Saturday, February 28, 2009

Time and Perception

Once, a long time ago (maybe it was 1946) a new 1st trombone player joined an orchestra far away; he was by far the best brass player in the orchestra, the other players in the orchestra were what we call now “old school”, and it clearly stayed “old school” for many years after the new 1st trombonist arrived; the horns were primitive, the trumpets were symphonicly ignorant and the trombones and tuba were pretty much the same. They did the thing all untrained brass players do; they played late. The new trombone player was the only one who made an effort to be on time. Of course, in comparison with the other brass he was always early. As time passed and more experienced players began to join the orchestra slowly the brass section started to play on time, all except the 1st trombone player (who wasn’t new anymore); he had been ahead of the section for so many years that when things finally got corrected it didn’t seem right to him, his perception of what was correct was simply ahead of the rest of the section. Therefore he continued to play ahead all the way to the day he retired.

During these years of adjustment a new and younger 1st trombonist came into the orchestra, he was intelligent, a wonderful musician, and a student of the older 1st trombonist. He immediately realized that his teacher was always early and found himself becoming very frustrated. Sharing that common quality that all great brass players seem to have; stubbornness, the new trombonist soon developed the habit of always being behind his teacher, because he knew if he was with him he would be early. 25 years after the older trombonist passed away, his replacement was still playing late and thinking he was right, he had been playing late to his teacher for so many years that not being behind felt wrong. Finally, when the new trombonist reached retirement the problem seemed to resolve… It took 50 years to correct the time perception problem in the section!

And in another place long ago and far away there was a remarkable young trombonist and composer, it was in the early 70s. He was so far ahead of the rest of us that he captured our imaginations, our vision and pointed out to us a new direction. He knew that he was in new territory and that he was opening minds; he liked his role in the avant guard as the enfant terrible, he liked blowing minds and creating new sounds. Today he is a brilliant, perhaps genius composer and he is charismatic but his avant guard school has become an old-fashioned school, and he’s still fighting the same old fight. Now frustrated because he is loosing the fight, he finds that most people think his music is ugly and vulgar. While he was stuck being the outrageous enfant terrible, the rest of the world has passed him by and left him behind, yet his perception of himself in the musical world has not changed with the times.

Here’s the artistic danger sequence: Motivation, perception, growth, dogma, then stagnation. It didn’t happen to Stravinsky, he grew until he died. It hasn’t happened to Boulez or Rostroprovitch. I’m afraid of it, if it happens to me I know it’s time to stop.

When the pensioners sit on a bench and stare at the sea, what do they think about?

November 15, 2004, on the train from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


In the places and in the ensembles where I’ve lived and played, there seemed to always be a number of followers, people that were just there, day to day and year to year. It didn’t seem to be important where or what the ensemble was; it was almost as though it was the same people, whether it was Rochester in the 50s, Amsterdam in the 60s, Los Angeles in the late 60s, 70s and 80s or Florence in the 90’s. They sat in the hall and listened to the rehearsals, usually in the same seat, and usually they wore the same clothes. There was the elegant old woman who would move to the music, whatever it was she was listening to, as though she had conducted it numerous times. There was the old man with an intense, brooding, Beethovenesque expression on his face, looking always very critical, and there was the attractive young girl holding a single rose with a look and demeanor from generations passed.
Generally, there was very little communication between these groupie specters and the musicians in the orchestra. When the rehearsal was over these followers and the orchestra musicians found there own exits into their own worlds, and most of the time we never saw these people other than from our seat in the orchestra.

In my years with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra between the 56/57 season and the 61/62 seasons, there was such a man. Although totally benign, he had that look of intensity and concentration, like the busts of a brooding Beethoven that I’ve seen in concert halls where I’ve played all over the world. He was present at most of the rehearsals during those 6 years I played in Rochester, and as he listened he was always writing; he had a score and he had manuscript paper.

One morning in rehearsal, when I wasn’t playing the concerto, I went into the hall to listen to the soloist and by chance sat directly behind the old man. Quickly, I lost interest in the rehearsal and found myself completely captivated by what this old man was writing. Basically, he was crossing certain things out of the score, but it wasn’t clear what or why. When the break arrived I introduced myself and asked what he was doing. He was very surprised, it may have been the first time he had ever talked to an orchestra member, and he was quite excited that someone was interested.

I was amazed as he told me of his lifetime project. For the past 20 years this old man had been attending rehearsals, listening and crossing out all the orchestration that was not audible. He would cross out what he couldn’t hear and go home and rewrite the score without all the superfluous and inaudible passages. At this point he reached into his old, worn briefcase and handed me a complete handwritten score to Brahms 2nd Symphony with all the passages he couldn’t hear deleted.

Of course, the easy reaction to this story is to envision it as the crazy ideas of an eccentric old man. But wait! Wouldn’t it be interesting to spend a day with an orchestra reading this man’s modifications and give his 20-year project a moment of consideration? Who knows for sure what we would hear. Surely we would be a little smarter by the end of that day.

It’s sad in a way. Nobody knows this mans name. Nobody knows where he lived, and nobody knows where the material of this 20-year project is. What we would have learned is probably lost forever.

A symphony orchestra tubist is blessed or damned, depending on your point of view on any particular day, with an embarrassment of inactive time; the most difficult part of the job was to remember where you are and to know where to come in. Symphony orchestra tubists have lots of time to observe, to think and to dream. I used to joke that I was the highest paid symphony orchestra musician in the USA per note! Maybe it was even true. I wonder how many kilometers I walked in my 35 years of full time orchestra playing, while I paced back and forth back stage during tacit tuba parts?

During my years in Los Angeles, after returning from two years with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, an incredibly similar old man to the one that deleted inaudible orchestration was still visible; he was there all the time, year after year, brooding and intensely listening. It was in the Hollywood Bowl, which was the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

I had seen him out in the amphitheater of Hollywood Bowl for a couple of years before the day came when we found ourselves walking from the parking lot together for a morning rehearsal. We greeted each other; I heard that he had a thick Eastern Europe accent and I asked him where he was from.

“Russia, I was born in Moscow.”

“What’s your connection with symphonic music? I’ve seen you out in the audience almost every rehearsal for a couple of years.”

“I’m a musician. I used to play percussion. I played in the Moscow Youth Symphony when I was a boy.”

Like the old man in Rochester, it seemed this was the first time he had had contact with anyone in the orchestra; this is not because of rudeness of orchestra musicians but simply because the paths almost never crossed. I listened and as we walked toward the stage. I began wishing it was a lot further away, wishing that walk would last a very long time and wishing the rehearsal wasn’t going to start in five minutes.

“I played in the Moscow Youth Orchestra in my teen age years. We used to rehearse every Saturday. I played timpani. I loved playing, and I still miss it even today. We had great conductors come and work with us. Sometimes Tchaikovsky would come and play something he wrote with us, just to see how it sounded with the orchestration. Once he brought in the Andante Cantabile from the 5th Symphony. Oh, you should have heard that boy who played 1st horn, oh; he was such a wonderful player. I think Tchaikovsky loved him; after the reading of the part with the horn solo Tchaikovsky stopped the orchestra; he was crying and he walked through the orchestra to the boy who played the solo and gave him a big kiss on the lips… Well, I’ll go take my seat now, I enjoyed talking to you, have a good rehearsal. Goodbye.”

I couldn’t wait to meet him again. I saw him a couple of more times that week from the stage but I was preoccupied with other things, and then I never saw him again. I had never even asked his name.

In the 70,s there were two strange women who became almost a peripheral part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One was young and in her 20’s. She usually dressed in white and held a red rose in her hands. At performances, during the applause, she would stand up and hold the rose to her heart with a haunted look on her face. She reminded me of a young girl who I remember having seen in a film, or perhaps films, who was in love with a young Beethoven or some other classical superstar; she was essentially a nineteenth century groupie following her object of infatuation from concert to concert. I talked to this girl several times and found her very attractive; she was intelligent, multi lingual and the personification of how I would imagine a 19th century girl. Even with my proclivity to younger women this girl in fact was about 100 years too old for me and my 20th century 60’s fads and fashions. The last I heard she had fallen in love with a fencing master. Perhaps she had found her compatible time zone.

During the same period there was another misplaced person from another time. This woman was old, surely in her 80’s, and dressed in the high fashion style of Europe in the 1920’s. Who was she and why was she following us on our tours throughout the United States and Europe? She had a chronic smile, as if painted on her face, which was very disconcerting as she moved with the music, every phrase and every note! She was a true specter.

Neither of these chronologically misplaced women were ever seen at the same time and in my science fiction, Star Trek episode imagination I mused that these two women were the same entity, a time traveler that for some reason was attracted to the symphony orchestras of the 20th century. I wonder if she (they) is (are) ever seen anymore. I hope she has found what she was looking for.

Edinburgh, Scotland, April, 2004

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?!

Friday, February 06, 2009

A Letter to a Student Friend

The following is part of a letter, an answer to a question I just sent to a student. I think it may be pertenate to a lot of players today preparing to audition for a position in a symphony orchestra. It gives my openion on one of the most frequent questions I’m asked.

“Now, regarding whether we should play the written notes or “help” the orchestration: Please read an article I wrote about a year ago for called “Tradition and Evolution”; that pretty much explains my philosophy. Our repertoire is loaded with works that were written at a time of poorer instruments and frankly, poorer players. I almost always tried to calculate what the composers would have written if today’s instruments and players were available.

Concerning the Mahler 5 Chicago recording, I know that Gene has the same philosophy and as I recall we worked on that symphony a long time ago in his lessons. Certainly, Mahler would have written those low Ebs in today’s world; that’s the way the melody is played in every instrument, only the tuba part was simplified.

As for what to do in an audition, you must consider the judges in each situation separately. As time passes orchestra people are growing more aware; soon the modifications will be universal; for now you must make a separate decision for each situation.

Please remember this though: When we take the liberty of making a modification it must sound great.

Hope to see you in Le Domaine.