Monday, November 11, 2019

Our Sophisticated Scream

In the mid 1960s my friend Tommy Johnson lent me a number of the components for playing electric tuba. The possibilities with the sounds and effects that were available seemed endless. And I could play loud, it was unbelievable how loud I could play; while using only enough air and energy for a very conservative mezzo forte, I was able to play many times louder than I could ever have played on my own power. I never really tried to play at the maximum forte possible, I was afraid for the windows in the house, I was afraid for the neighbors and I was afraid for my ears. I used this equipment several times in the Hollywood studios. For each component that I used: fuzz tone, octave divider, ring modulator, amplifier etc, I was paid a double; I was making money with this toy, but what a toy it was. However, time soon put this fad to rest, but it was great fun while it lasted. Somehow I was relieved the trend had come to an end, or almost to an end.

Ten years later my good friend Fred Tackett wrote a jazz-rock concerto for tuba and rhythm: electric piano, electric bass, drums and guitar, called Yellowbird. While setting up for the first rehearsal I was surprised when they gave me a mike. Naively, I thought, since I considered myself a powerful symphonic tubist, I wouldn’t need a mike; I learned quickly how wrong I was. When I began to play with the quartet, even though it felt like I was playing I had to admit that I could hear no difference in the sound of the room whether I was playing or not. When I accepted using the mike everything worked.

Is the world making a poco a poco crescendo?

In 1966 I played a radio recital and gave a masterclass in Reykjavík, Iceland. On a free weekend I was invited by the president of the Icelandic Band Association to spend a few days at the home of his in-laws in Reykholtsdalur, a very small village with houses set at great distance apart on the hillsides, overlooking a stream of steamy volcanically heated water that flowed through the center of the sparse community.

My host’s father-in-law was 84 years old and had only been out of Reykholtsdalur once in his life; in 1918 he went to Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. He left Reykjavík after just a few days to return to Reykholtsdalur because Reykjavík was too hectic for him! To most urbanites in the world, Reykjavík, even today, would appear as a very quiet small town. The old man had never met a foreigner before and even though he had read all the wall-to-wall books in his home in English, French, German and Scandinavian languages, he had never tried to speak anything other than Icelandic until my visit. 

Certainly, Reykholtsdalur is the quietest place I have ever been. When this old man spoke his voice was clear, resonate, full and very verysoft; he had never in his life had to speak at a volume that would cut through any peripheral sounds and he probably never had to shout. I’ve never heard a voice like that before; he simply never needed to speak any louder.

One year later I spent several days on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in Sarajevo, which was then a part of the old Yugoslavia. At 4:30 in the afternoons we would hear the powerful and penetrating voices from the minarets of the castrati Muslim sheikhs calling the Muslim community to worship.

It seems mankind will do anything necessary to be heard.

In my conservatory days at the Eastman School of Music the British guitarist Julian Bream came to give a masterclass in the afternoon and a recital in the evening. It was a wonderful masterclass. Not only was Mr. Bream the standard-bearer for the state of the art amongst guitarists, he was also a man of considerable charisma and charm. At the finish of the masterclass several of the Eastman girls asked if I thought Maestro Bream would like to go out after his concert that evening and enjoy a drink or two. “Well, you’ll never know until you ask him”, I said; they did, he seemed very pleased and they made the appointment. Now the girls seemed almost panicked, “Where shall we take him” was the question. After a little conversation they decided to take him to their usual spot, which was called “Al’s Green Tavern”. It was located just on the edge of town and as well as being the frequent “watering hole” for the habitual party people of the Eastman School, it was also the hangout for the tough, pool playing motorcycling types of Rochester; Al’s Green Tavern was a rowdy joint!

Since I had an exam the next day I went home to study for a while and didn’t get to the tavern until a couple of hours later. When I arrived I was a little concerned by the extreme quiet as I walked in; this was not normal. There was no pool playing there was no rowdiness, just an eerie quiet with the attention of the whole pub focused on one corner of the room where Julian Bream sat playing the lute, perhaps the softest and most intimate musical instrument we have. Mr. Bream had calmed the rowdy pub crowd with sonic beauty and musical eloquence; his musical power, stronger than the rock and roll that was normally heard from the jukebox, caused his unique public to make an effort to listen.

I’m not very fond of rock and roll; I try sometimes to understand the text when I can, whether it’s rap, hip-hop or whatever. The social message in the lyrics may be interesting, however, it’s very rare when I can understand them; it’s usually just too loud to discriminate anything subtle…like words. There is one rock and roll group I enjoy very much; Pink Floyd creatively uses dynamic contrasts and consequently becomes a muchmore powerful musical entity than most rock and roll groups, we hear the text and we hear the sonic beauty. 

Dynamic levels also differ among symphony orchestras. Part of this difference is, of course the difference in the concert halls. A great hall, like a great violin, has a certain point in the dynamic where the sound becomes enhanced; it generates a feedback, a luster, to the timbre. In some halls, like the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam this point of enhancement happens at a simple mezzo piano, in other halls like Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic or Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony, this acoustical enhancement doesn’t happen until well into forte or even fortissimo. The Concertgebouw seats 1750 listeners, Avery Fisher Hall seats 2738. If the members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra were to play at the dynamics used in Avery Fisher Hall it would probably sound quite vulgar. The problem for the larger halls is that by the time that point of enhancement is reached in fortissimo the tone quality often becomes forced. This could partially explain why many players are moving to larger equipment; they believe bigger equipment won’t sound forced in extreme fortissimo. 

Throughout history, music has been reflective of our environment, so it’s not difficult to understand why the dynamic, the decibel level today is chronically rising. With rapid population growth and the resulting traffic and urban chaos, with war and an always present threat of terrorism, and with sociological changes that come so quickly, we hardly have time to adjust before they change again, it’s no wonder that the poco a poco crescendo is approaching a frighteningly painful level.

If the poco a poco crescendo continues it’s inevitable we are going to see an inordinate amount of hearing problems in our future; one has to wonder if the extremely high decibels in our environment and our music will affect the evolution of mankind’s hearing mechanism, thus resulting in a development in our tolerance to loud sounds. If that were to happen would it mean that we would lose our capacity to hear low decibel sounds? In any case it would certainly mean a change in the way we hear.

Is it possible that this high decibel music today for many of us is in reality a sophisticated scream, a visceral reaction to the stresses of our time?

If so, it’s a natural thing. A scream, as well as a call for help can also be a threshold we cross to a clearer state of mind suitable forfinding solutions for life’s problems. Is it possible that the intoxicated, anesthetized high decibel bacchanals, (wild intoxicated revelry) in which many of our young people frequently indulge, is part of that sophisticated scream caused by fear of the future, of the unknown? An occasional bacchanal needn’t be a bad thing; like the scream, it could be the first step toward adjusting to the aspect of solution.

Perhaps Julian Bream showed us an alternative to the poco a poco crescendo fifty years ago when he played the lute in Al’s Green Tavern and tamed the rowdy locals into quiet listeners.

And who shall be the first to leave the monstrous power behind, pull the plug and communicate by beauty, elegance and poetry of sound?

Amsterdam, March 1, 2007

Reposted Oaxaca, Mexico, November 11, 2019

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Tuba in Brass Quintet

Last week I was privileged to have attended a concert in Tokyo of Les Vents Françes, a woodwind quintet with an extraordinary list of personnel. It starts with Emmanuel Pahud, first Flute with the Berlin Philharmonic and the list continues with equally prestigious artists: François Leleux, Oboe, Paul Meyer, Clarinet, Gilbert Audin, Bassoon and Radovan Vlatkovic, Horn. The concert was one of the greatest ensembles I’ve ever heard, not only because of its prestigious individual members but because it was simply an extraordinary ensemble of the highest musical quality.

Slovenian horn soloist, Radovan Vlatkovic, especially impressed me. I had worked with Radovan several times in various European venues and I was aware he was a great horn player but in this concert it was singularly the best horn playing I have ever heard; it had the beauty of sound that I was used to from the great horn players in the film industry in Hollywood but with a little bit of “bite” that I sometimes missed in Hollywood. The sound was even and stable in all registers, it was dynamically alive and Radovan was always beautifully musical. It also occasionally overpowered the other four instruments, not frequently but enough to take note.

Of course, that’s not the first time I’ve heard a horn overpower the other instruments in a woodwind quintet, it happens all the time; the horn is very different from the other four instruments in a woodwind quintet and there is always that possibility that it could over balance the other four. But this in not a review of Les Vents Français, if it was I could write pages on how excellent it was.

In the very interesting thread on TubeNews of the last two months regarding the use and idiosyncrasies of various instruments, someone asked the question why does the tuba frequently sound too loud in brass quintets; a very astute question.

It’s very much the same reason that we so frequently hear horn sounding louder that the other instruments in a woodwind quintet; it’s different from the other instruments, except for two things. Unlike horn in a woodwind quintet, tuba in a brass quintet, is definitely another brass instrument and, unlike horn, tuba has the possibility of a large verity of instruments from which to choose to blend in a brass quintet.

The tuba is blessed (or damned) with the biggest sound of any instrument in the symphony orchestra family. This is not just the opinion of one enthusiastic tubist but it is a fact. Examine the sound produced by the tuba compared to other traditional instruments on an oscilloscope and it is easy to see that the sign wave made by the tuba is considerably larger. If the tubist uses an instrument that produces a sound too much larger than the other four instruments in a brass quintet he will not blend and most likely be too heavy for the other four.

This was proven many times to me while judging brass ensemble and particularly brass quintet competitions. From those experiences it was evident that BB and large CC tubas did not work well, and large Etubas also leaned clearly in that heavy direction. The instruments the judges noticed were particulerly outstanding were smaller CC tubas (we’ve all heard how the small Yamaha CC Chuck Daellenbach plays in the Canadian Brass Quintet blends very well), The smaller Besson BE980 E♭ and a number of F tubas, especially the Yamaha 822 and the original B&S. There was one other remarkable quintet F tuba we heard, which was a small B&S made especially for the son of Hungarian tubist Josef Bashinka. Perhaps it could be said it was an appropriately small tuba for a growing young man but it was also a very acoustically sophisticated and perfect quintet tuba. 

Equally important to the amplitude of the tuba sound, it’s also important and necessary to discuss the tone quality, the timbre of the sound. To blend with the other brass instruments we need an instrument that has sufficient overtones to avoid sounding like a sonic misfit in the quintet setting. The instruments mentioned above as working well in quintet, although they all have quite different timbres, all have the richness of higher overtones to blend well with the other brass.

Years ago while playing with the Los Angeles Brass Quintet, in order to find the right instrument for early music, particularly Italian renaissance music and more particularly Gabrieli, I learned some very interesting things. First of all my CC tuba did not sound right. Although it was a small CC it seemed to me to be much too thick and heavy for that music so I switched to F tuba. It was better but again it did not fit the style and this caused me to start experimenting. When the trombonist in our quintet switched to bass trumpet he sounded much more homogeneous with the trumpets but caused the F tuba to sound even more foreign to the rest of the group. It was clear; I needed something cylindrical to fit in. For a short period I used my contrabass trombone but the tessitura of most of that repertoire was too high for BB contrabass trombone. In that period of time, also to better blend with the cylindrical brass, the horn player bought and learned how to play an E♭ alto trumpet, which worked beautifully. 

At that point logic told me I had to get a contrabass trumpet in F to do Gabrieli justice; if only one was available! Short story, I organized all the parts and had one built, it worked very well and some of the Italian renaissance music we recorded 35 (Now 50) years ago still sounds very right to me today. Retrospectively, I think a good cimbasso might have been at least equal to the contrabass trumpet but in the 70s very little was known in the States about cimbassi.

Choosing the correct instrument for any situation is like planning a dinner: for example if you are going to serve an elegant Japanese meal you would not serve pizza as one of the courses, even though pizza is great!

November 1, 2005, Tokyo, Japan.

Republished June 15, 2019, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Living With Time

Friday, March 08, 2019

Recently there has been a lot of discussion on the Internet regarding the pros and cons of mouthpiece buzzing. I can offer no definitive opinion but I can share 66 years of observation and some history.
On the west coast of the USA, Los Angeles, California, where I grew up and where I began my life in brass music, there were two very major teachers at the time: James Stamp, who was a trumpet teacher and Robert Marsteller who taught trombone and tuba. Both men were great and beloved by their students and have to this day left a legacy among their students and their student’s students.
 Mr. Stamp was the culmination of generations of brass basics, which he modified and which have been collected into what many feel is the essential collection of brass basics, included in this collection are numerous exercises to be played just on the mouthpiece. Brass players all over the world use these exercises today.
Mr. Marsteller, on the other hand held the opinion that mouthpiece exercises were harmful and lead to stiff non-fluid playing. I, being a Marsteller student, followed his doctrine for several decades. In that period I had the pleasure to teach Christian Lindberg who had come to Los Angeles for a year to study with Ralph Sauer and me. When the question of mouthpiece practice came up in a lesson I recommended that mouthpiece playing could have negative results. In a recent short online discussion on mouthpiece practice, Christian demonstrated very convincingly, by playing the same passage before and after buzzing, that buzzing had a negative effect on his sound quality. I don’t know how much my advice of 40 years ago influenced his opinion but I am sure that his very clear opinion today was reached through carful thought.
In my last years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra I began working with the mouthpiece and found the benefits were very little and that stiffness was apparent, but there was something more that is very important. Quite simply, buzzing is not beautiful; it makes a sound that is not dissimilar to the buzzy sound we hear when an oboist or a bassoonist make squawks on their reeds; there is no resonance, or at most very little resonance, on the mouthpiece alone. The beauty of our sound is dependent on resonance and the micro-adjustments we make seeking that resonance are the same adjustments we need to develop an efficient embouchure.
By adding a little extra length to the mouthpiece, 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) will create significantly more resonance. Similar to adding a little extra tubing is a devise called the BERP. It is available for all brass instruments and the resistance is adjustable, which, in fact, also adjusts the resonance. 
Whether buzzing is benificial or not it's up to each player to determan for him or herself. After 66 years of experiminting I have personally come to the conclusion that it is not. I urdge all players to not take my word for it. Experiment and make your own decision.
Roger Bobo
March 8, 2019
Oaxaca, Mexico

Friday, February 22, 2019

Many assistant conductors reach their success, fame and fortune as a result of the principal conductor becoming ill and by being prepared to take over the conducting responsibilities. This is a classic example of luck; the principal conductor’s sudden illness becomes the good luck of the ambitious assistant. 
Calculation:Can luck be influenced by our individual attitudes and behaviors? There are numerous and fascinating academic studies showing copious statistics that those with optimistic attitudes have a greater incidence experiencing what they wish for, IE, good luck. Studying the best options to realize that wish gives an advantage whether we are playing the slot machines in the Las Vegas or Montecarlo casinos or measuring the circumstances of an upcoming event; studying the odds of a horse race or the surrounding conditions of an audition or competition. There are those who can calculate higher frequencies of winning and there are those who by instinct just feel ‘Lady Luck’ is there at certain times. In the casino world, virtuoso gamblers make in depth studies to anticipate as closely as possible when the best moment is to take the chanceon luck, and when to make their move. For classical musicians, knowing the conditions for a symphony orchestra position or solo competition, it’s advantageous to be aware of who the judges are, who are the other competitors, and what is the history. This gives us a greater chance of being lucky or perhaps avoiding a probability of being unlucky.
Preparation: Of course, everyone has hopes regarding many things, work, money, love, and fulfillment. Hope alone is a weak option for bringing good luck, statisticians point out that those who believe they will be lucky have a better chance for success. In 1956 a young boy of 18 years old went of to study tuba at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Just by chance the tubist in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra had unexpectedly just been drafted into military service. The young man, just entering his freshman year, was asked to audition; he played and was asked to join the orchestra. That was a classic example of pure luck and the boy was prepared. Because of extremely good luck and thorough preparation a long and successful career was put in motion.
Random: We don’t know when luck, good luck or bad luck, will appear. Winning the lottery or being hit by a truck, the one thing that we can be sure of is that luck will touch our lives. Some may call it destiny, karma, spiritual, superstition or just plain luck.Luck is an aspect of our private lives that we can choose, it exists for everyone. 
Be prepared and GOOD LUCK
Roger Bobo
February 22, 2019, Oaxaca, Mexico