A Conversation with Øystein Baadsvik
by Joseph Skillen
Recently I was able to catch Øystein Baadsvik on the telephone at home in Trondheim, Norway for the following interview. It was a good time to speak with him, because he has been enjoying wonderful successes with his solo career and the sales of his new Tuba Carnival CD on the BIS Label. In fact, it was just listed as one of the recommended new recordings in the “Instruments with Orchestra” category by Classicstoday. com. Note that he is included with some pretty famous classical artists, and this is truly a milestone for all tuba players. I would like to thank Øystein for his time and insights. The conversation below is an almost exact transcription of the time we spent together.
JS:For some of our readers not familiar with your playing or your career, how would you outline your performance career up until now?
ØB:It all started in a wind band with me as a euphonium player. I was ten years old. I didn’t really get the point of music at all, so I quit playing the euphonium and the band when I was thirteen. Perhaps I was too young, or it was the conductor, but when I was 15 I was introduced to the tuba in a wind orchestra situation. After about one year of having fun on the instrument (I didn’t think I was practicing) and having a good teacher, I started playing in a brass band. After one and a half years I won a spot in the Norwegian National Youth Wind Orchestra. After 3 years, when I was 20, I started studying with Michael Lind in Stockholm at the Swedish University f Music (Kungliga Musikhögskolan). I spent one year there.
JS:Can you describe your early teachers and your musical influences?
ØB:My first teacher was in Trondheim, Norway. I met Michael Lind when I was on tour in Sweden with the Norwegian Wind Orchestra. Later I met John Fletcher and worked with him in 1985, and, in 1986, I began studying with Michael Lind. Michael was very good at teaching me the breathing and physical aspects of playing. We had many musical disagreements, since we are very different musicians. I think it should be this way. Students need to have their own ideas while learning from those that know how to do things in their own way. After one year in Stockholm, I got the principal tuba job in the Norrköping (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra where I stayed for 2 years. That was a very important place because that is where I realized that I couldn’t keep playing tutti parts in the [wind] orchestra. Not that I don’t respect the job itself, but it didn’t fit me as a musician, at least at that time. I found myself taking less and less care of my playing, and I more or less felt like a machine going to work to produce those loud low notes with everything perfectly in tune. I wasn’t a bad orchestral player, I just wasn’t getting into it. I was also substituting quite a bit for Michael Lind in the Stockholm Philharmonic and in the Stockholm Opera Orchestra so I have done my share of playing the great orchestral repertoire for tuba. In 1989 I quit the job in Norrköping.
I realized that I had to become a soloist on my instrument. I know now how silly that must have sounded because it was an occupation without a clear career path. That’s something I try to stress to my students right now-“Don’t become a musician if you don’t have to. There are so many obstacles, it’s difficult, and very competitive. You really must look at it as a lifestyle and an obsession rather than a fun choice.” If you want to have fun and play every now and then, I must say that I find more happy musicians among the amateurs I know rather than the professionals. If you must play to live, then you can try to be a soloist. That’s what I did.
JS:So you decided to become a tuba soloist. What did you do next?
ØB:I moved to Stockholm again and had to get serious about practicing. I really got aggressive in my practice habits, and I was notorious for my methods. I started exactly at the same time every day and ended at the same time for hours with great vigilance. This led to a significant increase in technique and of course knowledge of the repertoire. I was able to do things that of which until then I could only dream in terms of register, dynamics, and all the extras. In 1991, I went to the solo competition in Geneva, Switzerland. That was the first time it was held for solo tuba. I wasn’t taking any free-lance jobs during the time that I was practicing, so I was as “broke as a church rat” as we might say. I didn’t have any money at all since I totally dedicated myself to practicing my instrument. However,I borrowed $1,000 from my father to pay the train fare, and I convinced an accompanist friend to play with me for free. It was fun, I got first prize for the interpretation of Swiss music, and I received second prize in the overall tuba competition. I was very happy with that result especially since the prize money was enough to allow me to go back to practicing for the next six months. I also met Roger Bobo at this time, and my work with him really improved some of my technique and dynamic range. I consider myself a far better musician now as compared to then, but all of this led to my first CD recording in 1993 with the Hindemith, Madsen, and other standard works. It was the first solo CD for tuba ever recorded in Norway. It received wonderful reviews from all types of classical musicians, not only tuba players.
JS:What was your next goal after the CD project?
ØB:Well, I had this stupid idea that if you record a CD, and do it well, the jobs will keep rolling in [laughs]. In a way they did, because it meant a lot for me in building international contacts and recognition. I got quite a few international gigs from it. It wasn’t quite like a pop star story. As is the case in the classical world, unless you’re a brilliant young violinist or pianist picked up by the Sony Corporation, you can expect a lot of hard work. But, I did a lot of different things. Like in 1994 I went to Indiana University and studied with Harvey Phillips. I also took some trips to Chicago to work with Mr. Jacobs. I learned a lot from Mr. Phillips about ease and playfulness. I was also surprised by the differences in tonal concepts that exist in America. One could find the variety between a narrow or small tonal approach such as Mr. Phillips going all the way to the very large approach of say, Gene Pokorny. I thought a lot about why people would have so many different approaches to their sounds. After that I went back to Norway and played a bunch of different concerts. I was also appointed Associate Professor of Music at the Trondheim Conservatory in charge of the Brass and Percussion section. I had that job for about ne year and realized that I couldn’t combine it efficiently with a solo career. I couldn’t be responsible enough to the students since I was traveling so much. So, I quit that job in order to really go for a solo career. Then a strange thing happened…
JS:What was that?
ØB:Well, a number of people have asked me why there was such a long period of time between my first CD, in 1993, and my current CD, Tuba Carnival. The reason was a number of issues at home. In 1997, I was considering not playing the tuba at all in order to become a computer technician. I wanted to stay at home and take care of my family and our three small children. I used to say that while my friends were making recordings, I was making kids [laughs ]. As the kids grew up and we got more organized,I started playing again. My next goal was the Tuba Carnival recording that I made last year. In between there were an enormous variety of performances. I played in a jazz band with Chick Corea and James Brown, Jr., with Clark Terry and other jazz, rock, and punk musicians. We also experimented with tuba in a string quartet. At the same time I was premiering modern music for tuba.
JS:Were you playing tuba in the rock and punk bands as well?
ØB:I played tuba all the time.
JS:Were you playing the bass parts or playing solos?
ØB:What I did was to create a new technique that is something I call “lip beat.” It is based on double tonguing, but in the very low register. It sounds a bit like a helicopter. You get one little vibration or “smack” for each time you articulate the double tongue. Accenting this sound gives a very percussive effect. This was the most appealing thing to the rock bands. So, I wasn’t playing bass at all –it was actually more of a new percussion instrument. It was more drums than bass.
JS:Anyone who has heard you do this knows that it is a very effective technique.
ØB:It takes some practicing to get it smooth and regular, but itcan be an efficient drum set substitute with the right microphone situation.
JS:You would describe, then, what you are doing now as mainly playing solo concerts around the world?
ØB:Yes, that’s what I do. I don’t have any regular position either in ensemble playing or teaching. I’m a soloist.
JS:No more computer technician work (laughs)?
ØB:No, but I do play around with my computer for different recording possibilities and for working with accompaniments every now and then. I also manage my home page (www.baadsvik.com).
JS:You described some differences in tonal concept between America and Europe, but since your initial experience in the United States, you’ve had opportunities to hear performers in Asia, Australia, and other parts of the world. Can you describe the differences you hear in each of those places?
ØB:What I wanted to say was that I heard a lot of differences between individual players even in America. Those differences exist everywhere. You can find the “big” style in Japan, but also the “light” style there as well. It’s the same with England or anywhere else.Generally, I would say Americans tend to like “big” stuff. You know, hamburgers, beers, tuba sounds (laughs).
JS:All that “big stuff” comes together in America doesn’t it (laughs)?
ØB:Yes, but in Norway we do use slightly smaller equipment in the orchestra.You won’t find too many 5/4 instruments, mainly 4/4 instruments. What I’ve seen in Japan is that it is heavily affected by the American style of playing. Many Japanese have studied in the United States. Obviously, they are playing large instruments. It is easier to separate by their choice of instrument rather than the country in which they live. It doesn’t seem t follow any national borders as far as I can tell.Except for the fact that America is still ahead of the rest of us in terms of size. It’s not that I dislike the large instrument.I just feel that it must match the musical style you are playing.John Fletcher put it really well when he said,” If you love a girl, does it sound better when you scream ‘I love you’ in her ear rather than whispering it?”
JS:For those people yet to hear your new CD, how would you describe your own playing?
ØB:My sound is affected by the instrument I’m playing [E-flat tuba ]and the sound I have in my head.We all are affected by these things when considering the voice you want to have.Most people become more at home with their sound as the years go by rather than imitating something or someone else. As for my sound, I try to make it clear and narrow. I want people to hear everything I’m doing. I try to have string instruments as a role model. I want to use their articulation style. Any brass instrument will speak or not speak, so we are ften afraid t slide into notes or smoothly leave and approach a note.String articulations just give us another color n the palate.
JS:You also have created many other sounds on the tuba. You’ve already mentioned the “lip beat” you created, but I know that you are very good at multiphonics and using a didgeridoo type of sound. Are you working on any other new sounds right now?
ØB:Yes, you remember that I also played [on one of his concerts in America] with a coin in the mouthpiece. [n.b. Some Norwegian coins have a hole drilled in the center of them. The coin he mentions here is one with a 2 mm hole drilled in the center] I want to experiment more with that sound. It is a good way to alter my sound on a concert. I’m very afraid on a concert that the audience might get tired of the tuba sound. That’s why I try to bring in as many colors as possible in a tasteful way. I know people will be entertained in a musical way, and I want to make sure the sound of the tuba will remain interesting.
JS:You have mentioned your family obligations; I know your wife runs a music school, and you have three active children–how do you fit practice and this much performing into your life? Do you have any particular routines?
ØB:I compare myself to the offshore oil workers in Norway. They are usually working two weeks offshore and then they are home for two weeks. I figure if it works for them,then it should work for me. It is the same for just about every soloist.You must find a way to make your family happy. It just doesn’t work if your family is unhappy. The reason I was considering quitting was because every time I phoned home my wife was unhappy and burdened by her life at home.
JS:On the two weeks when you are not playing your concerts, are you practicing a great deal or are you more or less completely off the instrument?
JS:I understand what you are saying. Would you attribute that to the 2-3 years of heavy practice you described during your years in Stockholm?In sense, you’ve built your arsenal of tools, now you’re just deciding which tools to use.
JS:Do you still play the CC tuba frequently or do you stick to the Miraphone E-flat you currently use?
JS:At this point, looking into your crystal ball, what do you see as the future for our instruments? Where will we be in 15 -25 years from now?
ØB:Well ,there are things to which we may compare ourselves. I think in the orchestral scene there won’t be much difference. As the younger generation grows up, some minor changes in size and style will happen. Where we will see big changes is how the instrument is used and in what context. Solo playing and uses in jazz are some examples. There are major revolutions going on in Scandinavia in regards to the tuba being used in jazz and pop concerts. It isn’t just here but around the world.It is amazing to hear what some people are doing. In terms of solo playing, we will see students educating themselves to become soloists. You can’t expect to be a soloist while also being an orchestral player. I think it demands more dedication. You don’t see it on other instruments.A solo violinist or concert pianist isn’t also trying to be an ensemble member or hold down a full-time teaching job.More people will dare to try the solo path.When they do it well, I hope that we will see more of a revolution from where we are now. When I released my new CD I began to see the direction that the tuba could go. I’ve always considered it to be a solo instrument, but it had a disadvantage. Then I realized that the classical industry was looking for something new. Currently the whole classical music world is stuck in a very old and conservative way of presenting music.It doesn’t matter if you are a world champion violinist. We don’t need another recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin concerto. It won’t sell. We’re full of the old stuff. However, when I came to the BIS label. They had never heard anything like this. So far it has been one of their fastest selling albums f all time. They’ve recorded ver 1,300 classical titles. Recently I received a review of my CD from Classicstoday.com. They recommend recordings to their readers for new releases every six months.I was extremely surprised and happy that my recording showed up in their list of top “soloist with rchestra performances.” Some f the other recordings in that recommended group were Joshua Bell, Andre Previn, Ann-Sofie Mutter, and then my CD Tuba Carnival. I’m happy not only for myself but for the tuba. I don’t take all the credit for this.I know it is a good recording, but I think ten years ago this wouldn’t have been possible, but with the market as it currently is–it is possible. I just signed up for four more recordings on BIS in the next two years.
JS:Great timing and great artists happening at the right time?
ØB:Well, I think my persistence has just begun to pay off. I believe that will happen for other tuba players as well in the years to come. The tuba has a great future as an instrument. I consider myself to be a person passing the baton to the next generation. Just like we are picking up the baton from artists like Michael Lind and Roger Bobo. I see no reason why it won’t be on the level as any other solo instrument.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
2 February 2004