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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Stephen Altoft and the Microtonal Trumpet Project


"I am very much looking forward to bringing the Microtonal Trumpet Project, specifically the back to York after about 15 years. I grew up in Barton-upon-Humber, North Lincolnshire, and studied in Huddersfield, so I was often here to listen to concerts. For the last 20 years I have been living in Freiburg, in the Black Forest area of South West Germany, where I work as a brass teacher, improvisation teacher, trumpeter and flugelhornist. What is 19-division tuning? The modern piano that we know today was arrived at in or around 1860. It was this instrument which provided the tuning straight-jacket that many classical composers chose to wear for the next half-century. Before the invention of these instruments, owners of harpsichords (composing and performing their own music) tuned their instruments according to their tastes and expressive needs. Imagine an octave of the piano, cut all the black notes in half, and add an extra key between e and f, and b natural and C. You now have 19 tones (or ‘divisions’ ) in the octave. In the early Baroque period, there were instruments with split-keyed keyboards in order to have nineteen (Third Comma Meantone Tuning) and sometimes up to thirty one tones (Quarter Comma Meantone Tuning). This enabled them to have choices! Joseph Yasser, in his ‘A Theory of Evolving Tonality’ (1932) described 19-tones per Octave as a colourful variant of 12-tones. Indeed he saw it as the successor to 12-tones. That’s why I named my first album after him- The Yasser Collection’. In order to play 19-tones per octave I have added a fourth valve and changed the lengths of the valve slides. What connections does the programme you are playing have with the York music scene? There are four composers who are, or where, living and working in York: I am dedicating this concert to Donald Bousted, a composer who in the 1990’s lived in York (well Melbourne), taught guitar in schools in the area and then later composition at the University of Huddersfield. Tragically, in December 2021 he passed away after a short illness, ending 25 years of artistic collaboration on The Microtonal Trumpet’. Donald was passionate about microtonality (literally intervals smaller than a tone), whose tunings allowed for more expressive possibilities than the piano from your living room (12 divisions -or tones- per octave). He infected me with this enthusiasm- I adapted my trumpets- and after exploring quarter-tones (24 division) and eight-tones (48 division), we worked on 19 divisions per octave. I will give the UK premier of his piece Time Dreaming, written for three trumpets playing in this tuning- two parts (recorded by me) come from loudspeakers. Chris Bryan was a Masters Student when I came across him the last time I performed in York- at the University about 15 years ago. He wrote Dialogue for 19-div trumpet and computer, and then Repetition and Spontaneity for trumpet (in eighth-tones) and computer. We performed pieces for 19-div trumpet and electronics from my debut album, The Yasser Collection, together at the release concerts at the Mikroton Festival in Bern, Switzerland in 200?. Richard Whalley originally studied music at the University of York, but then went on to study at Harvard in Boston, MA, before returning to teach at the University of Manchester. Somewhere over the Atlantic, I am not sure whether it was on the outward or return trip, but anyway, he became interested in microtonality. In 2020 he got in touch and composed Lud’s Church which has one live trumpet and twenty recorded trumpet parts in the electronic backing or multitrack ‘accompaniment’. I recorded all the parts during the Lockdown in 2021 and the backing tracks where then compiled and mastered by Donald Bousted and Vasiliki Kourti-Papamoustou. James Williamson began his musical studies at the University of Huddersfield in 2002. I had just left Huddersfield for the Black Forest in South West Germany. James subsequently moved to York, where he gained a Phd in Composition. Being a former trumpeter, James was raring to have a go at writing for the 19-division trumpet. I will be giving the premiere of his unaccompanied ‘Falling / Rising’. The remainder of the programme presents you performing two of your own works. Do you see yourself as a composer, as well as a performer? I see myself as a creative musician. Initially, because I knew this instrument better than anyone else, I began notating improvisations and the material led to RASP and then Hidden Jewels. RASP requires an interpretation of a graphic score, and in Hidden Jewels (incidentally I am playing in 38-divisions here) I improvise using given materials within given perameters, against a fixed electronic backing. So, my compositions arose out of improvisation. Increasingly I have devoted more time to improvisation, to a type of musical self-exploration and self-expression - as a performer, in duos with percussion, accordion, double bass, and as an educator. In the music school I run an improvisation workshop and also take any opportunity to improvise with my own and colleagues’ pupils. Enabling young musicians, young people to be creative is, in my opinion, the most important thing we can do as teachers. As a composer, I have subsequently composed pieces for solo classical ukulele, solo accordion and solo vibraphone. Currently, I have a draft saxophone quartet, and am working on a quartet for pupil or amateur bassoonists.."

Stephen Altoft

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