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Aural Fixation

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

The idea came to Bill Roper while he was naked. In front of a bunch of people. Musical ideas, you see, can drift into a man’s head during the still stretches when he’s holding poses as an artists’ model.

Half of Roper’s income comes from his music. For the other half . . . well, he might model. Or cook, or paint animation cells, or design graphics. But the main thing is, he plays tuba.

After he climbed down from the modeling stand that day about a year ago, Roper hummed his idea into a tape recorder. And tonight, the seed has come to fruition. He’s in the L.A. County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theater. The air is still, smelling of violet perfume, like a church. He’s wearing a suit, rising from his audience seat to receive applause for his role as composer of the piece that’s just been played, “Poem for Emmett Till.” This meditation on the racially motivated 1955 murder of a teenager is not a tuba workout. Roper wrote it with its performer, cellist Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick of the California EAR Unit, in mind, and she has executed it with sensitivity, passion and precision. The 11-minute composition called for her to play grave, fluid melodies interspersed with vicious jabs of the bow and screechy overtone effects, while also operating a high-hat with a pedal, reciting the words “Emmett Till” with various dramatic inflections, and even emitting horrible screams. Judging from the response, the audience has been substantially moved.

Composing is yet another thing Roper does besides plying his instrument. “There’s a lot of tuba players in the world right now,” he says a couple of weeks before the LACMA concert. He enunciates distinctly, in a low, croaky voice. A slight smile flits at the corners of his mouth. “They’re all about my age or younger.” He’s 46. “They all started when I started — there was an explosion. All the band directors told everybody what they told me: ‘There are not too many good tuba players. If you can play this well, you’ll have a job.’ And now it’s really rather ugly.”

After building a solid foundation in classical music by studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music, at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon and independently in New York, Roper found himself among the explosion’s shrapnel when he auditioned for orchestras.

“In Chicago, there were 190 tuba players. In Pittsburgh, there were 210. So what can you do to make those people” — the auditioners — “notice you? You’d practically have to walk out onstage nude.”

But as it happened, Roper was no longer interested in the traditional classical repertory anyway. He preferred more modern works such as Hindemith’s Sonata for Bass, Tuba and Piano, and there isn’t much call for that, no matter where you are. So he headed back to his hometown, Los Angeles, which held many opportunities for an adventurous mind.

He worked on cut-and-paste recordings with trombonist-composer John Rapson. He worked with trombonist-conceptualist Bruce Fowler. (“A really great trombonist, a good composer, and he is insane. We get along.”) He’s done performance art, both his own and others’, and scored for choreographers. He’s done projects with the likes of Wadada Leo Smith, Glenn Horiuchi and Kim Richmond. And he’s played in big units such as James Newton’s Luckman Jazz Orchestra, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Vinny Golia’s Large Ensemble.

During one of Golia’s performances, Roper sneaked up behind the leader and huffed an elephantine blast into his ear. Nearly knocked him off his chair. Did Golia enjoy the attention? “I don’t think he enjoyed it. I think he appreciated where it was coming from. I still have the gig, so . . .”

Was this typical behavior? “It’s kind of typical for me. I’m at the point where folks who hire me, hire me for me. They know that I may do something untoward.”

Roper does land the occasional neoclassical gig, but it’s not always what he might expect. A few years back, the L.A. Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen chose to conduct a program of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ groundbreaking folk-classical mixtures. “I happened to be in front of the principal percussion player’s face about 10 minutes after he had gotten the parts,” Roper remembers, “and he said, ‘Play conch shell.’ I said to myself, ‘Maybe I should just say yes, see what happens.’” He did own a conch shell. But had he practiced on it before? “Well, I practiced before I showed up at the first rehearsal.” The selection was The Night of the Mayas, and “I really only had to play one pitch for that. But I had to play it a lot.” Now, he says, he knows all about conches and where to buy shells. And you can hear him performing on the CD. “Loudly.”

You can also hear Roper on his own new CD, Juneteenth, on Asian Improv Records, with his performing units Judicanti Responsura and Zen Tsuba. It’s a spare but highly sensual affair, featuring cross-resonant vibrations from percussionist Joseph Mitchell and plangently lovely shamisen from Lillian Nakano. You’ll enjoy the music, and you’ll also get to grind your mental gears thanks to the picture of Roper in overalls, eating watermelon. It’s all part of the concept.

Roper says he’s been lucky in receiving grants and fellowships. But it’s not all luck. “You read the criteria, and see if you really fit. If you don’t fit, don’t bother. Once you find out about them, you just have to keep the calendar together, and know that they recur.” And then there’s the social methodology. “You smile at everybody. Because anybody could end up on a committee.”

When there are no music gigs and no grants, it’s time for Roper to exploit one of his sidelines, such as cooking for a caterer. Though he doesn’t consider himself a jazz improviser, his favorite neoclassical pieces often call for some extemporization. It’s a skill that’s applicable to food as well as music.

“Catering is a shoot-from-the-hip kind of profession. You have to be able to make battlefield decisions and be willing to stand by them. Say the sauce breaks, and they didn’t send me any materials to re-create the sauce. But I’ve got 500 people to feed. It’s less a culinary skill than to say, ‘What the hell, there’s gotta be some butter around here.’ That’s where some of us get our fun, because cooking for a lot of people is a very mundane task. That’s really why people get injured cooking. Because you get bored and you’re not paying attention.”

Roper displays some impressive burn marks on his arms. This, he says, is how they’ll identify him if he’s found dead somewhere. “They’ll say, ‘This guy was a cook. Either a cook or a freak.’”

Generally, though, he finds himself in the company of musicians. And he leans toward certain categories.

“If you have to hang out with musicians, then low-end people are the ones. Low-end people play long, slow, low notes. If you’re playing high and fast all the time, you’re just gonna end up faster. Low people are just generally less speedy. They’re less likely to be the person on your tail on the highway. That’s gotta be a piccolo player. Or, Lord help me, a clarinet player. I’ve written a whole piece about clarinetists.” The composition comes with a narrative that, he says, Benny Goodman probably would not care for.

Any advice for a youngster contemplating a musical career?

“Go into it with your eyes open, that’s all. ’Cause it’s a hard life.”

Hard in his own case because of the big instrument he has to pack around, and the difficulty of finding the kind of living situation he’s managed to establish — a house with shared rent, where he can practice: “Apartments are the death of tuba players.” He wouldn’t keep the tuba in his car with him regardless. “Because people want you to play it. They think music is fun.” And Roper knows different? “I know different. Absolutely.”

But he smiles when he says that. A little.


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