News & Events
A report on Headspace and its first concert for Brass Herald
by John Wallace
I've travelled a long way on the trumpet's back, though it's often felt like I was the beast of burden in our relationship. Nevertheless, the fork that appeared in our collective roads has been getting closer and closer. On one side there stands the huge array of new responsibilities I hold as the Principal of the RSAMD. On the other lies the reality that my chops are growing old and stubborn. So on June 6th, I'll be getting off the instrument's saddle. Or perhaps the trumpet will be getting off my back: we'll see how it feels afterwards.
Nearing my last performance, I've found myself thinking more and more about the trumpet's future. Whose hands will we pass the instrument on to - in which directions will our younger performers lead it? Uncertainty hangs over many areas of the art and craft of brass performance; areas that seemed healthy - even ubiquitous - as little as thirty years ago. There has never been a time in which innovation within our field has seemed so necessary: within the next generation, we will see a survival of the creative. Only the most inventive composers, performers, venues, and instruments will survive. Their ideas may be uncomfortably different from ours, but they are the ones who will keep brass music moving and alive. One brilliant new transformation takes centre stage at the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney this June. It is represents a pioneering effort of performance, composition and instrument making, presided over by my good friend, Clarence Adoo, who will be performing on stage for the first time in ten years. Rehearsing with him a few weeks ago in the RSAMD was humbling and inspiring in equal measure. More than anything, it gave me a sense that our instrument is being passed down into so many different and brilliant sets of hands.
In Clarence's case, the instrument doesn't touch his hands - there is no way it could. Since 1995, this young and brilliant trumpeter, a graduate of the The Royal College of Music in London and a Royal Northern Sinfonia regular, has suffered a broken spine, meaning he is paralysed from the neck down. An indomitable spirit, a hunger to perform and the innovative contributions of composer John Kenny and instrument designer Rolf Gehlhaar are bringing him to the stage again, with probably the most versatile and far-reaching instrument ever designed for a disabled performer.
Monitoring Clarence's head movement through infra-red beams, the "Headspace" instrument responds to a sensitized blow tube, allowing Clarence to cover five octaves and hundreds of different synthesized sounds and timbres in moments through a deft mixture of precise movements and breath control. How much of playing Headspace is similar to playing his old instrument? 'There's a similarity between using the blow-tube and tonguing,' Clarence says, 'but it's not a trumpet: I don't know if I could triple-tongue!'
'Headspace has a lot of colour and versatility,' Clarence goes on to say, 'brass instrument sounds are one of it's major resources, but there are over two hundred I can access in moments'. I have seen Clarence demonstrate the ways in which this new instrument, with its huge tonal range and its varied qualities of sound, has the capacity to outplay us all. But where did this instrument come from?
Clarence explains to me Headspace's evolution. 'The idea came from a machine Rolf Gelhar designed called "Soundbeam", which used two or four sensors in a small space - moving between these sensors created sound. John Kenny, Rolf Gelhar and I tried using Soundbeam: when I moved my head to the left, I could access a keyboard, when I moved my head to the right, I could play a drum kit'. But he quickly craved a more creative experience. 'As a classically trained musician, I wanted more flexibility. I wanted to be more specific with notes and timbre; I wanted to be able to use dynamics expressively'. Together, Clarence, John and Rolf came up with an instrument that runs off a laptop computer and that responds to movements sensed by a headset. With it, Clarence can pattern remarkably expressive musical phrases. This is testament to his original goals with the project; 'I wanted to enjoy Headspace as an instrument, instead of switching buttons on and off'.
Using Headspace, Clarence moves virtuosically through a vast repertoire of sounds: trumpets, pianos, thunder and waves. He creates an electrifying performance space; fantastic new possibilities for the instrument, for the music, and very importantly, for other disabled performers. One thing that struck us both as we rehearsed at the RSAMD in April was the excitement with which other disabled musicians regarded Headspace. 'There seemed to be a sense that at last we have something that a lot more people can have enjoyment of,' Clarence says; 'that's why it's important I'm as creative and skilful on this instrument as anyone can be'.
Clarence has been practicing towards a first performance with Headspace since 2002. 'As a disabled person, I didn't want to feel I was letting the side down - I wanted to master the new instrument', he says. The astonishing amount of work he has put into the project, and the mastery with which he performs with Headspace, demonstrates to everyone the kind of single-minded resolution all true performance artists need. 'I feel privileged to be playing with the musicians I am; to perform with an instrument someone has taken the time to tailor-make for my unique situation', he says. On stage with Clarence in Orkney will be composer, trombonist and Headspace collaborator John Kenny. 'John and I spent two days working out Headspace's limitations for the concert,' Clarence jokes, 'and ended up frustrated by its options!'
Clarence and I also talked about the many brass instruments the St. Magnus Festival is incorporating into its performances this year; brass ancient, modern, and revolutionary. I believe that Headspace is a revolutionary brass instrument, though when I say so, I sense caution in some other brass enthusiasts. Maybe I have a one-track mind, but this new instrument reminds me of a trumpet in several ways (discounting the fact that my family tells me everything reminds me of a trumpet). I think Headspace propels us towards one exciting vision of many possible brass futures. I notice that to play Headspace, the musician must move air, creating vibrations which travel through an instrument made primarily out of metal; and that metal creates sound. It also makes me think about another instrument showcased at Orkney this June, its difference to Headspace and the lesson both instruments give us about creativity and performance.
The ancient Celtic periscope-shaped trumpets called Carnyx are also in concert at St. Magnus. I am reminded that of the furious academic debate surrounding the instrument as to whether or not their original performers had any idea how versatile their instruments were. Was it a war-horn or was it an instrument of priests, used in religious ritual, and, as some content, human sacrifice? Many scholars contend that with no knowledge of the musical scale, or even basic harmonic sequences, the Carnyxs' original performers may well only have yelled through them. Yet the flexibility of these ancient instruments astounds performers and academics alike. In all certainty we will never know how Carnyx were originally performed, though no-one argues they were played with anything like the style, knowledge and repertoire with which they can be played today. After more than a thousand years of ceaseless musical creativity, performers have returned to this ancient trumpet with its distinctive boars-head bell with entirely new ideas about its possibilities. If brass has a future, this will be echoed in hundreds of years' time, when performers return to examine the instruments and repertoire we play today, and marvel at the volume of notes, pieces and performances we wandered through without ever realising the latent potential within them for new things.
But not Clarence. Like all at the forefront of innovation, he must be resilient and brave: Headspace's freshness makes sure there is no such thing as a generic or lacklustre performance when he goes on stage in Orkney. This musician's bravery, single-mindedness and instrumental mastery should be a chastisement to any of we performers who blame our instruments for our own shortcomings, and to diffident music students everywhere. Headspace reminds me of the most important aspect of performance: that the art of playing a musical instrument does not rest in the fingers, or diaphragm, or embouchure - it lies in the resilience of the performer, and in the excited hearts and minds of the people listening to them play. You will see this link between Clarence and his audience forcefully in Orkney. His performance is an inspiration to a seasoned performer like me, on the cusp of retirement. Approaching my last concert, I am proud and heartened to see a first such as his.
This page keeps an archival record of all of Clarence's news appearances, news regarding Headspace and the past, present and future events of Clarence and the Trust. We hope you enjoy reading up on the history of Clarence and all that he has achieved over the years.