very first experience of the soprano trombone,
was the beginning of an exploration into what was, and is, a very rarely used instrument,
so rare that I hadn’t even heard of the instrument’s existence before the BBCSO
lent me an instrument two months before the first rehearsal.

as soon as I’d played a few notes on this borrowed instrument I was bowled over by its
vocal and expressive potential.
I took to it like a fish to water - in short, I’d fallen in love!

it seemed to me a paradox that, although the instrument clearly had unique characteristics as well as the potential for creating a great sound, it was nevertheless so little used

 

the early history of the soprano trombone

the soprano trombone has been around for a long time, possibly stretching back
as far as the early 15c, but we can't say for sure since very little is known about the early history of the
trombone family as a whole, and even less is known about its most junior member.
few historical instruments have survived and documentation from the
period is both scarce and contradictory

what can be said with certainty, however, is that the
soprano trombone is an instrument that has been used, albeit sparingly,
to support the upper voice in vocal groups for hundreds of years.

j.s. bach wrote for it in three cantatas (BWV 2/21/38),
it is briefly referred to in one of w.a. mozart's scores (C-minor mass),
it has been argued that c.w. gluck intended it (orpheus and eurydice),
18c revisions of works by g.p. telemann include it (passions of st john and st mark),
the stockholm opera ordered a set of trombones in the 1770’s including a soprano trombone.
the moravian church have used the instrument continually since the18c,

a number of instruments from 17c onwards survive
to this day in museums and instrument collections, one of the earliest
is the instrument by christian kofahl, dated 1677.

but why is it so difficult to find out more about the history of this instrument, so difficult that
even our greatest scholars seem unable to uncover many of its secrets?

 

why initiating a soprano trombone project?

questions struck me very early on - why has this instrument
with such a long and arguably distinguished history been so little used,
and why is it hardly used today?

is it an instrument worthy of rediscovering, and
is it an instrument worthy of, so to speak, being dusted off and brought up-to-date
in order to find it a proper place in contemporary musical life?

can/should the manufacture of replicas of historical
instruments - soprano sackbuts - be commissioned in order for their
use in period performance be made possible?

can a modern, fully professional chromatic instrument
be commissioned? and, equally important, would
I be able to learn to play it to a high standard?!

would it be suitable as a beginner instrument
for very young children?

 

how has the soprano trombone project developed since 2011?

further development of the modern instrument seemed essential.
with that in view i commissioned
the german instrument manufacturer thein
to make a soprano trombone with a relatively large bore/bell
and fitted with an F-valve, thus fully chromatic and with an extended
low range. the idea was to achieve a beautiful sonorous trombone-like sound that would
sit comfortably as the upper (soprano) voice in a larger trombone ensemble, and it
had as far as possible to avoid any trumpet-like brightness in the tone
 

practice, practice, practice!
a great deal of time and work was, and continues to be,
essential in order to gradually learn to control and play the instrument
to a high level

 

performances and the commissioning of new music:
a considerable number of pieces have been
commissioned and premiered
for solo trombone
trombone with piano
with electronics
and for trombone quartet (SATB).
the continually expanding list of new works includes pieces by

rob keeley
raul avelãs
roger dean
oded ben-tal
peter wiegold

peter cowdrie
torbjorn hultmark
martin butler
mike searby
scott lygate

john kenny
tim ewers

 

the trombone trio pandora’s box and I are in a long-term
partnership promoting and performing music for SATB trombone quartet,
on its own as well as in collaboration with vocal ensembles. this work has taken us to week-long
projects at places such as the setubal festival in portugal and the cumnock tryst festival in scotland,
performing music for vocal ensemble and trombone quartet

the soprano trombone as a starter instrument:
this is a key part of the overall project.
after all, if the instrument is to
have a flourishing new career then it needs plenty of players playing it!
the beginnings of a framework and a workable structure of
contacts and interest has been put in place

 

where is the soprano trombone project (STP) today?

considerable national (UK) and international interest
has been generated over the previous years and this will continue to help
push the project ahead with further commissions,
performances, instrument development and recordings

tim ewers and kingston university have been and continue to be instrumental in
supporting the project - writing music, providing space, contacts and facilities
as well as putting in a lot of hard work with the aim of securing funding
for the continuation of the project

the young scottish composer scott lygate was commissioned by
james macmillan’s cumnock tryst festival
to write an SATB trombone quartet
premiered october 2016

a CD recording of new music will be recorded (subject to funding applications),
part-funded by kingston university, london UK

the trombone trio pandora’s box is in a long-term partnership
to create music and performances
including the soprano trombone as part of an SATB quartet

in talks with the vocal ensemble apollo5, planning to stage
a major concert in london (subject to funding applications) with
pandora’s box quartet in a programme of renaissance and new music
for vocal ensemble, trombone quartet (SATB) and electronics.

some of london’s main music hubs and educational establishments are planned to
take part in pilot-projects (subject to funding applications) providing workshops and lessons
for beginner soprano trombonists. the small soprano trombone makes it possible to (very literally!)
reach beginner players at a considerably younger age than is usually possible
with the standard tenor trombone

the examination board MTB have agreed to create an
examination syllabus grade 1-8 (initially grades 1-3)
specifically for the soprano trombone

a major british instrument manufacturer - wessex tubas - are currently designing and planning to
manufacture an affordable quality instrument to our own specifications.
this is an essential part of the STP in order for the very important
educational aspect to be achievable
 

2015/2016 performances

spontonality, cornwall, UK (2015 and 2016)
brunel university (trombone and electronics)
JW3, london, with the turntablist matt wright
pandora's box at the setubal festival, portugal
goldsmith's college, london (trombone and electronics)
'grofus, hultmark & ryder' at london college of music (2016)
notes inégales: purcell's opera king arthur at the 2016 spitalfields festival, london
queen mary university london recital (november 2016)
 

2016 premieres and performances

world premiere of 'salt' by john kenny at the 2016 setubal festival,
with the headspace ensemble
second performance at the cumnock tryst festival, scotland

recordings and performances at spontonality 2016
kestle barton, cornwall, UK

video recording of 'vocal shafts' by roger dean
for soprano trombone and electronics

video recording of 'metaphors of space and of time' by oded ben-tal
for soprano trombone and electronics

world premiere of 'the barony a-frame' by scott lygate
a cumnock tryst commission 2016
for pandora's box trombone
quartet SATB

 

2017 premieres and performances

a series of recitals, workshops and talks in collaboration with roger dean during september/october
for soprano trombone, piano and live electronics: milton keynes, queen mary university,
birmingham conservatoire and kingston university, london

world premiere of 'slide' by tim ewers, for soprano trombone and electronics

spontonality festival in cornwall, UK, october 2017 - five days of performances and
recordings with zoë martlew (cello), julian bliss (clarinet),
tony woods (saxophones) and tim west (piano).

 

2018 premieres and performances

grünwaldsalen, stockholms konserthus, sweden, february 2018
premiere of a new 1-hr programme for soprano trombone,
trumpet, bassoon and electronics

HOW TO write for the soprano trombone

the soprano has through the centuries had some recurring problems:
(1) difficult to find good instruments
(2) difficult to find people able to play it well.
it is too high for many trombonists and it
takes time for trumpeters to learn good slide technique.
(3) people often don't know how to write for it

 

why should I write for it?
potentially it has a vocal beautiful-sounding expressive tone, and with a unique flexibility and technique.
you may encounter some practical problems so a certain amount of pioneering-spirit is essential.
but then, for a composer this goes with the territory!

 

1. the instrument:

these are easy to find and inexpensive but they aren’t always great. instruments also vary in terms of the number of slide positions. some are fully chromatic - having taken the extra length of slide from the bell section which for rasons of tone is not an ideal solution - and some lack the 7th position in the lower range. positions on all trombones are closer together higher up, thus the top half of the register should be fully chromatic. in my view the sound is markedly improved by using a very deep mouthpiece, similar perhaps to a flugelhorn mouthpiece. my own instrument is one that I specially commissioned. it is a fully professional instrument (but expensive!) and it includes an F-valve so the missing-notes problem is in that way sidestepped. i currently work with an instrument manufacturer in the UK on a prototype instrument. eventually it will, (I hope) be the first really playable but inexpensive instrument on the market.

 

2. the player:

the mouthpiece is too small for most trombonists so it generally has to be played by a trumpet player. you can, however, occasionally find people who play both the trumpet and the tenor trombone, and that person should be able to pick up the soprano more quickly. having said that, any trumpet player can learn to pick it up reasonably quickly as long as the part isn’t too difficult. I’m sure in any case that you’d aim to liaise with the player if possible. tuning is in my view by far the biggest difficulty, and it takes years to learn really good slide technique. learning the violin is a good analogy - the positions are very close and it is all perhaps in a range where tuning is particularly critical. BUT, there are many great violinists around, it just takes time to learn.

 

3. writing for the soprano:

it is written in treble clef. the soprano is in Bb, i.e. an octave higher than the tenor. the range is pretty much the same to that of a trumpet - F3 up to however high the player feels comfortable (Bb5?). It can be written 'in C' or 'in Bb’ but either way the sounding Bb will be in 1st position, the difference is only what the player calls the note. write for the soprano exactly the way you would for a tenor without an F-valve. glissandi will largely be the same as on the tenor, just not quite as wide. avoid B3 and E4 as they may not exist on the instrument. you might have to imagine the player to be a good trumpet player (good control of register, tone, phrasing and articulation etc) but a beginner trombonist, all in one! but it all depends for whom you write the piece. if you are not sure who’s to play it then I’d suggest stay safe and keep perhaps mainly within in the range G3-F5 (sounding pitch), and not too fast moving.

finally, my advice as a starting point when writing for the trombone, including the soprano, is to think VOCALLY.

 

PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF YOU WRITE FOR THE SOPRANO, I'D LOVE TO HEAR ABOUT IT

torbjörn

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