Evening The Score: UA Professor Explores Tuba Music In Film

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - The tuba, it’s not exactly an instrument of fear. Yet without it, we wouldn’t have been scared of the water in "Jaws." We wouldn’t have sensed the looming threat of Jabba the Hutt in "Star Wars." And some of the most comical moments in film would have fallen flat on their face.

So says Gerald Sloan, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas. Sloan has devoted the past two years to studying tuba music in movies. The results of his research recently appeared in TUBA Journal as a two-part article entitled "Yuba Meets Jabba: The Expanding Role of Tuba in Film Music."

In an age when successful concerts attract hundreds of people while successful movies attract hundreds of millions, film scores are gaining significance - affecting the way musicians approach music and the way audiences appreciate it. One way to gauge this effect is to examine the use of an instrument commonly undervalued by both.

"The tuba is almost always used as a foundation instrument in orchestras. It’s a very rare piece that calls for tuba solos," said Sloan. "But for some reason, film composers have felt free to use the tuba on a higher level - sometimes as a very expressive instrument."

To assess the tuba’s use in movies, Sloan examined countless film scores, listened to hundreds of soundtracks, watched more than 200 videos ("I relied greatly on the fast forward button."), and conducted interviews with some of Hollywood’s greatest tuba players, including Tommy Johnson and Jim Self.

What he found was an expanding venue for tuba virtuosos and a versatility that he had not expected.

The tuba expressed itself relatively early in film music history. The first significant film score was written in 1933 for the movie "King Kong," and two years later, the tuba made its big-screen debut in a Gary Cooper movie called "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town."

After this grand start, however, few tuba parts were written in the early years - mainly because professional tuba players were scarce.

"In the golden age of Hollywood when all the studios had in-house orchestras, string bass players were expected to double on the tuba. As you can imagine, few were proficient," explained Sloan. "So there was very little written for tuba until the studios started hiring free-agent musicians in the 1960s and '70s."

Since that time, the instrument has become increasingly featured in film - performing melodies or solos in such movies as "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Star Wars," "Dennis the Menace," and "My Girl." Even "Caveman" - which had no actual dialogue - contained a terrific tuba solo, Sloan said.

Outside of melodies and solos, the tuba has been used to create numerous effects in film. With its oompah sound, the instrument obviously lends itself to comedy, but its use has been more diverse than that, said Sloan. It often accompanies action sequences, for example. And early monster movies like "Godzilla" often paired the tuba and trombone to create horror music.

But whether creating effects or accompanying scenes, film music is intended to lie beneath the surface - to heighten the experience without intruding on the action. But even if people pay no attention to the music, it greatly impacts the way they react to the movie, according to Sloan.

In the 1940s, studio officials screen tested a movie titled "Lost Weekend" before it had been set to its musical score. They were disturbed to find that the audience laughed at serious scenes and reacted inappropriately to the action on the screen. Composer Miklos Rozsa eventually completed the score, and the film went on to win several Academy Awards.

"Not one for the score," Sloan pointed out. "But the music made that movie."

It’s clear that music affects an audience, but the real question is whether film music will have an impact on orchestral music as a whole. Many obstacles stand in the way, said Sloan, including social standards and the stigma attached to popular culture.

"We seem to have a schizophrenic view of film music in America that other societies haven’t bought into," Sloan said. "Serious Russian and European composers also write for film. But American musicians who write for Hollywood often find themselves ostracized from the world of classical performance."

Sloan notes that John Corigliano’s Oscar for "The Red Violin" may prove to be an interesting exception; though only time will tell whether this well-respected composer will suffer a loss of reputation for his foray into film.

The separation of high culture from popular culture has caused a bitter schism between many musicians and composers. But public interest in such programs as the Boston Pops Orchestra may one day help to heal the wound. If so, the featured role that tuba players have come to enjoy in film may begin to appear in traditional orchestras and scores.

"John Williams wrote the tuba solo for Jabba the Hutt, and after the movie, he developed it into a miniature concerto, which he often performed with the Boston Pops," said Sloan. "It’s a challenging piece - one that blends the monstrous and the lyrical."

And that seems to be a noble goal for the tuba, as well - that this huge and booming instrument might one day be known for its lyricism.

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NOTE: Gerald Sloan will be unavailable for interviews July 2 through July 16.

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