Sydney Symphony Education Kit 2004 (Interview March 2004)

Carol Coomber interviews CG about his Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra.

How did the idea for a bass trombone concerto come about?

Christopher Harris has performed on a lot of film scores that I have either composed or orchestrated. I first noticed the wonderful rich, noble tone he has in early 1997 when he had a short 2 bar (!) solo in Roger Mason’s score for the film Joey which I orchestrated. Over the years at SSO concerts I noted that when required Chris could rhythmically drive the entire orchestra from up there in the back seat.

Christopher Harris, Bass Trombone

Christopher Harris, Bass Trombone
(Photo: Bridget Elliot)

Then in 2001 I composed the score for a US telemovie, When Good Ghouls Go Bad. It was a scary Halloween picture for young children. For most of the score I used quite a small orchestra but there was one major character, Coach Kankel, who I wanted to attach one instrument to. On the surface he was a larger than life screwball; a baddie and a bully. But there were unexpected moments of dignity and sadness that I wanted to bring out. The bass trombone is a perfect instrument to express all these qualities and to move between them at a moments notice. It features a lot in the score and was such an unusual and arresting sound that I suggested then to Chris that I write a concerto for him.

Are there any composers that have inspired or influenced you for this work?

Not specifically or consciously but certainly contemporary composers like Adams, Corigliano, Reich, Schnittke and past composers like Wagner, Mahler and Vaughan Williams have all influenced my general musical language. I am also very aware of being within the same culture as Sculthorpe, Edwards, Vine and Westlake.

Actually, there is something about the trombone that makes me think of medieval music, rhythmically and modally – it’s a Pavlov’s dog sort of response. This in turn connects to the music of King Crimson with their additive time signatures and rock energy, particularly in their New York days, which in turn brings me back to Reich and then Adams. Somehow this rhythmic, repetitious concoction is the heritage of the “Dance” section of the concerto.

Can you outline the compositional process?  What was the starting point? – melodic ideas, chords or some other source of inspiration?

The concerto is based on a series of common triads that are first presented as the harmony of the “Prelude” theme. Chords are variously superimposed to create new harmonies. This is a technique that I started using in the short animation film, Ward 13 and continued in the mini-series, Salem’s Lot. The “Dance” is structured like an improvisation over a manipulated version of the chord series.

When you are composing do musical ideas flow easily or is there a lot of agonising, revising and discarding of material along the way?

Of course, the degree varies from piece to piece but I generally have a lot of difficulty finding the basic material for a work. There are a number of false starts and a lot of agony for weeks or even months! But I have learnt that this is simply “preparing the field”. At some stage, perhaps in the space of an hour or perhaps over the period of three or four days, the approach and material will eventually come to me quite clearly.

I write a one to four stave sketch of the work that in some places is quite detailed and in others might be as simple as a squiggly line! I am up to this stage with the concerto at the moment, as we speak, though there is still a bit of revising and discarding going on. Because texture and colour are very important to me I tend to do the next draft in a full score. Christopher Harris and I will work over the solo part at this stage ironing out the bugs and expanding on missed opportunities. Then I will write the final version.

Originally you envisaged the concerto as a work for solo bass trombone and strings.  Can you explain how it has evolved to being a work for solo bass trombone and orchestra?

When I suggested the idea to Chris in 2001 I said I wanted to focus on the noble, rich tone of the instrument as well as its rhythmic power. What I didn’t want to do was write circus music nor music that catalogued every possible sound the bass trombone can make.

CG & Christopher Harris  (photo: Bridget Elliot)CG & Christopher Harris
(photo: Bridget Elliot)

My initial idea was to contrast the soloist with a very large body of strings. Within the strings there could be many sub-groups as well as soloists appearing from any desk. Having that concept but no themes or material I put it aside until the time came to start composing three years later at the start of 2004. It was when the “Prelude” theme came to me so powerfully on 31 January that I realised I needed a full brass section, percussion and piano. So I completely reconceived the concerto.

What aspects of orchestration do you have to consider when writing for solo bass trombone and orchestra?

Most concertos are either scored for reduced instrumentation or save the full orchestra for climactic moments so that the soloist is not fighting to be heard. But nothing is going to stop a bass trombone cutting through! – especially if he is standing at the front of the orchestra. So when I had the strings concept I needed to have as large a section as possible just to be able to give support in the louder sections.

Can you hear a specific sound/ instrument combination in your head or do you have to experiment a lot?

Generally it is the colours that come to me first. Later, once I have the notes, there is a lot of focus on the fine detail of orchestration, which I always find exciting and rewarding.

Has there been much collaboration with the solo bass trombonist, Christopher Harris?

As we speak, I am still sketching and structuring but I expect us to start collaborating extensively soon and there will be many details that will be adapted to be more idiosyncratic for the instrument. I am sure a lot of new ideas will appear in the process as well.

CG with the sketches  (Photo: Bridget Elliot)

CG with the sketches (Photo: Bridget Elliot)

What stages are involved for completing the final score? Do you write by hand or use a computer, or a combination of both? What are the advantages/disadvantages?

I always use pencil and paper. It’s a less intrusive process. Not that I am against computers; I have all the equipment and am quite proficient with the software but it stops me thinking about the music. I finish the full score on paper then have my copyist typeset it in Finale. Generally once that is printed out I will reconsider the bits that are bothering me (there’s always something!) and redo it myself within Finale.

You are very well known as a film composer.  How does your approach to writing for films differ with writing concert music?

With concert music you are creating a whole world where all laws are musical; where every event is the result of musical decisions. While film music is an accompaniment and must fit precisely to the requirements of the film.

There is never enough time given to the film composer so it becomes necessary to compose and orchestrate 2-3 minutes of music each day, every day for 5-6 weeks. As there is seldom time for much revision every note must be right first off. Elmer Bernstein likened film scoring to improvisation. Compare this to concert music where every note can be carefully considered and revision is usual.

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