September Elegy for Natural Horn (Optional Valved Horn) and Piano
by Jeffrey Agrell
A tribute to the events and victims of September 9th 2001 when terrorist attacks brought down the twin towers in New York and killed thousands. Written for Natural horn and Piano. The composer uses the natural horn, a traditional instrument, in a modern idiom of improvisation. The natural horn is singularly expressive in it’s wide range of color, timbre and technique and when presented in a largely improvisational idiom makes each performance deeply personal and unique.
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September Elegy for Natural Horn and Piano
“September Elegy for Natural Horn and Piano” arose as an expression of grief from the events of September 11, 2001. It is unusual in that it uses a natural (valveless) horn in Eb. Also that the performer improvises on it. Natural horn has seen something of a revival in use in recent years, but its use has been almost entirely in its original classical setting. Since beginning to work with the natural horn in 2000, I have become very impressed with its powerful expressive capabilities, which can be used to surprising advantage in playing contemporary music. For example, the range of tone colors, the use of stopped and half-stopped hand positions (including portamento effects) is much more vivid than that possible on the modern valved horn. The natural horn is also capable of extraordinary crescendos and decrescendos that can be startling and dramatic.
Add to this extended spectrum of expression the element of improvisation – completely unknown on the horn since Punto adlibbed classical cadenzas in the early 1800s – and you have a very unusual musical adventure, and one that will be different for every performance. Improvisation is usually thought of as being either ‘free’ or jazz in style. The improvisation required here (for both instruments) is neither. Jazz improvisation commonly follows a cyclic harmony. Improvisation in “September Elegy” is primarily guided by the mood of the piece. Where ‘free’ improvisation often incorporates extended techniques (or may consist almost entirely of them) and may sound chaotic, the goal of the performers here is to improvise in the original sense of composing on the spot in the mood of the piece. Improvisation in this sense has both unity and variety, both structure and surprise, activity and repose.
There are four sections to September Elegy: I. Prologue II. Chorale III. Reflection IV. Epilogue. All but the Chorale are improvised (Reflection is a piano solo). Some horn players may shy at the unfamiliar requirement of improvisation. The barrier to performing this piece is not improvisation per se. The improvisation appropriate to the piece is not necessarily technically difficult. On the contrary, a slow and expressive improvisation suits the mood of the piece.
The real barrier is in the mind of the player – daring to improvise, daring to express inner feelings, daring to explore and discover the music inside him or herself. Although the use of the natural horn is much preferable, there is also no reason that the piece could not be realized on a modern horn if that is the only instrument available. The valve horn performer should, however, be aware of how hand horn techniques color the sound. Preparation for performance should involve exploration of various extended techniques (fluttertongue, trills, glissando, extreme ranges, stopped and echo effects, portamento, vibrato, note bends, use of the 7th, 11th, 13th harmonics, and so on), all techniques that the natural horn is capable of.
Length of the movements: this is up to the performers. The first performance (University of Iowa, November 30, 2001) was about 10 minutes long altogether. Rough suggestions: Prologue – up to 2’; Reflection – 1’ 30” to 2’; Epilogue: 20-30”.
I would like to express my deep gratitude to pianist Evan Mazunik, whose remarkable playing and insightful comments were an invaluable source of inspiration in the creation of this work.
September Elegy is one of a series of pieces that blend nonidiomatic improvisation with written material. Up until the rise of gigantic Romantic orchestras, horn players were expected to be able to improvise, like all musicians. I hope that this series will help bring back the skill and the joy of improvisation to the players of this instrument.
There are two recordings of the piece available on youtube.com:
Jeffrey Snedeker, from his CD “The Contemporary Natural Horn” (2011)
And me, from a live performance in 2013. https://youtu.be/iH2R0wyH5hc
My original recording of the piece was on my CD “Repercussions” (2003)
|Dimensions||626546306 × 21 × 29,7 cm|
We have prepared a Power Point Slide Show containing photos of the attack on the twin towers which can be used to accompany this piece. This makes for a multi-media presentation, which immensely enhances the performance and the emotional impact of the piece. The Power Point file is fully editable to adapt to your own vision and needs.
We have prepared a version of this to accompany Jeffrey Snedeker’s fine recording. The cd is available here.
You can watch our version below:
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