Solo for F and B flat Tubas

Melvyn Poore: Performing the Solo for Tuba

John Cage, Solo for F and B flat Tubas (page 109)
Melvyn Poore


In the performance history of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, the Solo for Tuba is perhaps most famous for its role in the premiere, due to the tubist, Don Butterfield, playing an excerpt from the Rite of Spring (1913) during the performance. Like the trombonist in the premiere, Frank Rehak, Butterfield was a musician who worked as a jazz performer (having played with Dizzie Gillespie and Charles Mingus, among others) and a studio musician. Butterfield has been described as ‘one of the first modern jazz players who, rather than simply marking out the bass line, rediscovered the possibility of bringing to the instrument a facility akin to that of a trumpeter’ (Ostransky, 2003). And, while he seems to have made the most disruptive contribution to the premiere, it doesn’t seem to have been particularly detrimental to his relationship with Cage, as he performed in subsequent performances of the Concert and some of Cage’s other pieces in later years, for example, Theatre Piece (1960).

The tuba part was performed in several performances of the Concert, including its second performance 10 days after the premiere (which included the premiere performance of Solo for Voice I, sung by Arline Carmen) at the Village Vanguard in New York (with the instrumental line-up of piano, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and tuba) and at Tudorfest in 1964, which included Pauline Oliveros as tubist). However, as a solo piece in its own right, the Solo for Tuba has received less attention, with no commercial recordings having been made. The part itself is the sparsest of all the Solos, with the lowest total number of sounds, and the lowest average number of sounds per page. Moreover, it is one of the woodwind and brass parts with the fewest unique instructions for specific sounds (in contrast to the Solo for Clarinet or the Solo for Trombone, for instance.

The tubas

Like several of the other woodwind and brass parts, the Solo for Tuba requires the player to switch between instruments: an F and B flat tuba, though, unlike the other parts, only one change is required, from F tuba to B flat tuba, on page 110, meaning that the B flat tuba is used for the most part. Tubist Jack Adler-McKean observed to the research team that this is ‘an extremely unusual level of specificity that few composers have gone to before or since.’ These instruments represent the widest possible range in pitch: F is the smallest bass tuba and B flat is the largest contrabass tuba (with thanks also to Adler-McKean for this observation). Poore chose to use an F and an E flat tuba for the B flat part, as he didn’t possess a B flat tuba.


Although Cage doesn’t provide a clef for the Solo for Tuba, it would usually be read in the bass clef.


In addition to the use of different sized noteheads, which are indicative of either dynamics or durations of a sound, or both, the majority of sounds have dynamics assigned to them and the Solo for Tuba, in common with the flute, bassoon/saxophone and other brass parts, is overwhelmingly biased towards crescendos and combinations of dynamics, these latter being a ‘combination of two or more’ crescendos and diminuendos. The instructions for the tuba part, like those for the trumpet, add ‘The cresc. or the combination sign may be interpreted as a tone without attack (especially when soft in amplitude).’ The player is free to choose the ‘intensity and duration’ of these, and the overriding character, then, is one of change and improvisation with respect to dynamics throughout the Solo.


John Cage, Solo for Tuba, p. 119 line 5
John Cage, Solo for Tuba, p. 119 line 5.

The tuba part is one of the least specific parts in terms of articulation, with no instructions for how the notes should be attacked. However, like all of the woodwind and brass parts, flutter tongue is required, and Cage is particularly specific in his approach to the technique in this particular case. In interview, Poore demonstrates the different effects of flutter tongue in the tuba’s different registers. Although not mentioned in the instructions, Cage also includes directions for flutter tongue without the mouthpiece in the part (e.g., p. 120, line 1), which creates a breathy, pitch-less flutter tongue sound, and on one occasion for flutter tongue with singing (p. 119, line 5). Because the direction was used with a C♯3, Poore pitched his singing at C♯ too. These flutter tongue indications are unique to the tuba part.

Double and triple tonguing are used in all of the woodwind and brass parts apart from the Solo for Clarinet. Each part includes an additional specification, with the wording usually varying slightly from part to part. The Solo for Tuba and the Solo for Trumpet state: ‘These appear alone or with a curve meaning a sustained tone before or after the tonguing as indicated. Indications of speed or change of speed accompany the tonguing signs and trills’.


Sliding tones and microtonal slides

Sliding tones appear in all of the instrumental parts. In the tuba part, the instruction is the same as all of the other parts (‘Curves following notes are sliding tones’) but the word ‘gliss.’ is omitted. The tuba has relatively few sliding tones, and the smallest proportion of sliding tones in this part than any of the other Solos. In addition, sliding tones are only assigned to pitches, rather than to noises, as they are in some of the other parts.

A similar technique to ‘sliding tones’ is the ‘microtonal slide’, which is used in all of the woodwind and brass parts. Cage writes: ‘An arrow going up means to slightly sharpen the tone by use of the lip, arrow going down to slightly flatten the tone as it continues (microtonal slides without ½ valve). Arrows also go up and down and down and up indicating microtonal curves.’


Each of the brass parts has a slightly different instruction for the use of vibrato. The Solo for Tuba is the only non-string part to include the instruction: ‘All tones are to be played without vibrato unless accompanied by the indication, ‘vib.’. The instruction to play non-vibrato as default is somewhat superfluous, since the conventional sound for orchestral performance would be non-vibrato anyway. This approach perhaps reflects Don Butterfield’s experience as a jazz musician, Unlike the trombone part, the method of vibrato isn’t specified in the tuba part.

Other techniques

‘Spit valve open’

John Cage, Solo for Tuba, p. 109 line 3
John Cage, Solo for Tuba, p. 109 line 3.

The ‘Spit valve open’ technique is used in all of the brass parts, and is indicated by ‘SP’. In the tuba part, there is one instance of the ‘Spit valve open’ being used in combination with a noise (p. 109, line 3), but interestingly, this is also a pitched sound (a pedal note).  Opening the spit valve, or water key, destabilises the sound, particularly if water has accumulated underneath the key. The strength of the sound will vary depending on the pitch of the sound and the amount of water under the key. For Poore, since the water key is attached to the first valve of his E flat tuba, this meant that the valve key had to be depressed for the sound to be heard, which affected his choice of pitches.


Cage indicates the half-valve instruction with ‘1/2 V.’ in the tuba and trumpet parts. This technique reduces the resonance of the instrument and has a similar effect on the timbre as removing the slides.

Slide removal

Cage writes: ‘A dotted line below a note accompanied by a number means to open or remove one of the three slides. The player may number the slides in any order.’ Removing the slides distorts the sound dramatically. While Cage suggests that the slides can be numbered in any order (even though the second slide does not feature among those to be removed in the part), Adler-McKean pointed out that his original numbers actually correspond exactly to the pitch that is notated:

Cage actually notates the valve slide removals carefully, as all the pitches associated with a valve slide removal will need that valve to be played: C♯ requires the third valve on F tuba, E♭ requires the first valve on F tuba, G♭ requires the third valve on B flat tuba, E♭ requires first valve on the B flat tuba. The E♮ on the last page does not necessarily require the first valve on B flat tuba, but it’s such a high harmonic that is can also easily be played in combination with the first valve.

Poore has four slides on his E flat tuba, and didn’t necessarily number them consistently or predetermine their numbering before performance. Given his choice of instrument, removing the slides affected his approach to fingering, as removing a slide with an ‘open’ fingering (i.e., no valves depressed) would not have any effect. Other players, however, might decide to keep the fingering the same regardless of the sonic outcome, and treat the removal of the slide as a theatrical gesture.


Like all of the instrumental parts, Cage suggests noises to be played where stemmed notes below the stave are indicated, but in the case of the tuba part, he doesn’t suggest that the player can exchange these noises for noises of their own choice (as he does for all of the other woodwind and brass parts, apart from the Solo for Clarinet). This makes the tuba part the most specific of the brass parts in terms of noises.


Like all of the woodwind and brass parts, the tuba part includes an instruction for mouthpiece sounds.

Shouts or barks

All of the brass parts include the instruction to shout or bark into or through the instrument, and the tuba and trumpet parts include the line ‘with any accompanying pitches’. Poore chose to make a barking sound while maintaining his embouchure on the mouthpiece.


The instruction for ‘rips’ appears in all of the brass parts, with the tuba and trumpet parts providing the additional explanatory comment ‘rapid overtone series up or down or both’. This would be a familiar technique to a musician such as Butterfield. Toshi Ichiyanagi wrote to Cage about the instruction in 1961, asking if it meant ‘rest in peace’! (Toshi Ichiyanagi to John Cage, 13 August 1961 (source:  John Cage Collection)). Poore chose to play the rips in an ascending direction only.

Valve clatter

The ‘valve clatter’ instruction appears in the tuba and the trumpet parts only. On the tuba, the sound of this effect is dependent on the model of tuba that is used. Poore's F tuba has a rotary valve design, and so the effect is subtler than on his E flat tuba, which has piston valves. Poore also chose to sometimes loosen the caps of the valves of his E flat tuba, to create a stronger clattering sound.

Pedal tones

Although it isn’t mentioned in the instructions, the tuba part also includes the option of pedal tones as a noise. Pedal tones are notes that exist in the fundamental partial of a brass instrument, and thus are extremely low.

Combining techniques

While isolating each technique in the Solos enables a better understanding of the range and detail of techniques Cage used, the real character of each part is revealed in the ways various ways that these techniques are combined. Often one technique may affect another, make another inaudible, or combine with others to create unpredictable and unstable sounds. Performers must constantly navigate the range of options available to them in these cases and make choices as to what, and how, to prioritise in the execution of each sound. Poore discusses and demonstrates his approach to different combinations of techniques in the Solo for Tuba in interview.


With thanks to Jack Adler-McKean for sharing with the research team his experience of performing the Solo for Tuba.


Leroy Ostransky, ‘Butterfield, Don’, Grove Music Online (2003). Accessed 4 September 2018

The works of John Cage are the copyright of Henmar Press Inc., New York and are reproduced by permission of Peters Edition Limited, London. All rights reserved.

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