Sass & Halwax
By Klaus Härtel
Translated by Barry Thomas, Professor of German Emeritus, Ohio University
Jon Sass, the Jazz musician, and Paul Halwax, of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: “A Vienna Coffee House (non) dispute”
This article was first published in Clarino.print (www.clarino.de) in their December issue of 2005. Many thanks to Clarino.print for allowing the ITEA Journal to reprint this article, Gerhard Meinl for spearheading the project, and Barry Thomas for his wonderful translation from the original German.
It’s hard to imagine two people being more different. One plays in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the other is a soloist. One grew up in the Austrian countryside, and the other is from Harlem, New York. One wears a shirt and jacket, and the other wears a sweater, scarf and Basque cap. One is named Paul, and the other is named Jon. And yet the two tubists are quite similar and express similar opinions. In short: the planned “dispute” between Paul Halwax (b. 1974) and Jon Sass (b. 1961) did not take place, however there was still a lot to discuss.
In Vienna they meet typical coffee house. The two tubists quickly make it clear that one does not order “coffee” (possibly still stressed on the first syllable) but rather a “blend” or “a small brown one” (espresso in Vienna). The two Viennese put their fame aside, and, with much humor added, meet candidly and informally.
(L–R) Paul Halwax & Jon Sass
Clarino.print: “I never believed myself to be a jazz musician or a classical musician, but rather ultimately an artist.” This quotation is yours, Jon.
Jon Sass: Yes, I have no one direction. I only try to make great music. Music is larger than I can imagine, and I am absolutely honest with my musical integrity.
Paul, do you see yourself—as an orchestra musician—as an artist, or rather simply a worker?
Paul Halwax: In my occupation, I view myself as part of a whole. A part that contributes to presenting what the composer has written. And yet more, because the notes are only the “scaffolding.” Gustav Mahler once said, “Music must not be limited to just notes.” As an orchestra musician, everyone must work naturally together. This is my philosophy, my occupation, my dream—to create something with others that is special and unique.
Therefore, you play more than what the composer has provided on the page?
Paul: There is much more involved. If you play conservatively, safely, then of course you are much more relaxed. If you push the boundaries, it makes the blood flow and the heart pound. There are many things in the life that occur at the boundaries. You react differently. Muscles tense, and the brain is more active—in a different way than just doing one’s job. “Music as only a job” —not much will come out of this approach alone.
Does music stem from the head or the heart?
Jon: Both. For me, it is brain, body, and soul—all together. These form more or less a unit with myself. Then, the composer gives me a further inspiration, a further impulse.
Paul: I can agree. Rhythmic issues are head issues. It is very important that each component is used. If every musician played only with the heart, then this would not be harmonious because everyone involved has an individual expression at a given moment.
Nevertheless, is music dependent on one’s state of mind?
Paul: Yes, naturally. This is the beautiful part. If I’m in a happy state, I can’t convey a sad phrase as effectively as when I am suffering, for example because my good friend has just left me.
Jon: It is important to be fully involved when performing. Feelings reflect themselves in playing. This is human trait, and we are humans.
Do you have ambitions, as a soloist, to break out of the orchestra everyday life?
Paul: I certainly have such ambitions. In the orchestra, everything is restricted a little— especially on the tuba. It has another function. As a soloist, one can give fuller express to the feelings which get dammed up inside. I would love to show the others what I really think, what I really feel. I can imagine premiering contemporary music. Why not?
Do you listen to each other’s concerts?
Paul: I have many of his recordings.
Jon Sass then solemnly presents Paul Halwax his current CD Sassified (ATS records). Paul Halwax is quite pleased while at the time expressing regrets that “I do not have anything for you.” But surely at some point two tickets will change hands …
Jon: I went once or twice to a Philharmonic concert. And I would actually love to hear the orchestra more often. But that is a matter of time—it’s been nuts lately. And I would love to go to the opera to hear the full orchestra. Never in my life have I been to the opera.
The tuba is usually not the center of attention. Why did you select the tuba?
Jon: I was in middle school in New York and at 14 I wanted to play in the school band, either baritone saxophone or bassoon. These instruments were spoken for, so the conductor said, “I have something for you.” He pulled out a completely new tuba mouthpiece. It was still in the plastic in its box—I know to this day exactly how it looked and smelled. And it fit.
It was somewhat amusing, because I instantly produced a tone on the mouthpiece. Then there was this feeling. This sound. This bass. It was simply beautiful. It is difficult to describe, but it is beautiful (laughs)
Paul: I actually wanted to play trumpet, and it was exactly the same turn of events for me. In elementary school, I was seven years old, and the music schoolteacher came and looked all of us over and said, “You’ll be a trumpet player, come and try this mouthpiece” or “Here, you’ll play this flugelhorn.” Because I was a little larger and a little stronger than the other students, I was given the tuba. And this is the way I came to the tuba. At 13 years old, I wanted to switch to the bass trombone. But my teacher would not allow it, because I had already won the competition “Jugend Musiziert.”
Does it take a special person to be successful as a tubist?
Both: Yes, absolutely.
So it’s correct, the cliché of tubists? That tubists are stronger, larger, perhaps heavier than their colleagues of the winds or higher brass. A tuba has to be carried after all. And in fact both these men are somewhat larger when you see them standing up. Paul Halwax, at 6’2” even looks a bit slight compared to Jon Sass’ 6’7”. And do tubists have a sense of humor — are they a bit more relaxed, laid-back/comfortable?
Paul: “Laid-back/comfortable” sounds a bit negative—at least in Vienna. I think in general tubists are not bigger and stronger. But it is true that tubists are calmer and more relaxed. A trumpet-player is always “chop-chop,” always fighting. A tubist is always calm, takes the time to listen to everything first. That has to do with the playing, with the oscillations??)
Jon: If one wants to play and control the tuba at the optimal level one has to be calm and relaxed. It is much easier to control the tuba. I see different body language with trumpet-players—often more stress. But with the tuba it’s an advantage to be calm.
Paul: That’s part of tuba playing. It’s important for the sound. A little too tense, and the sound is gone, it just doesn’t work.
Do tubists exchange experiences?
Paul: You talk about a lot of things when the evening goes long (laughs), but about the tuba? Not really. It’s not important for life. Playing the tuba is not the most important thing in the world. There are many more important things. But it’s the same with every profession. If you have real difficulties with something, you ask. But otherwise…why should you? No professional player would ever boast in his free time, “Hey, today I hit an f 3.” It’s much more important to find a new bar.
Jon: People, not the tuba, are important. When I meet with tubists, we never talk about the tuba. We talk about other things.
Nevertheless can we talk a bit about the tuba? The “role of the tuba in society”—how did that develop?
Jon: The tuba is much younger than many other instruments. I once heard a recording of Øystein Baadsvik where he played the solo violin part from the Four Seasons on the tuba. Technically, that was just crazy. If violinists play these virtuoso pieces calmly, perhaps we can some day achieve this calmness with our instruments. But there are many new composers and good compositions.
Do you see yourselves as ambassadors of the tuba?
Paul: Because of the Internet and other media, this has all become more accessible
Earlier that was different. There was only a telephone—one in the village, and earlier, with the tuba, one only needed to use one finger practically. That’s how it was. Now it’s much easier to organize notes. Globalization has set in completely. In the last 20 years there has been a big push, as had already happened with the others.
What are the reactions, when you say: “I am a professional tuba player?” That’s not the classical/traditional career.
Jon: Many people think in materialistic terms. When I say I am a tubist they look at me and ask: “Why aren’t you playing basketball? You can earn a lot more money playing basketball.” That’s a normal human reaction. I may not earn as much as a basketball player. But it’s not a matter of money, at least not only money. Naturally it costs something to be productive, and I have to make a living.
You deal a lot with college and public school students. Do you give them any advice?
Paul: I have a good example for that: Michelangelo was with a teacher. The teacher didn’t tell him what David should look like, but rather how he should hold the chisel and what the proportions should be. We do the same. We give him [the student] the tools and he should create his own David . It is his creativity.
Jon: Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Paul: In part my students are so afraid. They sit there and wait for the next wrong note. Then I say: just play! The teacher has to teach the craft. But the rest is not my job. He has to decide for himself. And then we will see if he is good or not. But that’s not within my power (that’s not my job). I would just make him into a greater bundle of nerves.
How do you answer students who say: “I want to play just like you?”
Jon: “You have to try to play as well as you can. Not like us.” Certainly they can attempt to imitate my playing. But they still have to find their own spirit. Even if they know me, they can be creative, discover their own voice.
It is almost weird how similar the two are in their views on life, music, and pedagogy. Now we’ll give them a few key words, which they certainly can’t respond to identically.
Who is the best composer?
Paul: One can’t ask that question.
Jon: Well, you can. (laughs).
Paul: Actually every composer is a genius. Just like the painter. There is no answer. I don’t even know the opposite—the worst composer.
Who is the best tubist?
Paul: That’s the wrong question at this table. We won’t discuss that.
Jon: Each plays beautifully in his own way.
Next key words: Fame, Honor, Renown
Paul: It’s an honor for me to be allowed to play in an orchestra with my 149 colleagues. I consider myself privileged to be allowed to do that. But for myself—I am only one of 150. It doesn’t really matter.
Jon: And I am thankful that I can play various kinds of music and make a living at it. But becoming famous is not my goal. Not at all—just to give.
Jon: There are people who thank me by e-mail for my musical openness. That’s nice to hear, not for my ego, but for what I wanted to give. I have reached someone.
Paul: I am unknown. Absolutely. One of 150 players. Nobody buys a symphony and says: “I’m listening to it because of the tuba.” Certainly there are enthusiastic people who say: “I like the way that sounds.” That’s a total pleasure for me.
Paul: (laughs) Yes, we have a team, the Vienna Philharmonic Soccer-Club. Actually we play all the time—in Vienna, London, Japan—with a team song and referees. Quite professional. That serves as a sporting balance, and you also come together on a private level. Afterwards you sit together and laugh and achieve success on another basis, again as a collective.
And the tubists are the defenders?
Paul: (laughs) Not necessarily. The defense has a weight limit—over 220 pounds. Those under 220 are the midfielders can run longer.
Jon: I have never seen a soccer match. Bike riding is my thing. I go everywhere with my bike.
Next key word: Vienna.
Jon: I am thankful for these years in Vienna. Vienna has given me a lot. My first time in Vienna—that was 1979, I was 17—was different. I was afraid to travel in the subway alone, because the people stared at me. But my housemate said: “Oh, the people are just curious.” That made me much more mature, it was a challenge.
Paul: My musical home is Vienna. There my musical thinking is simply fundamental, that is, intuitive. I do it in such a way and that’s the way it is in Vienna. I don’t reflect about how I have to phrase something. It’s a dream to be here.
Paul: I come from the country. My parents have a farm. From age 9 I worked each summer in the fields. From 6 a.m. till 10 in the evening. That was formative for me, because I can appreciate the life I have now and have comparisons. I know how hard life can be. And I respect what my parents accomplished so that I could study. A tuba is not the most favorable instrument. It’s a lot of money. And they don’t have a big farm. That really shaped me, this “going to the edge.” That’s good for the character.
But a childhood in Harlem is quite different from one in Austria on a farm, right?
Jon: Well, we too didn’t have so much money to afford a tuba. My first tuba was an old one with lots of dents and replacement parts. My mother bought it for me. She is a secretary in a high school in New York City. I can say the very same as Paul. My life in Harlem shaped my character. I am proud of having had this childhood. Because it is difficult to get out of this situation, but my mother imparted much positive spirit.
One last key word: Family.
Jon: I have three children and am very thankful to be with them. They are my family. And that’s the most beautiful and most important thing for me. I will always arrange my calendar primarily according to my children.
Paul: I agree. Priority No. 1: Family. I don’t have any children, but my partner and my parents, those are sacrosanct. All that has to be taken care of and be in a healthy state. The rest is secondary.
Suggested Reading: “Jon Sass Feature. PART I: A Giant Tuba, A Giant on the Tuba” by Jean-Pierre Mathez & PART II: Playing the Tuba is Such a Joy: Confidence of a Happy Tuba Player” by Jon Sass. ITEA Journal Volume 31 Number 3 Spring 2004. (www.iteaonline.org/journal.shtml).