Japanese war tubas
Three short Preludes and an Impromptu for Tubas, Piano, Violin, Pianist, Recording Engineer, Golden Girl, Razor Blade, Sex Toys, Editor of Sex Film (off stage), Orgasm Loop (faked; off stage), Fender Rhodes and Celeste.
PRELUDE I – SoCal Tuba Tragedy
A fellow composer said, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” referring to music. I argued. Turns out he might have been right, at least for me – I gave up writing music for plain writing.
But the other day I saw something in the Times that suggested my friend might have been wrong after all.
Read it to get its full pathos, as well as hilarity. Short version: strapped music departments all over Southern California are losing their tubas to theft. The joke? Stealing tubas. Seems just yesterday you couldn’t give them away.
The Times story got me thinking about some tuba times….
PRELUDE II Bruckner’s 9th
Anton Bruckner, party animal
In the late 70s my violinist friend Thal introduced me to tubas, when he turned me on to Anton Bruckner’s 9th symphony. Listening, within a few measures I entered a realm of gloom and mystery, a place of such long windedness that it felt like all the clocks in the universe had stopped. I was attracted to what I heard, but also scared. Especially by a deep, unfamiliar rumbling in the bass. Tubas.
Bruckner’s symphony is a work of grand musical architecture. Violins and winds aspire to some celestial realm, yet always lurking around their edges is the psychosis which haunted the composer. And so he made sure to secure his work with a sturdy foundation: no fewer than 19 brass, including 4 Wagner tubas and a gargantuan contrabass tuba. That brass pylon reached deep into the earth, keeping those higher instruments from flying off into madness.
PRELUDE III – The Pink Pussycat
In the early 80s I was living in Manhattan, in a railroad apartment above Dykeman Street. I regularly took the A train downtown, then the shuttle crosstown to Madison Avenue, where I scrounged for jingle work. A bass player friend introduced me to Louise, who worked at the ad agency BBD&O. She tossed me a bone – letting me submit a free demo for a theme for a new cable company, HBO – along with 50 other composers, in what is called a “Cattle call.” The trombonist I got to play on the HBO demo talked me into writing a part for another instrument he played, the “Euphonium” –a euphemism for tuba. As HBO was deciding, I paid her a visit at BBD&O. She said, “I like your piece. Want to come down to the village with me? I want to show you something.” New to the ways of advertising, I agreed. But I wondered what she had in mind.
She took me to the Pink Pussycat, NY’s premium erotic boutique. I’d never seen such a place, or such strange colorful toys as gleamed up at me from under a glass counter, their functions mysterious. She looked at me expectantly. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but was tongue tied. What was there to say, aside from “You pick a few of those puppies and we’ll take them up to your place and give them a whirl?” I had a girlfriend, and even if I hadn’t, this was not my idea of foreplay. If it was a come on at all. Because you don’t have to watch “Mad Men” to know that ad folks can be strange.
I finally got out of there and escaped back uptown to my humble apartment. Now I’m wondering if her subsequent performance wasn’t a form of revenge, that “Hell hath no fury like an ad-woman scorned.”
IMPROMPTU – The Recording Session
It was late winter of 1982. I was freezing my ass off in my apartment up above Dykeman Street, because the heat had been off since early January. I shivered at my upright piano, in a long wool coat, a tiny space heater beside me. I was writing a ten minute piece to accompany a dance, “Mystical 7,” choreographed by a friend from college.
It was time to record the piece. I took the A train to lower midtown, to Sear Sound, where my friend Chris worked as a mixing engineer. Later I would know that it was the oldest recording studio in New York, that the likes of Paul McCartney recorded there, and that Walter Sear was quite famous in his own right, for having written music for Midnight Cowboy, and for his tuba business. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Sear
But when I arrived to record all I saw was a small unmarked door hidden off the mezzanine of a mousy hotel, the kind of door that just might lead to a strange adventure.
I wrote “Mystical 7” for piano, fiddle, Fender Rhodes and celeste. Louise had apparently gotten over the Pink Pussycat deal, and agreed to play the piano part. She claimed that before working in advertising she’d been on a career track toward “concert pianist.” She took a look at the score and said, “This will be easy.” Still, we decided to record the piano first, then overdub the fiddle, as the piano part was quite hard, and might require a few takes. Actually it took over 50.
Louise sat at the piano and Chris hit record. A few bars in she made a mistake – what we call a “clam” in the business –and said, “Oh, shit!” After ten more takes – each of which ended with “Oh, shit!” I realized we were in trouble. Chris said, “Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll record it in chunks and I’ll splice it together.” So we progressed through the part, a handful of measures at a time. Soon as Louise clammed, Chris would have her start a few measures before the last good bit and hit record again. Then he would rewind the tape, which made that unique screeling fast-backward sound, and use a razor blade to painstakingly marry one take to the other.
The choreographer had come to the session. She had been a great beauty in college, was still a Golden Girl from the Gold Coast of Connecticut.
Perfect blonde hair, a million dollar smile and apparently the patience of Job. Throughout the whole ordeal that smile never dropped a millimeter. Not when Louise clammed for the 50th time. Not even when the sound from down the hall started.
Somewhere around measure 100 in the music, in between Louise’s playing, her “Oh, Shit!” and the screeling of rewind, we began to hear this series of sounds:
“Unh, unh..ooh yeah, mm yeah, that’s it, oh right there, YES!!!”
I did not have the patience of the Golden Girl. I was soon pacing the hall which stretched from the control room, past the closed studio door to the mysterious source of that sound.
I felt its wicked siren call drawing me down the corridor to satisfy my prurient curiosity. Were people having sex back there?
I focused on the pictures on the wall, a bit like these, except the guys had mustaches:
I couldn’t help notice that the “Oh baby” sounds were repeating. On a loop. So it must be recorded. Relief. People weren’t having sex back there. At least not now.
I put it together as I ventured a little further down the hall. The tuba pictures were supplanted by posters advertising the product being made in that back room – what Walter liked to call “sex films.” He’d always been interested in making movies, and now he was.
I later asked Chris about that looped sound. He explained, “They’re editing back there. The loop makes it easier.”
“And why is Walter making those movies?”
I guess it was. The recording business is tough. And so is the tuba business. New York ain’t cheap and you gotta do what you gotta do.
It was four AM. I’d had too much coffee. Suddenly it all came together in my subconscious, forming some Daliesque landscape, Freud on a bad batch of Viagra. Suddenly I saw the mustaches on those tuba men as the mustache on Harry Reems, famed porn star, who might at that very moment be on film in that back room, might have been the source of the woman’s cries on that loop. The editor back there might be using a razor blade to slice up Harry’s work just as Chris was slicing up mine up at the other end of the hall.
I saw all those colorful toys at the Pink Pussycat. And I saw fifty Victorian tuba players, sprung to life as Harry Reemses, blowing those horns for all they were worth.
And all the time the implacable Golden Girl, smiling away in the face of a seemingly eternal loop of “Oh, Shit!” screeel… “Ooh, baby!”
Louise finally reached the last measure and staggered away into the NY dawn. Chris played back the Frankenstein piano part he’d assembled. It almost sounded like music, except for all the odd hiccups and fluctuations in tempo.
My friend Thal – the fiddler who’d turned me onto Bruckner, and who by now was snoozing on the control room floor –woke up and in only three takes dressed that monstrous piano in the most elegant lace. A few days later we returned to the studio with George Small, who had keyboards on John Lennon’s Double Fantasy. He overdubbed a necklace and earings of Fender Rhodes and Celeste, and the monster was all dressed up, ready to go to the dance.
The Times – which started this whole tale –reviewed the dance piece. They called my music “happy.” Given the state of modern classical music at the time, I’m not sure to this day if that was a compliment or insult.
Chris, the engineer, is currently senior editor of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on the Travel Channel.
Thal’s still playing great fiddle up in Vermont.
Can’t vouch for Louise or the Golden Girl.
I didn’t get the gig for HBO. But my demo for it helped launch my music library career, and I soon heard it on the air.
I never wrote for tuba again.