On a late summer Sunday in early August, New Yorkers strolling along Park Avenue were treated to the force of 92 trumpets lined along both sides of the streets, from 46th to 72nd, performing the site specific version of Craig Shepard’s “Trumpet City, Trumpet City: Park Avenue”.
While the idea of hearing nearly one hundred trumpeters lining the streets for several consecutive city blocks might sound overwhelming, the actual performance was the opposite. Individual long tones emanated from each performer, reflected off the buildings, and collectively merged into one continuous, shimmering sonic experience.
What each listener heard was different based on location, yet the overall piece maintained a consistent and constantly shifting texture. Extended listening was rewarded. The piece began with sustained lower tones that tended to blend in with distant traffic sounds. However, as the piece continued over the course of its hour long duration, the overall collective pitch rose and the trumpets gradually grew more prominent than the ambient sounds. Miniature riffs of melodic material at times punctuated the long tones reflecting off the sides of buildings, intensifying the sonic atmosphere and highlighting the wide range of the performance space.
“Trumpet City: Park Avenue” was produced as part of New York City Department of Transportation’s Summer Streets program. The number of musicians involved in the Park Avenue version of Trumpet City was both a testament to Shepard’s organizational powers as well as the quantity of and relationships between musicians in the New York area. Among the performers were Eric Biondo, Willam Lang, Andy Kozar, Lawrence Malin, Aaron Meicht, and Steph Richards, as well as members of Affinity Brass, Asphalt Orchestra, Five Borough Brass, the S.E.M. Ensemble, and Slavic Soul Party! Though naming individuals implies they were soloists, this is an ensemble piece, and the performance integrated the musicians into the music, the environment, and the ambient sounds of the city played an equally vital part.
Musicians stood far apart enough from each other that each could be heard clearly, along with any of the neighboring performers. Entering from the north, at 72nd Street, the alteration to the soundscape of the city was immediately apparent. Because of the Summer Streets’ initiative—which closes a long stretch of Park Avenue on several August weekends—the sounds of traffic were unusually distant, replaced by that of droves of people and cyclists enjoying the stroll down normally inaccessible areas.
From the northern end of the piece, the first few musicians were like superheroes with costumes hidden beneath work clothes, blending in with pedestrians, until their unique presence was revealed only at the start of the performance. The passersby, gradually realizing the scale of what they were hearing, were amused and a few would point with delight at their discovery of another trumpeter across the block. The musicians maintained their focus and performed meditatively, often standing still, clearly listening to their surroundings as well as each other.
Trumpet City encourages careful listening, inviting you to enjoy the ambience of the city as much as the composed sounds within it. Impossible to fully hear in one listening, Trumpet City demands that you be in the moment, enjoying the singular experience of sound in place.
Paula Matthusen is a composer who writes both electroacoustic and acoustic music and realizes sound installations. She is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and a 2014 - 15 Elliott Carter Rome Prize Fellow.