Friday, November 30, 2018

The Canadian Brass has its first concert in more than 20 years tonight at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City

In addition to the quintet's brilliance and talents, Canadian Brass is also known for its inspired silliness. I wrote program notes for the concert in the spirit of this inspired silliness--because there's no way I could fake my way through brilliance and talent--but I had a nagging suspicion that I might have gotten a bit tooooo silly when I submitted my copy.

And my suspicions were, for once, brilliant; Hancher politely decided not to put what I wrote in the program, but the communications director said he still liked it and suggested that I post it on the social medias. Which is exactly what I'm doing.

So pretend you're sitting in Hancher Auditorium right now, eagerly awaiting the Canadian Brass concert to start, and discovering that you'll have to completely ignore your date because you can't tear your eyes away from this inspired-and-despite-my-suspicions-not-tooooo-silly-at-all little essay you've discovered in your program.

(And if you don't have tickets to tonight's concert, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? Canadian Brass is guaranteed awesome. So get your tickets here.)

We warmly welcome Canadian Brass to our country
In the spirit of holiday welcome, we will gladly add meaningless extra Canadian letters to our words when we say our neighbours to the north play marvellously with colour, humour and gruelling labour
By Jake Stigers, recovering trombonist

Canadian Brass is an institution. A very serious musical ensemble that plays very serious music very seriously. I could not be any different degree of seriousness about this.

As such, it is worth investing a bit of your time and interest right now to learn everything there is to know about everything related to brass music to ensure you fully appreciate the Canadian Brass performance you’re about to hear.

Fortunately for you, I have condensed the entirety of brass-music history and knowledge into the following few short and not at all disjointed paragraphs. But don’t worry: There won’t be a test.

(say it with me: AHM-boo-shure): The way a brass player holds his or her lips, tongue, teeth and even facial muscles to blow or sometimes buzz air through an instrument. Some people compare it to kissing, but those people are wrong. Most beginning brass players and all Hancher audience members who’ve never played brass instruments are slightly alarmed that this odd lip-shape-buzz-thing even has a name.

Transposing instruments: This is extremely difficult to explain to people who haven’t had a lot of eggnog, but music for many brass instruments is written so that when a player sees a note on a page and plays that note, an entirely different but still usually pleasant note comes out. Nobody who hasn’t had a lot of eggnog knows why, but the fact remains that the sounds these transposing instruments (note: they’re called transposing instruments, if I forgot to mention that earlier) waft over unsuspecting audiences is an effluvium of lies. (Note to self: Effluvium of Lies is a great name for a brass quintet.) Fortunately for you the listener, the notes on the pages in front of the musicians here have all been laboriously recalibrated and neatly tuckpointed to the point that they will all come out relatively correctly. We hope.

Awesomeness: All brass instruments are awesome. Even the flüglehorn, but mostly because it has an umlaut. Anyway, put a bunch of brass instruments together into a quintet, and the awesomeness grows exponentially. Especially if they’re from Canada. And they have a cool band name.

Woodwinds: Woodwinds are not brass; they are the embarrassing cousins of brass who always have too much eggnog at what were supposed to be pleasant, un-alarming holiday parties. We are polite to woodwinds because they can hit lots of high notes—which reduces strain on the embouchures of brass players who don’t have to play them—but most woodwind players got to carry small instrument cases on the bus in middle school, and the brass players who had to carry the huge instrument cases simply cannot let go of their lingering resentment.

Percussion: Percussion is also not brass. Percussion is Latin—I think—for GO AHEAD AND TRY TO PLAY OVER ME YOU BRASS WIMPS I DARE YOU. In case you hadn’t noticed, percussion is loud. To make the situation worse, percussionists actually stand up so they can hit their drums and other hapless instruments with full body force to make them even louder. It’s not polite, and it’s not fair.

Strings: If you want to hear Canadian Strings, you’ll have to go to Violincouver. Because that is the only string-instrument-plus-major-Canadian-city mashup I can think of.

Ophthalmologist: This word has nothing to do with brass quintets—except for a possible causal relationship to the size of those little black music notes—but it’s included here to make sure you notice that it has two l’s. Most people misspell it, but now you won’t. It will also not be on the test.

Often called a hashtag by the trendy kids, a sharp is an impossible-to-play-because-it’s-so-small tic-tac-toe board that is used to indicate that a note is raised one half step. Which is also called a semitone.

Flat: Often confused for a London apartment, a flat is a pointy little lowercase B (or I guess I could have typed that b) that is used to indicate that a note is lowered one half step. Which is still called a semitone.

Timbre (say it with me: TAM-ber): Also called tone color, the timbre (and I am not making this up: pronounce it TAM-ber or you will feel the cruel, oppressive judgment of every known musician past, present and future) is the character or perceived sound quality of a musical note or sound. It’s how we differentiate trumpets from sopranos (depending on the trumpets) or pianos from xylophones or the music that all these kids are listening to nowadays from rusty air horns.

Here is a comprehensive, meaningful, fully representative dissertation on every Canadian Brass instrument you’re about to hear. Or maybe just four of them.

Used to signal charges (cash was also accepted) in battles as far back as 1500 BC, the trumpet is now the go-to brass instrument for people who are too weak to carry tubas around. Trumpets are made with curves and swirls of metallic tubing that are not unlike Iowa State Fair funnel cakes, but with three vertical piston valves right in front of the trumpeters’ faces, which would make my eyes cross if I had to look at them.

Grossest feature: The spit valve. It’s exactly like a spigot on a pitcher of refreshing lemonade except instead it dumps accumulated trumpeter spit on the floor. Which is in no way refreshing. Or lemonade. A spit valve is called a water key in more polite circles. And also because the stuff that comes out of a spit valve is mostly condensation from a player’s breath, but I dare you to convince every English-speaking brass player ever to stop saying spit valve.

Etymology: The Old French trompe means, poetically, "long, tube-like musical wind instrument.” So old French people who play the trumpet are called “longtubelikemusicalwindinstrumenters.”

Linear length of straightened trumpet tubing: 6 feet.

Fun fact: The original Olympic Games involved a five-foot trumpet called the Salpinx. My research does not clarify with absolute certainty whether the Salpinx was actually played like a trumpet or instead thrown like a javelin.

Mutes: As with all brass instruments, trumpets employ mutes to alter their sound. (Do you remember our discussion about the sound-changing differentiations of timbre? DO YOU REMEMBER HOW TO PRONOUNCE IT?) Mutes fit into the bell of a trumpet and and often get mistaken for standard barware like orange juicers and martini shakers. Which explains everything you need to know.

Often called the French horn, the plain-old horn is the only orchestra or band instrument that blows all of its sound backward in a direction where nobody can hear it except for the band moms who are waiting backstage with hugs and cookies. Whenever someone points out this ridiculous (I’m sorry but someone had to say it) design flaw, players of other brass instruments usually nod knowingly at each other and politely change the subject.

Grossest feature: While the spit valve—ahem, water key—is always totally gross, the horn has another gross trick up its sleeve … which is a pun because a horn player holds the horn by sticking one hand up its bell where all the humid horn air comes out, leaving the bell-holding hand what we will politely call clammy. Never high-five a horn player after a concert. You’ve been warned.

Etymology: The French made hoop-shaped hunting horns (alliteration runs rampant!) in the 1600s that they called trompes de chasse (which, as we can carry over from our trumpet etymology lesson, means “hunting long, tube-like musical wind instruments”). Because the French invented these horns, the English called them French horns. There’s no hiding stuff from the English.

Linear length of straightened horn tubing: 17 feet.

Fun fact: As I’ve pointed out earlier in the politest terms possible, the horn’s bell faces backward where I’m sorry but the audience could probably hear you better of you just hummed. As such, the horn is especially inefficient at blaring to the home-team crowds in a marching band. Enter: the mellophone! Not only does the mellophone have a forward-facing bell like all self-respecting marching-band instruments, but the bell has a huge, view-obstructing diameter that can leave its players tripping or wandering into the middle of the field without realizing it. Which serves them right for choosing an instrument that plays backward.

Mutes: Horn mutes probably look like trumpet mutes. I think. Since they’re used in backward-facing horn bells though, there’s really no way to know.

The trombone is the long slidey brass instrument that has to sit back a few extra feet in a band or orchestra so it doesn’t hit the bassoons or saxophones or other lesser wind instruments in front of it when it stretches out to hit the low notes. While its shape should logically be a T (for Trombone), the consensus among people who discuss these things is that it’s shaped like an S (for Should Be A T But Whatever). Some trombones also have trumpet-type valves attached to the backs. Those are for trombonists who are too lazy to extend their long slidey things all the way for the low notes.

Key term: The long slidey part of a trombone is called a telescoping slide mechanism by the band kids who aren’t as cool as the other band kids. Which is really saying something.

Grossest feature: The spit valve on a trombone is also called a water key by people who are squeamish around the word spit. Because it’s at the far end of the telescoping mechanism, it leaves its spit puddle the farthest away from the musician—as opposed to other brass instruments that plop their spit right in front of the musicians and create serious actuarial hazards.

Etymology: The Italian tromba (trumpet) and -one ("big") make a trombone literally a "big trumpet.” But with a “telescoping slide mechanism.” And a “puddle of spit” that’s “really far away.”

Linear length of straightened trombone tubing: 9 feet. 13 feet if you measure with the slide fully extended. But why would anyone do that?

Fun fact: During the Renaissance, people called the trombone a “sackbut.” I am not making this up.

Mutes: Mute-as-in-shhh! mutes for trombones look like genie bottles or traffic cones sized for golden retrievers who drive. Wah-wah mutes (yes, that’s a thing) look like little toddler hats. Or the business ends of toilet plungers. Because some trombonists actually use the business ends of toilet plungers as wah-wah mutes. So wash your hands after you greet a trombonist after a muted performance. Or ever. (And this is no doubt the first time toilet plunger has appeared in a Hancher program. Three times, actually!)

You will likely encounter three kinds of tubas in your lifetime, if you haven’t already: A concert tuba sits in a player’s lap and points straight up and politely doesn’t bump into other players. A hélicon is a tuba that wraps around a player’s body like a hug from a long-lost aunt at an awkward family reunion and points kind of upward so as to be heard as it’s being played while (and I am not making this up, though it sounds impossible to play a tuba in this situation) horseback riding. And a sousaphone is a super-round, super-curvy tuba that wraps around a player’s body and points its bell at the football stands and makes super-loud, super-awesome tuba noises.

Grossest feature: Have you ever seen a tuba spit valve? It looks like the Hoover Dam of the brass world. You could drown in the ensuing catastrophic deluge if it breaks. And that would be tu bad.

Etymology: Tuba is latin for “trumpet.” Latin was never good at measurements or perspective.

Linear length of straightened tuba tubing: 16 to 26 feet, depending on the type of tuba.

Fun fact: Two men named Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Moritz patented what they called a “bass tuba” in 1835 with valves that they called “Berlinerpumpen.” All of those consonants are exactly the reason tubas are considered to be the spittiest of the brass instruments.

Other fun fact: Around 1900 there was some kind of spittin’ match (ahem) to build a tuba that played lower than the contrabass tuba, whose sound was already so low that it could only be measured on the Richter scale, which wouldn’t even be invented until 1935. So in 1913, some guys built what they called a “subcontrabass” for the World Exhibition in New York. It needed two players: one to blow in the mouthpiece and one to operate the valves. And six to clean up the spit.

Mutes: Tuba mutes are the same size and shape as Iowa tornadoes. Tuba Mutes is also a great name for a band. Especially a band of brass instruments. With five players. From Canada. Or not.

So congratulations! You can now count yourself up to speed on all things brass. And some things Canadian. All that’s left now is to enjoy the concert.

And to take the test.

Jake Stigers is a writer, singer, actor and recovering trombonist living in Cedar Rapids. He still harbors resentment toward all the flute players who could hold their instrument cases in their laps on the bus in middle school.

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