I Sing the Body Electric

In the past month, things have changed dramatically for me as a bass trombonist. After years of talking about it, I broke down and bought a Silent Brass mute not to practise with, but to use in combination with effects pedals. Upon experimenting with a variety of bass pedals borrowed from colleagues, I experienced a sound world completely unlike anything I had encountered before. This new set of equipment forced me to reconsider not only the technical strategies needed to play my trombone, but also my approach towards performance in general. Whilst there are many complexities inherent in this new system, I have an immense feeling of freedom about my playing.

Why should I feel this way? What cognitive baggage has accompanied my prior approaches performance that has prevented me from feeling so empowered?

Upon contemplating these questions, I concluded that acoustic instruments exist within a realm of nuances. Every aspect of the music – even the most microscopic – regularly comes under scrutiny. Training as a classical musician demands an attention to detail which could be considered obsessive. Looking back at my education, I remember many days where I obsessed over making my 'ka' articulation match my 'ta' articulation so my double-tonguing would be even. I remember recording myself on my computer and looking at the resulting waveforms to make sure that my notes decayed evenly. I remember trialling different breathing patterns within a phrase to my friends, just to see which one helped carry the phrase more. These activities were normal amongst my classical colleagues, and it was expected that I used such techniques to fine-tune my ability to perform.

When I put my trombone through effects pedals, however, all of those nuances went out the window. Adding effects allows my performance decisions to shape the resulting music in vastly different ways. Exploration and manipulation of timbre has become a joy, and I surprise myself regularly by the ease at which I can make sounds that bear no relation to the typical 'vocabulary' of a bass trombone. With a few small adjustments, I can sound similar to a trumpet, an electric guitar, an electric bass, an organ, voices, percussion, a synthesiser… the options are seemingly endless. However, I do not believe I should make myself sound exactly like any of those instruments. If I want to use the sound of a distorted guitar in a recording or performance, why spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to use a trombone when I could just use a guitar? What is unique about the sounds available to use is that even though they carry superficial timbral features of other instruments, I still behave idiomatically like a trombone. This results in what is almost an aural uncanny valley, where the normal means of identifying instruments through recordings may be confounded by mixed information.

This isn't to say that nuances in timbre, articulation, delay, and so on do not exist when I use effects pedals. Rather, they become overshadowed by sonic variables of a much larger magnitude. These new variables have been thrilling to explore, and have provided the cognitive friction to spur on my creative output. To be honest, I'm starting to consider my trombone as more of a wind-powered synthesiser than a brass instrument. Why not?

The results of this exploration can be heard on my forthcoming album of improvised duets and trios with drummer Andy Edwards and electric bassist Steve Lawson, both fascinating and deeply inspiring musicians. Keep checking the website for further updates on this exciting project!