Music, the Spirit of Giving…and TUBACHRISTMAS!

This holiday season I have become acquainted with a 35-year-old tradition a great deal more fun than roasting chestnuts on an open fire. This would be TUBACHRISTMAS, a very special ceremony of timeless carols and extremely low, ponderous sounds. To quote from the website’s copy:

TUBACHRISTMAS was conceived in 1974 as a tribute to the late artist/teacher William J. Bell, born on Christmas Day, 1902. Through the legendary William J. Bell we reflect on our heritage and honor all great artists/teachers whose legacy has given us high performance standards, well structured pedagogy, professional integrity, personal values and a camaraderie envied by all other instrumentalists. The first TUBACHRISTMAS was conducted by the late Paul Lavalle in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink on Sunday, December 22, 1974. Traditional Christmas music performed at the first TUBACHRISTMAS was arranged by American composer Alec Wilder who ironically died on Christmas Eve, 1980.

Perhaps the thought of another Tuba Christmas less than twenty-four hours away wasn’t quite enough to stave off Wilder’s passing…wait, Alec Wilder?! Perhaps nothing quells my inborn tendency to find a pack of amateur tubists careening through a concert of heavenly praise humorous quite like the following (continued from the website):

Wilder composed many solo and ensemble compositions for tuba and euphonium. He was a loyal supporter of every effort to improve the literature and public image of our chosen instruments. Through Alec Wilder we express our respect and gratitude to all composers who continue to embrace our instruments with their compositions and contribute to the ever growing solo and ensemble repertoire for tuba and euphonium.

It’s inspiring to me that someone of Wilder’s stature made the effort to (and in fact succeeded in) promoting and nurturing a community of performers as well as the equally daunting task of buffing up the tuba’s “public image” referenced above. That’s exactly what composers and performers should be doing for and with each other; and to focus in on the composer end, that’s exactly the role composers should be taking: that of emissaries and ambassadors, contributors and craftspeople. We are not serfs and servants, even though our arts-tolerating culture might often make us feel that way; we are important and necessary workers, but we labor as equals on the mansions of others rather than lording above the fray as some artists and “artists” are only too happy to imagine themselves, laboring ceaselessly on ego-driven personal success like some tomb of Ozymandius. In reality our fates are all bound, all connected; it’s often humorous to read squabbles between proponents of this or that polemic within the new music community on these pages and others, as all that passes for “new music” is itself such a tiny sliver of total music consumption.

The way some people talk (or post), you’d think there was some kind of war—an endless one—going on between mean close-minded academics, pandering commercial tonalists, indulgent microtonal avant-gardistes, or whatever imaginary bogeymen continue to haunt the dreams and ambitions between the interested players, who all seem to assume that their fight should be in house, a kind of purity test within the tiny new music community rather than a reaching beyond that tiny community toward new vistas of knowledge, experience, and betterment. True, there are occasionally kernels of truth in these kinds of malicious caricatures, obscured as they may be by the polemicist’s particular bitterness or beef.

But there are much graver and more well-moneyed enemies of new music, of all stripes, outside of the immediate new music world than exist inside of it—just as there are more opportunities for growth, employment, and improving the world outside of the multifarious ones usually considered by composers. Two nights ago I heard a great talk by composer and MIT Media Lab director Tod Machover on using music to alleviate Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases, and on using music to give a severely impaired individual suffering from Cerebral Palsy a way to express himself faster and more naturally than he ever could have with text entry. Machover has a gig at one of the country’s best institutions and has collaborated with musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, yet he wasn’t content to rest on these laurels or a vision dominated by personal success. We may lack Machover’s skills in designing robotics, but all of us can reach out and contribute to some community, be it that of church musicians or gamelan-lovers or tuba enthusiasts.

Which brings me back to Tuba Christmas and composer Alec Wilder’s great role to the literature and performance of the tuba—just one of many such endeavors to which Wilder devoted himself. In 2010 (and let’s hope, in 2011!) the literature for the tuba has grown considerably with the addition of tuba works by some of the world’s best composers. This is great for tubists, naturally, but in addition it’s never been a better time to compose for tuba—the availability of great players more familiarized with contemporary music has come full-circle and now benefits composers. Surely this was not some diabolical selfishness on Wilder’s part—far from it! But I would note that it’s often in turning our attention to others and their needs rather than our own that we find ourselves surprisingly, deeply satisfied.

I wanted to end 2010 on this note, but those hoping for another note (a low and brassy one, that is) should check out the Kennedy Center’s archival footage of Tuba Christmas 2010 here. And here’s wishing all NewMusicBox readers a 2011 full of new sounds—I can’t believe another year of blogging has already gone by!

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