An Out-of-this-World Performance!
It was a minor thrill to join the long line of people braving rainy weather outside the Guggenheim Museum to experience the East Coast premiere of Henry Brant's Orbits: A Spatial Symphonic Ritual (1979) on Sunday night. Like many others, I was shut out of the 7:30 performance, but I withstood the rainfall to enjoy the 8:30 performance. I hope that no one was turned away, because the concert proved to be one of the outstanding musical events of the year.
As mentioned previously, Brant was a leading proponent of spatial music—compositions created with the placement of sound in mind. In the case of Orbits, the performance design involves 80 trombonists, assembled in a semi-circle around the audience, abetted by an organ and a soprano (or higher-pitched sopranino).
At the Guggenheim, the audience gathered in the circular ground floor lobby, where organist William Trafka also took his place. Conductor Neely Bruce stood yards above him up the interior spiral, leading the musicians from behind a music stand. The trombonists filled about 300 degrees worth of two overlapping spirals above Bruce. (Robert Stolarik's stunning photo accompanying Anthony Tommasini's very positive New York Times review gives you a bird's eye view of most of the arrangement—I don't think it captured some higher-pitched trombones to the right, and I still don't know where the heck soprano Phyllis Bruce was. [UPDATE Neely Bruce wrote me that "Phyllis Bruce was in the very top of the Rotunda, where you would get off the elevator (in the curved 'bump' in the ramp, so to speak). It made no difference where she stood in the bump, so the idea was to have her basically invisible. The skylight so diffused the sound (she was immediately below it) that it was literally impossible to tell where it was coming from. A nice effect, don't you think?"] Also, as you can see from civilian photography including my video (below), the trombonists were not nearly as visible from the ground floor.)
As far as I could tell, the arrangement of the trombones approximated a conventional keyboard, with lower sonorities (including, I think, at least one valveless bass or contrabass trombone) to the conductor's left and higher sonorities (including, I think, at least one piccolo or sopranino trombone) to his right. According to the program notes, the composition subdivided the trombonists into eight groups that sometimes played en masse and at other times played independently, using a range of sonorities from a muffled rumble to coarse growls to clear upper-range tones.
At least one section was like a trombone version of The Wave you might see at a stadium: The trombones glissed upward from low tones on the left to high tones on the right...and then went into reverse. The sparingly used tone colors from the organ [the speakers were on ground level] complemented the trombones well, with the (seemingly disembodied) soprano voice almost floating independently through the Guggenheim's interior. The climactic overtone was exquisite.
Presented by the Guggenheim's Works & Process series in coordination with Make Music New York, this was a rare and marvelous event that was far more satisfying than I would have hoped. Even the great fit between the performance and the museum's acoustics was a great surprise to me. Who knew that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a great performance for a large trombone choir (that reportedly included more than 80 horns)? (Having stood outside during the first performance, I also note that the building seems pretty well soundproofed.)
I hope that this performance gives new life to Orbits. If tuba and euphonium players can congregate annually for TUBACHRISTMAS, why can't trombonist gatherings for Orbits be at least a yearly phenomenon in New York City? It could become an annual ritual at the Guggenheim. It would also be interesting to hear it in other spaces, including concert halls, houses of worship, and stadiums in the metropolitan area and other locations near and far.
Perhaps these performances could also foster the long overdue development of an 80-trombone spatial music repertoire. If you're going through the trouble of recruiting several dozen trombonists for a performance, you might as well give them something else to play. I can imagine some interesting approaches....
Anyway, here's a video report (with some jitter) that I put together. There might be a pause as it switches from the first part to the second part (of two). There's more video out there, including footage of both performances by morguebabe.
Video by David Marc Fischer (11:23 total)