Tubist  Samuel  Pilafian

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Tubist Samuel Pilafian (October 25, 1949 - April 5, 2019) was noted for having achieved a degree of fame on an instrument that usually fills an accompanimental role. Equally noteworthy, however, was the ease with which he moved between classical music and pop.

A native of Miami, Pilafian started early on the tuba. He attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, becoming only the second tuba player in history to win the school's concerto competition. That propelled Pilafian to scholarships at Dartmouth College and the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. While he was studying in the latter program, he was selected by Leonard Bernstein to perform in the world premiere of Bernstein's Mass, which was simultaneously part of the opening ceremonies for Washington, D.C.'s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

With his performance of that thoroughly eclectic composition as a starting point, Pilafian developed dual careers. In the classical sphere, Pilafian was best known as a founding member of the Empire Brass Quintet. He also performed and recorded with the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He played recitals, and made orchestral appearances in Canada, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Italy, Austria, Germany, and England. He served on the faculties of Boston University and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and was a consultant at the Royal Academy of Music in London before joining the faculty at Arizona State University in 1994.


Pilafian released 12 solo albums as a jazz performer, and recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. With guitarist Frank Vignola, Pilafian formed the jazz duo Travelin' Light, which released three discs on the Telarc label. While many classical artists have ventured into jazz with notable success, few diverged as far from their original training as Pilafian. He recorded with the rock group Pink Floyd, and under the designation of the Pilafian Project he recorded an experimental mix of tuba sounds that transcends genre categories. An example is the 1998 album Meltdown, which includes music by composers such as Bartók, Sidney Bechet, Ornette Coleman, Ravel, and Captain Beefheart.

A past president of T.U.B.A. (the Tubists' Universal Brotherhood Association), Pilafian served as chairman of that group's board of directors. He passed away in April 2019 from colon cancer.

==  Biography by James Manheim  [Text only - photo from another source]  

It was my great pleasure to meet Samuel Pilafian at my home-studio when he was in Chicago in March of 1988.  The Empire Brass was on tour, and traveled in their van to the Windy City.

He was very happy with the questions I posed, and our conversation was often punctuated with much laughter.  Part of what was said was used on WNIB, Classical 97 to promote their concerts, and now I am happy to present the entire chat.

Bruce Duffie:   You drove here with the van?
Samuel Pilafian:   Yes.  We went to Ann Arbor after the concert yesterday, and had dinner with a lot of old friends, including Armando Ghitalla from the Boston Symphony.  [Ghitalla (1925-2001) was in the trumpet section of the Boston Symphony for twenty-eight years, including fifteen as Principal.]  We woke up in Ann Arbor this morning, and continued on to you.  Traffic is very light today.

BD:   Do you like the life of a wandering brass player?

Pilafian:   Oh, I love it.  There’s two of us left from the original group, which is now sixteen years old, and the two that are left are nomadic.  I’m Armenian, and I have some kind of camel-herding in my background, and Rolf Smedvig is definitely a Viking.  He’s Icelandic, and he’s always trying to jump on boats to go out to the next concert.  It’s all a matter of what you’re used to.  I’ve been doing this for sixteen years, and it’s really a way of life now.  But we enjoy it.

BD:   Do you ever settle at home?

Pilafian:   Yes, we all live out near Tanglewood in the Berkshires, and we teach at Boston University.  So, we need to be central to Boston in some way, although that’s two hours away.  It’s been better for us to get off of tours and go to a home that’s rather quiet, like in the Bershires.  Then we make our ride in to do our teaching once or twice a week.  So it’s a nice existence.  The summer is not a tour time for us.  We generally stay in Tanglewood and teach the Empire Brass Seminar, which is a how-to course for young brass quintets.  That’s nice to be at home for the entire two or three months of the summer.

BD:   What basic advice do you have for a group of five brass players who want to play brass quintet literature?

Pilafian:   First of all, they should want to play brass quintet literature because it’s part of something that string players have had for years.  They have the solo training, and the teaching studio, and the recital stage, and then they have large ensemble playing.  They also have a wealth of chamber music, and it’s the chamber music that pulls everything together.  It makes them a more valuable orchestral player, and more of a reliable person for a conductor to work with.  It makes them a better soloist, and a better accompanist, that sort of thing.  Now, in the last thirty years there’s become enough brass music to have a brass quintet.  So, when these people sit down to study and really develop a good chamber music technique, they become better orchestral brass players.  They become good chamber musicians, and they become better soloists.  So, we’ve got a missing link in the training of young players which has finally been filled.  That’s why it’s very, very necessary, and it’s causing the level of refinement in brass playing to elevate.  The biggest thing they have to do is commit to rehearsal, because brass players are famous for vacating the premises when the weather is good, or if there’s a game on, or if there’s something good on TV.  There’s always a reason to not rehearse, and they don’t have the commitment at first that a string player will, because string players have role models.  They know very well that the Budapest Quartet would just rehearse until their hands fell off.  There’s traditions and strengths of how long you can practice, and that has to happen for young brass players.

BD:   Is there any difference between a string player that can rehearsal until his hand falls off, and a brass player who can rehearse only until his chops
wont buzz?

Pilafian:   Part of the new school of brass playing in this latter half of the twentieth century is the endurance.  It was legendary in the John Philip Sousa Band.  Harry Glantz [(1896-1982), Principal Trumpet of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony (as it was called then) 1928-42, and the NBC Symphony 1942-54], Toscanini’s first trumpet player, had a legendary pair of lips.  He could play forever, and from watching these people that were the exception at the turn of the century, we’ve found ways of training that really helped us become, as an American school of brass playing, much more durable with the amount of time we can play, and the quality of our sound.  Now that we’re at the end of the twentieth century, we have students that can sit down and rehearse a nice solid two, or two-and-a-half hours of quintet and really get a lot out of it and not sitting around talking and waiting for their chops to regenerate... which I remember doing in college!  [Laughs]  Now, it’s more play and less talk.

BD:   As you hear a lot of these young brass players coming up, what is the basic advice you have for them as musicians?  This is not just to play and be sure they get their idea to rehearse, but once they’re rehearsing, what kind of ideas do you find necessary to tell them?

Pilafian:   They need role models that aren’t the recordings of the Empire Brass, and the Canadian Brass, and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble.  They’re very good for them to understand the tonal makes that they’re shooting for, and the types of style, and the size of sound that’s necessary for chamber music, but beyond that, they should be listening to string quartets, and piano chamber music so they hear the nuance which is necessary.  We’re very, very fortunate to have had a couple of great string coaches for the Empire Brass.  What we learned from them has caused us to encourage our students to get out there and work with string players, pianists, conductors, and other people who don’t care about how your lip feels, or if you have to breathe here or there.  It’s the phrasing over everything, and if you can’t make the phrase, why don’t you figure out how to do it... or don’t play this piece of music.  Those kinds of challenges presented to a group of really gung-ho, young players is what caused our group in particular to start to breathe better, and to start to play with more of a sense of fluidity and line.  The challenge was put forward, and it doesn’t happen from brass player to brass player.  There’s too much empathy.  We can
t just say to one another, “Oh, that’s hard, isn’t it?”  [Both laugh]  There’s too much of that going on.  So, cross-fertilization of learning is very, very important for the young brass player.  The other thing is aural skills that we are trying.  All over the country there’s more of an emphasis on ear training.  It went away a little bit between the fifties and seventies.  They tried to figure out ways of not doing solfège, but now they’re back to it.  That way you find better ears behind brass instruments.  That’s probably the most important thing that will make or break a chamber music group.  If you have ten years and five brass instruments in the same room, that’s a very important thing, and it’s still not right.  They have to go beyond the curriculum to really develop a great ear.  It has to become a dedication to ear training, like they have for their instrumental practice, in order to really refine the musicianship.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   What are the basic differences between playing solo literature, chamber literature, and orchestral literature in the brass area?

Pilafian:   The first thing that comes to mind is the amount of physical energy.  You have to train.  You have to prepare your body to be a great orchestral player, and to be able to sustain the pitches, and be able to create the amount of physical energy to play the last page of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, or the last movement of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, or things like that.  Some of the operas are a religious experience.  I used sit there and drink a milkshake with two raw eggs in it before I would do a Wagner opera in New York.  I couldn’t get through the last act without that.  So, that’s one of the things they have to do.  You have to have a lot of endurance.  In chamber music, it’s endurance with finesse.  You have to be able to play clear and clean while you have the feeling that you might be getting tired.  That’s something which is new.  We’ve had to develop that.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You don’t think Mahler and Bruckner were asking you to play clear and clean, too???

Pilafian:   [Laughs]  Oh, they absolutely were, but the amounts of air going through to create the orchestral piano, as opposed to the smaller chamber music piano makes it very comfortable to play clear and clean.  It’s all about trying to make the production fit a chamber music setting.  It keeps your lip okay because the less you blow, the more the lip goes to work, so we’ve had to work out ways of still blowing a lot by actually using a lot of free respiration, and creating a little more contained sound.  So, we’re on a pioneering way in terms of physically how to play orchestral and chamber music.  Solo work is a matter of concentration, and it is so incredibly important for brass players because the orchestral experience is one that’s a stop-and-go experience because of the nature of orchestral brass writing.  By the time you get to the solo literature, you are the lifeline of the music from beginning to end, and that’s a very challenging thing for a brass player.  This is because in ensemble experience and the whole training experience, they haven’t been asked to sit there for five or seven or nine minutes and sustain a line.  That seems to be the whole emphasis, and needs the mental sharpness and endurance to play solo.  It’s the combination of all of those things that makes it really great to be a brass player right now.  We didn’t have any of those things at the turn-of-the-century.  The only solos were the Kreisler-like cornet solos that were played in front of the John Philip Sousa Band, and they were pyrotechnical.  Now we have a lot more music to play, and we’re still pioneering.  It’ll take us about four generations to get a hundred good pieces in place.  Remember, the string quartets have three hundred just by Haydn.  They don’t have to wait for probably ten years before they decide they need to commission a new piece.  Just in terms of good repertoire, it’ll take us generation after generation before we get that strong.  But I think the movement will go that far, I really do.  People like it.

BD:   Is the movement going forward enough now that you have some people writing for the Empire Brass?

Pilafian:   Yes, absolutely.  It was a begging-situation when we started, and now it’s a fending-off situation, which is a wonderful thing.  We have a commission right now that we’re going to premiere with the Detroit Symphony in June.  It’s by Michael Torke, who’s a middle-twenties composer of immense talent.  This commission, and the entire occasion, was brought to us by the Midland Center for the Arts, which is having its anniversary.  So there wasn’t any begging.  For a brass chamber music musician, that was a monumental day when the phone rang and they said, “This is a piece that we’re going to have written for you.”  Also, Peter Maxwell Davies wrote a piece for us that was thirty-three minutes long, which is very long for a brass chamber piece.  There, the sun has come up on the commission-end of things, on composers thinking about us.  There’s a catalogue of brass chamber music where we all go to procure our music.  In 1977 it was two pages long.  That was when I started thinking about what we should be buying, because we used to do our own arrangements.  We still do, but we needed more music.  So, I looked at these two pages and thought, “That’s not very much.”  Now, just eleven years later, that catalogue is eight pages long!   So, things are really moving rapidly.

BD:   I would think composers would find it very frustrating to write a symphony and never get it played, or maybe get it played just once.  However, if they write something for a chamber group, it’ll get played right away, and it might go on tour.

Pilafian:   Yes, absolutely.  There still is the chamber music explosion that someone declared around
78 or 79.  We’re crisscrossing in airports with other chamber music groups all the time.  We watch their cases walk by, and they watch our cases walk by, so it’s a very good time for a composer to get a piece on.  As a matter of fact, a lot of the composers that write for the larger idiom like to form small groups to get more performance out of their own music.  Peter Maxwell Davies is a great example of that, as is Philip Glass.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I asked about advice to performers.  What advice do you have to a composer who says, “I’d like to write a piece for your group”?

Pilafian:   The most important thing is that they immerse themselves in the sound, because it’s a pioneering effort and there’s new information every four to six months as to what can be done.  This is partly because of the design of instruments.  If I was a composer, I wouldn’t know what the latest abilities are, especially in electronic music, because it’s state-of-the-art every two weeks, and somebody has a new piece of equipment.  Frankly, because of the computer, the brass technology is advancing rapidly.  As matter of fact, here in Chicago are the three biggest micro-makers, which to me is like a micro-brewery, where they might turn out a small number of instruments per year, but their Research and Development is everything.  They have their own way of doing things.  Right now, Chicago is the capital where this kind of technology is.  These people come up with things that allow better brass quintets to be written, with more fluid sound, and more range.  There are five or six kinds of articulations available from one trumpet
, including a true sforzando, and a marcato that is like a German marcato, where it doesn’t ping really hard at the beginning of the note, yet it’s marcato.  There is also a sting on a note that’s extremely American, like the sound of a Bernstein West Side Story Dance.  It’s all available from one trumpet.  These days, you can carry six trumpets on tour, in two little suitcases, and still not get in trouble with the airline.  [Remember, this interview was held in May of 1988, before all of the events and procedures to which we are now subjected!]  So, if you have that kind of equipment, this is a far cry from 1950.  Tuba-wise, it’s arriving right now as we speak.  As matter of fact, I have a new tuba.  Its a one-day-old tuba on the band bus right now.  It’s my tuba, but it was just changed so that the pitch has been refined once again, just because somebody came up with a new idea.  So, the composer needs to know that, and be aware of what’s available.  Brass chamber music has reached a point where there are signature sounds to groups now, very definite signature sounds just as there are in the string quartets.  In terms of spices, our group is the Bay Leaf of brass quintets.  In terms of string quartets, it’s closer to the old Borodin String Quartet, than any other string quartet.  Indeed, they were a role model of ours.  There’s a lot of non-vibrato, which makes a powerful meltdown of sound.  There is very much a oneness to the sound, and a very large dynamic contrast to the group.  In terms of listening to things, and figuring out what we should sound like, composers need to know that.  They need to know what the signature of the group is, and if it’s going to be a comfortable piece to play.  Some people like to write non-comfortable pieces to play.  Peter Maxwell Davies wrote his piece so that it would be challenging fifteen years after the date he finished.  It wouldn’t be achievable right away, and he was right, by the way.  [Both laugh]  If somebody tells me we’re going to play the second movement of that piece, I have to go and drink milk before it because it’s really that hard.  But that’s the challenge, and it will probably always be there, because of that.


BD:   Is the brass quintet essentially set as far as instrumentation?  The string quartet is always two violins, viola, and cello.  Now the brass quintet is two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba...

Pilafian:   Right, but there’s also a possibility of putting a bass trombone on the bottom.  We’re almost standardized, but there’s still a shakeout period.  It was much more so in the 
50s and 60s, where maybe fifty percent of brass quintets had a trombone on the bottom.  But the ability of the tuba is to provide more pressurization of dynamics, so that you can feel large swoops of emotion from a conical instrument as opposed to the cylindrical-based trombone, which is extremely precise, but it tends to make the cylindrical instruments form into one wall of sound, and it’s hard to separate them out again.  I always wanted to play both in the quintet, and every time we played in Spain or England, where the halls are under-heated, you would spend the whole evening being flat.  You never could pick up an instrument that was warm and willing to play.  It was always uphill, and the whole idea of doubling got to be really old.

BD:   Is there any sense of changing amongst the five players... maybe trumpet players using cornets, or trombone players going from bass trombone to tenor trombone or even a smaller trombone, or using different sized tubas?

pilafian Pilafian:   This is very prevalent in our group.  If you’re going to sustain the interest of the audience with a homogenous-sounding group, it’s very important to make subtle changes among instrumental families.  For instance, I play euphonium and tuba because the color change is quite evident, as opposed to gradations of tubas which are a little closer together.  Rolf Smedvig will use six trumpets and a flugelhorn during the performance.  Our second trumpet player will use two trumpets, a flugelhorn, and a cornet.  When we go to all conical instruments, we have a very Russian-, or old German-type sound to the group.  The color changes are just enough, so you’ll have a sparkling high trumpet, and then you really can change a little bit on the audience.  That really helps to sustain them at the fateful two-thirds point of the concert, where they might be getting sleepy, and then all of sudden the sound does take a turn.

BD:   I trust you don’t ever turn it into a circus, though, with everybody playing a bunch of instruments?

Pilafian:   No, no.  It’s rare that you’ll see someone put down and pick up an instrument within one piece of music.  We try to color a piece or a composer by instrumentation.  So, it’s not much of a circus because if it was, it would stop by the time the group became an international touring group.  It just can’t be done.  You can’t carry that many instruments around.  Anyway, you develop close relationships with certain instruments that have multitudes of colors, and they become the ones that end up in the suitcase.  For instance, I play one horn all the time.  I might record on others, but I play concerts with one tuba all the time.  But this tuba is a chameleon.  It will play very light and very heavy.

BD:   [Mildly concerned]  Why would you then use something different in the recording studio?

Pilafian:   We usually record in very live halls, which tend to make the normal concert hall tuba sound extremely large.  If we were recording in a cathedral acoustic, I might use something smaller to retain some pitch and clarity on the recording.  The trumpets will sound absolutely marvelous, and all the high brass will sound absolutely fantastic in that acoustic.  So, we have to do some balancing of equipment, if not by microphone, then by instrument changes.  [In a hushed tone of voice]  But that’s a secret!  I shouldn’t be telling you things like that.  [Both laugh]

BD:   When you make a recording, do you try to utilize long takes, or are you part of the cut-and-splice school?

Pilafian:   No.  We are very fortunate.  First of all, I spent fifteen years in New York doing studio work, and found that it was probably the best finishing-school ever for what we’re doing now.  Our twenty-ninth record is on its way out in a few months, and the thing that taught us how to record was touring Europe.  Almost every other day was a radio production, which is very common there.  They have a performance that is copyrighted to their station, and no one else can have it unless they license it.  We would do three or four of those a week on a four-week tour, as opposed to once or twice a year in the very beginning.  So, the group learned microphone technique, and the group learned where the mic placements were, which produced what we call the organic sound as opposed to the produced sound.  We began to learn how to operate in that environment, which is not a concert hall environment.  It’s a different sound, and it’s a different way of playing.  Although the music making is the same, the thrust of the line is very different.  You try to finesse things, whereas you might try to project them in a large, long hall.  We had a lot of flying hours before the first disc was recorded, and we produced the first five records ourselves.  It is a very tedious process, but we learned so much.  The first thing we learned was that we wanted a producer [laughs] but the second thing we learned was what a producer does, and what’s important.  We learned to keep perspective in that, to keep our ears in the performance, and on the other side of the board, meaning in the control room.  So, by experience, we’ve learned that it’s long takes.  We do play long, long takes, and we play everything live and extensively that we’re going to record.  Then, the last few weeks before a recording session, we do what we call mock recording sessions.  Everyone goes in there and tries to do the whole concert in one take.  Nothing is harder than that.  That way, when you go in and have one or two specific pieces to do in one session, as opposed to all fifteen pieces in an hour and forty-five minutes, it feels like a luxury.  You might not make it on the first take.  It might be the second take, but it’s always in long form, because you don’t have to pace yourself like you did for an hour and forty-five minutes, or fifteen numbers.  That’s another secret that I’m divulging here today.  [More laughter]  But the more microphone-experience, the better for young groups, especially.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings that you have turned out as a group?

Pilafian:   Yes, most of them.  The only ones that sound not like the group are the ones that were studio-recorded in a multi-track situation.  It takes a great deal of skill to re-mix a chamber music group, because a chamber music group is all about mix.  They lay out this very acoustically balanced mix, and the microphones are too close to pick that up.  Then somebody has to sit there and electronically recreate the sound which was already happening in the room.

BD:   [Pointing out the obvious]  Sounds like a waste of effort.

Pilafian:   It is absolutely a waste of effort, and it’s something that’s not as common as it was in the early- and mid-
70s.  I remember doing one Boston Symphony session with (unnamed) record company, where there were fifty-three microphones in the room.  That was absolutely uncalled for.  The idea was to have the control, the post-recording do whatever you wanted with the music, which is exactly what they did.  If I could draw a cartoon of it, it would be a very lopsided sound.  So we learned that we wanted to use two microphones, placed where a normal pair of ears might be, or actually a lot higher than that, but far back.  We can still balance it.

BD:   You get the acoustic right in the hall, and then pick up that acoustic.

Pilafian:   Yes, exactly.  The longest thing that we do is search for the hall for a particular record.  The next thing coming up for us is a Christmas record, and it has to have a sparkling sounding hall.  We found it, but it’s going to take an hour a day to get to the hall from Boston.  Sometimes we will fly to the hall, like we did in the National Cathedral.  The National Cathedral had a very washy sound, but the choir area and organ area was beautiful.  So, we just got that area of the cathedral on the record, and it is spectacular.  So, that’s fun.  Finding a good hall is a ball anyway.  We go in and say, “Excuse me,” [mimics playing a fanfare], and say, “No, not this church,” and then we drive to the next place.  We spend a week just traveling all over the region.

BD:   [Naïvely]  When you find a good hall that you like to record in, why don’t you just stay there?

Pilafian:   [Laughs]  We’ve had a couple of incredible disasters.  The greatest hall we ever played in was bought and turned into a condominium in Brookline, Massachusetts.  It was a Russian Orthodox Church, so there were no pews.  We could set up anywhere we wanted, because they usually stand up at services.  We could balance this hall, and we really should have bought the place.  We did a baroque record there near the wall, so the entire acoustic was available to the microphone.  We did a Russian romantic record in the middle of the hall, so it cut off the amount of ring, and it was just beautiful.  Those two sessions, which happened in a week, were the last things that ever happened there.  It got sold right out from under us over the summer, and it was gone.  Then another church was carpeted and acoustically tiled, because the preacher in that particular church wanted his sermons to be more clearly heard by the congregation.  We booked the session, and we went in and played the very first note, and we knew either we didn
t warm up properly, or something was wrong.  Then we started realizing there were rugs everywhere, and saw the white acoustical tiles.  Things happen like that...  [Sighs]

*     *     *     *     *

pilafian BD:   We were talking earlier about the amount of breath that is needed.  Obviously, the tuba is going to need a lot more air than the trumpet.

Pilafian:   Truly.  It’s a matter of great concern to a tuba player, whereas the condition of the lip might be of great concern to the trumpet player.  As you go down the list of instruments, you will find more and more huffing and puffing going on.  I tend to warm up for concerts, after having my lip warmed up, by slowly breathing and trying to become one with this instrument, whereas the trumpet players are trying to achieve a certain feeling on their lips.  Some people call it the puff, and some people call it the bump.  As a matter of fact, one person who calls it the puff, when he calls it the bump that means he doesn’t feel good.  I never ask them anymore how they feel because I can’t put this all together, but they’re really thinking about how it feels, and tuba players are thinking about whether they have enough air to make it.

BD:   Are tuba players generally more relaxed, and trumpet players more neurotic?

Pilafian:   Yes.  When we toured Japan last time, I met the most amazing person.  He’s a doctor, and he’s convinced that there are acupressure points where a very large mouthpiece, like a tuba mouthpiece, sits.  These are right under the nose and right above the jaw, and if you keep pressing in a place like that, it actually causes you to relax.  [Laughs]  It also helps you avoid headaches and things like that.  He thinks that’s why the lower the instrument, the more calm the person is.  But of course, basking and bathing yourself in these low sounds all the time is not bad either.  [More laughter]

BD:   Take two aspirins and go play tuba for an hour.

Pilafian:   Sure.  Why not?  It works for me.  [Laughter continues]  But I also don’t turn purple when I play.  Just as a casual observer of trumpet players, they had better be careful.  I don’t just mean our trumpet players, but it looks like a lot of work to me.  On the other hand, if you ask any trumpet player, they’ll have paragraphs to tell you about tuba players.  One of the greatest trumpet players in the world is a Russian who’s now retired.  [I wish I had asked Pilafian at the time if he was speaking about Timofei Dokshizer.]  I played some real low note in a contemporary piece, and after the concert, all he wanted to know was, “What do you think about when you play that low note?”  I didn’t know what to say to him, but he said to me, “There’s only money in high notes.”  [Laughs]  I am the other side of the coin.  I worry about my low notes because it’s my career, so there were the two sides of the coin speaking to each other.

BD:   Do you get called on to do a lot of pedal tones in your work?

Pilafian:   Yes, I do.  The range of the Empire Brass, to many writers, is below the piano, and there’s a kind of tremolo that happens if the tuba should play the bottom A on a regular, normal size piano, and start to go lower.  There’s a shimmer that happens in the entire chord. Everyone sounds like there’s some kind of an effect going on.  That’s one thing.  The other thing is that technologically, tubas can actually play tones now where you can actually feel that they’re playing the note that they’re going for instead of many overtones above.  So, you can have some incredible pedal points.  You can create things that are really haunting.

BD:   Do they ever ask you to play something so low that you just hold the tuba away from you, and wave at the mouthpiece a little bit?

Pilafian:   [Laughs]  Yes, but I’m not going to discuss that because that’s how I play the last note of the last encore of our favorite concert.  I don’t want to hear someone else do this, but it sounds like one lip flapping in the breeze.  But there’s a lot of pioneering being done below middle C right now, below small c, even the octave away from it, because it was against the rules for so long.  Now there’s chord-stacking, like in Varèse’s Arcana, way down by great c, two ledger lines below the bass clef.  In your face, in your chair, everything starts moving when you’re involved in a chord that’s so lowly voiced.  This is an exciting time to be a tuba player!

BD:   Do you play just brass quintet literature, or are there times when you have quartets, or bring in a guest player or a vocalist?

Pilafian:   We have been doing a lot of collaborating lately.  Maybe it’s because after fifteen years we started looking for colors to include in the new concerts and new recordings.  The next recording will include harp.  Being a recording, we can include a harp, and it will work out.  Then there
s a lot of percussion, a lot of nice high sounds and plinks that could be added to the brass group.  We also have a few pieces for piano and quintet that work really nicely.  We’ve got a whole lot of pieces for orchestra and quintet, which is more of a concerto grosso, and we have several concerts that we do with larger ensembles of multiple brass players.  As far as when the Empire Brass Quintet plays, we tend to make a piece go from five to one, to back up to five again, rather than have a piece that’s only a duet... although more of that is going to happen in future years.  More of our contemporary concerts are going to include triple- and double-type pieces because some of the pieces are so hard, we really do have to give someone a rest, like after he’s run a hundred-yard dash.  It’s going to have to be paced in that way.

BD:   Playing a lot of new music that’s being written will overload the concert with contemporary music.  Do you try to balance it with baroque pieces and transcriptions?

Pilafian:   Exactly.  The biggest amount of time spent by the Empire Brass Quintet is about literature.  Everyone in the group arranges, and writes.  Last year we figured out that for every eleven things we rehearse, only one will hit the stage.  But there’s a constant commitment to research and development of material, because that’s the problem.  I’m sure when string quartets became popular, they became popular faster than the literature.  There’s this dangerous time when you’re worried about what we are going to play next.  When we arrive once again in a city where we’ve been two times, we ask ourselves what we are going to play the third time.  If we don’t stand in front of our career, we could be in serious trouble.  So, there’s a big commitment to listening constantly to things that might be transcribable.  One of the differences in our group, as opposed to other groups, is we’re very realistic about it.  There’s a lot of responsibility among the members to know if this piece will really work for brass.  That’s how things get thrown out.

BD:   Then how do you decide which pieces you will play, which pieces you’ll keep for fun, and which pieces you’ll throw in the trash?

Pilafian:   We do so much teaching that not too many pieces go in the trash, because most things always have a level somewhere educationally.  Even if it’s too hard for us, we’ll use it on students to make sure that they’re practicing.  [Both laugh]  What we’ll often do to get a fine performance of a piece will be to make a demonstration tape of our group playing it after rehearing it for a while, and then decide if it holds water or not.  That’s when the other ten pieces get thrown out.  But we have had some very, very fantastic fortune there.  We’re working really hard now on some Spanish literature of Joaquin Turina, and Isaac Albeniz.  Alicia de Larrocha could sit there and play it on piano, and even though we don’t sound like her, the piece really could work on brass.  It has the fire, and the smokiness.  The lower brass has the darkness of the Spanish grotto, and that’s a great thing.  Then we have a lot of things that we were sure were going to work, that don’t because they have fanfareish approaches.  Or, a string piece that really has a light touch to it sounds like it might be great if danced on by a French horn or trumpet, but it doesn’t work because it can’t be breathed properly, which is another big stopping point to a transcription or an arrangement.  If you can’t do it with the human breath, then it goes back to the dust bins.  That’s a very important thing for us.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a concert of yours?

Pilafian:   We’re very fortunate right now in the history of brass chamber music, in that they don’t know what to expect.  They’ve heard all kinds of craziness, so they go in with a spirit of adventure.  There’s no question about it.  The people sit there and they wait to see what’s going to happen.  That was not the case when we started out.  Some expected only contemporary music, and some expected only Baroque music.  That was what they thought was going to happen.
BD:   Lots of antiphonal Gabrieli?

Pilafian:   Yes, that kind of thing, because of some very successful early recordings, from around 1950 or 1960 of Gabrieli or Johann Pezel.  They decided that was the sound.  Now we’ve got more of a guided tour of what could happen, and it goes all the way into anything that is brass-connoted, like Harry James or Louis Armstrong.  That might be the way the concert ends, not as a rah-rah way of getting the audience to stand up, but as a tribute to these guys who are absolutely phenomenal musicians who took an instrument and pioneered on it.  When Louis Armstrong went to England, all the guys in the London Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic could play the notes he was playing, but they decided they had better get back to the drawing board because he wasn’t just an entertainer and jazz musician, he was an innovator on a brass instrument.  That was very important.

BD:   When the Empire Brass plays a concert, where is the balance between the entertainment and the artistic value?

Pilafian:   It really goes by the audience.  We really play first.  We don’t do as other groups do.  We don’t do choreography, and we don’t do joking around in-between the tunes.  We announce the pieces, and play.  As a matter of fact, lately we’ve been doing that even more because someone gave us a very old Sousa Band air-check tape.  There was no talking, and you could set your watch to the fact that there was four to five seconds in-between every song.  Basically, what he did was keep playing until they saluted.  He really was there to play music, and out of a deep respect for what that tape sounded like, we started talking even less lately.  So, depending on where we are, the entertainment is all about how the concert will unfold.  We either go two serious halves, or we’ll play a serious half
always the first halfbut the second half might be light, because some of our work is missionary work.  We play places where you will never be unless you look down from fifty-three thousand feet with binoculars.  You will never see the towns that we play because we travel mostly on the ground.  If we’re playing in Chicago and we’re playing in Seattle, we’ll go right across the top of the U.S. and play everywhere in between.  [With mock amazement] Yes, there is something in between, and they are really nice people to play for, but they really need to be brought to the concert.  They’ve got to be reeled in.

BD:   In the back of your folders, do you have a bunch of novelty numbers to use if you feel the audience wants them?

Pilafian:   Yes, just as the Sousa Band did.  We have music if we need it, but it’s getting used less and less now because a lot of people collect the classical sounds of the Empire Brass, and they want to hear what they wake up to.  You’ll hear more brass music on the Sun-Up Show on radio than anywhere else.  It’s good to wake up to, and they want to hear what they’re waking up to.  That’s nice, and it’s good for us.

BD:   When you’re playing a concert, do you ever feel that you’re competing against those records?

Pilafian:   No, and I’ll tell you why, because we’re like an auto racing team.  We’re better than we were, and the reason we’re better than we were is we’re working harder, and we have to be more efficient at what we do in terms of being better brass players.  There isn’t a second that we’re not improving, and because all these composers are writing for us, they’re writing harder stuff.  Some of them even come to concerts, and they hear us warm up, and then the warm up shows up in their next piece.  Something that you’re working on shows up in the piece even if you didn’t mean for him to hear it.  So, the constant push forward has made us eclipse a lot of those records, frankly.  As a matter of fact, we should remake the first record this year because we can hold the notes out longer.  [Both laugh]  We like to play older music, and at the end of the piece we like to say (as they do on Sesame Street), “This piece was brought to you by the key of D Major.”  We couldn’t do that twelve years ago, we really couldn’t.  It’s really fun to have more ability and more fluidity in the group, too.  There’s less looking around, and there’s more ESP when groups get older, and that makes it a lot nicer to play together.  At first it’s trust, and then it goes beyond trust.  It’s just there.  It’s just doing.  Somebody takes a breath and you start playing.  There’s a lot of funny things that happen in rehearsals...  Somebody will get ready to sneeze, and they go,
Ahhh... and everybody will play the first chord except the guy who sneezes.  That’s how keyed-in everyone is at this point in our history.

BD:   You’ve got five guys.  Is there any one leader, or are there five leaders?

Pilafian:   No, we go old-school.  The first violinist is an unnamed leader, and a very important figure in the group.  That is very good for the group, and very good for the first violinist, which in our case is the first trumpet player.  If he knows that his people are behind him, then he leads and breathes the pieces into beginning and end with confidence.  He knows everyone’s keyed-in on him.  He has to believe in what he’s doing, and we do, too.  But he must believe in what he’s doing because he’s going to start and stop.  He needs to feel in his body where it starts and stops, and it’s bad for someone to tell him where that is.  He really should be the one that feels that.  In terms of musical ideas, in rehearsal there’s a lot of listening to tapes of the rehearsals.  When we rehearse, there’s not a lot of talk.  We just lay out versions, usually dictated by Rolf.  We listen to the tape, and then we discuss things between cities after everyone’s either heard the recording alone, or we’ve heard it all together in a speaker-type situation.  Then the fights start.  We say,
“Okay, the next time we’ll do it your way, and then your way, and then we’ll decide.  There are five people in a brass quintet, which makes it a lot easier than a string quartet to come up with versions, because it never ties.  That’s a great thing.  You can’t have a tie with five, and that’s a really bright thing.  Whoever thought about the fact that we should be five instead of four is a smart person, because that’s how you get your solid versions by getting three people going in one direction.

BD:   Why five, and not six or seven?

Pilafian:   There have been six, and there’s been seven, too.  Six was standard until around the
30s.  For some reason, the euphonium, which is a beautiful instrument, was dropped.  It has a wonderful sound.  Some great criticit might’ve been Andrew Porterwrote that it sounded like virgin olive oil pouring out of a can from about four feet up.  It really is the most beautiful of all the brass sounds, but has an incredibly bad problem, which is the intonation is very difficult.  It is still here, and it still makes beautiful sounds, but it was hard to do a daily chamber music diet with that instrument in the group.  It’s too bad, because I love playing that instrument.  It’s beautiful, but it’s hard to play.  So it became five, and five standardized itself, probably because of the string orchestra instrumentation.  It became very normal for people to hear two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass.  The depth of the bottom really is nice on brass.  You can really make what people connote as brass music, which is something noble.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But the string quartet doesn’t have the bass.

Pilafian:   Right.  Until you pull out the Trout [Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 by Schubert for piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass], or things like that, you don’t have the bass player on the bottom.  But the color changes are such on string instruments that you’d swear there was one.  There’s such depth to a good quartet.  When a viola player has a heavy sound on the bottom, it sounds like there might be five.  That’s something we’re very jealous of, but we respect it greatly.

BD:   This changes when you have string quintets.  Does that mean two violins, two violas and cello, or two violins, viola and two cellos?  That will change the weight of the sound completely.

Pilafian:   Right.  You’ve been right with those combinations, and they are not standardized when it comes to the number five.  They can make more mid-range, or they can make more bottom out of their quintet, and it’s really interesting to hear them as five.  But the funny thing is, as soon as they hit five, people have to play their typecast role more.  Second violins become just second violins.  They don’t get to dip down and get some smoke out of their low tones, and that violist is definitely stuck in the middle, and is unhappy, and can’t wait for the fifth person to get out of there.  [Both laugh]  In a brass group, it seems a very, very flexible way of writing.  Everybody has a lot to do as five, and clearly four people are over-extended endurance-wise.  You need five to be able to cut down to three to give two people a rest, and then go back up to five.  You need to constantly pace the writing, and that’s not the case in strings.  It should be, but it doesn’t have to be.  In brass it has to be, to make a sustained piece of music.  It has to come on and off of the lips throughout a piece.


BD:   Now a woodwind quintet has a brass instrument in it, the French horn.

Pilafian:   Yes.  It’s too bad our horn player isn’t here so that you can get into that argument.  He plays in a brass quintet, and because we’re so busy almost all the time, when he plays in a woodwind quintet he’s really taken by the difference.  It’s a much more air-oriented, or sound-production-oriented thing than our environment.  There’s much more articulation and clarity at the absolute place where the lips touch a mouthpiece.  In other words, the absolute pinpoint of the sound is what important.

BD:   Sure, because in the woodwinds you have the reads.

Pilafian:   Right, and you want to be a reed.  You want to be one of them.

BD:   So, the horn is an instrument which can be used in either group?

Pilafian:   Absolutely, and it’s used as such in the orchestra.  It’s used in our writing to be the other solo sound.  It takes the middle range.  Frankly, there’s a lot of trombone writing, and there’s a lot of writing for everyone, but the French horn is able to colorize a piece of music in a certain way, because people have heard that horn in so many different contexts
everything from a beautiful Tchaikovsky solo, and a beautiful Mozart solo, to the movies.  For every range of emotion, there’s been a French horn there when people have heard it.  Its a very lucky instrument in that way.  People come to it with great admiration, as opposed to my instrument...  [Much laughter]  They come to the tuba with a big smile on their face... and that’s nice, too.  For me, it’s great because I’m a people person, and I wouldnt give it up.  But the French horn is really looked up to.  People remember nice things when they hear it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me about the various kinds of mutes that you use.  The trumpets wind up with a whole bunch of different mutes, and the horn has a couple of different mutes, but what about the tuba?

Pilafian:   The tuba has a couple of different mutes now.  That has grown because composers want to make their pieces interesting in terms of color.  Just as we were saying about changing instruments in the course of a concert, changing mutes during a piece makes nice sounds.  It turns beautiful into nasty, and turns nasty into covered.  There are many colorizations that can happen, and it’s very, very important to a contemporary composer to know exactly what kind of mutes to use.  More and more of them use the specific name of a specific mute, so they’ve really done their homework, and it precipitates people to carry around bags full of these things.

BD:   [Meaning no dis-respect]  Your mute looks like a big wastebasket...

Pilafian:   [Laughs]  Right.  Because I play one tuba, I found one mute that makes about five different sounds, depending on where it is in or out of the tuba, which is fantastic.  It also fits under the seat of an airplane, which is very important.  We played a piece by Gunther Schuller with the Zurich Tonhalle-Orchester, and needed a very tight, very nasal sounding mute.  We’ll let it drop all the way into the tuba.  Then we play a piece by Ira Taxin where it’s like an offstage sound.  It’s a covered sound rather than nasal, and the same mute will also do that.  So, it’s a good thing for me, the traveler, but there are many tuba players who have four or five mutes with them.
BD:   Have they built any kind of adjustable mute?

Pilafian:   They build the adjustable mutes, but there are problems with them.  The first thing is that they are noisy.  You can hear the squeaking and squawking while you’re adjusting it to make the next sound.  The other thing is it’s hard to change them quickly, and that’s what mute changes are all about in today’s music.  There might be one color, and then you might be playing another color, and you don’t have time to adjust.  Stockhausen wrote a piece for solo trumpet, and it has a mute-belt written into it, so that you actually sit there with what a hardware store would sell to put hammers and screwdrivers in.  You have five or six mutes across your belly.  So, you sit there and play, and then you pull these things out of the belt because the changes are that rapid.

BD:   Is there any correlation between what you’re going through with mutes now, and what they were going through with changing of slides 150 or 200 years ago, that eventually led to the use of valves?

Pilafian:   Yes, there will be an adjustable mute, and I’ll give you a scoop right here.  I’m still floored by this.  We just played with the Detroit Symphony, and I met a man who is a car designer for one of the major car manufacturers.  He’s one of these people that is brilliant enough so that he does his job and then he likes to tinker.  He’s convinced that he can make the valves on a valved-brass instrument work electronically, so that they would be just touchpads.  In other words, if your finger goes down, your valve went down instead of having to push them down.  In the case of a tuba, that’s a very heavily spring-loaded valve, and you have to be almost a weightlifter in your right hand.  This is something you must do, and he thinks he can make an adjustable mute that would change with a touch pad on the side of the instrument.  It would become everything from the nasal, to the covered, to the absolute whisper mute which makes the sound of distant trumpets, all at the touch of a button.  This could be the plug-in instrument of the future.  Cords would be hanging from instruments, but that’s what he’s tinkering with right now.  That’s amazing to me, and maybe it’s the next thing, from cords electrically hooked up to our instruments.  Hopefully this will not hamper the production of sound, because that’s what makes people like them.  They are created by means of the breath, and people really like to see and hear and feel this music being breathed.  It makes them relax in their chair, and breathe deeper because the music’s getting breathed.

BD:   You mentioned the spring-loaded valves for your right hand needing great strength.

Pilafian:   That’s the bane of your existence.  You sit there, and you work these things, and then your hand starts to get tired when you’re only halfway through the concert.  So, you go back and squeeze the tennis ball, and hope that you can get through it, but it’s really hard.

BD:   Are there some tubas are designed differently, so that they’re with the other hand?

Pilafian:   That was all born of the opera experience, where the tuba would be on the right side of the conductor, and the bell had to stick out of the pit one way, as opposed to being under the overhang, which was the stage.  If the valves were on the top, you could be blowing out into the audience on the left side of conductor.  So, its design was to keep you from blowing your brains out and not being heard from the opera pit.

BD:   I’ve never seen one, but what’s a double-bell euphonium?

Pilafian:   It’s a sound change, varying on one instrument.  Everything goes along the same until it’s time for it to go to the bell, which is the place where the sound leaves the instrument.  They had one big, robust sounding bell with a very large throat, which sounds like a baritone, or even a bass-baritone.  Then, the other bell is extremely small, with a taper.  The actual bell itself is less than half the size of the regular one, and it’s on the opposite side of the instrument.  By hitting the special valve, the entire sound goes through this small thing, and it sounds much like a trombone.  It’s really scary.  There were pieces written for duos, where the guy plays a duet with himself.  But he never does the ultimate of being both at once, though, because it was constructed so if the valve’s down, one bell is used, and when it’s up, the other bell’s used.

BD:   One or the other, but not both.

Pilafian:   Right.  When I was a kid, I used to go to band concerts, and I waited and waited for these two things to go off at the same time... and it never happened.  They should have rigged it up, even as a joke.  It would have been unbelievable if they had done that.


BD:   Have you ever played some of the old army instruments where the bell points behind you?

Pilafian:   Yes.  I was a student of Frederick Fennell, who made records with these over-the-shoulder horns.  They were made to be played by the cavalry on horseback.  Because the woodwinds were forward facing, and the brass were facing backward, if you wanted to get the sound on one or two microphones, we had to use rearview mirrors on all the music stands!  It was wild.  We went down to an auto parts store the day before to get those mirrors!

BD:   How many valves are on your tuba?

Pilafian:   There are five.  It’s a C tuba that will go down to a B-flat when pressing the fifth valve.  All this is for pitch.  It’s not for range so much as to get the pitch centered.  When a group is as small as five, the bottom instrument really creates the tonal center, and it has to be the right intervals.  If it means pulling slides and pushing extra valves, it’s extremely important when you get that few people up on stage.

BD:   Does your trombone player have a trigger?

Pilafian:   Yes, he does.  Two triggers would get him down in the extreme bass trombone range.  We don’t really use that, but he does use the regular bass trombone range.  The same instrument will go all the way up to the top of that register, and that’s a very important thing.  It sounds like you’re really getting threatening when the trombone and tuba both descend to their lowest register.  There’s a huge spectrum of sound in a brass quintet when you spread it five and six octaves apart from each other.  That’s something which surprises people.  I don’t think a lot of people know what a tuba can do when they come to the concert, but they know by the time they walk out.  There’s a lot more low notes there than they think there’s going to be.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Where’s music going today?

Pilafian:   For me, music is going in some kind of a meltdown of styles.  We keep catching this as we travel around the world.  There’s more mixed programming on the media and at concerts because pieces are getting less and less easy to define.  The thing that’s happening in classical music is that there’s a trend in our instruments that’s capable of making just about any kind of music happen.  So, we’re not limited as a brass quintet.  When you take these musicians and stick them in an orchestra, all of a sudden anything’s possible.  Why not have one of the trumpet players be a jazz player?  Why not have part of the piece be improvised and part be structured?  These are all things that people that didn’t go to school for.  They do now, but they didn’t way back then.  So there seems to be more demands on the players, and the composers seem to be taking advantage of that.  We’re going to pull more of the American sound, like where Aaron Copland took American folk music and used it as language.  The folk music is a little bit jazz-oriented because we’re more than eighty years beyond the birth of that.  So, it’s becoming part of our folk culture, and that’s become part of our classical music.  We know there are older pieces like that, too, but they are less written-out, and that really will be jazz within a structure.  As far as what music’s role is, it seems to be different, too.  In Russia, where we were the whole month of September, it was an absolute staple because they need it.  There’s not that much on TV, and a live concert to them is really important.  It takes them away, and gives them two hours of beautiful thoughts and feelings.  That feeling is gaining more and more in our country now, and as we tour around all these places it’s more important for them to forget everything by sitting in a concert.  I felt more that we were of an option in the
70s than I do in the late 80s.  We’re getting to be much more of something that should happen in the course of someone’s normal week.  I very strongly feel that music is going to be as important as food and shelter, otherwise it would’ve gone away by now.  It would have been declared an option, and it’s simply not an option.

BD:   Thank you for putting so much effort into your life and music.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Joan Tower, Robert Linn, and Carlos Surinach.]

Pilafian:   It’s easy when it’s your hobby.  The whole Empire Brass is like that.  Doing your hobby for a living makes the clock stop ticking.  It’s no longer a time-oriented thing.  Usually, quality will prevail when you spend enough time trying to figure it out, and not look at the clock.

BD:    What do you do when you’re not doing music?

Pilafian:   There are five of us in the band, and everyone does a lot of exercise.  It’s good for the job, but it’s also just good.  We feel better because we’re moving around all the time.  Two of us fish, so there’s a lot of equipment in suitcases in case there should be some good place to fish.  There are people in the group that are metalsmiths, but we all do things that are totally far from music, really fun things to do to take your head away.  That’s really important.  When you travel and meet other musicians, it’s funny to see what their hobbies are.  One man, who was a really fine classical pianist, raises pheasants.  He handed us a smoked one when the concert was over.  [Both laugh]  My favorite tuba player is a guy in California, a really brilliant tuba player named Roger Bobo.  He plays in the L.A. Philharmonic, and he raises peacocks and Guinea hens.  When the concert’s over, he’ll go to the supermarket to buy a big bag of cashews to give them a dessert, and watch them go berserk because its cashew nuts.  He couldn’t tell you what happened at the concert after a half hour being with his pheasants.  It’s wonderful.

BD:   Have you met Arnold Jacobs [Principal Tuba of the Chicago Symphony 1944-88]?

Pilafian:   Oh yes, and I’ve studied with him.  He’s wonderful.  I don’t know what he does for a hobby because too many people are trying to study with him all the time.  I think his hobby is helping people!  Actually, he’s a wonderful teacher.

BD:   What’s going to happen when he retires and there’s a vacancy in the orchestra?

Pilafian:   It’s yet to be resolved.  It’s going to be months before they decide.  It’s a hard decision, and I can understand.  I’m doing the job that I want to be doing, and I feel really satisfied with that, but there are some fantastic players that are aspiring to be the tuba player in this orchestra, because, frankly, it is the ultimate orchestral tuba job in the world.  To sift out who is that person is going to be is a very responsible thing for the orchestra to have to do.

BD:   How many people have auditioned for that job?

Pilafian:    I don’t know because I’m not involved in the audition, but I will say from recent history that it’s over a hundred.  We’re talking worldwide, too.  People fly for long miles to come from Europe
and further than Europeto see if they could get this job.  All their favorite records were with Arnold Jacobs, so when you’re a kid you grow up wanting to be there.  A few of us got sidetracked into this chamber music thing, which is also very satisfying, but the remainder really keep that dream alive, and that’s what they’re getting a chance to do now.  Now that I think about it, I bet there’s at least one hundred and fifty people that have that dream that wouldn’t miss this chance to try for it.

BD:   And any one of these one hundred and fifty could do the job?

Pilafian:   No question, but we’re talking about the Chicago Symphony, which has such a level of refinement and such a oneness in the way that the brass section plays, that they’re waiting for all the lights to go off in a unanimous way.  Having done auditions for my group, you just have to wait until someone gets in there and hits the musical equivalent of a grand slam.  If you wait long enough, somebody will do that.  I can’t wait to find out who will make it into the Chicago Symphony.  [Laughs]  I have a lot of money riding on this...  [The position would eventually be won by Gene Pokorny, who is still there more than thirty years later!]

BD:   When someone leaves the Empire Brass, you’ve got to fill a vacancy right away.  What do you look for in a new player?

Pilafian:   We usually have a lot of advance warning actually, but it’s very different than an orchestra audition.  There is a commercial for the marines (or somebody) which declares, “It’s not a job, it’s a way of life!”  First, we listen to people by tape, and then we listen to them live.  Then we start bringing finalists out with us, to see if we can play with them and can live with them.  We just keep going until the lights go off.  One time we almost missed the boat.  We were leaving for Russia, and we thought we had the right person.  We were settling in, and we played an engagement which included five extra brass players for some antiphonal music.  From his first note, everybody said,
“What are you doing tomorrow morning at nine o’clock?  Why don’t you come to Boston with us and audition for the group?  There’s no preparation for a thing like this.  We teach someone how to shoot the gun once they get the job, because it’s a rather unique way of forming sound.  So, he had all the goods, and his first concert was in Leningrad. It was on State Soviet Television, and the audience was estimated at one-hundred-twenty-five million people.  He was cool as a cucumber... until we told him after the concert that it was on TV, and that the audience was so huge.  [Laughs]  Anyway, this year has been wonderful watching him assimilate himself into our group.  It’s not easy to change.  We feared it more than anything else in our history, but then we realized that every time we changed a person, we got not only better, but we learned new rehearsal techniques.  The new guy’s a Philadelphia School person, and we’ve never had one of them.  We have an Eastman School person, and we started out totally Boston-trained.  Every time somebody else comes from this Great American School of Brass Playing, we get more knowledge.  So, we don’t fear it at all anymore, although I’d love for this band to stay together because not only is it the best playing group that we’ve ever had, it gets along, and that’s not easy.  We ran into a famous trio on an airplane, and they were sitting in three different parts of the jumbo jet.  We don’t do that.  We really get along.

BD:   You’ve only changed one member at a time.  You’ve never had to change two at once?

Pilafian:   No, I think that would be fatal.  When you have twenty percent sound change, you have to be real careful for months before it happens.

BD:   How many changes have you had?  There was the original group, and then...

Pilafian:   Rolf Smedvig and I have been here the whole time.  Scott Hartman’s been here five years.  Although he’s the eighth trombonist we’ve had, the only clue to why is it’s very hard for them to travel with peace of mind with that instrument.  They don’t like to check it.  The slide is probably the most delicate of all the brass constructions.  It has to be exactly parallel, so it’s a maddening thing for them.  I noticed that they don’t travel as calmly as we do, because they don’t know what’s going to happen when they get there.  Invariably, when we get to baggage claim, they’re taking the thing out and moving the slide to see if it works.  
The trombone is so long that things happen to it anyway.  It’s just a nice thing to bend.  It looks good to the baggage handlers.  [Laughs]  As matter of fact, as we speak he’s in Chicago at a shop.  They’re trying to make a trombone that breaks down more than they usually do, so that it’s shorter and easier to take onto the actual airplane without trouble from people.  Marty is our second French horn player.  Three seasons ago, he and David Ohanian swapped jobs.  Dave went to the Canadian Brass, and Marty came from the Canadian Brass to us.

pilafian BD:   Why?

Pilafian:   It was a lifestyle thing.  Our format fits him, and Dave fit the Canadian format, which is more of a talk-and-show type of thing.  It really fit his personality beautifully, and Marty really liked to play primarily.  He also had two left feet.  I remember seeing them, and I thought that guy doesn’t dance as well as the other ones do, and sure enough, two or three years later he was with us.  But that was one of the few job-swaps in brass chamber music history.  It’s incredible that it worked out the way it did.  Jeff Curnow is our third trumpet player in sixteen years.  We haven’t changed a whole lot.  We’ve been very lucky.  [Note that a chart of all the players is with the interview of Rolf Smedvig, along with several photos of the Empire Brass.]

BD:   I know there is a slide trumpet.  Is there any such thing as a slide tuba?

Pilafian:   There’s a contrabass trombone, which is the range of a tuba, but it’s a trombone by construction, and it sounds like heavy construction work.  There is a family of trombones from bottom to top.  The tenor is the one we all think of as the trombone, and the alto is used a lot around the world.  The bass trombone is actually a tenor trombone with constructions, so it’s a hybrid, but it is a bass trombone.  The contrabass trombone is a really unwieldy beast, and there’s a reason why you don’t run into it very often.  [Laughs]  As a matter of fact, the tuba that we think of in the United States is the contrabass tuba.  If you go to Germany or England, you’ll see more bass tubas, meaning Fs and E-flat tubas.  John Philip Sousa had three sub-contrabass tubas made that were an octave lower than the one that you usually see.  They were seven feet tall and weighed over two hundred pounds.  They were to add another octave to the Sousa band, to make it sound like the Mighty Wurlitzer.  The only one left that’s in playing condition is owned by Harvard University [shown in photo at right].  I play it once a year with deep, religious conviction to the fact that I could be dead if I don’t respect this thing.  
[Continuing to laugh throughout this story]  It’s like a very large animal in that it has to be watched at all times.  You take the largest breath you ever took in your life between every single note, and it still doesn’t work out sometimes.  The mouthpiece almost goes over your nose.  I feel like Lloyd Bridges getting ready to dive into Sea Hunt when I play this thing.  It’s a hyperventilation paradise.

BD:   Do you travel with several mouthpieces?

Pilafian:    Yes, I do.  It’s funny that Chicago is also the mouthpiece capital of the world.  I used to carry one, and then I lost it once.  Somebody grabbed it as a souvenir, and I’ll never do that again.  I’ll have as many as six with me, all peppered around my luggage.

BD:   Are they six identical mouthpieces, or is the cup different?

Pilafian:   Usually I have three and three.  There are two types of tubas
the high tubas and the low tubas, or the bass tubas and the contrabass tubas.  I’ll carry three of the same kind to play the contrabass, and three to play the bass tuba.  But it’s something that we all have to think about.  It’s a very personal thing.  It fits your lips and teeth exactly.  It makes you very happy, and when you don’t have it you are absolutely disoriented.  For the people in the Duke Ellington Band and the Count Basie Band of old, there was a great deal of mysticism about the mouthpiece, because people thought that’s where the high notes came from, and that’s where the low notes and the fast notes came from.  Whenever they took a break, they would always unscrew the mouthpiece and put it in their chest pocket, so no one would ever see it.  No one would ever, ever get a good look at it.  It was an absolute fact that no one ever shared that information with each other.  The man who made all the money was named Vincent Bach.  He was the great American brass mouthpiece maker.  His motto was, “If you want the rope to hang yourself, I’ll sell it to you.”  He made every type and shape of mouthpiece available because players wanted to try it.

BD:   I had a friend who was so concerned about the cup that he had the rim unscrewed and he had all kinds of different cups.

Pilafian:   Right, that too.  Our French horn player has that kind of a mouthpiece, where he has one rim and two hundred cups.  I’m not kidding, he has two hundred cups.  He jingles when he walks into a concert.  It’s incredible.  One time we hid the bag of mouthpieces, and I thought he was going to die trying to figure out where this thing went.  I was going to go longer, but I only made it a minute before I had to give him the bag back.  It was sad to see a thirty-six-year-old crying like that...  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you ever use Schilke trumpets in your group?

Pilafian:   We actually have an instrument sponsor, so we all play Vincent Bach instruments, Bach Stradivarius instruments.  But there is one Schilke...  [More laughter]  As you go around the world now, you can’t find an orchestra without a Chicago instrument.  Schilke is incredibly popular, as is Bach, which is made two hours from here in Elkhart Indiana.  Besides those, there are micro-makers.  You see Steve Lewis’s French horns, and Dave Monette’s trumpets played by people like Herseth in the Chicago Symphony.  [Adolph Herseth (1921-2013) was Principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony from 1948-2001.]  The greatest orchestral trumpet player uses a trumpet made in a loft here in Chicago.  When somebody pulls that off, that’s making world history.  You’ve got these micro-makers with their ultimate success, and then they are fighting to stay micro.  I have a tuba that was homemade by a brass repairman here.  There is such a tradition here of thought and research put into what could happen with a brass instrument, that all good stuff comes from here.  We were in Japan, and we saw a whole Chicago horn section.  Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.

BD:   Hooray for us!

Pilafian:   Yes, good for you.

BD:   Thanks for stopping by.  I appreciate it.  I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot, too.

Pilafian:   Yes, it was fun talking.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 9, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three weeks later, and twice again in 1990.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to Adam Gallant for his help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.