Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Are we the way we are because of the instrument we chose or did we choose our instrument because of the way we are?
So frequently the tuba plays the role of the heavy, the villain, that we have to wonder if it’s had any effect on us after a long period of time. Or it could be that just because of our inner character, we were attracted to an instrument that could partially release the latent monster that exists in all of us?
The tuba monsters are many and how we choose to play these passages can have a big effect on the beast we represent. My first encounter with a tuba monster was the Peasant with a Bear in the Petrushka Ballet by Stravinsky. I’ve heard that solo played so many ways: as a loveable huggable teddy bear, a pompous quasi-elegant bear and even on a few occasions a sickly wheezy asthmatic bear. Through the 35 years of my orchestral playing I have played that solo hundreds of times and through those seasons the evolution of that bear changed into quite a different beast then it was when I started.
Petrushka was the first piece I played on my first concert on my first job with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in September 1956, I was 18, and as luck would have it just five minutes before the concert started part of the mechanism of my 2nd valve broke and the tuba was unplayable. An announcement was made that ‘the tubist’s valve fell off’ and it was being repaired. In fact, the stage crew fixed the valve with one drop of solder that held it together until the concert was over, at which time it promptly fell apart again. That bear that night was a very scared, tuba conscious bear! In the last years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the same bear had evolved into a very menacing, savage, salivating, wild-eyed and Godzillaesque bear! That was big fun! I played that solo several times with Stravinsky himself conducting and one morning, after playing it in a concert the night before, he came up to me during a recording session and told me that last night was the best bear he had heard; on the concert that night it was a very proud and happy bear.
One of my symphonic regrets is that I never got the opportunity to play any of the Wagner Ring Opera material that contained the famous Fafner motif. Fafner, the dragon that guarded the Rheingold, and that Siegfried eventually slew, has become rather controversial. Although I’ve never played it, it still has passed through an evolution in my minds ear.
This brings us to a discussion of the ubiquitous BBb vs. CC tuba controversy. In symphonic music the German tradition requires all contrabass tuba parts to be played on the BBb, in most of the rest of the world these parts are usually played on the CC. The Germans claim that Wagner wrote for the BBb tuba because that is what he wanted; without question, the Germans are correct about this. But I’ve always wondered why they don’t play the BBb double slide contrabasstrombone, which is also what Wagner wrote for, instead of the F bass trombone that is used in Germany today.
My favorite tuba topic is: What would the composer have used if the instruments of today were available? Again, we’re back to the conservative vs. the liberal; the traditionalist vs. the visionary; again I point out that tuba, being the youngest instrument to be accepted in the symphony orchestra family and tubists, who have made monumental progress in all aspects of their musical life, have a very definite propensity toward the liberal view: because of their short history there is very little tradition to fall back on. Of course, we really don’t know what Wagner or any other composer would have done if today’s instruments were available but we can certainly make educated guesses.
The significant difference between BBb and CC tuba is that the BBb is arguably just beyond most of our corporal physiological compatibilies (The BBb contrabasstrombone is even more physiologically demanding). In my life with the tuba I have heard very few BBb tubists who truly sounded great; it always sounds like something is being compromised: articulation dynamic, intensity, phrase; rarely have I heard a BBb tuba sounding filled and contained! And the times I have, huge male players were playing them! I realize these words may be antagonistic to many of my BBb playing friends and colleagues but it is the reality I have observed.
The trumpet has always been ahead of the tuba in instrumental sophistication. It’s not unusual to see a trumpet player take several instruments on stage for a symphony or brass quintet concert, or to see a soloist use several instruments. Notwithstanding travel logistics and economics, why should tubists settle for anything less? Why not use a Tenor (our piccolo trumpet!), a G, an F, an Eb, a D a CC, and a BBb just like the trumpet players, all that diverse equipment helps trumpet players to be more versatile and ultimately to sound better.
But let’s go back to monsters and specifically Fafner; what kind of a dragon is Fafner? I’ve seen the opera once and heard the music many times and frankly, most of the time, I got the impression that Fafner was a toothless castrato dragon! Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Hollywood but in my mind’s ear I hear Fafner as a far more visceral and menacing monster than what we usually hear. What would Wagner have done with today’s sonic vocabulary? I think the result would be quite different and a lot scarier. I’m amazed that with a composer like Wagner, whose operas frequently receive high praise for their very modern and contemporary scenic design, that we tubists are required to be such strict traditionalists.
John Williams, perhaps the greatest of all the monster music composers, wrote one of the most powerful tuba passages ever in Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the scene where the extraterrestrial space ship lands on Earth. Hollywood tubist Jim Self brilliantly played this three part contrapuntal passage (all three parts overdubbed by Jim) on F tuba with octave divider. We’ve never heard power, clarity and fluency like that in the low register before, could that have had the same power and energy if it were played in the sounding octave on a BBb tuba?
Another masterpiece of monster music was the John Williams’s sound track of Jaws, the theme we hear when the shark was approaching, also played brilliantly by Tommy Johnson Johnson. That was really scary! Sadly, the Jabba the Hutt music by John Williams was not played in the Star Wars Return of the Jedi film but it’s played frequently in concert and may be the greatest piece of monster music we have.
Personally, I was saddened by the sound track for Jurassic Park; what a natural for the tuba, but sadly, that’s not the way John Williams saw it. I like to imagine what he might have written for a tyrannosaurs rex motif, even more, I like to imagine playing it.
Elizabeth Raum had a very clear sonic picture of the tuba’s potential monster characterization when she wrote A little Monster Music for STUBA, the now defunct Swiss tuba ensemble from Lausanne. Her monsters in this wonderful suite: Nessie, The Hydra, Fafner and St. George and the Dragon, are four distinctly different beasts.
I had the occasion once to ask Henry Mancinni why he wrote that cute little tune for Eb clarinet and piccolo for the sound track of Elephant Walk, “What else are you going to write for elephants?” was his answer. I couldn’t think of a response!
Even music for the tuba that is not purposely written as the sonic personification of something monster like often takes on an ominous character. My personal name for such passages, whether they are fragments or extended, is “Doomsday Licks”.
And yet again we return to the same question: Were we born to play doomsday licks or does playing doomsday licks for an extended period of time effect us? If so, how?!