Friday, June 24, 2011

#5: CD Review and Q&A Session: Matthew K. Brown's How Beautiful: The Music of Barbara York

Christmas came a few months early when I got this CD in the mail.

Before we start, here are some useful links that will make this entry more meaningful to the reader:

I can't express how happy I am to see such great music being written for the tuba.  I loved every single piece on this CD.  There's a variety of influences, everything from arias to jazz.  I enjoy Barbara York's because the music does such a good job of telling a story.  I feel like the audience is free to have their own mental imagery, but the messages are very clear.

This brings me to why I love Matt's playing on this CD.  It is very obvious to me that Matt's first priority is telling the story.  He has a mastery of the tuba that allows him to convey obvious changes in mood and style while still having a fantastic sound.

I'll use the first piece, "Wars and Rumors of War," as an example.  In the first movement, I find Matt's sound to be strong, like that of a tuba in a Bruckner Symphony, while still being agile.  Matt's sound is distinctly sweeter and more gentle in the 2nd mvt to go with the imagery. The 3rd mvt starts out quickly, with a sense of urgency, as this movement is about the young soldier going into battle. There is a section where the war hero is surveying the disturbing results of the battle around him, and the tempo slows, the texture in the accompaniment is noticeably thinner, depicting the bleak nature of the situation. This section also reminds me personally of the mood and style of the blues tune “St. James Infirmary.” The, the rest of the movement is finished as it started. What I noticed in this movement was, again, Matt's ability to change character. At the fiery opening of the movement, his sound is very pointed. In the slower section, there is a marked sense of loss in his sound (Matt says Barbara called this section "sick and empty," an even better way to describe it).  Another example of Matt's versatility comes from the "Shamanic Journey": Matt was able to changed the weight, movement and direction of his sound to depict the boat ride in the 2nd movement.  You can distinctly tell the sections with a bit of a chop, then more tumultuous, and sections where the boat glided over the water (brilliant writing also comes into play here too, though!).  The CD is full of great playing like this, with Matt giving attention to detail in this programmatic music.

"Arioso Gloria" and "How Beautiful" are both stop-you-in-your-tracks-kind-of-beautiful.  I like that Matt does not "overplay" these tunes; rather, his style on this aria-style tracks remind me of the way I've heard many sopranos sing Schubert's "Ave Maria."  Expressive, but not overly so - there is a sense of serenity.  These tracks are also proof that not every "lyrical" piece needs a ton of vibrato (again, think "Ave Maria").

The last piece, "Dancing With Myself," is a lot of fun.  I can very much relate to the themes in the music, and of course the playing on the track, is just fantastically played and fun to listen to.  Maria T. Corley (piano) is stunning on the whole of the CD, but this trio with Matt and Jason Ham (euphonium) is probably my favorite part of the CD in regards to interaction between players.  It's apparent that the total artistic product and communicating the aesthetic are the top priorities, but everyone is still allowed to be a virtuoso.  Plus, I personally can't resist anything that is even suggestive of dancing.

In the past, I've found myself liking very few of the pieces originally written for tuba.  I've had a hard time relating to most tuba music or finding my "niche" with it.  I personally enjoy all of the pieces on this CD, and I can only hope that Barbara York writes more music for us tubists (and that Matt continues to record it!).

Overall, I'm very excited for Matt in the release of this CD.  I'm enthralled to hear such great tuba music and tuba playing!  

Matt also kindly took the time to answer a few questions I had about the CD.  My questions are in dark red bold, and his answers are in plain type.

How did this project of making a CD of the music of Barbara York come about?
Well, I had a few friends who were encouraging me to record a solo CD (you can't have enough solo tuba CD's, you know), and I am a big fan of Barbara's music. I was first introduced to her music (the Sonata) in the Fall of 2007, and got in touch with her not too long after that. We hit it off, and as I performed more of her compositions, I felt a real connection there. When I started thinking seriously about making the recording, choosing Barbara's music seemed like the natural choice. I love performing it as well as listening to it, and I think others should hear it/play it as well - it's great stuff!

How involved was the composer in the preparation and execution of this recording?

Once I had decided to make this recording a reality, I knew that I wanted to meet Barbara and play for her/get her guidance prior to recording. So, I managed to get all of the stars to align in April 2010 (a month before recording) so that my schedule, as well as Barbara's, Maria's (piano), and Jason's (euphonium) all allowed for us to gather for a lecture/recital here in PA. The day before the recital, Maria and I spent several hours working with Barbara - what an incredible and eye-opening experience! The day of the lecture/recital, we added Jason into the mix and worked with Barbara on the Suite - again, this was invaluable. We then performed all five works from the cd, with Barbara talking about each piece/movement, and finally taking questions from the audience. This, for me, was really one of the most gratifying and educational solo experiences I've had. To be able to connect with a composer, and work with them to really understand their creation; it is my hope to work with other composers in this fashion down the road, and it is something I would encourage other musicians to do as well.

Wars and Rumors of War” and “Shamanic Journey” have programmatic content. What is your approach to preparing a solo piece that is programmatic?

Actually, I believe that almost all of Barbara's music has programmatic content. With the exception of the Arioso Gloria, all of the works on the cd are programmatic. In my opinion, knowing "the story behind the music" can really help us as performers to make wise decisions from a technical/preparatory aspect to move us towards the final goal of making great music.

If it's written well, and the composer is really connected to the work both intellectually and emotionally, the "story" is quite evident, and having this information can really make things clear to us as performers. For example: in the "jazzy" section in third movement of the Concerto, Barbara had a very clear vision of what this music represented. She writes:

"There is a pause in the battle, where our protagonist has the opportunity to look around and see the carnage and the waste around him. This is not the glory that he envisioned, not what he thought it would be like, nor what he was told. It is real, and it creates a sick and empty feeling in the pit of his stomach."

I have to admit that when I first read through this section, I didn't "get it" - I jazzed up as best I could, and the result was quite disconnected from the rest of the movement, as well as the rest of the piece. When we worked with Barbara on this, she reiterated the "sick and empty" mood she was going for, which helped Maria and I make decisions about how much to "swing" this section, how much vibrato to use, what sort of articulations to use - all of these decisions always being made to move us towards the picture/story that Barbara provided for us.

So, to try to answer your question.... I really try my best to make decisions that are always moving me towards making the story/picture clear to the listener - perhaps even more so than when I'm "telling my own story" in non-programmatic works. I hope that makes sense!

You requested Barbara to write “How Beautiful” in memory of your son. I understand that this piece is incredibly personal. Can you describe your role in the composition process after the initial request for the piece?
After our son passed away, we received some gifts of money from friends and family. My wife and I were both unfamiliar with this, but we knew we wanted to do something with the money to remember him. I thought that asking Barbara to write a piece in his memory would be one of the best ways we could do this. Barbara was so very kind in accepting such a difficult commission. We spoke on the phone, and I did my best to open up to her about the experience. I didn't put any "restrictions" on the work, other than saying that I wanted it to be written for tuba and piano in his memory. So, while I may have provided the impetus for the piece, and the story behind it, the music is all Barbara. She chose the title, as well as the bible verse it is derived from. The version I recorded is the first and only draft she sent to me - I thought it was perfect. To me, it represents a stopped moment in time in my life as well as Eli's short life - the time when our paths here in this world crossed, my wife, daughters and I all loved him, and our family was whole. I don't see/hear it as a sad piece; it's about love.

Can you describe the collaboration process with both Jason Ham (euphonium) and Maria T. Corley (piano) on “Dancing With Myself”? Did everyone have different ideas about piece?

Well, first let me say (and I hope this doesn't sound too cliche') that both Maria and Jason are just wonderful to work with, and I'm honored to consider them not only colleagues but friends as well. So, collaborating with them was a joy. As for our ideas about the piece: the Suite represents different things/places from Barbara's life. While the program notes that she wrote on the piece do a fine job of conveying the story behind each movement, having her there, in person, to verbalize this, really unified our own musical vision(s) of the work.

It's not every day that you record a CD – tell us a bit about what goes into making an album and then selling it.
This being my first recording, it was a real learning experience for me! I got a lot of great advice from friends and colleagues, so I think overall it went pretty smoothly. As for what goes into making a disc.... for starters you need great music, a great location to record, great musicians to work with, and the best recording engineer and producer you can find. I had the first three, and found the fourth when I recorded a cd with the Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass three months prior to recording my solo cd. Andy Bove was the recording engineer and producer for the Big Brass recording; he just so happens to be a tuba player, too! I really liked what I heard on the Big Brass takes, and thought he did an excellent job of keeping 12 brass players in line throughout the process. He's the man!
OK - next you need a budget. This one can be a tough one (we're tuba players - we're not wealthy), but my wife and I saved up and were determined to make this a reality.
Scheduling was the toughest part of the whole process - trying to line up the availability of three musicians, the recording engineer/producer, AND the concert hall.... there were literally only two days that were possible, so I used them.
Once we were done recording, I mapped out the tracks, and Andy edited them. This was time consuming, and often tedious. I remember listening to the tracks and thinking that it reminded me of when I go to the eye doctor to be fitted for new glasses; the doctor shows me two ever-so-slightly different prescription lenses, and asks me which is better... they start to all look the same.  After awhile, the takes started to all sound the same...
There was no record label involved, so once we finished editing, and Andy had mastered it, and after obtaining the bar code and the ISRC codes, we sent it off to discmakers. I had them design the artwork/layout as well.
Discmakers has a digital distribution bundle, where they distribute it to just about every online retailer out there. They also offer advice through their email newsletters about marketing, etc.

About Matthew K. Brown

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

#4: The bass trombone, my newest teacher

I'm a woman of my word.

My dear friend Alejandro Guardia (great musician, composer and buddy) is teaching me the basics of the bass trombone. I have therefore kidnapped his bass trombone, only giving it back to him for summer band practice.

It's like the beginning of a good book that you can't put down. I didn't think practicing a Bb scale could be so fun. There's also that feeling of, "Yay, I did it!" when I do something correctly. I'm like a kid with a new video game. I think I've technically beat Level 1, but I'm playing it again to make sure I got all of the bonus levels.

While I am looking at some new music for tuba, I have been focusing this summer mostly on basics and technique. Learning the bass trombone is only reinforcing this. I wish I knew this when I started on tuba: there's no point in learning how to play an instrument incorrectly. I wish I knew what a good tuba sounded like when I started tuba. I wish I knew what in tune notes sounded like when I started on tuba. I wish I knew how to breathe properly and relax, and I wish someone had mentioned tonguing to me before 8th grade. To those of you that teach these things to your middle schoolers, thank you. Most of the time, beginning tuba players are stuck in the back of the band, and as long as they are making some sort of sound on the instrument and they aren't harassing their neighbors, they're ignored. But I could write a book on this subject....

Last August, I was fortunate enough to attend the Mendez Brass Institute in Denver. It was such a memorable experience. The first tuba masterclass was with Warren Deck. I was the last to play for him, and unfortunately there wasn't but a few minutes left of class. However, I'll never forget what he said. He asked me to play a note (either C or F, my memory is fuzzy on that detail!), starting at piano, crescendo for 4 counts to forte, and then decrescendo for 4 counts back to piano. I did this, and I think it was OK. He then said to us (something to the effect of): If you cannot do that on every single note, in tune with a good sound, I would argue that you can't play the tuba.

It was then that I realized how much I had been neglecting those things. Had I ever just sat down and done long tones like that in every range of the tuba? If so, when was the last time I did it?

Sadly, I don't think this advice sunk in until later. Shostakovich 11 with TSO, all those long, low F#'s... I was horribly out of tune on those. I had always made the excuse that "that's just a sharp note on this horn." I then (figuratively) slapped myself in the face and said, "Really?! You're just going to leave it like that?" How many years had I been making these excuses? (though to be fair, C#3 on my F is ridiculously flat, it seems very random)

Here's a surprise: actually focusing on long tones instead of just glazing over them has helped my intonation. Brilliant! I like to switch between using the visual tuner and drones. Playing scales, playing at different dynamics, different note lengths. It's the most basic thing, but if I can't do this, can I really play my horn?

On a side note, long tones are a great opportunity to observe your body and breathing. Where are your shoulders, head, jaw, arms, etc? In between pitches really focus on taking a full relaxed breath.

I'm excited to be learning a new instrument knowing all of this. I'm hoping I don't practice too many habits I'll have to reverse. I feel like my entire undergraduate career was spent trying to replace old habits from middle school and high school. I also hope I can learn to get from 1st to 6th position without sounding like a mess! Ha ha.

Since Sir Guardia will be conducting Semper Fidelis in summer band, we will be without a bass trombonist for that tune. Learning the part after only playing the bass t-bone for a little over a week would be challenging, but it's very tempting. I took the part either way. :)

I will now leave you with this: Lament by Alejandro Guardia (performed by me at USF, on his recital earlier this year).