Last Saturday, October 3, 79 year old trombone legend Stuart Dempster joined Music for Contemplation to anchor a program featuring his works. The program included Conch Calling (which you can hear here), Integrity29, Tromba Annunciation for 12 trombones, and a work for three Didjeridus. After applause, Stuart performed his solo Didjeridervish, twirling around, instrument in hand, sending out spinning drones into, and above the heads of, the audience.
Stuart served as the meeting point for a group of experimental trombonists, including Monique Buzzarté, Chris McIntyre of TILT Brass, Tucker Dulin, Steve Swell, Bret Sroka, Deborah Weisz, David Whitwell, Peter Zummo, David Taylor and Mike Lormond. I encourage you to check out each of these trombonists.
We had one rehearsal Friday afternoon before the concert. There was no score, and no directions were given out before we came together. Stuart had spent time on his own considering what to do, drawing from his extensive experience working with groups and with other trombones. He asked us to spread around the church, surrounding the audience, and began making some tones, inviting us to join him. He tried a few things out, listened, and then tried some other things out. His authority on the trombone was clear from every note, and each of the very distinguished trombonists received direction with grace and humility..
One technique he used was "passing" a note around the circle. Because the trombone is a directional instrument, the sound is most clear in the direction the bell is pointed. He would aim the bell of his trombone at another musician, and play a note. The trombonist would play the note, slowly turning his or her bell and direct that note to the next trombonist, who would receive it and "pass" it to the next trombonist.
Another technique was pointing his bell as one of the players and playing a note. The player would match the note, and then continue playing it. He would then aim his bell at another player and play another note, and so on around the room until everyone had a note. As he moved around the circle of trombonists, each would add notes, and the chord would blossom.
After about 90 minutes of rehearsal, Stuart stopped, and said "that's enough for today". The next day, he came back with some more ideas, and we had another 45 minute rehearsal. This was how the piece came about. It was born of Stuart's experience, and depended on the ability of the musicians to respond to him and to the moment. As he remarked after the first rehearsal, this can be "hazardous" as one never knows where the music will lead or whether musicians will be able to respond.
The experience affirmed my preference for acoustic instruments. It's really worth all the work organizing people, and doing fundraisers to bring everyone together and get that sound. The work preparing for the concert is working with other people, which I prefer to working with computers or electronics, spending hours figuring out which wire isn't working or which setting is holding incorrect.
What for me is remarkable is that Stuart was able to bring each of the individual trombonists together and form a cohesive whole. For the first time, I felt like I belonged in a community of trombonists. This is very affirming. I was thinking after the concert how to bring these amazing musicians together again, and it occurred to me that the community was made possible in the person of Stuart himself: his authority on the trombone, his open-mindedness to music, his skill as a composer, his experience, and his genuine curiosity and interest in the individuals. There are few other trombonists who might be able to do this, and few composers who can work with groups like this.