As Above, So Below (2014)

For Solo Trombone

Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Music Director
Dedicated to Joseph Alessi

Duration: 12 minutes

Program Note:

Eric Nathan with Judith Sherman (producer) and Joseph Alessi (trombone) at the recording session of "As Above, So Below" (Photo credit: John Whitaker Photography)

Eric Nathan with Judith Sherman (producer) and Joseph Alessi (trombone) at the recording session of "As Above, So Below" (Photo credit: John Whitaker Photography)

"As Above, So Below" takes its title from a popular maxim in Hermetic philosophy that in essence refers to the underlying unity between two seemingly separate worlds. My work, conceived as a duet for solo performer, focuses on a dialogue between two sides of the same instrument. In doing this, for the duration of the piece one of the trombone's tuning slides is completely removed, so that by pressing a valve the player can either project the sound forwards out of the trombone's bell, or backwards from the opened tuning slide. Two distinct characters are thus put into conversation - the full and rich sound projecting towards the audience from the trombone's bell, and a fragile and muted sound coming out of the removed tuning slide at the top of the instrument.

I composed this piece while in residence at the American Academy in Rome, which is situated atop the highest hill in Rome with a view of almost the entire city, and every morning I would go to the roof terrace and look out upon the city below. Since a child I have had dreams in which I was (miraculously) able to fly without any manmade aid, and during one of these early morning sessions on the terrace I similarly imagined being catapulted into the sky and soaring above the city. I imagined the feeling of being cradled by tufts of wind, and tossed about like a leaf.

The piece is structured in three large sections. The first section centers on this fantasy of flight over Rome. The music builds over this section gaining momentum until we find ourselves rocketing through the sky, rising higher and higher until we fall, like Icarus, to the ground below. In the middle section, I imagine landing into the hauntingly beautiful grove of umbrella pine trees at Villa Pamphili, located in Rome's Gianicolo. I happened upon this grove one afternoon on a walk and was immediately captured by the beauty of these hundreds of trees spaced evenly in rows. All the trees seemed to lean towards a center point, their branches coming together and touching above and I felt enveloped in this magical space. The final section once again returns to the sky.

"As Above, So Below" was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Music Director, and is dedicated to Principal Trombonist Joseph Alessi.


From the Liner Notes from the commercial recording on Albany Records:

With Joseph Alessi at the recording session (Photo credit: John Whitaker Photography)

With Joseph Alessi at the recording session (Photo credit: John Whitaker Photography)

The two solo brass pieces on this disc, Toying, for trumpet, and As Above, So Below, for trombone, clearly demonstrate how far Nathan is willing to go to define his music’s character. Both require adjustments to the solo instrument that push it beyond its designed capabilities: Toying in the service of sonic mimicry and novelty, and As Above in the service of dramatic character. “As Above, So Below,” the composer tells us, is a maxim of Hermetic philosophy pertaining to “underlying unity between two seemingly separate worlds.” The conceit is manifest in Nathan’s piece, which he calls a “duet for solo performer,” which the composer gives physical dimension by temporarily altering the trombone’s design. Joseph Alessi, for whom the piece was written, plays a “trigger trombone,” a tenor trombone that uses a thumb valve to change between two lengths of tubing (changing the fundamental key of the trombone from B-flat to F, similar to a double French horn). By removing a tuning slide and triggering the valve, the player can literally project the instrument’s sound backward— albeit a thinner, less present sound than that delivered via the wide bell on the front of the trombone. The result is predictably quirky, as though the player is arguing with himself; but it’s also serious and, at times, poignant. The transition is often entirely seamless, with Alessi triggering the soft/backward phrases after fading to pianissimo with the “normal” horn. Nathan wrote the piece while in Rome; its two outer sections describe a fantasy of flight over the city, and its central part imagines landing and walking quietly among the umbrella pines of the Villa Doria Pamphili—a classic ABA structure plus a final quiet close.

Composer; Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Director of Program Publications, Editorial


Audio Excerpt (middle):

Full Recording:

Performed by Joseph Alessi (trombone)
From the CD "Multitude, Solitude: Eric Nathan" (Albany Records)

View Online Score


"...but even in its aggressive bursts, there was a welcome smile in the music, down to the cute little pips of noise near the end."

- Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times (6.4.2014),
“As Above, So Below” at the New York Philharmonic Biennial
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"Nathan’s ingenuity comes through in “As Above, So Below,” for a trombone reconfigured to allow for what can only be described as a duet for one instrument (Joseph Alessi is the eloquent soloist)"

- Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle (1.3.16)
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"New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi is soloist in As Above, So Below. He is a truly great player, so it is a treat to hear him play a quiet, thoughtful, unaccompanied piece. The broken chords in the middle section remind me of Bach cello suites. The opening and closing sections involve lots of glissandos, abstract melodies, and the little sounds produced by the F-attachment with tuning slide removed."

- Barry Kilpatrick, American Record Guide
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"New York Philharmonic first trombonist Joseph Alessi plays "As Above, So Below," a piece that incorporates some alteration of the instrument (removal of a tuning slide) to bring a "shadow" trombone into play. The virtuosity is stunning, and the work stays free of the tediousness of many a modernist display piece."

- Jay Harvey, Upstage (12.24.15)
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