Brass Ensembles

My brother once asked for me to write some brass quintet music for a group of his. I don't think much came of it (I may post that music eventually, but most of it is not particularly great arrangements of Latin American songs), but I did see an ad for a brass composition contest called BCMW calling for a brass sextet. So I started writing seriously for brass, despite not playing brass instruments, and got 3rd place! It's a good medium, with a warm sound, the perfect blend of similar and different, sweet and powerful. This page is not in chronological order.


2 Trumpets, Horn, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba

This is a brass sextet I wrote in January 2005 for the Humboldt Brass Chamber Music Workshop (later performed by a brass sextet under my own direction at Harvard on Feb. 26, 2006). It was awarded third place. The three movements are untitled.

In Music 51 I was told not to write parallel fifths. Of course, this got me into trouble, because those things creep into your chorale writing and you don't notice them until the professor X's it in red pencil, so I banged out some parallel fifths and octaves on the keyboard until I got that little melody at the fast section. The intro tower chords, from which the piece gets its name, were my way of getting every voice into the forbidden parallel motion, with some chromatic alterations for fun. The rest of the first movement wrote itself; a little counterpoint with doublings at the fifth or fourth, some motifs came out of that, and eventually there was a sonata form. The second movement was something I was playing with on the keyboard for a long time which fascinated me because there were four chords, none with a third, and three of them were clearly major or minor. CGD, BbFC, AbEbBb, GDA... Neutral, major, major, minor. And no thirds. I improvised a little melody over them, heard in bars 5-8 and again in 9-12. This I already had before I found out about this contest, so I used that and continued writing based on themes from the first movement to both great effect and structure. Mmm, structure! The third movement I had less of an idea for what to do, but I felt it ought to be march-like. I had those first four bars for a long time before I could do anything else, but eventually I settled on the pretty obvious four-measure repeated line, over and over again. That's Tower.

Listen to Tower – I Listen to Tower – II Listen to Tower – III

Tolyo March

2 Trumpets, Horn, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba

This was my final project for Music 51; it's a brass sextet with the same instrumentation as Tower and it's a cute little march. The theme is just something I'd had in my head before, so since I had to write something, I figured a march would be most fun though most unoriginal. However, most everyone else wrote less exciting music and I got thunderous applause. I think it was my first time conducting at a performance, too. The Harvard Brass Ensemble performed a rendition (which differed from the original in many points, but such are marches) on May 6, 2006, in Sanders Theater.

The present "recording" does not follow the score exactly; it takes out the horn in one section, and reintroduces it at the end, with everyone else playing shorter and more quietly, with an accelerando. Such is the job of the conductor, I believe, and so I intentionally did not include these changes in the score. I may arrange it for band one day; we'll see. I originally wanted this to be in a Japanese march style, like Yoshio Matsuo's Hello Sunshine (by the way, that's a middle school band playing that, not a professional group, if you can believe it), and titled it Tokyo provisionally. But I misspelled it. Whoops. And it stuck.

Listen to Tolyo March

To Sepharad

3 Trumpets, Horn, 2 Trombones, Euphonium, Tuba

I wrote this in January 2006 for the Humboldt contest; this year the instrumentation required was a brass octet. After several tries, I eventually decided to write a piece that told a story about, say, a Jewish tailor. Realizing that oh wait, Jason Robert Brown already did that in Last Five Years, and somewhat affected by the stories from my class on Jews in Spain, I changed the title to To Sepharad as an ode to Jewish Spain — Sepharad is the Hebrew name for Spain. (I did eventually use a tailor: The One-Armed Tailor for band.)

The first movement, The Nagid, is named after Joseph haNagid, a Jewish vizier in one of the Taifa kingdoms, who was his king's general, trusted advisor, poet, physician, etc. in Muslim Spain. It's in 5/4 and, after an introductory prayer, goes gradually from very slow to very fast at the end, keeping essentially the same melody in variations.

The second movement, Ramban, is named after Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, or Nachmanides, of Christian Spain, partly famous for his debate against the only bishop to be succeeded by his son, Paul Christiani of Burgos. It's a natural enough march; there is no accelerando or much showiness, and there are no pretensions.

The third movement, Abravanel, is named after rather a family (I don't remember the first names; there were two Isaacs, I think) that was evicted from Spain in 1492 after the eldest member was one of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's most trusted advisors. All Jews were expelled; some, like Abravanel's son, went to Portugal. He there begot a baby Isaac, who was forcibly taken from his father to be raised a Christian, and when the Jews were expelled from Portugal in 1497, Abravanel fled to Italy, where he wrote a letter he hoped would eventually reach this son. Naturally, this movement is slow and sad, with beautiful low brass chords and ugly out-of-the-mode trumpet chords, intended to sound like bells and represent the evil Christianity, interrupting the beauty. After a brief violent section, the low brass chorale takes up the melody again, and the tolling bells steal away members of the low brass chorale, who join the bells the next time, until all are taken. The piece ends with a solo tuba's unpunctuated lament.

(There's also a band arrangement of this piece!)

Listen to To Sepharad – I – The Nagid Listen to To Sepharad – II – Ramban Listen to To Sepharad – III – Abravanel


2 Trumpets, Horn, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba

The 2007 entry to the BCMW contest, this time, is Brazilian. It's meant to sound like guitar music, and was inspired by such. It originally was going to be Haiku, but when I looked it up in Portuguese, it turns out that the poetic form in Brazil is something related but not identical called hai-kai, which has three lines but a less strict syllabic structure. I therefore wrote a poem (it's not very good, I'm sure) which translates roughly to "The morning sky/Shines on the ocean/Paints it blue". The movements are named with the lines of the poem, and the only extramusical meaning I managed to insert was the sun in the first movement — see if you can pick it out.

Listen to Hai-Kai – I – O céu da manhã Listen to Hai-Kai – I – Brilha no oceano Listen to Hai-Kai – I – Pinta-o de azul

Suite of the Undead

2 Trumpets, 2 Horns, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba

The 2008 entry to the BCMW contest. The idea of a march of the undead had been floating in my head for a LONG time, and I had a little tune for it, so I figured that this time, this time, I'd actually write it, and it ended up as the second movement in the suite. The requirements were somewhat different — many movements, 13-15 minutes total, rather than three movements of around 5 minutes each — and I, uh, well, it's too long by about a minute and a half, but I imagine it could be sped up. Oh, the creatures mentioned in the piece are Exile/Avernum-style undead — a zombie is supposed to be a magically reanimated corpse that can be killed in a few hits (a few WEAK hits) rather than a horrible-virus-infected supermutant that zombifies on contact, though I suppose a lich may be powerful enough to do that. Or a zombie dragon (GAH, FF5!). Oh, cool note: LOTS OF SPECIAL EFFECTS! You can't really hear all of them faithfully, but the horns will do some, uh, surprising things. (: And there's some rather creative orchestration at times, with trombone down in the pedal range, euphonium an octave higher in the low range, and tuba an octave higher than the euphonium, playing fairly high. High tuba is generally underexplored, I think. At least by me. This was one of my first forays into writing microtonally.

Listen to Suite of the Undead – I – Awakening: The Lich Listen to Suite of the Undead – I – March of the Zombies Listen to Suite of the Undead – I – The Vampire's Lullaby Listen to Suite of the Undead – I – The Werewolves' Hunt Listen to Suite of the Undead – I – Ghostly Lament Listen to Suite of the Undead – I – Finale: The Lich

JPT Brass Medley 2006

2 Trumpets, Horn, Trombone, Tuba

My brother asked me to arrange a medley of recognizable tunes for his brass quintet for the 2006 winter concert of the J. P. Taravella High School band program, and here it is, though the pieces quoted are far too numerous to name. It's worth mentioning that the trombonist is instructed to kill the other four ensemble members during the "Chester" section (he asked for death during Chester, so there it is), which are revived while the trombonist plays a few bars from Sorcerer's Aprentice. Almost everything in there is a famous band piece or some piece related to JPT; there's some stuff from Les Mis (the Fall 2006 musical production), the alma mater, the warmups for band and marching band, and some snatches from my own compositions for some shameless self-aggrandizement — if the players, or even listeners, ever chance to come across Tolyo or Aleinu, they will find it familiar.

To hell with it; here are the pieces I quote, in order, for your following-along pleasure: Blue Shades (Ticheli), Rocky Point Holiday (Nelson), Chanson du Toreador (Bizet), The Klaxon (Fillmore), Sea Songs (Vaughan Williams), Tolyo March (Braunstein), Ballet Music from Macbeth (Verdi), Overture to "Candide" (Bernstein), Erhalt uns in der Wahrheit (Bach), First Suite in Eb (Holst), Lincolnshire Posy (Grainger), Wachet Auf (Bach), La Vita (Ito), A Heart Full of Love (Schoenberg et al), Ave Verum Corpus (Mozart), Prelude No. 14 in Eb (Shostakovich), Pepita Greus (Chovi), Hammersmith (Holst), Immoveable Do (Grainger), March of the Belgian Paratroopers (Leemans), Four Scottish Dances (Arnold), Second Suite in F (Holst), An American Elegy (Ticheli), Fanfare and Allegro (Williams), Mars (Holst), Music for Prague, 1968 (Husa), Trittico (Nelhybel), American Overture (Jenkins), Children's March (Grainger), Chester (Billings/Schuman), Sorcerer's Apprentice (Dukas), Hava Nagila (trad.), Armenian Dances, Part I (Reed), American Salute (Gould), Jupiter (Holst), J. P. Taravella High School Alma Mater (don't know), Aleinu (Braunstein). None are used with permission, with the exception of excerpts from my own works, and they were all rearranged, anyway.

Listen to JPT Brass Medley 2006

Fanfare for [Real] Brass Quintet

2 Trumpets, Horn, Trombone, Tuba

This is another Music 51 project, though a much smaller one: the assignment was to write a piece based on a given chord progression. It was supposed to be played in section, so I wrote it for five voices in the style of a brass fanfare. The performance didn't go so well — maybe rehearsals might have helped? — but I eventually converted the piece to actual brass for my brother's brass quintet. Here it is.

Listen to Fanfare for [Real] Brass Quintet

Fanfare No. 2 for Brass Quintet

2 Trumpets, Horn, Trombone, Tuba

Another short fanfare. I suppose it could be expanded one day, but probably not.

Listen to Fanfare No. 2 for Brass Quintet

Bytes for Two Trumpets

2 Trumpets

I was asked to write a trumpet duet by my Harvard Wind Ensemble director Mark Olson (though it took me so long to write it that it never got played). I asked him what it should be like; he said it should be fast, slow, a little Spanish, and probably a few other things. So I decided to experiment with a whole-tone scale. You'll notice I didn't stick to it, which is probably a good thing, but I also certainly never picked a key, and some of the motifs you'll hear are whole-tone-derived. This was also my first piece for a duet, so I had to learn how to work without full chords and not sound like Mozart. Not that I have anything against sounding like other composers, but I do have something against Mozart.

This recording is a bit different from the others in that it has somewhat realistic crescendi. Let me give some insight in the way this works. At the time I produced this, Sibelius did not handle gradual dynamic changes during notes, only between them. There is a plugin that does that, though it's time-consuming to apply it (it has to be applied individually for each change, and various other MIDI things need to be set manually). Worse, the reverb function of Kontakt Player Gold does not obey those MIDI commands. So the only way was to save as MIDI (which loses some information sometimes), and use Synthfont, etc. This can't be done for band music, though, for various reasons which I don't feel like explaining, mostly having to do with the quality of the patches. So in the case of this piece, it's somewhat practical. There are kinks, though — since I MIDI-controller-ized all dynamics, rapid changes don't sound very good. If you want to record a better version, perhaps with real trumpets, email me, but otherwise, this is the best I can do...

Oh, also, each trumpet plays in only one side. So if you have mono sound, you're missing out on the effect. If one of your stereo channels is muted, you'll only get one trumpet. I'd recommend headphones for the best effect here.

Listen to Bytes for Two Trumpets

Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – Fantasies on "America" for Two Races

4 Trumpets, 2 Horns, 2 Trombones, 2 Euphonia, 2 Tubas, 4 Percussion

Another class project, though this time for American Protest Literature. This was never performed except for a recording similar to this one. The instrumentation is also not entirely realistic: two choruses, each containing two trumpets, horn, trombone, euphonium, tuba, and two percussion: sixteen players. The piece attempts to paint a picture of black/white racism in the US, though it's somewhat stylized. I'll let you make your own conclusions, but one chorus represents whites and the other represents blacks. They are heard on different channels, like Bytes, so I recommend either widely spacing your speakers or wearing good headphones. I tried to make this piece self-explanatory by titling the movements suggestively.

This is NOT a theme and variations on "America". There are many themes involved, and most are derived from "America", but this is not always obvious. For example, a certain rhythmic pattern represents the phrase "let freedom ring", though one probably wouldn't notice it. Another such motif is the melodic fragment F F G, or any transposition of it, which I used to build many of the other themes. The title, incidentally, was inspired by Frederick Douglass's speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" where he argues that the benefits of the Declaration of Independence were not applied to the slaves. The center of my emphasis on racism, though, is the second movement, Execution and Dance. Reading Ida B. Wells's "Southern Horrors" is nothing compared to seeing the actual disgusting images from a lynching. I'd recommend reading Wells's pamphlet if you take pride in America's history for a cold dose of reality, regardless of which groups you identify with.

This piece recalls some truly disgusting periods in American history, even if it does so in a fictionalized manner. I make no apology for reminding you that they are, in fact, part of America's past, and that, sadly, the Finale is still only part of America's future, not its present. May we get there soon.

Listen to Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – I – God Save King Cotton Listen to Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – II – Execution and Dance Listen to Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – III – Your Country, 'Tis of Me Listen to Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – IV – The Perfectly Standard Freedom Blues Listen to Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – V – Holy War and the Mourning After Listen to Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – VI – Let Freedom Rag Listen to Your Country, 'Tis of Thee – VII – Finale

Oro y Tomates

2 Trumpets (in C), Horn, Trombone

My brother asked me to write a brass quartet, STAT, and to make it sound Spanish. So I did it. I tried to also make it sound a little Jewish, so you can actually pick out some Jewish notes in there (if you think you've heard that snippet before in synagogue, well, you have). Oh, and the first measure is (seriously) based on the Jungle Groove from Donkey Kong Country. The inspiration really went no further than the rhythm of the first measure, but it's what it is. But there's some neat stuff in there; it's a fun piece. This was performed by my brother's group. Strangely, it's also available for illegal download in the dark corners of the internet. Don't get it from them, since I don't get any money that way. (Full disclosure: I don't get any money through here, either.)

Listen to Oro y Tomates
Mauro Cutz Braunstein 2012. Contact: (Return home)