Vital Signs of Planet Earth is a programmatic concerto for bass trombone that seeks to depict the “vital signs” of the earth as related to global warming. Global warming is scientific fact. The level of awareness about global warming must be raised so that steps can be taken to reverse or slow down the deterioration of our planet. Each movement of the concerto portrays one of the major events caused by global warming, HEAT WAVE, GLACIAL RETREAT, and DELUGE. The solo bass trombone reacts to and provides commentary on each of the three events.
Genre: Solo Bass Trombone with Piano | # of Players: 2
Level: 5 | Duration: 32:40
Vital Signs of Planet Earth was written as the result of a grant from Central Michigan University coauthored by Robert Lindahl, Professor of Trombone, and David Gillingham, Professor of Composition. The grant project proposed the composition of a new major concerto for bass trombone and wind ensemble by David Gillingham to be premiered by George Curran, bass trombonist with the New York Philharmonic and the Central Michigan University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, conducted by John E. Williamson.
The concerto is programmatic and seeks to depict the “vital signs” of the earth as related to global warming. Global warming is scientific fact. The level of awareness about global warming must be raised so that steps can be taken to reverse or slow down the deterioration of our planet. Each movement of the concerto portrays one of the major events caused by global warming, HEAT WAVE, GLACIAL RETREAT, and DELUGE. The solo bass trombone reacts to and provides commentary on each of the three events.
The first movement, HEAT WAVE, thrusts the listener into the middle of the event with undulating waves of heat played out by conflicting half step movement, timpani and trombone glissando, and edgy clusters in the low brass. The “heat” intensifies and leads to the entrance of the solo bass trombone reacting dramatically to the intense heat with glissando followed by fast repeated descending motives. This introductory statement grows in texture and leads to the main thematic statement by the bass trombone with its agitated with angular motives and is pitted against the looming waves of “heat” by the wind ensemble. An anguishing secondary theme follows, sung by oboe and alto sax, lamenting the effects of the heat wave. Solo bass trombone continues the theme while clarinets play glaring glissandi. An extended development section ensues. Cascading glissandi by clarinets and saxes allude to extreme temperatures followed by the euphonium playing a remorseful fragment of the second theme. The bass trombone follows with an augmented fragment of the first theme. A strident four-part bowed minor-major seventh pedal point on the vibraphone interrupts the texture. The horns echo the strident chord followed by a low growling of the bassoons and punctuations by the low brass. Following an ascending gesture by the bass trombone, clarinets play a bubbling ostinato pattern in the low register accompanied by the growling bassoons referencing the “boiling” temperatures of the heat wave. The bass trombone enters again with an anguishing sighing glissando and follows with frustrated fragments from the first theme while flutes take over the bubbling ostinato and clarinets and alto saxes play ascending glissandi akin to rising temperatures. Entering tom-toms, bass drum and brake drums, along with fast repeated groups of unisons and octaves in the low instruments of the ensemble, are indicative of increased anger over the repercussions of global warming. The bass trombone adds its commentary by using the now familiar descending four-note motive, prevalent throughout the first theme, with punctuations of pedal Bbs. Muted trumpets follow with another “bubbling” ostinato while the bass trombone and the ensemble continue to work the four-note motive. The texture thickens and the four-note pattern turns into a rising sixteenth pattern over an outline of the minor-major seventh chord and the anger boils over with twenty densely hammered articulations of an augmented 11th chord. The chimes enter with the descending four-note motive in augmentation, as if sounding an alarm, while a huge textural crescendo ensues by the ensemble culminating on a Bb major chord, a shining “ray of hope” which is quickly extinguished as the music segues into the bubbling clarinet ostinato accompanying the bass trombone on the reprise of the first theme. The bass trombone continues playing motives of the first theme with sharp interjections on a pedal A while the oboe sings the remorseful second theme in augmentation. A coda follows permeated with despair and hopelessness. The coda features one final “call for help” by the entire ensemble articulating, in bell chord fashion, an upward outline of a dark and sinister chord. The bass trombone states its familiar four note motive, answered sharply by the percussion, brass and high woodwinds, and then descends to a low A. A vibraphone and bowed crotale end the movement with a sense of trepidation.
GLACIAL RETREAT, the second movement, reflects the dichotomy of the awe and beauty of the glacier and the concern over the dire effects of their retreat. The first 32 measures of the movement are devoted to the beauty and grandeur of the glaciers. A transparent texture of vibraphone, bowed crotales, piano, harp, and bowed waterphone open the movement with wonder and awe. Against this texture, the solo bass trombone sings a solemn theme in G-minor utilizing only the first, second, and third scale degrees. The euphonium and low brass answer with an ascending thematic line interspersed with descending piano, bells and crotales. The section builds to a pinnacle as if scaling to the top of a glacier and ends with the bass trombone stating the last phrase of the theme. The ensuing section interrupts the awe and wonder beginning mysteriously with the haunting sound of the ocean drum, rainstick, vibraphone, and bowed crotales and the sound of ice cracking as simulated by the ribbon crasher and the slapstick. The crotales play the thematic material from the first section over the “cracking” and the trombone answers in its extreme low register. The cracking intensifies and is followed by some sharp articulations in the wind ensemble. A dissonant fanfare follows, accompanied by rapid figures in the crotales and bells, with the timpani playing the original solo trombone theme in diminution. The reality of the melting glaciers is now apparent and anxiety sets in with the flutes, piano, and bells playing an ostinato pattern in G-minor and the solo bass trombone playing an embellished variation of its theme in sixteenth notes. Horns and low brass enter singing the answer of the first theme, reminiscing the awe and wonder of the glaciers. However, reality interrupts with poignant articulations in the wind ensemble, and the ostinato and solo bass trombone continue. Now the texture is interspersed with eruptions of dark clusters in the low brass and low woodwinds calling more attention to the seriousness of the glacial retreat. But, once again, now in augmentation, the horns and low brass bring back the rising theme of awe and wonder and the section rises to a glorious climax on the last phrase of the theme. The solo bass trombone follows, repeating the last phrase of the theme and the music returns to the transparent texture of the beginning. Using multiphonics, the trombone sings the first phrase of the theme over a pedal A. The piano answers with the same theme accompanied by the harp. The solo bass trombone then plays a fragment of the theme and the movement ends on a single G in the vibraphone, fading to silence.
The final movement, DELUGE, portrays the third major effect from global warming – flooding. It opens in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. Trumpets and horns play an ominous theme under which cluster chords by the low brass and woodwinds evoke the threat of rising waters. Horns and trumpets sound an alarming fanfare-like passage followed by three lightning articulations by the entire wind ensemble. The storm subsides, but the rain continues depicted by a rhythmic interplay between the ribbon crasher, closed hi-hat, bongos, and congas. The solo bass trombone enters with the main thematic material in Bb minor with a flatted fifth scale degree. The theme has the rhythmic lilt of its compound meter with interjections of 7/8 making it feel agitated. A canon ensues on the theme with entrances by the euphonium and piccolo paired with clarinet. Clusters in the low instruments of the wind ensemble are a reminder of the rising floodwaters. When the trombone restates the theme, the rising waters become much more apparent with two waves of clusters followed by two large “walls” of water depicted by a full octave cluster in the wind ensemble. Each wall is separated by a six note descending line in the saxes, trumpets and chimes alluding to alarming panic. Following this, the floodgates open with a huge textural crescendo on the first three notes of the theme. The reaction to the cataclysm brings on despair as the horns sing a remorseful melody. The solo bass trombone answers with the first few notes of the melody as if to call for help, but the wind ensemble interrupts and segues into a development filled with the elements of the looming disaster and despair. The solo bass trombone enters with motives of the main theme amidst cluster sonorities and the sound of a siren in the background (trombone gliss.). The tom-toms portray the incessant rhythmic hammering of the heavy rain while the euphonium and bassoon play with the main thematic material through mixed meter with the solo bass trombone brings back the remorseful theme. Suddenly, the music takes on the style of a dark and wicked march accompanying the solo bass trombone as it plays an augmented version of the theme. A transition of rising chords leads to another intense rainstorm with the bass trombone reprising the ominous theme first played by horns and trumpets. Again, the horns and trumpets sound the alarming fanfare-like passage and, following eight tour de force lightning crashes by the ensemble, there is a sudden calm with only the soft sounds of the rainstick, vibraphone and bowed crotales being heard. The bass trombone and wind ensemble proceed by recalling motives and thematic material from the first and second movements as reminders of the effects of global warming. The bass trombone plays the last phrase of the theme from the second movement leading to another approaching storm beginning with the sound of rain and wind depicted by the ribbon crasher, hi-hat and suspended cymbal joined soon by ascending scalar passages in the woodwinds. Rising waters of the low brass and woodwinds punctuate the texture as the dynamic increases and leads to all out alarm with a much faster tempo. The solo bass trombone, euphonium, horns and trumpets pass the theme back and forth against dissonant cluster sonorities leading to eight gigantic splashes of a dense extended tertian chord signaling the opening of the floodgates. The bass trombone reacts by singing the remorseful theme as if to call for help. Unfortunately, help does not come and the ravages of the storm and flood continue with huge waves of sound by the ensemble leading to an emphatic statement of the main theme by the bass trombone that descends to a low Bb. As the trombone states motives of the first theme, the waters again rise as the ensemble executes a textural crescendo on an octave cluster. Once again, the trombone calls for help by crying out on the motive of the remorseful theme, but the brass interrupt and the bass trombone makes another plea and descends to the low Bb dovetailing with the low brass and woodwinds on the same pedal. Two sets of competing small bass drums enter with timpani and tam-tam alluding to death and destruction. This leads to eight gigantic crashes by the ensemble under which the bass trombone makes its final plea for help, but descends to the low Bb. A massive cluster ensues in the ensemble culminating with a horn glissando to unison and octave Bbs in the brass and the bass trombone makes another statement of the main theme and, as if giving in to the disaster, rests on the pedal Bb. Then, the bass trombone makes a final statement of a four-note motive derived from the theme and three massive flooding clusters bring the movement to its closure.