Exclusive Interview with American Brass Quintet: June 13, 2011
The American Brass Quintet
Rel. 11 Jan 2011
On Tuesday, June 12, 2011, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with Ray Mase, trumpet player of the American Brass Quintet – which late last year celebrated its 50th Anniversary, a rare feat for a chamber ensemble. In this rich and insightful interview, Mr. Mase discusses the aesthetic mission that has sustained the ABQ since its founding in 1960: a fierce dedication to serious brass music, a reverence for the brass music of the late-Renaissance, and a passion for contemporary works – of which the group has commissioned over 100 so far. Mr. Mase also discusses many details of the ABQ’s anniversary CD, State of the Art: The ABQ at 50, dedicated entirely to recent works written for the ensemble; as well as the joys and surprises of receiving new works for brass quintet; the group’s active teaching duties at Juilliard and at the Aspen Music Festival, and much more. Our feature also includes an ABQ Playlist and a pair of ABQ videos – including of our own Nolan Gasser’s GLAST Prelude. Don’t miss this fascinating interview celebrating a group of true chamber music pioneers.
“It’s so much easier to run a group when you have a strong sense of mission, as the ABQ does. You can always look at your mission statement and ask, "e;Does this new activity we’re considering support the mission statement, or doesn't it?"e; When the answer is yes, you know what you need to do; and when the answer is no, it's obvious that this is something you don't want to pursue.”
– Ray Mase, American Brass Quintet
Nolan Gasser: Raymond Mase, welcome to Classical Archives. In late 2010, the American Brass Quintet, or the ABQ, hit a rare milestone for a classical chamber ensemble: it's 50th Anniversary. Of course, there have been a few personnel changes over these past five decades; but still, keeping an entity like a brass quintet in existence for such an extended period is not an obvious feat. If you can summarize it, to what would you attribute the staying power of the ABQ [current members: Ray Mase (1973) and Kevin Cobb (1998), trumpets; David Wakefield (1976), French horn; Michael Powell (1983), tenor trombone; and John Rojak (1991), bass trombone].
Ray Mase: Well, first thank for your congratulations. I think you're right that not a lot of chamber groups get that far; and even though there were a lot of personnel changes in the early years of the Quintet, we've had just two in the last 25 years! So a lot has stabilized for the ABQ in the last few decades, and our operation has become pretty consistent.
If I were to summarize with one word what has helped our group to "weather the storms" for so many years, I think I would say: consistency. Our consistency of purpose has been a big part of the group; from the beginning, we always had the belief that the promotion of serious brass chamber music was our Number 1 priority; and that has never changed. Although many chamber groups - particularly brass groups - went into lots of different directions, we stayed consistent with that priority the whole time. I think having a mission like that, which has really stabilized the group's activities, has enabled us to stay focused on what was really important.
And this consistency also has to include the decades we've spent at the Aspen Music Festival, for 40 years, and at the Juilliard School, for 25 years - which have settled into a regular routine for us. I think that's been very important: that everyone in the group knows where they'll be each year, and how our schedule fits in with their lives as a whole; having those kinds of predictable expectations is a very healthy thing for a chamber group. In the early years of the ABQ, the schedule would be full sometimes, but not so full at other times, and from year to year the guys would have to scramble to figure out how to make it work with their lives. That's really changed in the last thirty years or so, and it's really helped to stabilize our group - and again give us that consistency.
NG: We will certainly get to your activities at Aspen and at Juilliard; but let's stay a bit on the overall mission of the group. I've read in your newsletters and various articles that from the very beginning, the ABQ took a very serious approach to brass chamber music -choosing not to do arrangements of popular songs, for example, but rather taking a more purist approach to repertoire - which has had a major impact on what you do perform and record. Can you talk a little bit more about that aesthetic position - how it formed in the beginning and you've maintained it?
RM: Well, interestingly, the founders of the quintet were five guys who were very like-minded about this. They put the group together based on their mutual interest in trying to see if brass music could be something other than just a footnote to chamber music. Of course, there's not a lot of chamber music historically written for brass, having a lot to do with the limitations of the instruments. As such, those guys in 1960 realized it would take a lot of work to establish a brass quintet in the way they envisioned it. But they were up to the challenge, and saw it as something really worthwhile - and something they really wanted to pursue. So, with careful preparation of music from the past - a lot of it for unspecified instruments, or for the ancestors of modern brass - and, moving forward, with pieces written expressly for them, the ABQ got started.
Right from the get-go, it was a labor of love; the group really wanted to do this, and they got some fine recognition in the 1960s. It's interesting that as other brass groups went in different directions, the ABQ never changed; we often say, "The more we stayed the same, the more different we became." In the 1970s and 80s, when we wanted to play serious chamber music concerts, people would often question it; but we kept saying, "This is who we are, this is who we've always been, and this is who we want to remain." At the time, it seemed like we were doing this very unusual thing in the field - but in fact we were just doing what we always had done, and we continue that approach to this day.
It's so much easier to run a group when you have a strong sense of mission, as the ABQ does. You can always look at your mission statement and ask, "Does this new activity we're considering support the mission statement, or doesn't it?" When the answer is yes, you know what you need to do; and when the answer is no, it's obvious that this is something you don't want to pursue. I find that we very often talk about who we are and what we should do, and it brings together a strong sense of the group and our activities.
NG: It is true that a lot of chamber groups do shift with the wind, trying to stay popular or "current", and with 50 years behind you, you're demonstrating that sticking to your principles is a good recipe for endurance. And it's obvious that having this sense of mission is a key facet of your great success.
We'll soon focus in this conversation on the CD that accompanies this anniversary year, State of the Art: The ABQ at 50, but let's stick just a bit more with the overall aesthetic framework that informs the ABQ. As you mentioned, from the very beginning the ABQ established a notable respect for and interest in the music of an earlier period, written for unspecified brass, during the late Renaissance / early Baroque. Yet, throughout your career, you've also focused on the other end of the spectrum, new music - aiming to create, as you put it, a "second Golden Age of brass." I'm wondering, given your experience in both realms, if you've come to discern any interesting aesthetic or perhaps technical similarities that inform the brass music of these two periods - that perhaps are lacking in the interceding eras; or put in a different way, what do you think makes these two periods in particular so fruitful for brass music?
RM: That's a great question; it would be great if there were some underlying thread that I could weave beautifully on these two areas… I think the sound of brass instruments has always been a fascinating one. It has a certain kind of regal quality, or something associated with nobility, or a higher ground somehow. It certainly has that quality in the brass music from the Renaissance; there's some really wonderful music from this period that has not been fully embraced by other instruments - even though winds and strings certainly played this repertoire as well; but these instruments have their own repertoire, and so they never really delved into it the way that we did. And this early music compliments what we do with modern repertoire very well, I think. Of course, modern music is so diverse: there are certainly many pieces that focus on the sonority of brass, but we've also got a lot of very complex and unusual sounding pieces as well.
NG: Well, it certainly has been very fruitful for you to explore both realms.
I was intrigued to learn that two early members of the ABQ, trombonist and co-founder Arnold Fromme (1960-70) and trumpeter Ronald Anderson (1962-65), both played previously with Noah Greenberg's groundbreaking early music group in the 1950s, the New York Pro Musica. How much do you think that experience has helped shape or influence the vision of the ABQ?
RM: Yes, Arnie Fromme in particular had a really strong attachment to early music; he was an avid player of sackbuts and really enjoyed this music; and so he drew in other members with like minds: Ronnie Anderson got interested because of Arnie's involvement; later Allan Dean (trumpet, 1964-65), Ron Borror (tenor trombone, 1977-83), and myself were all players who had had careers in the early music field, playing historical instruments. And there's no doubt that having performed this music on period instruments has brought a lot of depth to our performances of it on modern instruments; we've experienced first-hand many fine early music groups, and so there's a nice relationship that's developed between purely historical performances and our modern renditions of this repertoire.
NG: And do you still, on occasion, perform on period instruments - on sackbuts and early trumpets, for example?
RM: That's a good question. In the very earliest days, in the early 1960s, the group on its first recitals actually played a few pieces on cornets and sackbuts; but I've been in the group for almost 40 years, and we've never played on cornets and sackbuts. Incidentally, we've actually played a good amount on 19th-century brass instruments, and we've put out four recordings now of 19th-century repertoire on original instruments [e.g., two volumes, in 2002 and 2006, of brass music from the 26th N.C. Regimental Band]- which are much easier for modern players than cornets and sackbuts, which are really different.
NG: Well, it's clear that the ABQ continues to maintain its passion for that first Golden Age of Brass, the era of Gastoldi, Monteverdi, and most especially Giovanni Gabrieli, whose Sonata No. 20, for 22 voices, you performed at your 50th Anniversary concert at Alice Tully Hall, together with a number of brass students from Juilliard - and which you recorded on your 2005 CD In Gabrieli's Day.
But it does seem clear that over the years you've placed an even greater emphasis on new works for brass quintet - not only in that same Alice Tully concert, but also on the disc that you released to commemorate the anniversary, State of the Art. In the recent feature article on the ABQ in Chamber Music Magazine, you made the interesting point that you consciously chose not to produce a "nostalgic compilation of ABQ highlights of the past," which would have been much easier, but instead to release a 2 disc, 11-work collection of recent works written for the ABQ. Can you talk about the process of making this decision to do something so radical for your anniversary celebration?
RM: As the anniversary approached - and I'm talking about the five years leading up to it, we often spoke about the anniversary; it would come up at odd times, between towns on tour in a van late at night, for example, and somebody would say, "Gee, what about this?" And we'd toss it around a bit. So, clearly it was something that was on our minds, and we had a certain amount concern, or fear, about how effectively we could tie the 50 years of ABQ together for a celebration. We knew we wanted to put out a recording for the 50th, as we'd put out recordings for other anniversaries along the way. There was, of course, the suggestion of a retrospective, where we'd include a little something from each of the previous decades.
But the more we talked about it, the more it became clear: that as proud as we are of our past, we are always looking toward the future; we always have new pieces coming along, and we're always thinking about new projects. The more we thought about it, the more we said, "We've got pieces that we want to record that are important to us, pieces that we've been playing for the past several years; and maybe that's just a better celebration of what this group is all about." To us, that was a better capper to the 50 years than, "and here's a recording from the group in 1967"….
So, we talked about this idea a lot, and before I knew it, everybody was committed to it; we felt that this is who we are - and what we want to have as our representative recording for our 50th anniversary. And once we'd made the decision, things just fell into place; we knew we had a lot of music, we knew we it had to be two CDs and not just one. But once we'd committed and realized how logical and idea it was, the rest was just a matter of getting it done - which is a lot of work, basically 120 minutes of challenging music! It took a lot of effort, but I'm very glad that it's the tack we took, because I think it really represents the best we could have done.
NG: It seems that, as you've said, you simply looked at your mission statement and said, "How well does this fit?" And doing a compilation from the last 50 years was not so much in keeping with the mission of the ABQ.
RM: It's very true. This way, we didn't find ourselves saying, "Let's just relax and pat ourselves on the back, and everyone will say, 'you guys have done great'". Instead we said, "Let's try to do something that looks to the future, that looks beyond the 50th anniversary." And that was very exciting to us; that was something we wanted to take on.
NG: It also seems that part of what you're doing is paving the way for future groups -challenging them to look carefully at themselves and their decisions.
Well, it's a wonderful statement, and a great CD. So, let's talk about a few of the works it: certainly among the most significant pieces for the ABQ historically is the one that opens the CD, Joan Tower's Copperwave. This work was commissioned by the ABQ in 2006, but actually for the Juilliard School's own Centennial Celebration, and as you state, it's among the most popular and oft-performed works in your entire catalog. Can you remind us of how this commission came about, and what - aside from its contagious Latin rhythms - makes the work so successful from your point of view?
RM: When Juilliard was getting ready for its Centennial, they approached their ensembles-in-residence, of which we're one, to see about commissioning works for that event. We were very excited about this - and thought it was terrific that they would want to commission a piece for us. We quickly realized that it might also be an opportunity to get a work from a composer who we'd been looking at, or had tried to get in the past, but where it hadn't worked out. And Joan Tower was right at the top of that list. We had all played her music in different orchestras over the years, and really wanted to see if we could get a piece from her. And sure enough, the addition of the prestige and clout of the Juilliard School seems to have tipped the deck a bit. She was busy, but really wanted to take on the piece at this time, and we were thrilled.
As far as the piece itself - you never really know what you're going to get, even from composers with whom you're familiar. That's perhaps one of the charms of getting new pieces: it's just great to see what someone will come up with. Fortunately for us, Joan wrote a piece that immediately seemed very natural for us. There was actually very little change - a note here or there - from the original, so it's essentially exactly what she had written. I think she was even a little conservative in avoiding some of the boundaries of writing for brass instruments; it's not as difficult a work as the Elliott Carter [his Brass Quintet, commissioned by the ABQ in 1974], for example.
What is has done is given us a piece that we can play on a full recital, and still sound like ourselves at the end - which is so important. Interestingly, many pieces stand alone on a program as a great brass work, but we have to think really hard when we put a whole program together; we need to have played each piece close to the recital time, and have the program sound good throughout. So, sometimes a particularly challenging piece - as much as we might want to program it - is not something we can do on a given concert. But for whatever reason, Joan's piece became one that does work almost every time. So we've programmed it many, many times over the years since 2006; it just suits our group well. Again, you can't predict that happening, but it did with this piece - which occupies an important spot in our repertoire right now.
NG: This also speaks to the fact that, as you suggested, it's not necessarily tied to the prowess or the general experience of a composer - writing for brass is its own thing. I saw Joan's own comments that she'd had some previous trials and errors writing for brass; it had been something that she'd somewhat struggled with, and so the Juilliard / ABQ commission came just at the right time - when she'd gotten some of her own brass kinks out of the way, and was ripe to write this great piece for you.
NG: Now, among the other 10 works on the disc are two multi-movement pieces that were commissioned by the ABQ directly, in association with the Jerome Foundation for Emerging Composers - these include the Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo, his The Three Tenses from 2005, and the New York-based Gordon Beeferman's Brass Quintet from 2008. Both works are certainly among the most "progressive" of the collection, each employing some pretty avant-garde techniques (microtones in both works; and multi-phonics and over-blowing in the Ruo piece). They're both quite interesting, but likewise sound difficult, and indeed you've discussed a few times the delicate balance you often need to play when dealing with young composers. Can you talk a bit about the process of working with these young composers, when you don't quite know what you're going to get; and what kind of education do you try to impart to them?
RM: It's a great question. Whenever we commission someone, almost regardless of their experience or stature, one of us will have a little chat with them, saying, "We want to show you what we can do; we want to give you recordings; we want you to look at scores; we want you to feel as comfortable as you can with writing for brass quintets, because it's not like writing for a brass section in an orchestra." It really is quite a different experience for most composers, and so it's important for us - and for the success of the piece - that a composer take as much initiative in figuring out how to write for us as they possibly can.
Having said that, I also try very hard to not get in the way of the compositional process, or not to impose our group's thoughts about a piece to a composer. A composer needs to write what he or she need to write, and hopefully it will be successful, and hopefully it will be something we can play a lot. But we try to make it clear that if the composer feels that they don't want too much input from us, or that they already have the tools they need in place to write for us, we won't get in the way of that. So it's a two-way street. I can think of many experiences over the years where things came together beautifully, but where the composer said, "Gee, I didn't realize it would sound like that…" I like to keep composers informed about what we do and how we do it, but at the same time give them every option to write in a way that they're comfortable with - what feels good to them.
NG: Right, and that certainly shows up in the great diversity of styles and approaches we find on this disc. So, given the technical challenges of the two pieces I mentioned - are the recordings that we hear pretty much what they wrote, or did you have to, on occasion, actually push back and say, "No, this isn't possible, can you rewrite this section?"
RM: In the case of Huang Ruo, we fortunately had a fair bit of time to work with him; we premiered the piece at Aspen, and he was there for several weeks prior. The piece didn't change a lot, but it did change in a few spots - particularly where he wanted us to get unusual sounds; or with some of his new notation. In the end, the piece became a real collaboration, and we helped each other to make the piece the best it could be.
Gordon Beeferman's piece also changed very little between what he originally wrote to what ended up playing. There was a question of the order of the movement, where we suggested a different order from he had; but the piece was recorded in the original order, and he felt better about that. In one of the movements [III.], we play continuously; it's very striking, almost hypnotic; and we needed to talk a few things through with him: we had questions, for example, about whether the dynamics were to have an overall arch through the movement, or whether they were supposed to stay more or less in one dimension. There was quite a bit of collaboration in this regard; it led to changing very few notes, but it did force both Gordon and the ABQ to try to figure out exactly how we were going to get what he wanted.
We had never had to deal with sixth tones [microtones, dividing a whole step into 6 parts] before, which are an even more refined version of quartertones, and it was incredible for us. To tell the truth, at rehearsals, we each hooked up the bells of our instruments to separate tuners, so that when we had sixth tones in our own parts, we could actually get a visual reference to "see" where they were, because it was so difficult for us: some parts play in "normal" tuning while other parts would move to these sixth notes; we constantly wondered if we were out of tune! It was a great challenge.
NG: I can imagine. I was intrigued, in reading the liner notes to the CD, how Gordon goes around singing these sixth tones; he must have a hearing ability that many of us, especially in the West, don't have
RM: Yes, that's very true. He would tell us that when he voiced certain chords, he would sit down at the keyboard and adjust the notes until it came out just the way he wanted; then, of course, we had to replicate it, and it was sort of, "Oh, okay…" So it really took a lot of work to get a feel for what he was looking for.
NG: Interesting. I have no doubt that working directly with you must have been a great learning experience for both of these young composers; and obviously a good experience for you guys as well.
RM: Yes, we've done very well with the Jerome Foundation over the years; they've supported a good number of our projects. It was after the Ruo piece that we applied for a large grant for four pieces from different emerging composers; and it's just incredible that they gave us this grant to essentially pick our own composers and to administrate the whole thing. The grant is just about complete: the fourth piece is in the works right now by a young composer named Jay Greenberg. The Jerome Foundation gave us free reign and said, "We trust you to figure this out, and to oversee the whole project." Gordon Beeferman was one of the first two composers who were part of this Emerging Composers Grant from Jerome.
NG: It's wonderful that you've established such success and have given the Jerome Foundation such confidence that they can allow you to take it your own way - which really is the best direction, since you are the ones who in the end will be producing these works, and presenting them to the rest of us.
Another key commission on the disc that's worth noting is the work that actually closes the 2nd disc - and that is David Sampson's Chants and Flourishes, for double brass quintet, which was in fact commissioned to mark this 50th Anniversary of the ABQ. David Sampson is no stranger either to writing brass music - he himself is a trumpeter - nor to the ABQ, having written at least 3 previous works for you, starting with 1986's Morning Music. What does this kind of experience give to Sampson's works that makes them distinct - and which keeps you guys turning back for more works by him?
RM: Dave Sampson is a composer with whom we've developed quite a personal relationship over the years. Back in the 1980s, he was actually a doctoral student in trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music, in my studio; he asked about writing something for us at the time, and that first piece, Morning Music, was just so strong for us: we played it all over for many years. It was also a piece that other brass groups took on right away, and it quickly became a big part of the quintet repertoire.
We soon started talking about getting another piece from Dave; he wrote two other large-scale brass quintets, and a smaller piece called Entrance, around 2004. He also wrote a Trumpet Concerto that I've played many times around the world; it's a wonderful piece, one that I feel will survive the test of time. And indeed we still have an ongoing relationship with Dave: we have a brand new piece which he's written for us that we are hoping to premiere soon - which in turn is part of a larger Sampson project that we're helping with.
So, with this piece, Chants and Flourishes - in a way, we saw it coming: we knew we wanted to have something written for our 50th anniversary; and quite a few years ago, in fact, Dave had said to us, "When the 50th anniversary comes around, I'd really love to write something for you." It was thus such a logical and appropriate thing, and so we said, "Sure, let's get started on it right now." And we were fortunate enough to have the piece in time for the new CD, and for the Alice Tully Hall concert last October. It worked out great and it's a wonderful piece too, though quite difficult. It took some doing, but fortunately we had our students on board with us here at Juilliard, and they really did a great job joining us for the concert.
NG: Indeed, it is a great way to end the whole experience of this collection.
Now, we naturally don't have time to address every other work on the disc, but I'd be remiss to not mention a work that has some personal significance to me - namely, my own GLAST Prelude that the ABQ has happily included in the collection. I won't put you on the spot to ask how well I handled the challenges of writing for brass quintet [laughs], but I will ask you for your thoughts on one aspect of this work that can likewise tie into some others - and that's its very specific non-musical narrative. In this case, it's tied to the 2008 launch of NASA's GLAST (now Fermi) gamma-ray space telescope, and whose video, created by NASA-Goddard and using your recording as a "soundtrack", became a bit of a hit on YouTube [see video on right column]. So, to what degree does having a specific "storyline" impact the way you play a piece like mine - or any work that has a detailed narrative of some kind?
RM: Certainly having something visual to work with, as yours does, offers a huge input into our interpretation. From the beginning, the idea of having the music used as part of a video in conjunction with the launch of the telescope was very exciting, and a great project for us to take on. Even though we hadn't seen the video, you and the score were able to tell us about the various things that happen at certain moments in the score; and so we had a very strong sense of how it would fit with the video - it was all very clear. And so, there's no doubt that it contributed quite a bit to our way of interpreting the music.
One thing we wondered about is how the piece would work without the video, since it's so strongly tied to it. After we made the recording, we asked some colleagues; we certainly felt that the piece stood strongly on its own - just as music, without the accompanying video. But we had grown with the piece in conjunction with the video, and so it meant a lot to get feedback from our colleagues. And everyone said, "Oh yes, the piece stands beautifully on its own; you don't need to have the video" - which was great to hear. I guess you can liken it to a ballet score, where the music can be performed with or without the dance. And it was clear to us that this was definitely something that we wanted to include on the anniversary CD, to promote it as a stand-alone piece, without the accompanying video.
NG: Well, I'm certainly glad that you did, and I thank you for the nice words; indeed, the piece has been picked up by several other brass quintets - and thus is being performed without its ties to the video. And who knows, perhaps I'll write another work for the ABQ, without any reference to a video!
RM: That's a great idea, and we would certainly welcome it!
NG: Thanks. I also know that we have other new and innovative works to look forward to from the ABQ in the future; for example, I've read about a new work by trumpeter-composer Anthony Plog.
RM: Yes, in fact, we premiered a concerto for brass quintet and wind ensemble by Anthony Plog back in November, and have since played it with the Texas University Wind Ensemble - and recorded it with them this past April. We also have another piece by Plog coming up for brass quintet and baritone voice. There are a lot of other new things in the works - that's what we do, and we're all on board with doing more and more new pieces.
NG: That is indeed what you do, and we're all very grateful, and wish you many more years of success; we'll be asking our children and grandchildren to attend your 100th anniversary concert!
RM: Sounds good to me!
NG: In the time we have left, a couple of non-repertoire questions. In the beginning, we talked about something that has long been a mainstay for the ABQ, beyond your performances and commissions - and that's your activities as educators. As you mentioned, you've been in residence at both the Aspen Music Festival, since 1970, and the Juilliard School, since 1987. This is along with the mini-residencies [2-3 days] you do at colleges and conservatories around the country - which, I'm sure, must keep you very busy. So, two questions in this regard: first, why is it that education is so critical to all of you in the ABQ?
RM: Great question. The ABQ is out on the road performing in the fall and the spring, and then we're in Aspen in the summer; but it's not a full-time endeavor - which is actually a good thing: no one sees their income from the ABQ as something that is critical to their survival, and that means that we don't have to change what we do. We can continue to do what we do on the highest level, and no one in the group will be feeling pressure if we have a season that isn't quite as lucrative as the previous season, for example. But each member of the group does have a full-time career outside of the ABQ - as teachers, not only a Juilliard, but at many of the schools in this area; and then, of course, in Aspen, Colorado.
As for the mini-residencies, it seemed like such a logical thing for us to develop: we would constantly go to schools where we'd play a concert; but we would also be interested in finding out about the students and what their program was like. We wanted to work with the students, but it was generally too hard if we were only there for one day. One thing led to another, and about ten years ago we sat down and said, "We should formalize this and develop it into a program, so that people can understand our interest in the students and our commitment to education." The mini-residency programs came about based on this interest, and it's been great - to actually get to work with the students and spend a little bit of time at the school. It's also been really very successful, and rounds out the educational part of our activities in a great way.
NG: And clearly you are touching the lives of so many young brass musicians in what you do - and I'm sure you probably could trace a direct connection between the ABQ and a good majority of the brass groups now working and performing around the world. I'm assuming it's optimistic - but what is your view about the future of brass chamber music?
RM: I think you're absolutely right that our work has prompted a lot of young people to consider brass chamber music as a career option; and there's no question that at Juilliard and at Aspen, when young people see what we do and how we do it - and the kind of the joy we get from playing in a brass quintet - they consider it differently from how they might have previously.
But at the same time, it's not a well-defined field. In other words, I think you could very quickly write down what the orchestra field is like in the US - their budgets and their longevity, etc. Young people can look to that field with a real sense of knowing what it is all about. But that's not so with brass chamber music. There aren't tons of groups out there. But fortunately, our work has led some young people to look at the brass quintet as a viable career option; it's something that can be very rewarding artistically, and that can supplement other aspects of one's career. There are a lot of brass groups that have come through our classes at Juilliard, and that come out with us to Aspen, and that's great to see. So, all of that leads me to believe that the field is in good hands. Of course, we all have to hope that chamber music can survive, and that there will be many places for young brass musicians to play; but I also think that it's a tricky time not only for chamber music, but also for the classical arts in general.
NG: One can certainly say that.
RM: Yes, and I guess only time will tell; but there are certainly plenty of groups that want to perform, and plenty that are introducing new music and new ideas musically. It's certainly enough to help keep brass music on the plates of Americans, and around the world.
NG: Well, the ABQ is certainly doing its part to keep that going, and we're very excited to being able to feature you here at Classical Archives.
I certainly could ask many other questions about your various duties and repertoire, but let me conclude with what I'm sure is among the most commonly asked mysteries of the ABQ: why two trombones (a tenor and bass), and not a trombone and tuba? And have you ever asked John Rojak to grab a tuba or a euphonium, just for the heck of it?
RM: [laughs] John has played a tuba, or let's say a bass horn, on our recordings of 19th-century brass instruments, so he's capable of moving in that direction. But actually, when the ABQ was formed in 1960, there wasn't a standard instrumentation for a brass quintet. The music publisher Robert King, who put out a lot of brass music in the 1950s, always felt the euphonium was the appropriate bottom to a brass quintet - and so you didn't yet have the frequency of tuba being on the bottom. As brass quintets developed in the 1960s and 70s, many were sent out from their respective orchestras to represent the brass section; and there it made the most sense to feature the tuba in the quintet. Also, faculties from universities would have a tuba member, and not necessarily a bass trombone faculty member. But our group started with bass trombone - one of the founders [Gilbert Cohen, 1960-63] was a bass trombonist, and we got pieces written for the group that really were designed to be for tenor and bass trombone. And we never changed!
NG: If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
NG: Well, as one composer for the ABQ, I'm certainly glad you have two trombones - to be able to do both of those wonderful glissandi, that a tuba can't really do. Well, Ray, it's been great talking with you - and again our hearty congratulations to you, Kevin, David, Michael, and John on this very prestigious achievement of 50 years!
RM: Thanks for your time, Nolan; I really appreciate it.