18 January 2010

A Nickel For Your Thoughts

Whenever I return to the Complete Plugged Nickel recordings of Miles Davis' 1960s quintet, I find myself compelled to share something I've realized or thought of. Tonight, it relates to the questions of structural listening and audience outreach, which have become a recurring theme on this blog lately.

As a group which had the uncanny ability to essentially improvise form, this great quintet provides a unique case study in structural listening. Most highly trained professionals would be hard-pressed to follow every last structural twist and turn the first time they heard many of these cuts, and some would be lucky to catch even a few. These are performances which, to some extent or another, level the playing field between trained and untrained ears. Hence, given their exalted place in the pantheon, it is reasonable to assume that a large part of their attractiveness lies elsewhere, namely in what might be called "surface" elements. Because the music is successful on the moment-to-moment level, one need not be able to follow the form in order to reap great pleasure from the experience.

Music that is not successful on the surface is not successful period, and one cannot make an end run around this fact merely by substituting "understanding" for "enjoying." Modern music cannot simply be explained away by positing that it must appeal to something other than the senses, for in the realm of music, that is a contradiction in terms. Technical proficiency is meaningless in absence of emotional resonance, nor does one equate to the other (just ask any musician who's held a "day job" simply to get by). This is why outreach can profitably deal in exposure but not in persuasion, and why its potential impact is neither infinite nor scalable.

Given that this issue has become so badly distorted largely due to a preponderance of pop culture colloquialisms in our contemporary musical dialogue, it's fitting that I might resort to one myself in order to illustrate my point, and that would be the idea of the "mind-blowing" listening experience. No other phrase could so capably encapsulate the value of listening without understanding! Yet there's an all-too-convenient double standard available to anyone who can't be bothered to explain themselves in anything but the vaguest of terms: when the music is good, it's "mind-blowing," when it's bad, it's "incomprehensible." If failing to understand can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances, something is mighty fishy here. There's obviously more to it than that, more than a pre-concert lecture or interactive workshop can account for.

As I've said here before, structural listening is a crap shoot in my case. It just as often detracts from the experience as enhances it. There is much music which has grown on me over time, and this has surely been attributable to structural listening in many cases, but in the case of the Plugged Nickel, I find the opposite to be true. Many of the cuts are most fascinating to me when heard on the moment-to-moment, surface level, and become, understandably, a bit harrowing once I start to mentally outline the form of the performance and compare it to the original form of the tune. This is not to say that the surface becomes less appealing, only that I am quite literally distracted from this attractive surface by my now firmly entrenched performer instincts to "hold the form" at all times. It serves as a perfect example of why I'm apprehensive about audience outreach activities aimed at simulating technical proficiency in novice listeners: technical proficiency has ruined more music for me than it has revealed, and I can't see the value of perpetrating that crime on anyone else.

12 January 2010

Equipment Odyssey

It seems like about once a year, I receive an e-mail from another tuba player wondering which instrument, mouthpiece, etc. I use, as well as my reasons for doing so. Rather than reinventing the wheel in a fresh series of e-mails every time I get these questions, as I've been doing, I'm going to attempt to answer them definitively in this space ahead of time so that I can simply refer future inquiries here. Obviously, that's somewhat impossible to do for all time, since I reserve the right to change my mind and/or my horn at any point. I'll try to remember to post any future updates at the end of the thread.

As the first order of business, I'll simply list my equipment, since that's the info most people are after. If for some reason you're interested in reading further about how I arrived at this point and how it has served me, I'm also including an exhaustive "FAQ" section that goes beyond the "what" to the "why" and "how." If you're a non-tubist who reads this blog more for the musico-philosophical ramblings, consider yourself warned: I speak fluent gearhead, even though it's not my native tongue. My feelings won't be hurt in the least if you decide to sit this one out and wait for the next post on the nature of perception or some other abstract shit. It won't be long, I promise.

Without further ado...

My Current Set-Up
tuba: Meinl-Weston 2141 E-flat Tuba
purchased: new, in August, 2006 from Woodwind and Brasswind
bore: .748 (.768 5th valve) valves: 4 pistons (non-compensating), 5th rotor
mouthpieces: Melton 18 (the one that came with the horn) and Kelly 18 (two spares...I'm forgetful, and so I hide mouthpieces like Easter eggs; good thing these actually kind of look like Easter eggs)
mute: Humes and Berg Stonelined Symphonic (purchased long before the horn, but works ok with it)
oil: Hetman Piston Lubricant #2
transport: Altieri custom gig bag (top loading)


•Why do you play an E-flat tuba?
The short answer is that once I decided to choose a horn based on what I needed to use it for rather than what key it's in, I was left with only a few choices, and most of them were E-flats. In the months and years leading up to the purchase of my current instrument, I was guided by 3 primary concerns, discussed below:

(1) finding a medium-sized instrument (non-tuba players are surely having a laugh at that statement, but keep in mind I'm talking relatively here) that could serve as my only tuba (i.e. as opposed to playing 2 or 3 tubas of varying sizes and keys, which most professionals of various stripes currently do).
Tuba players will debate endlessly whether being a one-horn player is a good idea, even for those of us that perform almost exclusively with small groups. There are many reasons I decided to go this route. First and foremost, I have one sound concept, not two, and frankly, I got sick of trying to make my big horn and my small horn sound the same. That's not the point of having two horns anyway. Secondly, my decision not to pursue an orchestral career obviated the need to own a very large instrument capable of anchoring a very large ensemble, and along with it, the need to also own a very small instrument capable of doing what the very large one couldn't (namely, everything else). Finally, I'm not ashamed to admit that the convenience factor was indeed a consideration (and I'm not just talking about logistical convenience, but also the musical and technical convenience of investing 100% of one's practice time in a single horn).

As an ignorant college freshman who had just received my first tuba as an exceedingly generous high school graduation present from my family, finding out that owning two horns was de rigeur in my chosen field was a shock I wasn't prepared for. It seemed patently absurd on economic and logistical grounds alone, but also on musical ones, as I didn't know enough to think that I couldn't play anything and everything on the very large BB-flat tuba I had just acquired. Through a combination of knowledge gathering, general mellowing out, and many many fruitless practice sessions trying to scream out bebop solos on a big rotary valve horn, I now have a greater understanding of and respect for the reasons why a player would see fit to own two tubas. I have to admit, though, that the initial shock of that absurdity still hasn't worn off, mostly because the two-horn paradigm is so narrowly focused on the professional orchestral world. Once I got outside of that particular box, I couldn't think of a good reason to play two horns. I still can't.

If it sounds like I'm overreaching here, it's because I really like my horn and can't believe how well suited it is to damn near everything. I even got to play it in the back of a medium-sized orchestra once and got nothing but positive feedback. I also used it successfully on a major orchestra sub list audition which consisted mostly of big-horn rep. Yes, overall convenience was always in the back of my mind, but I do truly feel that I've found my voice on this horn, and I wouldn't play it were that not the case (more about that below).

(2) The best compromise in playability throughout all registers, including the extremes.
This is partly a function of #1, but not exclusively. I've played plenty of BBb and CC tubas that can't hold a candle to the low register on my horn. The greatest compromise with this horn is the high range, which I find to be somewhat stiff and lacking in response in comparison to some of the higher end F tubas that I've tried. I chose it anyway because high playing is my strength; I need more help on the low end, and this horn gives me exactly that.

Perhaps choosing a horn that compensates for your weaknesses over one that enhances your strengths isn't exactly doing things by the book; if you think about it, the latter is necessarily a two-horn paradigm and the former a one-horn paradigm. In any case, I'd say that owning a different horn for each one of your weaknesses most definitely is a cop out. At the earlier stages of development, it's also a good way to stunt one's musical growth. Conversely, I have no more excuses for not being able to play low, and no choice as to which horn is going to get me there. That has made it easier to focus and get things done. Meanwhile, the high range has solidified nicely now that I've spent some quality time with the instrument, and I now feel great about the 4 octaves from the lowest BBb on the piano on up, all inclusive chromatically. I can't say that about any of the other horns I've owned.

(3) My sound concept, which is irrevocably influenced by the older, American-made BBb tubas I grew up playing and hearing.
The Meinl-Weston E-flat isn't exactly a sonic clone of these horns, but it's at least a kindred spirit, capable of a clear, round tone, especially down low (and even with many or all of the valves down, which in my experience is exceptional for a tuba in any key). The character in the middle and upper range is more directly akin to what comes out of a big BBb in the same range, only it's many times easier to play up there on a smaller horn. The intonation is also above average, if a little quirky in a few peculiar places.

After one of my very first performances with this horn, my mother, who had become rather fond of the sound of the Yamaha 621 F tuba I had played previously, remarked that whereas before my sound had something dynamic, it now just sounded like a regular old tuba. One is always wary of disappointing one's parents, but in a strange way, I knew from this comment that I had chosen the right horn. The Yamaha certainly has something all its own, something dynamic and unattainable on any other tuba, but this certain something is inescapable on that horn, permeating every note one plays on it. As the cliche goes (it's a cliche in the tuba world, at least), on the Yamaha I sounded like I was playing a Yamaha, whereas on the Meinl-Weston I sound like myself. All horns put you in a box to some extent; that's another reason people often play more than one. My problem is that I never really wanted or needed two distinct sound concepts, but rather one horn with a more generic tuba sound which can then be subtly altered in many different ways. And now, that's what I've got.

My mother's comment also came after I had only been playing the horn for a matter of months; with time, I feel I've increasingly made it my own, though that process still ongoing. The most important thing, though, is that its happening at all, that the horn I'm playing is flexible enough to allow my sound to evolve into something personal rather than just my version of the Yamaha sound or the Meinl-Weston sound.

One of the things I do miss about the Yamaha is that it records well. By this, I mean that the sound right off the bell in a dead room, while far from ideal, is something that someone might actually want to listen to. I can't say the same for the Meinl-Weston; it needs a lot of help in such situations. However, get it into a medium-sized concert or recital hall and it absolutely sings. It's frustrating that in my line of work (i.e. playing mostly in less-than-ideal acoustical spaces, like bars and galleries), this defect is often readily apparent. Even so, I'm not willing to sacrifice everything else this horn allows me to do simply for that reason.

•Are you saying everyone should play E-flat?
Of course not. That's silly. Everyone should play the horn (or horns) that suit their needs and their concept. Having said that, I think it's undeniable that many American tuba players view the E-flat tuba as something of a novelty, and that they'd be wise to reconsider. There are many reasons this view persists; the dogmatism of many big-name orchestral tuba players and teachers towards playing CC and F tubas exclusively is a big one; then there's the simple fact that the key of Eb is the furthest from the key of C of any of the keys tubas are made in; finally, there's the dominance of the two-horn paradigm, which dictates that the two instruments be sufficiently different enough from each other to justify using both of them (the horn that I play is bigger than many doublers' "small" horns, although there are a few players who use it as such; there are of course, smaller E-flats available which fill the "small" horn role more capably).

One thing we don't lack are visible examples of successful E-flat tubists: Øystein Baadsvik, Patrick Sheridan, and Marty Erickson all come to mind. But these players are not primarily known as orchestral players, nor even necessarily just as "straight classical" players; to some extent, they all do a variety of other things that most tubists (sadly) don't or can't do. I think that partially explains their choice of instrument, though you'd have to ask them to be sure, but even if this is the case, if it is to have an influence on future generations of tuba players, it will likely have to be an indirect one. That's because neither the institutions of higher learning where "serious" music hides out nor the students who show up at their doors each fall seem to give a rodent's behind about anything but orchestral excerpts drawn from what is now not only a very narrow cross section of all extant music, but in fact a pretty darn narrow cross section of Western Music specifically as well. One day, university music schools in this country will cease to emphasize disproportionately over all other styles and forms of Western musical performance this single facet of its staggeringly diverse history. Until then, though, you're not likely to see too many students coming out of college playing one horn, and especially not playing Eb as their one horn, not if they want to graduate at least.

•Was it hard learning E-flat fingerings? What about jazz and improvising?
Tubas are made in 4 keys, and I had played all the others regularly at some point before I purchased my E-flat (my experience on CC was limited to high school band, but it still comes back to me on the rare occasion that I pick one up). After switching from euphonium to tuba in 9th grade, I played primarily BBb tuba all the way through my 4th year of college, picking up F tuba along the way in my 2nd year. It was like pulling teeth. Even when I sold the BBb after college and spent a year freelancing with the F tuba as the only horn I owned, my sight-reading never approached the level it had been at with the BBb. Improvising was also extremely difficult at first, but working through that process is unquestionably the most beneficial thing I've ever done for my jazz playing. It reduces everything a developing improvisor is wrestling with to its essence and attaches it to you like a ball and chain until you overcome it. After merely dabbling with it for the first couple of years I owned the F, I finally took the plunge my senior year and never looked back. Suddenly, keys mattered less than they ever did, and I was thinking about what I was doing in a way that I hadn't before.

Having been through the process once before definitely played a part in easing the transition from F to E-flat. However, I think that the more important difference was that I went cold turkey. I played my first public jazz gig on E-flat after only having owned it for a couple of weeks. That would have been impossible 5 years earlier when I first picked up my F, but then again, besides the fact that I was older and more experienced, it bears mentioning that when I bought the F, I continued to play BBb at least 70% of the time for a couple of years, and didn't play the F with a school ensemble until I'd had it for almost a year and a half. Conversely, when I bought my E-flat, I put the F in its case and didn't take it out for quite a long time. I relearned all the music for all the bands I was playing in, and started running Real Book tunes in all transpositions in whatever time was left over. I didn't miss a beat because I didn't have a choice. I was in the earliest stages of a freelance career and was earning quite meager living, but people were paying me nonetheless, even if it wasn't a lot, and so it had to be good right off the bat.

The issue of "fingerings" is a silly one in my mind. Some younger tuba players are envious of instruments where the music itself is transposed to make the fingerings the same for every instrument in the family; they may not realize that any saxophone or trumpet player worth their salt can read in at least a couple of different transpositions, including concert pitch. Similarly, other instrumentalists are often confused when I tell them I'm not transposing my part when I read it, as are some composers when I tell them I play an E-flat tuba but prefer a part in concert pitch. Frankly, the tuba family functions the way that most sensible people nowadays can only wish that saxophones and trumpets did, namely, that music is always written in concert pitch, regardless of which key the instrument playing it is pitched in. There's a tradition of writing transposed tuba parts in British-style brass bands, but internationally, that seems to be an anomaly (I'm thankful that I took a detour through the trumpet section as a middle schooler, since the ability to read Bb treble clef became indispensable later on; and of course, Eb treble clef and bass clef look almost the same, so nowadays, that takes care of itself).

My long winded point? Get the horn that plays with the sound, pitch, and response that you want. Then learn to deal with the key. In that order. Period.

•Why do you play pistons instead of rotors?
I'm not much of a scholar on this topic, but it's worth mentioning anyway. I had tuba teachers along the way who advocated strongly for both, and usually just as strongly against the other. To state the obvious, the first horn I played (a euphonium) was a piston horn. Though I cut my teeth on a rotary horn in college, in the end, I never really felt at home that way. When I went looking for a horn to take to college, I realized that if I was to be stubborn about (1) playing BBb, and (2) having 5 valves, I had very few choices...as in, like, 2 choices: a Miraphone 186, which is what I ended up with, and a VMI, the model number of which escapes me (unfortunately, the Miraphone 1291 did not yet exist in the year 2000).

I loved the 186, which just so happened to have rotors, and so I decided to put up with them. It wasn't something that ever particularly bothered me, and frankly, it even took a while to warm up to pistons once I added a piston F to my stable. Nonetheless, fast forward to 2009 and I can't imagine ever playing a rotary horn again. For one thing, rotors will work flawlessly for months or even years with little or no maintenance, but if something does go wrong, it's an instant crisis. Pistons, on the other hand, seem to present a different piddily annoyance each and every day, but these seldom coalesce into a repair emergency.

If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned jazz playing yet, you're onto something. Again, I came of age playing bebop on that Miraphone, and that training has served me extremely well ever since. However, pistons just feel better when it comes to bebop playing. I can't get any more specific than that, other than to point to one minor quibble with rotors, which is that half-valving is incredibly difficult to control. I'm not absolutely certain as I've never taken a rotary horn apart, but I suspect that the problem lies in the surface area in between the two holes in the valve (i.e. the hole that merely passes the air on to the next tube and the hole that diverts the air into that valve's slide, changing the pitch). With pistons, there's quite a bit of play there, sometimes enough to block the air column almost completely. With rotors, though, there's just barely enough to maybe get lucky if you put the valve in just the right position. If you don't (likely) you don't get the desired effect.

That's the only concrete reason I can think of to play pistons over rotors. I'll let others compare physics equations if they want, but for me, it comes down to a combination of this small practical matter with a broader conceptual intuition that is completely subjective.

10 January 2010

Church of the Exasperated Semitone

Returning again to the theme of musical training changing modes of perception, it occurred to me tonight* that there's a logical and straightforward explanation for why someone with an interest in bebop and post-bop jazz (music which is very much "tonal" music in the broad, lower-case "t" sense of that word) may also be drawn to atonal classical music, or at the very least, a way to draw a connection between the two styles that is simplistic yet still very much relevant. In some corners even today, of course, bebop might as well be atonal, and no one who lives there would bat an eye at such concurrent interests, but we haven't the time to waste with the "3 Chords and a Mule" crowd, so let's assume that we're speaking to those with a bit greater breadth of experience and maybe even just enough musico-technical knowledge to understand in the broadest possible terms the difference between Benny Carter and Elliott Carter.

The central harmonic innovation of early bebop was the extension of triads to include sevenths, ninths, elevenths and thirteenths. The seventh in particular gained a tremendous amount of importance, becoming equally important to the third in every way, a point underscored by the advent of the "shell" voicing (usually attributed to Bud Powell, though I'm sure as with any such attribution, it leaves out many who contributed in some small way). Even something as simple and seemingly incongruous with extended tertiary harmony as the two note root-major seventh voicing found a home as part and parcel of Monk's sound, and has in this respect, if no other, become de rigeur for modern jazz players on all instruments.

You can see where I'm going with this. In atonal classical music, the interval of a major seventh (or more properly in this context, the interval of 11 semitones) is a close relative both of the semitone (1) and of the minor ninth (13). The interval C-Db, for example, could refer to an ascending 1, an ascending 13, or a descending 11. In each case, we start on C and end on Db, just not the same C or the same Db. Dodecaphonic composers use this ambiguity to create variation within unity (don't kill me for saying that as if I believe it, I'm just trying to contextualize things). And of course, Schoenberg famously coined the phrase "emancipation of the dissonance" to refer to the fact that in "pan-tonal" music, as he preferred to call it, the traditional hierarchy of consonance and dissonance (still imposed by brute force in university music theory courses to this day in spite of his best efforts) ceased to apply. So again, we have a situation where the interval of a major seventh, the kissin' cousin of the dissonance par excellence, the semitone, has been accorded full musical citizenship and allowed the opportunity to become absolutely central to the sound of an entire musical idiom.

I use the word "opportunity" to imply that this did not happen concurrently in two historically significant musico-stylistic movements on different continents as a matter of mere dumb luck or coincidence. Is it possible that the major seventh is more inherently a consonance than than a dissonance, or at the very least, that its ghettoization in the latter realm was more justifiable on mathematical grounds than on perceptual ones? It would be foolish to make such pronouncements for all time, yet from where I sit with my peculiar set of experiences and historical vantage point, this certainly is a compelling hypothesis. What's for certain is that I have not seen the last of detractors of both idioms blaming an attraction to one on the other. They have my ilk all wrong, though: at least in my case, my interest in these two bodies of music developed concurrently, just like the bodies themselves did in the first half of the 20th century. Neither was a gateway drug to the other so much as each spoke to something that was simply "in the air" for me as a young adult, much as their concurrent development could be said to embody something that was "in the air" at that time.

The idea persists that a mere tolerance of, let alone an attraction to, music where unpartitioned major sevenths run rampant represents a pathology, a bad habit, an intellectual pose, and so on. When will it stop?

*A couple of glasses of wine and an audition of Lutoslawski's "Concerto for Orchestra" tend to make things occur to me rather rapidly.