The Soprano Trombone Project

Torbjörn Hultmark’s fascination with the soprano trombone was instigated by his participation in a project with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring a performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s Plötzlichkeit; a piece that calls for two soprano trombones. Torbjörn fell in love with the instrument and launched his impressive soprano trombone project.

We know the trombone family (the lip-reed family, of which our modern brass instruments are the contemporary generation) has existed in various forms for thousands of years, but demonstrated by the vast gaps in our repertoire, their existence in culture has wavered. Like the rest of the trombone family, the soprano trombone once supported the vocal lines in the works of many great composers; but, quite suddenly and for reasons that remain ambiguous, the instrument largely fell from use.

Torbjörn and his soprano trombone

Curiosity led Torbjörn to encourage the research of the instrument and to make its vast potential known. He developed a beautiful instrument with the skilled craftsmen at Thein Brass. A trombone-like sound was the priority in this process and the resulting instrument features an F-valve, quite a large bore size and a relatively big bell.

‘I wanted it to blend in a trombone quartet, not to sit like a trumpet at the top’

Although an instrument in its own right, the soprano trombone has many similarities to a trumpet and feels quite natural for the trumpet player – simply because of the small mouthpiece and embouchure required. However, it is not exclusively for trumpeters – trombonists have been known to play it too and it is worth any instrumentalist trying it out. The instrument has a similar range to a trumpet, except the F-valve allows it to go a little lower; the high range is comparable too, but it certainly has a very different quality. Torbjörn explained that the mouthpiece is a very important consideration, and he personally uses a very deep mouthpiece (similar to a large flugelhorn mouthpiece) to achieve the trombone-like quality. It is a flexible instrument, especially with the addition of the F-valve.

Recent historical research seems to suggest that high trumpets parts in Bach etc. were sometimes played using enormously large mouthpieces (rim diameter of 25mm or more, quite astonishing) – Torbjörn has seen and heard it done amazingly by Mark Bennett.

This project is generously supported by musicians including John Wallace, John Kenny, Martyn Brabbins and Byron Fulcher and has largely progressed through collaboration with Kingston University and their Associate Professor, Dr Tim Ewers who through his extensive expertise, writings and enthusiasm has greatly helped to push the project along. Tim Ewers and Torbjörn are planning a CD recording of new music for soprano trombone with piano, electronics as well the soprano as part of a SATB trombone quartet. Kingston University and Tim Ewers are in a large part sponsoring this but overall the CD project is subject to successful funding applications.

Current projects with Kingston University include performances at their IDAF (Improvisation and Digital Arts) festival, Goldsmith’s College (London), Brunel University (London), JW3 (London) and at London College of Music. It is very much an ongoing collaboration where Tim Ewers (and, by extension, Kingston University) are helping to push the project forward by very generously giving his time, their good name and resources – invaluable help, for example regarding funding applications and similar activities; and of course, the creation of new music.

Torbjörn and John Kenny’s shared interest in the instrument resulted in the formation of an SATB trombone quartet; combining Torbjörn with Pandora’s box – an existing trio of multi instrumental trombonists; Emily White, Miguel Tantos Sevillano and John Kenny. This is particularly wonderful to see – the quartet that is familiar to us now is very much of equal voicing. Our core repertoire promotes this, with some variation to bass trombone occasionally. Although this is successful, surely there is a place for SATB too? It works so well for vocal ensembles and they have a vast repertoire that could be ‘borrowed’ by us. Using a trombone ensemble in this way would be a natural throw back to the original function of the trombone family. Pandora’s Box performed an SATB Beethoven Equali at the Setubal Festival in Portugal, 2015.

With little existing repertoire, Torbjörn and the ensembles that have adopted this project have commissioned new works for the instrument. This list is ever-expanding and includes pieces by Rob Keeley, Oded Ben-Tal, Tim Ewers, Mike Searby, Roger Dean, Raul Avelãs, Peter Cowdrie, Peter Wiegold, John Kenny, Martin Butler and Torbjörn himself. 

A note from Torbjörn regarding a few of his ongoing projects:

‘Just last week I performed in a production of Purcell’s King Arthur at the (London) Spitalfields Festival with the group Notes Inégales, much of it written by Peter Wiegold and Martin Butler for me to be played on the soprano trombone. A new repertoire for soprano trombone and live electronics is being developed. I am being greatly assisted here by Oded Ben-Tal and Roger Dean who not only have created new music for me, but also written dedicated software patches in the Max MSP and Supercollider programs. This is a tremendously exciting part of the project and I have developed a whole new specific hardware and software electronic setup for this. I will be performing on the soprano and my electronic setup for a whole week at Kestle Barton in Cornwall in October as part of Spontonality 2016.’

This project clearly has an exciting future. Torbjörn and his soprano trombone will feature twice in James MacMillan’s festival, The Cumnock Tryst, later this year with both artists-in-residence – HeadSpace ensemble and Pandora’s Box. The soprano is featured in the new HeadSpace piece SALT, which was premièred at the Setubal Festival 2016 and Cumnock Tryst have even commissioned Scottish composer Scott Lygate to write a quartet for SATB trombones. VOCES8 is also in discussion with Torbjörn about staging a major concert in London with the Pandora’s Box in a programme for vocal ensemble, SATB trombone quartet and electronics (subject to funding applications).

The Music Teacher’s Board of Examinations (MTB) has also recognised the instrument’s potential and the ways it could encourage uptake from young players, by agreeing to introduce a graded soprano trombone syllabus. Applications to pursue various educational avenues are currently being put together to help enable the soprano trombone project to work with two music hubs in London (Tower Hamlets and Kingston), and reach young musicians. The British instrument manufacturer Wessex Tubas, is planning to design and manufacture an affordable version of the instrument to provide an essential part of the project’s educational ambitions.

Could this shape the future of brass playing?

Meeting Torbjörn, hearing him play and listening to him share his thoughts of this pursuit so passionately leaves me confident that this project will continue to be successful. I hope his work and the encouragement of those supporting the project will be of great influence to the writing for our instrument and a welcome addition to the potential we have as an instrumental family. 

Please visit Torbjörn’s website for more information about the soprano trombone project.