Etude in H₂O for Prepared Trumpet

This week’s Disquiet Junto project is about unintended techniques applied to musical instruments. Consider concepts like “expanded cinema” and “prepared instruments”, then record a track employing such a technique.

The idea of a prepared instrument intrigued me. A prepared instrument is one that has been modified in some way to make sounds in an unconventional manner. I thought about simple things I could do with my trumpet, and decided to turn it into a “prepared trumpet”.

All the sounds in this recording were made with my trumpet.

First, I built a device using a metal tube, some duct tape, and a soft cloth. The metal tube is from an old wind chime. I used duct tape on one end to prevent scratching and dinging the trumpet. The cloth served both to protect the trumpet and to mute it. I stuck that device into the bell end of the trumpet, and played notes with the end of the tube submerged in a glass of water. I recorded various notes and phrases using a field recorder, and used Audacity to slice the recordings into pieces.


I found it somewhat difficult to play notes through this setup. The muting effect from the cloth significantly reduced the volume of air I could push through the instrument, much more than a traditional mute. The water blocking the main air path probably contributed resistance as well, but it was fun blowing bubbles and splashing water all over the table. I made the photos before I played any notes so you don’t see what a mess I made. On subsequent recording sessions I placed a towel on the table to catch the splashing water.

The muting effect also made it difficult to hold a pitch. Although I improvised without a specific plan for the music, the notes that came out of the trumpet were not what I heard in my mind. So I just pushed air through the trumpet, accepting whatever pitches and sounds it happened to make.

Next, I recorded percussion sounds by tapping lightly on various parts of the trumpet using a plastic chopstick. I sliced up the recording, assembled the taps into a drum rack in Ableton Live and applied the drum rack to a swing rhythm.

I selected several of the recorded trumpet/water snippets, shifted pitch on some of them, and assembled them into the song. I added some compression and reverb, but there was no other audio processing. The sounds you hear are the sounds made by the trumpet.

I call this an etude because it’s a piece for a single instrument. However, it would be somewhat challenging to perform this etude live without using unconventional performance techniques. I’ve considered ways to accomplish a live performance. One way would be to perform the rhythm and record it in real time into Live, then play the accompanying sounds on the trumpet while Live is playing back the rhythm. This is a pretty traditional way to create a layered recording during a performance. Another way, more fun but more challenging, would be to have two performers playing the one trumpet simultaneously. One performer plays the notes into the water while the other performer taps the drum beat on the trumpet. A live performance would be easier if the preparation used a longer rubber tube instead of a shorter metal tube as I used. In fact, I originally wanted to use a rubber tube but I didn’t have one available. I found the remnants of the old wind chime in my garage, so that’s what I used. A longer rubber tube would probably alter the sound in some way.

Trivia: This is the first recording of me playing trumpet since 1980, when we recorded a promo tape for the Spencer Smith Orchestra. At the time I played lead trumpet on weekend night club gigs. I still have that tape around here somewhere, though I no longer have a way to play cassette tapes.

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