I have described in the blog, Developing the Microtonal Trumpet and its Pedagogy how The Microtonal Trumpet project developed from an exploration of a three-valve instrument using ‘natural’ deviations of pitch from the 12-div equal tempered standard. The first 5 to 10 of the 24 Microtonal Studies for trumpet were written with the idea that – more or less – a standard instrument could be used for their performance. However, a number of problems soon become apparent:
- Moving the third valve slide at speed can lead to pitch inaccuracy. This is because that, in 24-div music, the slide is used regularly and needs to be pulled out by different amounts.
- Moving the slides at speeds while changing valve positions causes difficulties of coordination.
- Moving the slide at speed and rapidly changing valve positions can create airlocks which can cause the slide to stall.
These problems could be interpreted as arguments for a 4-valve trumpet, that is, with an additional quarter-tone valve. And there have been many precedents, including a couple of pre-twentieth century examples (one a cornet), although we don’t know why these particular instruments were made or what music they were designed to play. Alois Hàba (1983-1973), the Czech microtonal composer commissioned 2, 24- div trumpets for the first performance of his opera Matka (Mother) in 1927-9 (the first performance was in 1931). One of these is housed in the instrument collection of the Prague Conservatoire; it was made in Dresden by F.A. Heckel, is pitched in C and uses rotary valves. My colleague Stephen Altoft visited the Prague Music Museum in 2010 to try the instrument and found it in good condition and still playable although it needed a little maintenance.
The other very significant quarter-tone trumpet historically is that commissioned by jazz trumpeter Don Ellis (1934-1978) from the Frank Holton Company in America, designed by Larry Ramirez. The first instrument was produced in September, 1965 and it was commercially available for some time afterwards. The Holton instrument had a fourth, piston valve which was played with the little finger of the right hand.
There have been numerous other examples made since, some of which we discuss in our ‘A Short History of the Microtonal Trumpet‘ but none, as far as we are aware, that allowed a standard trumpet to be set up temporarily to enable two or more microtonal tunings. This seemed to us the optimum solution both practically, because Stephen could continue to use his concert instruments for microtonal music, and financially (ordering commercially available concert instruments with built-in valves and tuning would cost more than concert instruments, particularly as there would need to be a research element).