Solo for Trumpets in E flat, F, D, C, and B flat

Jonathan Impett: Performing the Solo for Trumpet

John Cage, Solo for Trumpets in E flat, F, D, C, and B flat (page 82)
Jonathan Impett


The Solo for Trumpet was first performed by Mel Broiles, a former student of William Vacchiano who was Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera (1958–2003) and a professor of trumpet at The Juilliard School for over 30 years. Like the other brass musicians that played in the premiere of the Concert, Broiles was also an experienced studio musician, having played in dance bands in the early 1950s and recorded with, among others, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Broiles’s performance in the premiere of the Concert is notable for its inclusion of a ‘hunting call’ triadic motif, which can be heard around one minute into the recording, and some jazz licks throughout the performance.

The trumpet part was performed in several subsequent performances of the Concert, including its second performance ten days after the premiere (which included the premiere performance of Solo for Voice I, sung by Arline Carmen) at the Village Vanguard in New York (with the instrumental line-up of piano, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and tuba). However, the Solo for Trumpet hasn’t been performed widely: the only existing commercial recording of the piece is a multi-tracked version by Earle Brown which combines three trumpet parts with additional sounds from percussion and keyboard instrument (A Chance Operation – The John Cage Tribute, 1993).

The five trumpets

Piccolo trumpet in F
Piccolo trumpet in F.

The Solo for Trumpet is the most extreme of the Solos in terms of its instrumentation, requiring the player to move between five different instruments: trumpet in E flat, F, D, C, and B flat. This perhaps reflects the fact that Broiles collected and performed on a huge range of trumpets (Falk, 1987). There is some ambiguity as to whether the trumpet in F is a low trumpet or a high ‘piccolo’ trumpet. In choosing his instruments, Impett was influenced by his knowledge of Broiles and mid-twentieth-century trumpet performance practice, and the desire to create the widest range of sounds in his performance. He decided to use a piccolo trumpet in F (pictured). For the B flat trumpet he used a French model from the 1930s and ‘40s, which has a distinctive sound and was a favoured model of jazz and orchestral musicians from the 1940s. He used a modern trumpet in C. The E flat and D trumpets are the same instrument whose key is modified by changing one of the slides. Impett discusses his choice of instruments in interview.


Of all of the Concert parts, the Solo for Trumpet requires the widest array of mutes. Cage doesn’t suggest specific models of mutes, as he does in the Solo for Sliding Trombone, and instead simply writes: ‘Six mutes are used but can be chosen by the player’ and indicates them in the part with a dotted line and a number. The numbers would have been assigned through chance methods, using the I Ching, with the result that mute number one is only used once, and number six twice, while mutes two and four are used 16 and 21 times respectively. Impett chose to use a Harmon wa-wa mute, a solotone mute (which would have been common in big bands at the time), a standard straight mute, a cup mute, a whisper tone mute, and a plunger mute. Where a mute was indicated for piccolo trumpet, he either used straight mutes specifically designed to fit the instrument, or ‘made do’ with one of the larger mutes.


In addition to the use of different sized noteheads, which are indicative of either dynamics or durations of a sound, or both, the majority of sounds have dynamics assigned to them and the Solo for Trumpet, in common with the flute, bassoon/saxophone and other brass parts, is overwhelmingly biased towards crescendos and combinations of dynamics, these latter being a ‘combination of two or more’ crescendos and diminuendos. The instructions for the trumpet part, like those for the tuba, add ‘The cresc. or the combination sign may be interpreted as a tone without attack (especially when soft in amplitude).’ The player is free to choose the ‘intensity and duration’ of these, and the overriding character, then, is one of change and improvisation with respect to dynamics throughout the Solo.


The trumpet part is one of the least specific parts in terms of articulation, with no instructions about how the notes should be attacked. However, like all of the wind parts, flutter tongue is required.

Double and triple tonguing are used in all of the woodwind and brass parts apart from the Solo for Clarinet. Each part includes an additional specification, with the wording usually varying slightly from part to part. The Solo for Trumpet and the Solo for Tuba state: ‘These appear alone or with a curve meaning a sustained tone before or after the tonguing as indicated. Indications of speed or change of speed accompany the tonguing signs and trills.’


Sliding tones and microtonal slides

Sliding tones are a common feature of the instrumental parts. In the trumpet part, the instruction is the same as most of the other parts, with the omission of the word ‘gliss.’: ‘Curves following notes are sliding tones. They do not refer to time-length but only to direction in pitch.’ As with the notehead sizes, where a large notehead does not necessarily indicate a loud sound, so here a long sliding tone indication does not necessarily indicate a prolonged glissando, and could instead by read as a very short duration, taking in the various curves and indentations as quickly as possible. Rather than use fingerings and embouchure adjustment to play the sliding tones, Impett chose to use the technique of half-valving to facilitate playing the sliding tones. As he points out, trying to slide without half-valving usually results in unstable triadic patterns of pitches rather than a smooth chromatic slide. This is a possible explanation for Broiles’s triadic gesture in the premiere performance.

A similar technique to ‘sliding tones’ is the ‘microtonal slide’, which appears in all of the woodwind and brass parts. ‘An arrow going up means to slightly sharpen the tone as it continues by use of the lip, arrow going down to slightly flatten the tone as it continues (microtonal slides without ½ valve).’ Impett used alternative fingerings and adjusted the slide to bend the pitch microtonally. Unlike the other wind and brass parts, the trumpeter is not required to adjust microtonally both ways for a single pitch.


Each of the brass parts has a slightly different instruction for the use of vibrato. In the trumpet part, Cage writes: ‘All tones are to be played with normal vibrato unless accompanied by the indication, ‘non vib.’. Unlike the trombone part, the method of vibrato isn’t specified. The use of the word ‘normal’ is telling here, since, (and as Impett observed in interview), the conventional orchestral sound would be without vibrato. This perhaps reflects the influence of Broiles’s experience as a jazz musician. The trumpet part is unique in including ‘non vib’ attached to a noise sound (p. 84, line 1).

Other techniques

‘Spit valve open’

The ‘Spit valve open’ technique is used in all of the brass parts, and is indicated by ‘SP’. In the trumpet part, ‘Spit valve open’ is often used in combination with noise sounds, as well as pitches. Opening the spit valve, or water key, destabilises the sound, particularly if water has accumulated beneath the key. The strength of the sound will vary depending on the pitch of the sound and the amount of water under the key. In interview, Impett discussed his perspective on whether to embrace the instability that the open water key affords, or whether to attempt to play as stable a sound as possible.


John Cage, Solo for Trumpet, p. 83, line 5
John Cage, Solo for Trumpet, p. 83, line 5.

Cage indicates the half-valve instruction with ‘½ V.’ in the trumpet and tuba parts. This technique destabilises the instrument’s harmonic series and affects the timbre.

There are some instances of ‘spit valve open’ being combined with ‘half-valve’ (e.g., p. 83, line 5), which further destabilises the sound. Impett discusses his approach to these kind of combinations in interview.

 Articulation of sustained sounds

The trumpet and clarinet parts are the only woodwind or brass instruments to include the following instruction, which appears in all of the string parts: ‘Notes [or, in the case of the clarinet, ‘tones’] given appreciable duration may be played constantly or intermittently’.


Like all of the instrumental parts, in the Solo for Trumpet Cage suggests noises to be played where stemmed notes below the stave are indicated, but his approach to noises in this part is quite particular. First, the specific noises are not indicated in the part next to the stemmed notes, as they are in all of the other woodwind and brass parts—in fact, Cage’s instructions state: ‘The player may decide these noise elements and write his own directions.’ Second, Cage suggests the option of ‘auxiliary sound production (e.g. percussion, mechanical or electrical sound)’, which again, is unique in the wind parts. The trumpet part’s lack of indications next to the stemmed notes, and its use auxiliary sounds, make it more akin to the string parts, which take the same approach.

Crossed stem notes

One characteristic of the trumpet part that doesn’t appear in any other part is the crossing of stemmed notes, which indicate that ‘the sound produced should be more ‘unmusical’ (noisy)’ (e.g., p. 84, line 2). Impett suggests various possibilities for more or less noisy sounds in interview.

John Cage, Solo for Trumpet, p. 84, line 2
John Cage, Solo for Trumpet, p. 84, line 2.


Like all of the woodwind and brass parts, the trumpet part includes an instruction for ‘sounds produced through the mouthpiece separate from the instrument’.

Shouts or barks

All of the brass parts include the instruction to shout or bark into or through the instrument, and the trumpet and tuba parts include the line ‘with any accompanying pitches’. Impett interpreted these effects as vocal sounds, reflecting in interview on the instruction: ‘Cage says shouts or barks; he does not say “imitating a dog with the trumpet”. It’s not quite the same thing’.


The instruction for ‘rips’ appears in all of the brass parts, with the trumpet and tuba parts providing the additional explanatory comment ‘rapid overtone series up or down or both’. This would have been a familiar technique to a trumpeter with big band experience such as Broiles.

Valve clatter

The ‘valve clatter’ instruction appears in the trumpet and tuba parts only. Impett sometimes loosened the caps of the valves of his trumpet, to create a stronger clattering sound.

Auxiliary sounds

This instruction is extremely open. One of the percussive sounds that Impett chose to use was gently tapping the trumpet’s bell with a mute. 

Combining techniques

Like the Solo for Clarinet, the Solo for Trumpet contains no sounds that are without performance instructions of any kind. Each sound is directed to be manipulated in some way. While isolating each technique in the Solos enables a better understanding of the range and detail of techniques Cage used, the real character of each part is revealed in the ways various ways that these techniques are combined. Often one technique may affect another, make another inaudible, or combine with others to create unpredictable and unstable sounds. Performers must constantly navigate the range of options available to them in these cases and make choices as to what, and how, to prioritise in the execution of each sound. Impett discusses and demonstrates his approach to different combinations of techniques in the Solo for Trumpet in interview.


Jonni Falk, ‘Mel Broiles and his Magic Trumpet’, Journal of the International Trumpet Guild, vol. 11, no. 4 (May 1987), 21–22


A Chance Operation – The John Cage Tribute. Earl Brown, trumpet (Koch International Classics, 3-7238-2, 1993)

The works of John Cage are the copyright of Henmar Press Inc., New York and are reproduced by permission of Peters Edition Limited, London. All rights reserved.

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