The Beauty of The Moment
As an American alphorn player I’m treated like an odd commodity not only here in America, where nobody has heard of it, but also in Europe where nobody expects an American to play it. As much as my own personal style has developed into anything BUT Swiss, I still enjoy going to the Alps in the summer for a big dose of Swiss musicality.
The ski town of Nendaz is situated in Valais in southern Switzerland. In summer it seems a very sleepy town, most of the houses shuttered up waiting for the return of snow. One weekend in late July everything comes alive again when hundreds of alphorn players from all over the world arrive. The Valais Drink Pure (the sponsor) Festival International de cor des alps attracts ever larger numbers of people. They come to be moved by the magnificent sound of the alphorn, filling the mountains with never ending sonority.
The festival is centered around a competition. Any configuration is permitted as long as it’s alphorn (or büchel, a sort of little alphorn even more difficult to play). Solo, duets, trios, quartets, ensembles work tirelessly all year long for the chance to play for 2-4 minutes and hopefully impress the judges.
I and my two American colleagues, Monica Hambrick from Fayetteville, West Virginia and Tony Brazelton from Salt Lake City, Utah, formed a trio and had enough time to rehearse exactly twice. Never mind we were up against Swiss alphorn groups who meet weekly and have pieces picked out a year or more in advance! I composed a piece based on American folk pieces that really showed off what we could do. Little bits of familiar songs like “Simple Gifts”, “Amazing Grace” and “I’ll Fly Away” gave the piece a distinctive tone no Swiss ensemble would ever get. Would the judges like it?
We arrived a few days in advance of the competition to settle in and enjoy long hikes in the mountains and the gradual ramping up to the festival. Alphorns began clogging the streets, playing in the marketplace and shattering the silent mountain nights. I began to greet my FaceBook friends in person one by one as they came to say hello. All of the sudden it was Friday and the first big party began. Concerts of alphorn and Swiss traditional music under a huge tent. Tons of local traditional delicacies to try with the right wine (also local).
Saturday was dominated by the Alphorn Competition, held on a small plateau on the edge of town. Our trio was scheduled early on in the day, a fact we much lamented, but could do nothing about. To walk out and give something your all, without fear of failure, is especially difficult with two other people depending on you. We played as well as we could, but it was impossible to know how it really went. A strange combination of nerves and adrenaline takes over and erases short term memory. The judges would decide, sequestered in their tent hidden from view.
My solo wasn’t scheduled until afternoon, a fact I much celebrated. I played a piece I had written for my first trip to Nendaz in 2012. Something I call “The American”. Channeling both Aaron Copland and Silverado in equal parts, the piece is expressive and musical in a way not usually heard in traditional Swiss music (and maybe not very much liked). In my preparation of the piece I kept reminding myself to be true to my inner voice, judges notwithstanding! As an American I believed I had very little chance to win anyway. At the competition I held strong to my beliefs, that, even though I was the only alphorn to play with this style, it was as valid and beautiful as what the locals were doing. The results would not be revealed until the next day, leaving the rest of the evening for another enormous alphorn party under the big tent.
Sunday morning the festival moved to the mountain top, requiring a long ski lift. In the chill morning air the hundreds of alphorn players nursed (hangovers over) cups of coffee. Eventually everyone assumed a sort of half circle for the Morceaux d’ensemble (everyone playing simultaneously) for several pieces. One little director stands hopelessly waving his arms, determined to shepherd these wayward alphorns. The mass enthusiasm of the group is easy to get caught up in. Nowhere else in my musical life is there a time so sweet as when these hundreds of payers come together. Not just the music. The shared joy of being together in the sunlight at the top of the mountain, making music. Sure, it’s hundreds of impossible to tune instruments playing together mostly ignoring the written music. But if you listen closely, you hear something more lovely: a sort of blessing spread out over everyone, a great thanksgiving dropping down over the mountain.
The results were read out in several languages, my name was called, but I had no real idea what I had won. On the stage there was lots of Swiss kissing (right-left-right) and I was handed an envelope with 5th place solo written on it. Fifth place was a surprise and felt like a miracle considering the fabulous alphorn playing I heard over the weekend. Still basking in the glories of the Morceaux d’ensemble it seemed as if all was right in the alphorn world to me. (The trio did not fare as well, being ranked further down the list than we’d like.) As for Nendaz 2018: Game on!