Bill Rose, associate professor of music at McNeese State University, heads to the International Alphorn Festival July 21-23 in Nendaz, Switzerland. He will perform and compete on the alphorn, an instrument dating back to the 16th century. Rose is wearing traditional folkwear for the festival that consists of black pants, white shirt and a traditional Swiss milking jacket in blue with a gray traditional pressed wool alpine hat with a brim.
(July 7, 2017) McNeese State University Associate Professor of Music Bill Rose heads to the mountains of Switzerland this month to compete and perform in a most unlikely event: the International Alphorn Festival held July 21-23 in the small alpine village of Nendaz.
The alphorn was originally a signaling instrument used in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and France, with the earliest recorded appearance dating back to the 16th century. As European civilization modernized, the instrument fell out of use. The alphorn was on the cusp of disappearing when folklorists and artists in the 19th and 20th century revived it as a musical instrument.
Rose, who plays trombone, euphonium and tuba, saw the alphorn as a way to get back to his musical - and ancestral - roots.
“The Swiss side of my family has always been a music making family,” he says. “We actually have the family guitar that my great-great-step mother brought with her when she immigrated to the United States from Switzerland. My grandmother was a church organist and pianist. So, there are musicians on that side of the family going back a long way. And being a trombone player, I’ve always been interested in the alphorn as being a predecessor instrument and a folk instrument that goes back hundreds of years.”
Regarded as an ancient prototype for modern wind instruments, alphorns measure between 11 to 12 feet long and were historically carved from a single piece of wood, according to Rose. “Modern instruments break down into multiple pieces for ease of transport, but remain otherwise almost identical to their archaic counterparts,” he says.
Despite this seemingly simple design, playing an alphorn does present distinct challenges. “The instrument’s key is determined by the length of the instrument itself, and, without finger holes or valves, alphornists can only produce about 12 tones on the instrument. Each of these tones relies on different lip tension and breathing methods, and thus, the skill of the player,” explains Rose.
He says because of the remarkable construction the sound produced by the alphorn is truly one of a kind. “Possessing both wind and brass qualities, the instruments create an extraordinary music that carries for miles.”
Rose was first introduced to the alphorn over 30 years ago by Dr. Peggy DeMers, a horn professor at Sam Houston State University, who plays alphorn herself and works every summer with an alphorn group.
After using others’ alphorns to practice, as well as an ill-fated attempt to make his own out of PVC pipe, Rose ordered one from the old-world itself, from a craftsman near Leipzig, Germany. Handcrafted specifically for Rose, the horn’s construction and delivery took five months.
Rose doesn’t often practice in traditional spots due to the instrument’s unique aspects - it literally will not fit in the office when he puts it together - and says his playing is always greeted by enthusiasm.
“I was playing on a Saturday afternoon in Prien Lake Park,” he says, “and people were just coming up to me. It was something that basically everyone in the entire park could hear. Kids came up and they wanted to touch it and feel the wood’s vibrations. I had one couple come up and say, ‘We were six blocks away and we heard this, but we couldn’t figure out what it was!’ It’s very different from anything they’ve heard.”
Now, Rose is not just headed to Nendaz to play with DeMers and her alphorn group. He has, at DeMers’ request, written a piece for the group to perform at the festival. While most music written for alphorn is traditional, DeMers and Rose wanted to do something different.
“She and I are never content to just do ordinary things,” Rose says. The group is set to perform a piece called “Afro-alp,” a cross-genre combination of alphorn and West African jembe percussion that celebrates the use of traditional instruments in an increasingly modern world.
Group members will perform while wearing the festival’s required traditional costume for performers — the women in Swiss dirndls and the men in boiled wool jackets and hats.
Rose’s traditional folkwear (trachten) consists of black pants, white shirt and a traditional Swiss milking jacket in blue with a gray trachtenhut (the traditional pressed wool alpine hat with a brim, decorated with a gamsbart (a silver pin with horsehair or feathers).
With more than 150 musicians and over 10,000 spectators expected to attend, the festival features an alphorn blowing competition, a folk costume parade, concerts and folklore events.
Rose will also participate in an alphorn trio for the competition, performing the piece “Schönrieder” by Hans-Jürgen Sommer with fellow alphornists Vicki Wheeler and Ronald Koch. He hopes to perform a duet in the competition as well.
“The event will conclude with all the attending alphorn players convening in a circle for a final, spectacular concert,” concludes Rose.