Reviewed by Julia Lo
One conductor. Two levels. Three sections. Eighty-eight trombones.
Torrential showers could not thwart determined music appreciators from experiencing Orbits (1979) at the Guggenheim on Sunday, June 21st. The epic piece was composed by Pulitzer-Prize-winning Henry Brant and featured an organist (William Trafka), a soprano singer (Phyllis Bruce), and eighty individual parts for eighty-eight trombones. Sponsored by Make Music New York, the concert was free to all who dared to willingly be in a room with such an absurd number of noisy lower brass instruments -- a surprisingly large group of audacious audience attendees (The entrance line went around 5th Ave., down 89th street, and continued down Madison Ave).
While one should imagine any piece containing a double-digit-number of trombones to be grotesque and soiled-pant-scary, Orbits went above and beyond both presumptions, while miraculously remaining glorious. In a cacophony of organized chaos, nearly all trombones had their own individual part and nearly all trombones were playing completely different pitches. While this may seem a death sentence to trombone hell, the effect was quite superlative in the best and worst sense.
Starting off with quiet (or quieter) outbursts of sporadic sounds that crescendoed to fortissimos, Orbits launched with neckhair-flying creepy vibes. While the organ emitted high-pitched and equally dissonant pitches, the trombones suddenly exploded in a lengthy chorus of terrifying, nuclear-sounding bombs that made a few audience-weaklings gasp and a small-baby to shriek. While it is safe to say that weakling-gasps and baby-shrieks were common results from the eighty-eight-trombone effect, the majority of attendees were prepared for the epic sound, some even shutting their eyes to focus all senses on the terrifying music while sporting twisted grins.
While the middle part was slower and maybe even melodic (possibly even pretty), there was something Brant weaved in the harmony that made it very hard to say so. The humpback-whale-sounding calls of the trombones were answered with more stabs of biting notes. Trombones fell through chromatic downward slides that were loud and obnoxious and horrifying. The organ picked up from where it left off with vampire-esque melodies and after a grand anti-cadence, the soprano singer burst out in wild alien/undiscovered-jungle-creature wails.
Perhaps what made the concert so unique was its truly unorthodox physical setup. The architecture of the Guggenheim Museum is one large spiral that swirls upward in ascending levels in which the trombone players were strategically scattered. Audience members had the choice of standing or sitting on the ground floor, and would henceforth look up to watch the trombones circling them above. Although such architectural design caused some discomfort for the common craning neck, it made the concert that much more engaging to the audience, in a musical and physical sense.
Although the piece was what many would call cliche avant-garde, Orbits was still unprecedented for Brant's genuinely freaky style. Still, no matter how much of an unparalleled dive into super epic sound it may be, Orbits is not something likely to be found in your ipod.
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