Why didn't Neutral Milk Hotel hire the Canadian Brass?

by Ricky O'Bannon, Special to MPR
January 9, 2014

Throughout history, classical instruments have found homes outside the orchestra — where they've often been played quite differently. Take, for example, an ongoing love affair indie rock bands have had with the trumpet since the mid-2000s, a love affair that has produced songs like this one by Sufjan Stevens, featuring trumpet at the 1:30 mark.

On first listen from a classical point of view, that's a sound that only a middle school band director (who is doing God's work) could love. It's pitchy, the breath support is non-existent, and the attack and release of notes more closely resembles a car backfiring than good ensemble playing.

In European fine art music, we are taught from the time we pick up the instrument that there is one correct way and countless wrong ways to play the trumpet. The reason, though, is that the music is based on one homogenous sound ideal. Classical music is built upon many players fitting into that common sound goal. When amateurs sing, they use their throats, but classically trained vocalists learn to sing with their diaphragm to get a particular sound that overcomes the idiosyncrasies in each of our voices to blend into a larger choir sound.

Like differentiating fine wine, a well trained ear could tell the subtle differences in sound between the world's top solo performers, but some of what makes classical music so technically impressive is the cooperation and training towards a universal goal of sonic greatness. Take, for example, this rendition of J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by the Canadian Brass. The piece was written for solo organ; thus, the challenge for the brass quintet is to blend seamlessly into a single instrument. What makes this performance so remarkable is that the two trumpet-players (particularly from 6:45 to the end for the impatient) flawlessly trade off fragments of a single melodic line to create the illusion of a solo player.

Jazz, by comparison, brought an entirely new sound aesthetic to the trumpet. While there was still certainly a focus on tight ensemble playing, the sound ideal was decidedly heterogeneous. Each player's timbre was his or her unique thumbprint and an occasional frack, a blatty note, or constricted sound only added to that individual character. Even a casual jazz listener can tell the trumpet sound of Louis Armstrong from that of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis within a few notes. If evaluating the top classical soloists is like parsing fine wine, this is like appreciating the difference between a glass of wine, beer, or hot cocoa.

Rock 'n' roll — and all the pop music that followed — sprang from that heterogeneous sound ideal. Each singer's voice is his or her own, and guitarists likewise look for distinctive equipment (guitars, effects, amps) to create their own signature sounds. So, by the time indie rockers started looking for alternative instruments to break the drums-guitar-bass mold, they approached the trumpet with that same aesthetic. Additionally, indie rock — a sub-genre of rock that was born in the 1980s as "alternative rock" or "college rock" — valued a rough-around-the-edges, lo-fi quality. Part of the appeal was its lack of refinement that is more closely related to an amateur, participatory folk tradition. Take for example singer Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel:

Mangum doesn't have what you would call a pretty singing voice. He doesn't hit the notes he sings as much as he assaults them. There's something that feels genuine and authentic about his timbre, and it's the same quality that the band brings to songs like "The Fool," which focus on trumpet.

That sound would not be desirable to a classically trained trumpeter past his or her first couple of years on the instrument. The breathing is erratic, the timbre nasal, the tone support is poor, and the final chord is so out of tune that it induces cringing. In this context, though, it wouldn't make sense musically any other way. Just as Louis Armstrong's singing style mirrored his approach to the trumpet, this lo-fi trumpet sound imitates the singing of vocalists like Mangum. It's the same democratic appeal of music-making that causes you to overlook the shortcomings of the singer in the pew next to you and appreciate the sum total of a congregation in full-throated hymn.

Over the past decade, dozens of indie bands have flirted with the trumpet. The sound changes from group to group, but the one constant is that the sound is tailored each time to fit the musical ambitions of each band. The challenge for the listener — particularly the classically-trained listener, is to appreciate the soundscape each new trumpet tone is trying to evoke; to understand it on the artists' own terms.

Ricky O'Bannon is a freelance music journalist living in Los Angeles.

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