Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Garden of Brass

Humboldt Brass Ensemble Workshop.

“Garden of Brass” sounds oxymoronic, but it isn’t. Labyrinths are baffling, confusing, frustrating. The garden is peace, achievement, exhilaration, satisfaction. I just spent a week in the garden of brass—chamber music for brass, that is.

It’s a modern version of monastic devotion, without the self-denial or the threats of eternal punishment. Adults of all ages, genders, and skill levels assemble for one or two weeks at Humboldt State University to play brass chamber music, from trios to nearly orchestral size ensembles, in configurations from horn and trombone choirs to tuba and euphonium choirs. Adults spend precious vacation time here, or they plan retirement trips around a week or two at this workshop. Like the monastic life, it is a time of intense focus, a chance to withdraw from the day-to-day world of politics and paychecks. We lived in small (dorm) rooms, spent morning, noon, and night rehearsing and playing. I ignored the world at large for six days, except I found out that there had been an earthquake strong enough to knock knick-knacks off shelves at home. The only un-frugal thing was the food, which was served with high-metabolic-rate college students in mind. I ate and ate, and now have to renew my dedication to weight loss from a higher board, so to speak, which means a longer, more dizzying time in the air before I plunge into the water with my (hopefully) diminished body-mass. The penalty for self-indulgence is the inferno of self-denial.

But I also acted for the greater glory—playing and learning. Nurturing the spirit, so to speak.

The workshop has a wholesome and humane theology—complete with an end-times vision. The most important commandment is this: copying is forbidden, unless to practice a part, or make a page-turn easier. A composer writes to write, but also to live; publishers publish to make money—why should we begrudge them? If we take one composition and copy it 80 times, the publisher and composer have lost 79 opportunities to live. This is worthy of the Catholic church’s institution of fish on Fridays to help the Italian fishing industry centuries ago.

String and woodwind players have acres of chamber music from the last four centuries. Brass players, whose instruments evolved into their present niches more recently, lag way behind. Discouraging composers is self-defeating. Like the organic world, the world of music changes over time; there is no single, comprehensive, act that established a static universe. So: nurture composers, who in turn will nurture players in a glorious, thriving symbiosis.

Me—I was a tuba player among ten or twelve other tuba players, nearly all of whom were more skilled, but I learned not to be bothered by this: I played as well as I could and didn’t do badly, even when I missed notes. The more important thing, I was told, was to be able to keep moving with the music and the ensemble, which I could do. The skills will continue to develop with practice.

Too many helpings of decent food aside, though, the real hunger is for more music, more opportunities to be among people who, whatever their regular activities—computer programmers, teachers, social workers, retirees coming back to play instruments they haven’t thought about for years—yearn for the camaraderie of music. A further hunger is for more writing of music—as a composer, it’s very exciting to be among people who want to play music, and to see that your music can be played (even if only once). I don’t particularly write to make money so much as to get music out of my head, so I can go on to more music. I have at least a dozen projects inspired by the camp. They sit in my head, or in a notebook, while I look at the next month before I have to go back to teaching, and wonder how much I’ll actually get done before the real world closes in around me.


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