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Sonic English

From the beginning Justin Clark, born in 1981 in Rhode Island, USA, seemed to be on a direct and consistent line: in 2003 he was as bass trombonist the winner of the Syracuse University Concerto Competition, then studied with the bass trombone luminary David Taylor at the Manhattan School of Music, and afterwards at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. He proved himself worthy of these merits after taking up the position as bass trombonist in the Bern Symphony Orchestra (Switzerland). Beyond that he has been engaged by other prominent European and international orchestras due to his excellent capabilities, and has performed Daniel Schnyder’s ambitious contemporary concerto “SubZero” multiple times. Justin Clark has been the Professor of Bass Trombone at the Haute Ecole de Musique Genève since 2013.

by Hans­Dieter Grünefeld

A BANG, to start something new

Creative forces lead to Justin Clark’s change of continent from North America to central Europe as well as the expansion of his radius as a soloist. The name of the group he founded, “The Tranzient Ensemble,” implies mobility between different musical genres, with Didier Métrailler (Percussion / Drumset), Loïc Defaux (Marimba / Vibraphone), Fiona Kraege (Violin), Shigeru Ishikawa (Doublebass), and James Alexander (Piano). In this SONIC Interview he explains his project and his identity as a bass trombonist.

SONIC: What induced you to get up from your seat in the brass section of the Bern Symphony Orchestra to found the The Tranzient Ensemble?

J.Clark: Here I had the chance to create my own ideal ensemble. I love my job and consider myself lucky to work in a symphony orchestra. Sometimes I joke that my job is to play the greatest hits of the last three hundred years, but classical music isn’t a stiff old museum, it’s actually a living organism. Every concert is a new interpretation and a new experience and different things happen with different people at different times. That’s the magic. I studied to become an orchestral musician and I am still very happy to be one. But as a bass trombonist it’s not so often that you have the chance to perform as a soloist with or within the orchestra. Most of the time one has a supporting role. I certainly believe that variety and change are parts of life and music, and with The Tranzient Ensemble my own voice and ideas can be heard.

SONIC: Transient is apparently not “cross­over”, but when taken from the Latin transire it means “to go over.”

J. Clark: I hate the term Cross­over, it has a contemporary association with Pop­Classical music which I don’t like. I choose the word transient (Tranzient in German) because it fit my concept of passing through many different musical styles. What we’re doing on the album is classically influenced music mixed with other styles like rock, jazz, and even renaissance. We don’t think of ourselves as a (pop)cross­over ensemble so much, rather we move in between the different genres. There is a second meaning of the word transient, and that is in the acoustic sense: a sharp impulse at the beginning of an audio wave, much like a stick hitting a snare drum. This idea appealed to me, it’s like a BANG to start off something new. The album title has the adjective “permanent” in the sense that we are permanently going through (transgressing) this music and these musical styles always changing, developing, moving. That’s my concept. Music develops in and with time.

Sonic: Why did you choose such a incomparable instrumentation for The Tranzient Ensemble?

J.Clark: With percussion you have almost limitless possibilities in the sound­spectrum. Marimba and Vibraphone are instruments that can play accompaniment like a keyboard but can also do melodic passages. And the sound they produce is wonderful. Of course, the bass trombone has many timbres, but I wanted to have the piano, violin, and double bass to counterbalance the percussion and myself. The bass plays an important role: it has the same range as the bass trombone but has a much different timbre. I think it’s a very interesting mix. Everyone has their own function and colour so the ensemble sound can be very varied. Much more than a string quartet or brass quintet would have.

Sonic: That’s not a standard formation. It must be difficult to find original compositions for it.

J.Clark: Yeah, of course. Most of the repertoire is new. I commissioned a couple of composers for new works and arranged some material myself.

Sonic: What significance do the works of Daniel Schnyder, written for you teacher David Taylor, have for you?

J.Clark: Daniel Schnyder is able to mix different styles and create something that is unique is his music. Before I moved to New York to study with Dave, and before I met Daniel personally, I heard Dave’s recording of “Subzero.” I was very impressed. His music is neither classical nor jazz, but it has elements of both. It also borrows from arabian music in the second movement with the percussion and harmony. I was completely thrilled. And all I can say about Dave Taylor is that he is the universal musician. He performed with some of the top big bands and symphony orchestras in New York, and did everything else from free improvisation to performing with the Rolling Stones. He is a true modern musician who was trained classically but heavily influenced by jazz, rock, pop, and many other styles. His and my generations grew up with access to all of this music around us, and we can’t help but be influenced by it.

Sonic: Does that imply that musicians who are open to the diversity of the present day don’t exist in the classical field?

J.Clark: Oh no, I think that certainly the vast majority of classical musicians nowadays don’t think one­dimensionally. Today one expects musicians to be able to play everything that’s put in front of them at a high level, regardless of style or difficulty! That’s a must for the professional musician. Take the percussionists in my ensemble as an example, they need to be able to play a funk groove on a drumset and then have turn around and read the complex score of Daniel Schnyder with the a high level of accuracy.

Sonic: Why does the bass trombone appear to be under valued as a solo instrument for so long? And how do you explain the emergence of it now?

J.Clark: Hmm, I think during the last thirty years we have seen a steady improvement of the technically ability of players on an international level. It’s become an altogether different instrument. I belong to a progressive generation of players who realized that one can play way more than just bass lines on the bass trombone. It is no longer the “third trombone” after the alto and tenor like as it was hundreds of years ago, it is now a unique instrument and people recognize it as such. Already in the fifties the instrument was gaining prominence with George Roberts playing a big role in the bands of Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, and in studios and on TV. He had a real individual sound and could play all the jazz arrangements. Later Dave Taylor came on the scene along with others out of New York. At that time it came more into the foreground and since then there are more and more musicians stretching it’s capabilities.

Sonic: Did you want to demonstrate the flexibility of the bass trombone or did you want to record some of your favourite compositions on your album?

J.Clark: Both. Of course I want to show what is technically possible on the instrument and what my personal capacities are. But what’s more important is the music and how it encompasses my stylistic preferences. When I was in university there was something called Napster, today’s equivalent would be Spotify. It was one of the first internet music portals where immense amounts of music were immediately accessible. One could make a playlist and mine had pop, rock, electronic, funk, jazz, and more all playing one after another. This was music I loved only all mixed up in a way that made sense to me. My CD intentionally isn’t a classical bass trombone recital with piano accompaniment, but rather a much more varied selection of different shades.

Sonic: On “A Hundred Bars for Tom Everett” you play with multi­phonics (playing and singing simultaneously). Were you influenced by Albert Mangelsdorff or Nils Wogram?

J.Clark: Yeah. Although this piece in particular isn’t inspired from their playing. I knew of Nils Wogram when I was studying in New York. He’s got a really individual style that’s funky and cool! He uses multi­phonics not as a show­off trick thing, but makes it part of his music. That’s why I really like it. I first hear of Albert Mangelsdorff not such a long time ago. For whatever reason I hadn’t come across his stuff before living in Bern. Now I’m getting into it and there is a whole side of jazz in Europe being played in the sixties, seventies, and eighties that I wasn’t aware of! Also something worth mentioning is that there is a portrait of Albert Mangelsdorff hanging in the control room of Bauer Studios, where the Tranzient Ensemble recorded this album. I took that as a sign of good luck.

Sonic: You have Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx” in your repertoire, which is originally for solo flute. Was this a challenge for a bass trombonist to play?

J.Clark: I know I might look crazy for choosing this, but I actually choose it primarily because I like Debussy’s impressionist melodies. I was inspired by Emanuel Pahud who played “Syrinx” as an encore in a concert he was playing with us in Bern. I thought it was such a beautiful piece, why shouldn’t I play it on the bass trombone? It’s also a wind instrument but only two octaves lower than the flute. Lyrical playing suits the instrument too so I wanted to give it a try. Certainly surprising for some listeners.

Sonic: In addition to bass trombone you have studied historical instruments, in particular the sackbutt. Why?

J.Clark: I discovered renaissance music later in my university studies. I was on a music history course and was for the first time introduced to the music of Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and many other Dutch and Italian composers of the era. I thought it was incredible. When I relocated to Switzerland I found out that the world­class Schola Cantorum Basiliensis was only an hour’s train ride away in Basel. Since the faculty consists of experts on historical performance I wanted absolutely to study there. I could already read the old manuscripts but didn’t know enough about how to appropriately interpret it. Everything looks simple at first glance but it’s actually very difficult to get all the details and the right aesthetic. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Sonic: I thought on “Possente Spirto,” from Claudio Monteverdi, that you played with a lot of respect. Perhaps more than necessary.

J.Clark: Yes, I agree, but this music really moves me and I wanted to be respectful as possible. It’s certainly not a historically accurate performance since I’ve arranged it for bass trombone as the soloist, but I take this music very seriously. I wanted to play it with the right colours and attention to phrasing.

Sonic: What are your plans for the future of the ensemble?

J.Clark: I don’t want to just make music for trombonists and trombone experts, I want to make music that people will enjoy listening to. I would like to commission more original works for the group from contemporary classical composers as well as jazz composers. I want to pursue this cross­genre style and further my concept of being “Transient.” We are not your standard ensemble and I’m proud of that.

Sonic: Thanks for speaking with us.