Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Some Notes on the Inspired Insanity of Mnozil Brass

I don’t know when I first discovered the Mnozil Brass, but I’ve been listening to them for a number of years now. They’re brilliant, but just what they do, that’s a bit tough to characterize. Sure, they make music, but what kind of music? – nor is it only music that they make.

Here’s a short clip entitled “Remixes Concerto of Arutiunian”. When it opens we see four musicians on stage, three trombone players and a tuba player (in the rear) and we hear trumpet playing off stage. If you’re familiar with the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto you know that the music you’re listening to isn’t that, nor anything like it. For all I know it’s some traditional Tyrolean tune – Mnozil is an Austrian outfit.

The three trombone players engage in some stage business to the music – perhaps they’re imitating some mechanical figures dancing on the lid of a wind-up music box. They look at the tuba player, he looks at them, they look at one another, making faces and gesturing. They up with something. By about 35 seconds in they’ve ready to make their move. At the same time the music has switched into a minor key. Our musicians are prancing around, gesturing with their horns, and are oriented toward the left side of the stage. Obviously that’s where the trumpeters are.

At about 49 seconds in they unload with a blast of music. It’s a line from the Arutiunian trumpet concerto. As soon as they finish that line the offstage trumpeters let go with a short fanfare as our onstage musicians prance around in triumph while the audience claps. There’s even a bit of armpit sniffing.

But their victory is short-lived. At about 1:10 or so the trumpeters start up again, this time with “The Mexican Hat Dance.” So the lower brass starts up again with the gesturing, setting up to deliver another blast of sound to the trumpeters. At about 1:33 they deliver the same line from the Arutiunian; the trumpeters answer with the same little fanfare; and the lower brass continue on this time.

At 1:45 the trumpeters come prancing out on to the stage, making gestures like they’re on horseback. One of them, the last one (Thomas Gansch), is playing the trumpet solo line from the Arutiunian. Now we’ve got seven musicians on stage prancing around like they’re on horseback, one of them playing the solo line, the lower brass playing back-up figures, and then another melody appears. I don’t recognize it; maybe it was composed for this piece, maybe it’s from a music score, who knows? It’s not clear what’s going on, but they manage to work themselves into a V formation, prancing all the while, and then work their way to a straight line facing the audience. At 2:30 the music converges on the theme song from Bonanza. They play a few bars of that and they’re done. They make gestures suggesting they’re bringing their horses to a halt so they can dismount. As some of you may know, Bonanza was a hit Western that was on American TV in the 1960s. That, presumably, provides a rationale for the horse riding.

But what’s the rationale for the whole performance, which I find rather convincing? The stage business is not incidental, it’s essential, as is the juxtaposition of distinctly different kinds of source music. In the end I suppose that the Arutiunian is the dominant voice, but still, what’s the point? It seems to me that the stage business is required to make the whole thing hold together. It gives us just a bit of a story, some kind of conflict between the trumpets and the low brass that is somehow resolved through horsing around at the end.

Here’s another somewhat longer bit, “Cirque - toot toot”. It opens with a lone trombone player on stage standing on a chair. He blows a whistle and the other musicians enter from both sides of the stage playing something that I don’t recognize. They march around a bit and then our ‘conductor’, the trombonist we started with, whistles them to a halt and then starts them up again.

They continue playing – the piece they were playing at the beginning – and work their way to a line across the stage. And then...I’m not going to try to describe what happens as it’s best to see it. But there’s a bunch of stage business, the music stops, the trombonist gets everyone positioned just right and then, at about three minutes in, they start up again. At about 3:11 we realize they’re playing “In the Navy”, a song that was a hit for The Village People some years ago. They get through one line of that, put down their instruments, and start singing another Village People hit, “Y.M.C.A.” That falls apart at about 3:40 and they start up again with the piece they opened with, marching around on stage.

The trombonist whistles them to a halt at 4:29. Two of the trombones start up with a line from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring while the opening guy puts on a mask and then joins in. We’re midway through the performance. They move around and so forth, their motions in one way or another reflecting what’s going on in the music. But from here to the end the music is from The Rite of Spring. They bring it to a unified and satisfying, albeit a bit abrupt, conclusion at about 9:17.

What’s it all about? As with the first piece we have the juxtaposition of distinctly different kinds of music in a single performance. This is characteristic of their repertoire as a whole. And we have the use of stage business to hold things together. There’s a sense in which they’re “meta” to the music they performing, but not very. They’re certainly not disengaged. Ironic? Maybe.

Basically, it works. I can describe something of what they’re doing. But what it all means, what holds it together, that’s beyond me. I’m not sure we’ve got the language needed to deal with it.

Let me leave you with one last clip. It’s called “Ballad”, and that’s what it is. It’s one piece of music from start to finish, with no funny stage business. It’s ‘ordinary’ music, played extraordinarily well.

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More commentary on Mnozil:


  1. who needs "language"?

    language may be the "House of being"

    but only because "Language speaks"

    in this here case it doesnt

  2. I believe the music in the last piece is from the soundtrack of the film "Vertigo" (James Stewart, Kim Novak).