Words with: Jack Adler-Mckean

Jack Adler-Mckean is a tuba virtuoso hailing from the UK, and more recently found in Berlin, Germany. After meeting at a masterclass Jack was giving in Oxford, we collaborated on the project that became Come, from nothing. I thought I'd ask him some questions.

Nigel: You have been pioneering a project to revitalise the tuba as a solo instrument in contemporary music. Can you say something about how you started this project, and why?

Jack: All musical instruments suffer under layers of socio-cultural baggage, but the tuba perhaps suffers more than most. I am of the opinion that there is nothing inherent about the tuba which means that it can't be taken as seriously as any other instrument, and the main factor holding it back is the generally very low quality of repertoire which tubists have on offer to perform. Barton Cummings in The Contemporary Tuba [1984] describes the traditional literature as “with few exceptions substandard in every sense, border[ing] on the trivial” and “unworthy even be considered music”, arguing that for “more than any other reason [it] has held the tuba and the tubist to a rather mundane and meaningless existence.” The first step therefore in trying to release the instrument from it's shackles was to find some composers interested in creating a new collection of tuba music that can genuinely be described as "music".

N: I imagine much of the repertoire you’ve commissioned and worked on has been uncharted territory. How have you dealt with the challenges of this project?

J: The keyword here is collaboration. A few other tuba players have ventured into the world of new music in recent decades, but they have all ended up mostly performing their own music, an obvious choice when dealing with an instrument whose musical and technical abilities are almost entirely unknown outside of their own field. To create something beyond this, a lot of time and patience is needed to develop a dialogue between composer and interpreter, enabling myself to demonstrate what is (and is not) possible with the instrument, allowing the composer to then sculpt their own sonic creation.

N: Do you see your work on the tuba as a solo instrument a continuation of a tradition of tuba playing, or is there a sense of being part of a ‘new epoch’ for the tuba?

J: Their are very few traditions of tuba playing; despite being invented in 1835 and employed regularly by composers very soon thereafter, the first solo works for the instrument weren't written until the 1950s, and the instrument wasn't taught at a high level or treated as a profession in the orchestra until the late 1960s. What pedagogical traditions that have emerged since are largely based tribal mythology, varying wildly depending on what country one has studied in. As the classical music world is very slowly being forced to evolve, I am hopeful that something resembling a new epoch of tuba playing will slowly rise, replacing juvenile obsessions over mouthpiece size, scale competitions and creating the darkest, most indistinct Wagnerian "sound" possible with purely musical foundations. At the time of writing though, it remains to be seen when or indeed if this will begin to enter mainstream tuba education anywhere in the world.

N: The project we worked on together, Come, from nothing, was a collaborative effort - collaboration being something which you've already made reference to. Is this how you generally work with composers? How do you view the composer-performer dynamic in these situations?

J: Yes collaborative projects are generally my way of working, although composers do occasionally arrive with such clarity and strength of vision that there is very little I can do apart from (try to) play what they have written on the page! It's a complex dynamic that varies wildly from composer to composer, but I aim to be as open-minded and practical as I can be, suggesting ways that can help a composer to try and realise their ideas as clearly and efficiently as possible.

N: But I imagine in some works your musical ingenuity must be deployed more than in others – whether it be determining performance techniques, finding a performance strategy – deciding rhythmic proportions; do you ever feel yourself wearing a mantle of ‘co-composer’?

J: I wouldn't say so, no. In this context I would describe myself more as a researcher. Over time I get to know the sonic material that a composer is trying to work with, and then do my best to translate it to something that can be expressed by a tubist. In the 1980s, Luigi Nono relied heavily on Giancarlo Schiaffini's experience as a tubist (or rather primarily his experience as a trombonist), the manuscript of Promoteo for example often reading GC at the beginning of the solo tuba/euphonium/alto trombone stave. There is no doubt however that it was Nono alone that created some of the most iconic tuba writing of the twentieth century, his pupil Helmut Lachenmann soon after writing a concerto which, almost thirty years later, is unparalleled in scope and ambition.

N: Not only have you expanded the capabilities of the tuba in regards to playing techniques, but also in terms of its microtonal potential due to the microtonal valve system you use. Have you found this aspect of the instrument is being fully exploited? And have you found an application for the mechanism outside of the new works you’ve been receiving?

J: Microtonality is certainly a very active area of research for many composers that I have worked with recently. With an instrument that can play any cent deviation from any pitch with a high level of accuracy, the possibilities for composers are almost endless, so I wouldn't say it would be possible to be fully exploited, but there are certainly many more microtonal paths that haven't been taken yet. My most recent usage of it was in a series of new ensembles pieces together with a qanun, employing many different tuning systems and the Extended Helmholz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation System, and they were certainly very helpful in learning my Ptolomaic, Septimal, Undecimal and Tridecimal intervals!

N: What aspects of the tuba have you found composers have been most interested in? Conversely, what aspects are being under-utilised?

J: Composers seem very interested in making me sing; vocalising has formed a large part of almost all pieces that I have premiered recently. Fortunately I am a confident singer, but just because I can play the tuba microtonally doesn't necessarily mean that I can sing microtonally... Meanwhile, "played" multiphonics (or "split tones") are still very under-utilised in tuba repertoire (compared to, say, recent trumpet and trombone literature), particularly from a harmonic perspective. Format shapes (used to alter overtone spectra) are also very underdeveloped; these are more effective on the tuba than on other brass instruments, and have therefore gone virtually unnoticed by most composers.

N: How do you begin preparing a new piece for performance?

J: If I have worked with a composer on creating a piece, I have hopefully got to know their aesthetic, and perhaps also some specific gestural content of the piece that they have written for me. If I don't have this, I have to research into their music, and try to gain an understanding of the sonic world they are working with. After that it is just like learning any other piece; endless repetition at a very slow tempo until the right notes are in the right order, and then moving the metronome very slowly up.

N: You compose as well as perform the works of others – do these two aspects of your creative practice inform each other?

J: I try to not let them too much. Particularly as a composer, I try to temporarily forget any technical constraints I may have learned in trying to write down the sounds in my head. As a performer, it can be useful at times to consider the piece from the composer's perspective to understand the intentions behind the piece more generally, but more often than not it is most productive to let them get on with their job whilst I get on with mine.

N: You’ve lived in Germany for some time now. Have you found the environment in Germany has affected how you work, as compared to being in the UK?

J: The German and British artistic spheres cannot be effectively compared. Whilst culture in the UK is generally seen as something reserved for the few rather than the many or something to be preserved inside a glass case, the German concept of Kultur is something far more complex. The Germans believe that the arts are a fundamental part of their national identity, a necessity to life created by and for all, which must be passed on between generations. The flip side to this is that C18/19 Germanic art is generally put on a higher rung than anything else and funded as such (even in Berlin, the vast majority of state funding still goes to the three grand opera houses), but nevertheless, I am able to make a living being the musician that I want to be in Germany, something which I am sure would not be possible under current circumstances in the UK.

N: What next?

J: 2017 sees more composer collaborations, highlights including premieres of new works by Georges Aperghis and Michael Finnissy which are already in preparation. A tour around the northwest US in February is also currently being planned, and I'm sure many more solo and ensemble performances across Europe will keep me busy for months beyond that.