Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guy Morley (UK) talks about playing the trombone and sackbut

On August 24th 2011 I met with brass instrument player Guy Morley in a street café in Ávila, Spain. Originally from Manchester UK, Morley, aged 23, is a member of the “Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro” sackbut quartet (UK). Translated as “The New Light and Shade”, the ensemble’s name refers to the style of Renaissance Italian art; the group was formed in 2009 at Dartington Hall, Devon, UK.

PH: Guy, are you from a musical family?

Guy Morley: Yes. My father is a horn player in the Liverpool Philharmonic and my mother is a violinist. (My mother has always been very supportive of my music, helping me get through my teenage years, when I was considering giving up playing altogether!) My younger brother is studying at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. He also plays trumpet in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and aspires to be a professional trumpet player.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

GM: One of my earliest memories is of my father waking us up in the mornings playing the horn solo from Richard Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel” or the horn call from “Siegfried”.

PH: When did you start music lessons?

GM: I took up the trombone at the age of eight, studying with Barry Dakin, a wonderful trombonist. Though young, I was a tall child and big enough then to reach the positions. I joined the local youth brass band at age ten and played with it up to age 18. I attended the local comprehensive school, where we had an excellent music department staffed by committed teachers. It was only at age 18, when I attended an open day at one of the music colleges that I decided to take higher studies in music and make it my profession.

PH: So you went on to a music college.

GM: Yes. I am still studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, where I have just completed my fourth year. I went there with the aim of becoming a teacher, never imagining I would be of the level to become a professional performer.

PH: What exactly are you studying there?

GM: I study modern bass trombone with Robert Hughes, Alwyn Green and David Vines; I have been predominantly a modern bass trombone player for the duration of my studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

PH: So when did you begin playing early brass instruments?

GM: In their second year, all trombonists at the Birmingham Conservatoire are required to play the sackbut as a second study instrument. I play tenor sackbut (pitched in b flat) and bass sackbut (in f) but tend to play the bass more. In 2009, our sackbut teacher Sue Addison suggested that Martyn Sanderson (a member of our quartet) and I take up a bursary to spend two weeks at Dartington Hall taking part in master classes and workshops. There I met Daniel Serafini and Patrick Kenny, who joined Martyn and myself to form “Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro”. We are all students at various conservatories in the UK. This was the beginning of my deep involvement in early music, and, without the Dartington Hall experience, the sackbut might have taken a back seat for me. As a modern bass trombonist, I had simply been unaware of early music brass playing. As we progressed as an ensemble, many doors opened to us and the interest keeps growing. Not only playing early instruments, we are also very interested in all aspects of period performance – from medieval- through to Renaissance music, the Classical period and the Romantic style, with the German school of Brahms and Bruckner. I would not like to pigeonhole myself only as “a modern bass trombone player” or only as “an early sackbut player”. The four of us feel this way.

PH: And you are also members of “Camerata Antica”.

GM: Yes. The four of us play in this London-based ensemble There we are joined by cornetts on top of sackbuts, which, when well played, produce a lovely singing quality of sound.

PH: The sackbut is certainly different to the modern trombone.

GM: Yes. The use of the lips and slide are common to both. One of the biggest differences is, obviously, the instrument itself. The modern trombone is a lot larger than the Renaissance sackbut, the latter having a very small bore in comparison to the large-bore instruments played in a symphony orchestra. The mouthpieces are different as, of course, is the repertoire. In reading early manuscripts or even modern editions of early works, there is very little written in terms of directions on the page; this really hones your sense of musicality and you have to look into the music yourself and try and work out what the composer intended. We always aim to model our sackbut playing on how a vocalist would sing the text, so everything is really shaped and phrased in terms of the text – we try to bring out strong and weak syllables, feminine endings, cadences etc. – trying to emulate the singer as much as possible, to add color to the voices rather than contrasting them. In all the early choral works, sackbuts and cornetts were used as an addition to bolster the voices. In the Monteverdi “Vespers”, however, the composer wrote separate cornett and sackbut parts, but in a lot of early music these instruments are required to double a relevant voice and this approach is seen right up to Haydn (The Creation), Beethoven and Mozart (Requiem).

PH: What about tuning?

GM: It is to do with knowing the tuning system that they would have used at the time of music played – the quarter-comma meantone being the most common temperament used in the 16th- and 17th centuries; one needs to make sure thirds are low enough, how keys are used at that temperament and where the best tuning is going to come from on the instrument. For example, we find that most of the early music is written in what we call “simple keys” (like g major, c major, f major). Having the slide is an advantage in the same way as having a string would be to fine tune the notes in whichever temperament is being used.

PH: Are you tuned to a = 415?

GM: No. Our sackbuts are tuned to a = 440 .Original pitch might have been a = 465 or a = 466; a = 415 is the Baroque pitch. Playing sackbuts in Baroque music poses its own problems; we add crooks to extend the instruments, taking the tuning down a semi-tone in pitch. This poses problems; it sometimes means “relearning the instrument” and one is also required to transpose at sight. As a modern trombone player one is required to read from a number of clefs, but as an early trombone player one has to learn many more. This is an important skill when playing in groups and this flexibility makes us “sellable”.

PH: Talking of sellable, how do you see the early music concert scene in Britain?

GM: In the two years we have been performing, we have not noticed massive changes in that time. We, ourselves, are very busy with performances in two ensembles (we also play with “Camerata Antica”) in several cities here in the UK, giving us a general overview of the early music scene. We have given concerts in Manchester. Our sackbut quartet performed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and at the Brighton Early Music Festival this year, where we took part in the “White Night” Festival (music performed till the early morning hours) in the slot following on from “His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts” who were doing the Monteverdi Vespers (quite a daunting idea for us!) It was a fantastic experience. And we are very happy that Andrew van der Beek has hired us to play with singers this week in Ávila for concert commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomas Luis de Victoria.

PH: And the British concert audiences for whom you perform?

GM: Period performance has only really been going for the past 25 or 30 years. It is still a relatively new concept to a lot of people, but the concerts are very well received as a lot of these people have never had the opportunity to see these instruments. Audiences are curious and very appreciative. We try to recreate how these instruments would have been played in the Renaissance, Baroque or earlier and people do like it and take an interest in the instruments and specific styles of playing.

PH: Do you record?

GM: We did a recording at a church in Walthemstow

PH: Do you teach?

GM: Yes. I do peripatetic work for the Birmingham Music Service. I do all manner of brass teaching, from the cornet (not to be confused with the early cornett), tenor horn, French horn, trombone, trumpet and baritone. We have to be adaptable as we do a lot of Wider Opportunities teaching, whole class instrumental teaching. There are many deprived areas in Birmingham; the schools pay for the children’s music tuition and we teach groups of up to 30 pupils. I have a real passion for teaching. Having had such outstanding tuition myself, I would like to replicate that and pass it on to young players.

PH: In what direction would you like to see your professional life going?

GM: I definitely want to continue teaching. I would like to see myself as a performer and I know the other ensemble members would as well. I would not choose to play only early music just as I would not choose to play modern orchestral music exclusively. I hope to be adaptable enough to fulfill the demands of both fields.

PH: Outside of music, what interests do you have?

GM: Apart from listening to music and attending concerts, I am a keen Blackburn Rovers (professional football team) supporter and play in a football team. In the summer I play in a cricket team in Birmingham. I live on the border of Derbyshire, the border of the Peak District, and like to go walking in the hills, altogether enjoying the various kinds of marvellous countryside in Britain - from the Scottish Highlands down to Dartmoor.

PH: Many thanks, Guy. It has been a great pleasure talking to you.

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