An Analysis and Performance Guide to the Tuba Music of Alice Gomez
by George Palton
This article is a brief summary of my DMA Project “An Analysis and Performance Guide to the Tuba Music of Alice Gomez,” which was completed in the Spring 2008 at the University of Kentucky. For this article I have omitted a majority of my discussion on the history of the solo tuba, biographical information on Ms. Gomez, and the historical background and style characteristics of the featured compositions. If you would to request more information, please contact me at email@example.com.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dr. Skip Gray for his assistance on this project and throughout the years. I would also like to thank Alice Gomez who has been gracious enough to provide a substantial amount of information that has served as a foundation for my project and this article. Her compositions and recordings can be acquired through her website www.alicegomez.com. In addition, Velvet Brown and Lauraine Carpenter have provided essential information about the commissioning of Bonampak, Latin Jazz Suite, and Highlife. Ms. Brown’s recordings of these compositions can be found within her solo albums on the Crystal Records label. Finally, in the time since this study was completed, two new solo tuba compositions have been composed by Ms. Gomez. Azucar! for tuba and timbales was commissioned by George Palton and Shaman Returns for tuba and tape was commissioned by Deanna Swoboda. Both works were premiered at ITEC 2008 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A Biographical Introduction to Alice Gomez
Alice Gomez’ Latin American and Native American compositions, reflective of her multi-cultural background, are in part a product of the experiences that she has had from an early age. Gomez was born in Alaska in 1960 and grew up in a family with six children in San Antonio, Texas, a city rich in cultural diversity. Alice Gomez was raised in a musical family with a father who played trombone and a brother who played trumpet. Gomez considers her early musical exposure influential to her compositional style as an adult. From her childhood she played percussion in her father’s Latin dance band and developed a deep interest in the music of world cultures. As a composer, Gomez states that her goal is to “create works that capture the true spirit of ethnicity and communicate it in a contemporary musical language.” In creating new works, she strives to preserve and promote the traditions of her own Hispanic culture, as well as those of the many other cultures that she has embraced.
Gomez is currently Associate Professor of Music at San Antonio Community College where she teaches American music, applied percussion, and directs and arranges music for the Estudiantina and Latin jazz ensembles. She is active as a performing percussionist in San Antonio and has played professionally with a variety of musical groups including The San Antonio Early Music Ensemble, The San Quilmas Consort, and as an extra percussionist with the San Antonio Symphony. Gomez also plays marimba and steel drums in the San Antonio area.
Alice Gomez served as composer in residence with the San Antonio Symphony from 1993 to 1996. During this period she created new works to unite the symphony with the large Hispanic community. She has received several ASCAP Composers’ Awards and has served in an advisory capacity on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and Meet The Composer, Inc. Her music is featured on several independent record labels including Talking Taco, Iago, and Silver Wave Records. Her compositions have also been featured regularly on several radio stations, network television programs such as “20/20,” and the public television programs “Heritage” and “ArtBeat.” Many of Gomez’ compositions and recordings are sold through her personal website and her publishing company, Creative Music Source.
A Brief Overview of the Compositional Style of Gomez
Alice Gomez’ compositional style has been influenced by the music of a broad range of international cultures. Of particular importance are Native American, Mexican, Aztec, and Mayan music, as well as the music of Africa and the Middle East. In her compositions, Gomez seeks to capture the essence of the cultures that inspire her compositions. The tuba solo and chamber compositions display an eclectic set of creative inspirations including that of the Aztec, Mayan, Latin American, Cuban, and various African cultures. These inspirations are also evident through the overall character of the compositions and the program notes supplied by the composer. Stylistically these influences manifest themselves most notably through driving and active rhythms that enhance the tuneful yet aggressive melodies.
Gomez’ compositional focus on rhythm often results in percussive effects as a prominent element in many of her works. The composer states that she tends to write in a very rhythmically active style that she believes appeals to today’s fast-paced society. The music is full of varying meters that can shift rapidly, contain powerful accents, and have overlapping textures that sometimes hint at the music of Stravinsky. Though her use of ostinato rhythms can be repetitive the music is complex containing varying subdivisions and much syncopation.
Notwithstanding her focus on rhythmic vitality, Gomez is original and tuneful in her melodic construction. Her captivating melodies tend to be bold and driving and are often disjunct, aggressive, and heavily accented. Her use of tonality is quite varied ranging from strictly tonal with limited non-harmonic tones that are given proper resolution to denser chromaticism surrounding a clear pitch center. Although many of Gomez’ compositions are highly chromatic, the chromaticism usually demonstrates a gravitational pull. Less often her chromatic writing does not resolve harmonically and this is another part of her stylistic vocabulary. This lack of chromatic resolution creates a dissonant character within a significant amount of her melodies and harmonies. It should also be noted that a significant source of chromaticism in her compositions is through the use of real sequence as opposed to tonal sequence. Finally, melodic cadences are frequent especially in those compositions accompanied by non-pitched percussion.
In dealing with large-scale form Gomez tends to compose in successive sections. Most often, the compositions are through-composed; conversely, several of her compositions make a return to previously stated material such as Highlife, which is in ABA form. Her phrases are typically symmetrical but do not always coincide with the ostinato creating multiple textural layers. The introduction of new motives tends to coincide with new sections in the large-scale form. At times the compositions can be somewhat repetitive and introduce only a small number of motives. However, as the tuba compositions Latin Jazz Suite and Bonampak demonstrate, many of her compositions contain a plethora of distinctly different motives. Overall, fragmentation, real sequence, extension, truncation, and minor variation are all used to develop her thematic materials.
Gomez applies texture in a variety of ways. Quite often she uses polyphony with multiple interacting layers of rhythm, at other times homophony with a melody and a pitched or non-pitched accompaniment often in an ostinato. She even occasionally employs monophonic texture. Gomez often uses consonant harmonies with added half-steps that create a biting dissonant effect. Blocked chords are an uncommon element in her music. Harmony is not a principal compositional element of her works and harmonic progressions that are used typically occur within static blocks of ostinato that lack traditional function.
The Solo Tuba Compositions of Alice Gomez: Collaborative Origins
The solo tuba compositions of Alice Gomez include Bonampak (1999) for tuba and piano, Latin Jazz Suite (2003) for tuba and congas, and Highlife (2003) for tuba with three percussionists. She has also utilized the tuba in the chamber compositions Fanfare for the Forgotten Empire (2000) for brass choir, Reflections (2000), a duet for tuba and horn, and the tuba euphonium quartet El Bosque Verde (2001) composed for the Junction Tuba Euphonium Quartet.
Gomez’ interest in writing for the tuba can be traced to her first meeting with Velvet Brown. Velvet Brown is an internationally acclaimed artist on the tuba and is currently Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at Penn State University. Brown first met Gomez in 1998 at the International Women’s Brass Conference. She was introduced through a mutual friend Julie Fish who, at the time, was a horn player and personnel manager for the San Antonio Symphony during Gomez’ tenure as the composer in residence for the ensemble. Shortly after their meeting Brown commissioned Gomez to write a piece for tuba and piano. The result was Bonampak finished in 1999.
Alice Gomez’ composition Latin Jazz Suite (2003) is a five-movement work that was originally for C trumpet and congas. Lauraine Carpenter, principal trumpet of the Toledo Symphony, commissioned the work for her performance at the 2003 International Women’s Brass Conference. Carpenter first met Gomez during her tenure as associate principal trumpet of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra and during this time Gomez was the composer in residence for the orchestra. Influenced by her year in San Antonio, Carpenter desired a work of Latin character and felt that Gomez was the perfect fit to compose such a piece. After hearing its premiere Velvet Brown requested that Gomez transcribe the piece for tuba. This request was granted and the tuba version was premiered at the 2004 International Tuba Euphonium Conference in Budapest, Hungary.
Highlife (2003) is a brief, single movement composition for tuba with marimba, tom-toms, and bongos. It was conceived as a closing piece to a concert of tuba and percussion music first performed at the 2004 International Tuba and Euphonium Conference. The work was intended to be an “upbeat” conclusion to a program of serious compositions and to be musically and technically accessible to younger musicians.
The Solo Tuba Compositions of Alice Gomez: Creative Influences
The music and history of world cultures is a chief inspiration to many of the compositions of Alice Gomez, including Bonampak, Latin Jazz Suite, and Highlife. Her first composition for solo tuba, Bonampak (1999), was inspired by paintings from Mayan archeology of musicians blowing into hollowed-out logs. The paintings took her imagination back to that time and place. Through her unique use of rhythm, ostinato, melody, and texture Bonampak allures the listener to join in this imagery. Latin Jazz Suite (2003) was primarily inspired by the Cubop movement of jazz during the 1940s and ’50s, specifically the artists Mario Bauza, Machito, and Dizzy Gillespie. It is remarkable that the history of Cuban popular music and its influence on American jazz is visible in the distinct flavors of Latin Jazz Suite, a composition for trumpet or tuba with conga drums. Finally, Highlife (2003) a composition for solo tuba with three percussionists takes on a completely different character. This composition is modeled after the “highlife”, an African genre of popular dance music. The composition clearly embodies the happy-go-lucky “party-going” spirit that African “highlife” exudes. Yet, in imbuing her composition with style characteristics that are representative of this genre, Highlife provides contrast to Bonampak and Latin Jazz Suite. Highlife demonstrates her tendency to use an active rhythmic texture that is organized by ostinato and complemented by memorable melodies. Yet its pleasant simplicity is quite different than Bonampak and Latin Jazz Suite and cast joyous images of the “highlife.”
The Solo Tuba Compositions of Alice Gomez: Style Overview
The most logical place to begin an analysis of the compositions studied in this article is an overview of its large-scale form. Modifications to thematic material, ostinato, and texture typically coincide with new sections in the large-scale form. The compositions are organized in successive sections that range from through-composed as in Bonampak to a literal return of previously stated material as in Highlife. The first movement of Latin Jazz Suite,Guaguanco, has a brief return of its opening material. The second movement, Bolero, is in a type of rondo form. The third movement, Mambo-Cha, displays both elements of strict repetition and phrases of a more improvisatory nature. The fourth movement, Afro-Cuban, is mostly repetitive and is in two main sections. The final movement, Cubop, is mostly through-composed and a virtual buffet of thematic ideas. Through all three pieces the internal phrase organization is most often symmetrical.
One main characteristic shared by the three compositions is that they all display an active and tangible rhythmic drive. Syncopation and strong accents are present in nearly every phrase. Gomez’ background as a percussionist is obvious in the aggressive rhythms in which she assigns to all of the instrumentalists in these works. The three compositions are organized by ostinatos that provide a basis for the overall character and drive within their respective movement and create an interactive backdrop for her memorable melodic materials. Harmony is also organized by static blocks of ostinato. While Latin Jazz Suite uses non-pitched percussion and Highlife uses limited pitched accompaniment, Bonampak is plentiful with harmonic material that may be best described as added dissonance chords that lack traditional function and are quite aggressive in character.
In terms of melodic organization, Gomez is quite versatile in her use of tonal materials and uses these resources as a means to establish the desired character in a composition. In Bonampak, dissonance and chromaticism are quite common and the tonality is best described as a densely chromatic pitch complement organized around a clear center. Latin Jazz Suite varies in its usage of tonality. The first movement is quite chromatic due to its thematic materials and use of real sequence. The following three movements demonstrate a trend towards reduced chromaticism and a more functional use of tonality. In contrast, the fifth movement, like the opening movement, is quite chromatic in its melodic organization. In contrast to the aggressive character established by the tonal materials of Bonampak and the spicy flavors emanating from Latin Jazz Suite is the pleasant and joyous character of Highlife that strictly resides within the bright, tonal color of D major.
The thematic material used in these three compositions is typically bold and not easily forgotten. Often the contour is disjunct, and the overall character is driving and upbeat. Melodic cadences are frequent, especially in the compositions that feature non-pitched accompaniment. On occasion, the motives can be gentle and lyrical even when partnered with an active ostinato. Other times the tempo is slow, and the level of activity is slightly reduced. Even at these moments the motives are not without spice or excitement. Most often, the thematic materials are agile, accented, syncopated, and brilliant, if not virtuosic. It should be noted that, in employing sequence to develop her melodic materials, real sequence is used exclusively. Overall, the motives are abundant and are developed through a mixture of fragmentation, sequence, extension, truncation, and most commonly repetition and minor variation. Finally, it is mostly left to the performer’s discretion to interpret many of these motives as dynamic markings are infrequent.
In summary, all of these elements combine to form a texture that is typically polyphonic due to the many active polyrhythmic layers. These elements of style seem to be subordinate to the desired character of the music hence all of the colors within this densely knit texture unite to tell a story. The compositional language remains the same, but the dialect is customized to the desired musical outcome. Bonampak manifests its character through driving rhythms with bold articulations that are contained and repeated in ostinatos that create a hypnotic effect. This texture is complemented by alluring thematic materials that take the listener back to ancient Mayan civilization. Latin Jazz Suite creates images of hot sun and spicy flavors. Its melodies are anything but bland and employ the unique combination of trumpet or tuba with conga drums. Finally, the rhythmic syncopation and up-beat and cheerful thematic materials in Highlife paints a bright picture of the care free popular dance of early 20th-century west Africa.
Performance Considerations: Bonampak
Bonampak is a composition that provides a challenge for the solo tubist and possesses a great deal of audience appeal. Providing the abilities of the musicians meet the demands of the music, successful performance can be achieved with minimal rehearsal time. However there are a few considerations that should be reviewed before rehearsal to make the process more efficient. First, the bell direction of the tuba and seating arrangement should be aimed towards maximizing clarity. This is a special concern given the brisk runs in the middle and low register of the tuba and is even more of an issue given the piano’s low and dark colors. Due to the intricate nature of Bonampak the soloist should be aware of projection considerations in “boomy” performing venues. A darker-sounding piano is best suited for the piece. The instrument should be in good working order to provide the most clarity for the densely voiced harmonies and rapid passages. Stick height will depend on the volume and clarity of the soloist in the performing venue although the composer recommends to keep the lid down or to use a short stick. The tubist will need to have a strong grasp of the instrument’s extreme registers—from CC to f-sharp1. Strong fingering agility and a good single tongue are essentials to meet the technical demands. Given the range and character of the piece the bass tuba is more appropriate than the contrabass tuba. The soloist will need to have a strong mastery of the instrument’s low register. In rehearsal the consideration of ensemble between the tubist and pianist is the meter and tempo changes, including those at measures 12, 44, and 108.
According to Velvet Brown, the soloist must employ a large amount of imagination and drive in performing the piece. In order to maximize the musical effect, the tubist and pianist will need to collaborate on more dynamic contrast than is printed in the score. A good place for contrast is in the repeated sections, especially at the end. Generally, the performer should save the loudest dynamics for the conclusion of the piece. The repetitive nature of the piece combined with the brisk tempos and bold character will certainly provide an exciting performing experience for both musicians performing Bonampak. Finally, the composer strongly recommends to not exceed the printed tempos since the composition “loses its soulful grove” when performed too fast.
Performance Considerations: Latin Jazz Suite
The first concern a tubist should address in preparing Latin Jazz Suite is its high tessitura. The overall range spans from F to a-flat1, and the tessitura remains in the tuba’s high register through the entire composition. Because of this the tubist must make sure their endurance is adequate if they desire to perform all five movements. With this in mind a bass tuba is an absolute, preferably one pitched in F.
During the course of Latin Jazz Suite there are several technically challenging passages that the tubist must conquer. The tubist will need to have strong fingering technique, especially in movements one and five. Strong flexibility is an asset as the piece features a gamut of wide leaps in rapid succession. The tubist should also have strong articulation, especially a solid single tongue. Driving articulation is one of the ways in which Gomez creates the driving character in Latin Jazz Suite, therefore the tubist must avoid being overly weighty in this style. Daily practice in the Interval Flexibility, Chromatic Scales, and Single Tonguing sections of the Technical Method for the Cornet by Jean Baptise Arban can be useful in preparation of this piece. Ideally, these passages should be learned with the goal of projecting an image of ease in performance. It should be noted in preparing Latin Jazz Suite how Gomez strongly encourages the importance of listening to Latin jazz artists in order to absorb their style.
In regard to the percussionist’s equipment, the piece requires only conga drums.
Traditionally the smaller of the two drums will be sandwiched between the percussionist’s legs and titled slightly forward to allow for the sound to project more. The right or dominant hand will play the larger drum. It is appropriate to use small rubber legs or a similar device to prop up the larger drum, increasing its projection greatly. For the percussionist the piece is moderately difficult. The challenge that the percussionist faces in Latin Jazz Suite is not necessarily in its rhythms but in producing characteristic tones. The art of producing a tone on the conga drums is not necessarily easy and is a skill many percussionists spend a lifetime perfecting.
The printed tempos in the first and fifth movements of Latin Jazz Suite may be slightly higher than an ideal tempo for performance therefore a brief discussion on tempos should precede any rehearsal. Generally, tempos should remain steady throughout the composition. For a heightened musical effect a small amount of rubato may be appropriate in the second movement. The tubist should spend adequate time practicing with a metronome to insure that their breathing does not interfere with the tempo. If the tubist is planning on using a mute of any kind in the fourth movement, they must inform the percussionist that the four measures of conga ostinato prior to section A may not be adequate time to remove the mute. A simple solution is for the percussionist to add measures of the ostinato until the tubist gives them a visual cue to begin the A section. With regard to mute choice, a cup mute is ideal and a straight mute can suffice. The tubist must practice with mute frequently to become aware of how much they must pull their tuning slide out in order to avoid going sharp. Finally, the duo may find the dynamic markings provided by Gomez as merely a starting point, and the performers should discuss how to further expand upon these ideas.
Performance Considerations: Highlife
Highlife is a composition of moderate difficulty that can provide an effective means to open or close a performance. Its brief length of three and a half minutes may not suffice for a performance on its own, but it could complement many other compositions in a full recital. The range of the tuba is fairly wide and spans from DD to f-sharp1—although the upper tessitura is quite moderate. A contrabass tuba could feasibly suffice but the lighter timbre of a bass tuba would be more suitable. If the individual should choose to perform Highlife on a bass tuba their low range should be fairly strong. The piece is primarily diatonic therefore scales and arpeggios in D major and all closely related keys would serve as excellent preparatory studies for Highlife. Overall, the A section is not technically difficult for the tubist. Section B and the coda can be rather difficult technically, in particular measures 37 to 52 and 125 to 126. The individual would be wise to concentrate a bulk of their practice in these sections. As with the previous compositions in this study, the tubist should have strong articulation, a clear single tongue, solid fingering ability, and control of all registers. It is paramount that the tubist maintains a steady tempo and not rush. In order to maintain the groove desired by the composer it may be wise to perform slightly below the printed tempo indication of 120 beats per minute. According to Velvet Brown, the most important aspect of performing Highlife is to have fun! She recommends one to imagine the dance, the groove, and to get the audience involved.
Overall, Highlife is not difficult for the percussionists. It is perhaps best labeled as a grade four, playable by musicians at the undergraduate level. The required marimbas, bongos, and tom-toms are all standard instruments that are readily available at most institutions. For the marimba, a rosewood instrument with medium yarn mallets would be the most suitable. Given the African world music influence of the piece, generic snare sticks may be the most authentic for the bongos and tom-toms, but a hard yarn or multi-percussion stick is the most appropriate choice. In order to best blend with the tuba, the bongos and tom-toms should be tuned to produce a lower and darker sound. In addition to mallet choice, this action should minimize the contact and maximize the tone.
The overall difficulty for the percussion section does not lie in the technique mandated to play the individual parts. Ensemble accuracy is a greater concern since performing the rhythms will not be difficult but interpreting the rests could be. In particular, the large amount of dotted-eighth sixteenth note rhythms and syncopation can be the most difficult to line up as a section. To remedy this, using a shaker or gourd to play steady sixteenth notes can be an effective tool in rehearsal. Before the ensemble reaches that point of rehearsal, visual considerations and seating arrangements should be decided upon. The limited range required of the marimba will allow the other three musicians to utilize a tighter seating arrangement, minimizing phasing issues and maximizing visual communication. A perfectly steady tempo is appropriate for the composition therefore the tubist must be conscious of their breathing habits and metronome practice is a must. This issue may be of greater concern in section B where the tubist enters many phrases on the offbeat. Finally, the dynamic markings and textural modifications may provide adequate dynamic contrast for the percussion section however the tubist will need to develop more dynamic contrast in order to provide the most musically effective performance.
As the overall body of compositions for the solo tuba continue to expand exponentially Alice Gomez’ works Bonampak, Latin Jazz Suite, and Highlife have potential to fill a unique and important role within the repertoire. While some musical instruments have a long heritage of original solo composition, the solo tuba repertoire is in its infancy. In fact the landmark solo tuba composition, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto (1954), was composed just over fifty years ago. Due in large part to the efforts of numerous performer-advocates since that time the solo tuba repertoire has increased in quantity and quality. It is however still in need of further growth. One is not likely to become wealthy by composing for the solo tuba. It is truly a labor of love. In this respect it could be suggested that most contributions to the repertoire should be welcomed.
A key strength of Bonampak, Latin Jazz Suite, and Highlife is the variety the compositions could potentially bring to a performance. Stylistically, their treatment of tonality, thematic material, rhythm, and texture is in dramatic contrast to many standard tuba works. These pieces are also vastly different from the transcriptions that have a central role in today’s standard tuba repertoire. Gomez’ works featuring the use of percussion, Latin Jazz Suite and Highlife, can provide the experience of learning to perform in a new medium in addition to the opportunity to play new and refreshing sounds.
While spinning a compelling story Alice Gomez’ compositions provide an opportunity to learn about the music of other cultures. This also aligns with the growing emphasis of multi-cultural education in society. The music has strong appeal due, in large part, to the driving rhythmic texture and memorable melodic material. Finally, the compositions provide a challenge to the soloist, are well-crafted and complex works of art, and can provide a gratifying experience for both the soloist and his or her audience.