Does Not Compute

I’m making some progress — some very, very slow progress — on this Trombone Concerto that I’m writing for Joseph Alessi. I’ve blogged in the past about my writing process, and the fact that I do everything on a computer. I have a good sample library, and although it can’t approach what it will eventually sound like with real people, I’m able to get a reasonable approximation of the music through the computer’s synthesized playback.

I have two different sets of trombone samples — some from the Vienna Symphonic Library, and the other from a company called Project SAM. Combined, I have what I think are some pretty convincing trombone sounds. (You can hear one of my MIDI realizations here — the currently posted recording of “Aurora Awakes.”)

I often end up writing something that’s playable on the computer, but just not possible in real life, and I make these mistakes because the samples make things sound possible when they just aren’t. The computer can play impossibly quickly, and any chord is possible on a piano or marimba or vibraphone or whatever, even if it’s not possible for a human to reach. My vibraphone samples specifically have caused problems before because the samples go up to high F#, but a real standard vibraphone only goes up to F. I wrote F#’s when I wrote the vibe part for “Mass,” but that note doesn’t exist on the instrument, so I ended up looking pretty silly at the first rehearsal.

So if anything, the problem is that I sometimes initially write something that’s humanly impossible, because the computer lets me do that, and I’m not paying close enough attention in the moment when I’m writing that passage. Well, this concerto for Joe Alessi has created the opposite problem: He can play things that the computer can’t play.

For whatever reason, all of my sampled trombones only go up to the high C above middle C. There’s a great piece in the New York Times about the “high C.” It’s the note that made Pavarotti famous, and it’s described, for a tenor vocalist, as “the absolute summit of technique.” It’s a pretty damn high note for a tenor trombone, too, so it’s not surprising that the samples — both from Project SAM and Vienna Symphonic — max out at the high C.

But this concerto isn’t for a computer, it’s for Joe Alessi, the greatest trombone player in the US, and unquestionably one of the best in the world. And he can play higher than a high C, and as I wrote about a few months back, he can do it without even warming up.

This meant I had to reprogram my trombone samples so they can play up to high F. I’ve only gone up to high Eb so far, but we ain’t done yet.

So here’s to Joe Alessi, for besting the greatest trombone samples on the market today. The computer is great and all, but even it can’t match this guy.


Hannah says

That's the best thing about music - there is no substitute for a lot of hard work and dedication - not even for a computer.

Matt Carlson says

I thought of an interesting concept that I call "impossible-ism" where the composer writes things that humans cannot physically play, like out-of-range notes or intervals on piano that one hand can't play, and the performer does his or her best to play it. This way there is a bit of improvisation and extra creativity involved in the performance to attempt the impossible.

ryan says

Give em a melody that is Rite of Spring bassoon solo-Esque that will be notoriously hard forever.

Or, use bassoons in high registers to mock the trombone. That would be hilarious and beautiful.


jared says

For the score, just have a page simply reading "wing it". Joe will know what to do...

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