a kaddish on natural horn

Those who are listening will have noticed that today’s recording (kaddish_2010.11.14) was weird.

Mira has been commenting all along about how the stopped-horn passage (about a minute from the end) bounces her out of the piece. We’ve been discussing (both privately and here) why that might be.

Here’s how I explained that sound:

So that passage that keeps bouncing you out (such a visual!) is a horn thing.

Horns didn’t have valves and couldn’t play chromatic scales until the late 1800s. Until then, we could only play notes on the open harmonic series–so in our middle octave, that’s do, mi, sol, se (si flat), do. To get some of the notes in between, we stopped up the bell with the right hand and blew harder. Others we got by partially closing or covering the bell. We did a variety of tricky things with the right hand to get the missing pitches.

The thing is, each of those things changed the timbre away from the pure horn sound to something else. The stopped notes are buzzy, pinched, and much softer. The covered notes are darker, murkier. Etc.

Now we have valves and can play all the notes, but we still do the right-hand trickery to get those special sounds. Stopped horn is what I’m doing in that passage.

Typically stopped horn is requested when the composer wants to suggest the forest, foxes, hunting horns, horses, the hunt. It’s also used in a less buzzy form to suggest an echo. Some use of special effects such as stopping tends to be de rigeur in a modern solo horn piece.

I’m not sure Kogan had a better reason than that for marking that phrase stopped. But because he did mark it that way and I’m still a slave to the ink, I do it. My best guess is that he wanted that line to sound either distant or hesitant. I tend to go with hesitant, and I play that phrase as a question–a shy one, not quite in full voice.

Mira doesn’t like it. It sounds weak to her, like I’ve been sapped of strength.

So I decided to try appealing to the historian in Mira, by playing the whole thing on natural horn. I did Siunday’s take on natural horn, demonstrating the origins of the stopped horn sound. I have a Seraphinoff “Halari” model natural horn. I used the F crook and played “Kaddish” in the usual key.

It wasn’t an entirely successful experiment, at least to my hearing. “Kaddish” being highly chromatic, it’s a challenge to render on natural horn. Most music written for natural horn was idiomatic, and this is definitely not. If Kogan had intended it for natural horn, quite a few things would have been different. Certain notes just don’t speak, and quite a few things that are marked as slurred would be legato-tongued on natural horn. I made some of those changes on the fly, and the scooping sounds you hear between some notes are where I didn’t tongue but should have.

(The fact that I have never practiced “Kaddish” on natural horn didn’t help much, either. My rules prevented me from practicing it before I recorded it, and I didn’t want to wait a day with the idea. Putting this take out there in all its gnarly glory was not easy.)

One of these days I’ll be trying on a horn more modern than my usual horn, which a Lawson pre-Fourier model double horn that was originally built for Bob Ward (principal horn in the San Francisco Symphony) and has been since further customized for me. I’m looking forward to trying “Kaddish” on my Lawson descant horn, a six-valve B♭/f alto horn with a low F extension that was built for the extraordinary solo and jazz hornist Bobby Routch.

Because you can just never have too much horn porn, here’s the trio of horns in historical order: Halari (mid-18th c. design, copy built in 1994), Lawson (completed March 1985), Lawson (completed December 1984).

And, as long as we’re going all visual, why not a look behind the curtain? This is what my studio looks like these days.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…
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2 Responses to a kaddish on natural horn

  1. mira says:

    There’s a stage. No — there’s straw on the ground. A barn?
    A young boy alone — on horn
    His chores are done. There’s no agenda, just time alone with his horn.
    Pastoral scene. Late summer. The sun is setting on the wheat fields
    where the stacks have been bound.
    No, not again!
    Mice in the horn? He shakes it out.
    Ah, there we go…
    He’s gonna be late for supper, but takes his time —
    He will not rush the end this time —
    he grins
    and so do I.

  2. erin says:

    Is this your response to the Sunday recording on natural horn, or Monday’s attempt to play from memory on my usual modern horn? I’m hoping from the mice in the horn that it’s the former!

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