The Wired Goddess and Her Trombone

a review for Music Works (Winter 2001)

by Theda Weber-Lucks

Abbie's Goddess Page


In a recent interview, trombonist Abbie Conant spoke with conviction about her newest endeavor: “My project is called ‘The Wired goddess and her Trombone.’  ‘Wired’ has at least a double entendre, if not more.  In English it describes someone’s condition when they drink too much coffee, i.e. a lot of energy, a kind of electrical charge.  The expression, ‘Wired’ covers just about every compositional and performance style.  I wanted to start a brand new movement with the trombone.  The trombone has so much bad literature, so much B-music, music that I simply cannot identify with.  I wanted to find a new music, to work with composers both known and unknown, such a Pauline Oliveros, Chris Brown or Maggi Payne, as well as students.  I wanted a completely original approach and a completely different feeling that I simply hadn’t yet found in this world.” 

The internationally known trombonist, performance artist and professor, Abbie Conant, is fed up with the existing trombone solo literature.  With her project, “The Wired Goddess and Her Trombone,” she encourages composers around the world to invent new worlds of sound for the instrument and electronics.  As compensation she offers CD recordings, publishing of scores (including a CD-ROM), and the chance for the piece to enter the repertoire instead of being shelved after the premiere.


One of the requirements is that the piece be “playable.”  This master of subtle trombone sounds and an expressive, almost “spoken” style supports a kind of “Gebrauchsmusik.”  “Yes, that is just practical-mindedness in the sense of Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik,” Conant explains.  “Students should be able to play these pieces without necessarily having a wide register.  Then they can just jump right in and work with electronics.”  This stipulation could almost be seen as a provocation, but actually composers have reacted with overwhelming positiveness.  The number of new works already fills an entire evening concert program.  On November 27th, at the State Academy of Music in Trossingen, Germany, (and a few months earlier at the Center for New Music and Technology at the University of California at Berkley) Abbie Conant presented an almost three hour long solo-concert consisting solely of world and German premieres.  The enthusiastic reception of her students showed how relevant this new solo repertoire for trombone is.  The richness of ideas came through strongly in the pieces. 


Obviously the feminist theme of the project was not a problem. Conant recalls,  “There was, for instance, Chris Brown, with his piece entitled ‘Time Bomb.’  He read my Wired Goddess proposal and saw that I mentioned even bagladies as possible incarnations of the Goddesses or her expression. ‘Ha!  Baglady!,’ he thought, and turned to Mina Loy, the poet who essentially ended her life as one.  He chose four of her poems for me and ‘set’ them via SuperCollider.”  The poems were recorded by Abbie Conant and then processed by granular synthesis.  The trombone “performs” or “speaks” the text interactively.  With the SuperCollider program the trombone can directly effect how the text is delivered and simultaneously play along with the voice. 


Another piece Conant mentions with a certain affection is by Jorge Boehringer with the odd title: “The Sinking Ship Or How to Use the Trombone As a Snorkel,” which she describes as being something like “ancient Greek Sirens meeting the fog horns of  the San Francisco Bay.”  The special atmosphere of the piece is created through the projection of a Super-8 quality video that recollects a home movie complete with the clicking sound of an old fashioned film projector.  Conant is especially impressed with how simply and subtly Boehringer uses the trombone’s possibilities.  The vastness of space and time are captured through the use of a pulled out tuning slide on the instrument’s f-attachment.  When the trigger is pressed the sound goes backwards out the open tube and into a mic hooked to a delay that projects it via speakers into the hall, while what comes out the bell is purely acoustic.


In yet another work, “Hum 2,” (for solo trombone and seven-track tape in surround sound) by Maggi Payne, an especially beautiful multi-layered timbreal spectrum emerges.  Conant associates this piece with the Japanese goddess Tatsua-Hima who incarnates herself as the wind, though the composer prefers the abstraction of the music as it is.  Each recorded trombone is on a separate track so that eight trombones surround the audience.


The first half of the program was made up of one 51 minute long piece entitled “Music for the End of Time” written by Conant’s husband, William Osborne.  The work is comprised of six movements evoking six key visions from the Revelation of St. John the Divine.  Even for a soloist of Abbie Conant’s caliber, this piece is a challenge of the highest level.  Placed amid a quadraphonic sound environment similar to the surround sound of a good cinema, the music intensely delivers the Biblical visions St. John heard and saw as if “it were a trumpet talking.”  Even though the Hindemithian term Gebrauchsmusik doesn’t apply here, Conant mentions that in addition to an elaborate score, a CD to help learn the piece is included.


The partly collaboratively developed work clearly indicates the deeper reasons behind the “Wired Goddess and Her Trombone.”  Abbie Conant, who was principal trombone of the Munich Philharmonic under Sergiu Celibidache from 1980-1993, struggled for her equal rights as a woman, morally as well as financially.  She not only wants a new palette of sounds for the trombone, but also a new world of the imagination for the instrument. Other works on the program composed for Conant included Elizabeth Hoffmann's "The Elderberry Goddess, Cindy Cox's "Hysteria",  Alex Potts' "The Secret Waits," Nancy Dowlin's "Love Song Without Words", and Pauline Oliveros’ “The Heart of Tones.” 


The trombone of the 21st Century should (finally!) symbolize a balance between masculine and the feminine energies.  Conant’s project is a call from the heart: “Come on, let’s get it together with this men and women thing.  Come on, it’s the 21st Century, let’s move it.  I’m there.  (Laughter.)  Come with me, at least.  I’m not gonna live in that old world anymore.  I’m sorry, it’s over, it didn’t work.  You know, that’s how I feel.”




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