A look under the hood and behind the curtain through the insane musical genius that is Mnozil Brass

by Bill Benzon

I don’t know just when it was, but let’s say it was half a dozen years ago. I’m on an email list for trumpet players and someone had sent a message suggesting we check out the Mnozil Brass. Strange name, I thought, but I found some clips on YouTube and have been entranced ever since.

They’re a brass septet from Austria, six trumpets, six trombones, and a tuba. Their repertoire is all over the place and their genius is unmistakable. They are superb musicians, but also arch conceptualists, skilled comedic performers, and questionable dancers. They put on a hell-of-a-show. And I do mean “put-on”, as much of what they do is deeply serious in a way that only inspired buffoonery can be.

Here’s a performance that was posted to YouTube in April of 2012. It’s just shy of four minutes long and goes through distinct phases. It’s called “Moldavia”, presumably after the old principality in Eastern Europe.

Watch the clip. Tell me what you hear, but also what you see. Both are important. It’s their interaction that is characteristic of Mnozil.

What I hear, of course, is brass playing, a lyrical trombone, ferocious trumpets, a tuba holding down the bottom. And then there’s the singing toward the end. What are they doing while singing? They’re not standing still like choir boys. They’re moving and gesticulating madly. Dominance it looks like to me, (male) dominance. You may have heard that in the music, though perhaps not identifying it as such; but now you can see it. They’re showing you what’s driving the music.

But that’s not how it starts. It starts with a rubato trombone solo. There’s a shot of the tuba player slouched in his seat reading some magazine; it’s black with a large white Playboy bunny logo on it. The implication is that he’s looking at pictures of naked women.

And so it goes. There’s lots of business going on. I could, but won’t, comment on it endlessly.

But I’ll say just a bit more. At about twenty seconds in we’re in tempo and the leftmost trumpeter (Thomas Gansch, the ringleader of the group) does a few dance steps, while remaining seated. To my (not terribly well informed) eye they look like steps from some Balkan circle dance. A bit later there’s some business about the trumpeters standing play, but one of them isn’t coordinated with the others. What’s that about?

It goes by quickly and then things move on. What we’re seeing is the behind-the-scenes (under the hood) mechanisms of performance. Signals have been crossed and it takes awhile to get things straightened out. That is, that’s what we’re being shown. Of course, no one’s really confused. This is all scripted. It’s part of the performance. Mnozil are playing at performing.

But that disappears at about two minutes in when the trumpets start playing a wicked fast melody in an odd meter (7/8), at least by the most common practice in Western music. Remember, this is “Moldavia”, somewhere suspended between Europe and the (exotic) Middle East. I can assure you, as a trumpet player, that what they’re doing here is ferociously difficult. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You can hear it in the music. And that difficulty requires skill, concentration, and commitment. At this point it’s all and only music. And yet a minute later they’re doing that vocal nonsense.

That’s how it is. Back and forth. Irony. Sincerity. Irony. Sincerity. Overall: KICKASS! Their virtuosity gives weight to their clowning. And their clowning humanizes their virtuosity.

They’re unique.

Here’s another clip, called “Ballad”, and that’s what it is. I’ve been told that the song is from the soundtrack of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but I’ve not verified that, nor does it matter for my purposes. What matters is that it’s one piece of music from start to finish, with no funny stage business. It’s ‘ordinary’ music, played extraordinarily well.

Regardless of the kind of music being played, this is what we expect of musical performances, just the music. If you don’t see what Mnozil’s doing while performing “Moldavia” you music quite a bit. Here, you don’t miss much.

Now let’s look at a performance where the music is utterly simple while the performance is all. It’s called “Lonely Boy”. At the beginning we hear the tuba player, Wilfried Brandstötter, lay down an ostinato bass line and see a lone man – trombonist Leonard Paul – slumped down in a chair.

One by one he brings two other trombonists and then two trumpeters out. He ‘manipulates’ the trombone slides with his feet and the trumpet valves with his fingers, but the other players do the blowing. Paul is looking utterly detached while doing this. It’s an astonishing feat played in an utterly deadpan manner.

And then the last member of the group, trumpeter Roman Rindberger, comes out and removes the chair from underneath Paul. The performance continues seamlessly while Rindberger parades around like a triumphant magician. Of course, his is the easiest part, strutting and looking (a bit) graceful.

But it works. It all works. Take it as an allegory about how people performing music become a single interconnected being, albeit one distributed across several physically distinct bodies. And the audience is (just) an extension of that being.

And now for something a bit different. A medley of different tunes. Various versions of this piece appear under various names on YouTube. This version is simply called “Medley”.

It opens with a fanfare very much in the heroic brass mold. And then it goes all to hell. First there's a trombonist playing Stevie Wonder. That's Zoltan Kiss, from Hungary, strutting and prancing around the stage. An absolute monster of a player.

Then we have two trumpeters and the tuba player singing “Stayin’ Alive” in falsetto vocal – notice the pelvic thrusting while they sing. That's a BeeGees tune, disco, very gay. Male falsetto, well now, that’s got layers and layers. One strain of this vocal style goes back to West Africa, where male falsetto is uber macho, unlike in the (white) West where it’s, well, you know, homo. But not in African-America, where male falsetto retains its West African gender typing.

And then we have a tender ballad, sung by two trumpeters, again in falsetto. Notice the hugs and almost-kisses. And the hand-holding.

That ends and they pick up their trumpets and play in the trumpet’s upper register. Upper register trumpet is the macho heart of trumpeting in the Western world. It’s also a physical rush for the players. Like zoooomm! [Listen to audience reaction.]

From there we go into “Gimmie Some Lovin’” with Leonard Paul on trombone, starting out with hair-whipping guitar-god moves. Within the overall ecology of the group Paul has an almost Paul Rubens Pee-wee Herman persona.

And then we move to Michael Jackson's Thriller. After a short ensemble opening opening Brandstötter lays down a bass line on tuba while the other six do a barely serviceable dance routine that parodies Jackson’s video, moonwalk and crotch-grab included. Of course they’re not asking you to believe that they’re competent dancers. That’s not it at all. They’re just reminding you of the Michael Jackson video.

But they’re also setting us up for the finale, which is the “Theme from Peter Gunn” (a 1950s TV show). And that’s kick-ass brass playing, which is what these guys to best. Thus they reassure us that, yes, they know what they’re doing.

Now let’s look at something a bit more complex, though it’s less than three minutes long. Here’s a short clip entitled “Remixes Concerto of Arutiunian”. When it opens we see four musicians on stage, three trombone players and a tuba player (in the rear) and we hear delicate trumpet playing off stage. If you’re familiar with the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto you know that the music you’re listening to isn’t that, nor anything like it. For all I know it’s some traditional Tyrolean tune.

The three trombone players engage in some stage business – perhaps they’re imitating some mechanical figures dancing on the lid of a wide-up music box. They look at the tuba player, he looks at them, they look at one another, making faces and gesturing. They're scheming. By about 35 seconds in they’ve come up with something. At the same time the music has switched into a minor key. Our musicians are prancing around, gesturing with their horns, and are oriented toward the left side of the stage. Obviously that’s where the trumpeters are.

At about 49 seconds in they unload with a blast of music. It’s a line from the Arutiunian. As soon as they finish the line the offstage trumpeters let go with a short fanfare as our onstage musicians prance around in triumph while the audience claps. There’s even a bit of armpit sniffing.

But their victory is short-lived. At about 1:10 or so the trumpeters start up again, this time with “The Mexican Hat Dance.” The lower brass players start up again with the gesturing, setting up to deliver another blast of sound to the trumpeters. At about 1:33 they deliver the same line from the Arutiunian; the trumpeters answer with the same little fanfare; and the lower brass continue with their line this time.

At 1:45 the trumpeters come prancing out on to the stage, making gestures like they’re on horseback. One of them, the last one (Thomas Gansch), is playing the trumpet solo line from the Arutiunian. Now we’ve got seven musicians on stage prancing around like they’re on horseback, one of them playing the solo line, the lower brass playing back-up figures, and then another melody appears in the trumpets. I don’t recognize it; maybe it was composed for this piece, maybe it’s from a music score, who knows? It’s not clear what’s going on, but the musicians manage to work themselves into a V formation, prancing all the while, and work their way to a straight line facing the audience. At 2:30 the music converges on the theme song from Bonanza. They play a few bars of that and they’re done. They make gestures suggesting they’re bringing their horses to a halt so they can dismount. As some of you may know, Bonanza was a hit Western that was on American TV in the 1960s. That, presumably, provides a rationale for the horse riding.

But what’s the rationale for the whole performance, which I find rather convincing? The stage business is not incidental, it’s essential, as is typical; it makes the whole thing hold together. It gives us just a bit of a story, some kind of conflict between the trumpets and the low brass that is somehow resolved through horsing around at the end.

Here’s another somewhat longer piece, “Cirque – toot toot”. It opens with a lone trombone player, Gerhard Füßl, on stage standing on a chair. He blows a whistle and the other musicians enter from both sides of the stage playing something that I don’t recognize. They march around a bit and then our ‘conductor’, Füßl, whistles them to a halt and then starts them up again.

They continue playing – the piece they were playing at the beginning – and work their way to a line across the stage. And then…I’m not going to try to describe what happens as it’s best to see it. But there’s a bunch of stage business, the music stops, Füßl gets everyone positioned just right and then, at about three minutes in, they start up again. At about 3:11 we realize they’re playing “In the Navy”, a song that was a hit for The Village People some years ago. They get through one line of that, put down their instruments, and start singing another Village People hit, “Y.M.C.A.” That falls apart at about 3:40 and they start up again with the piece they opened with, marching around on stage.

Füßl them to a halt at 4:29. Two of the trombones start up with a line from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring while Füßl puts on a mask and then joins in. We’re midway through the performance. They move around and so forth, their motions in one way or another reflecting what’s going on in the music. But from here to the end the music is from The Rite of Spring – a notoriously difficult piece of music from the classical repertoire. They bring it to a unified and satisfying, albeit a bit abrupt, conclusion at about 9:17.

Basically, it works. I can describe something of what they’re doing. But what it all means, what holds it together, that’s beyond me. I’m not sure we’ve got the language needed to deal with it.

Let’s conclude with “Blue,” by Thomas Gansch, which has at times has seemed to function as Mnozil’s theme song.

This is a short version. Notice the soulfulness of the playing. They’re committed to this as music. Also notice a slight ‘glitch’ at about 1:47 where Thomas Gansch introduces himself. This is in fact edited from a longer recording where Gansch introduces the members of the group with the rest of the group riffing in the background. Wait for the ending, a characteristic Mnozil touch. It's totally out of character with most of what came before, and yet it works. It brings the tune to an emphatic close.

Finally, here’s an unedited version of that performance, with Gansch’s introductions (subtitled in English) of the members of the group. The introductions are not entirely serious. I assume they're largely fictitious, and borderline scatological.