torbjörn hultmark
musician / composer / liveelectronics / teacher / audioproductions / theSTPsoprano trombone project

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the STP soprano trombone project - home

patron: sir james macmillan CBE

here are some of the friends and supporters
of the soprano trombone project

sir george benjamin CBE, composer
peter eötvös, composer, conductor, professor
martyn brabbins, conductor, music director english national opera
john kenny, trombone soloist, professor at guildhall school of music london
john wallace CBE, trumpet, ex principal royal conservatiore of scotland
byron fulcher, principal trombone philharmonia orchestra
brian ferneyhough, composer
 

articles

british trombone society article (june 2016)
the brass herald (september 2016)
BTS publication (november 2016)

"hultmark deserves a lot of credit for his ability to provide the vocal tone
and expressive qualities that the trombone is known for, on an
instrument that is playing in the trumpet register
"
richard leonard, the brass herald, march/april 2017

 

what is a soprano trombone?!

it is the smallest member of the trombone family. the range is similar to that of a soprano voice,
and to that of a trumpet

the instrument is very rare, hence...

 

...this is how/why the project began

in 2011 I took part as a soprano trombonist in a performance of
brian ferneyhough’s 'plötzlichkeit'
at the barbican centre in london with the
BBC symphony orchestra,
conducted by martyn brabbins

this, my very first experience of the soprano trombone,
was the beginning of an exploration into what was, and is, a very rarely used instrument,
so rare that I hadn’t even heard of the instrument’s existence before the BBCSO
lent me an instrument two months before the first rehearsal.

 

as soon as I’d played a few notes on this borrowed instrument I was bowled over by its
vocal and expressive potential.
I took to it like a fish to water - in short, I’d fallen in love!

it seemed to me a paradox that, although the instrument clearly had unique characteristics as well as the potential for creating a great sound, it was nevertheless so little used

 

the history/background of the soprano trombone

the soprano trombone has been around for a long time, possibly stretching back
as far as the early 15c, but we can't say for sure since very little is known about the early history of the
trombone family as a whole, and even less is known about its most junior member.
few historical instruments have survived and documentation from the
period is both scarce and contradictory

what can be said with certainty, however, is that the
soprano trombone is an instrument that has been used, albeit sparingly,
to support the upper voice in vocal g
roups for hundreds of years.

j.s. bach wrote for it in three cantatas (BWV 2/21/38),
it is briefly referred to in one of
w.a. mozart's scores (C-minor mass),
it has been argued that c.w. gluck intended it (orpheus and eurydice)
(this, however, is amongst scholars a hotly contested claim)
18c revisions of works by
g.p. telemann include it (passions of st john and st mark),
the stockholm opera ordered a set of trombones in the 1770’s including a soprano trombone
(why? and what was the soprano's intended use?!)
the moravian church have used the instrument continually since the18c,
brian ferneyhough has written for the soprano in 'plötzlichkeit
',
kurtag/stockhausen wrote for it in 'rückblick'.

a number of instruments from 17c onwards survive
to this day in museums and instrument collections, one of the earliest
is the instrument by christian kofahl, dated 1677.

but why is it so difficult to find out more about the history of this instrument, so difficult that
even our greatest scholars seem unable to uncover many of its secrets?

 

“is it a soprano trombone or is it a slide trumpet?”

I often get asked this
and the clear answer is that the instrument we are
dealing with here is the soprano trombone.

except, unfortunately, the issue has become a bit more complicated
over past decades since even instrument manufacturers, retailers and professionals
often call it ‘slide trumpet’ or ‘slide cornet’. I have even seen it listed as
‘slide flugelhorn’ or ‘jazz trumpet’ (heavens, what next?!).

so, let me try to cast some light where fog currently resides.

first of all, does the name matter...? yes it does, greatly.
quite apart from matters of accuracy, there are a number of reasons for this
to do with historical, cultural, technical and musical issues, all highly relevant
since the mindset of the player/composer in terms of
character and sound is key.

the trumpet
is an instrument which for centuries has had strong connections
to the military, to grand royal occasions and to expressions of ‘the glory of God’.
it is often a solo instrument brought in to add grandeur and brilliance.

the trumpet’s slightly eccentric distant cousin
the slide trumpet,
an instrument used during the 17/18c,
was a
single-slide instrument.
think trumpet with an extendable mouth pipe allowing it to lower the pitch
by a few semitones but not enough to make it fully chromatic. the player had to
move the whole instrument in order to alter the pitch with the slide, clearly rather a
cumbersome design (imagine a violin where instead of just moving the hand and fingers you had to
move the whole instrument in order to change the pitch) so it is perhaps not surprising that it did not survive
the great explosion of brass instrument innovation during the 19c.. any detailed background and use of
the slide trumpet is partly a matter of conjecture since no actual instruments survive but plenty of
iconographical and textual evidence exists. the slide trumpet had a number of names such as,
probably, the one bach refers to in some of his cantatas as ‘tromba da tirarsi’. my own
feeling, incidentally, is that the slide trumpet in terms of usage might perhaps be said
to have more in common with the trombone than with the trumpet since
its aim
often appears to have been to fill the position at the upper end of a
trombone-like choral context, but its design is at the same time
markedly different from that of the trombone/sackbut.

the trombone
unlike the slide trumpet
is a
double-slide instrument
which by all accounts has remained more or less unchanged
in its basic design since its beginnings abut 500 years ago. the soprano trombone
is simply the smallest (and by far the most rarely used) sibling in a family of SATB trombones,
instruments that traditionally were included to support singers, often in solemn or
chorale settings. mozart’s c-minor mass, beethoven’s equali
and works by bruckner are examples of the
typical use of trombones.

the difference between the two groups of instruments
- trumpets and trombones -
in terms of design, background, usage and character could not be more stark;
the general character of the trumpet is soloistic, bright and brilliant
whereas the trombone is richly dark, mournful and
often used in a more subservient role
as part of a vocal texture.

 

admittedly we sometimes encounter both historical and contemporary designs
which appear to occupy a grey area between what is clearly a slide trumpet on the one hand,
and a trombone on the other, instruments for example such as the ‘flatt trumpet’
- mentioned in purcell’s funeral music for queen mary -
an instrument which had a double slide but
in a markedly different design to
that of the trombone.

the soprano trombone we are dealing with as part of the
STP
is far removed from any grey shades of brass-instrument design:
it is quite simply a small trombone, and its aim is to
fit comfortably within the character and usage of
the trombone family of instruments.

quoting blackadder’s baldrick,
“if it sounds like greek it probably is greek”.
and, paraphrasing descartes,
“I am, therefore I am”.

it looks like a trombone,
thus a trombone it is.

 

why initiating a soprano trombone project?

questions struck me very early on - why has this instrument
with such a long and arguably distinguished history been so little used,
and why is it hardly used today?

is it an instrument worthy of rediscovering, and
is it an instrument worthy of, so to speak, being dusted off and brought up-to-date
in order to find it a proper place in contemporary musical life?

can/should the manufacture of replicas of historical
instruments - soprano sackbuts - be commissioned in order for their
use in period performance be made possible?

can a modern, fully professional chromatic instrument
be commissioned? and, equally important, would
I be able to learn to play it to a high standard?!

would it be suitable as a beginner instrument
for very young children?

 

how has the soprano trombone project developed since 2011?

further development of the modern instrument seemed essential.
with that in view i commissioned
the german instrument manufacturer thein
to make a soprano trombone with a relatively large bore/bell
and fitted with an F-valve, thus fully chromatic and with an extended
low range. the idea was to achieve a beautiful sonorous trombone-like sound that would
sit comfortably as the upper (soprano) voice in a larger trombone ensemble, and it
had as far as possible to avoid any trumpet-like brightness in the tone
 

practice, practice, practice!
a great deal of time and work was, and continues to be,
essential in order to gradually learn to control and play the instrument
to a high level

 

performances and the commissioning of new music:
a considerable number of pieces have been
commissioned and premiered
for solo trombone
trombone with piano
with electronics
and for trombone quartet (SATB).
the continually expanding list of new works includes pieces by

tim ewers
rob keeley

raul avelãs
roger dean
merit ariane
oded ben-tal
peter wiegold

peter cowdrie

matthew herbert

bethan morgan-williams
torbjorn hultmark
lynne plowman
martin butler
andrew lewis
mike searby
scott lygate

john kenny

 

the trombone trio pandora’s box and I are in a long-term
partnership promoting and performing music for SATB trombone quartet,
on its own as well as in collaboration with vocal ensembles. this work has taken us to week-long
projects at the setubal festival in portugal and the cumnock tryst festival in scotland,
performing music for vocal ensemble and trombone quartet

the soprano trombone as a starter instrument:
this is a key part of the overall project.
after all, if the instrument is to have a flourishing
new career then it needs plenty of players playing it!
the beginnings of a framework and a workable structure of
contacts and interest has been put in place

 

where is the soprano trombone project (STP) today?

considerable national (UK) and international interest
has been generated over the previous years and this will continue to help
push the project ahead with further commissions,
performances, instrument development and recordings

a continually expanding list of soprano trombone videos is available on torbjörn's youtube channel

a bandcamp recording by australysis - torbjörn hultmark and roger dean - has been released (2018)
with music for soprano trombone, piano and live electronics

a CD recording of new music is planned to be recorded (subject to funding applications),

the trombone trio pandora’s box is in a long-term partnership to create music and performances
including the soprano trombone as part of an SATB quartet

the examination board MTB have introduced an examination syllabus grades 1-5
specifically for the soprano trombone

the soprano trombone is now an official suzuki instrument
as of march 2018 torbjorn has become the world's first fully qualified suzuki soprano trombone teacher.
this is a proud and important milestone on the way for the instrument to start making
serious inroads into the use of the soprano trombone as a starter instrument
for very young children of four years upwards

 

2015 premieres and performances

spontonality 2015, cornwall, UK
matthew barley, tony woods, julian bliss, torbjörn hultmark, tim west
quintets for cello, saxophone, clarinet, soprano trombone, piano

recital at brunel university (trombone and electronics)

recital at JW3, london, with the turntablist matt wright

pandora's box at the setubal festival, portugal, SATB trombone quartet

recital at goldsmith's college, london (trombone and electronics)

 

2016 premieres and performances

world premiere of
salt by john kenny at the 2016 setubal festival,
with the headspace ensemble

grofus, hultmark & ryder at london college of music

recordings and performances, spontonality 2016, cornwall, UK
matthew barley, tony woods, julian bliss, torbjörn hultmark, tim west

video recording of vocal shafts by roger dean
for soprano trombone and electronics


video recording of metaphors of space and of time by oded ben-tal
for soprano trombone and electronics


world premiere of the barony a-frame by scott lygate
a cumnock tryst commission 2016
for pandora's box trombone
quartet SATB

notes inégales, purcell's opera king arthur at the 2016 spitalfields festival, london

recital at queen mary university, london

 

2017 premieres and performances

a series of recitals, workshops and talks in collaboration with roger dean during september/october
for soprano trombone, piano and live electronics: milton keynes, queen mary university,
birmingham conservatoire and kingston university, london

world premiere of slide by tim ewers, for soprano trombone and electronics

spontonality festival in cornwall, UK, october 2017 - five days of performances and
recordings with zo
ë martlew (cello), julian bliss (clarinet),
tony woods (saxophones) and tim west (piano).

 

2018 premieres and performances

grünewaldsalen, stockholms konserthus, sweden
premiere of a new 1-hr programme for soprano trombone,
trumpet, bassoon and electronics
with emily hultmark
february 2018

world premiere of matthew herbert's more, more more 
for soprano trombone and percussion
the london sinfonietta
torbjörn hultmark and oliver lowe

london's south bank centre
march 2018

world premieres with the london sinfonietta
daniel pioro, zoe matthews, torbjorn hultmark and enno senft
quartets for violin, viola, soprano trombone and double bass
by robin rimbaud, emily hall and misha law
london's south bank centre
april 2018

 

performance with the wynton marsalis quartet and the headspace quartet
(clarence adoo, john kenny, torbjörn hultmark, chris wheeler)
at the barbican hall, london
carnyx, trombone, soprano trombone, trumpet and electronics
june 2018

 

UK tour with roger dean
soprano trombone, piano and live electronics
university of leeds international concert series
birmingham conservatoire, birmingham university
de montfort university leicester
oct/nov 2018

 

two new soprano trombone world premieres
with the new welsh contemporary-music group uproar
BBC radio 3 broadcast (hear and now).

 

2019 premieres and performances

further performances at Bangor Festival with uproar

tour to setubal festival, portugal, with the group headspace
performing works by john kenny and merit ariane

soprano trombone, piano and live electronics UK tour autumn 2019

 

2020 premieres and performances

february-june/20
new commission by bethan morgan-williams
tour of the UK and france including a BBC live broadcast
with the UK-based contemporary music group
uproar

november 2020
matthew herbert's more, more more 

for soprano trombone and percussion
kings place, london with the london sinfonietta

 

HOW TO write for the soprano trombone

the soprano has through the centuries had some recurring problems...

1. difficult to find good instruments
2. difficult to find people able to play it well.
3. people often don't know how to write for it


...so why should I write for it?
because it is a trombone which counts the soprano range as home territory and
as such it is a uniquely flexible and useful instrument for achieving beautiful-sounding
expressive vocal lines and slide-specific techniques. it can be used as a solo instrument or
as part of an ensemble. the trombone's historical connection with the voice makes it
ideally suited as the top part in a SATB trombone quartet with singers.

you may encounter some practical issues
along the way when writing for the soprano trombone so
a certain amount of pioneering-spirit is essential.
but then,
for a composer this goes with the territory!

1. the instrument:

these are easy to find and inexpensive and some may have difficulty in reaching the 7th position
in the lowest range. the sound can be markedly improved by using a deep mouthpiece,
similar to those used for cornets or flugelhorns.

my own instrument is one that I specially commissioned from thein to include
a large bore and bell.it is also fitted with an F-valve - similar to those of tenor trombones - and since this this makes a great deal of sense it would be nice to think that that this
addition will eventually become the norm.

2. the player:

the mouthpiece is too small for most trombonists thus the soprano trombone generally has to
be played by a trumpet player. most trumpet players, however, can learn to pick it up reasonably quickly
as long as the part isn’t too difficult. liaise with the player if possible. tuning can be the biggest
difficulty and it takes time to learn good slide technique. learning the violin is a good
analogy since the 'positions' on both instruments are relatively close together.
BUT, there are many great violinists, it just takes time to learn.

3. writing for the soprano trombone:

notation is in treble clef Bb (transposing) or C (non-transposing). the 1st position is a sounding Bb4 and in
most respects its positions are identical to those of the tenor trombone but sounding one octave above.
it is advised, however, when using the soprano as a starter trombone for young players that this
should be taught in bass clef since there will then be no issues during the transition to the
(bass clef) tenor trombone. the range of the soprano is the same as that of a trumpet.


you might have to imagine the player to be a good trumpet player (good control of register,
tone, phrasing and articulation etc) but a somewhat less experienced trombonist.
but, clearly, it all depends for whom you write.

as a starting point when writing for the trombone, think
VOCALLY.
if you can SING it, it can be played.

 

PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF YOU WRITE FOR THE SOPRANO, I'D LOVE TO HEAR ABOUT IT.
LET ME KNOW ALSO OF ANY QUERIES, OR IF YOU JUST WANT TO SHOW SUPPORT.

many thanks for taking an interest


torbjörn

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