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An instrument often known for holding down the bassline takes center stage

An Arizona State University music professor recently released a new album, which she describes as an exploration of identity. So much so that it’s the name of Deanna Swoboda’s latest album.

Swoboda is a professor of tuba and euphonium at ASU and the assistant director of graduate studies in Music there. By the way, the difference between those two instruments is in their range: the tuba is a contrabass and bass instrument, while the euphonium is the tenor version.

Swoboda stopped by KJZZ's studio to talk about her newest album, "Identity," and about tuba music more broadly.

Full conversation

DEANNA SWOBODA: I started on the clarinet in the fourth grade and switched to the tuba in the eighth grade to sit next to a boy that I had a crush on. And unfortunately, he quit band. I was left playing the tuba and decided to recruit friends to the back row and and then made a career out of playing the tuba.

MARK BRODIE: And you've been doing it for a long time now, I mean, what, what appeals to you about that instrument?

SWOBODA: Oh, the sound, the resonance, the the range, it has quite a range, 5 to 6 octaves. It's somewhat like an organ. When you put tubas and euphonium together, the sound is warm and rich and very beautiful. 

BRODIE: Do you think that tubas sort of get pigeonholed as just sort of like holding down the bassline, as opposed to, as you say, being able to really do a lot more than that?

SWOBODA: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's the one of the first things that people think of when they hear the word tuba. We are proud of that role. We love playing bassline. I love playing a bassline. I love playing the low notes and supporting the ensemble that I'm playing with. And I also love to be in the front and playing solo and melodic as well.

BRODIE: So let's talk about your new album "Identity" because the title of this album really seems to sort of speak to what you were hoping to explore with this music, right?

SWOBODA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, the, the title of the album actually came from one of the pieces that is on the album called "Identity" by Jose Flores. It is a quartet piece for two tubas and two euphoniums. And Jose explores the identity of his own heritage. And it inspired me to think more about my own identity in relation to friendships as a colleague throughout my life and just who I am what I believe in and how I help others, I think through teaching, that's part of helping students recognize and be confident about their own identity as a person and as a musician.

BRODIE: So, what did you conclude or what did you come up with? Maybe you haven't reached the conclusion yet, but what have you, what have you been thinking about as you've been practicing and performing and then recording the album and, and thinking about it since?

SWOBODA: Right. Yeah this, I've thought a lot about my relationships with people and my own identity as a musician, a tuba player, but also my cultural heritage.  It gave me more of I think a confidence and an inspiration to dig a little deeper into my own heritage as part Native American Chickasaw tribe and just learning more about myself in a cultural way too.

BRODIE: How does music have that effect on you? 

SWOBODA: A recent inspiration is Omar Thomas, he's a musician, artist citizen. And one of his questions was the question of whose music is inside of us? And I think that's fascinating because that's part of our identity. Like everything you've listened to in your life, everything that as a musician I work on or strive to perfect for another performance or for the next performance I think is influential to me in some way. It's growth, it's also learning about the composer, its collaborations with people. So it's developing those relations and perspectives.

BRODIE: Collaborations I would imagine are fairly important to you because I know that on this album, you were able to collaborate both with other musicians, other composers that, that, you know, or that you respect or that you're friends with. How did that come together to help make this album what it was.

SWOBODA: Initially, the inspiration for the album was to record pieces that I had commissioned in the past five years. So composers that I had worked with some I had known prior friends, one composer on the album is an ASU grad. And then finding the people, identifying the people to collaborate with was part of that process. And one being my horn colleague at ASU Dr. John Ericson. I decided it would be fun and appropriate to collaborate with the tuba professor at U of A who's also an ASU grad, Dr. Matt Trotman, and the tuba professor at Northern Arizona, Dr. Ben Ordaz. and then a friend who's also one of the composers on the album. She's a euphonium player. And it was, and of course, when we're bringing people together to collaborate for the first time as a quartet for several of the pieces on the album, It's a unique experience. We have to learn each other, we have to learn to trust each other and continually learning musically from each other and being inspired by that as well.

BRODIE: Is it a little different with this instrument? Just from sort of a logistical perspective? Because I would think that it's harder to see each other. Like, if you're in a string quartet, you know, you can look over your shoulder and see what the other person is doing, but it's harder to do that when you have a giant instrument sitting on your lap.

SWOBODA: Yes, that's an interesting perspective. Interesting thought. Yes, it's how you position your body and in context of the group, I think we're all more one eye dominated. 

BRODIE: Is there a lot of tuba music out there? Like where the tubas are the, the lead instrument?

SWOBODA: Yes, actually since, oh gosh, since the 1950s, our first concerto was written in the 1950s was a tuba concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a famous composer. And to bring the tuba to the front of the orchestra for the first time was shocking for people I think. The tuba is relatively young in comparison to the violin of the flute. But since then, since the 1950s, there has been a lot of solo repertoire that has been written for our instruments. 

BRODIE: Do you find that either, you know, professional musicians, you know, colleagues of yours or, or players elsewhere or maybe the students that you see at ASU, are they looking to sort of push the bounds of what the tuba can do and what kinds of music maybe can be written for it.

SWOBODA: Oh, absolutely. We're always trying to play higher, faster, louder, as they say.

BRODIE: Some challenges for an instrument of that in that range and of that size.

SWOBODA: That's right. Yeah. Absolutely, though it's not limiting.

BRODIE: All right, Deanna, thank you so much for coming in. I appreciate it.

SWOBODA: Thank you.

BRODIE: Deanna Swoboda is a professor of tuba and euphonium at ASU, an assistant director of graduate studies in music there. Her latest album is called "Identity."

[Clip from the album "Identity" plays.]

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.